Born in Manchester, England, in 1900, growing up wasn’t easy for Janet Taylor Caldwell. Her Scottish parents warned her that if she ever misbehaved at school, she’d be “thoroughly thrashed.” Weekends at home were filled with church and chores.
When her family immigrated to America in 1907, life only got tougher. Her father died soon after their arrival in upstate New York, and the family struggled financially. But her mother, Anna, was a firm believer in Women’s Liberation and insisted that Janet could do a man’s job. With a first-class education, fierce self-reliance, and strong work ethic, Janet embarked on her writing career at the age of eight. Eventually, she was discovered by legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and began publishing under the name Taylor Caldwell. Her books sold millions of copies around the world and touched the lives of countless readers.
Here is a witty and sharply observed account of the early struggles that gave Taylor Caldwell her strong convictions and made her one of the most distinctive voices in American literature. “You’re not likely to put this one down until the last line is devoured and digested” (Charleston Sunday News & Courier).
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About the Author
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I began being a conservative when I was very young. A Liberal aunt of mine, who had never herself been in need of anything material, had a deep passion for the Poor, from whom she was very careful to keep far, far away. While we still lived in England, where I was born, Auntie would frequently gather together outworn garments which her family had discarded and prepare them for the Women's Guild of our local Anglican Church. She would sit before the fireplace, I recall, and singing some sad Scots or Irish ballad in a very moving soprano, she would carefully snip every single button off the clothing.
I was very young indeed when this practice of Auntie's suddenly seemed outrageous to me. "Auntie," I demanded, "what will the poor do for buttons?"
Auntie had remarkable hazel eyes, and they usually glittered on me unpleasantly. They did so now. "They can buy them," she snapped. "They're only a tuppence a card."
I pondered. If people were so poor that they had to wear other people's cast-offs, then they certainly were too poor to buy buttons. I pointed this out to Auntie. She smacked me fiercely for my trouble and then began:
"A wicked, wicked girl!" screamed Auntie. "She has no heart for the poor!"
My uncle, hearing Auntie's shrill cries, stormed out of his studio and demanded, "Now, what in hell's the matter?"
Auntie pointed a shaking, furious finger at me. "Your niece," she said, "doesn't want me to give these clothes — these poor old worthless rags — to the poor!"
I was standing up now having recovered from Auntie's blow. "If they're rags," I said, reasonably, "why should the poor want them, anyway? And she's taken off all the buttons."
"Impudence," bellowed Uncle, who like Auntie was a flaming Liberal and also very fond of making a great show of loving the Poor (whom he had never met). And he grabbed me and thrashed me on the spot. I am afraid I didn't ardently love those relatives after that, which was sinful, of course. But from that day on, buttons had a special significance for me. One rich relative did answer my cynical question about the button snipping with the brief reply, "It's thrifty, and I suppose, Janet, that's something you'll never be." Thrift is an estimable virtue, but somehow when I encounter thrifty Liberals — and they are inevitably tight with their own money — I always seem to see those damned buttons being snipped off the clothing for the poor. I often think of the old couplet written by some Englishman who ought to be immortalized:
To spread the wealth the Communist's willing: He'll tax your pennies and keep his shilling.
To this day I often find myself referring to male and female Liberals as "Mr. Buttons" or "Mrs. Buttons," among the less invidious names I employ when I am in form.
My Grandmother — never Granny — was not a Liberal. She was a short red-haired, belligerent, and very gay little Irishwoman who, when necessary, was tight with a quid but could be lavish at times and would slip a small girl a sovereign on her birthday with the wise admonishment, "And ye'll not be telling your Dad or Mum, if ye're sensible." I was always sensible on those occasions. Grandmother had a low opinion of her offspring, all four of them, and their wives. If she had a favorite, it was I, who was named after her. I loved her conversation, and she would always listen to me, so one day when I was visiting her in Leeds I told her about those accursed buttons.
