How Not to Parent Very Large Families: An Old Bachelor’s View

Young characters in eighteenth-century children’s books have a reputation for being preternaturally well-behaved goody-goodies.  That stereotype probably contains some truth, but we don’t have to dig very hard to find contemporary writers besides Jane Austen who showed that not all  adults were natural managers of children and households. Descriptions of parents in over their heads turn up in magazine essays and I ran across one in the July 1799 European Magazine.  “The Wanderer” number 15 was supposedly contributed by a cranky bachelor, but is actually the work of Joseph Mosher (1748-1819), one of the magazine’s regular writers.  It’s a fascinating mash-up of half-examined gender expectations, details about the material culture of childhood, and stereotypes about “savages” that were thought comical then.

Before telling about his dinner at the home of his boyhood friend Frank Homely, “Solus” the bachelor gives the backstory.  Years before he and Frank both fancied Rachel Barnaby, a farmer’s daughter, but Frank won her heart in just two months. Luckily Solus never revealed his passion and left England almost immediately after his disappointment for fourteen years.  Shortly after his return, Frank sent him an invitation to visit his lovely wife and their little family of seven sons and seven daughters.  Solus anticipates the pleasure of being entertained by an affectionate, rational couple who preside over an elegant establishment where the children are seen and heard when only when admitted to the company.

I repaired to Mr. Homely’s house, and was shewn into his study, which, instead of being furnished with books and maps, was strewed round with go-carts, dolls, whistles, penny trumpets, and “cheap publications.”  I  thought this rather strange furniture for a library….Scarce had I made this reflection, when my ears were alarmed with a tremendous sound, which, ascending the stair-case, and bursting open the study door, exhibited four of my friend’s sons and six of his daughters, shouting like wild Americans, with their arms strongly fastened with cords, and urged forward by another of the hopeful race, who brandished a whip over his head;…this gentle pastime, it seems, they called “playing at horses.”  The infant banditti had paced round the room, and thrown down three chairs in their progress, when the second horse in the team fell down, and was dragged by his playful associates along the floor, in spite of his angry cries and remonstrances. 

The floor sounds as if it were ankle-deep in inexpensive toys, the baby walkers (i.e. go-carts), and chapbooks (i.e. “cheap publications”), giving the impression that children took over their father’s library long before. If any further proof were necessary, eleven of the children burst in, as noisy as “savages” ( as Native Americans were then erroneously considered), pretending to be a team of horses drawing a carriage.  It sounds as if the coachman was applying his whip to his siblings’ backs to make them go faster around the room.  Their lack of respect for property provokes Solus to compare them as well to a lawless band of robbers (i.e. “infant banditti).  Of course, their play ends in tears and roars.

It required all the authority of their father to quell this hideous din, who shortly made his appearance; and notwithstanding the increased wrinkles on his brow, welcomed me with a cordial shake of the hand, and led me upstairs to the drawing room, to introduce me his wife. The drawing room had discarded all superfluous ornaments, and boasted a negligence and plainness that Diogenes might not have been ashamed of. In one corner two mischievous urchins had torn open a new pack of cards, and were building houses with them. In another stood a cradle and cawdle cup; while rush-bottomed chairs, backboards, steel collars and stocks, usurped the place of candlelabrums, silk hangings, and mirrors. 

A drawing room is supposed to be a handsome space where adults socialize, but at the Homelys it has been childproofed (i.e. emptied of furniture and objects needing protection from clumsy, careless, high-spirited members of the family) and is instead full of more the children’s things that belong more properly in the nursery.  Equipment for improving posture like backboards, steel collars and stocks indicates parental aspirations that their children to carry themselves with fashionable grace.  Could their resting place on the floor betray the little victims as having taken the first opportunity to throw off the wretchedly uncomfortable things.?On my entrance, Mrs. Homely shook two children from her lap, and one from her shoulder, and arose to welcome me; exhibiting to my astonished view the once slender Rachel converted into a broad clumsy dame, with all the marks of premature old age.  After the usual ceremonies I took my seat, and now my torments commenced.  One child fastened my button with packthread to the back of the chair; another pierce the calf of my leg with a black pin; while a third insisted upon mounting behind me, and swinging by my pig tail.  I bore these tortures with the firmness of an American captive, hoping that the call to dinner would put an end to my sufferings.

