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   Chapter 3 MY PHYSICAL HOME, MY FAMILY, AND MY GOOD FORTUNE THEREIN

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 24009

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The autobiographer, or at any rate the writer of the type of autobiography on which I am engaged, need not apologise for being egotistical. If he is not that he is nothing. He must start with the assumption that people want to hear about him and to hear it from himself. Further, he must be genuinely and actively interested in his own life and therefore write about it willingly and with zest. If you get anywhere near the position of an autobiographer, "invitus," addressing a reader, "invitum," the game is up.

It would, then, be an absurdity to pretend to avoid egotism.

It would be almost as futile to apologise for being trivial. All details of human life are interesting, or can be made interesting, especially if they can be shown to be contributory to the development of the subject on the Anatomy-table. The elements that contributed to the building up of the man under observation are sure to be worth recording.

The autobiographer who is going to succeed with his task must set down whatever he believes went to the making of his mind and soul, and of that highly composite product which constitutes a human being. Nothing is too small or too unimportant to be worthy of record. But people to whom criticism is a passion and who love it even more than life, and they are often very valuable people, will say, "Are we not, then, to be allowed to dub your book trivial, if we think so?" Of course they must have that license, but they must make good the plea of triviality, not in the facts but in the exposition. There no man has a right to be trivial, or empty, or commonplace. Whatever is recorded must be recorded worthily.

Take a plain example. If I set forth to describe my crossing Waterloo Bridge on a particular day in a particular year, I must not merely on that ground be attacked for triviality. I may be able to show, in the first place, that the crossing by that bridge and not, let us say, by using Hungerford Bridge or Blackfriars Bridge, affected my life. I may also be able to describe my walk or drive in such a way that it will make a deep impress upon the reader's mind. In a word, to get judgment against me, the critic must demur, not on my facts but on a point of literature, that is, on my method of presentation.

In considering the multitude of things which have gone to make me what I am, which have drawn into a single strand the innumerable threads that the Fates have been spinning for me ever since they began their dread business, what strikes me most of all and first of all is my good fortune. I may, on a future occasion, complain that in middle life and in later life I did not have good luck, but bad luck, but I should be an ingrate to Destiny if I did not admit that nothing could have been more happy than the circumstances with which I was surrounded at my birth- the circumstances which made the boy, who made the youth, who made the man.

Above all, I was fortunate in my father and my mother. Though I must put them first in honour on my record, as first in time and in memory, I can show them best by touching in a preliminary study on those surroundings, moral and intellectual, into which I was born.

[Illustration: View of the North Front of Sutton Court, in the County of

Somerset, the Family House of the Stracheys.]

In the first place, I count myself specially happy in that my parents were people of moderate fortune. They were not too poor to give me the pleasures and the freedoms of a liberal education, and of all that used to be included in the phrase "easy circumstances." Ours was a pleasant and leisurely way of life, undisturbed by the major worries and anxieties of narrow means.

On the other hand, my home surroundings were not of the pompous, luxurious kind which makes nothing moral or physical matter very much, which drowns a man in security. I knew what it was to want a thing, and to be told that it was much too expensive to be thought of. I knew I should have to make my way in life like my ancestors before me, for not only was my family in no sense a rich one, but I was a second son, who could only look forward to a second son's portion,-an honourable distinction, this, and one of which my father and my mother were often wont to speak.

I had, in a word, all the pride of a second son, a creature devoted to carving his own way to fame and fortune. I will not say that my parents wanted to console me for being a second son and for seeing my elder brother inherit the estate and Sutton the beloved, for that was never thought of or dreamt of by them, or by me. On the contrary, I was told in all sincerity, and firmly believe now, as I did then, that though somebody must keep the flame alight on the family altar, where it was lighted so long ago, and though this duty fell to the eldest son, I need not envy him. He was tied. I as a younger son was left free, untrammelled, the world before me. If I was worthy of my fate, the ball was at my feet. Such was the policy of younger sons, and so it was handed on to me.

Again, I was fortunate in being brought up in the country, and not in London or near some great town;-in being, that is, the inmate of "an English country-house" in the accepted sense, a place to which a certain definite way of life pertains, especially when the house is not bought, but inherited, and is regarded with a peculiar veneration and admiration by all who live in it.

The love of some old "house in the country" constitutes a family freemasonry, of which those who have not actually experienced it can form no conception. It unites those who differ in opinion, in age, in outlook on life, and in circumstances. It is the password of the heart.

Call a dog-kennel Sutton, and I should love it. How much more so when it stands beside its sheltering elms and limes, with its terraces looking to the blue line of Mendip, its battlemented and flower-tufted fortress wall, and its knightly Tower built for security and defence.

