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   Chapter 4 MY FATHER

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 32099

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I delay too long the picture of my father. Perhaps unconsciously I have been trying to avoid describing him, for I know the difficulty of the task and dread producing something unworthy. Important as were our home and traditions, our family, our friends, and our mode of life, they are as nothing in my making when compared to the influence of such a man as he was.

I shall not attempt to describe my father's physical appearance, for that has been done with sympathy, felicity, and power of presentation in my brother's portrait here reproduced. I will say only that he was slight of build and short of stature. He is standing in the little Great Hall at Sutton, in his black overcoat and hat, ready for one of those walks on the terrace which he took from his earliest childhood. He was born in the old house in 1812. It was not, however, till the year 1819 that he first came to live at Sutton. His earliest recollection was, as he used to tell us, playing on the terrace with the great ginger- coloured tom-cat, "King George." We always supposed this feline magnifico to have derived from some stock imported by the first Sir Henry when he was Master of the Household to George III. As my readers will see, King George's successor, in the true "mode" of his race, sits in a purely detached manner in the middle of the polished oak floor near, but in no special relation to his master, or rather, dependent, for no cat has a master though many have dependents.

But unstinted, unconditional eulogy is bound to end in flattery, and my father was much too good a man and too simple a man to be exposed to even the hint of such a taint. Though he would take sincere praise and sympathy with the pleasure of a wholly unaffected nature, the best courtier in the world would have found it impossible to flatter him.

I shall, therefore, be particular to draw clearly such faults as he had. Also I shall tell them first, though I know they will have a tendency to change into eulogy as I proceed. In truth, his faults, such as they were, endeared him only the more to people who understood him.

He did not always show complete equity in judgment, though I admit, and I think the majority of mankind would admit, that there was something essentially noble, if unpractical, in the way in which this want of equity was shown. So tender was his heart, so passionate his hatred of cruelty, so profound his chivalry, that he was apt to have his intellectual balance unduly affected by any tale of suffering inflicted by the strong on the weak, or by any accusation of wrong done to women or to children. When he heard such a tale he was too little inclined to show the worldly wisdom of the man who says, "Let us wait and hear all the facts. It may be a mere cock-and-bull story."

Instead, his attitude always reminded me of that of some eager knight- errant, on fire to accomplish his duty and to succour helpless damsels and all persons in distress. He always assumed that a call for succour came from a deserving object, if only it was agonising enough. He would post off, as it were, lance in rest and vizor down, upon the slightest rumour of wrong or cruelty. No woman suffering, or alleged to be suffering, from the cruelty of a husband, would ever call for his sympathy in vain. It was, however, cases of cruelty to little children that most tended to overwhelm his judgment. His burning horror at the mere idea of such deeds knew no bounds. A wife might to some extent be able to protect herself from the brutalities of her husband, but what chance had a helpless, friendless, terrified child, incapable even of running away from its tormentors, or of making an appeal for protection to outsiders? Those who have lived on unkindness and terror ever since they became conscious, cannot even console their poor little hearts with imaginary visions of happiness.

[Illustration: Sir Edward Strachey in the Hall at Sutton Court with his

Favourite Cat. (From a picture by his son, Henry Strachey.)]

The unhappiness of a tortured child is a thing not to be thought of. It scorches the mind like a blast of sulphur.

Not only as a magistrate was my father's voice always raised on the side of the women and children. He would always listen to any mother who came to protest against the cruelty of the village schoolmistress to her offspring. The cruelty of the teacher was almost as unendurable to him as that of a bad father or husband. He would not hear of any justification for rapping school-children over the knuckles with a ruler. If one ventured to say that there were such things as demon- children and that they had a power to probe and prod even the best of good people into a kind of frenzy in which they were hardly accountable for their acts, the plea roused his deepest indignation. Indeed, it was only at some sort of suggestion like this that I ever saw my father really angry. Then, and only then, he would flare up and reply that this was the sort of excuse that people always made to cover cruelty, wickedness, and injustice. Grown-up people were much too ready to invent plausible grounds for the oppression of children. "Serve you right," was never heard to fall from his lips by any child.

That he was justified in the general, if not in the particular, case, I fully realise. Indeed, I and all his children, I think, look back now with the sense that even if we sometimes criticised him (I admit, only very slightly) on this point, we were and remain proud that he was splendide in-judex.

