Ginx’s Baby by William Cowper Brann

Story type: Essay


In an old book store I found the other day, a little book that should not have been forgotten. It was written almost twenty-eight years ago by a man named Jenkins, an Englishman, born in India, and educated in part, in the United States. The name of the book is “Ginx’s Baby; His Birth and Other Misfortunes.”

With the remarkable growth of altruism or humanitarianism in the last thirty years, with the application of sincere sympathy as one of the possible solvents of the mystery of misery, it is strange that this book should have passed from the minds of men. The book is a true satire. That is to say its irony is excited for the benefit of mankind. The pessimism of the story, its note of despair, is in reality, a summons to man to do better by his brother. Underlying its bitterness there is such a gentleness of heart as must uplift the reader’s own.

The author has the great gift of humor, which all true pessimists possess, and none more than Schopenhauer. He loves humanity though he scourges it. He loves, above all, the little children whom Christ loved, as typifying the heart perfect in innocence.

Somewhat the quality of Dickens is in his method of thought, and his turns of expression; but he is not the evident artist that Dickens is. He does not seek opportunity to revel in mere rhetoric. He goes for the heart of his subject and his literary charms are displayed quite incidentally to his progress thereto. His stylism does not clog his story or cumber his argument. The result is that he produced a tract of the Church of Man which is a powerful argument for a realization in Man of the Church of God. His book is superbly human and “Ginx’s Baby” deserves immortality with other dream- children of good men’s hearts and minds in story and in song.

Room for Ginx’s Baby in the gallery of undying children; with Marjorie Fleming, Sir Walter’s “Bonnie, Wee Coodlin’ Doo,” with Pater’s “Child in the House,” with Ouida’s “Bebe,” with Mrs. Burnett’s “Fauntleroy,” with Barrie’s “Sentimental Tommy,” with all the little ones in the books of Dickens and the poems and stories of Eugene Field.

The child in literature is something new, comparatively. We need more of the effort to understand the child mind, the child heart, the child point of view. It will aid us to develop the child, if once we can enter his world and come into sympathy with his impression. It will purify ourselves, this fresh, new, beautiful world of the child’s; its clear, pure air will wash clean our souls; its innocence of doom will revive our hope. The child is a soul fresh from God’s mint. If only we could study it more we might re-gain, from the contemplation, some of our own lost innocence, and, when we come to die, go to our Maker, like Thackery’s immortal Col. Newcombe, with our hearts “as a little child’s.”

But “Ginx’s Baby” is not an idyl. It is a tragedy. It breathes the spirit of Malthus, only the spirit is transformed into one of pity for the victim of life rather than one of preservation of the nation. We are not, in this book, the victim of the baby. The baby is our victim. His story will illustrate the philosophy better than any attempt at interpretation, and the humor of the telling only intensifies the tragedy. “The name of the father of Ginx’s Baby was Ginx. By a not unexceptional coincidence, its mother was Mrs. Ginx. The gender of Ginx’s Baby was masculine.” That is the first paragraph of the book, and there you have a hint of the flippant flavor; also a very strong suggestion of Mr. Charles Dickens. The hero of the book was a thirteenth child. Ominously humorous! The mother previously had distinguished herself. On October 25th, one year after marriage, Mrs. Ginx was safely delivered of a girl. No announcement of this appeared in the papers. On April 10th, following, “the whole neighborhood, including Great Smith Street, Marsham Street, Great and Little Peter Street, Regent Street, Horseferry Road, and Strutton Ground, was convulsed by the report a woman named Ginx had given birth to “a triplet, consisting of two girls and a boy.” The Queen heard of it, as this birth got into the papers, and sent the mother three pounds. Protecting infant industry! And protection, it seems, resulted in over-production for, in a twelvemonth, there were triplets again, two sons and a daughter. Her Majesty sent four pounds. The neighbors protested and began to manifest their displeasure uncouthly, so the Ginx family removed into Rosemary Street, where the tale of Mrs. Ginx’s offspring reached one dozen. Then Ginx mildly entered protest. If there were any more, singles, twins or triplets, he would drown him, her or them, in the water-butt. This was immediately after the arrival of Number 12.

