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"The Visit": A painting by George Morland
by [?]


Never, I suppose, was a painter less maladif in his work than Morland, that lover of simple and sun-bright English scenes. Probably, this picture of his is all cheerful in intention. Yet the effect of it is saddening.

Superficially, the scene is cheerful enough. Our first impression is of a happy English home, of childish high-spirits and pretty manners. We note how genial a lady is the visitor, and how eager the children are to please. One of them trips respectfully forward–a wave of yellow curls fresh and crisp from the brush, a rustle of white muslin fresh and crisp from the wash. She is supported on one side by her grown-up sister, on the other by her little brother, who displays the nectarine already given to him by the kind lady. Splendid in far- reaching furbelows, that kind lady holds out both her hands, beaming encouragement. On her ample lap is a little open basket with other ripe nectarines in it–one for every child.

Modest, demure, the girl trips forward as though she were dancing a quadrille. In the garden, just beyond the threshold, stand two smaller sisters, shyly awaiting their turn. They, too, are in their Sunday- best, and on the tiptoe of excitement–infant coryphe’es, in whom, as they stand at the wings, stage-fright is overborne by the desire to be seen and approved. I fancy they are rehearsing under their breath the `Yes, ma’ am,’ and the `No, ma’am,’ and the `I thank you, ma’am, very much,’ which their grown-up sister has been drilling into them during the hurried toilet they have just been put through in honour of this sudden call.

How anxious their mother is during the ceremony of introduction! How keenly, as she sits there, she keeps her eyes fixed on the visitor’s face! Maternal anxiety, in that gaze, seems to be intensified by social humility. For this is no ordinary visitor. It is some great lady of the county, very rich, of high fashion, come from a great mansion in a great park, bringing fruit from one of her own many hot- houses. That she has come at all is an act of no slight condescension, and the mother feels it. Even so did homely Mrs. Fairchild look up to Lady Noble. Indeed, I suspect that this visitor is Lady Noble herself, and that the Fairchilds themselves are neighbours of this family. These children have been coached to say `Yes, my lady,’ and `No, my lady,’ and `I thank you, my lady, very much’; and their mother has already been hoping that Mrs. Fairchild will haply pass through the lane and see the emblazoned yellow chariot at the wicket. But just now she is all maternal–‘These be my jewels.’ See with what pride she fingers the sampler embroidered by one of her girls, knowing well that `spoilt’ Miss Augusta Noble could not do such embroidery to save her life–that life which, through her Promethean naughtiness in playing with fire, she was so soon to lose.

Other exemplary samplers hang on the wall yonder. On the mantelshelf stands a slate, with an ink-pot and a row of tattered books, and other tokens of industry. The schoolroom, beyond a doubt. Lady Noble has expressed a wish to see the children here, in their own haunt, and her hostess has led the way hither, somewhat flustered, gasping many apologies for the plainness of the apartment. A plain apartment it is: dark, bare-boarded, dingy-walled. And not merely a material gloom pervades it. There is a spiritual gloom, also–the subtly oppressive atmosphere of a room where life has not been lived happily.

Though these children are cheerful now, it is borne in on us by the atmosphere (as preserved for us by Morland’s master-hand) that their life is a life of appalling dismalness. Even if we had nothing else to go on, this evidence of our senses were enough. But we have other things to go on. We know well the way in which children of this period were brought up. We remember the life of `The Fairchild Family,’ those putative neighbours of this family–in any case, its obvious contemporaries; and we know that the life of those hapless little prigs was typical of child-life in the dawn of the nineteenth century. Depend on it, this family (whatever its name may be: the Thompsons, I conjecture) is no exception to the dismal rule. In this schoolroom, every day is a day of oppression, of forced endeavour to reach an impossible standard of piety and good conduct–a day of tears and texts, of texts quoted and tears shed, incessantly, from morning unto evening prayers. After morning prayers (read by Papa), breakfast. The bread-and-butter of which, for the children, this meal consists, must be eaten (slowly) in a silence by them unbroken except with prompt answers to such scriptural questions as their parents (who have ham- and-eggs) may, now and again, address to them. After breakfast, the Catechism (heard by Mamma). After the Catechism, a hymn to be learnt. After the repetition of this hymn, arithmetic, caligraphy, the use of the globes. At noon, a decorous walk with Papa, who for their benefit discourses on the General Depravity of Mankind in all Countries after the Fall, occasionally pausing by the way to point for them some moral of Nature. After a silent dinner, the little girls sew, under the supervision of Mamma, or of the grown-up sister, or of both these authorities, till the hour in which (if they have sewn well) they reap permission to play (quietly) with their doll. A silent supper, after which they work samplers. Another hymn to be learnt and repeated. Evening prayers. Bedtime: ‘Good-night, dear Papa; good-night, dear Mamma.’