A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 2

2.1.

Peopling the background of these earliest scenes there were the tall splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lifted one so high, and held one so safely; and my mother, who wore such beautiful flounced dresses, and had painted and carved fans in sandalwood boxes, and ermine scarves, and perfumed yellowish laces pinned up in blue paper, and kept in a marquetry chiffonier, and all the other dim impersonal attributes of a Mother, without, as yet, anything much more definite; and two big brothers who were mostly away (the eldest already at college); but in the foreground with Foxy there was one rich all-permeating presence: Doyley. How I pity all children who have not had a Doyley — a nurse who has always been there, who is as established as the sky and as warm as the sun, who understands everything, feels everything, can arrange everything, and combines all the powers of the Divinity with the compassion of a mortal heart like one’s own! Doyley’s presence was the warm cocoon in which my infancy lived safe and sheltered; the atmosphere without which I could not have breathed. It is thanks to Doyley that not one bitter memory, one uncomprehended injustice, darkened the days when the soul’s flesh is so tender, and the remembrance of wrongs so acute.

I was born in New York, in my parents’ house in West Twenty-third Street, and we lived there in winter, and (I suppose) at Newport in summer, during the first three years of my life. But no memories of those years survive, save those I have mentioned, and one other, a good deal dimmer, of going to stay one summer with my Aunt Elizabeth, my father’s unmarried sister, who had a house at Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson. This aunt, whom I remember as a ramrod-backed old lady compounded of steel and granite, had been threatened in her youth with the “consumption” which had already carried off a brother and sister. Few families in that day escaped the scourge of tuberculosis, and the Protestant cemeteries of Pisa and Rome are full of the graves of wretched exiles sent to end their days by the supposedly mild shores of Arno or Tiber. My poor Aunt Margaret, my poor Uncle Joshua, both snatched in their early flower, already slept beside the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, where my grandmother was later to join them; and when Elizabeth in her turn began to pine, her parents, no doubt discouraged by the Italian experiment, decided to try curing her at home. They therefore shut her up one October in her bedroom in the New York house in Mercer Street, lit the fire, sealed up the windows, and did not let her out again till the following June, when she emerged in perfect health, to live till seventy.

My aunt’s house, called Rhinecliff, afterward became a vivid picture in the gallery of my little girlhood; but among those earliest impressions only one is connected with it; that of a night when, as I was ready to affirm, there was a Wolf under my bed. This business of the Wolf was the first of other similar terrifying experiences, and since most imaginative children know these hauntings by tribal animals, I mention it only because from the moment of that adventure it became necessary, whenever I “read” the story of Red Riding Hood (that is, looked at the pictures), to carry my little nursery stool from one room to another, in pursuit of Doyley or my mother, so that I should never again be exposed to meeting the family Totem when I sat down alone to my book.

The effect of terror produced by the house of Rhinecliff was no doubt partly due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness. My visual sensibility must always have been too keen for middling pleasures; my photographic memory of rooms and houses — even those seen but briefly, or at long intervals — was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness. I can still remember hating everything at Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on rediscovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic; and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granitic exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff. But all this is merged in a blur, for by the time I was four years old I was playing in the Roman Forum instead of on the lawns of Rhinecliff.

2.2.

The transition woke no surprise, for almost everything that constituted my world was still about me: my handsome father, my beautifully dressed mother, and the warmth and sunshine that were Doyley. The chief difference was that the things about me were now not ugly but incredibly beautiful. That old Rome of the mid-nineteenth century was still the city of romantic ruins in which Clive Newcome’s “J. J.” had depicted the Trasteverina dancing before a locanda to the music of a pifferaro. I remember, through the trailing clouds of infancy, the steps of the Piazza di Spagna thronged with Thackerayan artists’ models, and heaped with early violets, daffodils and tulips; I remember long sunlit wanderings on the springy turf of great Roman villas; heavy coaches of Cardinals flashing in scarlet and gold through the twilight of narrow streets; the flowery bombardment of the Carnival procession watched with shrieks of infant ecstasy from a balcony of the Corso. But the liveliest hours were those spent with my nurse on the Monte Pincio, where I played with Marion Crawford’s little half-sister, Daisy Terry, and her brother Arthur. Other children, long since dim and nameless, flit by as supernumeraries of the band; but only Daisy and her brother have remained alive to me. There we played, dodging in and out among old stone benches, racing, rolling hoops, whirling through skipping ropes, or pausing out of breath to watch the toy procession of stately barouches and glossy saddle-horses which, on every fine afternoon of winter, carried the flower of Roman beauty and nobility round and round and round the restricted meanderings of the hill-top.

