Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern


I was born on December 20th, 1851, the eighth child and the fifth daughter of Francis and Mary Ann Fuller, of Kenley Manor, Surrey. Five other children were born after me, and we all grew up to manhood and womanhood in the way the large families of those days seemed to grow up in huge rambling houses, containing nurseries, schoolrooms, servants’ quarters, and three or four spare rooms—all of the house, from garret to cellar being kept in perfect order by a large and efficient staff of servants and under-servants. Of course, during my unconscious nursery and schoolroom days I knew nothing of the domestic machinery which kept this sort of patriarchal home going, but I have since often heard my mother tell of how she was taking her elder daughters out into society while she still had a nursery full of little ones; and I can still remember as a nursery child my mother’s visits at regular and stated hours to the nursery, when she sat on a low chair by the fire and breast-fed the latest baby, while we little ones pressed round her, showing our toys and picture books, with subconscious longings for the touch of her beautiful soft hand on hair or shoulder. The Victorian mothers, it seems to me (in spite of the fact that the lives of their children were mainly passed in the nursery and in the daily care of nurse and under-nurse), took their maternal duties very seriously, for on these occasions of nursery visits our health was enquired into, special orders about feeding and clothing were given, and Nannie reported anything about her charges that required immediate attention. I can see my old Nannie now, of whom I was very fond, sitting by the hour in the same low chair by the fire in which my mother sat when she visited our nursery, and quilling up endless yards of valenciennes lace, interspersed with little white satin bows for the lace caps always worn by Victorian babies; or preparing the tiny filmy shirts and soft warm flannels which were to cover baby’s struggling limbs after the bath which the under-nurse was preparing, and which we elder children loved so to watch. There was a ritual, a seriousness about all the processes connected with Victorian baby-cult, which it appears to me has gone the way of large families, large houses, and large staffs of servants. We have had to simplify life, and baby goes without a lace cap, which is all the better for it, and is shortcoated at the end of weeks instead of at the end of months, which doubtless is all the better for the growth of its lower limbs. But there was a feeling of nest-like warmth about the Victorian nursery, and about the fostering care of the dignified “old nurse,” who took over the charge of each new baby, without ever letting the ex-baby toddler feel that its wee nose was out of joint; and who, even when we were one after the other promoted from nursery to schoolroom, kept a motherly eye on our health, was ready to receive confidences and to give advice, and was always the kindly and sympathetic recipient of the stories of our schoolroom pranks and punishments. Our under-nurses were often Swiss girls, who taught us to speak French and German; and though perhaps from what I now know, their accents were not as pure in either language as they might have been, still I know no better way to délier la langue of young children so as to make foreign languages come more easily in school days, than to let them pick up unconsciously at a very early age the rudiments of one or other languages, in the same way as they pick up the rudiments of their own language.

Every evening we were dressed to go down to the drawing-room for the children’s hour, from six to seven, when my dear father had returned home, and we small people were made joyful by his sunny smile and the way in which he entered into our fun and games and devised glorious surprises for us. On Sundays only we were admitted to dessert, and we sat ready dressed round the nursery, waiting impatiently for the upstairs nursery bell to ring, which was the summons for Nannie in her black silk dress to bring us down. We were supposed to enter the dining room in an orderly little file, but, at the last moment, as the door was opened, our progress generally ended in a rush and a whoop as we hunted for father, who had perhaps hidden behind the curtains, or under the table, or had devised some new and (in our judgment) some exquisite way of cutting up and serving oranges, either as lobsters or as little baskets of fruit with handles—the latter arrangement being our great joy. Then Nannie was given by my father her glass of port wine. We children each had our little glass of sweet Cape wine, in which to drink the health of absent friends, and then we settled down to the wholehearted enjoyment of children (whose nursery fare was of the simplest) of preserved ginger, almonds and raisins, and damson cheese. I can remember no severer punishment in my childhood than being sent to bed instead of going down to the drawing-room at six o’clock for the children’s hour; and when I was the luckless culprit who had to undergo this punishment, I can recall now the shame I felt as I hid my head, sobbing under the bedclothes, and thought of the pain I was causing my dear father, when he would miss me, either from the drawing-room in winter, or the garden in summer, and would learn on enquiry that his little dark-haired girl had been naughty. I was the only brown-haired child in a family of thirteen very fair children, and when visitors were staying in the house, I can still remember the shrinking with which I used almost to expect the remark: “This is not one of yours, Mrs. Fuller?” or, “Is this a little friend or cousin staying with them?” as we filed into the drawing-room. I seemed to think there was a sort of malicious brand on me, marking me out as different, and less well-favoured than the others; and when I was old enough to read the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” I knew exactly what its feelings were, poor dear, and felt oddly and tenderly drawn towards it. Added to this, the fact that two boys came before me in the family made me something of a tomboy and excited the scorn of my four elder sisters, who were grown, or growing up, young ladies, enjoying delightful singing and piano lessons, while I was climbing trees and tearing my frocks. Of these four elder sisters, the eldest married quite young (my youngest sister being then an infant in arms), the second and much beloved one was an invalid (arthritis) from the age of fourteen, and died when twenty-seven. The third became a Sister at Wantage, and the fourth did not marry. A brother was the eldest of the family. He went out to Australia and married there, so that to us younger ones he was little more than a name. Of the two brothers just older than myself, one went into the Indian Civil Service, and the other into the Navy. Two sisters followed me in the family list, then two brothers, and finally one more sister. Of all these brothers and sisters, only one younger sister now remains, while the graves of the others lie scattered in many lands.

