A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 3

3.1.

The depreciation of American currency at the close of the Civil war had so much reduced my father’s income that, in common with many of his friends and relations, he had gone to Europe to economize, letting his town and country houses for six years to some of the profiteers of the day; but I did not learn till much later to how prosaic a cause I owed my early years in Europe. Happy misfortune, which gave me, for the rest of my life, that background of beauty and old-established order! I did not know how deeply I had felt the nobility and harmony of the great European cities till our steamer was docked at New York.

I remember once asking an old New Yorker why he never went abroad, and his answering: “Because I can’t bear to cross Murray Street.” It was indeed an unsavoury experience, and the shameless squalor of the purlieus of the New York docks in the ‘seventies dismayed my childish eyes, stored with the glories of Rome and the architectural majesty of Paris. But it was summer; we were soon at Newport, under the friendly gables of Pencraig; and to a little girl long pent up in hotels and flats there was inexhaustible delight in the freedom of a staircase to run up and down, of lawns and trees, a meadow full of clover and daisies, a pony to ride, terriers to romp with, a sheltered cove to bathe in, flower-beds spicy with “carnation, lily, rose,” and a kitchen-garden crimson with strawberries and sweet as honey with Seckel pears.

The roomy and pleasant house of Pencraig was surrounded by a verandah wreathed in clematis and honey-suckle, and below it a lawn sloped to a deep daisied meadow, beyond which were a private bathing-beach and boat-landing. From the landing we used to fish for “scuppers” and “porgies,” succulent little fish that were grilled or fried for high tea; and off the rocky point lay my father’s and brothers’ cat-boats, the graceful wide-sailed craft that flecked the bay like sea-gulls.

Adjoining our property was Edgerston, the country home of Lewis Rutherfurd, the distinguished astronomer, notable in his day for his remarkable photographs of the moon. He and his wife were lifelong friends of my parents’, and in their household, besides two grown-up daughters of singular beauty, there were two little boys, the youngest of my own age. There were also two young governesses, French and German; and as I was alone, and the German governess who had been imported for me was unsympathetic and unsatisfied, she was soon sent home, and the Rutherfurd governesses (the daughters of the house being “out,” and off their hands) took me on for French, German, and whatever else, in those ancient days, composed a little girl’s curriculum. This drew the two households still closer, for though I did not study with the little boys I seem to remember that I went to Edgerston for my lessons. There was certainly a continual coming and going through the private gate between the properties; but I recall a good deal more of our games than of my lessons.

Most vivid is my memory of the picturesque archery club meetings of which the grown daughters of the house, Margaret (afterward Mrs. Henry White) and her sister Louisa were among the most brilliant performers. When the club met we children were allowed to be present, and to circulate among the grown-ups (usually all three of us astride of one patient donkey); and a pretty sight the meeting was, with parents and elders seated in a semicircle on the turf behind the lovely archeresses in floating silks or muslins, with their wide leghorn hats, and heavy veils flung back only at the moment of aiming. These veils are associated with all the summer festivities of my childhood. In that simple society there was an almost pagan worship of physical beauty, and the first question asked about any youthful newcomer on the social scene was invariably: “Is she pretty?” or: “Is he handsome?” — for good looks were as much prized in young men as in maidens. For the latter no grace was rated as high as “a complexion.” It is hard to picture nowadays the shell-like transparence, the luminous red-and-white, of those young cheeks untouched by paint or powder, in which the blood came and went like the lights of an aurora. Beauty was unthinkable without “a complexion,” and to defend that treasure against sun and wind, and the arch-enemy sea air, veils as thick as curtains (some actually of woollen barege) were habitually worn. It must have been very uncomfortable for the wearers, who could hardly see or breathe; but even to my childish eyes the effect was dazzling when the curtain was drawn, and young beauty shone forth. My dear friend Howard Sturgis used to laugh at the “heavily veiled” heroines who lingered on so late in Victorian fiction, and were supposed to preserve their incognito until they threw back their veils; but if he had known fashionable Newport in my infancy he would have seen that the novelists’ formula was based on what was once a reality.

Those archery meetings greatly heightened my infantile desire to “tell a story,” and the young gods and goddesses I used to watch strolling across the Edgerston lawn were the prototypes of my first novels. The spectacle was a charming one to an imaginative child already caught in the toils of romance; no wonder I remember it better than my studies. Not that I was not eager to learn; but my long and weary illness had made my parents unduly anxious about my health, and they forbade my being taught anything that required a mental effort. Committing to memory, and preparing lessons in advance, were ruled out; it was thought that I read too much (as if a born reader could!), and that my mind must be spared all “strain.” This was doubtless partly due to the solicitude of parents for a late-born child, partly to a natural reaction against the severities of their own early training. The sentimental theory that children must not be made to study anything that does not interest them was already in the air, and reinforced by the fear of “fatiguing” my brain, it made my parents turn my work into play. Being deprived of the irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin, I never learned to concentrate except on subjects naturally interesting to me, and developed a restless curiosity which prevented my fixing my thoughts for long even on these. Of benefits I see only one. To most of my contemporaries the enforced committing to memory of famous poems must have forever robbed some of the loveliest of their bloom; but this being forbidden me, great poetry — English, French, German and Italian — came to me fresh as the morning, with the dew on it, and has never lost that early glow.

