The other Mary Meeke

Quite some time ago now, I mentioned the possibility of Mary Meeke having an earlier career as a writer of fiction for girls, before she embarked upon her long and profitable association with the Minerva Press. I made this assumption based upon the title of two works associated with her name, Marion’s Path Through Shadow To Sunshine and Madeline Clifford’s School Life, the latter of which is occasionally found in her official bibliographies. However, having now tracked down the two works in question, I can state authoritatively that neither of them is by “our” Mary Meeke – which is to say, the Minerva Press’s Mary Meeke – for the simple reason that they were published more than fifty years after the lady died. That said, I’m sure she would have approved of her namesake’s work, inasmuch as not only are these stories heavily didactic, but they can’t help being rude about the French even when they’re trying to be nice.

While there is even less information available on the second lady – I shall call her “Miss Meeke”, to distinguish her from “Mrs Meeke” – than there is on her predecessor, I am able to state with authority that at some point during her childhood, her pet canary got out of its cage because she carelessly left the door open. The emotional scars associated with this personal trauma were deep and long-lasting, to judge by the fact that a version of this incident appears in both her published works, once with a happy ending, and once—not.

Published in 1871, Marion’s Path Through Shadow To Sunshine is the story of spoiled and selfish Marion Percy, who is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle when her mother leaves England and travels to India to join her husband. Marion’s well-brought-up cousins are bewildered by her behaviour, while the aunt, Mrs Newton, has the unenviable task of trying to correct the girl’s numerous faults.

I thought early on that Marion’s Path was going to be a exercise in unadulterated pain, based upon passages like this:

    “I want to know, children, which of you was in the library yesterday afternoon?”
    All protested that no one of the party had been there, Marion, if possible, more loudly than the rest, though she felt her heart beat, and her colour rise.
    “You know, mamma,” said Ethel, raising her honest face to her mother’s, with an expression of wonder, “we could not have gone there, for you desired us not!”

Don’t you just hate Ethel already? However, even if they don’t share Marion’s numerous failings, Miss Meeke has more sense than to make any of the children quite perfect (well…except for three-year-old Alice, who is precociously religious and utterly nauseating), and the faults of each of them are examined in turn.

It is the contention of Marion’s Path that the very worst thing a child can be guilty of – something much, much worse than murder, or treason, or putting antifreeze in the wine – is disobediance; or, if there is anything worse, it is covering up disobedience with lies. Most of the narrative of this novel is given over to illustrating this premise and, being the kind of literature that it is, it does so by dispensing death and disaster with a liberal hand, in order to show how even seemingly venial transgressions can have catastrophic consequences, and not just for pet canaries.

In an effort to teach this point to her children, Mrs Newton tells a story from her own childhood, when like Ethel she had a tendency towards laziness and taking shortcuts. Her mother having fallen ill, the girl was given extra household duties but often neglected or forgot them – including giving her mother her tonic. Rushing to make up for her derelection, she puts what she thinks is the tonic by her mother’s bedside, and—

“What a sight presented itself to me on my return! My mother was writhing in convulsions… The miserable truth now forced itself upon me, that I had been the murderer of my beloved parent. In my haste, and owing to the careless way in which I had put by the medicine phials, I had mistaken a ‘linament for external use’ for a ‘tonic draught’, misled by the colour of the liquid it contained…”

Is it wrong that this makes me laugh?

Anyway, a combination of prayer and quick medical attention pulled the unfortunate lady through, and the future Mrs Newton was instantaneously cured of her bad habits.

Likewise, though she makes spasmodic attempts to emulate her cousins, Marion remains largely unreformed until her behaviour brings about tragedy. During a seaside holiday, the family separates one day, with Marion and her cousin Alfred left under the charge of the nursemaid, Susan, and given strict instructions to stay away from the cliff edges if collecting wildflowers. Naturally, Marion decides that the flowers just over the edge are the best of them all, and through a combination of pleading and insults wears down Alfred’s resistance until he agrees to get them for her – with the inevitable result:

    Alfred, who, though morally weak, was very active, and by no means wanting in physical courage, told her that if she would hold one end of her parasol and give him the other, by taking a few steps down the face of the cliff, he was sure he could reach the pink flower.
    Marion did as he desired, and he had actually plucked it and turned to re-ascend when Susan, who had suddenly recollected the absence of her young charges, and started to seek for them, appeared in view. When she beheld the dangerous position they were in, she screamed so loudly and angrily to them, that Marion, in her terror, dropped her end of the parasol, and the hapless Alfred, being thus bereft of his support, lost his footing, and rolled into the abyss…

Good one, Susan! Alfred does survive his fall, but (as was once said of Sherlock Holmes after Reichenbach) he’s never the same afterwards. In spite of all the doctors can do, he slowly fades away, simultaneously turning into one of those noxiously saintly Victorian children, and spending most of his remaining time exhorting others not to cry, as he personally can’t wait to get to heaven. Interestingly, Alfred’s fate is not blamed upon Marion, but upon his own spinelessness – sorry, “moral weakness” – in not withstanding her pleas.

