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An essay by Max Beerbohm

"The Visit": A painting by George Morland

Title:     "The Visit": A painting by George Morland
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]



Never, I suppose, was a painter less maladif in his work than Morland, that lover of simple and sun-bright English scenes. Probably, this picture of his is all cheerful in intention. Yet the effect of it is saddening.

Superficially, the scene is cheerful enough. Our first impression is of a happy English home, of childish high-spirits and pretty manners. We note how genial a lady is the visitor, and how eager the children are to please. One of them trips respectfully forward--a wave of yellow curls fresh and crisp from the brush, a rustle of white muslin fresh and crisp from the wash. She is supported on one side by her grown-up sister, on the other by her little brother, who displays the nectarine already given to him by the kind lady. Splendid in far- reaching furbelows, that kind lady holds out both her hands, beaming encouragement. On her ample lap is a little open basket with other ripe nectarines in it--one for every child.

Modest, demure, the girl trips forward as though she were dancing a quadrille. In the garden, just beyond the threshold, stand two smaller sisters, shyly awaiting their turn. They, too, are in their Sunday- best, and on the tiptoe of excitement--infant coryphe'es, in whom, as they stand at the wings, stage-fright is overborne by the desire to be seen and approved. I fancy they are rehearsing under their breath the `Yes, ma' am,' and the `No, ma'am,' and the `I thank you, ma'am, very much,' which their grown-up sister has been drilling into them during the hurried toilet they have just been put through in honour of this sudden call.

How anxious their mother is during the ceremony of introduction! How keenly, as she sits there, she keeps her eyes fixed on the visitor's face! Maternal anxiety, in that gaze, seems to be intensified by social humility. For this is no ordinary visitor. It is some great lady of the county, very rich, of high fashion, come from a great mansion in a great park, bringing fruit from one of her own many hot- houses. That she has come at all is an act of no slight condescension, and the mother feels it. Even so did homely Mrs. Fairchild look up to Lady Noble. Indeed, I suspect that this visitor is Lady Noble herself, and that the Fairchilds themselves are neighbours of this family. These children have been coached to say `Yes, my lady,' and `No, my lady,' and `I thank you, my lady, very much'; and their mother has already been hoping that Mrs. Fairchild will haply pass through the lane and see the emblazoned yellow chariot at the wicket. But just now she is all maternal--'These be my jewels.' See with what pride she fingers the sampler embroidered by one of her girls, knowing well that `spoilt' Miss Augusta Noble could not do such embroidery to save her life--that life which, through her Promethean naughtiness in playing with fire, she was so soon to lose.

Other exemplary samplers hang on the wall yonder. On the mantelshelf stands a slate, with an ink-pot and a row of tattered books, and other tokens of industry. The schoolroom, beyond a doubt. Lady Noble has expressed a wish to see the children here, in their own haunt, and her hostess has led the way hither, somewhat flustered, gasping many apologies for the plainness of the apartment. A plain apartment it is: dark, bare-boarded, dingy-walled. And not merely a material gloom pervades it. There is a spiritual gloom, also--the subtly oppressive atmosphere of a room where life has not been lived happily.

Though these children are cheerful now, it is borne in on us by the atmosphere (as preserved for us by Morland's master-hand) that their life is a life of appalling dismalness. Even if we had nothing else to go on, this evidence of our senses were enough. But we have other things to go on. We know well the way in which children of this period were brought up. We remember the life of `The Fairchild Family,' those putative neighbours of this family--in any case, its obvious contemporaries; and we know that the life of those hapless little prigs was typical of child-life in the dawn of the nineteenth century. Depend on it, this family (whatever its name may be: the Thompsons, I conjecture) is no exception to the dismal rule. In this schoolroom, every day is a day of oppression, of forced endeavour to reach an impossible standard of piety and good conduct--a day of tears and texts, of texts quoted and tears shed, incessantly, from morning unto evening prayers. After morning prayers (read by Papa), breakfast. The bread-and-butter of which, for the children, this meal consists, must be eaten (slowly) in a silence by them unbroken except with prompt answers to such scriptural questions as their parents (who have ham- and-eggs) may, now and again, address to them. After breakfast, the Catechism (heard by Mamma). After the Catechism, a hymn to be learnt. After the repetition of this hymn, arithmetic, caligraphy, the use of the globes. At noon, a decorous walk with Papa, who for their benefit discourses on the General Depravity of Mankind in all Countries after the Fall, occasionally pausing by the way to point for them some moral of Nature. After a silent dinner, the little girls sew, under the supervision of Mamma, or of the grown-up sister, or of both these authorities, till the hour in which (if they have sewn well) they reap permission to play (quietly) with their doll. A silent supper, after which they work samplers. Another hymn to be learnt and repeated. Evening prayers. Bedtime: 'Good-night, dear Papa; good-night, dear Mamma.'