Let no one suppose that because my father was a saint, as undoubtedly he was, his general attitude towards life was of the priggish or puritanical kind. It was nothing of the sort. Was not one of his favourite characters in Shakespeare the immortal Mrs. Quickly?

He was a very fastidious and reticent man in matters of the spirit, unless you approached him definitely and in earnest on a particular point. Then he would talk freely, and showed a marked liberality of soul. A courtly eighteenth century divine, though probably nobody would in reality have had less in common with my father, might have described him as "a thoroughly well-bred man in matters of religion." In spite of the fact that he was brought up amongst the Evangelicals and understood them and shared their better side, nothing, I feel sure, disgusted him more than their way of living in their spiritual shirtsleeves.

I can imagine his horror at the habit of the Clapham sect of "engaging" (i.e., engaging in prayer), in season and out of season. "Shall we engage?" the Evangelical Pietist, whether a clergyman or a layman, would say at the end of some buttered-toast-and-pound-cake tea-party, and then everyone would be expected to flop down on their knees and listen to an extemporary appeal to their Maker!

My father was full of stories of the men of his own time and of the men of former times, of historical allusions and analogies. He abounded in pregnant sayings culled from English, from Greek and Latin, and also from Persian, for he had learned the French of the East when he was at Haileybury studying for the Civil Service of the Honourable East India Company. Also he was fairly well-read in some branches of French literature and knew enough Italian to translate a quotation from Dante or from Tasso. He was also deeply read and deeply interested in Biblical criticism and in the statecraft of the Old Testament. His book on "Hebrew Politics" was hailed by theological students of liberal views as a real contribution to Biblical exegesis.

This all sounds like the record of a scholar. Yet he was not a scholar but a man with a most active and creative interest in his own world and his own time. Politics was his master-passion in things secular, and he followed every turn of the political wheel, not merely with the interest of a spectator, but with that of a man whose heart and mind were both deeply concerned. He was a Party Liberal, and also a liberal in the very best sense, and full of the most earnest zeal for the people's cause. My only quarrel with him here-if it was a quarrel-was that in his anxiety to support what he believed to be the cause of the people he was in effect anti-democratic.

On this point I was wont to chaff him, for there was no man with whom you could more easily argue without hurting his feelings. I would put it like this:

You think of the people and your duty to them in too much of a grand seigneur manner for me. You seem to want to find out what they want, and then do it, whether it is right or wrong, out of a patronising sense of moral benevolence. I, on the other hand, am a true democrat because I regard myself as one of the people-a creature with just as many rights as they have. Their opinion, if it is the opinion of the majority, will of course prevail, and ought to prevail, and I shall loyally acquiesce in it. But I am not going to do what I think unwise, as you appear to think I should, because somebody has put a ticket on the back of a certain view and declared it to be the popular view. It may quite well turn out that the alleged popular view is not popular at all, but is scouted by the majority.

That, of course, was, and was meant to be, a parody of his attitude, but it was one which he never resented, though he would not admit its nearness to the truth.

I shall not give the supreme characteristic impression of the man if I do not tell something about his stories, and give some specimens of his table-talk, especially as I have felt very strongly, though it may be difficult to transfer the impression, that his general talk, quite apart from his example and direct teaching, had a potent influence upon my character, and so upon my life.

To begin with, he was an ideal talker to children and young people, because, besides leisure, he had an innate kindliness and sympathy with the young which made him always anxious to put himself and his mind and heart at their disposal. He was in a perpetual mood to answer any questions, however tiresome and however often repeated. As he was a man of wide reading, of good memory, and almost an expert in many kinds of knowledge, we as children had something of that incomparable advantage for which I have always envied royalty. They are able to learn by the simple process of talking to people who know. That is not only the easiest road to knowledge, but if your teacher is no charlatan a more vivid impression is made upon the mind than is made by books.

