Children and Masks in Literature

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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]


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]


[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.

C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

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C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.




[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).

A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

One of the most amazing things about visiting Chatsworth House this week was just the fact that we were allowed to take photos. Anyone who has been round the great stately homes of England will know that this is very unusual, so it felt like a triple privilege being able to take photos of such marvellous architecture and works of art, along with the staggering amount of special Christmas decor plus the magical Narnian theme.

Painted Hall

Painted Hall

A glory of Chatsworth even under normal conditions is the enormous Painted Hall with the main staircase. Virtually every inch is covered with murals and carving and sculpture. Those of us walking around the house had already begun to gasp as we entered each room, but this next one really took our breath away.

White Witch

White Witch

The White Witch had certainly commandeered the best spot, looking magnificent at the top of the main stairs with a cloak flowing down,

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

with the addition of a few cheeky boxes of turkish delight.

White Witch

White Witch

She was standing next to a very impressive throne that looked suspiciously like the silver chair.

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

Turkish delight was definitely a theme here, even nestling under glass domes on side tables.

View from balcony

View from balcony

It was possible to view the whole scene from a balcony on the upper floor and get an even more amazing perspective.

Tops of trees

Tops of trees

Here one could see the top of the gigantic Christmas trees.

Detail of decorations

Detail of decorations

Apparently it took the staff a week of solid work to decorate the house. I’m surprised it didn’t take a lot longer.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

Even though the scene with the White Witch was impressive, the next scene, though on a smaller scale, was even more astonishing. We were suddenly confronted with a life-size Aslan on the Stone Table. He was bound with ropes in the classic pose and there were small white mice moving around on him as if helping to free him. They were animatronic of course but it looked surprisingly realistic. But the most surprising thing was that Aslan’s chest was moving up and down gently as if he had begun to breathe again and was returning to life. I don’t know if they didn’t want to present him as dead so as not to upset children or if this was a genuine theological statement! Of course Aslan, the true King, has given his life in exchange for Edmund, to rescue him from the White Witch.  I could have stared at this for ages but of course one has to keep moving and let other people see. The scene fitted remarkably well with the backdrop of the room chosen and felt august and solemn.

Veiled lady

Veiled lady

Next a statue of a veiled lady reminded me of the women weeping at the tomb of Jesus, and Susan and Lucy mourning Aslan, before they know of his victory over death.

Tiny lion clues

Tiny lion clues

All the way round the house were small lion toys to give the children clues to various questions for them for the quiz on the guide.

Lion Christmas tree

Lion Christmas tree

Now a whole tree decorated with lots of lion toys seemed to be giving the hint as well that perhaps the witch was not about to have everything her way and Aslan was on the move again…


Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the four children at Cair Paravel.

The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

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The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

The Works of George Herbert

The Works of George Herbert

Have you ever worried that you were choosing the wrong career path? Have you ever had friends and relatives trying to put you off your chosen path because they think it’s a waste of your talents? This can be particularly the case for those who feel called to serve God in some way. A call to ordination, for example, can feel like financial doom for those expected to earn high salaries in high-flying professions. Even though money is often the last thing on the minds of those with a vocation, it can still be an issue for loved ones and dependants. And the social standing of a church minister today can seem very low indeed compared to past centuries. At least, that’s what I had assumed. But reading the life of the great poet and priest George Herbert, I was amazed to find him with exactly the same problems – in 1625!

I picked up a beautiful copy of The Works of George Herbert for just a few pence, published by Frederick Warne and Co as one of their ‘Chandos Classics’ range. There’s no date, but it looks around 1880s to me. Now, I love looking in the back of old books to see the lists of the publishers’ other publications, many long forgotten. Along with the names of the great and the good that we are familiar with, there are often amusing names and eccentric titles, plus many examples that show how much we have changed in our interests and habits, as individuals and as a society. In this book, for example, the publisher’s list in the back advertises Manners and Tone of Good Society; or Solecisms to be Avoided, Society Small Talk; or, What to Say, and When to Say It, as well as Party Giving on Every Scale; or, The Cost of Entertainments, and The Management of Servants: a Practical Guide to the Routine of Domestic Service, all written by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’.

All of these subjects would have been very familiar to the subject of the book itself, George Herbert, although three centuries earlier. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic background, gained a top job at Cambridge University, became a Member of Parliament, and was feted at the Court of King James I for his brilliance. He seemed cut out to be the highest of high flyers at a very young age. But then disaster. Two of his most powerful friends and supporters at Court died, then King James I himself, “and with them all Mr Herbert’s Court hopes”, so Izaak Walton tells us in this biography. So Herbert went to a friend’s house in Kent to retreat for a while and seek God about his future – whether to try again the “painted pleasures of Court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity, and enter into sacred orders.” He was at first very conflicted. A friend at Court advised him not to go in for such a low-status job – Izaak Walton tells us that all his friends considered it “too mean an employment, and too much below his birth and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind.”

But George Herbert was able to reply:

“It hath been formerly adjudged that the domestic servants of the King of heaven should be of the noblest families on earth; and though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for Him that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and the meek example of my dear Jesus.”

He was deaconed then made prebendary of Layton Ecclesia, a village near Spaldon in Huntingdonshire, in the diocese of Lincoln in 1626, and priested and made Rector of Bemerton, Wiltshire, in 1630. Though opting for that ‘smaller‘ life that many of his contemporaries despised, Herbert’s writings and example of the love and service of God and his fellow humans have inspired millions. Deo Gloria.