PENDENNIS OF BONIFACE
Pen, was like young Goethe, a mother’s boy; the son of a fonder, sweeter, less humorous mother; but he, too, was the son of parents of unequal age, and was his mother’s companion. We get charming glimpses of this companionship. There was that evening when the two walked on the lawn of Fairoaks, and watched the trees in the opposite park of Clavering put on a rich golden tinge, and the little river run off brawling to the west, where was a sombre wood and the towers of the old abbey church. “Little Arthur’s figure and his mother’s cast long blue shadows over the grass; and he would repeat in a low voice (for a scene of great natural beauty always moved the boy, who inherited this sensibility from his
mother) certain lines beginning, ‘These are Thy glorious works, Parent of Good; Almighty, Thine this universal frame,’ greatly to Mrs Pendennis’s delight. Such walks and conversation generally ended in a profusion of filial and maternal embraces, for to love and to pray were the main occupations of this dear woman’s life; and I have often heard Pendennis say, in his wild way, that he felt that he was sure of going to heaven, for his mother could never be happy there without him.”
What a pretty picture, and how every mother’s heart responds! Just so would she have it with her little son. He should love her, and through her should learn to love the best and the highest—Nature, and the God of Nature. And the embraces, how sweet to the mother’s heart! We read later how, during his childhood and youth, Arthur thought of his mother as little less than an angel, as a super-natural being, all wisdom, love, and beauty; and indeed she was, not only a perfectly well-bred and handsome woman, but, pure and heavenly-minded in no common degree. If she had faults, they were the rather insane family pride which produced the young ‘prince’ and her inordinate worship of that same prince. It is a curious fact, which would seem at first sight to challenge the justice with which the world is governed, that the small failings of the good, those very failings which appear to lean to virtue’s side, and are scarce discernible from virtues by the people who fall into them—these faults of the good appear to produce a more abundant crop of misfortunes than the glaring vices of the unworthy: to whom much is given, of him much will be required. The careless mother who spends her days in pleasure-seeking will sometimes
have more duty-doing children than that mother whose only fault is that she loves her family, not wisely but too well. But nothing is in more urgent need of rectification than our moral code. Thackeray, tender as he is to Helen Pendennis, speaks of this same family pride and mother-rapture as “this unfortunate superstition and idol worship”; and frankly tells us that these were the causes of “a great deal of the misfortune which befell the young gentleman.”
We have already considered the pride which made a prince of Arthur; and is not every mother’s sun a prince, and is not every mother’s son a prince, and is it not the hardest thing in the world to see our son as others see him? It is less easy to understand that the maternal fondness, the unrestrained mutual embraces of mother and child, are also a danger, because they exceed that temperance, soberness, and chastity which is our duty. But and by this excess of tenderness becomes a counterfeit coin. The mother offers it to her child, and the child to his mother, in lieu of the only sterling currency amongst us—our duty. Do we not find Helen, later, hanging over her son as he lolls on the sofa reading a French novel, and handing him a cigar, which she lights, although she detests and condemns smoking? Nay, does he not tell her himself that he knows she would burn the house down to give him pleasure?
“I could not love thee, dear, so well
Loved I not honour more,”
is true of mother-love as well as of other affections. This holy passion, too, is for service, and not for gratification; and the boy who knows that his mother will do anything for him, knows also that he stands in the place of duty, is more to his mother than her
duty to him and to others; he grows up without learning the meaning of two chief words in our use—must and ought are to him terms capable of being explained away.
And this pious mother did her son a greater injury yet: she taught him religion, it is true, but the religion she taught was a sentiment, and not a duty. The boy loved the sound of the church-going bells, and echo of psalm and canticle, as he loved to watch the sunset from the lawn. Sacred poems and hymns, too, he loved to learn at his mother’s knee. All holy associations were with him. But what Helen failed to teach him was his duty towards God; and is not this just where many a tender mother fails? She is so anxious to present the beauty of holiness, the love of the All-Father; she herself takes such joy in the sentiment of religion, that, that ‘stern Daughter of the voice of God,’ whose mandate is the only one that human beings obey in the face of resistance, is not allowed a hearing. Religion, service to God, is made to the child a matter of his own election and delight, and not a duty which he has no choice but to fulfil. He is taught that he may love and serve God, but not that he must do so; that this is the one duty he is in the world to fulfil. Parents have a unique opportunity to present the thought of duty to their children; and if they let this occasion pass, it is in vain to try to make up by religious feeling, sentiment, emotion. All these are passing phases, and do not belong to that tie which binds us to our God. Pen, we know, failed to say his prayers on that first evening in London when he was going up to Oxbridge with his uncle; and later, Laura tells him that she dare not inquire what he has kept of his faith.