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The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 29997

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

In the families of the well-to-do few influences have a greater effect upon the child, and so upon the man, than that exercised by the servants of the household in which he or she is brought up. And of those influences, upstairs or downstairs, none, of course, is so potent as that of the nurse. That is what Goethe would call one of the secrets that are known to all. Why it should ever be regarded as a secret Heaven knows; yet it must be so considered, for it is very seldom spoken of except in the case of nurses.

Anyway, I and my brothers, and in our earlier years my sister, were quite as fortunate in our nurse as we were in our parents and in our home. Her name was Mrs. Leaker. She was not married, but bore the brevet rank always accorded to upper servants of her position. She played many parts in our family household, and always with a high distinction. She began as nurse; she next became cook; then housekeeper; then reverted for a time to nurse, and then became something more than housekeeper because she ruled over the nursery as well as over the kitchen, the store-room, and the housemaids' room. But whatever her name in the household, and whatever her duties, she was always in fact head-nurse. She loved children, and they loved her, though not without a certain sense of awe. She had a fiery temper; but that fieriness was reserved almost entirely for grown-up people. A child, if it knew the proper moment for action, could do anything it liked with her.

Taken altogether, she was one of the most remarkable women, whether for character or intellect, that I have ever come across. In appearance she had, what can be best described as, the gipsy look, though she did not believe herself to have gipsy blood. Her complexion was swarthy, her hair was black, and her eyes dark and full of an eager and scintillating brightness which made her face light up and change with every mood of her mind and radiate a vivid intelligence. If anyone who knew her was asked to state the most memorable thing about her, I am sure the answer would be, "mobility," both of mind and body. There was a quickness as well as a lightness in her step-I hear it as I write-in the gestures of her hands and her head, and indeed in everything she did.

Let nobody suppose for a moment that this was a case of paralysis agitans, or St. Vitus' Dance. There was nothing involuntary in her unrest. It was all part of an intense vitality and an intense desire for self-expression. When she was in one of her worst tempers, she would pace up and down a room, turning at each wall like a lion in a cage, in a way which I have only seen one other person effect with equal spirit and unconsciousness. That was an eminent statesman, in the moment of great political crisis. Her nature was so eager and so active, and seemed to be so perpetually fretting her body and mind, that anyone seeing her in middle life would have been inclined to prophesy that such agitations must wear her out prematurely and that she had only a short life before her, or else an imbecile's end.

Yet, as a matter of fact, she lived in good health till over eighty, and to the last moment retained the full control of her faculties. She died, as might any other old person, of bronchitis. In truth, she was an example of Sir Thomas Browne's dictum that we live by an invisible flame within us. As a matter of fact, her flame was anything but invisible. It was remarkably visible. It leapt, and crackled, and gleamed, and took on, like the witch's oils, every colour in the spectrum. Now crimson, now violet, now purple, now yellow, glowed and flashed the colours of her mind.

[Illustration: Mrs. Salome Leaker,-"The Family Nurse."]

Mrs. Leaker was brought up in a poor household, in an age when illiteracy, alas! seemed the natural fate of the poor. But you could no more have kept education from her than you could have kept food from a hungry lioness. She was determined to get it somehow, and get it she did. She taught herself to read before she had reached womanhood, and taught herself by pure force of her will, adopting, curiously enough, what would now be described as the Montessori method. She opened books and read them somehow or other till she understood the meaning of the words. Her letters her mother had taught her. She often told me that nobody had taught her to read. When she had attained the power of reading, self-education was easy enough. It led to results of an amazing kind-results which at first sight seem to prove all the lore of the educationalists at fault. People, we are told, must be trained to like and understand good literature. Without that training they will never know the good from the bad.

Now read this story of an innate appreciation of good literature which she told me with her own lips. I asked her once, when I was a lad, what she thought of "Junius," who had begun to exercise a great influence over my rhetorical instincts. It was as natural to consult her on a point of literature as on one of domestic surgery. Her reply was perhaps the strangest ever made by a woman over sixty to a boy of undergraduate age. It ran in this way, for I recall her words.

