4 JANUARY 1896, Page 21


THE old family nurse has been a favourite character in fiction from the time of Shakespeare, with his admirable ,portrait of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, down to modern days ; and there are sufficient reasons why she should hold an important place. Knowing all the ins and outs of the history -of the family into which she has been absorbed, and the characters, with all their faults and foibles, of her charges from their earliest days, having been accustomed to speak her mind to them from their infancy, she is just in the position, like the jester of old, to make her comments on their concerns; which, if she be a shrewd woman, is often -done in pointed and racy terms. Her very lack of education is an advantage, as it leaves her freer scope for originality. When we are put between the shafts and run along the same educational course, we soon get into regular grooves of thought, whereas the old nurses fly off the beaten track with -delightful independence.

The nurse in the play of Romeo and Juliet must be 'regarded as the prototype of all subsequent nurses in -fiction, sketched as she is with the vigorous strokes of Shakespeare's master. brush, and standing out clear in her individuality, with all the virtues and the faults of her class. Her tenderness and devotion to Juliet; her affectionate though garrulous reminiscences of her in-

cat short by her impatient mistress; her spirited

rebuke to her master when he rails on his child, are balanced by the less pleasing traits so often to be found in nurses. We should expect to find the commonness, not to say coarse- ness, of fibre in her character more plainly depicted in the outspoken age in which Shakespeare wrote than in our own; but our nineteenth-century experience shows us how true to nature the picture is, and we recognise in a milder form the same grim pleasure in horrors ; the reiterated insistence on and description of aches and pains; the lack of refinement in thought and speech ; the pride and self-importance in pro. claiming painful news; the unrestrained lamentations in grief, in our modern specimens of the genus, as are portrayed in the well-known character in Romeo and Juliet. Let us try to put our minds for a few minutes in the position of that of the old family nurse, so as to understand her mental atti- tude towards her surroundings, and see how truly this attitude has been illustrated by some of the novelists of the day, the interpreters of modern life. However individuals may differ, there are common traits of character belonging to the class. These traits often seem, strangely enough at first sight, to be in direct opposition to one another in the same person ; but the contradiction is explained by the contrast between the birth and education of the nurse, and her later surroundings. She springs from one soil and is transplanted into another. If we notice a common strand running through her character, as in Juliet's nurse, a strand due to her origin, she acquires in time from her new surroundings a degree of refinement in word and tone. This is the case with all servants, but especially with her; for having the same centre of interest in the children, mistress and maid are drawn together by a common bond, and the nurse takes the tone of her employer. The rougher fibre does not wholly disappear, but runs side by side with the finer. But if in the matter of refinement the nurse in some degree copies her superiors, she keeps her independent attitude as to their character and behaviour, and if she be a woman of mental vigour and imagination, will express her opinion with considerable force and point. She is in the position of the spectator who sees most of the game. She is so completely in the inner circle of the family as to know all the twists and turns of the domestic politics ; and yet coming of a different stock, she is free from the hereditary bias which often warps their view. Thus she is a most useful character to the novelist, who can employ her to take the part of the Greek chorus, and make her sharp comment on people and things. Mrs. Walford, in her clever novel, "The Matchmaker," gives us a lively instance of this inde- pendence of character and keenness of judgment in old Ailsie, I sometime nurse and afterwards housekeeper in the family of I, Lord and Lady Carnoustie. The whole household acknow- ledges the sway of this clear-sighted woman, who reads each one like a book,—the indolent, good-natured father, the narrow-hearted, narrow-minded, narrow-souled mother, the two elder daughters, who had "stayed bairns" all their lives, and the hungry-hearted, rebellious, deceitful Mina, the youngest. Like an able Prime Minister, Ailsie sees the course of policy which should be pursued to gain her end, the honour and glory of the house of Carnoustie, into which she has been absorbed. " Oor rank is barons," she proudly observes. She has become more of a Carnoustie than the Carnousties them- selves, and she frets her old heart sore because she considers that they will not maintain the proper dignity of the family. How frilly she has grasped the whole situation and the tissue of selfishness, indolence, and error that lead up to the final catastrophe, is shown in her terrible impeachment of the parents, in which she rises to the height of tragedy. It would be difficult to find a stronger example of the shrewd, observant family servant, the keen-sighted critic of the hearth.

