My Grandmother's Books

I had occasion, not long ago, to superintend the closing and ending of the life of an old house. Any one who has done this knows the vague pain, the intangible melancholy, that accompanies it. But it is not all sadness. Childhood and youth press upon one ; soft shocks of memory push the mind back into that groove of cheerful and obedient trust in the judgment of others, the very thought of which seems to rest the responsible middle-aged man or woman who has to do his or her own thinking—and perhaps half a dozen other people’s, too ! One pauses in the work of settling and arranging things, — a little dusty, perhaps, and tired, hearing one’s voice calmly directing and ordering and deciding : “ This must be sent to -,” “ Burn that,” “ This can go to an auction ; ” and is half scared at the presumption of it. In that old life, which seems to spring up again, modest and happy, in all these silent rooms, one received orders instead of giving them.

At such a time every room in an old house has its recollections ; but in this particular house the library brought the past most keenly before me. I sat looking over the books, forgetting to plan as to their disposition. How many times I had done just this same thing ! — taking the books down from their shelves, dusting them, dipping into them, forgetting all about work that was to be done. For when I was a child, there was a domestic period that came once a year, and was called “ house-cleaning,” during which the children were generally relegated to the library to dust the books, that being an employment that kept them out of the way. This period was, in my day, accompanied by gloom and the smell of soap ; it always seemed to me to be a sort of religious rite, — perhaps because there was something penitential about it, and also, no doubt, because, when it was over, there was an obvious exultation in the household, and an unexpressed thankfulness that we were not as other men were. This period came in April, just at the time when the grass was growing green in sunny corners of the fields, and the daffodils were coming up in files under the larches, and, like white fangs biting through the wet earth, the tulips were beginning to sprout, — just the very time when children are impelled to run and shout and roll, and feel the sun warm on their bare beads; and instead, because it was “ house-cleaning,” we were bidden to dust the books in the library ! How downtrodden and oppressed we felt, and yet what happiness we got out of it, after all !

The long rows of books were lifted from the shelves, and set up in high, tottering piles ; then each book was “ clapped,” dusted, and put back in its place on the shelf ; a slow process, — no doubt that was why we were set to do it, — made slower because of the temptation, not to be denied, to peep inside each book, to read, and forget the dusting : there was the joy of it !

How well I remembered the big black copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy, when I found it in its old place beside Froissart ! Gaunt, long-legged Innamorato was still upon the yellowing title-page ; and Hypochondriacus, in his furred gown, with the shelf of vials over his head ; and Maniacus, chained by an ankle to the floor and sitting down on air. How we used to shiver with delicious terror over this thrilling volume, which would never have fallen into our hands except for housecleaning. Nostradamus was there, a heavy book with stained and ragged pages that rustled as one turned them ; and Fox’s Book of Martyrs, which used to incite us to experiments to see if we could die for our religion “in case ” we should some day be persecuted.

Everybody knows how old books — books packed double, standing behind the outer rows of a crowded library, books bound in worm - eaten leather, stacked on the top shelf next to the ceiling — are brought out on such occasions, see the light for a brief hour, and then go back to dust and silence. They are mostly small, thin volumes, of no intrinsic value, and never needed for reference. I found them just where they used to be thirty years ago, when they were lifted down for us to dust, and in looking them over I discovered a little collection which had once provided entertainment and instruction for my grandmother when she was a child, — a “ miss,” she would have called herself. It was made up mostly of tales and homilies, but there were a few schoolbooks. Her French began, it seems, with Martel’s Elements, with its dedication : “ A Mademoiselle Theodosia Burr : Dulce Decus, Si, (pour répondre à l’honneur que m’a fait Mr votre père, en me rendant accessoire à votre éducation) d’un côté, j’ai réuni de grands efforts pour vous applainir la route des sciences ” — how much more has he endeavored to rouse the “ sensibility of the heart, and the elevation of the soul ” ! The book, published in 1796, is almost falling to pieces now ; it is evident that my little grandmother must have worked hard over t, and had her weary hoars, although the title-page declares it to be “ A Selection of Delicate Bon-Mots, Sentiments, Happy Applications of Passages in Famous Writers, and Ingenious Repartees ; having nothing that might alarm modesty or excite condemnable, laughter upon subjects of our duties and our respect, which, certainly, is not the case in the books now in the hands of youth to learn French by.” A little later than this is the date of a French grammar, which she used to instruct her little brothers and sisters. She was quite a young lady then, and able to appreciate the elegant phrases which this small, fat, black book bade her “ render into French.”

