THE AUTHOR OF THE SPANISH BROTHERS
THE ancient and picturesque little city of Waterford lies on the banks of a river widening as it nears the sea, on one side climbing far up the slope of one of the long, low hills that bound the river’s bed. Houses, more scattered, nestle among the trees on the opposite hill-side, which rises to a greater height. On the town side, but far enough out for houses on the roads to stand each in its own small grounds, was the Archdeaconry, described by Miss Alcock in a letter to Miss Kift.
February 28, 1867.
. . . You will want to hear something of this, our new home. Aunt Sally and I came here together last Friday, and found all things looking quite settled already. Mamma and her aides-de-camp had worked away like horses, and performed wonders, only leaving us a few trifles to finish. Carpets were down and curtains up, and even the books unpacked. The house looks very nice, but oh, so strange, between the unfamiliar rooms and the familiar furniture. It is comfortable and convenient, and the rooms good-sized, but not large enough to look dreary. The grounds are very pretty, though small. They are nicely laid out with shrubs and flowers, and there is a large walled garden promising an amount of fruit and vegetables that I tremble to think of, for I don’t know how we shall ever manage to get through them. There is a little vinery also. But I hope you will see us all some day, and judge for yourself whether we are comfortably settled.
"We have not made acquaintance with any of the people yet, as the weather has been so wet as to prevent callers. I dare say we shall like some of them, when we know them, but never, never half so well as our own dear Dublin friends. If they were ever so nice (and they could not be so nice as the Dublin people, you know), I am sure I could not now make fresh friends as I did in the old days when we first knew each other. . . Papa likes the place greatly, and feels very thankful for the Lord’s mercies in providing such a home for us."
The writer did not know how sweetly she was to learn by heart that "His merciful kindness is ever more and more toward us."
She described the joy of going up one flight of stairs and finding four good bedrooms on one floor, and one of them her own! — a large, sunny room with two windows. No more long, weary stairs to climb!
There was the usual warmth of welcome from the new parishioners, and the inevitable rush of visiting; but after the long rest, Mr. Alcock was able heartily to enjoy his work. How his daughter got through all she did in home and parish, and wrote her books, during the coming years, one cannot think. From the first, she stepped into her place as a woman over thirty, and the archdeacon’s daughter; and before the end of the year, as far as I can judge from letters seldom dated, she was asked to take over a class for "young women," which practically included women of any age and of all ranks. She often spoke with much feeling of the sacrifice this must have been to the lady, Miss Fleury, who gave up that class to her.
"She did it so well that I never knew till long afterwards that that class had been a passion with her — one of the great objects of her life! She asked me to take it as though it would be rather a kindness to her; and of course I was glad — I loved teaching elder girls. And so I got my chance with them; and I can’t regret it, for, oh, God did bless that class! and I hope that was her reward."
There seem to have been changes as to the day on which this class was held, but, weekday or Sunday, Miss Alcock had it almost from the first; also a weekday class, as before, for the children of gentle-people — one of her pupils being the present Judge Cherry, for some time Attorney-General for Ireland.
Mrs. Alcock also had a Bible-class on some other day. Deborah used to attend it, and at the end of her lesson, Mrs. Alcock would turn to her and say, "Now Deb, pack up," which meant "Give a summary," which she did in masterly fashion.
The summer holiday was again spent in Scotland — a time of intense interest to Miss Alcock. "Aunt Sally" had now ceased to go regularly on tours: she was much happier staying with Mary or some other friend. The trio went first to Montrose for a few days, and made the acquaintance of Deborah’s good editor, Mr. Cameron, and his wife, which proved a great pleasure. Then followed ten days at St. Andrews, the scene of Wishart’s martyrdom; and a day was spent at Dundee. Miss Alcock writes to Miss Kift from St. Andrews:
Of course, at Dundee, we went to see the dear old "Cowgate," frae the top of which George Wishart used to preach. It looked just the same as when I saw it last, three hundred years ago! Only, the stone steps, at the foot of which John Wigton took his stand, are all broken away; but you can see the place where they were. In the little picture I send you of the castle here, I have put a cross over the ruins of the "Sea Tower" in which is the dungeon where Wishart and other martyrs of the Reformation were imprisoned. We saw it today; you go down stone steps until you come to something like a deep well, into which you look down into utter darkness. The guide lets down lamps which you watch going down farther, farther, farther, until at last the bottom is reached. It is a horrible place, and yet the associations are not, to my mind, altogether mournful. You’ll see another little cross in one of the windows; it is said to be the one from which Cardinal Beaten watched the death of Wishart, and from which his own body was afterwards shown to the people. (A time came when the death of George Wishart was avenged, in a way the martyr would have deeply mourned, by Cardinal Beaten’s violent death.) There’s "a hantle" interesting things to be seen here."