If you went to my father and asked him who Aurungzebe was, or Hereward the Wake, or Masaniello, or Edward Keen, or Callimachus, or Titus Oates, or Dr. Chalmers, or Saint Januarius, he would tell you at once something vivid and stimulating about each of them, something which remained in your mind. Often his answer would lead to other fascinating and delightful discoveries for the questioner. I will take a couple of examples at random. When I asked him about Masaniello, he not only told the story of the insurrection among the lazzaroni at Naples, but he launched out into accounts of his own experience of Naples in the 'forties and of the crowds of picturesque and starving beggars and banditti who in those days still infested the city and its horrible and putrescent lanes and alleys. The Naples of the Bombas, in which he had spent two or more winters, was always a delightful source of anecdote. I could fill a book with his talk about Neapolitan nobles who let two apartments in their Palaces with only one set of furniture, and of the Neapolitan boatmen who formed the crew of the boat which he kept in the Bay, for he was too great an invalid to walk. Especially did we love to hear of how he was carried up Mount Vesuvius in a "litter"-a word which he always used. It thrilled me. It seemed to make the whole scene Roman and magnificent. One thought of Pliny going to observe the great eruption, of Cicero, of Pompey, of Seneca, carried down to Bai? in their curtained chairs. My other example is Callimachus, the Greek, or rather, Alexandrine poet of the Decadence. The mention of his name brought in its train an excellent story derived from my father's uncle, the second Sir Henry Strachey, the squire whom he succeeded at Sutton. The story runs as follows. When the said great-uncle, as a boy just come out to India, went to dine with the great Orientalist, Sir William Jones, in his house in Calcutta (circa 1793), Sir William quoted to him a couple of lines out of Callimachus' Hymn to Apollo, which he had hurled at the head of Burke when the great Whig tribune threatened that he would get him (Sir William Jones) recalled if he continued to support Warren Hastings. The lines quoted from the obscure Greek poet he translated to the young civilian, Henry Strachey. "In reply, I reminded Burke," he said, "of the lines in the Hymn to Apollo: 'The Euphrates is a noble river, but it rolls down all the dead dogs of Babylon to the sea.'"

My father was wont to point out that, as a matter of fact, Jones's memory was not quite accurate. If you look at the Burke correspondence, you will see the dignified letter in which Jones replied to Burke. In it he makes no direct reference to the orator's threat, and only uses the first line of Callimachus, which he turns into a compliment. He is sure, he declares, that the mighty torrent of Burke's eloquence will always be used in the defence of a friend. Perhaps he thought that, if Burke looked up the passage, he would be snubbed as it were automatically.

When, however, Jones told the story twelve years afterwards he did what we are all inclined to do in such circumstances. He imagined himself much more valiant and much more ready to take a great man by the scruff of his neck and shake him, than he really was. We are all heroes in our memories. By the way, it was Callimachus who wrote the epigram on the death of Heraclitus which was made immortal by the translation of the author of "Ionica." It is, I hold, the best poetic translation in the English tongue.

Of the distinguished people with whom my father was personally acquainted in his earlier days, among the most memorable were Carlyle and Edward Irving. Carlyle was tutor to my father's first cousin, Charles Buller, later to be known as "the young Marcellus of the Whig Party." Of Carlyle he had many stories. Curiously enough, I might have seen Carlyle myself, for when I was about fifteen or sixteen he was still alive, and my father offered to take me to see him in Chelsea. With the cheery insolence of youth, I weighed the question in the balance and decided that I did not want to trouble myself with the generation that was passing away. I can still remember, however, that what almost moved me to accept my father's proposal was the fact that Carlyle was actually born in the 18th century, and before Keats. Edward Irving had made a vivid impression upon my father, though he only saw him, I believe, at the age of seven or eight. He could distinctly remember Irving taking him upon his knee, holding him at arm's length, looking into his face, and saying, in his deep, vibrant orator's voice: "Edward, don't ye long to be a mon?" Evidently the impression made upon my father by the words, or rather the way in which they were spoken, was profound. The incident always reminded me of that wonderful story told by Crabbe Robinson the Diarist. As a young man, Crabbe Robinson went to see one of the trials in which Erskine was engaged as Counsel. All he could remember of the speech was Erskine leaning over the jury-box and in low tones, full of meaning and tremulous with passion, uttering the commonplace words: "Gentlemen of the Jury, if you give a verdict against my client I shall leave this court a miserable man!" So profound was the influence of the orator that Crabbe Robinson tells us that for weeks afterwards he used to wake with a start in the middle of the night, saying over to himself the words: "I shall leave this court a miserable man."

