The offending youth came panting beside our carriage, and in a very dirty sailor-suit, and under a broad-brimmed straw hat, with one stocking about his ankle, and two shoes, averaging about two buttons each, I recognized my nephew, Budge! About the same time there emerged from the bushes by the roadside a smaller boy in a green gingham dress, a ruffle which might once have been white, dirty stockings, blue slippers worn through at the toes, and an old-fashioned straw-turban.
Thrusting into the dust of the road a branch from a bush, and shouting, "Here's my grass-cutter!" he ran toward us enveloped in a "pillar of cloud," which might have served the purpose of Israel in Egypt. When he paused and the dust had somewhat subsided, I beheld the unmistakable lineaments of the child Toddie!
"They're—my nephews," I gasped.
"What!" exclaimed the driver. "By gracious! I forgot you were going to Colonel Lawrence's! I didn't tell anything but the truth about 'em, though; they're smart enough, an' good enough, as boys go; but they'll never die of the complaint that children has in Sunday-school books."
commentary: This book has an extremely long full title:
HELEN'S BABIES With some account of their ways, innocent, crafty, angelic, impish, witching and impulsive; also a partial record of their actions during ten days of their existence.It’s a weird and wonderful book, and one that was, apparently, a massive bestseller in its day. I heard about it from – of all people – George Orwell. He mentions it in passing in his enjoyable 1945 piece on Good Bad Books (during which he says that Uncle Tom’s Cabin will outlive the works of Virginia Woolf), and then devoted most of an article to Helen’s Babies a year later: it was being republished, and he thought it would be very familiar to anyone of his own age.
His description made me curious, and you can find a copy free on the internet. It’s a short book, and some people would find it worth a look. Me, of course. Vicki/Skiourophile, probably. Col of the Criminal Library, not so much.
The plot is simple and appealing: a man in his 20s comes to look after his two young nephews while his sister and brother-in-law go on holiday. He is planning on doing some reading, enjoying luxurious and leisurely meals, and perhaps pursuing a romance. The two little boys proceed to cause complete havoc. There are enormous amounts of trouble, and complicated naughtinesses threaten his romance. It’s predictable but very funny at times, with a few interesting sidelines. The book is entirely light-hearted and aimed at humour, but there are references back to the Civil War – in which the hero and his brother-in-law fought – and there is also a passing reference to another child in the family, who died not long ago.
There is a continuing joke about how Uncle Harry is not as good at telling stories as the children's father - who is a very hands-on Dad, in a modern-seeming way. There is also a lot of back and forth of Bible stories which was probably more amusing at the time than it is now.
The main problem for modern readers is the way the children’s speech is reported: it is absolutely excruciating:
"Aw wight. Whay-al, don't you fwallow me no more, an' zen my Ocken Hawwy div you whole lots of pennies. You must be weal dood whay-al now, an' then I buys you some tandy wif your pennies, an'—"But then, there is a very funny story involving the children talking about ‘deaders’ – because we are used to the children talking in this ridiculous way, with all kinds of malapropisms, the readers along with Uncle Harry are puzzled but unconcerned as to what this might mean: and then there is a magic moment when he realizes that the two little boys are watching a funeral procession and commenting loudly on it:
In a second I was on the piazza, with my hands on the children's collars; a second later two small boys were on the floor of the hall, the front door was closed, and two determined hands covered two threatening little mouths.The soldierly Uncle Harry has one surprising hobby:
"I believe you arranged the floral decorations at the St. Zephaniah's Fair, last winter, Mr. Burton? 'Twas the most tasteful display of the season.”…. Arranging flowers is a favorite pastime of mine.Altogether, it was a pleasant way of passing an hour or two, and perhaps gave an insight into the time and place of its writing.
Picture of clothes for boys in the 1870s, from the NYPL.