The orangeless childhood of Bertrand Russell

I’m still obsessed with the life and writings of Bertrand Russell, and I keep meaning to post the passage from his autobiography that inspired one of my recent New York Times Magazine microcolumns, on Victorians’ belief that fruit was bad for children. Here it is:

I remember an occasion at lunch when all the plates were changed and everybody except me was given an orange. I was not allowed an orange as there was an unalterable conviction that fruit is bad for children. I knew I must not ask for one as that would be impertinent, but as I had been given a plate I did venture to say, ‘a plate and nothing on it’. Everybody laughed, but I did not get an orange. I had no fruit, practically no sugar, and an excess of carbohydrates. Nevertheless, I never had a day’s illness except a mild attack of measles at the age of eleven. Since I became interested in children, after the birth of my own children, I have never known one nearly as healthy as I was, and yet I am sure that any modern expert on children’s diet would think that I ought to have had various deficiency diseases. Perhaps I was saved by the practice of stealing crabapples, which, if it had been known, would have caused the utmost horror and alarm. A similar instinct for self preservation was the cause of my first lie. My governess left me alone for half an hour with strict instructions to eat no blackberries during her absence. When she returned I was suspiciously near the brambles. ‘You have been eating black-berries,’ she said. ‘I have not,’ I replied. ‘Put out your tongue!’ she said. Shame overwhelmed me, and I felt utterly wicked.

I was, in fact, unusually prone to a sense of sin. When asked what was my favorite hymn, I anwered ‘Weary of earth and laden with my sin’. On one occasion when my grandmother read the parable of the Prodigal Son at family prayers, I said to her afterward: ‘I know why you read that — because I broke my jug.’

A little earlier on, Russell establishes that this grandmother, who raised him, “ate only the plainest food, breakfasted at eight, and until she reached the age of eighty never sat in a comfortable chair until after tea.”

The impression Russell leaves of his boyhood self is a lonely, anxious, and searching one. Reading about his long, solitary days, I kept wishing someone would swoop in, give him some candy, and whisk him off on a fishing trip or to the fair or something.

His friend Annabel Huth Jackson recalls him in her A Victorian Childhood (which he quotes) as “a solemn little boy in a blue velvet suit with an equally solemn governess…. [E]ven as a child I realised what an unsuitable place it was for children to be brought up in. Lady Russell always spoke in hushed tones and Lady Agatha always wore a white shawl and looked down-trodden. Rollo Russell never spoke at all. He gave one a handshake that nearly broke all the bones of one’s fingers, but was quite friendly. They all drifted in and out of the rooms like ghosts and no one ever seemed to be hungry.”

The image above is W.C. Rainbow’s watercolor of Pembroke Lodge, Russell’s childhood home, painted in 1883. And below is an 1884 photograph of Russell’s grandmother, the Dowager Countess Russell; you can read an entire book about her, and if this fixation continues I probably will.



At Full Stop: The situation in American writing

Full Stop interviewed me about literature, politics, criticism, and the responsibilities of writers, as part of a series called “The Situation in American Writing.”

Others who’ve answered the same questions: Marilynne Robinson, Alexander Chee, Victor LaValle, Porochista Khakpour, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, T.C. Boyle, Roxane Gay, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Siddhartha Deb, Christopher Bollen, Steve Himmer, Laura van den Berg, John Warner, Dana Spiotta, Philipp Meyer, Kio Spark, Danielle Evans, Lars Iyer, and Darin Strauss.



Muriel Spark + Maggie Smith = a better January

Muriel Spark, Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith, and Downton Abbey feature in my most recent New York Times Magazine micro-column.

Smith is best known now for her role as the Dowager Countess, but she won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Muriel Spark’s dramatic and overbearing schoolmistress in the 1969 adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s the perfect apéritif for the second season of Downton Abbey, which airs on PBS this Sunday. And obviously the novel is even better.

Speaking of drinks, if you’re looking for something wintry to cut the sting of January, and if you have good heat and don’t mind juicing a big bag of clementines, I recommend Rosie Schaap’s wondrous Bitter Darling, my last drink of 2011.