"Niver trust anyone who weeps for the poor," said Grandmother, "unless they're damned poor, themselves." I've found that a sound rule- of-thumb to this very day. This does not mean I am against the poor, and never help them. I do. But I first make sure they want to help themselves. And I don't weep over them.
When I was four years old and just about to embark on my studies at Miss Brothers' "exclusive school for young ladies and gentlemen" in Manchester, my parents decided to brief me on the matter. I already had a furious dislike for the school, which I had never seen, and was upstairs in my bedroom brooding about it, while the cold September rains of England lashed the windowpanes. I received the summons from my elderly parents — respectively twenty-two and twenty-six at that time — to join them before the parlor fire downstairs. I rapidly ran over my day's sins in my mind while I reluctantly went downstairs to receive what undoubtedly would be a deserved punishment. I decided the major sin was being in the jampots that afternoon, in the scullery, while Mama was resting. So I was understandably apprehensive when I entered the parlor, and my parents' expressions did nothing to relieve my fears.
"Stand there, on the hearth," said Papa, fixing me with his cold blue eyes. Mama's stare was no less forbidding. So. I stood on the hearth, trembling. My thrashings were never taken meekly, but with some telling kicks on my part, for though I was only four I was very big and strong.
"You are going to school tomorrow," said Papa, as if I didn't know the disastrous day. "I will take you when I go to my studio at the Manchester Guardian, at eight o'clock. And I want to warn you," Papa added in a terrible voice of doom and threat, "if you do not behave in Miss Brothers' School, and if I hear from her one word of your mischief or insolence, you will be thoroughly thrashed. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Papa," I replied.
"You will be neat and tidy, eat nicely, be polite and obedient at all times, and never answer back," said Mama with severity, "You will learn. Your father will inspect your lessons every night. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Mama," I replied.
"And you'll never be tardy," said Papa, who hated to get up in the morning and hated to be on time and had to be rousted out of bed and hurried by Mama every day. But at least he thought promptness was a virtue, if a foul nuisance, and never permitted a child to comment on inconsistencies.
I could see that my parents were considering the sound principle of "never a lick amiss," so I hastily curtseyed and got out of there up to my bedroom, where I spent most of my time. I busied myself laying out my woolen frock for the morrow. I then polished my boots. After that I took my bath, cleaned my teeth, brushed my long red hair, went to bed and contemplated how much I could cut out of my elaborate prayers. I decided not to speak to the Archangel Michael that night, nor to all the saints, and to omit Miss Brothers — whom I had never met — from my petitions. But I did pray for dear Mama and Papa, and for two dolls at Christmas, and went to sleep. Without the resentments, either, that the child psychologists say children always feel when they are sure they are being treated unjustly. It never occurred to me that there was any injustice in my life. I lived the life of the usual middle- class British child, and all my playmates were treated firmly and thumped regularly by their parents. C'est la vie. Children are tough little animals, not tender blossoms.
The next day was vile, as only English autumns can be vile, with heavy gray rain and shouting winds. Papa refused to be stirred from bed, even by doughty Mama, until nine, and it was now half-past six. "Let her go, herself," he said. "She knows the way."
I did. Mama's maid-of-all-work boiled me a hard egg, which I loathed, and made me some burned bacon and toast and a kipper and some lukewarm tea, and I got into my mackintosh over a warm coat, pulled on my tam-o'-shanter, and went out into the wild cold weather — for a walk of well over a mile. I was about half a minute late, for which I was coldly rebuked and warned never to repeat, then introduced to my red-cheeked mates, all as abominably healthy as I and all studiously bent over slates and books at their tables.