It is not mentioned whether the room in the castle where Wishart was allowed to give the Lord’s supper to his friends was open to view. He bade them lay aside, for Christ’s sake, "a’ rancour, envy, vengeance."
The travellers went on to the Perth Conference, where the speakers chiefly noted are Andrew and Horatius Bonar; but the event of that Conference, to Deborah, was that there they had the pleasant surprise of meeting Mrs. Meredith, overjoyed to see again her beloved Pastor and the little girl who had taken out her stair rods! The friendship, once renewed, was never allowed to drop; from that time there was always one home open to Deborah in London, if she wanted to go up and read at the British Museum. Mrs. Meredith’s great work "The Prison Mission" — so nobly aided by the Duchess of Teck, mother of our present Queen — was now fully established. She and her sister, Miss Lloyd, lived on the spot, and gave their lives to the "Prison Women" discharged.
After Perth came a long stay with friends at "Lawers," — a halt in Edinburgh, where "Deb had a day’s reading at the Advocates’ Library," then home to the first full winter’s work at Waterford.
Mr. Alcock had a class for the Sunday-School teachers. This would include a number who were not of his own congregation, for in Waterford "St. Patrick’s" and "The Cathedral" had a united Sunday School in a large building called "The Protestant Hall," which was common property to Protestants of all denominations for meetings that could not be held in church and chapel, with smaller rooms for committees. In the Sunday School of Miss Alcock’s day there were both teachers and scholars of other denominations. Mr. Devenish, for nine years Mr. Alcock’s curate, writes: "It was a happy sight to see the gathering."
Here her class for young women was held, attended by women of any denomination, and, as time went on, of any age. It was so far a part of the Sunday School that the members were present at the opening service in the large schoolroom; and at one time they filed back again for the closing one. In later years this class was held in Miss Alcock’s own house, when neither her own health nor that of her parents allowed of her making engagements outside. But for years she had it in the bare room provided in the Protestant Hall. One of those who heard her there has described her first impressions. She went with a young friend. "I was a horrible girl," she said. "I know I must have been — full of all sorts of bumptiousnesses and thinking I knew better than anybody else. But when the class was over and R. and I were together, I drove my umbrella against the floor and said, ‘She’s an angel!’ " One must realize something of the flatness of life in a place like Waterford to think what it must have been to girls with brains, — their individuality not sandpapered off by the incessant small diversions of modern life, — to hear such eloquence and such thoughts as came from Mr. Alcock in the pulpit and his daughter in her teacher’s chair. Add to this that the teacher’s lips were touched with fire from Heaven — is it any wonder that her coming transfigured the whole existence of many a girl? Through her message they received Him who sent her, and their lives were lifted to a higher sphere; and even from a lower aspect, there was something to live for, as long as she could be seen passing by!
Was this quite wholesome, it will be asked! Let one of her students at a somewhat later date give her record of that class before the question is answered.
MISS ALCOCK AS A TEACHER.
Although the author of The Spanish Brothers is best known to English readers, and to not a few foreign ones, as a writer of historical tales, there was also another branch of work, appealing to a narrower circle, on which she lavished time and thought. She was keenly interested in the Sunday School, and it was her custom, week by week, to go over the lesson in outline with the lady teachers, and afterwards, in her own class for grown girls, to treat the same subject with greater depth and fulness. She also gave an occasional course of lectures on Church History. Thus her work as a teacher was one of considerable importance, and was the starting point of many life-long friendships.
Five and thirty years ago, the first impression she made on many people was that of an imposing and awe-inspiring personality. The high, broad forehead, with the severely parted brown hair — the dominant Roman nose, and the resolute mouth, were the outward signs of ability, power and purpose. But in the full development of the large figure — in the blue eyes that could flash and glow, and in the warm clasp of the trusty hand — one met the wealth of tenderness that had at first sight seemed lacking. It is a fearless, capable, kindly face that comes back upon the memory, from those old days — the face of a valiant fighter, an ardent lover, and a strong hater. And, for all her stately courtesy — inherited from her father, an old-time gentleman — there was a certain masculine simplicity in her look and manner. She had little liking for "frills," literal or metaphorical.