Those hours were the jolliest; yet deeper impressions were gathered in walks with my mother on the daisy-strewn lawns of the Villa Doria–Pamphili, among the statues and stone-pines of the Villa Borghese, or hunting on the slopes of the Palatine for the mysterious bits of blue and green and rosy stone which cropped up through the turf as violets and anemones did in other places, and turned out to be precious fragments of porphyry, lapis lazuli, verde antico, and all the mineral flora of Palace of the Caesars. In those days every traveller of artistic sensibility gathered baskets-full of these marble blossoms, and had them transformed into the paper-weights, inkstands and circular “sofa-tables” without which no gentleman’s home was complete. All the glory seemed to forsake my treasures when they were forced into these lapidary combinations; but the hunt was thrilling, and it occurred to no one that these exquisite relics of ruined opus alexandrinum, and of Imperial vases and statues, should have been treated with more reverence. The buffaloes of Piranesi had vanished from the Forum and the Palatine, but the ruins of Imperial Rome were still a free stamping-ground for the human herd.

There were other days when we drove out on the Campagna, and wandered over the short grass between the tombs of the Appian way; still others among the fountains of Frascati; and some, particularly vivid, when, in the million-tapered blaze of St Peter’s, the Pope floated ethereally above a long train of ecclesiastics seen through an incense haze so golden that it seemed to pour from the blinding luminary behind the High Altar.

What clung closest in after years, when I thought of the lost Rome of my infancy? It is hard to say; perhaps simply the warm scent of the box hedges on the Pincian, and the texture of weather-worn sun-gilt stone. Those, at least, are the two impressions which, for many years after, the mightiest of names instantly conjured up for me.

2.3.

My Roman impressions are followed by others, improbably picturesque, of a journey to Spain. It must have taken place just before or after the Roman year; I remember that the Spanish tour was still considered an arduous adventure, and to attempt it with a young child the merest folly. But my father had been reading Prescott and Washington Irving; the Alhambra was more of a novelty than the Colosseum; and as the offspring of born travellers I was expected, even in infancy, to know how to travel. I suppose I acquitted myself better than the unhappy Freddy; for from that wild early pilgrimage I brought back an incurable passion for the road. What a journey it must have been! Presumably there was already a railway from the frontier to Madrid; but I recall only the incessant jingle of diligence bells, the cracking of whips, the yells of gaunt muleteers hurling stones at their gaunter mules to urge them up interminable and almost unscaleable hills. It is all a jumble of excited impressions: breaking down on wind-swept sierras; arriving late and hungry at squalid posadas; flea-hunting, chocolate-drinking (I believe there was nothing but chocolate and olives to feed me on), being pursued wherever we went by touts, guides, deformed beggars, and all sorts of jabbering and confusing people; and, through the chaos and fatigue, a fantastic vision of the columns of Cordova, the tower of the Giralda, the pools and fountains of the Alhambra, the orange groves of Seville, the awful icy penumbra of the Escorial, and everywhere shadowy aisles undulating with incense and processions . . . Perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.

2.4.

In the course of time we exchanged the Piazza di Spagna for the Champs Elysees. It probably happened the very next winter; but life in Paris must have seemed colourless after the sunny violet-scented Italian days, for I remember far less of it than of Rome.

Two episodes, however, stand out vividly. One was the coming to dine every Sunday evening of a kindly gentleman with curly gray hair and a long moustache. An old friend and Rhode Island neighbour of the family. This was Mr. Henry Bedlow, whose chief title to fame seems to have been that he lived in an old house “up the island” called Malbone, which he had inherited from his grandfather or great-uncle, the celebrated miniature painter of that name. When Mr. Bedlow dined with us I was always led in with the dessert, my red hair rolled into sausages, and the sleeves of my best frock looped up with pink coral, and was allowed to perch on his knee while he “told me mythology.” What blessings I have since called down on the teller! Fairy stories, even Mother Goose, even Andersen’s tales and the Contes de Perrault, still left me inattentive and indifferent, but the domestic dramas of the Olympians roused all my creative energy. Perhaps I scented an indefinable condescension (and often a great lack of discernment) in the stories which big people have invented about little ones; and besides, the doings of children were always intrinsically less interesting to me than those of grown-ups, and I felt more at home with the gods and goddesses of Olympus, who behaved so much like the ladies and gentlemen who came to dine, whom I saw riding and driving in the Bois de Boulogne, and about whom I was forever weaving stories of my own.