It was a long and arduous and punishing day, and did not end until four o'clock. We worked on the alphabet, and at writing figures up to ten. No "reading readiness," you will observe, or playtimes, or kindergarten, or fingerpainting, or songs — except for "God Save the King" and a couple of hymns — and there was a special prayer for our dear guides and mentors, the King, the Parliament, the Empire, our parents and our teachers. The Union Jack was gravely saluted, and at four o'clock we genuflected to the Crucifix on the wall, as we had genuflected before and after luncheon and tea. Then we were dismissed, to worse weather, our hands and feet icy, for Miss Brothers did not believe in fires until October. But we exuberantly raced home, our faces wet with rain and our boots splashing in puddles, and our Daily Report in our pockets. We weren't tired at all, after eight hours.
That night, after high tea, I was introduced — as a grownup person now — to laying fires in the parlor, the dining room, and my parents' room. This had been the usual job for Agnes, the maid, but as I was now a schoolgirl it was my job. I thought nothing of it, nor was disturbed that I was called down from my bedroom at nine to wipe my parents' dinner dishes — a new job. The scullery was warm, and Agnes had many blood-curdling tales of beasties and ghoulies to amuse me.
I wasn't spanked at school or by my parents for a whole week, and very soon I was reading and writing simple sentences, and was being introduced to Latin. There was little playtime in my busy life from then on, only half an hour's recreation at school, after lunch, and what I could snatch at home between high tea and my parents' dishes and the laying of new fires for the next day. Sunday was no quiet day. I spent three hours in Sunday-school, and helped Agnes with the dinner dishes, then was given an Improving Book — Bible stories — as a fun- time project, until it was time for bed. Incidentally, children of that time and place were not permitted to waste the precious hours in bed. Bed time was between nine and ten, and you were out of the quilts before six.
I was never sick under this rigorous treatment. By the time I was seven I had had two years of Latin and one of French, and was reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, not to mention minor poets, and had had a good grounding in history and geography. No guidance counselors, no twitterings on the part of teachers, no worry for parents, no soft patting hands, no cherishing. We were being prepared for Life.
Was I "cowed"? Not a bit of it! Was I "fearful, insecure, timid"? Don't be silly. I knew that life was for real, and it was up to me to deserve living, or God help me. No one else would. I was constantly being taught to be grateful to my parents for condescending to give me life, and to my teachers for teaching me, and to God for letting me live. Above all, I was taught to have an independent and searching mind, to scorn weak tears, to detest dependency on the part of anybody, to be brave and to endure. To sin was intolerable. To defend oneself was demanded at all times.
When I was five I had a baby brother, and I had to help with his care. I rocked him in his cradle — the only time British children were indulged. I prepared his bed, helped to feed him, folded his diapers, and sat in his room until he was asleep, for fear he would smother under all those eiderdowns. I wheeled him in his carriage after school, and on Saturdays and Sundays, between times. I amused him. It was all part of the job of living. A year later, incredible as it may seem, I also won the National Gold Medal for my essay on Charles Dickens.
One day my father said to me, "We are going to America, and I hear it is a very foolish and uncultured country, and so I am warning you beforehand. No nonsense, when you go to school there! They indulge their children. You are not going to be indulged. You will keep yourself to yourself, as at home. And another thing: Every tub must stand on its own bottom. You are six years old and not a child any longer, and we have a younger child, and so you must be self-reliant — or else."
I was, too. And still am. My parents, as much as they could, carried on the Spartan life for me, and now for my brother, in spite of the softness in America for children. I was earning my spending-money when I was seven after I finished my school work and my chores at home. Saturday and Sunday were tough days ... ironing, mending, darning, snow-shoveling, grass-cutting, glass polishing, and sundry other arduous tasks, and homework and Sunday-school, and church twice a day. I was lucky to get eight hours of sleep. And I got the Jesse Ketchum Medal and won prizes at school and in state competitions, for essays and short stories. Of course, I could never master mathematics, but as my parents were weak on the subject, too, I was indulged in that one, but that one only.
