My mother was a Victorian – just –
as would have been her friends unless, in laggardly fashion, they crept in as Edwardians. Thus, a good few years ago now, I had the notion of inquiring among those that I met what they remembered of their childhood reading. It was hardly a scientific survey and tended to produce indeterminate answers about ‘a nice blue book with beautiful pictures’, but the most specific and several times repeated recollection was of a volume whose author had been forgotten but whose lachrymose pleasures were still affectionately remembered.
This was A Peep Behind the Scenes.
by the certainly not easily remembered Mrs O.F. Walton, first published in 1877. It came from the Religious Tract Society, a source of consistent bestsellers for children throughout the nineteenth century and by the time of my mother’s childhood the book was, as one critic put it, ‘at home in half the nurseries of England’. Indeed – regularly remembered for its title rather than its author – it continued in print throughout the twentieth century. (I have a paperback copy from the Lutterworth Press, modern successor to the RTS, dated 1990.)
The story twines together two themes
which combine in its very first chapter. Here we meet Rosalie, ‘about twelve years of age’, who is taking care of her sick mother in the unwholesome dwelling of a fairground caravan. Her father, who sleeps in other similar quarters, is the proprietor of a travelling theatre, moving with his troupe from one fair venue to another along with a variety of accompanying popular attractions and sideshows.
The giddy act
that brought this about is soon revealed as ‘Mammie’ tells her daughter how she had left her well-to-do family to run off with an actor – charmed by a wholly deluded vision of the romance of the stage. Both his wife and, later, Rosalie joined him on the travelling theatre as performers, exhausting themselves on a never-ending tour which yielded no pleasure and almost no reward. (There’s no sign of a critical take on Mr Crummles’s outfit in Nicholas Nickleby.) For the first time Rosalie hears of the family that had rejected her and is entrusted by her dying mother with the only evidence that she has been able to preserve of her former status.
For the first half of the story,
up to Mammie’s death we follow the caravan on its journeyings and its tawdry theatricals. (Their content and character must be taken on trust for Mrs Walton vouchsafes no information as to what actually goes on in the scenes behind which we are peeping.) In a chapter called ‘Vanity Fair’ however we follow Rosalie as she wends an unfamiliar way among the many entertainments and sideshows and we glimpse an unexpected fascination that the scene is exerting upon our author herself.)
Following Mammie’s death
‘a dark time’ descends upon Rosalie (not that times had been very bright before). Her father dies after a drunken night out, having recently married again, and her stepmother, a lodging-house keeper, determines to pack her off to the work-house since she is too frail to do a good day’s work. Thus, without money, and uncertain of where she is going, but still safeguarding her ‘heirloom’, she sets forth, eventually to find her eucatastrophe with a loving and caring aunt.
This variant of the Victorian ‘waif’ story
is though entwined by its author with those more purposeful pieties that are also with us from our first visit to the caravan. It is then that the girl and her mother, neither attentive to any religious experience or understanding, encounter a friendly visitor who presents them with an illustrated text of the parable of the Good Shepherd and its words that ‘ there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth’.
From that point
those words and their message of salvation are a theme that runs parallel to the events of the story. Rosalie not only finds a comfort in their barely understood connotation but becomes an infant prosyletizer for their efficacy. They form a kind of running sermon whose sentiment lies behind her colloquies with the variegated characters whom she encounters on the road: a cottager who gives her milk, a girl who, like Mammie, had fled from home to join a circus and was bitterly regretting it, a dwarf (from the Royal Show of Dwarfs), later to become a significant character for good in Rosalie’s final adventure, and even Toby, a helper in the theatre, who drives Rosalie’s caravan.
A hundred and twenty years on,
with the tide of faith almost gone out beyond the horizon, it is not so easy to judge how far the joyous tears first wept over A Peep Behind the Scenes by those early readers were wept through a sense of the fulfilment of the promise of the parable or through Rosalie’s final success in negotiating the many difficulties that beset her. In all probability a contemporary reader will not only skip the sermonizing (Mrs Walton was the wife of an Anglican minister) but will do so because of a gross sentimentality inimical to our present times. The story though, round which the parable is twined, retains a momentum, much aided by Coincidence, which has power to move. One wonders if the same will be true of today’s moral tales, surviving, if they do, ‘without benefit of clergy’.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0-7123-5728-9, £25.00 hbk, is out now.
A Peep Behind the Scenes is published by 1st World Library 978-1421804750, £7.75 pbk