“America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.”

“ Drunkenness is detestable.”

“ Loam at top, clay next, and then chalk.”

“He comes from China.”

“ The horses of Flanders.”

“ Dr. Johnson dreaded death.”

“ Rooks eat corn.”

“God, heaven and hell.”

“ Apples are very good fruit.”

“ How do you do, Captain ? ”

What variety of suggestion ! Even our own grammar, with its “ Have you a basket of grapes ? ” “ No, but I have the nightcap of the Baker’s Aunt,” is less of an appeal to the imagination !

Beside the schoolbooks were books “for improvement and recreation.” When she was fourteen Seneca’s Morals were presented to her. (It was but a few years after this that, in an elaborate correspondence with her father, carried on while under his roof, she discussed her reasons for a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity.) Sandford and Merton (in French !) came next ; when I opened it a small pressed violet dropped from the yellow pages where “ M. Barlow et Tommy ” carry on endless and edifying conversations. Female Scriptural Characters, exemplifying Female Virtues, by the author of Beneficent Effects of the Christian Temper on Domestick Happiness, had evidently been carefully read. In the Advertisement the writer “acknowledges with pious awe that she stands on holy ground, and that it may have the appearance of presumption in a female to take up a subject so ably handled by a pious divine.” There were several books of this order before the “ tales ” were reached, — “ tales for juvenile edification,” some of the title-pages assert. One, given her when she was seven years old, is The Paternal Present, the contents being “ chiefly selected from the writings of Mr. Pratt ; ” of whom the Advertisement declares that, “ whether the heart is to be melted or the understanding enlightened,” there are few authors to be compared with Mr. Pratt ; and indeed, the publishers go so far as to add that “ the person that does not rise improved from this rich little banquet must be, in a great measure, lost to the finer sensibilities of the species.” I observe that my grandmother signed her name, in awkward, childish hand, at the end of the Advertisement, as if to assent to its propositions, or to acknowledge that she had “risen improved.” But why Mr. Pratt offers this particular kind of improvement to children in the nursery it is difficult to imagine. The book begins with the story of Emilius and Clara. “ Love,” says Mr. Pratt, “ of the purest kind, had united for some time, under the amiable laws of a happy marriage, the virtuous Clara and the wise Emilius ; ” and be adds that “ the heavens, singularly propitious, had denied no favors to this tender pair at their first outset, but presently, by a circumstance which we shall admire in the issue, it seemed as if the hand of Fortune bad been wholly withdrawn.” The circumstance, admirable in its issue, was the appearance upon the scene of Cresus, “a young gentleman who fixed too great confidence of success in the elevation of birth and fortune.”

Now Cresus had been a former admirer of Clara’s, and of course it created a complication when, after marrying Clara, the wise Emilius became his debtor. The combination of being a rejected lover and an unpaid creditor filled Cresus with anger. “Nay,” says Mr. Pratt, “from anger he was heated into rage ! ” And such was his wickedness that he planned to destroy the home of the amiable husband and wife. This he proceeded to do by attaching the property of Emilius. The scene where the minions of vice destroy the habitation of virtue is most dramatic. Clara swoons ; but as soon as she recovers, she falls at the feet of Cresus.

“ ‘ You were born generous. Your heart is susceptible. What objects were ever better suited to excite its compassion ? Look upon us : your eyes instruct me in the emotions of your soul ! Ah ! you begin to interest yourself for us, — I am sure you do!’

“ Pray, reader, consider well this picture : Clara upon her knees, her arms extended, her fair face bathed in tears, her eyes declined, a lovely blush upon her cheek ; the children hanging about her ; her husband in an attitude of despair.”