We have spoken in our opening remarks of the originality of thought and word so often shown in the old nurses of fact and fiction. In direct contrast to this, we must set a con- ventionality of mind with regard to externals, that is quite as remarkable. In the outward ordering and arrangements of life, nurses, like all good old servants, are the greatest sticklers for precedent,—conservative to the backbone. What always has been, always must be. Routine must be maintained with the regularity of the laws of Nature. In some startling event or sudden emergency, the mistress may lightly murmur to herself, "What does it matter ? " Not so the good servant. She will know that whatever happens, the domestic ritual must be observed. The heavens may fall, but my lady can- not lunch without the silver pepper-pot ; and however urgent the visitor, nurse cannot permit Md.ster Jack to go down to the drawing-room without his best frock and sash. Now as the business of servants lies in these details of outward arrangement, it is only natural that they should sometimes magnify their importance. The more conscientious they are, the more they will insist upon them. And it is in the cause alluded to before, the change from one social sphere to another, that we find the explanation of this ultra-conventionality. The contrast between the simple machinery of life in the old home, and the more elaborate kind in the new, leads them to exaggerate the importance of all the rites and ceremonies of a more complex style of living. All the paraphernalia of the household, all the insignia of family pomp and state, are regarded with a respect almost amounting to awe. These things become a sort of fetish in the eyes of the domestics, to be treated with the regard that a violinist would show for a Stradivarius, or a book-collector for a rare edition. It was a real grief to Ailsie when, as she laments, "the big dish-covers hanna been used for a twal-month ; " and when at last they and other household gods are once more drawn out of their baize covers, she is ready to do homage to them. We find this trait capitally illustrated in another excellent nurse in fiction, —Mitty, in Miss Cholmondeley's novel, "Diana Tempest." Mitty is the consistent incarnation in thought, word, and deed of the domestic servant. The author seems, before introducing her, to have steeped her mind in the atmosphere of the nursery and the servants' hall, so that all that she describes the faithful old soul as doing or saying or feeling is passed through this medium and refracted by it. When, after John Tempest had been shot at and dangerously wounded, Mitty relieved her strained feelings by pouring out reminiscences of his childhood into the heroine's ear, she goes through the list of his childish possessions not only with affection but respect, as outward signs and tokens of his dignity :—

"His clothes, my dear, everything since he was born, from his little cambric shirts. I have 'em all put away, with a bit of camphor to his velvet suit, as I took him to York to be measured for, on purpose to make him look pretty to his papa when he came home from abroad but no one ever took no notice of

him even in his first sailors There's his crib still in the night-nursery by my bed. I could not sleep without it was there ; and the little blankets and sheets and piller-slips as belong, all put away, and not a iron-mould upon 'em."

And when later in the story John breaks the news to her that he has discovered that he has no right to the home of his child- hood, the thought of the properties she could rescue for him, without which, in her eyes, the life of a gentleman could not be carried on, forms her best consolation :—

"' I've a sight of things,' continued Mitty, wiping her eyes.

Books and pictures and cushions put away. My precious shall not go short ; the two pair of linen sheets I bought with my own money and piller-slips to match, and six silver tea-spoons and one dessert.'"