This experience effects the same change in Marion that her mother’s brush with the linament bottle did in Mrs Newton, and we get many passages illustrating the girl’s improvement. Events then find her travelling with friends, and attending school in Switzerland, where she finds herself in the position of having to hold her moral ground against bad influences and sometimes injustices. Marion finds a BFF in the form of Léonie de Melcy; and it is here that Miss Meeke most shows her resemblance to Mrs Meeke as, even when a determined Léonie succeeds in clearing Marion’s name in a matter of stolen essays, she can’t help speaking disapprovingly of the French girl’s “impulsive and foreign manner”.

Circumstances bring the Newton and de Melcy families together and Maude makes friends with Léonie’s younger sister, Marie, who also has an “impulsive and foreign manner”, as you might expect. Marie visits for a time with the Newtons, which brings about Maude’s turn for a personal catastrophe. She and Marie are left in charge of Alice one day, but the child grows tired and hampers their fun. At Marie’s impatient urging, Maude allows herself to resort to,”Stay right there, we’ll be right back”, although her conscience nags her – Are you right to leave Alice, who was placed in your charge? – and she gets her just reward when Alice is stolen by gypsies.

Really.

Anyway, everything works out in the long run, and the novel closes with Marion being packed off to India to join her parents, a conclusion that begs a question that the narrative entirely fails to come to grips with: while it is all very well to hammer in the notion of obedience, what is a child with bad parents supposed to do? Marion’s Path is frank in blaming the girl’s faults on her bad upbringing, her mother being vain and shallow herself, and much given to spoiling her daughter (and – gasp! – to leaving her with the servants). So when the two are reunited, what is Marion to do? – obey her mother, even though she knows it’s wrong, or disobey her in the pursuit of doing right?

No answer, came the stern reply.

Though its heroine is a different proposition from Marion Percy, 1873’s Madeline Clifford’s School Life deals with many of the same issues as its predecessor, and in much the same way: the narrative is scattered with anecdotes illustrating the dreadful consequences of disobedience and a lack of self-control, though Madeline herself is not usually the worst transgressor. Basically a good – and obedient – girl, though impulsive and thoughtless, Madeline’s high spirits often lead her into pranks and mischief, and cause her mother much concern. Various difficulties beset the girl, the first of which is having to live for a time with her disinterested grandmother and her coldly strict aunt, who disapprove of everything she does.

This experience has Madeline positively longing for school, where she finds herself for the first time (being an only child) amongst girls of her own age and of varying characters, and exposed to a whole new series of trials and temptations. A gentle girl called Florence Moore takes Madeline under her wing and tries to show her the right path, while the volatile Frederica West appeals to all of the girl’s worst impulses. A tug-of-war between the two sides of Madeline’s nature ensues.

Although it does not rack up the body count of Marion’s Path,  Madeline Clifford’s School Life still manages the occasional colourful disaster. Frederica West (who is American rather than French, though the underlying point remains the same) gets the worst of it – or at least, causes the worst of it. The school is, collectively, forbidden to attend a circus that comes to the nearby town. The prohibition acts on Frederica like a red rag on a bull, and with the help of her former maidservant, Eliza, who she has schemed into a position at the school in order to have a confederate whenever she needs one, she not only escapes surveillance in order to attend the show, but lures Madeline into going with her. The consequences are about what we might imagine:

    The quadrille was really a pretty sight; and, so eager were the spectators who were stationed far behind to get a good view of it, that all began to press and squeeze those before them, and a sudden rush was made towards the front. The result was that, with a fearful crash, the front partition gave way; some were trampled under the horses’ feet—women screamed, children cried, the roughs became unmanageable: all was terror and confusion.
    It was some time before order was restored, and then, alas! it was found that many who had entered the now shattered building full of health and strength were maimed and unconscious. Amongst the sufferers was Frederica West; she had been thrown forward by a rush behind her, and, in falling, had received a fearful gash on the temples from a splinter of wood; she was perfectly unconscious, and it was impossible to know what internal injuries she might have received. Eliza Woolsey’s leg was terribly injured, and her shrieks of agony, when she was raised from the ground, were appalling.
    Madeline had escaped with a few bruises, but she was terror-stricken, and her nerves had received a fearful shock…

Frederica does recover, but gets expelled from school; while Eliza ends up having her leg amputated.

