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Granny's Wonderful Chair by  Frances Browne


 

 
[Illustration]

PREFACE

[ix] The writer of "Granny's Wonderful Chair" was a poet, and blind. That she was a poet the story tells on every page, but of her blindness it tells not a word. From beginning to end it is filled with pictures; each little tale has its own picturesque setting, its own vividly realised scenery. Her power of visualisation would be easy to understand had she become blind in the later years of her life, when the beauties of the physical world were impressed on her mind; but Frances Browne was blind from infancy. The pictures she gives us in her stories were created, in darkness, from material which came to her only through the words of others. In her work are no blurred lines or [x] uncertainties, her drawing is done with a firm and vigorous hand. It would seem that the completeness of her calamity created, within her, that serenity of spirit which contrives the greatest triumphs in Life and in Art. Her endeavour was to realise the world independently of her own personal emotion and needs. She, who, out of her darkness and poverty, might have touched us so surely with her longing for her birthright of light, for her share of the world's good things, gives help and encouragement to the more fortunate.

In reading the very few details of her life we feel the stimulation as of watching one who, in a desperate fight, wins against great odds.

The odds against Frances Browne were heavy. She was born at Stranorlar, a mountain village in Donegal, on January 16, 1816. Her great-grandfather was a man of considerable property, which he squandered; and the younger generation would seem to have inherited nothing from its ancestor but his irresponsibility. Frances Browne's father was the village post-master, and she, the seventh in a family of twelve children, learning privation [xi] and endurance from the cradle. But no soil is the wrong one for genius. Whether or not hers would have developed more richly in more generous surroundings, it is difficult to say. The strong mind that could, in blindness and poverty, secure its own education, and win its way to the company of the best, the thoroughly equipped and well tended, gained a victory which genius alone made possible.

She was one of the elect, had no creative achievement crowned her triumph.

She tells us how she herself learned by heart the lessons which her brothers and sisters said aloud every evening, in readiness for the next day's school; and how she bribed them to read to her by doing their share of the household work.

When the usual bribe failed, she invented stories for them, and, in return for these, books were read to her which, while they seemed dull and uninteresting enough to the readers, built up for the eager listener those enchanted steps by which she was to climb into her intellectual kingdom.

Her habit was to say these lessons aloud at night, when every one else was asleep, to impress [xii] untiringly upon her memory the knowledge for which she persistently fought through the day.

There were no book-shops at Stranorlar, or within three counties of it, and had there been one, Frances Browne had no pennies for the luxury of books. But she had friends, and from those who were richer than herself in possession, she borrowed her tools. From the village teacher she learned French, in exchange for those lessons in grammar and geography which her brothers and sisters had given away to her, in return for numberless wipings and scrubbings in the kitchen. Scott's novels marked an era in her mental life; and of Pope's Iliad—which she heard read when she was about fifteen—she says, "It was like the discovery of a new world, and effected a total change in my ideas and thoughts on the subject of poetry. There was at the time a considerable MS. of my own production in existence, which of course I regarded with some partiality; but Homer had awakened me, and in a fit of sovereign contempt I committed the whole to the flames. After Homer's, the work that produced the greatest im- [xiii] pression on my mind was Byron's 'Childe Harold.' The one had induced me to burn my first MS., the other made me resolve against verse-making in future."

Her first poem was written at the age of seven, but after this resolve of her fifteenth year, she wrote no more for nearly ten years. Then, in 1840, when she was four and twenty, a volume of Irish Songs was read to her, and her own music reawakened. She wrote a poem called "The Songs of our Land." It was published in the "Irish Penny Journal," and can be found still in Duffy's "Ballad Poetry of Ireland." After this her poems grew apace: she wrote lyrics for the "Athenæum," "Hood's Magazine," and "Lady Blessington's Keepsake." Her work was much appreciated, and her poems were reprinted in many of the contemporary journals.

She published a complete volume of poems in 1844, and a second volume in 1848, which she called "Lyrics and Miscellaneous Poems."

The first use to which she put her literary earnings was the education of a sister, to be her reader [xiv] and amanuensis. In Frances Browne's life each step was in the direction of her goal. From its beginning to its end the strong mind pressed unhesitatingly forward to its complete development, seeking the inner light more steadfastly for the absence of external vision.

Her income was a pension of £20, from the Royal Bounty Fund; and with this, for all security, she set out, in 1847, with her sister to Edinburgh, determined to make her own way in the literary world. At leaving her native land she says:

"I go as one that comes no more, yet go without regret;

The summers other memories store 'twere summer to forget;

I go without one parting word, one grasp of parting hand,

As to the wide air goes the bird—yet fare thee well, my land!"