When I was a girl, and a young housemaid in my first place at Mrs. Lloyd's, in Clifton, I used to have as part of my work to dust the library. When I was dusting, I used to take down the books and look at what was in them, and often got through a page or two with my duster in my hand. Once I took down a volume marked "Junius," and read a page or two, and as I read I began to feel as if I was drunk. In those days I had never heard of the Duke of Grafton or Lord Sandwich, or any of the other people he talks about, and I did not know what it all meant, but the words went to my head like brandy.

Now, I ask anyone with a sense of literature whether it would be possible to give a better lightning criticism of "Junius" and his style than that conveyed in Leaker's words. She had got the exact touch. "Junius," in truth, is not only empty for her, but empty for the whole world except as regards his style. There he is unquestionably great. Tumid, exaggerated, and monotonous as it often is, his style does affect one like wine. That is certainly how it affected, and still affects, me. Even at an age when I did not really know much more about the Duke of Grafton than did Leaker, and probably cared less, I had got the peroration of the first letter to the Duke of Grafton by heart. I used to walk up and down the terrace, or across the meadows that led to the waterfall, shouting to myself, or my bored companions, that torrent of lucid, thrilling invective. I mean the passage in which "Junius" gives advice to the University of Cambridge. They will, he hopes, take it to heart when they shall be "perfectly recovered from the delirium of an Installation," and when that learned society has become "once more a peaceful scene of slumber and thoughtless meditation."

How the waterfall gave me back the reverberating words! How the lime

trees rocked to the final crack of the whip over the unhappy Grafton!

"The learned dullness of declamation will be silent; and even the venal

Muse, though happiest in fiction, will forget your virtues."

But that was by no means her only achievement of literary diagnosis and the power to get hold of books somehow or other. When in the 'twenties she came to Bristol from Dartmouth, which was her home, with her mother and brothers (her father was dead), she travelled, as did all people with slender means in those days, in the waggon. These vehicles proceeded at the rate of about three or four miles an hour. All she could tell about her journey was that she lay in the straw, in the bottom of the waggon, and read Wordsworth's Ruth, The White Doe of Rylstone. She was, throughout her life, very fond of Ruth and this was her first reading. I have often thought to myself how much the great apostrophe must have meant to the lion-hearted, vehement, imaginative girl:

Before me shone a glorious world,-

Fresh as a banner bright, unfurled

To music suddenly.

In later life she had the poem by heart, and I venture to say that there was not a word of it that she did not understand, both intellectually and emotionally. But though she loved books and literature, it must not be supposed that she was indifferent to other forms of art. Anything beautiful in nature or art made a profound impression upon her. When Leaker first went to Paris, on our way to Pau or Cannes, I forget which, my mother sent her to the Louvre and told her specially to look at the Venus of Milo. She gave her directions where to find the statue; when she came back, she said to my mother:

I couldn't find the statue you told me about, but I saw another which is the most lovely thing in the world. I never thought to see anything so beautiful, and the broken arm did not matter at all, for she stood there like a goddess.

She had found the Venus for herself, although some fault in the directions had made her feel sure that it could not be what she had been sent to look at. Later on, when we took to going to France regularly for my mother's health, she every year did her homage to the Venus. What is more, when she went for the first time to Florence, she fully realised how poor a thing the Venus de Medici was in comparison.

But though, as I have said, all beautiful things appealed to her, literature was her first love and the element in which she lived. But literature did not in her case only mean Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, as it does to so many English people. She cropped all the flowers in the fields of literature, prose and verse. She was as intense an admirer of Shakespeare as was my father, and a greater lover of Milton. Shakespeare she lived on, including, curiously enough, Timon of Athens, who was a great favourite. When any lazy member of my family wanted to find a particular line or passage in Shakespeare, he or she would go to Leaker rather than trouble to look up the quotation in a concordance; Leaker was certain to find you at once what you wanted. There was no pedantry about her and no mere tour de force of the memory. She entered into the innermost mental recesses of Shakespeare's characters. What is more, she made us children follow her.

