Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Cloud That Seemed to Hang Over All of Us

Bryher on her childhood reading:

I am inclined to think now that much of the best writing of late Victorian times went into children’s literature. It is a myth to suppose that the nineteenth-century child felt particularly secure, the stories were mostly in the Zola tradition and stressed suffering, poverty and the evils of drink. I had one extraordinary volume largely taken up with an account of a small boy’s struggles not to compete with his drunken father in emptying tankards of porter. A Bible teacher saved him, of course. There were also grim accounts of disaster through a father’s death leaving the family without funds when dogs and possessions had to be sold and the children scattered as “poor relations” among harsh and unforgiving aunts. Such a fate was usually ascribed to the indulgence of the parents. They had given the family a pony or a trip to the seaside instead of saving every penny against a possible “rainy day.” The cloud that seemed to hang over all of us in a far more sinister way than any horror of giants or dragons has been brilliantly described by Dorothy Richardson in the opening pages of Pointed Roofs. Her account of the disruption of a family through the father’s failure in business differs only by the maturity of its writing from one of the major themes of our childhood fiction. It was essentially religious in character; what we had to-day might be gone to-morrow. I was ever afraid of animals or the dark but I always began to tremble when I heard that trade was bad.


Whenever I hear now of conferences to determine the vocabulary to be used in books for children and of the care taken not to upset their delicate imaginations, I can understand why they prefer their horror comics to literature. Our age treated us properly. The world was a harsh place and the sooner we learned the difference between good and evil the better. Ludicrous as some of the stories were, they spoke of realities and this was healthy.

(From Bryher, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, 1963.)

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