Monday, 21 March 2016

Helen’s Babies by John Habberton



published 1876



Helen's Babies



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.












27 comments:

  1. I think the year of publication stops me in my tracks before reading anything more!

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    1. Keep going, you are actually mentioned in this one as being the opposite of the ideal reader!

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  2. Moira, I have seen the Bible creep into a lot of novels from that era and even much earlier including Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." Actually, in Crusoe's case it's understandable. Where else do you turn in the depths of despair?

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    1. You are right Prashant - and it was seen as an accepted part of life then, in a way that has probably gone forever. People took it for granted - they wouldn't now.

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  3. This does look like, if nothing else, a really interesting look at the times and the customs, Moira. And the thing that caught my eye right away was the way the children's language is written. I've seen that in a few other places, and I find it fascinating. We depict children so differently in today's stories, I think.

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    1. That's the linguistics expertise in you Margot! I'm sure it was seen as quite normal then, but it does read oddly to our modern eyes.

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  4. I think I've read a scene where he tries to dress the boys - with hilarious results - worth it for the description of what children wore then! I had another book that described minutely a Victorian girl getting dressed in layer after layer and buttoning her boots with a hook, and one about a nun where she has to go undercover wearing a crinoline she's not used to. Fine until she sits down suddenly on a bus... If the titles ever float to the surface I'll pass them on.

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    1. I should have mentioned you as someone who would like this one. Yes please, love the idea of the nun....

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    2. It's called Tommasini, by Mary K Richardson. Published in the early 60s. So no personal experience of a crinoline!

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    3. Due entirely to Moira's recommendation I bought the Pimlico Companion to Fashion and just last night finished the section on children's clothing.

      How on earth did these poor little mites ever learn to dress themselves? No wonder large families needed a nurse AND a nursery-maid. Or two.

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    4. Lucy suggested that book to me in the first place. Yes, you do wonder. And how hot they must have been - goodness knows it's not a big issue in the UK but you do feel sorry for them having to play out in those clothes.

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    5. My father belonged to a black-powder shooting club and once a year they gave a ball where all the men attended in American Civil War uniforms and the women in period costume. Dancing the Virginia Reel in a crinoline is an experience. Dancing the Virginia Reel with an inebriated Confederate cavalry corporal is quite an experience.

      And dancing the Virginia Reel, in a crinoline, with an inebriated Confederate cavalry corporal who refuses to take off his saber, well...are you familiar with the chorus of "Hang On The Bell, Nellie?"

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    6. Shay, you always have the best stories. I don't even know what black-powder shooting is. But I did go and find the lyrics of Hang on the Bell, and haven't stopped laughing since.

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  5. This made me think of The Phoenix and the Carpet when one of the children comes across a burglar in the house and makes up her mind to speak to him but hesitates, not because she's scared but because: 'In the stories and the affecting poetry the child could never speak plainly, though it always looked old enough to in the pictures. And Jane could not make up her mind to lisp and 'talk baby', even to a burglar.'

    Presumably this is the kind of thing Nesbit meant.

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    1. oh that's perfect, that must be exactly what she meant. I do love Nesbit for that, her children are full of surprises and aspects that seem quite modern.

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    2. Just reread that one - so good! the bit with the cats is quite terrifying.

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    3. HAHAHAHAHAH! Jane's phrase "Mister Wobber" REALLY stuck in my head and still pops up every time I come across a reference to burglary!

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    4. I am so going to have to re-read this one...

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  6. I have to say that, judging from the outline that you give of the story, this would probably work as a film today. You would have to coarsen it, add some fart jokes, and get Adam Sandler (or whoever the current version of him is)as the star, but it does sound a fairly safe bet for a film-maker.

    The comment from Victoria about Nesbit's more realistic children does make me think about how their depiction in literature changed over the course of the follwing decades. I still remember the horribly creepy child in Doyle's THE COPPER BEECHES, who spends his time torturing and killing little animals. Most of them are not that bad, but their depiction does change even by the end of the century,

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    1. Good call, this would actually make a brilliant film, it's exactly the kind of feelgood plot with broad humour to suit a certain kind of star.

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  7. Fascinating not least for its oddness - thanks Moira, always tempted to take a walk down the literary 'wild' side (this is about as wild as my reading tastes are likely to get ...)

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    1. What I love about modern life is that I was reading a serious collection of Orwell's journalism, came across the reference, and was able to find and download Helen's Babies, then read it. 20 years ago I would have found it hard even to find anything out about it.

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  8. "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."

    LOVE this line.

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    1. So glad you notice it, me too! One of the best lines in the book, tucked away...

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  9. Interesting to read about you reading it, but not for me. The children's speech would drive me crazy.

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    1. It would. I really had to skim through those bits. Did enjoy it though.

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