Such, depend on it, is the Thompsons' curriculum. What a painful sequence of pictures a genre-painter might have made of it! Let us be thankful that we see the Thompsons only in this brief interlude of their life, tearless and unpinafored, in this hour of strange excitement, glorying in that Sunday-best which on Sundays is to them but a symbol of intenser gloom.

But their very joy is in itself tragic. It reveals to us, in a flash, the tragedy of their whole existence. That so much joy should result from mere suspension of the usual re'gime, the sight of Lady Noble, the anticipation of a nectarine! For us there is no comfort in the knowledge that their present degree of joy is proportionate to their usual degree of gloom, that for them the Law of Compensation drops into the scale of these few moments an exact counter-weight of joy to the misery accumulated in the scale of all their other moments. We, who do not live their life, who regard Lady Noble as a mere Hecuba, and who would accept one of her nectarines only in sheer politeness, cannot rejoice with them that do rejoice thus, can but pity them for all that has led up to their joy. We may reflect that the harsh system on which they are reared will enable them to enjoy life with infinite gusto when they are grown up, and that it is, therefore, a better system than the indulgent modern one. We may reflect, further, that it produces a finer type of man or woman, less selfish, better-mannered, more capable and useful. The pretty grown-up daughter here, leading her little sister by the hand, so gracious and modest in her mien, so sunny and affectionate, so obviously wholesome and high-principled--is she not a walking testimonial to the system? Yet to us the system is not the less repulsive in itself. Its results may be what you please, but its practice were impossible. We are too tender, too sentimental. We have not the nerve to do our duty to children, nor can we bear to think of any one else doing it. To children we can do nothing but `spoil' them, nothing but bless their hearts and coddle their souls, taking no thought for their future welfare. And we are justified, maybe, in our flight to this opposite extreme. Nobody can read one line ahead in the book of fate. No child is guaranteed to become an adult. Any child may die to-morrow. How much greater for us the sting of its death if its life shall not have been made as pleasant as possible! What if its short life shall have been made as unpleasant as possible? Conceive the remorse of Mrs. Thompson here if one of her children were to die untimely--if one of them were stricken down now, before her eyes, by this surfeit of too sudden joy!

However, we do not fancy that Mrs. Thompson is going to be thus afflicted. We believe that there is a saving antidote in the cup of her children's joy. There is something, we feel, that even now prevents them from utter ecstasy. Some shadow, even now, hovers over them. What is it? It is not the mere atmosphere of the room, so oppressive to us. It is something more definite than that, and even more sinister. It looms aloft, monstrously, like one of those grotesque actual shadows which a candle may cast athwart walls and ceiling. Whose shadow is it? we wonder, and, wondering, become sure that it is Mr. Thompson's--Papa's.