The drawbacks were far greater than this advantage. But for the wisdom of Fraulein Bahlmann, my beloved German teacher, who saw which way my fancy turned, and fed it with all the wealth of German literature, from the Minnesingers to Heine — but for this, and the leave to range in my father’s library, my mind would have starved at the age when the mental muscles are most in need of feeding.

I used to say that I had been taught only two things in my childhood: the modern languages and good manners. Now that I have lived to see both these branches of culture dispensed with, I perceive that there are worse systems of education. But in justice to my parents I ought to have named a third element in my training; a reverence for the English language as spoken according to the best usage. Usage, in my childhood, was as authoritative an element in speaking English as tradition was in social conduct. And it was because our little society still lived in the reflected light of a long-established culture that my parents, who were far from intellectual, who read little and studied not at all, nevertheless spoke their mother tongue with scrupulous perfection, and insisted that their children should do the same.

This reverence for the best tradition of spoken English — an easy idiomatic English, neither pedantic nor “literary” — was no doubt partly due to the fact that, in the old New York families of my parents’ day, the children’s teachers were often English. My mother and her sisters and brother had English tutors and governesses, and my own brothers were educated at home by an extremely cultivated English tutor. In my mother’s family, more than one member of the generation preceding hers had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and one of my own brothers went to Cambridge.

Even so, however, I have never quite understood how two people so little preoccupied with letters as my father and mother had such sensitive ears for pure English. The example they set me was never forgotten; I still wince under my mother’s ironic smile when I said that some visitor had stayed “quite a while,” and her dry: “Where did you pick THAT up?” the wholesome derision of my grown-up brothers saved me from pomposity as my mother’s smile guarded me against slovenliness; I still tingle with the sting of their ridicule when, excusing myself for having forgotten something I had been told to do, I said, with an assumption of grown-up dignity (aetat ten or eleven): “I didn’t know that it was IMPERATIVE.”

Such elementary problems as (judging from the letters I receive from unknown readers) disturb present-day users of English in America — perplexity as to the distinction between “should” and “would,” and the display of such half-educated pedantry as saying “gotten” and “you would better” — never embarrassed our speech. We spoke naturally, instinctively good English, but my parents always wanted it to be better, that is, easier, more flexible and idiomatic. This excessive respect for the language never led to priggishness, or precluded the enjoyment of racy innovations. Long words were always smiled away as pedantic, and any really excessive slang was welcomed with amusement — but used as slang, as it were between quotation marks, and not carelessly admitted into our speech. Luckily we all had a lively sense of humour, and now that my brothers were at home again the house rang with laughter. We all knew by heart “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Hunting of the Snark,” and whole pages of Lear’s “Nonsense Book,” and our sensitiveness to the quality of the English we spoke doubled our enjoyment of the incredible verbal gymnastics of those immortal works. Dear to us also, though in a lesser degree, were “Innocents Abroad,” Bret Harte’s parodies of novels, and, in their much later day, George Ade’s “Arty,” and the first volumes of that great philosopher, Mr. Dooley. I cannot remember a time when we did not, every one of us, revel in the humorous and expressive side of American slang; what my parents abhorred was not the picturesque use of new terms, if they were vivid and expressive, but the habitual slovenliness of those who picked up the slang of the year without having any idea that they were not speaking in the purest tradition. But above all abhorrent to ears piously attuned to all the inflexions and shades of meaning of our rich speech were such mean substitutes as “back of” for behind, “dirt” for earth (i.e., a “dirt road”), “any place” for anywhere, or slovenly phrases like “a great ways,” soon, alas, to be followed by the still more inexcusable “a BARRACKS,” “a WOODS,” and even “a strata,” “a phenomena,” which, as I grew up, a new class of the uneducated rich were rapidly introducing.

This feeling for good English was more than reverence, and nearer: it was love. My parents’ ears were wounded by an unsuitable word as those of the musical are hurt by a false note. My mother, herself so little of a reader, was exaggeratedly scrupulous about the books I read; not so much the “grown-up” books as those written for children. I was never allowed to read the popular American children’s books of my day because, as my mother said, the children spoke bad English WITHOUT THE AUTHOR’S KNOWING IT. You could do what you liked with the language if you did it consciously, and for a given purpose — but if you went shuffling along, trailing it after you like a rag in the dust, tramping over it, as Henry James said, like the emigrant tramping over his kitchen oil-cloth — that was unpardonable, there deterioration and corruption lurked. I remember it was only with reluctance, and because “all the other children read them,” that my mother consented to my reading “Little Women” and “Little Men”; and my ears, trained to the fresh racy English of “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Water Babies” and “The Princess and the Goblin,” were exasperated by the laxities of the great Louisa.

Perhaps our love of good English may be partly explained by the background of books which was an essential part of the old New York household. In my grand-parents’ day every gentleman had what was called “a gentleman’s library.” In my father’s day, these libraries still existed, though they were often only a background; but in our case Macaulay, Prescott, Motley, Sainte–Beuve, Augustin Thierry, Victor Hugo, the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, Ruskin, Coleridge, had been added to the French and English classics in their stately calf bindings. Were these latter ever read? Not often, I imagine; but they were there; they represented a standard; and perhaps some mysterious emanation disengaged itself from them, obscurely fighting for the protection of the languages they had illustrated.

