Have you ever read The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy, by William Makepeace Thackeray? It’s an English novel which contrasts the hope that good fortune will just come along, or that it can be come by cheaply, with the value of earning it through good character and hard work.
Like the other books described in this section of Formation of Character, there is some value in having read it first, but it’s not necessary. Like a sermon that begins with a story and then turns to a point of faith, the plot is outlined, excerpts are given, and then Miss Mason gives her “exegesis” of the story. As we might expect, incidents relating to the upbringing and education of Arthur Pendennis receive the closest examination.
The Story of Pendennis…a little of it
“Pen” is raised by his mother, with as much luxury she can manage, and without any requirement that he apply himself to anything tedious or distasteful. She lives very much for her son, in the same way that readers of Understood Betsy will remember “Aunt Frances” devoting herself to “Elizabeth Ann” without benefit to either. Charlotte Mason warns of the paradox that “The careless mother who spends her days in pleasure-seeking will sometimes have more duty-doing children than that mother whose only fault is that she loves her family, not wisely but too well” (pp. 377-378). Over-doting on a child is a more serious charge than it may first appear. “…the boy who knows that his mother will do anything for him, knows also that he stands in the place of duty, is more to his mother than her duty to him and to others; he grows up without learning the meaning of two chief words in our use––must and ought are to him terms capable of being explained away” (pp. 378-379). Such an ignorance of duty even hinders a child’s relationship with God.
“He is taught that he may love and serve God, but not that he must do so; that this is the one duty he is in the world to fulfil. Parents have a unique opportunity to present the thought of duty to their children; and if they let this occasion pass, it is in vain to try to make up by religious feeling, sentiment, emotion” (p. 379).
But it is not only Pen’s mother who influences him negatively. His uncle, Major Pendennis, fills Pen’s head with ideas of the “right” way to get ahead in life. Charlotte Mason admits that she enjoys Major Pendennis as a character, although she would not want children to be trained by him.
“How great he is in his own line, how absurd and how respectable; how one likes him in spite of himself, and how convincing is the neatness and finish of his unworthy code! Is the title of the novel in truth a conundrum, and which of the Pendennises is the hero? This is the reader’s point of view; but what if we had been brought up to reverence this old worldling, had been placed solemnly under his guardianship? What if, on our first going forth into life, such an one accompanied us as Mentor?” (p. 370).
Pen lives in a bubble of family pride and personal entitlement, annoyed only when his world occasionally “does not understand [his] prerogatives, does not see that [he has] a right to the free enjoyment of [his] elegant tastes, no matter at whose cost” (pp. 365-366). But as Miss Mason says, “This is a blundering world. A day of ignominy is at hand for the Prince of Fairoaks.” School does not repair the damage done by Pen’s early lack of character training, and he struggles with these deficits throughout his life.
“How fine a start, on the other hand, would the child have whose parents recognised his distinction as that of a human being; for this, after all, is no common state; it is distinction in each case. And what a world of persons, sweet and serviceable, we should have if each child were brought up to be all that is in him!” (p. 370)
These Books are the Real Goods
One of the ways that Charlotte Mason recommends we bring up children “to be all that is in them” is to open timeless novels such as Pendennis to our children. These are the sorts of real, uncontrived books she recommends as evening reading: the types of novels she calls “reflectional,” not “sensational.” We may not get through more than a few such books with our children, but that doesn’t matter. In any such character-driven story, whether written for adults or children, we will recognize ourselves and our world, see mistakes to be avoided, and learn to applaud courage and loyalty.
The Difficulty with Adult Literature
Even older adult novels are often darker than we might expect, and of course parents must be sensitive both in choosing books and in deciding who gets to listen in, in the same way that they might watch a certain film with their older children but only after the younger ones are in bed. Some parents outlaw not only such films but also plays and novels, with a view to keeping their children’s minds untainted. Charlotte Mason points out that “There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence” (p. 374). A “sensational novel” carries out the literal meaning of that term, similar to the term “purple prose,” that which can be defined as drawing excessive attention to itself. Such books do not have to be X-rated, but can simply be those which “appeal, with whatever apparent innocence, to those physical sensations which are the begetters of lust,––the ‘his lips met hers,’ ‘the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve’” and so on (p. 375).
To further explain that distinction, let’s turn to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
“Oh, how can you call Ben Hur a novel when it’s really such a religious book?” protested Anne. “Of course it’s a little too exciting to be proper reading for Sunday, and I only read it on weekdays. And I never read _any_ book now unless either Miss Stacy [the teacher] or Mrs. Allan [the minister’s wife] thinks it is a proper book for a girl thirteen and three-quarters to read. Miss Stacy made me promise that. She found me reading a book one day called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall. It was one Ruby Gillis had lent me, and, oh, Marilla, it was so fascinating and creepy. It just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it. I didn’t mind promising not to read any more like it, but it was _agonizing_ to give back that book without knowing how it turned out. But my love for Miss Stacy stood the test and I did. It’s really wonderful, Marilla, what you can do when you’re truly anxious to please a certain person.”
So blood-curdling, creepy, and thrilling are generally to be avoided, but over-sanitization is also not the aim. We want quality, above all, and not necessarily quantity.
We’re not finished yet
This chapter on Pendennis is long, and it moves through a wide variety of topics, especially towards the end. Some examples: “what education is, and what it is to effect [what it is supposed to do]”; the “synthetic and analytic stages of education,” the purpose of “public schools” (of the sort previously described by Headmaster Harrowby); and “the setting in order [of] the house of our national education.” In Philosophy of Education, written some years later, Charlotte Mason takes a bleak but not unjustified look at the often less-than-excellent British behaviour that was exhibited during the Great War, and blames it on an increasing devaluation of character, both at home and in school. In Formation of Character, she warns already that
“Even with the example of our Master before us, we take small pains to make our young people realise the possibilities of noble action that lie in them and in everyone. We give them certain warnings, it is true, for fear of ruin and loss of reputation, but do we warn them against that deadly dull failure which is implied in a career of commonplace success?” (p. 383).
As a remedy, Miss Mason suggests this motto from a book that is both classic and classical.
“‘O friend,’ said he, ‘hold up your mind; strength is but strength of will;
Reverence each other’s good in fight, and shame at things done ill.”‘
[from The Iliad, Book 5, Chapman’s translation]