The other Parisian event concerns this story-telling. The imagining of tales (about grown up people, “real people,” I called them — children always seemed to me incompletely realized) had gone on in me since my first conscious moments; I cannot remember the time when I did not want to “make up” stories. But it was in Paris that I found the necessary formula. Oddly enough, I had no desire to write my stories down (even had I known how to write, and I couldn’t yet form a letter); but from the first I had to have a book in my hand to “make up” with, and from the first it had to be a certain sort of book. The page had to be closely printed, with rather heavy black type, and not much margin. Certain densely printed novels in the early Tauchnitz editions, Harrison Ainsworth’s for instance, would have been my richest sources of inspiration had I not hit one day on something even better: Washington Irving’s “Alhambra.” These shaggy volumes, printed in close black characters on rough-edged yellowish pages, and bound in coarse dark-blue covers (probably a production of the old Gaglignani Press in Paris) must have been a relic of our Spanish adventure. Washington Irving was an old friend of my family’s, and his collected works, in comely type and handsome binding, adorned our library shelves at home. But these would not have been of much use to me as a source of inspiration. The rude companion of our travels was the book I needed; I had only to open it for the Pierian fount to flow. There was richness and mystery in the thick black type, a hint of bursting overflowing material in the serried lines and scant margin. To this day I am bored by the sight of widely spaced type, and a little islet of text in a sailless sea of white paper.

Well — the “Alhambra” once in hand, making up was ecstasy. At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to “make up”), noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit.

There was something almost ritualistic in the performance. The call came regularly and imperiously; and though, when it caught me at inconvenient moments, I would struggle against it conscientiously — for I was beginning to be a very conscientious little girl — the struggle was always a losing one. I had to obey the furious Muse; and there are deplorable tales of my abandoning the “nice” playmates who had been invited to “spend the day,” and rushing to my mother with the desperate cry: “Mamma, you must go and entertain that little girl for me. I’VE GOT TO MAKE UP.”

My parents, distressed by my solitude (my two brothers being by this time grown up and away) were always trying to establish relations for me with “nice” children, and I was willing enough to play in the Champs Elysees with such specimens as were produced or (more reluctantly) to meet them at little parties or dancing classes; but I did not want them to intrude on my privacy, and there was not one I would not have renounced forever rather than have my “making up” interfered with. What I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream.

The peculiar purpose for which books served me probably made me indifferent to what was in them. At any rate, I can remember feeling no curiosity about it. But my father, by dint of patience, managed to drum the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table, absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for improvisation. My immobility attracted attention, and when asked what I was doing, I replied: “Reading.” This was received with incredulity; but on being called upon to read a few lines aloud I appear to have responded to the challenge, and it was then discovered that the work over which I was poring was a play by Ludovic Halevy, called “Fanny Lear,” which was having a succes de scandale in Paris owing to the fact that the heroine was what ladies of my mother’s day called “one of those women.” Thereafter the books I used for “making up” were carefully inspected before being entrusted to me; and an arduous business it must have been, for no book ever came my way without being instantly pounced on, and now that I could read I divided my time between my own improvisations and the printed inventions of others.

It was in Paris that I took my first dancing-lessons. I was no Isadora, and these beginnings would not be worth a word but for the light they throw on the manners and customs of my infancy. I used to go, with a group of little friends, children English and American, to the private cours of an ex-ballerina of the Grand Opera, Mademoiselle Michelet, a large stern woman with a heavy black moustache, in whom it would have been hard for the most imaginative to detect even a trace of her early calling. To us she was the severest of instructresses. The waltz and mazurka had long since been introduced into the ball-room, without even a lingering remembrance of Byron’s reprobation; but they were not thought difficult enough to train the young, and we were persistently exercised in the menuet, the shawl dance (with a lace scarf) and the cachucha — of course with castanets. Mademoiselle Michelet’s quarters were very small; and I can still see myself, an isolated figure in the centre of her shining parquet, helplessly waving my scarf or uncertainly clacking my castanets, while my fellow pupils hedged me about as rather bored spectators, and Mademoiselle Michelet’s wizened little old mother, in a cap turreted with loops of purple ribbon, tinkled out the tunes at a piano squeezed into a corner of the room.