But of all the characteristics of the family nurse, as known in life and reflected in fiction, none is more marked than her unchanging devotion and loyalty to her charges. We will confidently affirm that there is no one in the world to whom a man or woman might resort in some crisis of shame or dis- tress, with more certainty of support and comfort, than to her. We have heard from time to time of the nurse who has shown a truer devotion than the mother. The late Lord Shaftesbury's " Life " supplies us with an instance. And we believe the reason is, that though no love can be equal to maternal love in its purest examples, yet there is an element

in that of the nurse that from the nature of things must be lacking in that of the mother. The servant looks up to her

little charges because they are of a rank above her own. She may treat them with scant ceremony, but in her heart she re- cognises the difference between herself and them, and thereby satisfies the instinct of human nature to look up to something. She tacitly acknowledges them as of finer clay than herself and her own children, and takes pleasure in paying honour where honour is due. So far from resenting an assumption of superiority by the children themselves, she is rather pleased at their displaying it, as a sign that they can hold their own. A story by Mum Dunsmuir, called "Vida,' published some years ago, gives us an exAmple :— ‘ "It's an awfu' pity,' remarks Nannie, the heroine's old nurse, 'to bide in sic an oot-o'-the-way p!ace. I'm sure I dinna ken hoc

ye're ever to be turned intill a young leddy here.'—Viola drew up her head.—' I am a young lady, Nannie,' she said emphatically, either here or anywhere else.'—` Wee], wee],' answered Nannie„ in a deprecating tone ; not, however, without a certain satisfaction in the rebuke. She did not consider that there was any in- subordination in a touch of haughtiness like this. It was only right from her mistress's daughter, and was rather reassuring- than otherwise, as it seemed to indicate a future capacity or worthily filling the place of mistress herself."

As the shrewdness of the old nurse has been insisted on, we must acknowledge that side by side with this, there is wont, to run a fine vein of stupidity in her blood. She is in a posi-

tion of authority in all matters connected with the life that- is so full of wonders and puzzles to the child's mind, without

having the knowledge or training that would help her to explain them. She flouts all the laws of logic with sublime disdain. She flies off at a tangent, and can never be kept to the point. "Why is so and so ? " asks the child.—" Because it is," is her prompt answer. Or if she attempts an explana- tion which fails to satisfy his reason—and children often have plenty of reason—she will then probably try and quench him by a good snub, like the nurse who met the incredulity of a little boy by the reproof, "Ah ! Master George. You're like Thomas-a-Didymus, 'ard o' belief." She has no scruple in shutting up her small adversary with an unfair argument, and you may as well knock your head against a wall as reason with her :—

'‘Nannie,' said Vida simply, if jography's a thing a' body should understand, why don't you ?'—Nannie began in a deep. tone of reproach. And hoo mony's the time I've tell't ye, Viday, the ma jistice my schoolin' got. Wi' a deein' mither at hame, and seeven brithers and sisters to bring up my lane, boo was- I to learn jography ? Aye, Viday,' added Nannie by way of clenching her argument and settling her opponent, it's but little sic wark ye ken, that has never done a hand's turn but for your am n pleasure.' Viola felt reproved;and made no answer ; she saw herself in some vague way acceuntable for not being one of a large family of brothers and sisters, though conscious at the same time that she would only have been too happy to have had a • dozen. This sort of tacit reproof is often employed by older- people as a means of extorting silence and submission from. younger spirits, and is certainly rather an unfair way of using- experience."

But there is plenty of wisdom, if little logic, in the old nurses, who excel in homely good sense and mother-wit. No writer has given us a more charming example of this than Mrs.. Ewing, who can paint an old nurse to perfection. Comfortable, cheerful Mrs. Bundle is a solid block of good sense. With one

sweep of her broad hand she brushes away all the cobwebs that the superstitions of inferior servants had spun over the sensitive, morbid mind of the little hero of "A Flat-Iron for a Farthing," and changes him into a natural, healthy, and happy little mortal. To pay our tribute to all the goo& nurses in fiction would be impossible, but we cannot leave out good old Bundle. And when we come to think over the general characteristics of the class, good and bad, natural an acquired, in all their varieties and inconsistencies, the shrewdness and stupidity, the originality and conventionality, the vulgarity and refinement, the freedom of speech and the respect for superiors, but, above all, the unwavering loyalty and devotion, we can only say that the old nurse is equally indispensable, entertaining, and estimable in real life as in.

fiction. And that her character is worth studying we have Shakespeare's high authority.