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Here, under the chapter-heading of “Home, Sweet Home,” the author, still reminiscent of Dickens, but delightfully compact and laconic, describes the miserable dwelling of the Ginx’s with a bitterness of humor that mocks the sentiment of Howard Payne’s song. As a specimen of clean realism, this description is more effective than anything of Zola’s; for Zola’s realism is idealism gone mad. The squalor of the slum is heightened by the associations that cling to the name Rosemary. A bit of sermonizing upon the responsibilities of landlords for the souls in that slum, and the author reverts to Ginx and his family.

“Ginx had an animal affection for his wife, that preserved her from unkindness even in his cups.” You thank the author for not succumbing to realism and making Ginx a brute. Ginx worked hard and gave his wife his earnings, less sixpence, with which sum he retreated, on Sundays, from his twelve children, to the ale-house to listen sleepily while ale-house demagogues prescribed remedies for State abuses. He was ignorant of policies and issues; simply one of a million victims of the theories upon which statesmen experiment in legislation and taxation. He was one of the many dumb and almost unfeeling “chaotic fragments of humanity” to be hewn into shape in one of two ways; either by “coarse artists seeking only petty profit, unhandy, immeasurably impudent,” or by instruction to be made “civic corner-stone polished after the similitude of a palace.” He was appalled by the many mouths he had to feed. He was touched by his wife’s continuous heroism of sacrifice for the children, and he felt, in a dim fashion, something of an intuition of “her unsatisfied cravings and the dense motherly horrors that sometimes brooded over her” as she nursed her infants. She believed that God sends food to fill the mouths He sends. She had been able to get along. She would be able to get along.

Ginx, feeling another infant straw would break his back. determined to drown the straw. Mrs. Ginx, clinging to No. Twelve, listened aghast. The stream of her affections, though divided into twelve rills, would not have been exhausted in twenty-four, and her soul, forecasting its sorrows, yearned after that nonentity Number Thirteen. Ginx sought to comfort her by the suggestion that she could not have any more. But she knew better.

After eighteen months the baby was born. Ginx thought it all out before the event. “He wouldn’t go on the parish. He couldn’t keep another youngster to save his life. He would not take charity. There was nothing to do but drown the baby.” He must have talked his intentions at the ale-house, for the people in the neighborhood watched her “time” with interest. Going home one afternoon, he saws signs of excitement around his door. He entered. He took up the little stranger and bore it from the room. “His wife would have arisen but a strong power called weakness held her back.” Out on the street, with the crowd following him, Ginx stopped to consider. “It is all very well to talk about drowning your baby, but to do it you need two things–water and opportunity. He turned toward Vauxhall Bridge. The crowd cried “Murder!”

“Leave me alone nabors,” shouted Ginx; “this is my own baby and I’ll do wot I likes with it. I kent keep it an’ if I’ve got anythin’ I can’t keep, it’s best to get rid of it, ain’t it? This child’s goining over Vauxhall Bridge.”

The women clung to his arms and coat-tails. A man happened along. “A foundling? Confound the place, the very stones produce babies.”

“It weren’t found at all. It’s Ginx’s baby,” cried the crowd.

“Ginx’s baby. Who’s Ginx?’

“I am,” said Ginx.

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“He’s going to drown it!” came the chorus.

“Going to drown it? Nonsense!” said the officer.

“I am,” said Ginx.

“But, bless my heart, that’s murder!”

“No, ’tain’t,” said Ginx. “I’ve twelve already at home. Starvashon’s shure to kill this ‘un. Best save it the trouble.”

The officer declares this is quite contrary to law and he recites the law, but that doesn’t affect Ginx. He fails utterly to see why, if Parliament will not let him abandon the child, Parliament does not provide for the child; for all the other twelve. The officer declares that the parish has enough to do to take care of foundlings and children of parents who can’t or won’t work. Says Ginx: “Jest so. You’ll bring up bastards and beggars’ pups but you won’t help an honest man keep his head above water. This child’s head is goin’ under water anyhow!” and he dashed for the bridge, with the screaming crowd at his heels.

