A Dickensian Childhood

A Dickensian childhood. The phrase conjures up images of small children working in coal mines or cotton mills, ragged urchins huddled in a doorway, Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. But you didn’t have to be poor to have a Dickensian childhood. Consider Augustus Hare.

He was born in Rome in 1834 to a well-to-do family with connections to the nobility. His parents were in Rome because it was supposed to be good for his father’s health, and while they were there, his paternal uncle, also Augustus Hare, and his wife, Maria, arrived. Health was the reason for their journey too, but they were less successful and the older Augustus died.

When Maria Hare got back to England, she was feeling very lonely and wrote to ask if Augustus could come and live with her. Her sister-in-law immediately replied, “My dear Maria, how very kind of you! Yes, certainly, the baby shall be sent as soon as it is weaned; and if anyone else would like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others.”

You might assume that anything would be an improvement over staying with his natural mother, but although he later wrote of how he adored Maria, whom he always called Mother, some of the things he wrote about his childhood give the modern reader pause.

My dearest mother was so afraid of over-indulgence that she always went into the opposite extreme: and her constant habits of self-examination made her detect the slightest act of especial kindness into which she had been betrayed, and instantly determine not to repeat it. …

I remember once, in my longing for childish companionship, so intensely desiring that the little Coshams—a family of children who lived in the parish—might come to play with me, that I entreated that they might come to have tea in the summer-house on my Hurstmonceaux birthday (the day of my adoption), and that the mere request was not only refused, but so punished that I never dared to express a wish to play with any child again. At the same time I was expected to play with little Marcus [a cousin], then an indulged disagreeable child whom I could not endure, and because I was not fond of him, was thought intensely selfish and self-seeking.

As an example of the severe discipline which was maintained with regard to me, I remember that one day when we went to visit the curate, a lady (Miss Garden) very innocently gave me a lollypop, which I ate. This crime was discovered when we came home by the smell of peppermint, and a large dose of rhubarb and soda was at once administered with a forcing-spoon, though I was in robust health at the time, to teach me to avoid such carnal indulgences as lollypops for the future.…

I was not six years old before my mother—under the influence of the Maurices [more cousins]—began to follow out a code of penance with regard to me which was worthy of the ascetics of the desert. Hitherto I had never been allowed anything but roast-mutton and rice-pudding for dinner. Now all was changed. The most delicious puddings were talked of—dilated on—until I became, not greedy, but exceedingly curious about them. At length "le grand moment" arrived. They were put on the table before me, and then, just as I was going to eat some of them, they were snatched away, and I was told to get up and carry them off to some poor person in the village.

Now, I have encountered a sufficient number of spoiled brats over the years, and I have been sorely tempted to do something about them, or to them. However, for anyone to do this and justify it as discipline is painful reading. I want to weep for the poor child—even more than he wants to weep for himself. There is very little complaint in these memoirs.

Augustus spent a year at Harrow, but only a year because of his own weak health (hardly surprising), and later graduated from Oxford. He became a writer and, in addition to his memoirs, produced several adulatory biographies of members of the nobility, and a number of far more interesting travel books, including Walks in Rome. His greatest fame, among his contemporaries at least, was as a dinner guest and raconteur. In diaries and letters he is mentioned with fondness.

Did he ever have anything that could be called a happy life? Perhaps. It's never possible to make that judgment about anyone's life but one's own. At the end of his memoirs, he wrote:

Except that I have seen more varieties of people than some do, I believe there has been nothing unusual in my life. All lives are made up of joys and sorrows with a little calm, neutral ground connecting them; though, from physical reasons perhaps, I think I have enjoyed the pleasures and suffered in the troubles more than most. But from the calm backwater of my present life at Holmhurst, as I overlook the past, the pleasures seem to predominate, and I could cordially answer to any one who asked me “Is life worth living?”—“Yes, to the very dregs.”







Wow. Simply, wow. Another man

Wow. Simply, wow. Another man - another person - would no doubt be broken by the childhood he described. It breaks my heart, just to read about it. But his later memoirs make me realize that mixed in with the horrible "discipline" he endured was some form of love and security. Or was it Stockholm Syndrome before the term was coined? Very interesting post, Lillian. As always.


Gosh, and I feel like a stickler when I don't allow my children a snack pack of Doritos in their lunch box - and they make me out to be the world's worst mommy.
This poor kid...yikes, what a childhood. Lucky he didn't snap ; )
Maybe they should have a modern day bootc amp for kids to get taste of a Dickensian lifestyle and they'd appreciate how good they have it.
Great post, Lillian

Can you imagine…?

Can you imagine ever saying of one of your own children, "Oh sure, you can have this one. And we have some more if you know anyone else who would like one." Sort of as if they're extra dishes or a surplus of daffodil bulbs!

tantalize-- to torment

Hare wouldn't have known then what his mother said about having enough children for anyone. The talking about food and tantalizing him with the food and then taking it to poor children is plain cruel.

His mother

No, he was a newborn infant. But his adoptive mother kept the letter.

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