A Father's Memoirs Of His Child - Benjamin Heath Malkin I’ve praised it before and I’ll praise it again but one of the more interesting books in my library is J.B. Post’s An Atlas of Fantasy, wherein I first came across Thomas Williams Malkin (1795-1802). At the time, I myself was only 13 or 14 years old. My initial interest was in the fact that this 5-year-old prodigy had created and written stories sent in his imaginary world of Allestone, and I was interested in reading them. And not only stories, Thomas had drawn maps, written chronologies and almanacs, and had even made notes on Allestone’s language – all activities my geeky self was engaging in in my own imaginary worlds. But in those pre-Internet days I had little chance to find his father’s book, originally published in 1806.

Jump ahead 25 years: I sit before my computer adding books to my GR shelves. In adding the Atlas of Fantasy, I note in my review my interest in Master Thomas’ literary efforts. That catches the attention of a fellow GoodReader who directs me to the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/details/fathersmemoirsof00malk), where a copy of this book had been scanned and uploaded.

God bless the Internet & God bless GR :-)

As to the book – I’m a bit at a loss as how to describe it. It’s certainly not a “biography” in the usual sense of the word. And the father writes in such a discursive and elliptical style that it’s awfully difficult for the modern reader to persevere. There’s a grueling 68-page preface, much of which is devoted to an essay on William Blake. Yes, that William Blake – he was a family friend. And the memoir is full of rambling sentences stuffed with clauses and prepositional phrases and “high falutin” language, e.g., “It may indeed be affirmed, without danger of a paradoxical deviation from the sobriety of truth, that he excited more admiration under circumstances, from which human nature is apt to revolt, than had fallen to his share in the full career of mental and bodily improvement.” (p. 140) One of the tamer sentences. If there is any interest in reading it today, it’s in seeing how a well educated, upper class British gentleman of the early 19th century found a way to rise above the somewhat repressive nature of his society to express the profound sense of loss and grief he felt when Thomas died. For despite the purple prose, Benjamin Malkin’s immense pride and deep love for his son leaks through despite all. The very existence of this testament is proof enough of that.

At an early age Thomas displayed a remarkable mind. By his death, he had mastered English and Latin, and was learning Greek and French. Beyond that, he had written his Allestone stories and was progressing in his drawing/illustrating talents. So that you don’t think he was too much the “superboy,” he wasn’t very good at poetry or mathematics. His brief attempts at poetry caused him much mental anguish and effort; his parents were relieved when he gave it up because they felt that it put him in a morbid and unhealthy frame of mind. As to math, Thomas was competent enough but it was simply not a subject he enjoyed or had much interest in (his brother, Benjamin, was the mathematical genius in the family).

Regarding his disposition, Thomas was an angel. I don’t know how objective Mr. Malkin can be but there’s never an instance when the boy seriously misbehaves. The author remarks only that Thomas took correction well, perhaps sulking for a short time but rapidly returning to his usual cheerful, curious and helpful self.

I include below a few things that struck me as particularly interesting:

Typical Malkin family dinner conversation?:

When he was little more than five years old, Thomas, sitting at dinner with a knife in his hand, asked the following question. “Pray, Mother, what is the opposite to sharp?” He was answered, “Blunt, my dear.” On this he immediately observed, “Then my knife is very blunt; for I cannot cut with it.” His little brother Benjamin, two years younger, wished to have some share in the conversation, yet without perceiving thoroughly the drift of what had passed. He therefore enquired, “What is the opposite of a door?” His mother replied, “I know of no opposite to a door. The qualities or circumstances of persons or things, by which their resemblance or opposition is marked out, are usually expressed by adjectives. The noun substantive simply represents the person or thing itself.” Thomas without hesitation interposed with this remark. “But there are opposites among nouns, you know; at least in nouns of behaviour. Guilt is a noun, and it is the opposite of innocence.” (p. 71-72)

A typical Allestone story:

The Family

Once upon a time, in a pleasant street in Countib, that was about a mile off from the palace, there lived a young lady, who had before rather an unfortunate life. Now I intend to relate all that happened in her life; which was well worth describing, after she grew up. As soon as ever she grew up old enough to be able to look for a house by herself, she settled a plan of doing it, and began to look out for one as fast as she could. She got that with much ado, after taking a great deal of necessary trouble for one, and after searching all over a great many towns for one, till at last she got to Countib, and went into a house from fatigue, to see if it was empty. She looked all about the house and found it so. Nobody can think how glad she was that she did find it, having taken so much trouble before. As soon as ever she had searched the house, she went to the parlour in great sorrow, took place of a great-chair that was there about, and began to reflect on her offences before to her parents, whom she lost when she was only a little after eleven years old; and after she had reflected about a quarter of an hour, she began to think of one, that in a few moments was so deeply impressed upon her mind, that she was almost ready to faint. She began, in a few days, to think she chose to look out for a husband, and presently set about it; and though this was with a great deal of trouble, it was with less than her house. She took her husband with her to the house which she had with so much trouble chosen for herself before. "Do you know, Sir," says the lady, "that a few days before this I have been reflecting on my offences to my parents, whom I have long ago lost; and one was so deeply impressed upon my mind, that I was almost ready to faint?” "Ah!" replied he, surprised. Some children were presently born to them, at first two at a time, and a few hours after that one more. Their name was Malysbeg.
p. 106-108

From Thomas’ notes, he conceived of Allestone as a utopian society; its citizens were renowned for their manners and good works, and lived as exemplars to others.

He even tried his hand at comic opera:

I wander till I find my love,
And oh! She looks for me. (repeated)
I cannot think (diminuendo)
I cannot think where she does go;
Tho’ oh! She looks for me: (2nd time adagio)
Till I find her, I roam about, (allegro)
Oh! Till I find my love! (concluding adagio and pianissimo)
(p. 128)

Thomas was also an avid letter writer:

A letter from December 1798, when he was three, to a Miss _____: “Thomas has been reading Tit for Tat in the Evenings at Home, and Thomas has laughed at “The fellow tried, and tried, and tried.” I wish you would come to see Tom.” (p. 10)

Another letter dated October 30, 1801, to his mother on the occasion of his sixth birthday: “Next time you go to Cambridge, if you will allow it, I should be very glad to accompany you there, for the sake of having a ride…. As you one day said you hoped I would hear Benjamin read and spell to me, I promise to do it some times when I have leisure to hear him, and when he is in a humour for it: and I shall teach him as near as I can to the manner in which you do…. I hope you will trust that the great and good God will make us both better still, though I assure you I have this morning had very serious thoughts of being much better now I am six. However, I still think there is much room for improvement in us both, especially me, if God spares our lives, that we improve in them still more…. (p. 36-38)

Finally, there’s the painful, day-by-day description of Thomas’ final days. He died after suffering from an inflamed bowel and peritonitis, an uncommonly painful illness, about which he almost never complained:

The principle of life seemed still, if I may so express myself, to struggle for the mastery, under the banner of a vigorous intellect and a happy organization. The field was indeed lost, but the power, which had hitherto supported the conflict, maintained its self-possession in the crisis of defeat.

Soon after eleven o’clock, an evident alteration took place. The languor and debility increased. His breathing became much more difficult than it had ever been; and his voice, which through his illness had been strong and clear, began to falter. Under this serious change of circumstances, when the hand of death was even now upon him, he remained firm and collected, without the slightest indication of displeasure or alarm. He spoke at intervals, deliberately and coherently, with his accustomed felicity of expression, and with his usual kindness to those who were around his bed, till he could no longer utter a sound. In a few minutes after he had ceased to articulate, and a little before twelve o’clock, he sunk in the arms of his mother without a struggle or a groan. There was no expression of agony upon his features. His frame was neither agitated by convulsion, nor his faculties stupefied by the drowsy tendency of his dropsical affection.
(p. 39-40)

If you’re interested in learning more about this remarkable kid, skip the ridiculously overpriced reprint ($85 on Amazon) that I’m using as a marker for this book and check out the Internet Archive link above.