Another contemporary well

known to my father was Peacock, the novelist, for Peacock was also an official in the India House and so a colleague of my grandfather, Edward Strachey.

Of my father's religious views, though they deeply affected my own, I shall speak only very shortly. He was, above all, a devout man. Pure in heart, he earned the promised blessing and saw God throughout his days on earth. The fatherhood of God and the imminence of the Kingdom of Heaven were no empty words for him. But, though he was so single-minded a follower of Christ and His teachings, he was no Pharisee of the New Dispensation; the sacerdotalism of the Christian Churches was as hateful to him as the sacerdotalism of the Jews was to Christ. He was concerned with the living spirit, not with ritual, or formularies, or doctrinal shibboleths. His mind was open to all that was true, good, and generous. He asked for free and full development of the soul of man. "The cry of Ajax was for light," was one of his best-loved quotations.

He welcomed the researches of scholarship in the foundations of religion, as he did of science in the material world, and of philosophy in the things of the mind. Though he loved to worship with his fellows, and was a sincere member of the Church of England, the maxim nulla solus extra ecclesiasm filled him with horror. It was the worst of blasphemies.

His teacher was Frederick Maurice, but in certain ways he went further than that noble-hearted, if somewhat mystical, divine. It would have been an absurdity to ask my father whether it would not be better to give up Christianity and try instead the faith of Christ. That was always his faith. For him religion meant a way of life, a spiritual exaltation-not going to church, or saying prayers, or being sedulous in certain prescribed devotions. His creed was a communion with, and a trust in, God, through Christ. Above all, he had an overmastering sense of duty.

He was sensitive in body and mind to a high degree, and so may have seemed to himself and other observers to be like Mr. Fearing in Banyan's Dream. But I remember that when Mr. Fearing came to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, no man was happier or braver. The river had never been so low as when he crossed it. The Shining Ones had never made an easier passage for a pilgrim. So it was with my father. He had all his life dreaded the physical side of dissolution. Yet, when Death came he was wholly calm and untroubled. It is designedly that I do not say he was resigned. Resignation implies regret. He had none.

I do not think I can more fitly sum up the impression made by my father than by quoting the epigram of Martial on "Felix Antonius."

To-day, my friend is seventy-five;

He tells his tale with no regret;

His brave old eyes are steadfast yet,

His heart the lightest heart alive.

He sees behind him green and wide

The pathway of his pilgrim years;

He sees the shore and dreadless hears

The whisper of the creeping tide.

For out of all his days, not one

Has passed and left its unlaid ghost

To seek a light for ever lost,

Or wail a deed for ever done.

So for reward of life-long truth

He lives again, as good men can,

Redoubling his allotted span

With memories of a stainless youth.

The version I have taken is that by Sir Henry Newbolt, and undoubtedly it is one of the best examples extant of the transference of the spirit of a Latin poem into English. My readers, however, will no doubt remember that this epigram was also translated into English by Pope. Though the modern poet's version is to be preferred, the older translation contains one of the most felicitous lines written even by Pope.

It is needless to say that I realise the essential inappropriateness of joining my father's name with that of Martial. It is, indeed, a capital example of the irony of circumstance that I am able to do so. But, after all, why should we be annoyed instead of being thankful, when bright flowers spring up on a dunghill? Certainly, my father would not have felt any indignity. He was the least superstitious and also the least sophistical of men. If a thing was worthy in itself he would never call it common or unclean on a punctilio.

If, while dealing with my father's influence on my life, I were not to say something about the influence of my mother, I should leave a very false impression. My mother was a woman of a quick intelligence and of a specially attractive personality. To her we children owed a great deal in the matter of manners. My father gave us an excellent example in behaviour and in that gentleness, unselfishness, and sincerity which is the foundation of good breeding. My mother, who was never shy, and very good at mental diagnosis, added that burnish without which good manners often lose half their power. What she particularly insisted on was the practice of that graciousness of which she herself afforded so admirable an example. Naturally, like a good mother, she always reproved us for bad manners, or for being unkind to other children, or selfish, or affected, or oafish, or sulky. Her direst thunders, however, were kept for anything which approached ill-breeding. Giving ourselves airs, or "posing," or any other form of juvenile vulgarity, were well-nigh unforgivable sins.

