Leaving the magic kingdom

Dr Thomas Dixon is the presenter of ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship‘ on BBC Radio 4 and the Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. In this blog post he reflects on the powerful emotions of friendship experienced in childhoods past and present. 


Inevitably in making a series covering five hundred years of friendship in short fifteen-minute episodes, there were many examples and illustrations of the changing contours of friendship over the centuries that I had to leave out. I found myself thoroughly sympathizing with the author of a lovely Victorian book called Golden Friendships: Sketches of the Lives and Characters of True and Sincere Friends, published in 1884. The Preface to that book starts: ‘The difficulty in selecting illustrations of friendship has not lain in finding, but in choosing, examples.’

My own copy of Golden Friendships seems to have been presented to a diligent Victorian student as a reward for her academic efforts. It is inscribed: ‘Miss Mogford. 1st Class Prize for English. August 1888’. I do not know who Miss Mogford was, nor about her own experiences of friendship, but there is no doubt that Victorian classrooms and playgrounds reverberated with ideas of friendship. Episode 7 of ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship’ opens with a reading from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1844 novel Coningsby, reflecting this:

At school, friendship is a passion. It entrances the being; it tears the soul. All loves of after-life can never bring its rapture, or its wretchedness; no bliss so absorbing, no pangs of jealousy or despair so crushing and so keen! What tenderness and devotion; what illimitable confidence; infinite revelations of inmost thoughts; what ecstatic present and romantic future; what bitter estrangements and what melting reconciliations; what scenes of wild recrimination, agitating explanations, passionate correspondence; what insane sensitiveness, and what frantic sensibility; what earthquakes of the heart and whirlwinds of the soul are confined in that simple phrase, a schoolboy’s friendship! ‘Tis some indefinite recollection of these mystic passages of their young emotions that makes grey-haired men mourn over the memory of their schoolboy days.

This image of grey-haired men mourning over the lost emotions of their schooldays is a poignant one – and puts me in mind of the Simon and Garfunkel song, written over a century later, ‘Old Friends’, including the line ‘Can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy.’

But one of my favourite stories of a Victorian friendship, although one with a tragic ending, comes not from the records of Victorian schooldays, but instead from the experiences of a young boy whose greatest friendship was with a toy horse. My own little boy, who is four years old, has a bed full of cuddly toys that he calls ‘soft friends’ – with which he formed his earliest and strongest emotional bonds, other than those with his immediate family. And so the following story had particular resonance for me.

It is a tale of Victorian love, from the memoirs of Greville MacDonald – later a noted doctor, and it is included in Ginger Frost’s book Victorian Childhoods (Praeger, 2009, p. 77). MacDonald recalled that as a boy in the 1860s he’d had a favourite wooden horse called Dobbin.

I loved it as much as any girl her doll, so that at last it must break my heart. It slept with me and fed with me, helped me to carry things away from their right places and compel them to some fairyland service…But there came a day when our nurse had to caution me to be gentler with Dobbin or I should break him. Indignant with her narrow views as to his mortality, I exclaimed, “He won’t break! He’s wood, not china!” and, to prove my claim, I threw him against the nursery wall.

Dobbin’s back was broken: there he lay in two pieces, dead for all eternity. I think I was too much amazed to weep; yet the tragedy did, I know, leave my conscience with a wound I would not touch, knowing it could never be healed. Dobbin was dead: one door into the kingdom of magic was closed for ever.

If only Dobbin had been a ‘soft friend’, young Greville could perhaps have avoided this early disaster. All of us can recognize something of the experience he recounts here of an early and in some way irreparable loss – whether of a toy, a pet, or even a loved one.

Horses and donkeys, in their flesh and blood forms, were favourite objects of Victorian sentiment (along with dogs, of course, whose special status is explored in Episode 8 of the series). In Arthur Morrison’s novel, A Child of the Jago, set in the East-End slums, a young boy’s best friend is a donkey, with whom he shares his food, even when he is going hungry, as well as his tears, and his inmost sorrows.

The history of friendship is not exclusively a story of humans but also one of books, imaginary beings, toys, and animals in which people, whether children or adults, have invested some of their strongest emotions.


Return to: Five Hundred Years of Friendship at the History of Emotions Blog