The Gentle Heritage is one of those early 20th century books that has fallen out of favour because its moralising and religious themes are no longer fashionable.
This is really a pity, because it’s actually a charming, delightful book, told with wit and imagination through the words of ‘Nell’, our small protagonist, still young enough to tell us:
“It was when we were all quite nursery children, a long time ago; two years since at the very least.”
Nell describes her siblings: bossy Patricia, the eldest, Bobby, her best friend and rival, ’tiresome’ Annis, and finally little Paul “who is sometimes very odd and obstinate”. The children are the heart of the story, and they are so real, and engaging, that they easily carry what is, in essence, a very simple story indeed.
The book begins with their trials with Nurse, who feels they don’t play as proper children should, preferring instead to hold meetings under the nursery room table, complete with ‘notices’ and ‘chairs’. Their favourite topic for the meetings is the dreaded ‘Bogey’, introduced by ’Mriar’ the maid as a means of keeping the children in line.
Who, and what Bogey is occupies much of the children’s time, and when a mysterious man moves next door, surely he must be Bogey?
The answer, is not, as an adult, that surprising, but the joy of the tale is in the development of characters, and the detailed description of nursery life in an upper-class British household at the turn of the last century: the fat rascal cakes and aprons torn in scrambles through the yew hedge.
The moral at the heart of the story, the moral that has sadly seen the book fall off the reading lists, is actually as true and relevant today as it was almost a century ago, and told with such sympathy and simplicity that it avoids being overly-pious or sanctimonious.
Best of all, the moralising and religion are leavened with humor, enough to make me laugh out at points:
“Oh, no,” said Bobby; “we never had anyone so good in the chair before. We wish we always had you, for the indoors meetings too.”
“I am not perfectly sure that I should enjoy them,” said B. gravely, “if they are held under tables.”
Sadly, The Gentle Heritage seems to be quite rare these days. It’s not even on Project Gutenberg (though a few other books by Crompton are). I found my copy at an op-shop in Palmerston North, and bought it on the strength of the pretty cover, a charming frontspiece, and the first page.
Alas, my copy does not have the pretty coloured illustrations that some editions had. Still well worth the price I paid!