Though we were kept clean and well looked after, there was no nonsense in her nursery as to over-exciting our minds or emotions, or that sort of thing. She was quite prepared to read us to sleep with the witches in Macbeth, or the death-scene in Othello. I can remember now the exaltation derived, half from the mesmerism of the verse and half from a pleasant terror, by her rendering of the lines: "Put out the light, and then put out the light." I see her now, with her wrinkled brown face, her cap with white streamers awry over her black hair beginning to turn grey. In front of her was a book, propped up against the rim of a tin candlestick shaped like a small basin. In it was a dip candle and a pair of snuffers. That was how nursery light was provided in the later 'sixties and even in the early 'seventies. As she sat bent forward, declaiming the most soul-shaking things in Shakespeare between nine and ten at night, we lay in our beds with our chins on the counterpanes, silent, scared, but intensely happy. We loved every word, and slept quite well when the play was finished. We were supposed to go to sleep at nine, but if there was anything exciting in the play, very little pressure was required to get Leaker to finish, even if it took an extra half-hour-or a little more. In truth, she was always ready to read to us by night or day.

Though no Sabbatarian, she had a tendency to give Paradise Lost a turn on Sundays. As far as I remember, she never read Paradise Regained. Comus and the short poems, especially Lycidas, were great favourites with her. One might have supposed that she would not like Wordsworth. As a matter of fact, she loved him and thoroughly understood him and his philosophy of life. She did not merely read the lyric and elegiac poems like Ruth, but had gone through and enjoyed The Excursion and many of the longer poems. Coleridge she loved, and Southey, and Crabbe, and Gray, and Dr. Johnson, and indeed the whole of English poetic literature. In modern poetry she read freely Tennyson and Robert Browning, and admired them both.

Byron was a special favourite of hers, and here again she showed her intellect and her taste, not by worshipping the Eastern Tales or the sentimentalities of Childe Harold, but by a thorough appreciation of Don Juan. Her taste, indeed, was almost unfailing. Take a simple example. She used frequently to chant the delightful lines to Tom Moore, which begin:

My boat is on the shore,

And my barque is on the sea,

But ere I go, Tom Moore,

Here's a double health to thee.

Having a great deal of sympathy for scorn and indignation, she, of course, loved the last verse and implanted it deeply in my mind by constant quotation in tones of scathing intensity:

Here's a tear for those who love me,

And a smile for those who hate,

And whatever sky's above me,

Here's a heart for every fate.

That was her own spirit. Truly she had a heart for every fate. She was quite fearless.

Although she was not in the least a prejudiced person, I remember once, in the excitement of my own discovery of Swinburne, trying to create an equal enthusiasm in her mind. She returned me the book, however, without enthusiasm and with the trenchant remark that it made her feel as if she was in an overheated conservatory, too full of highly-scented flowers to be pleasant! She was not in the least shocked by Swinburne, and if you produced a good line or two you could win her approval, but the atmosphere was not sympathetic. Of Rossetti she was a little more tolerant, but she felt, I think, that there was not enough scope and freedom.

It is unnecessary to dwell upon the educational advantages of such a nurse, and of having the very best part of English literature poured into one's mouth almost with the nursery-bottle, and certainly with the nursery mug. If my friends find me, as I fear they sometimes do, too fond of making quotations, they must blame Mrs. Leaker, for when at her best she threw quotations from the English Classics around her in a kind of hailstorm. Some of the lines that had stuck in her mind were very curious, though she had forgotten where they came from. One specially amusing piece of Eighteenth-Century satirical verse I have never been able to trace. Perhaps if I put it forth here I shall find out whence it comes-very likely from some perfectly obvious source. The lines which were used to calm us in our more grandiose and self-conceited moods ran as follows:

Similes that never hit,

Vivacity that is not wit,

Schemes laid this hour, the next forsaken,

Advice oft asked, but never taken.

