Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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hood — and the neighbourhood included its postal town,
Lichfield — at Avhich he would read Shakespeare and the
poets to a mixed audience of magnates and bumpkins. Who
can estimate the educational influence of such an act upon a
remote village ; the feelings, the mirth, the experience that
the reader revealed to his hearers. He opened a new world
to them, even when they did not understand it. Perhaps
people are helped most by what is a little beyond them, and
he may not only have fed, but created, imagination in his


His intimacy with the Hasleliursts deepened his older
friendship with the Atkinsons, whose house at Sheffield now
became a holiday home to him. George Atkinson, it will be
remembered, figured as Principal of the Collegiate School in
that town, and Ainger now undertook examiner's work there.
This was another motive for intercourse between them, and to
Mrs. Atkinson it is that he sends the following letters, written
after his visits. His own portrait of himself is probably more
lifelike than any photograph could have been.

' Alrewas,
' Lichfield, Monday Afternoon, March Q, 1863.

* While I was away from home, dear friend, on my very
pleasant visit to your hospitable halls, my landlady and her
myrmidons amused themselves with making excavations on the
site of my sitting-room. They called it " putting things to rights."
In the course of their labours in the "house of the comic
poet" in this modern Pompeii, they came upon the enclosed
portrait, to which, if you jilease, you are heartily welcome.

'At the first glance you will be shocked, I trust, at the un-
clerical aspect of the individual represented. Like poet Churchill,
it seems to have given up the white tie and parochial umbrella,
for the narrow black ribbon of the comic vocalist, and the
bludgeon of the literai'y tramp. Yet in truth is a parson often a
Janus, and the lay-figure in question is my social moiety. As for
the "human face divine " it is, methinks, as solemn as the Record
even could desire. If you will find fault with it on the score that
it is not intellectual enough — I observe, with Mr. Pecksniff, that
the ''same objection has been made before."

' You may tell Dr. Allan with my best remembrances that the
staff in my hand is not meant to favour the impression that I am
a "stickit" minister, and that my neck-cloth is really not as
black as it 's painted.

' On the whole will you deign it a place in your coach-house
(where you keep your " Cartes ") till a better one is executed.''
will you let it abide there to typify the happy ease with which
its living reality would linger beneath your roof, if only his
own pleasure could be consulted ? Perchance, when the comic
poet, like his Pompeian ancestor, is compounded with the
earth to which he 's kin, it may be a relic to remind you of


one who had a heart, which, while it beat, was warm with love
for you and yours.

* I look back with real pleasure to my week with you. With
best love to all your Miwer circle, and kindest regards to the outer
do. — Believe me, ever yours very affectionately,

'Alfred Ainger.

'PS. — I left behind me a "hood and stole" in my bedroom.
Would you make a little parcel of it, and send It me by train. I
am very sorry to trouble you.'

' Alrewas,
' Lichfield, Friday, June 5, 1863.

* My dear Friend, ... A stay at the Collegiate is a true enjoy-
ment ; and rest assured that if anything can ever make " Memory's
Waist" less, it will be such ''stays " as these. I hope you are
not feeling the worse for the great trouble and anxiety of the
past week. You have this consolation, that you succeeded most
admirably, and that everybody was as comfortable as if in their
own home. To cater for forty is no slight task. . . . You must
sometimes have wished that they were all (as Avell as your late
lamented cook) the "forty thieves" and that you could house
them at night in jars, borrowed from the family oil-man —
and yet, methinks, the harmony that prevailed in the bedrooms
was better than any " Family Jars."

' Dear friend, I hope you know me of old, and that my jesting
does not mean a careless and indiffei'ent spirit ; it is a very happy
thing to meet together, as we so lately met, for it seems to knit
us all more closely together, and to foster goodwill and love on this
dull earth. So let us be thankful and hopeful for the future —
looking forward to many such happy meetings in time to come.
— Believe me always, affectionately yours,

'Alfred Ainger.

' Tell George, with my love, not to delay, any longer than he
can help, sending me the subjects in which I am to examine. We
shall meet again in some fortnight's time. Hurrah !

' There has at last set in a sweet and effectual rain. Long may
it rain over us.