Those who had the great good fortune to know her intimately agree that in those days she was the most delightful of companions; more ardent, more enthusiastic than the freshest of her girl friends, but never to be swept, by any wave of feeling, across the eternal landmarks of truth and justice. She who had read so much, and in so many languages — she who had thought and felt with an intensity developed by a secluded life, would converse with her girls as though they belonged to her own plane of intellect and experience. Without seeming to "talk down" to their level, she would discuss her favourite authors, among whom were the Brownings, Charles Kingsley, and Blaise Pascal. From these she often quoted, both in her lessons and in conversation. One saying from Pascal: "What we most desire from others is the recognition of our individuality," is inseparably associated with her, not only as a "winged word" often on her lips, but as indicating her treatment of her students. This it was — in addition to her warm sympathy — that brought so many of them to her feet. She knew the heart of a girl, and she knew that a girl’s need is, before all things, to be understood. And so she set herself to learn her class, and to recognize the individuality, as far as it was developed, in each student. Out of hours she would sometimes confess that she had more tolerance for faults of excess in a character than for deficiencies; but she was kind to all, and none could feel herself neglected. How great was her tact may be inferred from the very remarkable fact that none of her pupils showed jealousy of one another. Each knew that she had her own place, and that it would be kept for her. Each was made to feel that there was room in that generous nature for all her interests and ambitions; and to any who turned naturally to the pen as a medium of expression, she gave the fullest stimulus and encouragement. One of her pupils remarked on her wonderful way of ignoring the distinction between pupil and teacher, and her reply was: "When the relationship between pupil and teacher merges in that of friendship, it meets its highest reward and crown."
The two Brownings held a high place in her affections. The Titanic power of the one, and the amazing sweetness of the other, drew her heart and subdued her imagination. But, for her, their chief appeal lay in their nearness to God and their exaltation of Christ. From the dawn of her hero-worshipping days, when, on her own confession, "Our Lord Himself" was her earliest hero — all through a life devoted to an appreciation of the work and character of His faithful servants, and up to the evening of her working day, when she chose the line to be placed on her tombstone, Christ was always the First and the Last. It was the second line in the verse following, from Myers’ "St. Paul," — only beginning with the Name itself, instead of the pronoun:
Yea, thro’ life, death, thro’ sorrow and thro’ sinning,
He shall suffice me, for He has sufficed;
Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,
Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.
She loved the poets of her own and other nations chiefly because she found in them thoughts and aspirations that were too high for common words; and she herself picked up a feather dropped from the wing of the angel of song in his flight to the great singers of her day, and treasured it among her dear possessions. When profoundly moved, she wrote verse, and wrote it well. Her poem on Charles Kingsley, written and published after his death, is worthy to be remembered among his annals.
For a woman whose most vivid life was lived in the world of the imagination, she was singularly free from the faults and failings that beset the average writer of fiction. She never gave way to moods, or allowed her pre-occupation to serve as an excuse for the neglect of duties or courtesies. She was punctilious in answering letters, giving them the first mortgage on her scanty leisure. She disciplined her inner vision, shutting it off rigorously at times when other demands were made upon her. She ruled (or, at least, seemed to rule) a strong imagination that otherwise would have ruled her, and perhaps betrayed her into dreaminess or absent-mindedness.
It was not till years had brought experience that her pupils realized the sacrifices she made for them. She herself would have been the last to hint at any such thing. But for a woman whose time and strength were heavily taxed by home and parish duties to add to her burdens a weekly lecture on Church History — a work that meant considerable preparation, if only in the matter of cutting down her too abundant material — was no light undertaking. Yet she gave several of these courses to girl students, thus sacrificing time that might have been spent in the writing of remunerative fiction. She did this because she had an intense interest in girls, and a strong sympathy with them; because in the drowsy old provincial town where her father was Archdeacon, there was little to stimulate intellectual life, or to make up to those coming home from school or college for the exhilarating atmosphere that they had left behind; because, most of all, she wanted to share with them the faith that was the life of her own life.