She had a couplet which she oft

en produced when the newspapers came out with some big social scandal or the coming to financial grief of some great family name. On such occasions she would mutter to herself:

Debts and duns

And nothing for my younger sons.

Another verse, though I quote it not the least to show her literary taste but because it was exceedingly characteristic of her, was in the spring-time always on her lips:

The broom, the broom, the yellow broom,

The ancient poets sung it,

And sweet it is on summer days

To lie at ease among it.

I could fill a book, and perhaps some day I will do so, with Leaker's reflections on men and things, and her epigrammatic sayings, and still more with her wonderful old sea-stories, especially of the press-gang, which she could almost remember in operation. Her father was, as she always put it, "in the King's Navy," and he had been "bosun" to a ship's "cap'n." He was at the Mutiny of the Nore, but was not a mutineer.

She was, however, full of stories about the Mutiny, which we found extremely exciting. She used to sing, or rather "croon" to us some of the mutineers' songs. One that I specially remember began with this verse:

Parker was a gay young sailor,

Fortune to him did not prove kind;

He was hung for mutiny at the Nore,

Worse than him were left behind.

After declaiming that verse to us, she would add in low tones that made one's blood run cold, "Men have been hung at the yardarm for singing that song. It was condemned throughout the Fleet."

That in itself seems a link with the past, but through Leaker I had a much more remarkable example of what, in spite of the smiles of the statistician, fascinated us all. Leaker, when about the age of sixty, brought her old mother, who was then ninety-four or ninety-five, to whom she was devoted, to live in one of the cottages at Sutton, the year being, as far as I can recollect, 1868 or 1869. I can distinctly recall the old lady. She was very thin and faded, but with all her wits about her, though weak and shy.

Leaker told us, with pride, that her mother, when she was a little girl, had sat upon the knee of an old soldier who had fought at Blenheim. This is quite possible. If old Mrs. Leaker was, as I think, only five years short of a hundred in 1869, she could easily have been in the world at the same time as a lad who had been at Blenheim in his eighteenth year. Old Mrs. Leaker was, I calculated, born about 1774. She would therefore have been six years old in 1780. But a man who was ninety-five in 1780 would have been born in 1685, and so twenty-nine in 1714, the year of Blenheim. Possibly some historical calculator will despoil me of this story. Meantime, I am always thrilled to think that I have seen a woman who had seen a man who had been in action with the great Marlborough at his greatest victory.

Before I leave my old nurse I must say something about a very curious and interesting attempt which, at my request, she made at the end of her life. It was to put down her recollections and reflections. Unfortunately, I made this request rather too late, and so the result, as a whole, was confused and often unintelligible. Still, the two little MS. books which she wrote contain some very remarkable and characteristic pieces of writing, and show the woman as she was. Although in her day she had read plenty of autobiographies, she makes no attempt to imitate them, or to write in a pedantic or literary style. As far as she can, she shows us what she really was. Leaker's heart beats against the sides of the little books just as I used to hear it when I was a child in her arms, either in need of consolation, with toothache or growing-pains, or else trying to give consolation, for she was often, like all fierce people, melancholy and depressed after her own fierce outbursts of anger.

Here is the very striking and characteristic exordium to her autobiography:

I have not had an unpleasant life, although I was an old maid, and was a servant for fifty years. I was a nurse and no mother could have loved her children more than I loved those I nursed. I had three dear, good mistresses, two of whom I left against their will.

The third and last was my mother, whom the old nurse outlived for many years.

Here is her account of the miseries endured by the poor after Waterloo- miseries which I often think of in these days, when I note the foolish, the demented way in which we are approaching our economic difficulties and dangers:

I am writing of the time a little after Waterloo. We were living at Dartmouth. Everything was very dear. We lived mostly on barley bread. We children were so used to it that we did not mind it, but my poor mother could never eat it without repugnance, and we always tried to make her get white bread, not knowing that she could not properly afford it. Many a time (so she told me in after-years) she made her supper off a turnip rather than let her children go hungry to bed. The cheapest sugar was then tenpence a pound, and the very cheapest tea quite as much as five shillings, but what I had to get for my mother was in very small quantities. We children never had it, nor, as far as I remember, cared for it. It was a treat when we could get milk to dip our bread in.