Unlike the impressions of most Victorian children, I seem to remember that Sundays, though they had their drawbacks, were one of the happiest days in the week, because of the pure pagan joy of a walk home from old Coulsdon church with my father, who was such a delightful companion in fields and woods, knowing, as he did, the song or cry of every bird and small animal, having always something interesting to tell us about the growing crops, the naughty poppies among the corn, whose flowers we thought brave and brilliant, but which we were told were a sign of bad farming; the fluttering larks, whose outpourings in the clear summer blue we had just been listening to with rapture, and who, as father pointed out to us, never came to earth near their nests, but some distance away, so as not to reveal the secret hiding place of the warm eggs or of the unfledged young ones. Our home was at Kenley Manor House, which looked out over Kenley Common, only divided from it by a ha-ha sunk fence. Our drive to church was over this common, and I can recall now the pleasant soft feeling of driving over the turf; but the moment of leaving church, when father said at the churchyard gate, where the carriage was waiting: “Well, who’s for a walk home?” was, I know for me, the happy moment of the whole day. Eager little hands were thrust into his, and eager little voices cried, “Me, me.” A choice of two or three candidates was made, the rest being packed into the carriage with my mother and the governess, and our rejoicing little band disappeared into a copse, which led down a straggling field into a cornfield, then through other fields and gates on to a corner of Kenley Common, where, O joy! were the kennels of the Surrey foxhounds, of which my father was the master, and Sam Hills was the huntsman. Of course, we all turned in to see the hounds have their dinner of horseflesh and meal, which was poured out into long troughs; but no hound ventured to leave the wooden platforms on which they lay, hungry and expectant, their beautiful eyes watching the movements of the “whips,” and their sleek ears listening for the call of their own names. Victor, Rodney, Spanker, would answer to their names and come down to feed; while on the side of the ladies, Heartsease, Violet, Daphne, would, to the delight of us children, fall to at the ladies’ trough and soon prove that their appetites were as keen as those of their mates. If Breakspear or Charity tried to slip in before their names were called, a flick of the snaky whipthong sent them yelping back to their bench, and they probably had to wait for their call till the troughs were getting low; but we children could not be lured away from the fascinating sight till every hound was fed, and we had had special interviews with two or three favourites. Then there was generally a caged badger or a tame fox cub to be inspected, after which the walk home over the rest of the common was completed, followed by a scamper upstairs to the nursery early dinner, for which on these occasions we were often, late; but we never thought of feeling hungry, we were too interested and excited, and had so much to tell the others, who had been cut off from our delights. On a frosty winter’s day father would remark as we rushed into the hall and made for the fire: “What about some cherry brandy?” Then home-made cherry brandy would be produced, and we youngsters allowed a cherry each before we were shooed upstairs to our early dinner.