Solus’ observations here must test many modern readers’ notions. While it is natural to be taken aback when seeing an old acquaintance changed almost beyond recognition, Solus’ description of Rachel’s body after bearing so many children seems ungentlemanly and unkind.  Comparing himself to a hostage tortured by Native American captors is now inappropriate, even if the Homely’s children were misbehaving.  Certainly, they ought to be have been stopped by one of their parents.

But my expectations were vain… though I confess my sufferings were alleviated by observing that the rest of the company came in for their share.  Mrs. Homely sat at the head of the table with a rickety child on her knee, and insisted, like an indulgent mother that she was, that none of her numerous brood should seat themselves at the board, which caused all the dine and disturbance that I expected.  Two butter-boats were overset on the satin breeches of Mr. Deputy Maroon; the immaculate muslin of Miss Bridle was fated to receive the contents of a wine glass; and, to complete the calamity, a fine leg of pork was entirely flayed, that the children might devour the skin, under the significant name of crackling.  My friend, not quite reconciled to matrimonial trammels, seemed rather disturbed at this scene of folly and confusion; but his help-mate, who had long buried politeness, and even decency, in the vortex of one instinctive passion, love for her offspring, was delighted with the bustle, and “would not have the poor things snubbed for the world.”  She looked round upon her distorted brood with exultation, even priding herself upon their defects, and appeared to think that she had obtained a dispensation from rule and reason from the sole circumstances of having favoured the world with fourteen children.

After surviving a meal so disorderly, Solus was entitled to be exasperated and disappointed.  And yet it seems incredible he would cast Mr. Homely as the victim of his wife’s failure as a mother. The figure of overly fond mother who does not restrain her children’s unmannerly and self-destructive behaviors goes back in English literature at least to the seventeenth century and usually the father is not considered an equally guilty party to the spoiling of the children.  When the wife’s parenting makes life miserable for everyone in the house as well as anyone who visits them and the father does nothing to correct the course, then he has failed his children as much as she has.

Although Mosher’s essay contains distasteful stereotypes, he also points the finger at some very familiar shortcomings parents can fall into when outnumbered by their offspring and overwhelmed by their energy.  Gentle readers of this blog may have experienced something like dinner at the Homelys  while trying to enjoy a quiet meal in a nice restaurant or catch up with friends in their apartment on a night no babysitter was available.  Perhaps they know someone who has been provoked to write to an agony aunts for advice about how to alleviate the miseries of such social situations.

Party with the Parts of Speech: The Infant’s Grammar by Elizabeth Ham

In 1945 Eric Gillett published an unfinished manuscript of memoirs by Elizabeth Ham (1783-1859), the daughter of a yeoman, under the title Elizabeth Ham by Herself 1783-1820.   Gillett said somewhat condescendingly that the vivid account of the woman’s experiences was appealing because of “her struggles to make a life of her own, to be of use to someone.  Without training or business ability, but with educational and literary gifts above the average, ….and desperately conscious of her gentility, she was badly handicapped from the beginning.”

Ham made this all too clear in the stories she told on the mistresses of the dame and boarding schools she attended.  This horribly comic one underlines best just how irregular the quality of discipline and instruction for girls could be during this period:

The great punishment was to have a bow of black ribbon pinned on the sleeve.  I remember having a great dread of the “black knot,” and having one morning incurred the punishment, roared out most lustily.  As ill luck would have it, my cousin was strolling near and hearing the outcries of her darling, rushed in to the rescue.  She caught me under the arms to bear me away, but Aunt Sukey’s authority was not to be so condemned, she seized me by the heels whilst my cousin kept fast hold of my shoulders.  I really though I should be pulled to pieces between them.  I well remember the enflamed visages of the ladies as they tugged at me.  Their passion frightened me more than the black knot had done.”

