‘Everything that the lovingest of husbands can express to the best of wives, & love to the little ones, not forgetting the kicker in the dark,’ Jack Verney wrote to his pregnant wife in 1683.
‘Everything that the lovingest of husbands can express to the best of wives, & love to the little ones, not forgetting the kicker in the dark,’ Jack Verney wrote to his pregnant wife in 1683. I read this 326 years later with a pleasurable frisson. I don’t know why it is so charming to find that our ancestors felt as we do, but it is. In Louisa Lane Fox’s fascinating anthology, that thrill of recognition is found on nearly every page.
Lane Fox has used letters, diaries and memoirs; nothing fictional. Many writers are well-known — Kipling, Waugh, Mrs Gaskell — while others are random archival survivals. Most writers are upper or upper-middle class — not surprising, given the scarcity of pre-20th-century material on the experience of working-class parents — but I feel she could have trawled a little harder to redress the balance. However, I enjoyed reading Queen Victoria’s rejoicing at becoming a grandmother while still looking and feeling young — ‘I think of my next birthday [her 40th] being spent with my children and a grandchild. It will be a treat!’ Such a sentiment could have been expressed yesterday, as could the marvellously named Brilliana Harley’s 17th-century concern that her student son Ned is not eating properly — ‘I haue made a pye to send you; it is a Kide pye. I beleeue you haue not that meate ordinarily at Oxford.’
While similarities delight us, the differences intrigue and sometimes horrify. Thank heavens we no longer have to deal with wet-nurses. It is a miracle John Stedman (1744-97) survived to write of the succession of ‘bitches’ who stole his baby clothes, dropped him on stones, ‘slept upon me until I was smothered’ and allowed a ‘moulder’d old brick wall’ to collapse on top of him. Wealth and blue blood did not guarantee you the pick of the wet-nurses. ‘She was only rather dirty till last night, when she was quite drunk’, reports Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; ‘this morning I learnt that she had been so drunk as to fall down and vomit.’
Neglect was not unique to wet-nurses. Parental indifference or disdain has fallen from fashion, but it is rampant in these pages. Augustus John, complains his wife Ida, ‘never said anything about [his son] David except “don’t spill it”.’ A 17th-century Catholic landowner tells his son of the arrival of a tenth little sister: ‘The thing is called Bridget … You may well think that this is not the way to get rich.’ The Victorian travel writer, Augustus Hare, was adopted in babyhood by a childless aunt. Hare’s mother greeted the suggestion with rapture: ‘My dear Maria, how very kind of you! … If anyone else would like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others.’
The book concludes with a substantial section on the death of children. Darwin’s grief for his brave ten-year-old Annie is well known, but the pain is still fresh on these pages. Susan Hill’s beautiful memoir of her premature daughter is a powerful 20th-century answer to the heartless clergyman to whom James Boswell turned to for comfort following the death of his newborn son in 1770: ‘You ought not, you cannot feel much for what you have lost.’
There’s less about early childhood than I’d expected, and rather too many letters of parental advice to adult children for my taste. ‘Through the ages’ really means ‘Since the Renaissance’; apart from the Paston letters, there’s little before 1500. Lane Fox is kind enough to quote me on my autistic sons, but examples about children with disabilities from earlier centuries would have been interesting. However, there is not really anything to complain about, because Lane Fox doesn’t claim to offer more than ‘a partial and personal view of the subject’. This is a charming anthology, shot through with a seriousness that makes it more than just a stocking-filler.