A philosopher interposes at this stage with a query as to how Ginx came to have so many children. Of course Ginx had to laugh. The philosopher urges that Ginx had no right to bring children into the world unless he could feed, clothe and educate them, and Ginx replies that he’s like to know how he could help it, as a married man. The philosopher goes over the old, old tale of rationalism in life. Ginx should not have married a poor woman, should not have gone on sub-dividing his resources by the increase of what must be a degenerate offspring, should not have married at all.

“Ginx’s face grew dark. He was thinking of ‘all those years’ and the poor creature that, from morning to night and Sunday to Sunday, in calm and storm, had clung to his rough affections; and the bright eyes and the winding arms so often trellised over his tremendous form, and the coy tricks and laughter that had cheered so many tired hours. He may have been much of a brute, but he felt that, after all, that sort of thing was denied to dogs and pigs.”

The philosopher could not answer these thoughts nor the rejoinder question to his own: what is a man or woman to do that doesn’t marry?

And so the argument proceeds, the philosopher losing ground all the time because his rationality is based upon changing man’s nature, not on making something out of “what’s nateral to human beings.” The act of parliament idea of solving the problem is riddled effectively by a stonemason, who points out that the head-citizen is not so worthy as the heart-citizen. In brief, the philosopher is routed by the doctrine that love is better than law.

Ginx proceeds to the river again, but is stopped by a nun who asks for the child. She uncovers the queer ruby face and kisses it. After this Ginx could not have touched a hair of the child’s head. His purpose dies but his perplexity is alive. The nun takes the child, and Ginx, in gratitude for her assurance that the child shall not be sent back to him, stands treat for the crowd. The child’s life in the convent is material for some good satiric writing upon the question of his salvation. The picture is absurdly over-drawn so far as its effectiveness against conventional charity is concerned, but it touches the question of religious bigotry surely and strongly. Indeed the method of treatment here verges closely upon the Rabelaisian, as where the sisters want to make the sign of the cross upon Mrs. Ginx’s breasts before allowing the baby to suck. Mrs. Ginx refused “the Papish idolaters” and the Protestant Detectoral Association is brought to the rescue of the child from superstition.

A little man with a keen Roman nose–he could scent Jesuits a mile off–took up the cause of the child and it got into court. The matter became a cause celebre. London was in a turmoil over “the Papal abduction.” The author sketches it all graphically with a convincing fidelity of caricature. The “Sisters of Misery” triumphed. They retained the baby. Then after attempting to sanctify the baby–a ceremony wholly imaginary and described with a smutch of revolting coarseness–the sisters send the baby packing back to the Protestant Detectoral Association.

The Protestants had him, but the Dissenters protested against his being given to an Anglican refuge. The scene at the mass-meeting to celebrate young Ginx’s rescue from the incubus of a delusive superstition is described with rare appreciation of the foibles of character. The bombast, the cant, the flapdoodle and flubdub, the silly unction of different kinds of preachers are “done to a hair.” Five hours the meeting raged, and at last a resolution that the Metropolitan pulpit should take up the subject, and the churches take up a collection for the Baby on the next Sunday having been passed, the meeting adjourned–forgetting all about the Baby. A strange woman took the Baby “for the sake of the cause.” He had been provided with a splendid layette by an enthusiastic Protestant Duchess.

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“Some hours later Ginx’s Baby, stripped of the Duchess’ beautiful robes was found by a policeman, lying on a door step in one of the narrow streets not a hundred yards” from the meeting place. “By an ironical chance he was wrapped in a copy of the largest daily paper in the world.”

“The Baby was recovered, the preachers “praught.” The collections and the donations and subscriptions amounted to thirteen hundred and sixty pounds, ten shillings, and three and one-half pence. How the money was spent is shown in a deliciously absurd balance-sheet. Not quite 100 pounds were spent upon the Baby. The other money was wasted in various forms and styles of “guff.” “In an age of luxury,” says the Baby’s biographer, “we are grown so luxurious as to be content to pay agents to do our good deeds, but they charge us three hundred per cent. for the privilege.”

How the police found and treated the Baby is a chapter full of subtle sarcasm, leading up to the still more sarcastic portrayal of the way the Baby fared in the hands of the Committee appointed to take care of him. He was likely to be torn to pieces between contending divines. The debates in Committee are illuminating expositions of different varieties of bigotry. His body was almost forgotten, while the philanthropists were trying to decide what to do with his soul. Few of the reverend gentlemen “would be content unless they could seize him when his young nature was plastic and try to imprint on immortal clay the trade-mark of some human invention.”