It is to Elizabeth Ham’s credit that in spite of experiences like these (or perhaps because of them), she succeeded in composing an instructive poem for children that was informative, imaginative, and infused with gaiety: The Infant’s Grammar, or A Pic-nic Party of the Parts of Speech (1824).  She may have been familiar with the poems Donelle Ruwe has called “papillionades.”  They describe different kingdoms of creatures trying to outdo the others with splendid entertainments, which would so delight readers that they would be tricked into learning something about the range, classification, and character of the various costumed animals from the way they made their entrances, danced, and behaved at the midnight supper.  Famous examples are William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1806), or Catherine Ann Dorset’s 1807 companion pieces, The Peacock at Home  and The Lion’s Masquerade,Ham’s sociable parts of speech, who are not competing with rival concepts, throw a “pic-nic,” which then referred to what we would call a potluck, where all the guests contribute something to the feast.  However, Ham says nothing about the refreshments being a communal effort.  The event takes place indoors at Etymology Hall during the evening, not during the day in the open air, additional confirmation that the word’s meaning was in flux. Ham was not pleased with the liberties Harris’s illustrator (possibly Robert Branston) took here and there interpreting her verses.  Probably the most notable discrepancy is he changed the season from winter to summer and time of day from night to the day.  Yet the article “The” shown above  bears an entirely superflous  torch to light the guests way in.  While Ham conceded that the illustrator had improved her original drawings in some places, she did not approve of his having costumed her characters in “fancy dress” inspired by the current vogue for Elizabethan fashion. Another addition that might have irked her was the insertion of  a tragedy queen center stage between Harlequin and the graceful dancer, a complete fabrication.  She appears to have been modelled upon the actress Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, one of her most celebrated roles.Ham speculated that the anonymously published poem, for which she received nothing,  sold well enough over thirty years to have made her financially independent. With a modest income, she would not have been obliged to earn her bread as a  governess or housekeeper employed by a wealthy family.  This could be either wishful thinking or anecdotal knowledge based on her having kept a sharp eye on the contents of booksellers’ shelves.   I have found an advertisement in an 1845 novel for an edition published by Harris’s successor, Grant and Griffith, that is later than anything found by Marjorie Moon, the bibliographer of Ham’s publisher John Harris.  It’s not idle speculation to imagine that the Infant’s Grammar of Ham might have been sold as a companion piece to the equally charming  Punctuation Personified; or Pointing Made Easy by Mr. Stops (below to the right), which was also first issued by Harris in 1824.

She surely would have been very angry to learn that another contemporary woman writer for children, Madame Leinstein, quickly produced plagiaries of both The Infant’s Grammar  and Punctuation Personified for Harris’s rivals, Dean & Munday and A. K. Newman and Co. later in 1824 to capitalize on their success.  Leinstein (about whom nothing is known)  dubbed her version of The Infant’s Grammar The Rudiments of Grammar  and only a page-by-page comparison of the two pamphlets can establish the literary theft.   In  Leinstein’s text, the school mistress Miss Syntax takes her scholars to a country fair, which seems quite different from Ham’s picnic of the parts of speech.  But the school’s facade and the two children in frontispiece to Leinstein have some suspicious similarities to the illustration of Etymology Hall in Ham..Is it a coincidence that Leinstein’s nouns are arrayed in Elizabethan finery and accompanied by an explanatory text very similar to Ham’s?  This is probably the most blatant of a series of borrowings:Leinstein’s page on the interjection is a clumsy adaptation of one of the best sections in the Infants Grammar .  Where Ham skillfully brings the party to a close with the poor housemaid  looking at the mess the merry parts of speech have left behind them,  Leinstein tacks on a superflous episode about Miss Syntax’s students relieving a poor girl.For Ham, who dreamed of independence,  Leinstein’s imitation surely would not been flattery, had she known about it.  Leinstein’s attempt to cut into her sales surely would have another bitter reminder of money she should have had. Well-a-day indeed…