A standard; the word perhaps gives me my clue. When I said, in my resentful youth, that I had been taught only languages and manners, I did not know how closely, in my parents’ minds, the two were related. Bringing-up in those days was based on what was called “good breeding.” One was polite, considerate of others, careful of the accepted formulas, because such were the principles of the well-bred. And probably the regard of my parents for the niceties of speech was a part of their breeding. They treated their language with the same rather ceremonious courtesy as their friends. It would have been “bad manners” to speak “bad” English, and “bad manners” were the supreme offence.

The fastidiousness of speech came chiefly from my mother’s side, and my father probably acquired it under her influence. His own people, though they spoke good English, had disagreeable voices. I have noticed that wherever, in old New York families, there was a strong admixture of Dutch blood, the voices were flat, the diction was careless. My mother’s stock was English, without Dutch blood, and this may account for the greater sensivetiveness of all her people to the finer shades of English speech. In an article on Conrad which appeared in the “Times Literary Supplement” after his death, the author said (I quote from memory): “Conrad had worshipped the English language all his life like a lover, but he had never romped with her in the nursery”; and this it was my happy fate to do.

To the modern child my little-girl life at Pencraig would seem sadly tame and uneventful, for its chief distractions were the simple ones of swimming and riding. My mother, like most married women of her day, had long since given up exercise, my father’s only active pursuits were boating and shooting, and there was no one to ride with me but the coachman — nor was our end of the island a happy place for equestrianism. I enjoyed scampering on my pony over the hard dull roads; but it was better fun to swim in our own cove, in the jolly company of brothers, cousins and young neighbours. There were always two or three cat-boats moored off our point, but I never shared the passion of my father and brothers for sailing. To be a passenger was too sedentary, and I felt no desire to sail the boat myself, being too wrapt in dreams to burden my mind with so exact a science. Best of all I liked our weekly walks with Mr. Rutherfurd over what we called the Rocks — the rough moorland country, at that time without roads or houses, extending from the placid blue expanse of Narrangansett bay to the gray rollers of the Atlantic. Every Sunday he used to collect the children of the few friends living near us, and take them, with his own, for a tramp across this rugged country to the sea.

Yet what I recall of those rambles is not so much the comradeship of the other children, or the wise and friendly talk of our guide, as my secret sensitiveness to the landscape — something in me quite incommunicable to others, that was tremblingly and inarticulately awake to every detail of wind-warped fern and wide-eyed briar rose, yet more profoundly alive to a unifying magic beneath the diversities of the visible scene — a power with which I was in deep and solitary communion whenever I was alone with nature. It was the same tremor that had stirred in me in the spring woods of Mamaroneck, when I heard the whisper of the arbutus and the starry choir of the dogwood; and it has never since been still.

3.2.

The old New York to which I came back as a little girl meant to me chiefly my father’s library. Now for the first time I had my fill of books. Out of doors, in the mean monotonous streets, without architecture, without great churches or palaces, or any visible memorials of an historic past, what could New York offer to a child whose eyes had been filled with shapes of immortal beauty and immemorial significance? One of the most depressing impressions of my childhood is my recollection of the intolerable ugliness of New York, of its untended streets and the narrow houses so lacking in external dignity, so crammed with smug and suffocating upholstery. How could I understand that people who had seen Rome and Seville, Paris and London, could come back to live contentedly between Washington Square and the Central Park? What I could not guess was that this little low-studded rectangular New York, cursed with its universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried, this cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without towers, porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness, would fifty years later be as much a vanished city as Atlantis or the lowest layer of Schliemann’s Troy, or that the social organization which that prosaic setting had slowly secreted would have been swept to oblivion with the rest. Nothing but the Atlantis-fate of old New York, the New York which had slowly but continuously developed from the early seventeenth century to my own childhood, makes that childhood worth recalling now.

Looking back at that little world, and remembering the “hoard of petty maxims” with which its elders preached down every sort of initiative, I have often wondered at such lassitude in the descendants of the men who first cleared a place for themselves in a new world, and then fought for the right to be masters there. What had become of the spirit of the pioneers and the revolutionaries? perhaps the very violence of their effort had caused it to exhaust itself in the next generation, or the too great prosperity succeeding on almost unexampled hardships had produced, if not inertia, at least indifference in all matters except business or family affairs.

