|The Author of "Mamma's Kindness to Me"|
at an even more tender age
Here’s a good example. Lots of children make little books, with illustrations, for their own amusement or that of their parents. Some, perhaps, even dream of growing up to be authors (cough cough), but the things they write at the age of six are unlikely to be of publishable quality, and though they may be kept long enough for their parents to embarrass them by showing them to future boyfriends or girlfriends they are unlikely to be handed reverently down the generations. They’ll be lost in moves, or discreetly binned, or simply fall to pieces, long before that happens.
Not so with my family. Here then is a volume penned by my grandfather in a pocket account book, circa 1890: Mammas’s Kindness to Me by M. C. Butler, author of Little Things to Read on Sundays. Evidently this was not his first production, and like any good author he hopes to pique his readers’ interest by reminding them of past literary triumphs.
This is followed by several pages of closely argued prose extolling Mamma’s many virtues, which include her assiduity in providing religious instruction and her financial generosity: “One of the things is, she gives me lessons, and each time she gives me halfpennies, or even pennies when I do my lessons very nicely, although she has not half the money I have.”
Money is a recurrent theme: my great-grandfather was a curate, and the family had come down in the world somewhat. Mamma not only makes and mends young Montagu Christie’s clothes: “She nurses and heals me and pays a very great deal of money for the doctor to come and make me well, I am sure!”
Eventually our author begins to run out of steam. The last refuge of the writer who's running out of things to say? Make a list! Note the subtle legerdemain of "4. Feeding me; 5. Reading to me; 25. Twenty other things."
We are now beginning to wish we hadn't made the book quite so long...
Oh, what a perfunctory postcript for Papa!
What especially intrigues me about this book is its combination of strangeness and familiarity. The language is quaint and the religiosity unfamiliar to most British people today. But the urge to make little books is one I recognize, as well as some of the shifts used to bring them to a hasty conclusion once the well of inspiration has run dry. The pictures are particularly interesting, since they are so exactly like the pictures drawn by children of that age today, and probably every other day. I’m no psychologist, but I find it startling to see the same blobs and blocks that loomed from my own children’s early efforts mirrored here in their great-grandfather’s drawings of more than a century earlier, differentiated only by Mamma's full skirts and a few late-Victorian props: a piano; a medicine bottle; and, of course, a sampler reading “Jesus Wept”.