When I was ten I was working at the local market on Saturday filling up bags and helping wait on customers. I looked all of fifteen. When I was indeed fifteen I held a full-time job as a secretary. (I had paid for my own tuition at the Hurst Business School.) After work I went to night high school. Sunday was my "free" day. I had a Sunday-school class of my own, then hurried home to help with dinner, prepare my clothing for the next day, and do my homework. I was up at half-past five to get my father's breakfast and mine and my brother's, wash up, hastily glance over schoolwork, and was out in the street at six-forty on the way to work. Not much time for loitering!
In America of those days there was no time to be a "teenager," or to have the adolescent "turmoils." None of my schoolmates ended up on welfare rolls, even during the Great Depression, nor were any of them criminals, thieves, murderers, or whiners. Our parents, even in America before the Depression — had been tough, perhaps most not as tough as mine, but all happily tough enough.CHAPTER 2
Irma Jones Never Came Back
When I am asked, "Why are you a hater of Liberalism?" I invariably reply, "I have had painful, scarring, personal experiences with it and it is not just an ideological matter. As a peaceful person, I am willing to live and let live. But the Liberal will not, if he can help it, let you live in peace, or, coming down to the matter, let you live at all."
I have had scores of agonizing encounters with Liberals, but in my memory the worst occurred when I was eleven years old, and just about as happy as a child that age can be. (Children are not really "happy," as their teachers and parents would like to believe. Coming in increasing contact with reality, as the days pass, children suffer unavoidable agonies which they cannot communicate.)
The children in my class at school were reasonably clean, obedient, and studious, which is all anyone can ask of a child in the throes of growing up and learning about life. I had several friends, notably Irma Jones, who was the envy of all us girls. Her widowed mother was a dressmaker, and Irma had dazzling clothes and preened in them. But she was a kind girl at heart and would invite a select few of us home after school to partake of her mother's delightful little cakes and homemade candies, such as we did not get at home, our mothers believing that anything sugary was bound to ruin our teeth. Irma had beautiful teeth, so here went another illusion about our mothers' omniscience.
Fanny and Anna were twin girls, very pretty with fair, curling hair and big blue eyes. The fact that they were almost abnormally bright did not make the rest of us hate them, because they were pleasant little girls and could thrown mean baseball on the playground and would democratically share any goodies in their lunchbaskets with the rest of us who had more sketchy mothers.
I should say, then, that Irma Jones and Fanny and Anna were about the three most popular girls in our class.
It is a canon law of childhood that you must be suspicious of your new teacher in September and be prepared to dislike her. She is on trial for a month at least. After that a modus vivendi sets in, and later, if the teacher happens to be half-way decent, mutual regard is established. But I was mistrustful of Miss Blank from the start. She had such a staring and watery eye, and would gulp soulfully, and gaze at us with Love. I knew there was something wrong with her. I confided this to my dear friends, Irma Jones and Fanny and Anna, and a few others who would listen. "You'll get over it," they told me. But I knew I should not. I had a female relative with the same sort of tremulous voice as Miss Blank, and the same pinched and intense expression and the same look of Love, and she was generally known in the family as The Bitch. However, I had other things on my mind so I began to endure Miss Blank. (I had just been appointed head of the Arkansas Street Regulars, a baseball club.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "On Growing Up Tough"
Copyright © 1971 Taylor Caldwell.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- 1. Mrs. Buttons
- 2. Irma Jones Never Came Back
- 3. The Day I Was Absolutely Perfect
- 4. Sharing
- 5. The Purple Lodge
- 6. The Child-Lovers
- 7. Learning the Liberal Lingo
- 8. Onomatopoeia
- 9. Pioneering in Kentucky
- 10. What Happened to American Men?
- 11. Women’s Lib
- 12. T.L.C.—Keep Your Paws All Me!
- 13. Luv and the Law
- 14. Dolts and Love Cultists
- 15. Plastic People
- 16. Why Not a SPUVV?
- 17. On Hippies
- A Biography of Taylor Caldwell