" God save tlie Queen." '

He loved festivals and he loved thanking his friends for
them. Great, too, was his power of promoting them, a power


which alone would have made him a welcome guest wherever
he went. His holidays were varied. Sometimes he spent
them at Folkestone with his sister and her growing family,
sometimes with friends in London. We have before us an
invitation from Horace Smith, served up, ' after Heine,' an
echo, still, of youth and wit and gaiety.


' Thou little village-curate
Come quick and do not wait ;
We '11 sit and talk together.
So sweetly tete-a-tete.

' Oh, do not fear the railway
Because it seems so big —
Dost thou not daily trust thee
Unto thy little gig ?

' This house is full of pantries
And half shut up and black ;
But rooms the very snuggest
Lie hidden at the back.
Come ! come ! come ! '

The ' little v illage- curat e ' found ample leisure for literature
and reflection. His note-book stands for a kind of mental
diary, and again we will keep count of his thoughts by tran-
scribing a few from its pages.

' Surely no one ever had a keener zest for the beauties of
tlie country than the poet Chaucer. He revels in the description
of country sights and sounds. And therefore it is pleasant for a
Cockney to read how the poet (himself a Cockney) writes of his
birth-place. " Also the citye of London, that is to mee so dere
and swete, in which I was forth growen ; and more kindly love
have I to that place than to any other in yerth, as every kindly
creture hath full appetite to that place of his kindly engen-
dure.'" — Testamenl of Love, Book i.

• • • • • • •

" Like a gentleman at ease

With moral breadth of temperament."



'What is "Moral breadth of temperament"? Perhaps this —
never to suspect that you are suspected.'

• ••■•••

"'Life is our apprenticeship to immortality."

* Does not this fact require to be more universally acknowledged
than at present ? Life was not given us that we might be
religious; but religion was given us that we might be able to

' You would readily agree with me if I said that cleverness was
no guarantee for truth. Yet take earnest care that you do not
fall down and worship the former, in mistake for the latter.'

After the publication of Essays and Reviezcs : —

' It is because there is some truth in the book that the clergy
fear it. They have not the justice to acknowledge the truth, or
the theological acumen to separate the truth from the error, and
think it the safest course to try and crush the teaching of the
book, good and bad alike. The clergy of the Church of England
are not displaying very encouraging signs of enlightenment at
this crisis. Like the queen in Hamlet's play, they " protest too
much methinks," '

The studied justice of this, justice acquired through reason,
where his taste might not have helped him to so equable a
verdict, is very characteristic of him. So is the following
passage about the responsibilities of the Humorist, as he
regarded them — and this conception which ruled him through
life, for, from first to last, his humour Mas strictly controlled
by his moral standard,

' It is amazing how easily vice takes a clothing of romance,
valour and, above all, humour — which take from its deformity.
There is nothing that is so easily made comic as sin ; indeed the
sinful and the comic have one essential quality in common, that
they are out of the common. Both are distortions of nature.
The surprise caused by the exaggerations of a drunken man is one
of humour, and quite puts aside the otherwise natural feeling of
aversion. . . . Thus it is that the responsibilities of a humorous
writer are so grave. He is doing very serious mischief when he
represents, as he so easily may, vice and vulgarity as the objects
of our laughter. There is little or no truth in comic novelists'
representations of low life. They cannot portray the private lives


and conversation of cabmen and coal-heavers as they really are.
The portrayal of them would be simply offensive. . . . Thackeray,
in a paper on public executions, points out that Dickens, who
knows life well and knows the characteristics of a thief's mistress,
is quite aware that his picture of Nancy in Oliver Twist is not a
faithful one. He dared not draw a true picture of her. . . .'

He disliked effectiveness and he seemed purposely to
avoid the brilliance of epigram. His sayings are so simply
and conscientiously put that we are often tempted to
think them obvious, until we look more closely and find that
the clearness of the water has misled us as to its depth.
Often, too, the note of his utterances is one almost of in-
dividual prejudice, as, for instance, when he writes of
Emerson : —

' How can any one rise from reading Emerson's Conduct of Life
without feeling, if he has a human heart left within him, that if
that is the whole Gospel of humanity, it were our blessedest fate
to die and be at peace.'