In a word, I had the supreme good-luck to be born the second son of a Somersetshire squire and to be brought up in a Somersetshire country- house. If the reader would know what that means to a Somersetshire man, let him turn to Coryat's Crudities and see what the Elizabethan tourist says in his Introduction as to the possession of a Manor in the county aforesaid.

But I must be careful not to give a false impression. Sutton is no palace in miniature, no grandiose expression of the spacious days of Elizabeth, no pompous outcome of Vanbrugh's magnificent mind, no piece of reticent elegance by Adams. Instead, it may well seem to the visiting stranger little more than a fortuitous concourse of mediaeval, Elizabethan, Jacobean, and modern atoms, which time and the country builder, too unlearned to be vulgar, have harmonized into a very moderate, though admittedly attractive, "country seat," of the smaller sort.

Just as the house had nothing grand about it, so the life lived in it was not in the least like that described in the old-fashioned sporting or Society novel, or in the Christmas Number of an Illustrated Paper or Magazine. Neither my home nor my family was by any means "typical," which so often means very untypical. This is specially true of the Family. They were not in my time, and, indeed, never have been, persons "complete with" fox-hounds, racers, cellars of port, mortgages, gaming or elections debts, obsequious tenantry, and a brutal enforcement of the Game Laws, varied by the semi-fraudulent enclosure of the poor man's common. With such rural magnificoes, if they ever existed in that form, which I greatly doubt, we had nothing in common. Even when reduced to reasonable limits, the picture will not fit the majority of English country-houses and country gentlemen.

In the first place, the Stracheys could not afford the type of life depicted by the novelists and satirists, and, in the second place, they had not the opportunity. Their eldest sons always had to do something in the world, and even when in possession of the estate were by no means inclined to spend their lives as nothing but sportsmen. Certainly my ancestors never showed any inclination to vegetate, or to live gun in hand and spaniel at heel, like the squires in the old engravings and colour-prints.

Here I may say parenthetically that we have the good luck to possess many old family papers at Sutton. I used to read long and happily in these as a boy, and early saw the falsehood of the conventional, feudal view of the English squirearchy. When I worked back to the mediaeval possessors of Sutton, I could find nothing to satisfy my youthful dreams of knights in armour doing deeds of prowess, or even of tyranny upon "the villagers crouching at their feet." Instead, I found, with some disappointment, I admit, that the very first record in regard to Sutton was that of a dispute in the law-courts with the local parson-a dispute which is, of course, perennial in all villages and "quiet places by rivers or among woods." It is as active now as it was in the twelfth century.

Whether Sir Walter de Sutton, with half a knight's fee, for that, apparently, was the proper legal description of the Sutton Court estate, got the best of the Vicar, or the Vicar of him, does not seem to have been recorded. Anyway, they went for each other, not with lance in rest, on the one side, and Holy Water, bell, book, and candle on the other, but with attorneys, and writs, and motions in arrest of judgment, and all the formulae which can be seen at work in the Year Books of Edward II, for that was the date of the Tower, and of the aforesaid Walter de Sutton.

As I shall show later, when I come to deal with my ancestry, Sutton was never a "Heartbreak House." In each succeeding generation it held the place which it held when I was young, and which, Heaven be praised! it still holds. A small, comfortable, yet dignified manor-house, surrounded by farmhouses and cottages in which live still just the kind of people who have lived there throughout the period of legal or of literary memory-the period described as that to which "the memory of man runneth not to the contrary."

The village people were poor, but yet not dependent; people not, perhaps, very enterprising, and yet with a culture of their own; and people, above all, with natural dignity and good manners shown to those they like and respect, though often with a conventional set of bad manners to use, if required, as armour against a rough world. These are always produced when they are inclined to suspect strangers of regarding them with patronage, ridicule, or contempt.

At this day I could show a rural labourer living in one of the Sutton Court cottages, aged eighty-three or so, who lived there when I was a boy and looked then, to my eyes, almost exactly as he does now. Tall, distinguished, with not merely good manners but a good manner, and with real refinement of speech, though a strong Somersetshire accent, Israel Veal would show nothing of himself to a stranger. Probably he would speak so little, though quite politely, that he would be put down as "one of those muddle-headed, stupid yokels with little or no mind," who, according to the townsman, "moulder" in country villages "till they become demented."

Yet when, a year ago, I introduced my son to him, though my son was, till then, unknown to him, he at once talked freely. He had got the password and knew all was safe and well. He proceeded at once to tell him what he had often told me-how he had "helped to put Sir Henry" (my father's uncle, whom he succeeded) "into his coffin." He then went on to describe how (in 1858) the coffin was carried on men's shoulders the whole way to Chew Magna to be buried there in the Strachey Chapel. The event set down in cold print does not sound of very great interest or importance. It will seem, indeed, at first hearing to partake a little too much of the countryman of the melodrama, or of the comic papers, who alw

ays talks about funerals and corpses. As a matter of fact, however, Israel Veal has so little self-consciousness and possesses such a gift for dignified narration that, told by him, the story, if indeed it can be called a story, always seems of real significance. There is something of the air of the prophet about the narrator, though he indulge in no prophecy. I found myself, indeed, saying to my son, "I am so glad you have heard that as I used to hear it," quite imagining for the moment that it was a piece of family lore of high import which was being sacramentally passed on by the old retainer.

