Frances Hodgson Burnett is perhaps better known for her children’s stories such as The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but her last novel is a fascinating insight into a world on a the cusp of war. Published in 1922 The Head of the House of Coombe follows the story of a neglected child Robin and her strangely enigmatic benefactor Lord Coombe. Robin’s mother is a selfish airhead while Coombe finds friendship with a chronically ill Duchess who has wisdom.
Coombe travels and observes, coming home to England to sit with the Duchess and discuss his observations. He is concerned, “…The very babes are born and bred and taught only that one thought may become an integral part of their being…that the world has but one reason for existence — that it may be conquered and ravaged by the country that gave them birth.”
The Duchess concurs as her own observations have been the same.
“In little schools — in large ones — in little churches and in imposing ones, their Faith is taught and preached….There exists for them no God who is not the modest henchman of their emperor…”
These words brought back memories of my gran. She was a good Irish woman of Limerick stock who was born in the 1881 and died in 1978. She spoke of the Potato Famine (1845 to 52) with such feeling I thought at first she was alive when it happened. But it was her parents and grandparents who saw it first hand. She married an Englishman who lost his arm in the First World War. She lost her little brother, aged 16, illegally out at the front. By the end of that war the age limitations were being ignored in the desperate bid to replace the dead as the war went on. Jack was killed on the last day of the war.
Gran had three sons, one of whom died of twisted bowel when he was six. Her oldest son grew up and was old enough to join the Engineering Corps in WWII. I was told he was part of the crew that entered Dachau and buried the piles and piles of bodies.
Gran never went to Mass. Her sister, whose fiance had been killed in WWI and had never married, came with us each week, but not Gran. I asked her why she didn’t come with us.
She told me she would never forgive the Church for it’s support of the wars. I was only a child and gran couldn’t explain things to me. I was much older before I began to get a sense of her pain. She died when I was 14. I was also too young and not educated enough to understand her sense of betrayal as Britain was so deeply culpable in the potato famine
Lord Coombes observations from the mind of FHB just brought it all back. He speaks of a culture in which churches and education are all soaked in an arrogance of nationalism that, from Coombe’s thinking, was inevitably leading to a terrible war. Hodgson Burnett is probably writing this with hindsight as the book was published in 1922, but I can’t help thinking there probably were some real life Coombe like people who saw where the culture was heading and may even have been Cassandra’s at court.
World War I was the war to end all wars. It was the war that was to teach mankind that something like that must never happen again. I am sure gran thought that in losing her little brother, her prospective brother-in-law and having a husband come home with one arm missing (he lost it in a canon wheel) that the price had been paid. More than paid.
She just couldn’t deal with the next war.
We have forgotten so much – my generation and our children. We don’t teach them what they could really do with knowing. But truth has a habit of finding a way. As more and more books are available in the public domain and people get to read those forgotten classics like Hodgson Burnett, Dorothy Sayers, among others as well as the non-fiction writings of people like Chesterton, Sheed, and Belloc, we are beginning to clear our memories. I think something good must happen from that.