The fact is that Ainger was too personal for contact with
Emerson, and was, as it were, oJfFended by the rarefied
atmosphere of philosophical thought. He desired austerity,
but the austerity of controlled emotion, not the austerity of
abstract wisdom.

In 1863 he was ordained Priest, and his life at Alrewas
came to an end. He accepted an appointment as assistant
teacher in the Collegiate School at Sheffield, under his friend,
and it was with the Atkinsons that for the next two years he
took up his abode. Few details concerning them remain,
but they were happy years of cheerful toil and plea.sant
recreation — of widening interests and new friendships that
soon became old ones. ' Sheffield, a place and people I dearly
love,' he wrote long afterwards, and his ties to it never

Of his professional work there is scant record. Much the
same might be said of it, as of his parochial visitings. He
was made for a boy, not for the boy, and though he fulfilled
his task with strict conscience and was liked throughout the


school, it is easy to believe that his sensitive and fantastic
being would not have produced much mark on that race of
crude young Philistines called schoolboys. Yet wherever
refinement existed, wherever a taste for literature or some
half-formed spiritual aspiration lay ready to be called forth,
the impression was made and remembered. So were the
readings and impersonations with which he delighted the
school. For games he never had sufficient physical strength,
but throughout his life they fascinated him, and he loved them
in every form with a keenness which stood him in good stead
during his mastership at Sheffield. His profession was a slow
one as he wrote to Mr. Atkinson — in verse : —

* Slight is our calling in men's eyes,
And slight the fame that greets success.
To work and wait seems all our prize^
How great that prize none else can guess.
By wise dynamic law we 're led —
That loss in time is gain in power.
Our name an hour can never spread
Because we do not serve the hour.'

Perhaps no one was less cut out than he for routine work ;
and no one would more have objected to being told so, for
routine was part of his conception of true discipline.

His daily round at Sheffield was cheered by a great deal
of music. Most of his new friends were musical, chief among
them the William Smiths, a large family with whom he
formed a close intimacy, lasting to the end. He loved a large
family with all its natural cares and cheerful doings, and he
had a peculiar gift of forming part of one. In this case,
every boy and girl was as much his companion as their
parents. His figure would appear at the schoolroom window,
breaking in upon the tedium of lessons with droll antics and
irresistible imitations of monkeys and birds, with wonder-
stories and nonsense rhymes struck spark-like fi'om the
moment, or with the conjuring tricks in which he always
took pride. With their mother his ties were perhaps the
closest; her sense of humour suited his, and it was to her
that for thirty years, with unfailing punctuality, he wrote an



annual Christmas letter. ' Whenever I hear a good story,'
he once said, ' I chuckle and say to myself, that will do for
Mrs. Smith on Christmas Day."* And his letters are like an
echo of the festive times he had spent with the Smiths, for
their house, Brocco Bank, was the centre of music and
hospitality. An oratorio in the manner of Handel, called
' The Oyster Feast ' and ' dedicated to that eminent maestro,
Herr Wilhelra Schmit,' still exists, as far as the libretto

goes : —

' Away with books and learned looks,
Avaunt, thou studious cloister,
We 're oflF forthwith to William Smith
To taste the juicy oyster.'

Thus it led off to the tune of ' Shells of Ocean,' followed

by Mrs. Atkinson's solo : —

' What viands e'er, that earth may bear,
Can in our hearts such joy stir?
Ah, there 's no meat in life so sweet
As is the dainty oyster.'

And then came the ' Septett (with vinegar and pepper
obligato),' and the ' Duett between the Learned Pundit and
the Ignoble Punster' (Alfred Ainger himself), and a final
request that ' each performer be provided with a full score.'
Alfred was jester, composer, and conductor — the Mercury of
the company. He was an inveterate rhymer, and there are
copy-books full of verse-epitaphs, prospectively improvised
in Latin and English for the tombs of his friends — parodies —
album-lyrics. Serious poems there are too, composed, perhaps,
on his long walks over the Yorkshire moors and relegated
by him to obscurity. Many of them he himself would hardly
like to see in print, for he did not take them very seriously,
but for the most part threw them off" without bestowing much
time upon them. Yet their simple feeling speaks to us, and
one of them, ' The Prayer of a Busy Man ' will find a response
in many hard-working spirits : —

' Oh Lord, with toil our days are filled !