Even the acquiring of wealth had ceased to interest the little society into which I was born. In the case of some of its members, such as the Astors and Goelets, great fortunes, originating in a fabulous increase of New York real estate values, had been fostered by judicious investments and prudent administration; but of feverish money-making, in Wall Street or in railway, shipping or industrial enterprises, I heard nothing in my youth. Some of my father’s friends may have been bankers, others have followed one of the liberal professions, usually the law; in fact almost all the young men I knew read law for a while after leaving college, though comparatively few practised it in after years. But for the most part my father’s contemporaries, and those of my brothers also, were men of leisure — a term now almost as obsolete as the state it describes. It will probably seem unbelievable to present day readers that only one of my own near relations, and not one of my husband’s, was “in business.” The group to which we belonged was composed of families to whom a middling prosperity had come, usually by the rapid rise in value of inherited real estate, and none of whom, apparently, aspired to be more than moderately well off. I never in my early life came in contact with the gold-fever in any form, and when I hear that nowadays business life in New York is so strenuous that men and women never meet socially before the dinner hour, I remember the delightful week-day luncheons of my early married years, where the men were as numerous as the women, and where one of the first rules of conversation was the one early instilled in me by my mother: “Never talk about money, and think about it as little as possible.”

The child of the well-to-do, hedged in by nurses and governesses, seldom knows much of its parents’ activities. I have only the vaguest recollection of the way in which my father and mother spent their days. I know that my father was a director on the principal charitable boards of New York — the Blind Asylum and the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum among others; and that during Lent a ladies’ “sewing class” met at our house to work with my mother for the poor. I also recall frequent drives with my mother, when the usual afternoon round of card-leaving was followed by a walk in the Central Park, and a hunt for violets and hepaticas in the secluded dells of the Ramble. In the evenings my parents went occasionally to the theatre, but never, as far as I remember, to a concert, or any kind of musical performance, until the Opera, then only sporadic, became an established entertainment, to which one went (as in eighteenth century Italy) chiefly if not solely for the pleasure of conversing with one’s friends. Their most frequent distraction was dining out or dinner giving. Sometimes the dinners were stately and ceremonious (with engraved invitations issued three weeks in advance, soups, “thick” and “clear,” and a Roman punch half way through the menu), but more often they were intimate and sociable, though always the occasion of much excellent food and old wine being admirably served, and discussed with suitable gravity.

My father had inherited from his family a serious tradition of good cooking, with a cellar of vintage clarets, and of Madeira which had rounded the Cape. The “Jones” Madeira (my father’s) and the “Newbold” (my uncle’s) enjoyed a particular celebrity even in that day of noted cellars. The following generation, interested only in champagne and claret, foolishly dispersed these precious stores. My brothers sold my father’s cellar soon after his death; and after my marriage, dining in a nouveau riche house of which the master was unfamiliar with old New York cousinships, I had pressed on me, as a treat not likely to have come the way of one of my modest condition, a glass of “the famous Newbold Madeira.”

My mother, if left to herself, would probably not have been much interested in the pleasures of the table. My father’s Dutch blood accounted for his gastronomic enthusiasm; his mother, who was a Schermerhorn, was reputed to have the best cook in New York. But to know about good cooking was a part of every young wife’s equipment, and my mother’s favourite cookery books (Francatelli’s and Mrs. Leslie’s) are thickly interleaved with sheets of yellowing note paper, on which, in a script of ethereal elegance, she records the making of “Mrs. Joshua Jones’s scalloped oysters with cream,” “Aunt Fanny Gallatin’s fried chicken,” “William Edgar’s punch,” and the special recipes of our two famous negro cooks, Mary Johnson and Susan Minneman. These great artists stand out, brilliantly turbaned and ear-ringed, from a Snyders-like background of game, fish and vegetables transformed into a succession of succulent repasts by their indefatigable blue-nailed hands: Mary Johnson, a gaunt towering woman of a rich bronzy black, with huge golden hoops in her ears, and crisp African crinkles under vividly patterned kerchiefs; Susan Minneman, a small smiling mulatto, more quietly attired, but as great a cook as her predecessor.

Ah, what artists they were! How simple yet sure were their methods — the mere perfection of broiling, roasting and basting — and what an unexampled wealth of material, vegetable and animal, their genius had to draw upon! Who will ever again taste anything in the whole range of gastronomy to equal their corned beef, their boiled turkeys with stewed celery and oyster sauce, their fried chickens, broiled red-heads, corn fritters, stewed tomatoes, rice griddle cakes, strawberry short-cake and vanilla ices? I am now enumerating only our daily fare, that from which even my tender years did not exclude me; but when my parents “gave a dinner,” and terrapin and canvas-back ducks, or (in their season) broiled Spanish mackerel, soft-shelled crabs with a mayonnaise of celery, and peach-fed Virginia hams cooked in champagne (I am no doubt confusing all the seasons in this allegoric evocation of their riches), lima-beans in cream, corn souffles and salads of oyster-crabs, poured in varied succulence from Mary Johnson’s lifted cornucopia — ah, then, the gourmet of that long-lost day, when cream was cream and butter butter and coffee coffee, and meat fresh every day, and game hung just for the proper number of hours, might lean back in his chair and murmur “Fate cannot harm me” over his cup of Moka and his glass of authentic Chartreuse.

I have lingered over these details because they formed a part — a most important and honourable part — of that ancient curriculum of house-keeping which, at least in Anglo–Saxon countries, was so soon to be swept aside by the “monstrous regiment” of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of civilized living. The movement began when I was young, and now that I am old, and have watched it and noted its results, I mourn more than ever the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done far less harm to the home than the Higher Education.