Twenty-three meetings of the Committee were held and unity was as far of at the last as at the first. The Secretary asked the Committee to provide money to meet the Baby’s liabilities, but the Committee instantly adjourned and no effort afterwards could get a quorum together. The persons who had charge of the foundling began to dun the Secretary and to neglect the child, now thirteen months old. They sold his clothes and absconded from the place where they had been “framing him for Protestantism.” As a Protestant question Ginx’s Baby vanished from the world.

Wrapped in a potato sack, the baby was found one night, on the pavement exactly over a line dividing two parishes. The finder was a business man. He noted the exact spot where the child lay and took it to–the other parish. He would not be taxed for its support. The parish guardians would not accept the child. As the man who found the child was a guardian of the other parish, he was trying to foist a bastard,–perhaps his own–upon their parish. A motion was made to “get rid of the brat.” “A church warden, who happened to be a gentleman,” suggested the services of a lawyer. The brutality of the guardians as they examined and discussed the child is depicted with terrible power. The lawyer says the Board will have to take the Baby, pro tem, or “create an unhappy impression on the minds of the public.”

“Damn the public!” said Mr. Stink, a dog-breeder member of the Board, thus antecedently plagiarizing an American millionaire. The parish accepts the Baby under protest, and a formal written protest addressed to the Baby, name unknown, is pinned on the potato sack. The two parishes go to law about the child. Neither wishes to take care of it. At Saint Bartemeus’s workhouse, a notice was posted forbidding the officials, assistants and servants to enter the Baby’s room, pendente lite, or to render it any service or assistance on pain of dismissal. The Baby was nigh starvation. The master of the work-house stealthily fed him on pap, saying in a loud voice as he did so, “Now youngster, this is without prejudice, remember! I give you due notice–without prejudice.”

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The Baby became ill. A nobleman discovered him and laid his case before a magistrate. The papers made a sensation on the Baby’s case. There was a terrific hullabaloo. An inquiry was held. The guardians became furious. “The reports of their proceedings read like the vagaries of a lunatic asylum or the deliberations of the American Senate.” They discharged the kindly master. The Baby was locked in a room. Food was passed to him on a stick. The inquiry was denounced and the bewildered public gnashed its teeth at everybody who had anything to do with, or say of, Ginx’s Baby. “At last St. Bartemeus’ parish had to keep him and the guardians, keeping carefully within the law, neglected nothing that could sap little Ginx’s vitality, deaden his instincts, derange moral action, cause hope to die within his infant breast almost as soon as it was born.” Every pauper was to them an obnoxious charge to be reduced to a MINIMUM or NIL. The Baby’s constitution alone prevented his reduction to NIL.

The bill of costs against St. Bartemeus was 1,600 pounds. Just as it was taxed, one of the persons who had deserted Ginx’s Baby was arrested for theft. The Baby’s clothes, given by the Duchess, were found in this person’s possession. She confessed all about the Baby, and so the guardians traced the Baby’s father and delivered to Ginx, through an agent, the famous child, with the benediction–“There he is; damn him!”

Mrs. Ginx couldn’t recognize the Baby. His brothers and sisters would have nothing to do with him. Ginx took the Baby out one night, left it on the steps of a large building in Pall Mall, and slunk away out of the pages of “this strange, eventful history.” The Baby piped. The door of the house, a club, opened and the baby was taken in. It was the Radical Club, but it was as conservative as it could be in its reception of the waif, and it was only in perfunctory kindness that the Club gave him shelter. The Fogey Club heard of the Baby and bethought itself of making campaign material of him. The Fogies instructed their “organs” to dilate upon the disgraceful apathy of the Radicals toward the foundling. The Fogies kidnapped the Baby; the Radicals stole him back. The Baby was again a great “question.” However, other questions supervened, although it was understood that Sir Charles Sterling was “to get a night” to bring up the case of Ginx’s Baby in Parliament. Associations were formed in the metropolis for disposing of Ginx’s Baby by expatriation or otherwise. A peer suddenly sprung the matter by proposing to send the Baby to the Antipodes at the expense of the nation. The question was debated with elaborate stilted stultitude and the noble lord withdrew his motion.