But she did not content herself with inculcating the positive side of good manners. She was equally strong on the negative side. For example, if there was a party of farm tenants, or cottagers, a school-feast, or anything of the kind, both when we were small and half grown-up, she insisted that we must never dream of keeping in a corner by ourselves. We must go and do our duty in entertaining our guests. No excuses of shyness or not liking to talk to people one didn't know, or suggestions that they would think us putting on side if we went up to them, were allowed for a moment. The injunctions we received were that, at a party in our own house, we must never think of our own pleasure or enjoyment, but must devote ourselves wholly and solely to the pleasure of our guests. The sight of anyone sitting moping in a corner and looking bored or unhappy was the destruction of a party. Such persons, if seen, must be pounced upon at once, amused, and made much of, till they were perfectly happy, as "the guests who got more attention than anybody else." In a word, we were taught that the strength of the social chain is its weakest link. It was quite safe to leave the big people, or the big people's children, to look after themselves. The people to be made much of and treated like royalty were those who looked uncomfortable or seemed to feel out of it. The result was that my mother's parties were never a failure. Though her ill-health never allowed her to be a hostess on a big scale, her parties, whether in Somersetshire or at Cannes, were always voted delightful. Everyone, from Somersetshire farmer or clergyman, to the notables of a Riviera winter resort, owned her social charm. As an example of it, I remember how one winter, which we spent at Bournemouth, for my mother's health, the invalid's drawing-room became at once the centre of a memorable little society, consisting, as far as I remember, of people whom we had never known before. There was a delightful old Mr. Marshall, of the Marshalls of the Lakes, who used to come and play whist with her, and with whom we boys sometimes rode. Though he was about eighty, he kept up his riding and liked to have a boy to ride with him. Another old gentleman, attractive in his manner, in his dress, and in his kindly, old-fashioned dignity, was Lord Suffolk. He dressed like "the Squire" in the old Punches. He wore a low-crowned, broadish-brimmed hat, Bedford cord breeches and gaiters, and a light-brown or buff cloth coat and waistcoat. He had two invalid daughters, and these, if I remember rightly, were the cause of the family having a villa at Bournemouth.

It was, however, either at the house-parties at Chewton or at Strawberry Hill, which were hardly considered complete by Lady Waldegrave without my mother, or else again at Cannes in her own villa that she made her main impression upon people of the greater world. Though of good parts, she was not in any sense intellectual. I never heard her attempt to say brilliant things or epigrammatic things, or to talk about books or historic people.

She was, like so many charming women, perfectly natural and perfectly at her ease, and full of receptive interest. When she talked it was always to draw out her interlocutor and never to show off her own cleverness. She was quite as popular, indeed I had almost said more popular, with women as with men, and had as great a fascination for young people as for old. I remember well our pleasure in being told of a letter written by one of the big London hostesses who had come out to Cannes, made my mother's acquaintance, and fallen a charm to her winning voice, her warm regard, and her gracious eyes. She had written to a friend, saying, in effect,

What on earth did you mean by not telling me more about your cousin, Lady Strachey? She turns out to be one of the most delightful people I have ever met, and yet you never breathed a word about her. Why did you want to keep her to yourself? Through your selfishness I have missed three or four weeks of her.

It is notoriously difficult to describe charm, and I shall make no attempt, except to say that my mother's spell did not consist in good looks in the ordinary sense of the word. She had a witching expression, an exceedingly graceful carriage of her head and body, and a good figure; but her face was so mobile and so entirely governed by her smile that photographs and pictures were always pronounced as "impossible" and "utterly unlike."

Though she was in no sense nervous, the attempt to sit for her picture seemed at once to break the spell and destroy that "beau regard" which was, I feel sure, the secret of the pleasure she spread around her. No doubt she took trouble to please, but she had the art of concealing her art. No one ever criticised her as "theatrical" or "artificial."

