Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XXXVI
INVITATION TO CHRISTMAS--THE SPRING VELVET COAT--THE HAYMAKING WIG--THE MISCHANCES OF LOO--THE FAIR CULPRIT--A DANCE WITH THE JESSAMY BRIDE
From the feverish dissipations of town, Goldsmith is summoned away to partake of the genial dissipations of the country. In the month of December, a letter from Mrs. Bunbury invites him down to Barton, to pass the Christmas holidays. The letter is written in the usual playful vein which marks his intercourse with this charming family. He is to come in his "smart spring-velvet coat," to bring a new wig to dance with the haymakers in, and, above all, to follow the advice of herself and her sister (the Jessamy Bride), in playing loo. This letter, which plays so archly, yet kindly, with some of poor Goldsmith's peculiarities, and bespeaks such real ladylike regard for him, requires a word or two of annotation. The spring-velvet suit alluded to appears to have been a gallant adornment (somewhat in the style of the famous bloom-colored coat) in which Goldsmith had figured in the preceding month of May--the season of blossoms--for, on the 21st of that month we find the following entry in the chronicle of Mr. William Filby, tailor: To your blue velvet suit, £21 10s. 9d. Also, about the same time, a suit of livery and a crimson collar for the serving man. Again we hold the Jessamy Bride responsible for this gorgeous splendor of wardrobe.
The new wig no doubt is a bag-wig and solitaire, still highly the mode, and in which Goldsmith is represented as figuring when in full dress, equipped with his sword.
As to the dancing with the haymakers, we presume it alludes to some gambol of the poet, in the course of his former visit to Barton; when he ranged the fields and lawns a chartered libertine, and tumbled into the fish-ponds.
As to the suggestions about loo, they are in sportive allusion to the doctor's mode of playing that game in their merry evening parties; affecting the desperate gambler and easy dupe; running counter to all rule; making extravagant ventures; reproaching all others with cowardice; dashing at all hazards at the pool, and getting himself completely loo'd, to the great amusement of the company. The drift of the fair sisters' advice was most probably to tempt him on, and then leave him in the lurch.
With these comments we subjoin Goldsmith's reply to Mrs. Bunbury, a fine piece of off-hand, humorous writing, which has but in late years been given to the public, and which throws a familiar light on the social circle at Barton.
"Madam--I read your letter with all that allowance which critical candor could require, but after all find so much to object to, and so much to raise my indignation, that I cannot help giving it a serious answer. I am not so ignorant, madam, as not to see there are many sarcasms contained in it, and solecisms also. (Solecism is a word that comes from the town of Soleis in Attica, among the Greeks, built by Solon, and applied as we use the word Kidderminster for curtains from a town also of that name--but this is learning you have no taste for!)--I say, madam, there are many sarcasms in it, and solecisms also. But not to seem an ill-natured critic, I'll take leave to quote your own words, and give you my remarks upon them as they occur. You begin as follows:
"'I hope, my good doctor, you soon will be here,
And your spring-velvet coat very smart will appear,
To open our ball the first day of the year.'
"Pray, madam, where did you ever find the epithet 'good,' applied to the title of doctor? Had you called me 'learned doctor,' or 'grave doctor,' or 'noble doctor,' it might be allowable, because they belong to the profession. But, not to cavil at trifles, you talk of 'my spring-velvet coat,' and advise me to wear it the first day in the year, that is, in the middle of winter!--a spring-velvet coat in the middle of winter!!! That would be a solecism indeed! and yet to increase the inconsistence, in another part of your letter you call me a beau. Now, on one side or other you must be wrong. If I am a beau, I can never think of wearing a spring-velvet in winter; and if I am not a beau, why then, that explains itself. But let me go on to your two next strange lines:
"'And bring with you a wig, that is modish and gay,
To dance with the girls that are makers of hay.'
"The absurdity of making hay at Christmas you yourself seem sensible of: you say your sister will laugh; and so indeed she well may! The Latins have an expression for a contemptuous kind of laughter, 'naso contemnere adunco'; that is, to laugh with a crooked nose. She may laugh at you in the manner of the ancients if she thinks fit. But now I come to the most extraordinary of all extraordinary propositions, which is, to take your and your sister's advice in playing at loo. The presumption of the offer raises my indignation beyond the bounds of prose; it inspires me at once with verse and resentment. I take advice! and from whom? You shall hear.
