Friday, November 13, 2009

"It seemed to be always 3 o'clock," or, Ye Olde Time Sunday Feeling

When I was a boy, Sundays meant getting up early to watch "The Little Rascals," as the old "Our Gang" shorts were renamed when they were run on our local television station in the early 1980s. If we were lucky, we could follow it with George Reeves in the "Adventures of Superman"--but if we were unlucky, we had to leave Superman to put the world to rights on his own while we all set out for church, which has never, in the seventy-plus years of Superman's existence, come close to rivaling him for entertainment.

Being a voracious reader, however, I knew that even without Superman, we had it good: in novel after novel, I encountered Victorian children and frontier American children whose entertainment options from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday were limited to the Bible and the sermon, with any hints of fun or amusement or light-heartedness strictly forbidden.* The very thought of such enforced piety--and the crushing boredom it necessarily brought with it--made our hour-long, light-on-fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian service much more bearable.

All that came to mind last night as I was reading Molly Hughes's A London Child of the 1870s (1934), a charming memoir of a middle-class London family of the Victorian era. The book isn't that well known these days--though Adam Gopnik, in his introduction to the lovely Persephone Boks edition, makes a convincing case for it as an urban counterpart to the more popular and beloved Lark Rise to Candleford--but it's a wonderful little book, one that any lover of London or Victoriana should read; Gopnik describes it, aptly, as David Copperfield from the point of view of the Micawber children.

I expect, however, that on Sundays even the ebullient Micawbers forced their faces into pious expresions, and Molly Hughes's family was no different:
The mere word "Sunday" is apt to give a mental shiver to people of long memories. The outer world closed down. It was wrong to travel except for dire necessity, and then very difficult. It was wrong to work, and wrong to play. In fact, existence in some houses was so dull that Tom said he undersrtood the full meaning of the opening verse of the 122nd Psalm. However, we did the best we could with the day, and it had the advantage of my father being with us all the time. He didn't take religion too seriously, and left it to mother to enforce all her superstitious restrictions that she had imbibed in her Cornish home.
Church--which the family took at St. Paul's, after a lovingly described walk through the relatively quiet Sunday streets--was bad enough, the sermons "usually stiff with learning and far over our heads,"** but it was the rest of the day that was the real torture:
The afternoons hung heavy. It seemed to be always 3 o'clock. All amusements, as well as work, were forbidden. It was a real privation not to be allowed to draw and paint. However, an exception was made in favour of illuminated texts, and we rivalled the old monks in our zeal for copying Scripture, with the same kind of worldly decorations that they devised.

Naturally our main stand-by was reading, but here again our field was limited by mother's notions of what was appropriate for Sunday. Tom Brown, Robinson Crusoe, Hans Andersen's Tales, and Pilgrim's Progress were permitted, but not the Arabian Nights, or Walter Scott, or indeed any novel. We had to fall back on bound volumes of Good Words for the Young, which were not so bad as the title suggests, and contained plenty of stories. Again and again I turned to something entitled The Dark Journey, only to find that it was an account of one's digetsion. You may wonder why I did this more than once, but I always hoped that I had been mistaken, and that such a splendid title must mean a good story. No, there was still that forbidding picture of one's insides cut through the middle.

We all liked certain parts of a three-volume story called Henry Milner, which purported to be an account of the upbringing of a Christian gentleman. I believe he never did anything wrong, but his school-fellows didi, and all their gay activities shone like misdeeds in a pious world.
It's good to see that some things never change, and that the best parts of tales of uplift likely always have been the lovingly described scenes of life at its most sordid.

There was, however, one real, unmitigated pleasure, which suggests that even Mother realized--though she refused to acknowledge it--that the Sabbath at times required the leaven of laughter:
Pickwick Papers, by some blessed workings of mother's conscience, did not come under the head of novels. They were "papers." She herself led the laughter over the long gamekeeper and Bob Sawyer's supper-party. Not sabbatical by any means, but those readings rescued our childhood's Sundays from the grimness that might otherwise have stuck to them.
Oh, the perennial joys of Dickens! The thought of that family, in the years just after Dickens's death, laughing at the same books we still laugh at today; it takes me back to standing in the poky little Dickens museum in London many years ago, overwhelmed with gratitude at the thought that one man could have brought all of us so, so much joy.

Hughes may not have left us nearly the riches that Dickens did, but her gem of a memoir carries a tone reminiscent of Dickens's lighter moments, full of the joys and surprises of everyday middle-class life. A London Child of the 1870s doesn't appear to be available in the United States; it's unclear whether Persephone has a distributor over here. But it's well worth getting from the UK; I can think of few better cup-of-tea-and-a-blanket-by-the-fireside books for the incipient winter.

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