A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


Little else of that Parisian passage remains with me — it was probably of the briefest; I recover only a visit with my father to the Palais de l’Industrie, where the first of the great French Exhibitions, on the model, much reduced, of the English Crystal Palace of 1851, was still open, a fact explaining the crowded inns; and from that visit win back but the department of the English pictures and our stopping long before The Order of Release of a young English painter, J. E. Millais, who had just leaped into fame, and my impression of the rare treatment of whose baby’s bare legs, pendent from its mother’s arms, is still as vivid to me as if from yesterday. The vivid yields again to the vague — I scarce know why so utterly — till consciousness, waking up in London, renews itself, late one evening and very richly, at the Gloucester Hotel (or Coffee–House, as I think it was then still called,) which occupied that corner of Piccadilly and Berkeley Street where more modern establishments have since succeeded it, but where a fatigued and famished American family found on that occasion a fine old British virtue in cold roast beef and bread and cheese and ale; their expert acclamation of which echoes even now in my memory. It keeps company there with other matters equally British and, as we say now, early Victorian; the thick gloom of the inn rooms, the faintness of the glimmering tapers, the blest inexhaustibility of the fine joint, surpassed only by that of the grave waiter’s reserve — plain, immutably plain fare all, but prompting in our elders an emphasis of relief and relish, the “There’s nothing like it after all!” tone, which reexcited expectation, which in fact seemed this time to reannounce a basis for faith and joy.

That basis presently shrank to the scale of a small house hard by the hotel, at the entrance of Berkeley Square — expeditiously lighted on, it would thus appear, which again has been expensively superseded, but to the ancient little facts of which I fondly revert, since I owe them what I feel to have been, in the far past, the prime faint revelation, the small broken expression, of the London I was afterwards to know. The place wears on the spot, to this day, no very different face; the house that has risen on the site of ours is still immediately neighboured at the left by the bookseller, the circulating-librarian and news-agent, who modestly flourished in our time under the same name; the great establishment of Mr. Gunter, just further along, is as soberly and solidly seated; the mews behind the whole row, from the foot of Hay Hill at the right, wanders away to Bruton Street with the irregular grace that spoke to my young fancy; Hay Hill itself is somehow less sharply precipitous, besides being no longer paved, as I seem to recall its having been, with big boulders, and I was on the point of saying that its antique charm in some degree abides. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth; its antique charm quite succumbed, years ago, to that erection of lumpish “mansions” which followed the demolition of the old-world town-residence, as the house-agents say, standing, on the south side, between court and I suppose garden, where Dover Street gives way to Grafton; a house of many histories, of vague importances and cold reserves and deep suggestions, I used to think after scaling the steep quite on purpose to wonder about it. A whole chapter of life was condensed, for our young sensibility, I make out, into the couple of months — they can scarce have been more — spent by us in these quarters, which must have proved too narrow and too towny; but it can have had no passage so lively as the occurrences at once sequent to my father’s having too candidly made known in some public print, probably The Times, that an American gentleman, at such an address, desired to arrange with a competent young man for the tuition at home of his three sons. The effect of his rash failure to invite application by letter only was the assault of an army of visitors who filled us with consternation; they hung about the door, cumbered the hall, choked the staircase and sat grimly individual in odd corners. How they were dealt with, given my father’s precipitate and general charity, I can but feebly imagine; our own concern, in the event, was with a sole selected presence, that of Scotch Mr. Robert Thompson, who gave us his care from breakfast to luncheon each morning that winter, who afterwards carried on a school at Edinburgh, and whom, in years long subsequent, I happened to help R. L. Stevenson to recognise gaily as his early pedagogue. He was so deeply solicitous, yet withal so mild and kind and shy, with no harsher injunction to us ever than “Come now, be getting on!” that one could but think well of a world in which so gentle a spirit might flourish; while it is doubtless to the credit of his temper that remembrance is a blank in respect to his closer ministrations. I recall vividly his fresh complexion, his very round clear eyes, his tendency to trip over his own legs or feet while thoughtfully circling about us, and his constant dress-coat, worn with trousers of a lighter hue, which was perhaps the prescribed uniform of a daily tutor then; but I ask myself in vain what I can have “studied” with him, there remaining with me afterwards, to testify — this putting any scrap of stored learning aside — no single textbook save the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, which was given me as (of all things in the world) a reward. A reward for what I am again at a loss to say — not certainly for having “got on” to anything like the tune plaintively, for the most part, piped to me. It is a very odd and yet to myself very rich and full reminiscence, though I remember how, looking back at it from after days, W. J. denounced it to me, and with it the following year and more spent in Paris, as a poor and arid and lamentable time, in which, missing such larger chances and connections as we might have reached out to, we had done nothing, he and I, but walk about together, in a state of the direst propriety, little “high” black hats and inveterate gloves, the childish costume of the place and period, to stare at grey street-scenery (that of early Victorian London had tones of a neutrality!) dawdle at shop-windows and buy water-colours and brushes with which to bedaub eternal drawing-blocks. We might, I dare say, have felt higher impulses and carried out larger plans — though indeed present to me for this, on my brother’s so expressing himself, is my then quick recognition of the deeper stirrings and braver needs he at least must have known, and my perfect if rueful sense of having myself had no such quarrel with our conditions: embalmed for me did they even to that shorter retrospect appear in a sort of fatalism of patience, spiritless in a manner, no doubt, yet with an inwardly active, productive and ingenious side.