At Sutton, though I was not brought up in a hunting-stable, or amid a crowd of gamekeepers, and so forth, we had the usual establishment of a country-gentleman of moderate means in the 'seventies. My mother had a comfortable, heavy landau, with a pair of quiet horses, still officially and in bills called "coach-horses." My father had a small brougham of his own for doing magistrate's work, drawn by a horse believed to be of a very fiery disposition, and called "Black Bess." I and my brothers had ponies on whose backs we spent many hours. My father had been an invalid most of his life, and, owing to a stiff knee, could not ride. But, though an anxious parent, he wisely realised that an Englishman must if possible know how to use the back of a horse. Ours was a bad riding country, owing to the great number of small fields, but we galloped up and down the roads with a youthful lack of consideration for our horses' legs. Curiously enough, there were no hounds near us, and therefore I never actually rode to hounds till I was forty. Happily, however, I was familiar with the saddle, and, though an exceedingly careless rider, had not, even after nearly twenty years' intermission of riding, to re-learn my grip.

Even now, to get on a horse and ride through woods and lanes and over Downs and Commons is an enormous pleasure, and if a mild jump or two can be added I am transported into the Seventh Heaven. To me the greatest of all physical enjoyments has always been the sensation produced by a horse with all four legs off the ground.

There was another aspect of the country-house, which I am sure was not without its effect. My father, though he knew little or nothing about agriculture, was to a great extent his own agent, and therefore the farmers and the cottage tenants were constantly coming to the house to consult him and to talk over small matters. There also came to him pretty frequently people on police and magistrate's business, to get warrants signed, so that the offenders could be legally held till brought before the Petty Sessions. At these interviews, whether economic, administrative, or constabulary, I and my brothers were permitted to attend. While my father sat at his table in what was called "the magistrate's room," or "Sir Edward's business room," and the other persons of the drama either sat opposite him, if they were merely on business, or stood if they were accompanied by a policeman, we children sat discreetly on a sofa on my father's side of the room and listened with all our ears.

It was always interesting and curious, and occasionally we had a real piece of dramatic "fat," in the shape of charges of witchcraft. Assaults or threatening language "likely to cause breaches of the Peace" were also regarded as highly diverting. Charges of witchcraft were usually levelled by one old lady against another. One might hear accounts of how intrepid men and women nailed down the footsteps of the witch, of how deadly-nightshade was grown over the porch of a cottage to keep off witches, and how evil spirits in the shape of squeaking chickens frequented the woman who was "overlooked." My father did his best to make peace and subdue superstition, but it was quite easy to see that his audiences, especially when they were women, regarded him as a victim of ignorance. "Poor gentleman, he don't understand a word about it." That was their attitude.

Lastly, my country home had what so many English country-houses have, a largish library. The hoary tradition that English squires are as a class illiterate, which they are not even when inordinately given to sport, has no foundation. In the Great Parlour, for so it was called, there were plenty of good books, and I was early turned loose among them. My father would have thought it a crime to keep books from a boy on the plea that he might injure the bindings or lose the volumes or get harm from unlicensed reading. I did exactly what I liked in the library and browsed about with a splendid incoherence which would have shocked a pedant, but delighted a true man of letters. Now I would open the folio edition of Ben Jonson, now Congreve's plays and poems printed by Baskerville; now a volume of "Counsel's Brief delivered in the defence of Warren Hastings Esqre. at his impeachment," which we happened to possess; now Travels to the Court of Ashanti; now Chinese Punishments; now Flaxman's Illustrations to the Iliad, the Odyssey, or Dante.

Those were glorious days, for one had real leisure. One varied the turning over of books in the Great Parlour with a scamper on one's pony, with visits to the strawberry bed, and with stretching oneself full- length on a sofa, or the hearth-rug in the Hall, reading four or five books at a time. In such an atmosphere it was easy to forget one's proper lessons and the abhorred dexterity of Greek and Latin grammarians.