They rarely leave us free,
Oh give us space to seek for grace
In happy thoughts of Thee.


Yet hear us^ thougli we seldom ask ;

Oh leave us not alone !
In every thought, and word, and task

Be near us, though unknown.

Still lead us, wand'ring in the dai-k,

Still send thy Heavenly food.
And mark, as none on earth can mark.

Our struggle to he good ! *

There are other lyrics of this time inspired by sorrow. For
in January 1865, there came the news of Mrs, Hasleliurst's
death, after a long ilhiess, while with her husband abroad.
The grief it brought to Ainger — the sense of acute personal
loss, unexpected and unnatural — was ineradicable. There is
a letter of his describing her funeral, restrained, almost
formal, but behind the quiet lucid words we can feel the
rising tide of emotion which he dared not let forth. Death
consecrated for him a friendship already holy, and made
unfading the romance with which he surrounded her.

'And when on yon green mound I gaze
Where lies the joy of bygone days.
Tears give the breaking heart relief,
But a new joy up-springs from grief.'

So he wrote at Alrewas on Easter Day, 1865. Sorrows
seldom come singly. The same year that she died took from
him another person near to him, his brother-in-law. Dr.
Roscow. This blow which he felt both for his sister and
himself, greatly changed his outlook, for henceforth he looked
upon himself as the guardian of her and her children, and the
responsibilities, which never left him, began to crowd thick
upon him.

We can find only one letter belonging to this period, but
its grave tone suits well with the turn his thoughts had
taken. Mrs. Atkinson had asked him to be godfather to her
little son.

'Collegiate School.

*My dear Friend, — You are about to give me a very sacred
interest in your little child, and I thank you for this new proof of
your regard.

'The office of godfather has indeed come to be little more, in


practice, than a name, but nevertheless I would not have accepted
such a trust at your hands, did I not know that we are agreed as
to what we would most wish and pray for the young Christian. I
could not consent to take upon myself this charge, if I did not
know that what I promise to-day will be the chief care of you and
yours in years when we may be widely separated.

' Our most natural thought as we look upon the little uncon-
scious face to-day will be of the innocence of the child, and the
unknown future that is before him. We may look forward to a
time when he too shall feel the "little joy" of knowing that he
is " farther off from Heaven than when he was a boy." But we
may take best comfort, I think, from the reflection that the
"innocence" of childhood is but another name for its ignorance,
and that to press on to the happiness of the redeemed is of more
avail, and is more blessed than to regain (if it were possible) the
blamelessness of the child.

' Whatever ive may teach, may God teach him this, that he will
only fulfil his true manhood when he strives after the likeness in
which he was created.

* May you and I and all men be striving after this likeness :
" Not backward be our glances bent. But onward to our Father's
Home." — Ever, dear friend, affectionately yours,

'Alfred Ainger.'

The year 1865 saw a new phase open for him. A brilliant
gleam of success fell across his uphill road, and guided his steps
in the direction which was to be that of his life-work. He
had heard that the Readership at the Temple in London was
vacant, and his friend, Horace Smith, wrote to urge his com-
peting for it. But it was chance that threw the casting die.
He used to describe how, walking along the Sheffield streets
one day, he met an acquaintance who stopped and spoke about
the Readership. 'Why don't you go in for it yourself.'''' he
said : * you had better run up to London and try,' and the
random remark, so Ainger declared, made up his mind for
him and decided his fate.

It was in November 1865, that he went to town to appear
before the Benchers of the Inner Temple, carrying with him
testimonials from Fawcett, and Latham, and Ward, as well as
his clerical credentials. He was one of the three candidates
picked out from the many, and once having listened to his


voice, the assembly elected him unanimously. His rare beauty
of tone, low and vibrating — his manner of reading, vivid with-
out being dramatic, impressive without the slightest striving
for effect — were indeed unique, drawing many to the Temple
for nearly forty years to come. With the Temple his name
was henceforth to be identified. From the first he grew
familiar with its pulpit, for the Readership entailed preaching
in the afternoon, as well as at other times if the Master were
absent and required it.

