Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer

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Author: Richard Steele

XVII.— Fatherly Care.

From my own Apartment, June 23.

Having lately turned my thoughts upon the consideration of the behaviour of parents to children in the great affair of marriage, I took much delight in turning over a bundle of letters which a gentleman’s steward in the country had sent me some time ago. This parcel is a collection of letters written by the children of the family to which he belongs to their father, and contain all the little passages of their lives, and the new ideas they received as the years advanced. There is in them an account of their diversions as well as their exercises; and what I thought very remarkable is, that two sons of the family, who now make considerable figures in the world, gave omens of that sort of character which they now bear in the first rudiments of thought which they show in their letters. Were one to point out a method of education, one could not, methinks, frame one more pleasing or improving than this; where the children get a habit of communicating their thoughts and inclinations to their best friend with so much freedom, that he can form schemes for their future life and conduct from an observation of their tempers; and by that means be early enough in choosing their way of life, to make them forward in some art or science at an age when others have not determined what profession to follow. As to the persons concerned in this packet I am speaking of, they have given great proofs of the force of this conduct of their father in the effect it has upon their lives and manners. The older, who is a scholar, showed from his infancy a propensity to polite studies, and has made a suitable progress in literature; but his learning is so well woven into his mind, that from the impressions of it, he seems rather to have contracted a habit of life than manner of discourse. To his books he seems to owe a good economy in his affairs, and a complacency in his manners, though in others that way of education has commonly a quite different effect. The epistles of the other son are full of accounts of what he thought most remarkable in his reading. He sends his father for news the last noble story he had read. I observe he is particularly touched with the conduct of Codrus, who plotted his own death, because the oracle had said, if he were not killed, the enemy should prevail over his country. Many other incidents in his little letters give omens of a soul capable of generous undertakings; and what makes it the more particular is, that this gentleman had, in the present war, the honour and happiness of doing an action for which only it was worth coming into the world. Their father is the most intimate friend they have; and they always consult him rather than any other, when any error has happened in their conduct through youth and inadvertency. The behaviour of this gentleman to his sons has made his life pass away with the pleasures of a second youth; for as the vexations which men receive from their children hasten the approach of age, and double the force of years; so the comforts which they reap from them, are balm to all other sorrows, and disappoint the injuries of time. Parents of children repeat their lives in their offspring; and their concern for them is so near, that they feel all their sufferings and enjoyments as much as if they regarded their own proper persons. But it is generally so far otherwise, that the common race of ’squires in this kingdom use their sons as persons that are waiting only for their funerals, and spies upon their health and happiness; as indeed they are, by their own making them such. In cases where a man takes the liberty after this manner to reprehend others, it is commonly said, Let him look at home. I am sorry to own it; but there is one branch of the house of the Bickerstaffs who have been as erroneous in their conduct this way as any other family whatsoever. The head of this branch is now in town, and has brought up with him his son and daughter, who are all the children he has, in order to be put some way into the world, and see fashions. They are both very ill-bred cubs; and having lived together from their infancy, without knowledge of the distinctions and decencies that are proper to be paid to each other’s sex, they squabble like two brothers. The father is one of those who knows no better than that all pleasure is debauchery, and imagines, when he sees a man become his estate, that he will certainly spend it. This branch are a people who never had among them one man eminent either for good or ill: however, have all along kept their heads just above water, not by a prudent and regular economy, but by expedients in the matches they have made in to their house. When one of the family has in the pursuit of foxes, and in the entertainment of clowns, run out the third part of the value of his estate, such a spendthrift has dressed up his eldest son, and married what they call a good fortune: who has supported the father as a tyrant over them during his life, in the same house or neighbourhood. The son, in succession, has just taken the same method to keep up his dignity, till the mortgages he has ate and drank himself into have reduced him to the necessity of sacrificing his son also, in imitation of his progenitor. This had been for many generations, the whole that had happened in the family of Sam Bickerstaff, till the time of my present cousin Samuel, the father of the young people we have just now spoken of.

Samuel Bickerstaff, esquire, is so happy as that by several legacies from distant relations, deaths of maiden sisters, and other instances of good fortune, he has besides his real estate, a great sum of ready money. His son at the same time knows he has a good fortune, which the father cannot alienate; though he strives to make him believe he depends only on his will for maintenance. Tom is now in his nineteenth year. Mrs. Mary in her fifteenth. Cousin Samuel, who understands no one point of good behaviour as it regards all the rest of the world, is an exact critic in the dress, the motion, the looks, and gestures, of his children. What adds to their misery is, that he is excessively fond of them, and the greatest part of their time is spent in the presence of this nice observer. Their life is one of continued constraint. The girl never turns her head, but she is warned not to follow the proud minxes of the town. The boy is not to turn fop, or be quarrelsome, at the same time not to take an affront. I had the good fortune to dine with him to-day, and heard his fatherly table-talk as we sat at dinner, which, if my memory does not fail me, for the benefit of the world, I shall set down as he spoke it; which was much as follows, and may be of great use to those parents who seem to make it a rule, that their children’s turn to enjoy the world is not to commence till they themselves have left it.

"Now, Tom, I have bought you chambers in the inns of court. I allow you to take a walk once or twice a day round the garden. If you mind your business, you need not study to be as great a lawyer as Coke upon Littleton. I have that that will keep you; but be sure you keep an exact account of your linen. Write down what you give out to your laundress, and what she brings home again. Go as little as possible to the other end of the town; but if you do, come home early. I believe I was as sharp as you for your years, and I had my hat snatched off my head coming home late at a stop by St. Clement’s church, and I do not know from that day to this who took it. I do not care if you learn to fence a little; for I would not have you made a fool of. Let me have an account of everything, every post; I am willing to be at that charge, and I think you need not spare your pains. As for you, daughter Molly, do not mind one word that is said to you in London, for it is only for your money."

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Chicago: Richard Steele, "XVII.— Fatherly Care.," Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Curtin, Jeremiah, 1835-1906 in Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=93ZN8VETXKICCFM.

MLA: Steele, Richard. "XVII.— Fatherly Care." Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Curtin, Jeremiah, 1835-1906, in Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=93ZN8VETXKICCFM.

Harvard: Steele, R, 'XVII.— Fatherly Care.' in Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer, ed. and trans. . cited in , Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=93ZN8VETXKICCFM.