It was just the fact of our having so walked and dawdled and dodged that made the charm of memory; in addition to which what could one have asked more than to be steeped in a medium so dense that whole elements of it, forms of amusement, interest and wonder, soaked through to some appreciative faculty and made one fail at the most of nothing but one’s lessons? My brother was right in so far as that my question — the one I have just reproduced — could have been asked only by a person incorrigible in throwing himself back upon substitutes for lost causes, substitutes that might temporarily have appeared queer and small; a person so haunted, even from an early age, with visions of life, that aridities, for him, were half a terror and half an impossibility, and that the said substitutes, the economies and ingenuities that protested, in their dumb vague way, against weakness of situation or of direct and applied faculty, were in themselves really a revel of spirit and thought. It had indeed again an effect of almost pathetic incoherence that our brave quest of “the languages,” suffering so prompt and for the time at least so accepted and now so inscrutably irrecoverable a check, should have contented itself with settling us by that Christmas in a house, more propitious to our development, in St. John’s Wood, where we enjoyed a considerable garden and wistful view, though by that windowed privilege alone, of a large green expanse in which ladies and gentlemen practised archery. Just that— and not the art even, but the mere spectacle — might have been one of the substitutes in question; if not for the languages at least for one or another of the romantic connections we seemed a little to have missed: it was such a whiff of the old world of Robin Hood as we could never have looked up from the mere thumbed “story,” in Fourteenth Street at any rate, to any soft confidence of. More than I can begin to say, that is by a greater number of queer small channels, did the world about us, thus continuous with the old world of Robin Hood, steal into my sense — a constant state of subjection to which fact is no bad instance of those refinements of surrender that I just named as my fond practice. I seem to see today that the London of the ‘fifties was even to the weak perception of childhood a much less generalised, a much more eccentrically and variously characterised place, than the present great accommodated and accommodating city; it had fewer resources but it had many more features, scarce one of which failed to help the whole to bristle with what a little gaping American could take for an intensity of difference from his supposed order. It was extraordinarily the picture and the scene of Dickens, now so changed and superseded; it offered to my presumptuous vision still more the reflection of Thackeray — and where is the detail of the reflection of Thackeray now? — so that as I trod the vast length of Baker Street, the Thackerayan vista of other days, I throbbed with the pride of a vastly enlarged acquaintance.

I dare say our perambulations of Baker Street in our little “top” hats and other neatnesses must have been what W. J. meant by our poverty of life — whereas it was probably one of the very things most expressive to myself of the charm and the colour of history and (from the point of view of the picturesque) of society. We were often in Baker Street by reason of those stretched-out walks, at the remembered frequency and long-drawn push of which I am today amazed; recalling at the same time, however, that save for Robert Thompson’s pitching ball with us in the garden they took for us the place of all other agilities. I can’t but feel them to have been marked in their way by a rare curiosity and energy. Good Mr. Thompson had followed us in our move, occupying quarters, not far off, above a baker’s shop on a Terrace — a group of objects still untouched by time — where we occasionally by way of change attended for our lessons and where not the least of our inspirations was the confidence, again and again justified, that our mid-morning “break” would determine the appearance of a self-conscious stale cake, straight from below, received by us all each time as if it had been a sudden happy thought, and ushered in by a little girl who might have been a Dickens foundling or “orfling.” Our being reduced to mumble cake in a suburban lodging by way of reaction from the strain of study would have been perhaps a pathetic picture, but we had field-days too, when we accompanied our excellent friend to the Tower, the Thames Tunnel, St. Paul’s and the Abbey, to say nothing of the Zoological Gardens, almost close at hand and with which we took in that age of lingering forms no liberty of abbreviation; to say nothing either of Madame Tussaud’s, then in our interminable but so amiable Baker Street, the only shade on the amiability of which was just that gruesome association with the portal of the Bazaar — since Madame Tussaud had, of all her treasures, most vividly revealed to me the Mrs. Manning and the Burke and Hare of the Chamber of Horrors which lurked just within it; whom, for days after making their acquaintance (and prolonging it no further than our conscientious friend thought advisable) I half expected, when alone, to meet quite dreadfully on the staircase or on opening a door. All this experience was valuable, but it was not the languages — save in so far indeed as it was the English, which we hadn’t in advance so much aimed at, yet which more or less, and very interestingly, came; it at any rate perhaps broke our fall a little that French, of a sort, continued to be with us in the remarkably erect person of Mademoiselle Cusin, the Swiss governess who had accompanied us from Geneva, whose quite sharply extrusive but on the whole exhilarating presence I associate with this winter, and who led in that longish procession of more or less similar domesticated presences which was to keep the torch, that is the accent, among us, fairly alight. The variety and frequency of the arrivals and departures of these ladies — whose ghostly names, again, so far as I recall them, I like piously to preserve, Augustine Danse, Amélie Fortin, Marie Guyard, Marie Bonningue, Félicie Bonningue, Clarisse Bader — mystifies me in much the same degree as our own academic vicissitudes in New York; I can no more imagine why, sociable and charitable, we so often changed governesses than I had contemporaneously grasped the principle of our succession of schools: the whole group of phenomena reflected, I gather, as a rule, much more the extreme promptitude of the parental optimism than any disproportionate habit of impatience. The optimism begot precipitation, and the precipitation had too often to confess itself. What is instructive, what is historic, is the probability that young persons offering themselves at that time as guides and communicators — the requirements of our small sister were for long modest enough — quite conceivably lacked preparedness, and were so thrown back on the extempore, which in turn lacked abundance. One of these figures, that of Mademoiselle Danse, the most Parisian, and prodigiously so, was afterwards to stand out for us quite luridly — a cloud of revelations succeeding her withdrawal; a cloud which, thick as it was, never obscured our impression of her genius and her charm. The daughter of a political proscript who had but just escaped, by the legend, being seized in his bed on the terrible night of the Deux-Décembre, and who wrote her micawberish letters from Gallipolis, Ohio, she subsequently figured to my imagination (in the light, that is, of the divined revelations, too dreadful for our young ears,) as the most brilliant and most genial of irregular characters, exhibiting the Parisian “mentality” at its highest, or perhaps rather its deepest, and more remarkable for nothing than for the consummate little art and grace with which she had for a whole year draped herself in the mantle of our innocent air. It was exciting, it was really valuable, to have to that extent rubbed shoulders with an “adventuress”; it showed one that for the adventuress there might on occasion be much to be said.

