Sunday 23 July 2017

Augustus Hare:A Spectacularly Unhappy Childhood

The other day I took a book from the shelf that I must have reviewed (perhaps for The Listener?) back in 1985 when it came out, but of which I remember very little indeed. It's a biography: Augustus Hare, Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes. I thought I'd have another look at it, by way of a break from my fiction reading.
 Augustus J.C. Hare was one of those Victorian writers who were very successful in their day but soon sank below the horizon as the century turned. He wrote a wide range of popular travel guides - his Walks in Rome was the most successful - as well as biographies of aristocrats (he adored the nobility) and family histories, but he was also an autobiographer on a grand scale. His Story of My Life runs to six fat volumes, supplemented by Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life and letters of his mother in three volumes. No shortage of material for the biographer, and Malcolm Barnes (who also edited an abridged version of the autobiography) makes good use of it.
 What I had remembered of this biography was that Hare had an unhappy childhood. Re-reading it, I realised just how unhappy. Even by the standards of Victorian children born into ultra-evangelical families with sadistic leanings, Hare's was a spectacularly unhappy childhood. Given away, for purely selfish reasons, by his natural mother, young Augustus was raised by his father's sister, Maria, a death-obsessed evangelical who was firmly convinced that children are innately evil and that sin must be driven out of them. The idea was that, by denying a child anything that might give them pleasure, the will could be broken and the child 'saved'. This was mainstream stuff in evangelical circles at the time, and Maria's harshness was softened to some degree by natural affection, so that life with 'Mother', however oppressive, was bearable to Augustus, and even had its pleasures.
  Unfortunately there were others on the scene, whose attitudes to child-rearing made Maria's look like the utmost leniency. Augustus's uncle Julius, the Rector of Herstmonceux, lived nearby and dominated Maria and Augustus's life with his demands, his strictures and his ferocious presence, in which the boy was expected to sit still, in silence, and be totally ignored. But worse was to come after Julius married Esther, a sister of F.D. Maurice, the 'saintly' theologian and Christian Socialist (saintly to Charles Kingsley and many adoring followers, 'puzzle-headed' and 'wrong-headed' to Ruskin). Esther set about tormenting the unhappy Augustus - for his own good, of course - with all but psychopathic relish.
 As well as being made to sleep through the harshest winter weather in a solitary unheated room and (despite his chilblains) wash in the morning in water that was often frozen, he was also forced to eat sauerkraut precisely because its very smell made him sick. On other occasions, delicious puddings would be presented at table, with every display of relish, only to be taken away again intact. Esther also decreed that, on Sundays, Augustus should be locked into the vestry for three hours between services, with only the rats for company. But the climax of her campaign of vicious sadism came when she took Augustus's favourite cat from him and hanged it from the branch of a tree, taking the boy out to see its quivering body.
 When not suffering this brutal domestic regime, Augustus would be enduring a succession of horrendous boarding schools (one run by the father of Francis Kilvert, the diarist) where conditions were so appalling that he longed to be home. In the course of all this, he often, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill, on one occasion being obliged to wear a kind of iron cage over his body for months on end.
 Happily, there were times when more agreeable people entered his life - one of them Walter Savage Landor, with whom Augustus dined regularly when attending a school near Bath, the meals with Landor saving him from starvation. Augustus revelled in the conversation (or monologue) of the old man, who would sit with his white Spitz dog on his head while holding forth. The Hares were phenomenally well connected, and not all of their connections were ecclesiastical - a fact that stood Augustus in good stead in later life when cultivating the aristocracy, with many of whom he could claim some kind of cousinly connection. This was a man who was never happier than when attending a house party at one or other of the stately homes of England.
  That Augustus Hare was capable of happiness at all - that he became a sociable, well-liked and apparently well-adjusted man with a successful career - after such a start in life as he endured is little short of miraculous. Indeed, it's a wonder he survived at all.


  1. Luxury! He had it easy as Monty Python would have it. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable way to treat children. I'm intrigued by Landor holding forth with his dog "on his head." Was it perched precariously on all four feet atop his cranium or, perhaps, curled up equally precariously? What if Landor became particularly exercised on a particular subject? It's all sounding rather surreal.

  2. I visualise it as resting on his head like a fur hat - the aim was probably to keep his aged head warm.

  3. Nancy Mitford wrote an essay on Augustus Hare which still gives me the creeps-it recounts most of these details. The cat story still horrifies me. The Hare family are Earls of Listowel, I believe..... My mother (I am Indian but grew up in the UK) once remarked that the English treat their animals better than their children. I suppose Aunt Esther was the exception.

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