Her children fully felt her charm. Looking back, I can now see that she, most wisely, took as much trouble to fascinate us as she did the rest of the world. She would not mind this remark, for she was no naturalist, but held that you ought to take as much trouble to be polite and to give pleasure to your nearest and dearest as to strangers. Anyway, we were never allowed to be rude or careless to her, or to anybody else merely because they were well-loved relations. We never failed to get up from our chairs when she entered the room, or to open doors for her, or to show her any other physical form of politeness. But she did not inculcate this by anything approaching harshness, or by a sharp tongue. All she did was to make us feel that we were uncouth bores, to be pitied rather than condemned, if we failed in the minor politenesses.

No doubt she was assisted here by the fact of being an invalid, and also by the good example which my father set us. He was one of the best-bred of men as well as one of the noblest and most simple-hearted. I shall never forget the patient courtesy with which he would treat some old village woman who was positively storming at him in regard to alleged grievances. His politeness, however, never had in it any studied element. Nobody could ever have said that he was overdoing it. Again, there was no inverted snobbishness about him. He was quite as polite to a great lady as to a cottager's wife.

I will undertake to say that in his whole life he had never shown off-a thing which could be said of very few men, but which, after all, is the secret of all good breeding.

But to return to my mother. She also never showed off, though with her the art of pleasing and being pleased was very carefully studied. She inherited this quality from her father, Dr. Symonds. She also found in him her example for the exact conduct of the social code. I remember her saying that, though her father was a very hard-worked doctor, and often had to take meals quickly and at odd times, he made it an absolute rule, no matter how busy he was, never to get into a rush, or be fussed, or do things in a huggermugger way. If he came in late and tired, he would eat his dinner as quietly and decorously as if he had got several hours before him. Everything had to be done decently and in order. He would not dream of getting up from his chair if he wanted an extra spoon or fork in a hurry, but would either send one of his children to get it for him or else ring the bell for the butler.

This was not an attempt at grandeur, but due to a feeling that if he once got into chaotic ways he would go to pieces. Probably he felt the necessity all the more from the fact that he was a widower and might the more easily have dropped into untidy and slovenly household ways.

I have no time to dwell on my mother's most intimate friendship with Lady Waldegrave and with their habit of writing daily letters to each other, and of the social and political life which my mother shared with her friend as well as her health would permit. For my present purposes, what matters, though it sounds abominably egotistical to say so, is the effect of my mother upon my character and life. Unquestionably the fact of her being an invalid was a great lesson. In the first place, it did a great deal to educate her children to be unselfish. It was a rule of the house that everything was to be sacrificed to my mother's comfort, for she was often not only in great pain but dangerously ill. My father was, in any case, the most unselfish of men, but we might have regarded that, as children often will, as a kind of personal quality of his own, like a lame knee, or a dislike of draughts, or a fondness for cold mutton, or other simple forms of living. When we saw his daily and hourly sacrifice of himself to my mother and that tenderness of heart which never failed him, we must have been made of rock or oak not to be inspired by an example so noble and fraught with so magnificent a pathos. We showed badly in comparison with our father, but still we had him always before us, and if we were ever tempted to exhibit selfishness or want of consideration to my mother, his devotion was a standing, though never an open, rebuke, and brought the bitterest remorse.

My mother maintained the true dignity of the sickroom. She never complained either of the hard fate which chained one who loved the world and its amusements so much to her bed, nor, again, did she ever cherish or show the slightest grievance if we had seemed unkind or had not done what she would have liked us to do. It is needless to say that the effect of this was exactly what she would have desired, though not admitted even to herself, for she was not a person at all self-conscious or self-analytical in these matters.

The fact remains that people who are brought up in a house with an invalid, where that invalid has the love, respect, and devotion of the head of the home, get a valuable lesson. There is more than that. The sight of pain and suffering and the imminence of sorrow and danger, if it be not too terrifying, is good for children. It makes them early acquainted with the realities of life and its essential sternness. Then, when death or sorrow makes its inevitable descent, the child is prepared to meet it, or knows, at any rate, the spirit in which it ought to be met. Those who have never seen Death or heard the swing of his scythe, till he suddenly bursts upon them, or upon those they love dearly, are greatly to be pitied. They have not learnt the art of quietening the soul in face of an inexorable command.

Timor mortis is a reality, and we can be, and ought to be, prepared for it. The sick-room, if children are made to understand its significance in a wise and kindly spirit, and through the conduct of such people as my father and my mother, is a teacher of no mean order.

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