But though their poverty was so dire it did not kill the girl's joy in life or, wonderful to say, in literature:

Though we were very poor, my childhood seems pleasant to me as I look back, for my mother did all she could to make us happy. She went out sewing very often, and we were glad she should go, for she got better food than she could get at home, and what was, I believe, as much good to her, she sometimes got food for her mind. But, poor dear, she was always having a struggle with her conscience, and her love of what is called light reading, as being a Methodist she thought it wrong to read such books. She told me that when she was married she was given a new edition of all the Elizabethan plays, twenty-five volumes, beautifully bound. (I heard afterwards that a new edition was published at that time.) However, about the year 1818 she thought it right to burn them, although she was so fond of them. Yet when I was sitting at work with her she would tell me tales out of the plays. How vexed I used to be with her for burning them, poor dear loving mother! She taught me to read out of my father's large old Bible, and the Apocrypha was a book of wonder to me. She was fond of Young's Night Thoughts. Milton she read often; my father gave it to her; poor man, he thought it would please her. He was a sweet-tempered man, easy and kindhearted, but not clever like my mother. He once said to her when she laughed at him for some blunders, "Well, my dear, what can the woman with five talents expect from the man with one?"

Leaker had plenty of stories of the press-gang. Though she never herself saw it in operation, people not very much older told her of how they were "awakened in the night by people crying out that they had been taken."

Her mother, too, used to tell her heartrending stories about these times.

"I can hardly even now bear to think of the dreadful things done by the press-gang in the name of the law. I never hated the French as I hated them."

Needless to say, I inherited her hatred of the press-gang, and have maintained it all my life. It was the very worst and most oppressive form of national service ever invented, and I think with pride that my collateral ancestor, Captain George St. Loe (temp. William & Mary) was the first man in England who urged in his writings that the only fair way of making the nation secure was compulsory universal service.

Leaker's mother was early in her married life converted to Methodism. Some of her reflections on the smuggling that went on in and around the little Devonshire port give the lie to those foolish, ignorant, and shameless people who allege that because people are poor they cannot be expected to have any idea of what is called conventional morality in regard to "mine and thine." They will naturally and excusably, it is asserted, break any law, moral or divine.

That is not how it struck Leaker's mother:

There was a good deal of smuggling going on in the town when I was a girl, and one day a member of my mother's chapel brought some gay things for her to buy. Oh, how I did long for her to get me a pretty neckerchief, but she said, "No, my dear, I cannot buy it for you, as I do not see any difference in cheating a single man or a government of men. I believe that in the sight of God both are equally sinful."

Leaker says of her mother, "She had a large share of romance, and loved a tale of witches, or a love-story"-and so did her daughter. The supernatural gained fresh interest from her skilful story-telling, and the art of the raconteur still lives in her pages. Here is one of the best of her stories. Even now it gives a delightful sense of fear:

This story was told me by the mother of a friend of mine-Mrs. Jackson was her name, a ladylike woman, but who appeared to me to be very old when I was a girl. Her husband was sailing master on board a man-of-war, and this is what took place once when she was on board with him. They were in port, and there was a large party of friends and officers spending the evening on the ship, when a sudden storm arose, and no one could go on shore. They were going to amuse themselves with music, and a violin was brought, but a string broke before the instrument had been touched. "Never mind," said the captain, "I have a man on board who is a first-rate hand at deceiving the sight." Everyone was pleased at the idea of conjuring, and the man was sent for, and asked to show some of his tricks; but he said, "No, I can't tonight, as it is not a good time." Said the captain, "What is to hinder you?" "Well, sir, I do not like doing it this stormy weather." "That is all stuff and nonsense," replied the captain; "you must try. Come, set to work." So the man asked for a chafing dish, which was brought to him. There was a fire of charcoal in it. He said and did something (Mrs. Jackson did not tell us what), and after a while there appeared in the dish, coming out of the fire, a tiny tree, with a tiny man holding a hatchet. The tree seemed to grow from the bottom, and the little man chopped at it all the time. The performing man was greatly agitated, and asked one of the ladies to lend him her apron (ladies wore them in those days). Mrs. Jackson took off hers and handed it to him. He tied it on, and ran round the table on which the chafing-dish stood, catching the chips, and apparently in great alarm lest one of them should fall to the ground. She used to say it was painful to see the poor man's agony of fear. While this was going on the storm grew much worse, so that the people on board were afraid that the ship would be driven from her anchorage. At last the tree fell under the tiny man's hatchet, and nothing was left on the table but the chafing-dish. The conjuror gave back the apron, and then, turning to the captain, said, "Never from this night will I do what I have done tonight. You may believe me or not, but if one of those chips had fallen to the ground, nothing could have saved the ship, and everyone on board would have gone down with her."

When the old lady told this story she would say that she had distinctly seen the chips fly, and heard the noise of the chopping. She used to show the apron, which she never wore again, but kept, carefully put away, to be shown to anyone who liked to see it.

Can one wonder that the little man with his little axe and the little tree, and the unknown peril of death that came up from the sea, made a deep impression upon my mind, though not in any sense a haunting or unpleasant one? I longed to see the chips fly and the tiny tree bow to the sturdy strokes of the weird woodman.

Leaker's stories of ordinary witchcraft were many and curious, and though they cannot be set out here I must quote one or two lines in regard to them:

I do not think there was a place in the land so full of witches, white and black, as Dartmouth. My mother was, for her time and station, pretty fairly educated, yet she seemed to me to believe in them firmly.

The autobiography shows that when she was sitting alone, thinking and writing, the old nurse felt acutely the solitude and weariness of an old age that had outlived contemporaries as well as bodily faculties. When, however, the friends of another generation were with her, she never seemed too tired or too sad to enter keenly into all the interests of their lives. After a hopeful consultation with an oculist she writes:

Is it not strange, that when the most terrible trouble is a little better, what looked light in comparison with want of sight comes back as heavily as ever? How I wish I could be more thankful for the mercies I have and not be always longing for the unattainable.

Everyone who has lived through a great crisis has probably shared the old nurse's surprise at finding that smaller troubles, which for a while were reduced to nothingness, soon revive with our own return to ordinary life.

However [as she says] I will not go into reflections, but write of my young days. How all these things come back to me, a lone old woman who longs for, and yet is afraid of death. If I could only be sure, be sure! Is it possible there is no other state of being? Oh, God, it is too dreadful to think of.

Then she would turn to Paradise Lost, and how often have we not heard her repeat the lines:

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep Still threatening to devour me, opens wide, finding, as Aristotle would have said, relief and even comfort in the "purgation" through poetry, of the passions of pity and terror.

I will end my account of Leaker with one of her memories of happier moods in which we can feel the magic of spring laying hold on the vivid imagination of the bright-eyed Devonshire girl:

One early spring day I heard my eldest brother tell my mother that he had seen a primrose. She said, "Do not tell Salome, for if she knows there will be no keeping her at home." But I had heard, and that was enough. Early next morning away I went, rambling all day from field to field, picking primroses. First a handful of the common yellow ones, then some coloured ones, and did ever a Queen prize jewels as I did those coloured flowers? But the joy in them only lasted a little while. I would next see some white ones, and then the coloured ones were thrown away, and I would set to work to gather the pale ones. Oh, how beautiful they looked! I can see them now, and almost feel the rapture I felt then. It makes me young again-almost. My dear mother used to say, "What do you do with all the flowers you pick? You never bring any home." I do not know what I did with them, but the joy of picking them was beyond expression. Have I ever felt such joy or happiness since?

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