And what of the guests who gathered at my father’s table to enjoy the achievements of the Dark Ladies? I remember a mild blur of rosy and white-whiskered gentlemen, of ladies with bare sloping shoulders rising flower-like from voluminous skirts, peeped at from the stair-top while wraps were removed in the hall below. A great sense of leisure emanated from their kindly faces and voices. No motors waited to rush them on to ball or opera; balls were few and widely spaced, the opera just beginning; and “Opera night” would not have been chosen for one of my mother’s big dinners. There being no haste, and a prodigious amount of good food to be disposed of, the guests sat long at table; and when my mother bowed slightly to the lady facing her on my father’s right, and flounces and trains floated up the red velvet stair-carpet to the white-and-gold drawing-room with tufted purple satin arm-chairs, and voluminous purple satin curtains festooned with buttercup yellow fringe, the gentlemen settled down again to claret and Madeira, sent duly westward, and followed by coffee and Havana cigars.

My parents’ guests ate well, and drank good wine with discernment; but a more fastidious taste had shortened the enormous repasts and deep bumpers of colonial days, and in twenty minutes the whiskered gentlemen had joined the flounced ladies on the purple settees for another half hour of amiable chat, accompanied by the cup of tea which always rounded off the evening. How mild and leisurely it all seems in the glare of our new century! Small parochial concerns no doubt formed the staple of the talk. Art and music and literature were rather timorously avoided (unless Trollope’s last novel were touched upon, or a discreet allusion made to Mr. William Astor’s audacious acquisition of a Bouguereau Venus), and the topics chiefly dwelt on were personal: the thoughtful discussion of food, wine, horses (“high steppers” were beginning to be much sought after), the laying out and planting of country-seats, the selection of “specimen” copper beeches and fern-leaved maples for lawns just beginning to be shorn smooth by the new hand-mowers, and those plans of European travel which filled so large a space in the thought of old New Yorkers. From my earliest infancy I had always seen about me people who were either just arriving from “abroad” or just embarking on a European tour. The old New Yorker was in continual contact with the land of his fathers, and it was not until I went to Boston on my marriage that I found myself in a community of wealthy and sedentary people seemingly too lacking in intellectual curiosity to have any desire to see the world.

I have always been perplexed by the incuriosity of New England with regard to the rest of the world, for New Yorkers of my day were never so happy as when they were hurrying on board the ocean liner which was to carry them to new lands. Those whose society my parents frequented did not, perhaps, profit much by the artistic and intellectual advantages of European travel, and to social opportunities they were half-resentfully indifferent. It was thought vulgar and snobbish to try to make the acquaintance, in London, Paris or Rome, of people of the class corresponding to their own. The Americans who forced their way into good society in Europe were said to be those who were shut out from it at home; and the self-respecting American on his travels frequented only the little “colonies” of his compatriots already settled in the European capitals, and only their most irreproachable members! What these artless travellers chiefly enjoyed were scenery, ruins and historic sites; places about which some sentimental legend hung, and to which Scott, Byron, Hans Andersen, Bulwer, Washington Irving or Hawthorne gently led the timid sight-seer. Public ceremonials also, ecclesiastical or royal, were much appreciated, though of the latter only distant glimpses could be caught, since it would have been snobbish to ask, through one’s Legation, for reserved seats or invitations. And as for the American women who had themselves presented at the English Court — well, one had only to see with whom they associated at home!

However, ruins, snow-mountains, lakes and water-falls — especially water-falls — were endlessly enjoyable; and in the great cities there were the shops! In them, as Henry James acutely noted in “The Pension Beaurepas,” the American woman found inexhaustible consolation for the loneliness and inconveniences of life in foreign lands. But, lest I seem to lay undue stress on the limitations of my compatriots, it must be remembered that, even in more sophisticated societies, cultivated sight-seeing was hardly known in those days. One need only glance through the “Travels” of the early nineteenth century to see how little, before Ruskin, the average well-educated tourist of any country was prepared to observe and enjoy. The intellectual few, at the end of the eighteenth century, had been taught by Arhtur Young to travel with an eye to agriculture and geology; and Goethe, in Sicily, struck Syracuse and Girgenti from his itinerary, and took the monotonous and exhausting route across the middle of the island, in order to see with his own eyes why it had been called the granary of Rome. Meanwhile the simpler majority collected scraps of marble from the Forum, pressed maidenhair fern from the temple of Vesta at Tivoli, or daisies from the grave of Shelley, and bought edelweiss gummed on cardboard from the guides of Chamonix, and copies of Guido’s “Aurora” and Caravaggio’s “Gamesters” from the Roman picture-dealers.

At that very time a handsome blue-eyed young man with a scarred mouth was driving across the continent in his parents’ travelling carriage, and looking with wondering eyes at the Giottos of the Arena Chapel and the Cimabues of Assisi; at that time a young architect, poor and unknown, was toiling through the by-ways of Castile, Galicia and Andalusia in jolting diligences, or over stony mule-tracks, and recording in a series of exquisite drawings the unknown wonders of Spanish architecture; and Browning was dreaming of “The Ring and the Book” — and Shelley had long since written “The Cenci.” But to the average well-to-do traveller Hawthorne’s “Marble Faun,” Bulwer’s “Last Days of Pompeii” and Washington Irving’s “Alhambra” were still the last word on Spain and Italy.

