I wrote a while ago about the memoirs of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, ‘the Highland Lady’, whose memoirs of life in Scotland in the early 19th century were so popular. Now I’m reading her later volume of memoirs, written when she was married and helping to run an estate in Ireland.
In her Scottish memoirs, she recalls with horror the days when she and her sister had to get up in the icy dark of Highland winters and practise the piano and harp before dawn without even a candle to help them see. I was very struck by this passage and couldn’t imagine why their parents, sensible and kind in other ways, would make them do this.
In her later memoirs Elizabeth harks back resentfully to those mornings. In the freezing January of 1841 she writes, ‘Never felt any cold like it since the days of our Highland winters when we girls occupied the barrack room in the roof of the Doune [their Scottish home] without a fire, without warm water, when we groped for our clothes a little after six o’clock, washed in ice and descended to the comforts of Cramer’s exercises on the pianoforte, or worse, Bochsa’s on the harp till daylight allowed of using our eyes; really children were cruelly used in those days, and for what purpose. Could we do any good with numb fingers, starving with cold and cross with actual suffering. Should we not have been better in our warm beds.
‘Mary and I are wiser with our children. We never wish them to get up till they can see to dress, and we have a warm room and good fire for them to go to afterwards and they never touch the pianoforte till they have had their breakfast, and as I at least wish for no professors in my family, Janey has never yet any day practised an hour.’
‘Tiger mother’ indeed, but in the opposite sense of the one we now read about. This tiger mother’s experience of a harsh practising regime made her determined to protect her children from the same fate!