Children and Masks in Literature

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CHILDREN AND MASKS IN LITERATURE

The subject of home-schooling and the wearing of masks for children has been unavoidable recently.  It reminded me of the experience of the Brontë children, when being raised by their clergyman father Patrick.

When his wife died in 1821, he suddenly became a single parent of six small children.  He had to ask the same questions as many parents today.  How to teach these small people and prepare them for the future?  How to inculcate moral values and encourage healthy relationships?  How to get to know them better – to know what they’re really like?

Lessons from Patrick Brontë

Patrick tells us of an idea he came up with in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. Many years later, was wanting to write the biography of her friend and Patrick’s oldest surviving daughter, Charlotte:

“When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.” [1]

This startled me when I first read it a few years ago.  Why would wearing a mask make the children more honest and forthcoming?  We tend to associate masks with hiding and disguising.  Would this actually work in drawing the children out?  Judge for yourself.  Patrick continues:

“I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience.’  I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell), what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.’  I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of man and woman; he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.’  I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible.’  And what was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature.’  I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, ‘That which would make her rule her house well.’  Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.’  I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they made a deep and lasting impression on my memory.  The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated.” [2]

Perhaps to us these answers from young children sound more like some weird catechism than the free-flowing thoughts of children.  Were they just saying what they thought their clergyman father wanted to hear?  Of course we can’t possibly tell, even if we had been there at the time.  And of course there is the added fact that the Brontë children were in all probability child geniuses, three of whom would go on to write some of the greatest novels in the English language.  Even with our more ‘enlightened’ views in some respects, we might not be quite in their league!  But there is the reminder in the names included in brackets after the girl’s names that they would later feel compelled to write under male names in order to get an audience, in other words, by wearing a masculine mask.

But I was also intrigued by Patrick having a mask lying about the house.  Where was this from?  Had he gone to a masked ball with his young wife in happier days?  It was researching the subject of masked balls for my latest novel Night and Mr Knightley that made me look into the subject in the first place.  What sort of a mask was it – an ordinary black domino mask, or a tribal wooden carving?  Its appearance – and how scary it was – might well have an effect on how confident the children would feel in making their replies.  I was also surprised at the idea of a mask being used to help children become more up front about their real selves.  Was that a realistic expectation?  They would still be looking into their father’s eyes.  They would still have to live with him and their siblings the moment the mask was removed, still be in an adult’s power.

Mrs Gaskell concluded that it was a “curious education which was made by the circumstances surrounding the Brontës.  They knew no other children.  They knew no other modes of thought than what were suggested to them by the fragments of clerical conversation which they overheard in the parlour, or the subjects of village and local interest which they heard discussed in the kitchen.  Each had their own strong characteristic flavour. They took a vivid interest in the public characters, and the local and the foreign as well as home politics discussed in the newspapers.  Long before Maria Brontë died, at the age of eleven, her father used to say he could converse with her on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person…. Wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds, were hidden under an enforced propriety and regularity of demeanour and expression, just as their faces had been concealed by their father, under his stiff, unchanging mask.” [3]

Perhaps a good exam question might be: ‘Illustrate the pros and cons of home education for children using the example of the Brontës’!  Gaskell obviously interprets the use of the mask as a symbol of repression.  More useful for them was the overhearing of adult conversation in the home, both of professional clergy and servants, all steeped in local life.  The reading aloud of books and newspapers and family discussion of the issues of the day made for mental stimulation and broadening of outlook.  But just that phrase “they knew no other children” chills our hearts.  Yet look what they became!  Gaskell reminds us of their “wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds” that emerged from this strange process.

A later reference to Charlotte and masks is from her adult experience in Belgium when she is taken to a Carnival, marking the beginning of Lent.  There were masked characters and she was singularly unimpressed:

“The Carnival was nothing but masking and mummery.  M. Héger took me and one of the pupils into the town to see the masks.  It was animating to see the immense crowds, and the general gaiety, but the masks were nothing.” [4]

Hopefully not too traumatised by childhood experience then! I used Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre as a basis for my first Rotic Club murder mystery Murder and Mr Rochester, which of course reflects her great love for the Monsieur Héger who took her to see this parade of masks.

My second Rotic Club novel uses Jane Austen’s novel Emma as a starting point but it is in this one that I make use of the theme of mask-wearing and deception at a masked ball, a trope so loved by Golden Age mystery writers. You can see this reflected in the number of masks on the cover of Night and Mr Knightley!