She quickly made friends in Edinburgh, won by her genius and character, in the circle which included Christopher North. Her industry was amazing: she wrote essays, reviews, leaders, lyrics, stories—indeed, she wrote anything she was asked to write, and under the pressure of her work her [xv] prose strengthened and developed. But all her energy could not make her rich. "The waters of my lot," she says, "were often troubled, though not by angels." Her own health interfered with her work, and, from the beginning, she, out of her own poverty, tried to relieve that of her mother.

In 1852 she moved to London, and here, by the gift of £100 from the Marquis of Lansdowne, she was for the time released from the pressure of daily necessity. She concentrated on a more important work than she had yet attempted, and wrote a novel which she called "My Share of the World."

It is written in the form of an autobiography of one Frederick Favoursham, a youthful struggler through journalism and tutorship, who wins nothing better, in the end, than a lonely possession of vast estates. But one realises fully, in this story, the strength of a mind whose endeavour is to probe the heart of things, and whose firm incisive expression translates precisely what the mind discovers.

There are in this work, and it is natural it should [xvi] be so, one or two touches of self-revelation; the only ones, I think, which she, in all her writing, permitted herself. She makes her hero say of his mother—"Well I remember her old blue gown, her hands hard with rough work, her still girlish figure and small pale face, from which the bloom and the prettiness had gone so early; but the hard hand had, in its kindly pressure, the only genuine love I ever knew; the pale face looks yet on my sleep with a blessing, and the old gown has turned, in my dreams, to the radiant robe of an angel."

And the delicate sensitive character of Lucy, the heroine, reads like the expression of the writer's own personality: into it she has put a touch of romance. In all her work there is never a word of personal complaint, but the words she puts into the mouth of her hero, when Lucy commits suicide, must have been born of her own suffering: "When the burden outgrows the strength so far that moral as well as physical energies begin to fail, and there is no door but death's, that will welcome our weariness, what remains but to creep into that quiet shelter? I think it had come to that with Lucy. [xvii] Her days were threatened by a calamity, the most terrible in the list of human ills, which the wise Manetho, the last of the Egyptians, with his brave Pagan heart and large philosophy, thought good and sufficient warrant for a man's resigning his place on the earth."

Among other mental qualities, she had, for the fortification of her spirit, a sense of humour. In this same book she writes of "a little man of that peculiar figure which looks as if a not very well filled sack had somehow got legs"; and commenting on a little difficulty of her hero's making, she says, "It is rather an awkward business to meet a family at breakfast whose only son one has kicked overnight."

And how elastic and untarnished must that nature have been which, after years of continuous struggle for bare subsistence, could put her money-­wise people on to paper and quietly say of them that, "To keep a daily watch over passing pence did not disturb the Fentons—it was a mental exercise suited to their capacities." The turning of that sentence was surely an exquisite pleasure [xviii] to its author. And "My Share of the World" is full of cleverly-turned sentences—"Hartley cared for nobody, and I believe the corollary of the miller's song was verified in his favour."

But we must not linger longer over her novel, its pages are full of passages which tell of the vigorous quality of her mind.

Frances Browne's poetry is as impersonal as her prose. She belonged to the first order of artists, if there be distinction in our gratitude. The material with which she tried to deal was Life—apart from herself—a perhaps bigger, and, certainly, a harder piece of work than the subjective expression of a single personality.

The subjects of her poems are in many lands and periods. The most ambitious—"The Star of Attéghéi"—is a tale of Circassia, another is of a twelfth-century monk and the philosopher's stone, another of an Arab; and another is of that Cyprus tree which is said to have been planted at the birth of Christ, and to spare which Napoleon deviated from his course when he ordered the making of the road over the Simplon.

[xix]

"Why came it not, when o'er my life

A cloud of darkness hung,

When years were lost in fruitless strife,

But still my heart was young?

How hath the shower forgot the Spring,

And fallen on Autumn's withering?"

These lines are from a poem called "The Unknown Crown." The messenger who came to tell Tasso the laureate crown had been decreed him, found him dying in a convent.

Then she has verses on Boston, on Protestant Union in New England, on the Abolition of Slavery in the United States, on the Parliament grant for the improvement of the Shannon. Her mind compelled externals to its use.

A love of nature was in her soul, a perception of the beauty of the world. She, with her poet's spirit, saw all the green and leafy places of the earth, all its flowery ways—while they, may be, were trodden heedlessly by those about her with their gift of sight.