3.3.

I have wandered far from my father’s library. Though it had the leading share in my growth I have let myself be drawn from it by one scene after another of my parents’ life in New York or on their travels. But the library calls me back, and I pause on its threshold, averting my eyes from the monstrous oak mantel supported on the heads of vizored knights, and looking past them at the rows of handsome bindings and familiar names. The library probably did not contain more than seven or eight hundred volumes. My father was a younger son, and my mother had a brother to whom most of the books on her side of the family went. (I remember on my uncle’s shelves an unexpurgated Hogarth, splendidly bound in eighteenth century crushed Levant, with which my little cousins and I quite innocently and unharmedly beguiled ourselves.) The library to which I had access contained therefore few inherited books; I remember chiefly, in the warm shabby calf of the period, complete editions of Swift, Sterne, Defoe, the “Spectator,” Shakespeare, Milton, the Percy reliques — and Hannah More! Most of the other books must have been acquired by my father. Though few they were well-chosen, and the fact that their number was so limited probably helped to fix their contents in my memory. At any rate, long before the passing of years and a succession of deaths brought them back to me, I could at any moment visualize the books contained in those low oak bookcases. My mother, perplexed by the discovery that she had produced an omnivorous reader, and not knowing how to direct my reading, had perhaps expected the governess to do it for her. Being an indolent woman, she finally turned the difficulty by reviving a rule of her own schoolroom days, and decreeing that I should never read a novel without asking her permission. I was a painfully conscientious child and, conforming literally to this decree, I submitted to her every work of fiction which attracted my fancy. In order to save further trouble she almost always refused to let me read it — a fact hardly to be wondered at, since her own mother had forbidden her to read any of Scott’s novels, except “Waverley,” till after she was married! At all events, of the many prohibitions imposed on me — most of which, as I look back, I see little reason to regret — there is none for which I am more grateful than this, though it extended its rigours even to one of the works of Charlotte M. Yonge! By denying me the opportunity of wasting my time over ephemeral rubbish my mother threw me back on the great classics, and thereby helped to give my mind a temper which my too-easy studies could not have produced. I was forbidden to read Whyte Melville, Rhoda Broughton, “The Duchess,” and all the lesser novelists of the day; but before me stretched the wide expanse of the classics, English, French and German, and into that sea of wonders I plunged at will. Nowadays a reader might see only the lacunae of the little library in which my mind was formed; but, small as it was, it included most of the essentials. The principal historians were Plutarch, Macaulay, Prescott, Parkman, Froude, Carlyle, Lamartine, Thiers; the diaries and letters included Evelyn, Pepys, White of Selborne, Cowper, Mme de Sevigne, Fanny Burney, Moore, the Journals of the Misses Berry; the “poetical works” (in addition to several anthologies, such as Knight’s “Half Hours with the Best Authors” and Lamb’s precious selections from the Elizabethan dramatists) were those of Homer (in Pope’s and Lord Derby’s versions), Longfellow’s Dante, Milton, Herbert, Pope, Cowper, Gray, Thomson, Byron, Moore, Scott, Burns, Wordsworth, Campbell, Coleridge, Shelley (I wonder how or why?), Longfellow, Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Browning — though not as yet the writer described in one of the anthologies of the period as “the husband of Elizabeth Barrett, and himself no mean poet.” He was to come later, as a present from my sister-in-law, and to be one of the great Awakeners of my childhood.

Among the French poets were Corneille, Racine, Lafontaine and Victor Hugo, though, oddly enough, of Lamartine the poet there was not a page, nor yet of Chenier, Vigny or Musset. Among French prose classics there were, of course, Sainte–Beuve’s “Lundis,” bracing fare for a young mind, Sevigne the divinely loitering, Augustin Thierry and Philarete Chasles. Art history and criticism were represented by Lacroix’s big volumes, so richly and exquisitely illustrated, on art, architecture and costume in the middle ages, by Schliemann’s “Ilias” and “Troja,” by Gwilt’s Encyclopaedia of Architecture, by Kugler, Mrs. Jameson, P.G. Hamerton, and the Ruskin of “Modern Painters” and the “Seven Lamps,” together with a volume of “Selections” (appropriately bound in purple cloth) of all his purplest patches; to which my father, for my benefit, added “Stones of Venice” and “Walks in Florence” when we returned to Europe and the too-short days of our joint sight-seeing began.