But temptations come in all shapes and sizes, so that even the saintly Florence is not immune. She is, of course, terribly shocked when she discovers that some of the girls, Madeline included, are breaking the school rules by smuggling in books from – gasp! – the circulating library!! – but when she comes across one such book herself, even she cannot withstand its siren song:

    Who can have put it there? she thought; I wonder if Madeline could have had it, and left it here by mistake? I was in hopes she had given up reading forbidden books. What is to be done? I cannot leave it here. I think I ought to take it at once to Mrs Tremaine; but then, if Madeline is inculpated, I should be so sorry to get her into disgrace. What can be the pleasure of bringing in books against rule, which, sooner or later, must be discovered?
    Had Florence followed her first impulse all would have been well; but, alas! curiosity got the better of her, and she took a peep at its contents. Unfortunately for her she was passionately fond of reading, and loved a good story, and though the book in question was anything but a desirable one to fall into a young girl’s hands, the story was exciting in the extreme. She soon became absorbed in its contents, and forgetful of duty, prudence, and good resolutions…

The novel’s apparently compulsory anti-French sentiment emerges when a school excursion is arranged, to a see a “Panorama of Paris” which is being exhibited in the neighbouring town (where – gasp! – the circulating library!! – is also to be found). The description of the exhibit is both amusing and disturbing, as we learn that you can’t say something nice about France without balancing it by saying something nasty:

…she indulged in the most glowing descriptions of the charms of that universally admired city. It was just then renovated: splendid streets had grown up as if by magic, under the experienced and artistic eye of Napoleon. Paris had been greatly beautified… How little it was then foreseen, that the empire would become a thing of the past, and that the streets of Paris would be deluged with the blood of her sons, not merely shed in defence of the city from the ravages of a foreign foe, but in that most fearful and senseless of all struggles—a civil war!

(Though it was published in 1873, the curious “looking forward” structure of this passage places the novel’s action prior to the formation of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the bloody clashes between the Communards and the regular army during April and May of that year; and also before the abolition of the monarchy with the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870.)

Madeline’s various experiences have the eventual effect of teaching her obedience and self-control, so that when, much against her will, she ends up spending the Christmas holidays with her dreadful aunt and grandmother, she is at least able to restrain herself from doing anything to disturb or upset them (which in practical terms means she restrains herself from doing anything at all). Her improvement in this respect is amusingly conveyed via twinned passages, this one upon her first visit to her relatives:

She spied, reposing on the rug, a beautiful black cat, which at that moment opened its eyes, and bestowed a benevolent purr upon her. It was quite irresistible, so, despite her shyness, Madeline flung herself down on the rug, and began to play with her new friend…

But in the opinion of her disapproving relatives, young ladies do not fling themselves anywhere, let alone on rugs; a scolding follows. Madeline absorbs this lesson, although reluctantly, and does not commit the same error during her second visit:

Her grandmother was sitting in her usual seat, looking as fresh and comely as of yore; she received her kindly, and her Aunt Ruth shook hands warmly with her, and congratulated her on being grown and improved in appearance. The cat was enjoying a siesta on the rug, and Madeline knew better now, than to lie down beside her, not but that in her heart she longed to do so…

Madeline Clifford’s School Life concludes happily with the Clifford family being reunited, and settling down in the English countryside. As in Marion’s Path, there has been a separation due to duty in India: in this case, because of Mrs Clifford’s delicate health, she and her husband have been separated for nine years, while Madeline has never known her father. It is because Mrs Clifford is considered well enough to brave the journey that Madeline ends up staying with relatives and then being sent to school. However, India does not agree with Mrs Clifford, and finally Captain Clifford gives up his career to return home for good.

All of which raises interesting points about “proper parenting”. These days we’re hearing a lot of criticism of over-anxious “helicopter parents”—which, by the way, seems to me to be a behaviour that has grown out of reaction to earlier criticisms about neglectful parents who do shocking things like use childcare and go to work. You can’t win. It always amuses me to think, though, that there was a time when children were routinely sent to boarding-school or planted on relatives and didn’t see their parents for years on end, and no-one seemed to think very much of it. Certainly neither Marion’s Path nor Madeline Clifford’s School Life implies any criticism of the Percys or the Cliffords for separating from their daughters for extended periods of time; in Marion’s case, it’s even presented as something of a godsend. Stories like this provide a useful (and amusing) reminder that there is no one “right” way to be a parent—and also that children are a lot more resiliant and adaptive than many adults are willing to admit.

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3 Comments to “The other Mary Meeke”

  1. How fortunate it is that there are always external liniments, high cliffs, and gypsies, always to hand. “You know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.”

    I am forcibly reminded of Elsie Dinsmore, whose father is given to apparently random orders (like “stay out of that field”) and never bothers even to imply that there might be some reason behind any of them (“because there’s a venomous snake in it”).

  2. this type of childrens’ stories (obey me or you will DIE!!!) continued well into the 20th century. My mother had some old books from her childhood, “Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories”, in which at least half of them ended in death or severe disability (the disability being instantly and miraculously healed upon confession of the trespass). In one story, the young girl is shamed because she went into the sprinkler in her good clothes and (gasp) got wet! She hides behind the couch as neighbors visit, and sees the Good Girl all dressed up and looking ladylike. The Bad Girl resolves to never get in the sprinkler again (it’s not pointed out that in play clothes, there would have been no problem).

  3. I wonder if the younger Mary Meeke was inspired by the elder namesake, or possibly even assumed the name.

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