Warnings from C S Lewis

Almost a hundred years later another Irish writer was making use of the concept of masks in the education of children. 

But the way C S Lewis utilised the wearing of a mask in his first novel Pilgrim’s Regress, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, is very different to the more sanguine and hopeful attitude of Patrick Brontë.  In this allegory, the little boy John is taken from playing in the fields and put into ugly uncomfortable clothes to visit the Steward (clergyman).  He is the local representative of the Landlord (God).  John has to sit still and be very good in the Steward’s big dark stone house.  His parents seem very grave and intimidated there, but at first the old Steward seems jolly and friendly.  He talks to the little boy about fishing and bicycles to the extent that John almost feels normal with him and relaxes.

“But just as the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat.  He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful.” [5}

The Steward then speaks to John in a sing-song hypnotic voice about how good the Landlord is to let them live on his land.  He gives the little boy a card with lots of rules written in small print: “half of the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing…”  There were also far too many to remember.  But just when John is despairing, the Steward whips the mask off “and looked at John with his real face” and advised him to lie about it all anyway.  He then “popped the mask on his face all in a flash” and threatens John with ending up in a black hole full of snakes and lobsters if he disobeys any of the rules and emphasises the goodness of the Landlord again.  John of course is terrified and doesn’t understand anything else the Steward says, apart from as he leaves when the Steward again takes off the mask and tells him not to bother about it all.

Lewis is here of course reflecting the very mixed messages and awkward teaching that he received as a child at church.  In this allegory, the parents abdicate responsibility for teaching their child about God themselves and instead leave him to the ambiguous moral advice and complex theological teaching of local clergy.  John is later given a little mask to wear at what is effectively the death of his “disreputable Uncle George”, who trembles so much before his eviction (death) that a mask will not stay on him and everyone “had to see his face as it was” which was too dreadful for them and they all looked away.

Later in the story, John as an adult meets Mr Halfways who has a long flowing beard and looks rather like the Steward but John is pleased to see that he doesn’t need a mask because “his face is really like that.”  A caricature of the Steward’s mask is later used by characters who want to mock their religious upbringing.

Lewis went on to use the idea of masks and veils in his final novel Till We Have Faces, in which religious leaders also use masks to hide who they really are to gain power over others, or as a way of transcending the self.  Apparently the original title favoured by Lewis for this book was Bareface, but the final title came from Orual asking near the end of the story concerning the gods: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” [6]  To be our real selves and speak the truth is the only way we can truly relate to God and others and have meaningful relationships.

Sadly we are living in a time when masks are necessary to protect our health, but it does seem particularly poignant when it is forced on children who are still in the early stages of forming their characters and relationships.  We certainly seem to be ambivalent about mask-wearing, judging from the way they are used in literature, either literally or metaphorically.  Both Patrick Brontë and C S Lewis would have known from their classical and Biblical studies that a mask-wearer is ‘hypokrites’, an actor who wears a mask,

who pretends in public to be someone they aren’t and that Jesus was particularly stern in his warnings to religious and political leaders to avoid this sin against God, the self, and others.

A Cry from Paul Laurence Dunbar

And just as mask-wearing has become compulsory for so many, it is still psychological necessity for those who feel oppressed, who feel the need to hide their true selves from others behind a false public persona because of their gender, race or class. 

This has rarely been expressed more powerfully than by the American Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the end of the nineteenth century, in words that tell an uncomfortable truth for children and adults alike:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!” [7]

Conclusion

At a time of global mask-wearing, Patrick Bronte’s desire that his children should learn to “speak with less timidity” so that he could get to know them better, C S Lewis’ goal that we should not need masks in order to look good because our faces are “really like that”, so that God and others can “meet us face to face” in reality, and Dunbar’s cry for relief to Christ from the pain of the need for a false outer self for protection – all of these are sentiments and stances that we can own today for our children and ourselves, even if we use different methods.  We all long for the one who truly sees us, who calls us forth, who won’t harm us in our vulnerability when we are “barefaced”, but who will meet us with love.

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (I John 3:2)

Till the Time Without Masks then, Till We Have Faces…

[For more on Jeanette Sears’ latest books, see the WELCOME page on this website or go straight to her Amazon page]

NOTES

[1]  Elisabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, 1857.

[2]  ibid.

[3]  ibid.

[4]  ibid., quoting a letter from Charlotte Bronte, dated March 6, 1843.

[5]  C S Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933.

[6]  C S Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 1956.

[7] Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘We Wear the Mask’ from Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1896.


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