Wednesday 21 February 2024

On Gaining a Niece (and a bit of Rambler 148)

 Last week I became an uncle. It was an exciting moment and I’d been preparing for a while, buying a couple of gifts, using a wood-burning pen to make a little plaque with flowers and space for her name and birthdate, and clearing my calendar at the expected time so I could go and see her at short notice.

The day after she went home from the hospital, I was on a coach for four hours, reading an interesting book but thrumming with excitement to see her. I had to work out the bus from the city centre to the house and as I walked up the drive, I was grinning from ear to ear. When I came in, I saw her, a small, slightly squashed little figure asleep in a Moses basket.

Over the next day and a bit, I tried to help out a little, not get under anyone’s feet and get as many looks at my niece as I could. I saw my sister and her husband regain control of their situation (with the help of my mum) and the little family reform itself into something new. While I like children, and have worked with them for the majority of (what could jokingly be called) my professional life, I haven’t had much interaction with babies, especially little ones. 

They are incredibly hypnotic, aren’t they? Even as her eyes couldn’t yet focus, it was still a thrill when they opened in my direction. It was delightful to see all the movements of her limbs and fingers, the frown lines that made her look deep in thought and the relaxation as she went into deeper sleep. 

In a Rambler essay (no.148) written on the 17th of August 1751, Johnson talks about the power babies have to awaken tenderness.

"To see helpless infancy stretching out her hands, and pouring out her cries in testimony of dependence, without any powers to alarm jealousy, or any guilt to alienate affection, must surely awaken tenderness in every human mind; and tenderness once excited will be hourly increased by the natural contagion of felicity, by the repercussion of communicated pleasure, by the consciousness of dignity of benefaction.”

He captures a lot of the feeling I had, the detail of the stretching out of hands in particular. I also love his description of how a baby can cause a ‘natural contagion of felicity’, something I felt but also saw grow hourly between baby and her parents.

The essay itself then goes into darker territory, looking at people who find they can’t share in “any satisfaction in the reflection that he is loved as the distributor of happiness” and so “may please himself with exciting terrour as the inflictor of pain.” Rambler 148 is nowadays entitled ‘The Cruelty of Parental Tyranny’ but it’s less about strict parenting as it is about child abuse. To be honest, I skimmed the rest of the essay - I’d already found a quote that tied into what I wanted to talk about (via the Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page) and was only looking to see the context. Johnson finds satisfaction in reflecting that the abuser will die alone, having alienated his children and asks why more isn’t done to punish cruel parents. Johnson himself did not die alone, and was joined at his deathbed by Francis Barber, who’d been given to Johnson as a twelve-year-old boy and had developed a warm, if not always smooth, relationship.

Knowing my sister and her husband, my niece will not be growing up in an atmosphere of terror and pain. Indeed, I predict, and hope many years of felicity and I look forward to being part of it as much as I can. 

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