The papa of Georgian children! We know him well, that awfully massive and mysterious personage, who seemed ever to his offspring so remote when they were in his presence, so frighteningly near when they were out of it. In Mrs. Turner's Cautionary Stories in Verse he occurs again and again. Mr. Fairchild was a perfect type of him. Mr. Bennet, when the Misses Lizzie, Jane and Lydia were in pinafores, must have been another perfect type: we can reconstruct him as he was then from the many fragments of his awfulness which still clung to him when the girls had grown up. John Ruskin's father, too, if we read between the lines of Praeterita, seems to have had much of the authentic monster about him. He, however, is disqualified as a type by the fact that he was `an entirely honest merchant.' For one of the most salient peculiarities in the true Georgian Papa was his having apparently no occupation whatever--his being simply and solely a Papa. Even in social life he bore no part: we never hear of him calling on a neighbour or being called on. Even in his own household he was seldom visible. Except at their meals, and when he took them for their walk, and when they were sent to him to be reprimanded, his children never beheld him in the flesh. Mamma, poor lady, careful of many other things, superintended her children unremittingly, to keep them in the thorny way they should go. Hers the burden and heat of every day, hers to double the ro^les of Martha and Cornelia, that her husband might be left ever calmly aloof in that darkened room, the Study. There, in a high armchair, with one stout calf crossed over the other, immobile throughout the long hours sate he, propping a marble brow on a dexter finger of the same material. On the table beside him was a vase of flowers, daily replenished by the children, and a closed volume. It is remarkable that in none of the many woodcuts in which he has been handed down to us do we see him reading; he is always meditating on something he has just read. Occasionally, he is fingering a portfolio of engravings, or leaning aside to examine severely a globe of the world. That is the nearest he ever gets to physical activity. In him we see the static embodiment of perfect wisdom and perfect righteousness. We take him at his own valuation, humbly. Yet we have a queer instinct that there was a time when he did not diffuse all this cold radiance of good example. Something tells us that he has been a sinner in his day--a rattler of the ivories at Almack's, and an ogler of wenches in the gardens of Vauxhall, a sanguine backer of the Negro against the Suffolk Bantam, and a devil of a fellow at boxing the watch and wrenching the knockers when Bow Bells were chiming the small hours. Nor do we feel that he is a penitent. He is too Olympian for that. He has merely put these things behind him--has calmly, as a matter of business, transferred his account from the worldly bank to the heavenly. He has seen fit to become `Papa.' As such, strong in the consciousness of his own perfection, he has acquired, gradually, quasi-divine powers over his children. Himself invisible, we know that he can always see them. Himself remote, we know that he is always with them, and that always they feel his presence. He prevents them in all their ways. The Mormon Eye is not more direly inevitable than he. Whenever they offend in word or deed, he knows telepathically, and fixes their punishment, long before they are arraigned at his judgment-seat.

At this moment, as at all others, Mr. Thompson has his inevitable eye on his children, and they know that it is on them. He is well enough pleased with them at this moment. But alas! we feel that ere the sun sets they will have incurred his wrath. Presently Lady Noble will have finished her genial inspection, and have sailed back, under convoy of the mother and the grown-up daughter, to the parlour, there to partake of that special dish of tea which is even now being brewed for her. When the children are left alone, their pent excitement will overflow and wash them into disgrace. Belike, they will quarrel over the nectarines. There will be bitter words, and a pinch, and a scratch, and a blow, screams, a scrimmage. The rout will be heard afar in the parlour. The grown-up sister will hasten back and be beheld suddenly, a quelling figure, on the threshold: `For shame, Clara! Mary, I wonder at you! Henry, how dare you, sir? Silence, Ethel! Papa shall hear of this.' Flushed and rumpled, the guilty four will hang their heads, cowed by authority and by it perversely reconciled one with another. Authority will bid them go upstairs `this instant,' there to shed their finery and resume the drab garb of every day. From the bedroom- windows they will see Lady Noble step into her yellow chariot and drive away. Envy--an inarticulate, impotent envy--will possess their hearts: why cannot they be rich, and grown-up, and bowed to by every one? When the chariot is out of sight, envy will be superseded by the play-instinct. Silently, in their hearts, the children will play at being Lady Noble.... Mamma's voice will be heard on the stairs, rasping them back to the realities. Sullenly they will go down to the schoolroom, and resume their tasks. But they will not be able to concentrate their unsettled minds. The girls will make false stitches in the pillow-slips which they had been hemming so neatly when the yellow chariot drove up to the front-door; and Master Harry will be merely dazed by that page of the Delectus which he had almost got by heart. Their discontent will be inspissated by the knowledge that they are now worse-off than ever--are in dire disgrace, and that even now the grown-up sister is `telling Papa' (who knows already, and has but awaited the formal complaint). Presently the grown-up sister will come into the schoolroom, looking very grave: `Children, Papa has something to say to you.' In the Study, to which, quaking, they will proceed, an endless sermon awaits them. The sin of Covetousness will be expatiated on, and the sins of Discord and Hatred, and the eternal torment in store for every child who is guilty of them. All four culprits will be in tears soon after the exordium. Before the peroration (a graphic description of the Lake of Fire) they will have become hysterical. They will be sent supperless to bed. On the morrow they will have to learn and repeat the chapter about Cain and Abel. A week, at least, will have elapsed before they are out of disgrace. Such are the inevitable consequences of joy in a joyless life. It were well for these children had `The Visit' never been paid.

Morland, I suppose, discerned naught of all this tragedy in his picture. To him, probably, the thing was an untainted idyll, was but one of those placid homely scenes which he loved as dearly as could none but the brawler and vagabond that he was. And yet... and yet... perhaps he did intend something of what we discern here. He may have been thinking, bitterly, of his own childhood, and of the home he ran away from.

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: "The Visit"