Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 4. Chapter 3. I



“When, like a heavenly sign
Compact of many golden stars, the princely child did shine.”—
(Illiads, Book Six (Chapman’s Trs.).)


ARTHUR PENDENNIS is as real a person as Wilhelm Meister, and, as a companion study, is not without instruction for us. What an Admirable Crichton he is, to be sure! He carried himself down Main Street with a lordly grace, for was he not the Prince of Fairoaks! The young lords themselves were content to be his followers, and of so fine a nature was he that he did not distinguish between gentle and simple. How princely his tastes were in wines, repasts, trinkets, and how many tastes he enjoyed! Horses, books, pictures, nothing came amiss to him so long as it was of the best. His copious shelves were filled with rare editions and bindings, his walls hung with rare prints (first proofs, of course). Nay, Alcibiades himself could not have outdone him in the elegance of his personal habits. The perfumed bath was a necessity to him as to his witty prototype, especially after any contact with the canaille, in the persons of less distinguished men. Then, too, what a name he
had for intellectual prowess: “Pendennis could do anything if”—momentous syllable—“if  he would only work.” But, really, why work? He had tried the schools——  “During the first term of Mr Pen’s academical life he attended classical and mathematical lectures with tolerable assiduity; but discovering before very long time that he had little taste of genius for the pursuing of the exact sciences, and being perhaps rather annoyed that one or two very vulgar young men, who did not even use straps to their trousers, so as to cover the abominable thick and coarse shoes and stockings which they wore, beat him completely in the lecture-room, he gave up his attendance at that course, and announced to his fond parent that he proposed to devote himself exclusively to the cultivation of Greek and Roman literature. . . . Presently he began, too, to find that he learned little good in the classical lecture. His fellow-students there were too dull, as in mathematics they were too learned for him. Mr Buck, the tutor, was no better a scholar than many a fifth-form boy at Grey Friars—might have some stupid humdrum notions about the metre and grammatical construction of a passage of Æschylus or Aristophanes, but had no more notion of poetry than Mr Binge, his bedmaker; and Pen grew weary of hearing the dull students and tutor blunder through a few lines of a play, which he could read in a tenth part of the time they gave to it.”
          We know the rest. The time came when this golden youth got somewhat haggard, absent-minded, and cynical. By the way, is debt only one cause of cynicism, or is it our chiefest and bitterest grievance against the world that it does not understand our prerogatives, does not see that we have a right to the
free enjoyment of our elegant tastes, no matter at whose cost? This is a blundering world. A day of ignominy is at hand for the Prince of Fairoaks. After a brilliant and admired career, regardless of the schools, he, Pendennis of Boniface, no less, is plucked, runs out of Oxbridge like a beaten cur, with a pack of creditors at his heels.
          He picks himself up, we know, at last (at the cost of those pinched and impoverished ladies, his mother and Laura), because he has some good stuff in him. He finds his feet and a friend, and earns his bread; and is, at last saved, as by fire, by the two women who loved him. But he never loses the cynicism of the whipped cur; and a certain brand of the world, which he bore when he went to college, remains with him to the last. It is well for those who have the bringing up of golden lads and girls to bear in mind always that the leopard does not change his spots. Our facile faith in a regeneration to be brought about somehow, at school, at college, by a profession, by family ties, by public work, is really born of our laziness. That which will be done somehow for young people, we do not take the trouble to do ourselves; we shift our responsibility, and the young bear our sins and their own till the end of the chapter.
          The literary parent of ‘Pen’ takes great pains to tell us how it all came about; and such things are, if we will receive it, written for our instruction; but it would be interesting to know how many parents and masters could stand a searching examination upon the lessons proposed to us by Thackeray alone upon the upbringing of youth.
          In the first place, Arthur was the Prince of Fairoaks; and what, indeed, was Fairoaks? It was a
petty estate, worth about five hundred a year; but any dunghill is high enough to crow from if we have a mind to; and the author’s shrewd wit, and keen but not unkindly satire, make great play about this princely family, whose ancient glories, like their family portraits, were more or less faked up, but as firmly believed in as if Debrett were the authority.
          The Pendennises are by no means solitary as the bringers-up of pseudo-princes. It begins often enough with the ‘princely heart of innocence,’ manifested by the little son in the way he carries his head, the fearless glance of his eye, and the frank simplicity with which he takes possession of the world which is indeed his. The parents look on and admire, and begin to suspect that this fine bearing of their child’s is a family, and not a human, inheritance. A certain sense, not of greatness or scope, but of superiority, is a part of the child’s nurture; and when he leaves home, either he behaves himself en prince, as did young Pendennis, at anybody’s cost who will pay the piper; or he awakes to the humbug of the thing, and becomes unduly depressed and reckless; or, like the young Goethe, who never got over a certain sense of disqualification on account of his burgher birth, he attaches undue importance to class distinctions.
          At the very outset of a child’s career there is rôle waiting for his parents. This is how a person arrives to us:—
          “Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had in my infancy, and that divine light wherewith I was born, are the best unto this day wherein I can see the universe. . . . Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I when I was a child.
          “All appeared new and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was divine; I knew by intuition those things which, since my apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason . . . All things were spotless and pure and glorious; yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious . . . I was entertained, like an angel, with the works of God in their splendor and glory; I say all in the peace of Eden. . . .
          “The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the streets were as precious as gold: the gates” (of Hereford, where he was born) “were at first the end of the world. The green trees, when I saw them first through one of the gates, transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street were moving jewels: I knew not that they were born or should die. But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared, which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The City seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was
mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins, and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.”[1]
          Or, to quote from the same writer’s verse:—

                    “How like an angel I came down!
                    How bright are all things here!
                    When first among His works I did appear
                    O how His glory did me crown!
                    The world resembled His eternity,
                    In which my soul did walk;
                    And everything that I did see
                    Did with me talk.

                    .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

                    The streets were paved with golden stones,
                    The boys and girls were mine,
                    O how did all their faces shine!
                    The sons of men were holy ones,
                    In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
                    And everything which here I found,
                    While like an angel I did see,
                    Adorned the ground.”[2]

          Now, if such be the child’s natural estate, what is our part? Parents are right enough in thinking that this fine sense of dignity, this luminous intelligence, grace their child, should help him through life, and are by all means to be preserved. But they make a fool of the child when the magnification of his family are the method they adopt. Whatever elements of dignity and greatness do exist in a family will have, we may be sure, enormous influence
on its young scions; and the less said the better. But young Pendennis was brought up in an atmosphere of spurious dignity, none the less false because it was believed in by ‘our family.’ As a consequence, he was always superior to his situation, and, indeed, that is a human propensity which needs not be accentuated: at school, at college, in the world, notwithstanding a kindly and generous nature, he was never quite genial and simple, and when he had outgrown ‘airs,’ he took on the superiority of the cynic.
          How fine a start, on the other hand, would the child have whose parents recognised his distinction as that of a human being’ for this, after all, is no common state; it is distinction in each case. And what a world of persons, sweet and serviceable, we should have if each child were brought up to be all that is in him!


[1] Thomas Traherne (1636-1674).

[2] Thomas Traherne (1636-1674).