Friday, November 18, 2022

"Cut off their heads now and then": F. M. MAYOR (as MARY STRAFFORD), Mrs. Hammond's Children (1901)

"I can't much see the use of Kings and Queens ('Sha-a-ame!'); but if you have Kings and Queens, I think it's a good thing to cut off their heads now and then as a warning. I can't remember about Charles I's father, but I expect he was a bad man, and of course Charles II was a beast; he let the Dutch beat us.

Then there was James II. I expect he would have had his head cut off too, only he ran away. I had a lot of other things to say, but as I can't read my paper, I shan't say any more."

"Of well, Mr. Speaker, I mean, I do think my honourable friend does talk rubbish."

It's not really playing fair to select my opening quote from "The Hammond Parliament", the penultimate story in Mrs. Hammond's Children, as it will likely make the book (impossible to find outside the British Library, as I can attest) seem more consistently irresistible than it really is. But it is true that this story, in particular, in which the Hammond children enact a parliamentary debate unlike any other, was very nearly worth the trouble I went to to finally be able to read the book.

I have absolutely
yearned to read this book for over a decade now, since first discovering F. M. Mayor's three gorgeous novels—The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Rector's Daughter (1924) in particular, but also to a lesser degree The Squire's Daughter (1929). This was Mayor's first book, written under the pseudonym Mary Strafford in 1901 and never reprinted, and it's vanishingly rare now. (For most of that time, I was also lusting after a novella she wrote in 1914 called Miss Browne's Friend, but happily that was reprinted by the redoubtable Michael Walmer last year and proved as intriguing and satisfying as expected.) It does seem, given the acknowledgement Mayor deserves (though often still doesn't get) as a major author of the early 20th century, that this title too should be widely available. That said, I must also confess that if I had gone to the British Library only to find this book, I might have felt a bit let down.

When Mrs. Hammond's Children first appeared, it seems to have been marketed as a children's book, but when Janet Morgan wrote her introduction to the Virago edition of The Squire's Daughter, she referred to it as a collection of stories about children—“based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.” Having read it at last, I'm still not absolutely sure how I would describe it. It's written very much in the sort of arch, moralistic tones of the children's fiction of the turn of the century, which makes some of the stories slightly hard going for an adult reader in 2022, but I also felt that the language itself is not necessarily aimed at children—Mayor's prose was already taking flight here and there—and its themes are rather subtle for a book to be read to young'uns. It's a bit "neither fish nor fowl", but perhaps all the more interesting to scholars for that reason.

"The Hammond Parliament", which is very entertaining and at times hilarious, was for me the best story of the seven here. "The Bosom Friends", about a pretentious friend of Milly's who should have been exposed on a hillside at birth, who makes Milly self-conscious about the family's relative lack of affluence until Milly Learns an Important Lesson (caps are mine, but they're surely implied in the text), has some quite amusing moments as well, though it's a bit weighted down with sentiment. "A Foreign Cousin", in which the Hammond children are rather beastly to their German cousin only to have a crisis at Christmas and peace made at last, has some high points as well despite its syrupy tones and unjustified length. "His Excellency the Sirdar", about the sad fate of the family's guinea pig, is strikingly accurate about children's behaviors and their changeability, but not completely engrossing for me. And "The End of All Things", the concluding story, about children getting older and putting away childish things, and the feelings of their younger siblings about it, is rather poignant, and very intelligently observed (as is all the book), and I like the concluding paragraph especially:

Indeed, I find it difficult to recognise my old friends in these very great and superior persons. I am sure they will no longer find me worthy of their company, so I take this opportunity of bidding them good-bye.

Ultimately, a mixed bag then. But I'm very glad I was finally able to read this missing piece from Mayor's too-sparse oeuvre, and it's of particular interest for those interested in well-observed books about children. It might be just a touch too sweet and pretty for my taste (apart from the advocacy for regicide, that is), but your mileage may well vary. And it's certainly essential that scholars should be able to include this work in their overall assessment of Mayor.

I should add, the illustrations are credited to one Alice Strafford—presumably, given Mayor's author pseudonym, a sister of the author, and one F. H. S. Shepherd.


  1. I believe that Sundial Press still plan to publish this as a "limited edition hardback" at some point, though it seems to have been delayed.

  2. Is it at all comparable to Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days/The Golden Age and Booth Tarkington's Penrod books? These are written from a (remembered) child's perspective but with very adult language. It's a really distinctive narrative approach that doesn't seem to be very common.

  3. And not forgetting Richmal Crompton's Just William books which are ostensibly written for children.

    A couple of years ago I read the whole series (all 39 of them) out loud, to my centenarian neighbour, as bedtime reading.

    I was struck over and over again how clever the writing was, especially in the earlier books, how the author played on words, and how she managed to write something to make all ages laugh...

  4. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it.

    Among the things I am grateful for this year, I certainly include the Furrowed Middlebrow blog including wonderful reviews (and travel reports on occasion) and especially for the wonderful reissues of Furrowed Middlebrow books produced in conjunction with Dean Street Press (which also published some fun books, mostly mysteries, in addition to the FMB publications.)


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