The Baby tired of life at the clubs. He borrowed some clothes, some forks, some spoons, without leave, and then took his leave. No attempt was made to recover him. He was fifteen. “He pitted his wits against starvation.” He found the world terribly full everywhere he went. He went through a career of penury, of honest and dishonest callings, of ‘scapes and captures, imprisonments and other punishments.

Midnight on Vauxhall Bridge! The form of a man emerged from the dark and outlined itself against the haze of sky. There was a dull flash of a face in the gloom. The shadow leaped far out into the night. Splash! “Society, which, in the sacred names of Law and Charity, forbade the father to throw his child over Vauxhall Bridge, at a time when he was alike unconscious of life and death, has at last driven him over the parapet into the greedy waters.”

The questions of the book I have condensed here are as alive to-day as are thousands of other Ginx’s Babies in all our big cities. While philanthropists and politicians, priests and preachers, men and women theorize about the questions, the questions grow “more insoluble.” What is to be done? is the first question. How is it to be done is a question which is secondary and its discussion is useless until the first is settled. Too much State drove Ginx’s Baby into the Thames. What’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business. If the uncountable babies of innumerable Ginx’s are to be aided, some one must aid them for the mere pleasure there is in loving-kindness.

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A baby is a human being, not a problem. A baby can’t be explained away by pure reason, because he didn’t come by that route. Love brought him here and only Love can nourish him to the fullness of growth in soul and mind. True many come who, seemingly, were better drowned like surplus puppies or kittens. But who shall select those to survive? Grecian wisdom once attempted to improve on “natural selection” and Greece is the ghost of a vanished glory. Why shouldn’t Ginx have drowned his Baby–or himself before the multiplication in the result of which the Baby was a unit?

I don’t know why, unless because there is, in every life, even the most successful, apparently, enough of unhappiness and failure and emptiness to justify, at a given moment, a “leap in the dark.” This logic of suicide would annihilate the race. The unwelcome Baby may be the best. Life must try us all. Those who do not stand the test disappear. Their own weakness eliminate them. Myriads must fail that a few may succeed a very little.

Ginx at least owed his Baby reparation for bringing about the first misfortune, his birth. Ginx was a sophist. His mercy of murder for the child was regard for himself. His reasoning was right. His heart was full of self and, ergo, wrong. Ginx surrendered before the fight was fought. So did the Baby. There is nothing for it, my good masters, but a fight to a finish. Yes, even though Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, still must we fight, like Macbeth, and all the more valiantly for that we know our sins are heavy upon our heads and hearts. “Courage, my comrades, the devil is dead,” said Denys of Burgundy. But there is a greater courage, my comrades: it is fighting the devil who never dies until the devil in us all shall die. This is not the courage of despair, but of hope and faith that by conquest of ourselves shall Evil be slain, though only in a fair, far time, and by scores of deaths of us and of our kind. That is why the book “Ginx’s Baby” is false in its demonstration that it had been better if the “hero” had been thrown off the bridge at first. Its philosophy is the philosophy of the “quitter.” The only courage is to endure.

And what shall we do for the Ginx’s Babies so multitudinous in their misery? These, too, we must endure. It were well to love them a little, as babies, and not to discuss them so much as “questions.” It were well if there were a little more individual charity; a good deal less of the kind described by Boyle O’Reilly as conducted “in the name of a cautious statistical Christ.” If every one would do a little good for the poor, the unfortunate, the afflicted, the sum of all our doing would be a great deal of good. Take a penny from every person in the United States and give it to one man and he has seven hundred thousand dollars. Every Ginx’s Baby in any land can be helped somewhat, and Ginx himself must do his share, to the full limit of his capacity for doing. We cannot save them all; cannot make their lives successes. Success is the sum of many failures. A million seeds must die that one rose may bloom. You or I may be the means, in part, of saving one child from the plunge of Vauxhall Bridge or through the gallows-trap. And one is worth while. That is the way to “look out for number one.” Individual effort for individuals is the true humanitarianism. Lift up the person nearest you, who needs assistance. Bend to him and feel your own statue increase by so much as you uplift him. Et voila tout. St. Louis, December 16th, 1897.

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