At the time of Ainger's appointment, Dr. Kobinson was
Master, nor was it till 1869 that he was succeeded by Dr.
Vaughan, who was to become Ainger's intimate friend. With
every one about the Temple he soon became familiar ; with
the organist, Dr. Hopkins, with the vergers, and, outside the
church, with the Benchers, whose lawyers' talk always had a
peculiar fascination for him. Nor was there a guest more
welcome than he at the Benchers' table.

Early in 1866, as soon as his affairs were settled, he left
Sheflield and came to live in London altogether. To part
with the Atkinsons was a grief, and he penned no more grace-
ful tribute than his acknowledgment of what their home had
meant to him. Nor can we close the chapter of his Sheffield
career more fitly than by transcribing it.

' Exiled from his father's house.
As the sacred records tell,
In the quest of home and love,
Jacob came to Haran's well.

And he wooed his Rachel thei'e,
Seven years without demur,
And they seemed to him but few.
For the love he bore to lier.

Homeless, and with kindred few,
Driven Jacob-like to roam,
I, for seven happy years.
Found with thee and thine a home

Trusted friends of seven years,
May I not my guerdon claim ?
Christian are the hopes we share,
Call me by my Christian name.'


' Since I learned of my success,' he wrote to the same kind
friends, ' I have often wished that our dear ones who are gone
were here to share my happiness ; but I know that they do
share it. . . .

* I feel rather lonely, as one must do on the threshold of a
new and untried life, but I believe God will be with me to help
me as He has been all my life, and I trust I may be allowed to
do some good work in my new position. . . .■



Alfred Ainger was now in his thirtieth year. At this period
of life, standing as he did on the threshold of a new experi-
ence, it may be well to pause and look at him as he then was.
Pale of face, pale of hair, with eyes of a piercing blue, varying
in intensity according to his mood, now cool and light, now
very dark and glowing, his under-lip protruding, as if to shoot
forth some whimsy, his fine, nervous hands often used in an
expressive gesture, his form, frail yet elastic, slightly stooping
as it moved forward with a distinctive striding step — it is thus
that he rises before us, a figure suggestive of the stage in its
good old days, of one of the actors whom Lamb remembered,
full of character and of erratic grace. His appearance was
indicative of his character. The first word suggested by
both was personality — that force which can only be felt, not
defined. When he came into a room, the room knew it and
was changed, 'When he left us,' said a friend, 'we always
felt as if we had been at a wedding; we did not know what to
do for the rest of the day.' It was part of his charm that he
contrived to unite so many paradoxes. Mercurial and formal,
fantastic and imbued with sharp common sense, he was a
strange mixture of Ariel and of an eighteenth-century divine.
Charitable he was more than most men, and almost as pre-
judiced as he was charitable; full of deep Christian humility,
yet with such an eye for folly that his tongue often dealt in
mordant satire. A lover of the obvious, but so fastidious that
he sometimes seemed capricious or unjust; dependent on good
company, and also a creature of moods, of formidable silences
which none could break, till some chance word that took his
fancy changed the weather, and the sun burst forth again.



' I will, however, admit that the said Elia is the worst com-
pany in the world in bad company, if it be granted me that in
good company he is nearly the best that can be. He is one of
those of whom it may be said : Tell me your company and I'll
tell you your manners. He is the creature of sympathy, and
makes good whatever opinion you seem to entertain of him.'
These words, written by Hazlitt about Lamb, serve as the
best epitome of Alfred Ainger's social qualities,

AVhen he came to London for good, he first lived with
his old Cambridge friend, Mr. Fullarton, and his mother, who
had a house in Westbourne Square. But a great deal of his
spare time was given to his sister, Mrs. Roscow, at Sandgate,
where she now had her home, and the close relations between
them, broken into by her marriage and by his removal to a
distance, were resumed once more, the closer for her solitude
and sorrow. In her love for him there always remained some-
thing of a mother's feeling, and a letter in rhyme that she
wrote to him about his recent success gives voice to all her

'Dearest, my joy flows with thy joy and gain ;
God knows thy soul's bright wings I would not stain
\Vi\\\ shade from thoughts less happy than thine own^

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 8 of 32)