In her method of teaching she was in advance of her time. The lesson was practically a lecture, and in those days (except in colleges) the lecture was not generally used in the class-room. A lesson as she gave it was a thing complete in itself, carefully thought out and gradually developed. Often it had an artistic opening, always an impressive ending. At the close of the lecture, a few written questions were given out to be thought over and answered viva voce before the opening of the next lesson. She worked on the plan of a great Irish scholar, who used to say to his students: "I want your knowledge, not your ignorance," and she sometimes succeeded in extracting "knowledge" from what seemed most unlikely quarters. Her own enthusiasm, her own keen interest in her subject were irresistible and full of stimulus. She delighted in a dramatic subject, and handled it with extraordinary power. She could make a scene out of the past enact itself upon the imagination, but she was never content with the mere historical treatment, however vivid, of any character or event; she strove to get at the very heart of her subject, and she arrived there with unerring certainty. She was before all things an idealist, and her appeal was always to the highest elements in the nature. She herself was noble-minded, and she expected to find a like nobility in her students. She drew them up after her to the higher plane of thought and feeling. One of her most beautiful lessons was on the metaphor in Ephesians ii. 10: "For we are His workmanship"; or rather, in the alternative reading that she preferred: "We are His poems." The substance of her teaching may be found here and there in the more intense portions of her books. The thoughts that helped her she put into the hearts of her characters: the words that had stimulated her faith and become to herself a source of courage, she put upon their lips. The Scripture lessons written for the Sunday School Union illustrate her lines of thought and her manner of arranging her material. But no outline that remains can give an adequate impression of the force, the intensity, the convincing power and the tenderness of her oral teaching.
A glamour still lingers over the bleak, severely furnished classroom, with the bare table and the wooden chairs, where, week by week, she put her soul into those wonderful lessons that so inevitably closed with prayer. The intensity, the earnestness, the solemnity that characterized her manner have become part of the atmosphere of the place; and the cadences of the deep voice, now stern in denunciation of an injustice, now tender over some lovable trait in one of her favourite characters, now charged with emotion almost — but never quite — to breaking point, come back upon the memory with a sense of irreparable loss.
One point only I question in Mrs. Hare’s beautiful record — the lectures cost much effort, doubtless, but they were not a sacrifice. In letters of the time, Miss Alcock writes of the delight they were to her, and how their preparation and the joy of getting response, carried her out of home anxieties.
"Every woman creates in her own image the love-tokens that are offered her." Could any warmth of love for such a woman be other than wholesome, when the first girlish "fluff" had worn off? Rather, one would say with Mrs. Charles, "The danger lies not in loving too much, but in loving too little; it is the taint of selfishness, not the too much love, which makes love idolatry." That taint could hardly have remained in the air she breathed, or jealousy must have been there too, and it was slain.
One touching instance of Miss Alcock’s care for her hearer’s feelings was told me in Waterford last summer. That first student, whom I will call "L.," gathered all who were left of the old class to hear what I could tell of their beloved teacher’s last years and days. It was just twenty-three years since she had gone away, and her visits in the interval had been few, and very short; but how they wept for her! The room was crowded, and after the meeting, one after another came up to tell their sweet remembrances of her. One, a working woman apparently, with a worn face, told how when Miss Alcock came on a short visit, there had been some kind of gathering — I think at the Y.W.C.A. rooms — where she herself had been present. Miss Alcock was surrounded by people who had come on purpose to meet her, probably to consult her on important matters; but she crossed over to this "old scholar" for a moment, and said, "I am so sorry not to come to you, but you see, I cannot leave these ladies."
"I said to her, ‘Oh, yes, ma’am, I quite understand,’ but afterwards she came over to me, put out her two hands like that "(laying her own on my shoulders) "and kissed me, to make sure I shouldn’t feel left out."
Another, a younger woman whom Deborah had prepared for confirmation, told how Miss Alcock had come to her, and told her that her answers showed she had ability — which of course pleased her very much — but by the way it was said, she was not elated; it came with a sense of responsibility. "She wanted me to feel that was all the more reason for me to give myself to Christ."
In one of our Sunday talks in later years, Miss Alcock told me how she longed for a new spirit in Sunday School work. She had been reading an article about it in the Sunday at Home — all for organization and methods. "What the schools need is life."