"Sing on by fane and forest old

By tombs and cottage eaves,

And tell the waste of coming flowers

The woods of coming leaves;—


The same sweet song that o'er the birth

Of earliest blossoms rang,

And caught its music from the hymn

The stars of morning sang."

("The Birds of Spring.")


"Ye early minstrels of the earth,

Whose mighty voices woke

The echoes of its infant woods,

Ere yet the tempest spoke;

How is it that ye waken still

The young heart's happy dreams,

And shed your light on darkened days

O bright and blessed streams?"

("Streams.")


"Words—words of hope!—oh! long believed,

As oracles of old,

When stars of promise have deceived,

And beacon-fires grown cold!

Though still, upon time's stormy steeps,

Such sounds are faint and few,

Yet oft from cold and stranger lips

Hath fallen that blessèd dew,—

That, like the rock-kept rain, remained

When many a sweeter fount was drained."

("Words.")

Many and many such verses there are which might be quoted, but her work for children is wait- [xxi] ing.—For them she wrote many stories, and in their employ her imagination travelled into many lands. The most popular was "Granny's Wonderful Chair," published in 1856. It was at once a favourite, and quickly out of print, and, strangely enough, was not reprinted until 1880. Then new editions were issued in 1881, '82, '83, '84, '87, and '89. In 1887, Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett published it, with a preface, under the title "Stories from the Lost Fairy Book," re-told by the child who read them. "The Lost Fairy Book" was "Granny's Wonderful Chair."

One has not far to read to discover the secret of its popularity with children. It is full of word-­pictures, of picturesque settings. Her power of visualisation is shown in these fairy-tales more, perhaps, than in any other of her writings. Truly, she was fortunate in having the Irish fairies to lead her into their gossamer-strewn ways, to touch her fancy with their magic, and put upon her the glamour of their land. When the stories are of them she is, perhaps, at her best; but each story in the book makes a complete picture, each has enough [xxii] and no more of colour and scene. And the little pictures are kept in their places, pinned down to reality, by delightful touches of humour. Of the wonderful chair, Dame Frostyface says in the beginning of the story, "It was made by a cunning fairy who lived in the forest when I was young, and she gave it to me because she knew nobody would keep what they got hold of better."

How did a writer who never saw a coach, or a palace, or the picture of a coach or a palace, tell of the palace and the people and the multitudes, of the roasting and boiling, of the spiced ale, and the dancing?

Whence came her vision of the old woman who weaved her own hair into grey cloth at a crazy loom; of the fortified city in the plain, with corn­-fields and villages; of floors of ebony and ceilings of silver; of swallows that built in the eaves while the daisies grew thick at the door?

Had her descriptions been borrowed, the wonder of them would cease. But her words are her own, and they are used sparingly, as by one who sees too vividly what she is describing to add one unneces- [xxiii] sary or indistinct touch. She seems as much at home under the sea, among hills of marble and rocks of spar, as with the shepherds on the moorland or when she tells of the spring, and the budding of the topmost boughs.

The enrichment of little Snowflower, by the King's gifts, links these stories together as artistically as the telling of the princess's raiment in that beautiful book, "A Digit of the Moon"; and right glad we are when the poorly clad little girl takes her place among the grand courtiers, and is led away to happiness by the Prince.

Frances Browne's list of contributions to children's literature is a long one. In reading these books one is surprised by the size of her imaginative territory; by the diversity of the knowledge she acquired.

One, "The Exile's Trust," is a story of the French Revolution, in which Charlotte Corday is introduced; and in it are descriptions of the scenery of Lower Normandy; another, "The First of the African Diamonds," is a tale of the Dutch and the banks of the Orange River. Then, in "The Young [xxiv] Foresters," she conducts her young heroes to Archangel, to see the fine frost and clear sky, the long winter nights, and long summer days, to adventure with wolves in the forest, and with pirates by sea.

In "The Dangerous Guest" she is in the time of the Young Pretender, and in "The Eriksons," "The Clever Boy," and "Our Uncle the Traveller," she wanders far and wide.

In reviewing her subjects one realises afresh the richness of the world she created within her own darkness.

A wonderful law of Exchange keeps safe the precious things of Life, and it operates by strange and unexpected means. In this instance it was most beautifully maintained; for Frances Browne, the iron of calamity was transmuted to gold.

Thus it has been, and thus it shall be; so long as the world shall last, circumstance shall not conquer a strong and beautiful spirit.

D. R.

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