Another picture which comes before me is that of the haymaking parties to which cousins and neighbours came. The party would be fixed for the day on which the hay in one of the larger fields was to be carried, and after romps and games and making nests in the hay, syllabub, made from an old recipe of my grandmother’s, was handed round. This syllabub had to be made at the moment that the cows were milked, because after white wine, strawberries, sugar and spice had been put into exquisite china bowls, the warm milk of a cow was milked into this decoction. I cannot remember that we children and our small friends appreciated this syllabub very much, but no doubt it made its appeal to the grown-ups, as I always remember, even when I had reached the schoolroom age, it being made and handed round in bowls of which I loved the feel, because the china was so delicate. After syllabub came tea in the field, followed by riding on the piled-up hay carts as they swung through the gates and up to the great stack in the stack-yard. Kenley Manor had a home farm, which was managed by the bailiff; and another of my great joys as a child was going round the farm and stables with my father on a Saturday afternoon, or summer evening, listening to his chats with bailiff, head groom or head gardener, for he was country born and bred, and not only loved, but understood and reverenced the varying and intimate expressions of country life. In the gardens and hothouses, with their grapes, peaches and melons, I learnt much valuable garden lore, for my father kept abreast with what was latest in garden culture, and made frequent visits with his friend, Mr. Robinson, the editor of The Garden, to the public gardens and parks of Paris, where the latest phases of nineteenth century gardening were to be studied. As regards the feeding of plants, I always remember his telling a guest who was struck with the size and lusciousness of some Black Hambro grapes in one of the hothouses, that a calf which had died on the farm had been buried at the root of that particular vine; and I have often watched when a child, the liquid manure being applied to the strawberry plants at the moment the fruit was forming, so as to give strength to the plant at that critical moment. Among our friends our strawberries were renowned, and we children always rejoiced that our holidays began about June 18th (the school terms were at that time four instead of three, as now), because strawberries were ripe at the time when school broke up for summer holidays.

My elder sisters rode to hounds constantly with my father. We younger ones had our ponies, and sometimes as a special treat rode before breakfast with my father, who taught us with an old steady white pony called Snowball, both to ride and drive, being specially particular about our understanding harnessing and unharnessing when driving, and the tightening of girths before mounting to ride; for he explained that accidents often happened because of ignorance on these points. He also kept a strict watch on our hands when riding or driving, to ensure our always feeling sensitively the pony’s mouth, and never committing the sin of jerking at the bit. His own hunters and roadsters were to him intimate friends; and he had mounted as an inkstand the hoof of a favourite mare, aged twenty-seven years, which he used constantly to drive in a light gig down to Brighton before the days of railways—returning the next day. He was, even at the age of eighty, a wonderful shot, but he never cared for driven game. His enjoyment consisted in walking over the stubble fields or turnips with a friend or two, equally keen at birds, and watching the dogs working. He would eat with relish for his lunch a turnip pulled up from the field and scraped with his knife; and I can remember his telling of how in his youth the tenant farmers used to put up in their turnip fields for the instruction of passers-by “Take one, and a’ done; take two, and I’ll take you.”

My father read prayers in the dining-room every morning, and in the drawing-room at night; all the children from nursery and schoolroom attending in the morning, with a row of servants near the door. When I look back at those happy sheltered days of what I suppose was a more or less typical Victorian home life, I note the vast difference that separates the psychology of parents, children and the domestic staff from that of the twentieth century. The same old nurse took charge of one baby after another, as about every two years a small son or daughter put in an appearance. The same governess fairly young when she took over the education of my elder brothers and sisters, was d’un age mur when it came to my turn to begin schoolroom lessons; but even when past teaching young and troublesome youngsters, whose eyes were always wandering towards the garden, and whose thoughts were thirsting for a jump across the ha-ha and a ramble round the common, or a climb into one of the old oak trees that flanked the lawn—she remained a pensioned family friend, always ready to take us children to the seaside in summer if my mother was otherwise engaged; or even to stay as a “parlour boarder” with two of my elder sisters at a French school in Paris, so that she might accompany them to the Embassy Church on Sundays and read English literature to them as a steadying counterblast to French ways and French accomplishments. My father’s love of English literature was very great, though nowadays his tastes would no doubt be thought narrow and old-fashioned. It was he who first pointed out to me (then a child of ten) the inherent beauties of simplicity and of classical purity in Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” and induced me to learn it by heart, telling me I should never understand all its English soul and essence, till I had memorised it. He always maintained that Shakespeare had something to say on every subject, no matter how modern it might be; and when discussions arose on questions of the day he would interject, taking down his Concordance: “Let’s see what old Shakespeare has to say about it.” He generally found something near the mark, and this hunting up of quotations gave me at least a fair working knowledge of the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, so that I was able when twelve years old to make my own birthday book of Shakespearian quotations, in days before printed birthday books were the fashion. I have the old book still, written in my schoolgirl handwriting. The quotation I chose for my father was, “The elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man”; and for my mother, “Many days shall see her, and yet no day without a deed to crown it.”

Next: Chapter II. Early Impressions