The response of Cresus, who, we are told, was “ moved,” is startling : —

“‘Fear nothing, beautiful Clara. You were always dear to me. To-day I will end your sorrows, and begin your happiness. Since your heart is not ungrateful, Clara, I hope you will condescend to add to the benefit I intend you one compliment to Cresus, by way of a receipt in full, — you will bestow on me yourself. Upon this condition only can I comply with your request. But you turn pale, you remain suspended?’”

We infer that Clara’s “suspension” refers only to her attitude, not to her state of mind ; for Mr. Pratt would have us know that “ though some high-born females are insensible to the feeling of virtue,” this was not the case with Clara.

“‘Dear husband,’ she says, ‘dear infants, a crime would save you. The innocence of thy mother will be thy destruction. What is to be done ? You must either starve, or else I must purchase the means of your existence by rendering myself unworthy of ye. O heavens ! inspire, instruct me ! ’

“ ‘ Let us perish,’ said Emilius, ‘ the victims of our duty.’”

“A mournful silence,” says Mr. Pratt, “ succeeded this rhapsody. Cresus fell into a profound revery. His heart, yet young in villainy, had not acquired that flintiness which resists every power of virtue. Remorse had still its poignancy. After a second fit of reflection, he struck his hand on his bosom, and in a loud voice exclaimed : —

“‘Behold the power of virtue! She triumphs even over love. Amiable pair, be happy as ye are good! Your conduct has changed my heart. Permit me, then, to attempt a reparation. Accept this present : the sum of money intended to bribe away innocence is surrendered to expiate intentional crime and pacify offended virtue. All your little property shall be restored. Permit me to add with a share of my own. You shall always have my entire esteem. ’ ”

The story ends with the acceptance, on the part of the wise Emilius and the virtuous Clara, of the proofs of Cresus’ “ entire esteem.”

There are other stories in this interesting volume, of the same nature, only more so : all of them with the frank implication that virtue is the necessity of humble poverty, but is merely the adornment of rank.

The novels of this small collection, which doubtless refreshed the youthful mind in intervals of study and theological discussion, were all on these lines, and more or less concerned with efforts of vice to undermine virtue. One, The Recess, printed in 1791, its pages brown and ragged and dog-eared, was written with as highly moral an intention, no doubt, as is the erotic purpose novel of to-day ; but its statements are like the nakedness of a baby, unblushing and unconscious, in it virtue triumphs, and vice is punished, — except in the person of the “ rake of rank,” who reforms. This tale is “humbly offered to the hearts of both sexes nature has enriched with sensibility and experience and refinement, in the persuasion that such will find it worthy of their patronage.” Next to The Recess was Tristram Shandy.

My grandmother read poetry, too, like other genteel young ladies, I found one poem on Sensibility, beginning : —

“Next let us speed to yonder sainted plains,
By mountains screened, and crowned with dulcet canes,
Where the Ouragen in phrenzy roars,
Affrights the isle, and desolates the shores.
There see a hero, of the negro line,
Boasts an high feeling, Briton, proud as thine ! ”

There is no explanation of “ sainted shores ” or “ dulcet canes,” but the finest and most elegant remarks from the negro, upon the occasion, it appears, of his suicide : —

“ ‘ Thus, tyrant, thus, thy fury I defy !
Live thou to shame, while I in honour die.’
He spoke — the poignard sluiced the crimson flood,
And bathed the master in the servant’s blood.”

There is a woodcut of the suicide sluicing the crimson flood, but it could not have impressed my little grandmother’s “sensibilities” very deeply, for it is daubed with faded paint ; she has given the “faithful Qua-shi ” realistic dark brown legs, and clad him in a green robe, while his master wears a red coat and gamboge breeches.

How those colored woodcuts do carry one back! Childhood seems to be the same, whether it read Seneca and Camilla and The Paternal Present or Little Lord Fauntleroy. We all know the shining look of the gamboge, and the very smell of it, and the layers of Prussian blue we put on coats or trousers, and crimson lake for lips and cheeks !

Ah, well, here it was all over again : my work forgotten, these little old thin books in my hands, the April weather outside, and the keen scent of spring in the evening twilight !