In philosophy, I recall little but Victor Cousin and Coleridge (“The Friend” and “Aids to Reflection”); among essaysists, besides Addison, there were Lamb and Macaulay; in the way of travel, I remember chiefly Arctic explorations. As for fiction, after the eighteenth century classics, Miss Burney and Scott of course led the list; but, mysteriously enough, Richardson was lacking, save for an abridged version of “Clarissa Harlowe” (and a masterly performance that abridgement was, as I remember it). No doubt Richardson, with Smollett and Fielding, fell to my uncle’s share, and were too much out-of-date to be thought worth replacing. Thus, except for Scott, there was a great gap until one came to Washington Irving, that charming hybrid on whom my parents’ thoughts could dwell at ease, because, in spite of the disturbing fact that he “wrote,” he was a gentleman, and a friend of the family. For my parents and their group, though they held literature in great esteem, stood in nervous dread of those who produced it. Washington Irving, Fitz–Greene Halleck and William Dana were the only representatives of the disquieting art who were deemed uncontaminated by it; though Longfellow, they admitted, if a popular poet, was nevertheless a gentleman. As for Herman Melville, a cousin of the Van Rensselaers, and qualified by birth to figure in the best society, he was doubtless excluded from it by his deplorable Bohemianism, for I never heard his name mentioned, or saw one of his books. Banished probably for the same reasons were Poe, that drunken and demoralized Baltimorean, and the brilliant wastrel Fitz James O’Brien, who was still further debased by “writing for the newspapers.” But worse still perhaps in my parents’ eyes was the case of such unhappy persons as Joseph Drake, author of “The Culprit Fay,” balanced between “fame and infamy” as not quite of the best society, and writing not quite the best poetry. I cannot hope to render the tone in which my mother pronounced the names of such unfortunates, or, on the other hand, that of Mrs. Beecher Stowe, who was so “common” yet so successful. On the whole, my mother doubtless thought, it would be simpler if people one might be exposed to meeting would refrain from meddling with literature.

Considering the stacks of novels which she, my aunts and my grandmother annually devoured, their attitude seems singularly ungrateful; but it was probably prompted by the sort of diffidence which, thank heaven, no psycho-analyst had yet arisen to call a “complex.” In the eyes of our provincial society authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labour. My father and mother and their friends were only one generation away from Sir Walter Scott, who thought it necessary to drape his literary identity in countless clumsy subterfuges, and almost contemporary with the Brontes, who shrank in agony from being suspected of successful novel-writing. But I am sure the chief element in their reluctance to encounter the literary was an awestruck dread of the intellectual effort that might be required of them. They were genuinely modest and shy in the presence of any one who wrote or painted. To sing was still a drawing-room accomplishment, and I had two warbling cousins who had studied with the great opera singers; but authors and painters lived in a world unknown and incalculable. In addition to its mental atmosphere, its political and moral ideas might be contaminating, and there was a Kilmeny-touch about those who adventured into it and came back.

Meanwhile, though living authors were so remote, the dead were my most living companions. I was a healthy little girl who loved riding, swimming and romping; yet no children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books. Whenever I try to recall my childhood it is in my father’s library that it comes to life. I am squatting again on the thick Turkey rug, pulling open one after another the glass doors of the low bookcases, and dragging out book after book in a secret ecstasy of communion. I say “secret,” for I cannot remember ever speaking to any one of these enraptured sessions. The child knows instinctively when it will be understood, and from the first I kept my adventures with books to myself. But perhaps it was not only the “misunderstood” element, so common in meditative infancy, that kept me from talking of my discoveries. There was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude, or at least no one whom I had yet encountered. Words and cadences haunted it like song-birds in a magic wood, and I wanted to be able to steal away and listen when they called. When I was about fifteen or sixteen I tried to write an essay on English verse rhythms. I never got beyond the opening paragraph, but that came straight out of my secret wood. It ran: “No one who cannot feel the enchantment of ‘Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,’ without knowing even the next line, or having any idea whatever of the context of the poem, has begun to understand the beauty of English poetry.” For the moment that was enough of ecstasy; but I wanted to be always free to steal away to it.

It was obvious that a little girl with such cravings, and to whom the old Testament, the Apocalypse and the Elizabethan dramatists were open, could not long pine for Whyte Melville or even Rhoda Broughton. Ah, the long music-drunken hours on that library floor, with Isaiah and the Song of Solomon and the Book of Esther, and “Modern Painters,” and Augustin Thierry’s Merovingians, and Knight’s “Half Hours,” and that rich mine of music, Dana’s “Household Book of Poetry”! Presently kind friends began to endow me with a little library of my own, and I was reading “Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister,” “Philip Van Arteveld,” “Men and Women” and “Dramatis Personae” in the intervals between “The Broken Heart” and “The Duchess of Malfy,” “Phedre” and “Andromaque.” And there was one supreme day when, my mother having despairingly asked our old literary advisor, Mr. North at Scribner’s, “what she could give the child for her birthday,” I woke to find beside my bed Buxton Forman’s great editions of Keats and Shelley! Then the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don’t believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy.

By the time I was seventeen, though I had not read every book in my father’s library, I had looked into them all. Those I devoured first were the poets and the few literary critics, foremost of course Sainte–Beuve. Ruskin fed me with visions of Italy for which I had never ceased to pine, and Freeman’s delightful “Subject and Neighbour Lands of Venice,” Mrs. Jameson’s amiable volumes, and Kugler’s “Handbook of Italian Painting,” gave a firmer outline to these visions. But the books which made the strongest impression on me — doubtless because they reached a part of my mind that no one had thought of arousing — were two shabby volumes unearthed among my brother’s college text-books: an abridgement of Sir William Hamilton’s “History of Philosophy” and a totally forgotten work called “Coppee’s Elements of Logic.” This first introduction to the technique of thinking developed the bony structure about which my vague gelatinous musings could cling and take shape; and Darwin and Pascal, Hamilton And Coppee ranked foremost among my Awakeners.