I said how few nowadays would follow Todd’s model, "Aim at the conversion of every child in your class."
"Oh, when I think of our school at Waterford!" she said, and told me how she had a class every week for the Sunday School teachers, and went over the lessons with them. Her father had it at first, but she took it over, and thinks it better for a woman to have the woman teachers. "They never would speak out, or talk of their difficulties to a clergyman as they would to me." "In some of our classes we let the teacher and her class move on together, as the children grew older, and she was developing, and learning more. There were teachers who preferred having young children, and others elder ones; with those we moved the children away, or up to them. But when a teacher had a strong hold of her children, and she and they grew together, the relationship was not disturbed." "That is a thing they say so little of, now," she said, "the strong tie between class and teacher."
I told her how my mother had given us Todd’s Sunday School Teacher to read, when first my elder sister and I were preparing to be teachers, and it inspired us to aim at definite conversion; and I think we got it, too, in some cases. "Definite conversion — yes," she said; "not always definite profession. That is where a mistake used to be made, and harm came of it. We have gone too far the other way now."
She herself always sought for definite decision, though she agreed that there is such a thing as "birthright membership" in the children of godly parents. There are blessed ones who never have to "turn," because their faces were set towards "yonder shining light" from the earliest awakening of the mind; but it is well for them to seal the bond consciously, very early.
It was in teaching the teachers that Miss Alcock’s powers had their widest scope. Her own girls in their turn became teachers. A time came when a Bible-class was held on a weekday, that the Sunday teachers might attend. I remember L.’s saying, "The nicest classes were on the wet days, when only those came who really cared." She also said that when she went to London at different times, and heard George Macdonald, Westcott and others, "The best things they said, Miss Alcock had said already — only better."
Miss Alcock may have got some of them herself out of their writings, for she loved them both — Macdonald more than Westcott, I think. Westcott came to her later, when she probably had, as L. supposed, threshed out many of his best thoughts for herself; but every thought received from others was strained through the colander of her own resolute precision, and came out clearer than it went in.
One of the poorer women of the class told me that Miss — (L.) used to sit beside Miss Alcock and ask her questions "And that helped on the lesson so much."
She made it very easy for her students either to ask or answer questions. It came to her ears that the girls used to say, "Miss Alcock never gets a wrong answer"; she always managed to find something right in it.
"Of course," she said energetically, when telling me this, "when a girl has taken her life in her hand and spoken out before all the class, you must never allow her to feel she has made a fool of herself."
Well for the teacher who has her gift to do it! It is a gift that can be in some measure acquired, however. But when a real good answer came, every one knew it by the flash in her eye, and she said "Egzactly!" "Oh, Miss Alcock, we do like your ‘Egzactly!’ " a girl once said to her.
L. remembered one comment that was even better. Someone, perplexed, had asked, "What are we to believe?" L. said involuntarily, "Whom?" With that well-known flash of the eye Miss Alcock laid her hand on hers and said, "That is it!" Yet one more memory before we leave the class. There was one student — N., one of the earliest, and very dear — long gone to glory now — who, after a long bright day of rejoicing, fell into a night of strange conflict and darkness — doubting all things, at times. The teacher knew it; perhaps the class did not. One day when some grave question was before them, L., either in a captious mood or wanting to draw the teacher out, said, "But how can we be sure, Miss Alcock! How can we know?"
From the back of the room came a low, deep voice that thrilled with feeling, "I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day." It was N. Every praying teacher will know what a thrill went to this teacher’s heart. She counted that as one of the supreme moments of her life.
The root cause of her spiritual power lay in her intensity of prayer for those she taught. Well she knew what it was to agonize in prayer for one or another. I have often wondered how she found the time for it, in a life where every spare minute for thought was needed for her writing; but just as she could read and absorb a whole book in less time than it would take most people to read a quarter of it, and forget most of that, so she could spend more force in praying for five minutes than others might in thrice the time.
And her prayers were seldom hindered by anything held back from God. I had almost said "Never, if she knew it." The essence of temptation is that it takes us unawares: from this, she was not exempt. But most of the common snares of life that come to all, found nothing in her. It is the blessed reward of whole-hearted service from childhood up — the servant likes the Master’s law.
So much for what the teacher was to the scholars. She was never weary of telling what they were to her.
XI. THE WRITER AND HER BOOKS
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Last modified: June 27, 2016