During one of our Paris winters (I think there were two or three) my dear old grandmother, my mother’s mother, paid us a long visit. I call her “old,” though it is probable that at the time she was under sixty; but I had never seen her except in lace cap and lappets, a bunch of gold charms dangling from her massive watch-chain, among the folds of a rich black silk dress, and a black japanned ear-trumpet at her ear — the abstract type of an ancestress as the function was then understood.

I always recall her seated in an arm-chair, her undimmed eyes bent over some exquisitely fine needle-work. I hope she sometimes went for a walk or a drive, and enjoyed a few glimpses of grown-up society; but for me she exists only as a motionless and gently smiling figure, whose one gesture was to lay aside her stitching for her ear-trumpet at my approach. When she was with us I was constantly in her room; and my way of returning her affection was to read aloud to her. I had just discovered a volume of Tennyson among my father’s books, and for hours I used to shout the “Idyls of the King,” and “The Lord of Burleigh” through the trumpet of my long-suffering ancestress. Not being more than six or seven years old I understood hardly anything of what I was reading, or rather I understood it in my own way, which was most often not the poet’s; as in the line from “The Lord of Burleigh,” “and he made a loving consort,” where I read “concert” for consort, and concluded (being already addicted to rash generalisations) that a gentleman’s first act after marriage was to give his spouse a concert, in gratitude for which “a faithful wife was she.” But I enjoyed all the sonorities as much as if I had known what they meant, and perhaps even more, since my own interpretations so often enriched the text; and probably such shrill scraps as travelled through the windings of my grandmother’s trumpet troubled her no more than they did me. To one whose preferred poetic reading was “The Christian Year,” the “Idyls of the King” must have been almost as full of mystery and obscurity as Browning was to the next generation, and the rhythmic raptures tingling through me probably woke no echo in the dear old head bent to mine.

I suspect that no one else in the house could bear to be read aloud to by me, for I do not remember attempting it on any one but my grandmother; and indeed poetry did not play much part in our lives. My father knew Macaulay’s “Lays” by heart, and

Ho, Philip, send for charity thy Mexican pistoles,

and

Where ride Massilia’s triremes Heavy with fair-haired slaves,

had already thrummed their march-tunes into my infant ears. The new Tennysonian rhythms also moved my father greatly; and I imagine there was a time when his rather rudimentary love of verse might have been developed had he had any one with whom to share it. But my mother’s matter-of-factness must have shrivelled up any such buds of fancy; and in later years I remember his reading only Macaulay, Prescott, Washington Irving, and every book of travel he could find. Arctic explorations especially absorbed him, and I have wondered since what stifled cravings had once germinated in him, and what manner of man he was really meant to be. That he was a lonely one, haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained, I am sure.

2.5.

I remember nothing else of my Paris life except one vision over which after-events shed a tragic glare. It was the sight, one autumn afternoon, of a beautiful lady driving down the Champs Elysees in a beautiful open carriage, a little boy in uniform beside her on a pony, and a glittering escort of officers. The carriage, of the kind called a daumont, was preceded by outriders, and swayed gracefully on its big C-springs to the rhythm of four high-stepping and highly-groomed horses, a postilion on one of the leaders, and two tremendous footmen perched high at the back. But all I had eyes for was the lady herself. Leaning back as ladies of those days leaned in their indolently-hung carriages, flounces of feuille-morte taffetas billowing out about her, and on her rich auburn hair a tiny black lace bonnet with a tea-rose above one ear. I still see her serene elegance of attitude and expression, her conscious air of being, with her little boy, and the shining horses, and the flashing officers and outriders, the centre of the sumptuous spectacle. The next year she and her procession had vanished in a crimson hurricane; and the whole setting of swaying carriages and outstretched ladies, of young men caracoling on thorough-breds past stately houses glimpsed through clustering horse-chestnut foliage, has long since been rolled up in the lumber-room of discarded pageants.

