Story type: Essay
The worst of keeping a “Family Skeleton” shut up in a cupboard is that the horrid thing will insist on rattling its old bones at the most inopportune moments–just, for example, when you are entertaining to tea the nearest local thing you’ve got to God–whether she be an “Honourable” (in her own right, mark you!) or merely the vicar’s wife! Whatever family skeletons do or do not possess, they most assuredly lack tact. They are worse than relations for giving your “show away” at the wrong moment. If relations do nothing else, they at any rate sit tightly together around family skeletons, if only to hide them from full view by the crowd. But, of course, the crowd always sees them. The crowd always sees everything you don’t want it to see, and is quite blind to the triumphal banners you are waving at it out of your top-room window. Sometimes I think that the better plan in regard to family skeletons is to expose them to public view without any dissembling whatsoever, crying to the world at large, and to the “woman who lives opposite” in particular, “There! that’s our family disgrace! Everybody’s got one. What’s yours?” I believe that this method would shut most people up quite satisfactorily. People only try to learn what they believe you do not want them to know. If you push the truth before them, they turn away their heads. To pretend is usually useless. Not very many of us get through life without experiencing a desire to hide something which everybody has already seen. Wiser far be honest, even if it costs you a disagreeable quarter of an hour. Better one disagreeable quarter of an hour than months and years sitting on a bombshell which any passer-by can explode. Honesty is always one of the very few invulnerable things. No pin-pricks can pierce it–and pin-pricks are usually the bane of life. It’s like laughter, in that nobody has yet been found to parry its blows successfully. Shame is a sure sign of possible defeat–and the world always ranges itself every time on the side of the probable victor. If you once show people that you can’t be hurt in the way they are trying to hurt you, they soon leave off trying, and begin to think of your Christian virtues in general and their own more numerous ones in particular. It’s only when your courage is sheer camouflage that the world tries to penetrate the disguise. Not until a woman dips her hair in henna and, metaphorically speaking, cries, “See how young I look now!” that other women begin to remark, “You know, dear, she is not so youthful as she was!” It’s only when the rumour goes round that a man has had a financial misfortune that everybody to whom he owes anything fling in their bills. And thus it is with family skeletons. If, as it were, you ask them to live with you downstairs, everybody ignores them and finds them “frightfully dull.” But the moment you relegate them into the topmost attic–lo and behold, every single one of your acquaintances expresses a desire to rush upstairs, ostensibly to look at the view.
Everybody has something which they do not want to expose–like dirty linen. But everybody’s linen gets dirty–that is always something to remember. There are some poor old fools, however, who really do seem to imagine that they and theirs are alone immaculate. How they manage to do so I can never for the life of me imagine. They must be very stupid. But stupid people are a very great factor in life’s everyday, and we must always try to do something with them, like the left-over remnants of Sunday’s dinner. And, unless we do something with them, they–like Sunday’s dinner–meet our gaze every time we go into the kitchen. At last we hate the sight of them. But, just as the remnants clinging to an old mutton-bone lose their terror when Monday arrives without the butcher, so these interfering old fools sometimes fade away into harmless acquaintances when you show them that you and your family skeleton are part and parcel of the same thing, and if they wish to know the one they’ll have to accept the other. In any case, it’s usually useless to try and pretend that Uncle George died of heart failure when he really died of drink, or that the young girl whom Aunt Maria “adopted” was a waif-and-stray, when everybody knows she is her own daughter; or that your first wife isn’t still alive–probably kicking–or that your only child suddenly went to Australia because he was seized by the wander-lust, when everybody knows he had to go there or go to prison. You may, of course, pretend these things, and if you don’t mind the perpetual worry of always pretending, well and good. But if you imagine for one instant that your pretending deceives the gallery, you’ll be extremely silly. Why, every time they speak of you behind your back they’ll preface their remarks with information of this kind: “Yes, yes . . . a charming family. What a thousand pities it is that they all drink!”
But the “skeletons” of our own character–they are the ones which no cupboard can hold, nor any key lock in. Some time, sooner or later, out they will come to do a jazz in front of the whole world. The life we lead in the secret chambers of our own hearts we shall one day enact on the house-roof. Strive as we may to conform to the conventional ideal of public opinion, we cannot conform all the time, and our lapses are our undoing–or maybe, our happy emancipation, who knows? We cannot hide the pettiness of our nature, even though we profess the broadest principles. Only one thing can save the ungenerous spirit, and that is to be up against life single-handed and alone. To know suffering, spiritual as well as physical; to know poverty, to know loneliness, sometimes to know disgrace, broadens the heart and mind more than years spent in the study of Greek philosophy. Life is the only real education, and the philosophy which we evolve through living the only philosophy of any real importance in the evolution of “souls.”