Those, however, were later things — extensions of view hampered for the present, as I have noted, by our mere London street-scenery, which had much to build out for us. I see again that we but endlessly walked and endlessly daubed, and that our walks, with an obsession of their own, constantly abetted our daubing. We knew no other boys at all, and we even saw no others, I seem to remember, save the essentially rude ones, rude with a kind of mediæval rudeness for which our clear New York experience had given us no precedent, and of which the great and constant sign was the artless, invidious wonder produced in them, on our public appearances, by the alien stamp in us that, for our comfort, we vainly sought to dissimulate. We conformed in each particular, so far as we could, to the prevailing fashion and standard, of a narrow range in those days, but in our very plumage — putting our ramage aside — our wood-note wild must have seemed to sound, so sharply we challenged, when abroad, the attention of our native contemporaries, and even sometimes of their elders, pulled up at sight of us in the from-head-to-foot stare, a curiosity void of sympathy and that attached itself for some reason especially to our feet, which were not abnormally large. The London people had for themselves, at the same time, an exuberance of type; we found it in particular a world of costume, often of very odd costume — the most intimate notes of which were the postmen in their frock-coats of military red and their black beaver hats; the milkwomen, in hats that often emulated these, in little shawls and strange short, full frocks, revealing enormous boots, with their pails swung from their shoulders on wooden yokes; the inveterate footmen hooked behind the coaches of the rich, frequently in pairs and carrying staves, together with the mounted and belted grooms without the attendance of whom riders, of whichever sex — and riders then were much more numerous — almost never went forth. The range of character, on the other hand, reached rather dreadfully down; there were embodied and exemplified “horrors” in the streets beside which any present exhibition is pale, and I well remember the almost terrified sense of their salience produced in me a couple of years later, on the occasion of a flying return from the Continent with my father, by a long, an interminable drive westward from the London Bridge railway-station. It was a soft June evening, with a lingering light and swarming crowds, as they then seemed to me, of figures reminding me of George Cruikshank’s Artful Dodger and his Bill Sikes and his Nancy, only with the bigger brutality of life, which pressed upon the cab, the early-Victorian fourwheeler, as we jogged over the Bridge, and cropped up in more and more gas-lit patches for all our course, culminating, somewhere far to the west, in the vivid picture, framed by the cab-window, of a woman reeling backward as a man felled her to the ground with a blow in the face. The London view at large had in fact more than a Cruikshank, there still survived in it quite a Hogarth, side — which I had of course then no name for, but which I was so sharply to recognise on coming back years later that it fixed for me the veracity of the great pictorial chronicler. Hogarth’s mark is even yet not wholly overlaid; though time has per contra dealt with that stale servility of address which most expressed to our young minds the rich burden of a Past, the consequence of too much history. I liked for my own part a lot of history, but felt in face of certain queer old obsequiosities and appeals, whinings and sidlings and hand-rubbings and curtsey-droppings, the general play of apology and humility, behind which the great dim social complexity seemed to mass itself, that one didn’t quite want so inordinate a quantity. Of that particular light and shade, however, the big broom of change has swept the scene bare; more history still has been after all what it wanted. Quite another order, in the whole connection, strikes me as reigning today — though not without the reminder from it that the relations in which manner, as a generalised thing, in which “tone,” is positively pleasant, is really assured and sound, clear and interesting, are numerous and definite only when it has had in its past some strange phases and much misadventure.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38