We must have remained in Paris till the outbreak of the Franco–Prussian war, at which fateful moment we chanced to be at Bad Wildbad, in the Black Forest, a primitive watering-place just coming into fashion, where my mother had been sent for a cure. With a young German nursery governess who had been added to our party I took happy rambles in the pine-forests, and learned from her to make wild-flower garlands, to knit and to tat, and to practise (for the only time in my life) other Gretchenish arts. She also taught me (out of the New Testament) how to read German; and in our Bible reading I came across a phrase which has always delighted me because of the quaint contrast between its impulsive German Gemuthlichkeit and the majestic phraseology of our Authorized Version. When, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples cry out: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if Thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles,” the German version causes them to say: “So lasset uns Hutten bauen!” The cry, which suggested to me something fresh and leafy and adventurous, like a Mayne Reid story or “The Swiss Family Robinson,” is a picturesque instance of the way in which racial character colours alien formulas.

But one morning, climbing a woodland path with my governess and some other children, I was seized by an agony of pain — and after that for many long weeks life was a confused and feverish misery. I was desperately ill with typhoid fever, and I mention the fact only because of one incredible circumstance. All the doctors of Wildbad (they were doubtless few) had already been mobilized, save one super-annuated practitioner; and he had never before seen a case of typhoid! His son, also a doctor, was with the army; and all that his father could do was to despatch bulletins to him, asking how I was to be treated. The replies, one may suppose, were long in arriving; and in the interval death came near. But at the same time a celebrated Russian physician arrived at Wildbad for a day, at the call of a princely patient. My parents persuaded him to see me, and he prescribed the new treatment: plunging the patient in baths of ice-cold water. At the suggestion my mother’s courage failed her; but she wrapped me in wet sheets, and I was saved.

2.6.

My childish world, though so well filled, lacked completeness, for my dog Foxy had not come to Europe with us. His absence left such a void that my parents finally gave me a Florentine lupetto, as white as Foxy, but much smaller. By that time (I think in 1870) we had exchanged Paris for Florence, and he was known as Florence Foxy. He was the joyous companion of a comparatively dull winter; for the return to Italy did not bring back the joys of Rome. Florence was much colder and less sunny; there were no children to replace the jolly Pincianites, and the Cascine Gardens are associated only with sedate walks with my elders, monotonous enough if I had not had Foxy to race with, and violets to gather.

The other high lights of those gray months were the increased enchantment of “making up,” and the fainter glow of the hours spent with a charming young lady who taught me Italian. My lessons amused me, and the new language came to me as naturally as breathing, as French and German had already. Why do so few parents know what a fortune they could bestow on their children by teaching them the modern languages in babyhood, when a playmate is the only professor needed, and the speech acquired is never afterward lost, however deep below the surface it may be embedded?

But discovering Italian, though it was to be the source of such joys, was nothing to the ecstasy of “making up.” Learning to read, instead of distracting me from this passion, had only fed it; and during that Florentine winter it became a frenzy. Our vast and cheerless suite in the high-ceilinged piano nobile of an hotel overlooking the Arno was scantily furnished with threadbare carpets and heavy consoles and sofas; but the long vista of rooms, each communicating with the next through tall folding doors, was a matchless track for my sport. When the grown-ups were out, and Doyley safe with her sewing, I had the field to myself; and I still feel the rapture (greater than any I have ever known in writing) of pouring forth undisturbed the tireless torrent of my stories. The “Faster, faster, O Circe, Goddess” of “The Strayed Reveller” always reminds me of those youthful gallops around the racecourse of my imagination. The speed at which I travelled was so great that my mother tried in vain to take down my “stories,” and posterity will never know what it has lost! All I remember is that my tales were about what I still thought of as “real people” (that is, grown-up people, resembling in appearance and habits my family and their friends, and caught in the same daily coil of “things that might have happened”). My imagination was still closed to the appeal of the purely fabulous and fairy-like, and though I was already an ardent reader of poetry I felt no desire to write it. But all that was soon to be changed; for the next year we were to go home to New York, and I was to enter into the kingdom of my father’s library.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30