If the physical "aura" of Sutton Court was delightful and stimulating to mind and body, still more stimulating and of still happier chance was the mental atmosphere. I may class myself as thrice-blessed in being brought up in Whig ideas, in a Whig family, with Whig traditions, for in spite of the stones, intellectual and political, that have been thrown at them, salvation is of the Whigs. When I speak thus of the Whigs I do not, of course, mean Whiggism of the Whig aristocracy as represented by modern Tory historians, or by the parasitic sycophants of a militant Proletariat. I mean true Whig principles-the principles of Halifax, of Somers, of Locke, of Addison, and of Steele-the principles of the Bill of Rights and of "the Glorious Revolution of 1688";-the Whiggism which had its origin in the party of Cromwell and of the Independents, of John Milton and of Richard Baxter, the party which even in its decadence flowered in England in Chatham and William Pitt, and in America in Washington, John Adams, and the founders of the Republic. Whig principles to me mean that the will of the majority of the nation as a whole must prevail, and not the will of any section, even if it is a large section and does manual work. These are the principles which are in deadly opposition to Jacobinism and Bolshevism. Under Jacobinism and Bolshevism, as their inventors proclaim, true policy must be made to prevail by force, or fraud, if necessary. Privilege is claimed for the minority. Oligarchy, and a very militant form of oligarchy, thus takes the place of true democracy.

But though the will of the people, be it what it may be, must prevail, the Whig claims absolute liberty in all matters of personal opinion and of conscience, and advocates the greatest amount of liberty procurable in social action. He will not sanction direct action in order to secure even these things, but he asserts the right of free speech in order to convert the majority, when it needs converting, to his views, and will not rest till he obtains it. Never persecute a man for his opinions as long as he does not proceed to lawless action. Maintain freedom against a lawless crowd as steadfastly as against a lawless crown. Never refuse a man an impartial hearing, and never judge a man guilty till he has been proved so. These are the true Whig principles, and in these I was brought up.

It is true that my father, yielding not unnaturally to the fashion of his day,-the fashion of decrying the Whigs-would always call himself a Liberal rather than a Whig, and, indeed, Whiggism in his youth was often little better than a specially bad type of Toryism. As soon, however, as I began to study history in any detail, that is not in handbooks, but in the originals, I soon saw that he was one of the best of Whigs, whether in matters of State or Church. Moderation, justice, freedom, sympathy with suffering, tolerance, yielded not in the form of patronage but in obedience to a claim of right which could not be gainsaid-these were the pillars of his mind.

Who will deny that it was good fortune to be brought up in these views and by such an expounder? As I looked at the pictures that hung on the walls in the Great Hall (not very great, in fact, though bearing that name), I remembered with a glow of pride that it was on these principles that my family had been nourished. William Strachey, the first Secretary to the Colony of Virginia, would, I felt, have been a true Whig if Whig principles had been enunciated in his time, for the Virginia Company was a Liberal movement. John Strachey, his son, stood at the very cradle of Whiggism, for was he not the intimate friend of John Locke? Locke in his letters from exile and in his formative period writes to Strachey with affection and admiration.

To my glowing imagination John Strachey thus became the unknown inspirer of Locke, and therefore, perhaps, the inspirer and founder of the Whig philosophy. The son of Locke's friend, though the West Country was, as a rule, hopelessly Tory and full of Squire Westerns, stood firm by William and Mary and George I. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, the second John Strachey must have been a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, the mighty Whig of Science.

There were also Cromwellian ancestors on the distaff side. Indeed, though once more not in the ordinary conventional sense, the aura of Sutton was a Whig aura.

Though the aura of Sutton Court had a strong effect upon me morally and intellectually, the emotional side of me was even more deeply touched. The beauty and fascination of the house, its walls, its trees, and its memories, made, as I have already said, so deep an impression upon me that to this hour I love the place, the thought of it, and even the very name of it, as I love no other material thing. By nature I am not among those who become permanently attached to objects. It is true that I love my own home in Surrey, a house which I built, as it were, with my own hands. I love the scenery; I love it also as the place where my wife and I went as young people, and as the place where my children were born, but the thought of it does not touch me emotionally as does the thought of Sutton. What I have felt about Sutton all my life, I shall feel till I feel no more on earth. But that will not be all. I am convinced that I shall in some sense or other feel it in some other place. The indent on my soul will not be effaced.

I have touched on some of the chief things, natal and prenatal, which went to the making of my mind before I began to shape that mind for myself. Every man must do this, for whatever be the stars in his horoscope or the good fairies who preside over his cradle, they can only give, as it were, "useful instructions" and a good plan of the route. They leave him also plenty of opportunities for muddling those instructions and plunging into every kind of folly that they showed him how to avoid. In the last resort, a man is his own star and must make his own soul, though, of course, he has a right, nay, a duty, to give thanks for all good chances and happy circumstances. At any rate, I must now approach the time at which I took control of myself, and of the magic boat that had been built and equipped for me by others. Had I been fully conscious when I started on my own voyage, it should have been with a devout gratitude that my ship, at any rate, had not been rigged in the eclipse, and that I set sail under so bright a sky and with so prosperous a gale behind me.

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