Jackanapes

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After reading about Randolph Caldecott I decided we should try to find some of the books he illustrated. The university library near us had an original copy of the book Jackanapes by Juliana Horatia Ewing with Caldecott’s illustrations. After reading the term Jackanapes was a reference to an upstart “new money” and also to a monkey on a leash I thought the book might be a comedy of sorts. Instead the story tells of a hero, Jackanapes. It starts with his birth to a young woman who ran off with a soldier to Gretna Green and then lost her husband in the battle of Waterloo and continues on through a few important incidents of his childhood and into his adulthood.
Jackanapes by Juliana Horatia Ewing

The crisis in the story takes place when Jackanapes is on the battlefield and, taking time to rescue a much less capable friend, Tony Johnson. The friend knows that Jackanapes life is more valuable than his and that rescuing him is slowing down his friend’s chances of escaping, so he tries to urge Jackanapes to continue without him but Jackanapes refuses. Jackanapes takes a bullet in the lungs and dies back at the camp with his major beside him. His last concerns are for his horse and for Tony.

“Major! I wish I could get you to appreciate Johnson.”

“This is not an easy moment, Jackanapes.”

“Let me tell you, sir – he never will – that if he could have driven me from him, he would be lying yonder at this moment, and I should be safe and sound.”

The Major laid his hand over his mouth, as if to keep back a wish he would have been ashamed to utter.

“I’ve known old Tony from a child. He’s a fool on impulse, a good man and a gentleman in principle. And he acts on principle, which it’s not every – some water, please! Thank you sir. It’s very hot, and yet one’s feet get uncomfortably cold. Oh, thank you, thank you. He’s no fire-eater, but he has a trained conscience and a tender heart, and he’ll do his duty when a braver and more selfish man might fail you. He but wants encouragement; and when I’m gone – “

The last of the book deals with others responses.

Only the Cobbler dissented, but that was his way. He said he saw nothing but foolhardiness and vainglory. They might both have been killed, as easy as not, and then where would ye have been? A man’s life was a man’s life, and one life was as good as another. No one would catch him throwing his away. And, for that matter, Mrs. Johnson could spare a child a great deal better than Miss Jessamine.

. . .
Nor did Miss Jessamine see her loss form the Cobbler’s point of view. On the contrary, Mrs. Johnson said she never to her dying day should forget how, when she went to condole her, the old lady came forward with gentlewomanly self-control, and kissed her, and thanked God that her dear nephew’s effort had been blessed with success, and that this sad war had made no gap in her friend’s large and happy home circle.

“But she’s a noble, unselfish woman,” sobbed Mrs. Johnson, “and she taught Jackanapes to be the same, and that’s how it is that my Tony has been spared to me. And it must be sheer goodness in Miss Jessamine, for what can she know of a mother’s feelings? And I’m sure most people seem to think that if you’ve a large family you don’t know one from another any more than they do, and that a lot of children are like store-apples, if one’s taken it won’t be missed.”

What do I make of the book? It has something of the notion of inherited goodness that underlies the racism of Tarzan – a notion that the nobility are in some ways inherently better, more gentle, strong-charactered and selfless. The book is also an apology for the army. At the beginning it talked of the villagers having a prejudice against the military but then after Jackanapes grandfather lives there a length of time they change:

One effect of the conquest which the General had gained over the affections of the village, was a considerable abatement of the popular prejudice against “the military.”

It makes me curious about the attitudes towards the military during the 19th century. I remember reading that when Florence Nightingale tried to provide teachers for soldiers recovering from injuries she was told that she was spoiling “the brutes.” I know she succeeded in changing people’s views so soldiers were viewed less harshly. But I don’t know enough to really know how they were viewed.

The whole evaluation of Jackanapes sacrifice challenges a utilitarian or calculating view of the world. The “better” person was sacrificed for a “lesser” person but that is seen as fine and good, as the end describes explicitly:

A sorrowful story, and ending badly?

Nay, Jackanapes, for the End is not yet.

A life wasted that might have been useful?

Men who have died for men, in all ages, forgive the thought!

There is a heritage of heroic example and noble obligation, not reckoned in the Wealth of Nations, but essential to a nation’s life; the contempt of which, in any people, may, not slowly, mean even its commercial fall.

Very sweet are the uses of prosperity, the harvests of peace and progress, the fostering sunshine of health and happiness, and length of days in the land.

But there be things – oh, sons of what has deserved the name of Great Britain, forget it not! – “the good of” which and “the use of” which are beyond all calculations of worldly goods and earthly uses : things such as Love and Honour, and the Soul of Man, which cannot be bought with a price, and which do not die with death. And they who would fain live happily EVER after, should not leave these things out of the lessons of their lives.

I discussed this with my kids partly through discussion of the Star Trek Voyageur episode “Critical Care” during which the holographic doctor has been stolen and finds himself working in a hospital where medication and care is administered according to their “TC score” or perceived value to society. And of course while we’re on the topic, we could discuss the notion of paid employment and that people speak as though a person’s wages (the means by which they access resources) are a legitimate measure of the person’s perceived value to society. But all of this goes beyond Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Jackanapes, of course, though her mention of “the Wealth of Nations” suggests she is not unaware of the economic implications of her criticism of calculations of value. Still her focus is on the idea of the heroic, and not on the idea of justice. The heroic leads Jackanapes and the aunt who raised him to reject notions of utility and calculations, but it does not require them to part with their wealth (only his life!).

The other Star Trek connection in this book is of course the idea that the main character dies, rather than just a “red shirt.” My children argued this is a betrayal! How can it be! In our imaginary worlds we hold that social status does count, and that our connection to a character should protect them.

One cute aspect of the book is that parts of it are told from the perspective of the Grey Goose that lived upon the green. For example, chapter two starts with this charming vignette:

The Grey Goose remembered quite well the year that Jackanapes began to walk, for it was the year that the speckled hen for the first time in all her motherly life got out of patience when she was sitting. She had been rather proud of the eggs – they were unusually large – but she never felt quite comfortable on them; and whether it was because she used to get cramp, and go off the nest, or because the season was bad, or what, she never could tell, but every egg was addled but one, and the one that did hatch gave her more trouble than any chick she had ever reared.

It was a fine, downy, bright yellow little thing, but it had a monstrously big nose and feet, and such an ungainly walk as she knew no other instance of in her well-bred and high-stepping family. And as to behavior, it was not that it was either quarrelsome or moping, but simply unlike the rest. When the other chicks hopped and cheeped on the Green about their mother’s feet, this solitary yellow brat went waddling off on its own responsibility, and do or cluck what the speckled hen would, it went to play in the pond.

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