"First let me suppose, what may shortly be true,
The company set, and the word to be Loo:
All smirking, and pleasant, and big with adventure,
And ogling the stake which is fix'd in the center.
Round and round go the cards, while I inwardly damn
At never once finding a visit from Pam.
I lay down my stake, apparently cool,
While the harpies about me all pocket the pool.
I fret in my gizzard, yet, cautious and sly,
I wish all my friends may be bolder than I:
Yet still they sit snug, not a creature will aim
By losing their money to venture at fame.
'Tis in vain that at niggardly caution I scold,
'Tis in vain that I flatter the brave and the bold:
All play their own way, and they think me an ass,...
'What does Mrs. Bunbury?' ... 'I, Sir? I pass.'
'Pray what does Miss Horneck? take courage, come do,'...
'Who, I? let me see, sir, why I must pass too.'
Mr. Bunbury frets, and I fret like the devil,
To see them so cowardly, lucky, and civil.
Yet still I sit snug, and continue to sigh on,
Till, made by my losses as bold as a lion,
I venture at all, while my avarice regards
The whole pool as my own... 'Come, give me five cards.'
'Well done!' cry the ladies; 'Ah, doctor, that's good!
The pool's very rich,... ah! the doctor is loo'd!'
Thus foil'd in my courage, on all sides perplext,
I ask for advice from the lady that's next:
'Pray, ma'am, be so good as to give your advice;
Don't you think the best way is to venture for't twice!'
'I advise,' cries the lady, 'to try it, I own....
Ah! the doctor is loo'd! Come, doctor, put down.'
Thus, playing, and playing, I still grow more eager,
And so bold, and so bold, I'm at last a bold beggar.
Now, ladies, I ask, if law-matters you're skill'd in,
Whether crimes such as yours should not come before Fielding:
For giving advice that is not worth a straw,
May well be call'd picking of pockets in law;
And picking of pockets, with which I now charge ye,
Is, by quinto Elizabeth, Death without Clergy.
What justice, when both to the Old Bailey brought!
By the gods, I'll enjoy it, tho' 'tis but in thought!
Both are plac'd at the bar, with all proper decorum,
With bunches of fennel, and nosegays before 'em;
Both cover their faces with mobs and all that,
But the judge bids them, angrily, take off their hat.
When uncover'd, a buzz of inquiry runs round,
'Pray what are their crimes?'... 'They've been pilfering found.'
'But, pray, who have they pilfer'd?'... 'A doctor, I hear.'
'What, yon solemn-faced, odd-looking man that stands near?'
'The same.'... 'What a pity! how does it surprise one,
Two handsomer culprits I never set eyes on!'
Then their friends all come round me with cringing and leering,
To melt me to pity, and soften my swearing.
First Sir Charles advances with phrases wellstrung,
'Consider, dear doctor, the girls are but young.'
'The younger the worse,' I return him again,
'It shows that their habits are all dyed in grain.'
'But then they're so handsome, one's bosom it grieves.
'What signifies handsome, when people are thieves?'
'But where is your justice? their cases are hard.'
'What signifies justice? I want the reward.
"'There's the parish of Edmonton offers forty pounds; there's the parish of St. Leonard Shoreditch offers forty pounds; there's the parish of Tyburn, from the Hog-in-the-pound to St. Giles' watch-house, offers forty pounds--I shall have all that if I convict them!'--
"'But consider their case,... it may yet be your own!
And see how they kneel! Is your heart made of stone!'
This moves!... so at last I agree to relent,
For ten pounds in hand, and ten pounds to be spent.'
"I challenge you all to answer this: I tell you, you cannot. It cuts deep. But now for the rest of the letter: and next--but I want room--so I believe I shall battle the rest out at Barton some day next week. I don't value you all!
We regret that we have no record of this Christmas visit to Barton; that the poet had no Boswell to follow at his heels, and take note of all his sayings and doings. We can only picture him in our minds, casting off all care; enacting the lord of misrule; presiding at the Christmas revels; providing all kinds of merriment; keeping the card-table in an uproar, and finally opening the ball on the first day of the year in his spring-velvet suit, with the Jessamy Bride for a partner.