In a day when youthful innocence was rated so high my mother may be thought to have chosen a singular way of preserving mine when she deprived me of the Victorian novel but made me free of the old Testament and the Elizabethans. Her plan was certainly not premeditated; but had it been, she could not have shown more insight. Those great pages, those high themes, purged my imagination; and I cannot recall ever trying to puzzle out allusions which in tamer garb might have roused my curiosity. Once, at the house of a little girl friend, rummaging with her through a neglected collection of books which her parents had acquired with the property, and never since looked at, we came upon a small volume which seemed to burst into fiery bloom in our hands.

Forth, ballad, and take roses in both arms, Even till the top rose touch thee in the throat Where the least thornprick harms; And girdled in thy golden singing-coat, Come thou before my lady and say this: Borgia, thy gold hair’s colour burns in me, Thy mouth makes beat my blood in feverish rhymes; Therefore so many as these roses be, Kiss me so many times.

But this, like all the rest, merely enriched the complex music of my strange inner world. I do not mean to defend the sheltered education against the system which expounds physiological mysteries in the nursery; I am not sure which is best. But I am sure that great literature does not excite premature curiosities in normally constituted children; and I can give a comic proof of the fact, for though “The White Devil,” “Faust” and “Poems and Ballads” were among my early story-books, all I knew about adultery (against which we were warned every week in church) was that those who “committed” it were penalized by having to pay higher fares in travelling: a conclusion arrived at by my once seeing on a ferry-boat the sign: “Adults 50 cents; children 25 cents”!

This ferment of reading revived my story-telling fever; but now I wanted to write and not to improvise. My first attempt (at the age of eleven) was a novel, which began: “‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tompkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.’” Timorously I submitted this to my mother, and never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.”

This was so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction, and I took to poetry instead. It was not thought necessary to feed my literary ambitions with foolscap, and for lack of paper I was driven to begging for the wrappings of the parcels delivered at the house. After a while these were regarded as belonging to me, and I always kept a stack in my room. It never occurred to me to fold and cut the big brown sheets, and I used to spread them on the floor and travel over them on my hands and knees, building up long parallel columns of blank verse headed: “Scene: A Venetian palace,” or “Dramatis Personae” (which I never knew how to pronounce).

My dear governess, seeing my perplexity over the structure of English verse, gave me a work called “Quackenbos’s Rhetoric,” which warned one not to speak of the oyster as a “succulent bivalve,” and pointed out that even Shakespeare nodded when he made Hamlet “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Mr. Quackenbos disposed of the delicate problems of English metric by squeezing them firmly into the classic categories, so that Milton was supposed to have written in “iambic pentameters,” and all superfluous syllables were got rid of (as in the eighteenth century) by elisions and apostrophes. Always respectful of the rules of the game, I tried to cabin my Muse within these bounds, and once when, in a moment of unheard-of audacity, I sent a poem to a newspaper (I think “The World”), I wrote to the editor apologizing for the fact that my metre was “irregular,” but adding firmly that, though I was only a little girl, I wished this irregularity to be respected, as it was “intentional.” The editor published the poem, and wrote back politely that he had no objection to irregular metres himself; and thereafter I breathed more freely. My poetic experiments, however, were destined to meet with the same discouragement as my fiction. Having vainly attempted a tragedy in five acts I turned my mind to short lyrics, which I poured out with a lamentable facility. My brother showed some of these to one of his friends, an amiable and cultivated Bostonian named Allen Thorndike Rice, who afterward became the owner and editor of the “North American Review.” Allen Rice very kindly sent the poems to the aged Longfellow, to whom his mother’s family were related; and on the bard’s recommendation some of my babblings appeared in the “Atlantic Monthly.” Happily this experiment was not repeated; and any undue pride I might have felt in it was speedily dashed by my young patron’s remarking to me one day: “You know, writing lyrics won’t lead you anywhere. What you want to do is to write an epic. All the great poets have written epics. Homer . . . Milton . . . Byron. Why don’t you try your hand at something like ‘Don Juan’?” This was a hard saying to a dreamy girl of fifteen, and I shrank back into my secret retreat, convinced that I was unfitted to be either a poet or a novelist. I did, indeed, attempt another novel, and carried this one to its close; but it was destined for the private enjoyment of a girlfriend, and was never exposed to the garish light of print. It exists to this day, beautifully written out in a thick copy-book, with a title page inscribed “Fast and Loose,” and an epigraph from Owen Meredith’s “Lucile”:

Let Woman beware How she plays fast and loose with human despair, And the storm in Man’s heart.

Title and epigraph were terrifyingly exemplified in the tale, but it closed on a note of mournful resignation, with the words: “And every year when April comes the violets bloom again on Georgie’s grave.”

After this I withdrew to secret communion with the Muse. I continued to cover vast expanses of wrapping paper with prose and verse, but the dream of a literary career, momentarily shadowed forth by one miraculous adventure, soon faded into unreality. How could I ever have supposed I could be an author? I had never even seen one in the flesh!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/backward_glance/chapter3.html

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