Points of view/Esoteric Economy
It is one of the most delightful things about Miss Edgeworth's immortal tales for children that the incidents they relate have a knack of remaining indelibly fixed in our memories, long after we have succeeded in forgetting the more severely acquired information of our school-days. Why, for instance, do I vex my temper and break my finger-nails in a vain effort to untie the knotted cord of every bundle that comes to the house, save that I have still before me the salutary example of that prudent little Ben, who so conscientiously and cheerfully devoted himself to unfastening his uncle's package? "You may keep the string for your pains," says Mr. Gresham, with pleasing liberality. "Thank you, sir," replies Ben, with more effusion than I think he feels. "What an excellent whipcord it is!" And so, pocketing his fee, it wins for him, as we all know, the prize at Lady Diana Sweepstake's great archery contest, while poor Hal forfeits his shot, and loses his hat, and gets covered with mud and disgrace, and sprains his little cousin Patty's ankle, and all because he has been rash enough to cut his piece of cord. Never was moral more sternly pointed, not even in the case of Miss Jane Taylor's heedless little Emily, who will not stoop to pick up a pin, and is punished by the loss of a whole day's pleasure, because, owing to some unexplained intricacy of her toilet,—
"She could not stir,
For just a pin to finish her."
But was whipcord such a costly article in Miss Edgeworth's time, that a small piece of it was worth so much trouble and pains? We have Hal's testimony that twice as much could have been bought for twopence; and though Hal is but a graceless young scamp, who cannot be induced to look upon twopence with becoming reverence, and who plainly has a career of want and misery before him, yet his word on this matter may be accepted as final. At the present day, the value of a bit of string saved by patient dexterity from the scissors is so infinitesimal that the hoarding up of match stumps, after the fashion of a certain great banker, would really seem the quicker road to wealth. But the true gain in these minute economies is of a strictly moral nature, and serves, when we know we have been extravagant, to balance our account with conscience. The least practical of us have some petty thrift dear to our hearts, some one direction in which we love to scrimp. I have known wealthy men who grudged themselves and their families nothing that money could buy, yet were made perfectly miserable by the amount of gas burned nightly in their homes. They roamed around with manifest and pitiful uneasiness, stealthily turning down a burner here and there, whenever they could do so unperceived, dimming the glories of their glass and gilding, and reducing upper halls and familiar stairways into very pitfalls for the stumbling of the unwary. The advent of lamps has brought but scant solace to these sufferers, for their economy is, in fact, much older than the gas itself, and flourished exceedingly in the days of wax tapers and tallow-dips. We read in the veracious chronicles of "Cranford" how Miss Matty Jenkyns, so thoughtlessly generous in all other matters, had for her one pet frugality the hoarding of her candles, and by how many intricate devices the dear old lady sought to cherish and protect these objects of her tender solicitude.
"They (the candles) were usually brought in with tea, but we only burned one at a time. As we lived in constant preparation for a friend who might come in any moment (but who never did), it required some contrivance to keep them of the same length, ready to be lighted, and to look as if we burned two always. They took it in turns, and, whatever we might be talking about or doing, Miss Matty's eyes were habitually fixed upon the candle, ready to jump up and extinguish it, and to light the other, before they had become too uneven in length to be restored to equality in the course of the evening."
This little scene of innocent deception is finer, in its way, than the famous newspaper paths on which Miss Deborah's guests step lightly over her new carpet to their respective chairs. We sympathize with Miss Matty's anxiety about her tapers because it represents one phase of a weakness common to all mankind, and far remote, we trust, from mere vulgar parsimony, which, seeking to stint in all things, is, by its very nature, incapable of a nice spirit of selection. Even the narrator of "Cranford," that shadowy, indistinguishable Mary Smith, who contrives so cleverly to keep her own identity in the background,—even she consents to emerge one moment from her chosen dimness, and to claim a share in this highly discriminating economy. String, she acknowledges, is her foible. Like the excellent Mr. Gresham, she would preserve it from destruction at the most liberal expenditure of other people's time and trouble. "My pockets," she confesses, "get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold. How people can bring themselves to use India-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine. To me an India-rubber ring is a precious treasure. I have one which is not new; one that I picked up off the floor six years ago. I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance."
It would be a pity to spoil this vivacious description by a touch of odious modern realism, and to hint that an India-rubber ring which had knocked about the world for six years must have parted with much of its youthful elasticity, and would be of comparatively little use to any one.
Illustrious examples are not lacking to give dignity and weight to these seemingly trivial frugalities. The great, and wise, and mean Duke of Marlborough, he who held the fate of Europe in his hands, and who was, without doubt, the first of English-speaking generals, did not disdain to bend his mighty mind to the contemplation of his candle-ends, or to the tender protection of his luggage. Who understood so well as he how to spend a thousand pounds, and save a shilling? When Prince Eugene came to a conference in his tent, the duke's servant, anxious no doubt for an ostentatious display, had the temerity to light four wax tapers in honor of the royal guest, which, when Marlborough perceived, he promptly extinguished, rating the unlucky attendant with such caustic severity that the offense ran little likelihood of being soon repeated. While the great pile of Blenheim was absorbing countless thousands in its slow process of erection, the duke walked every morning from the public rooms at Bath to his own lodging, thereby saving sixpence daily, and affording a shining model to those whose favorite economy is cabhire. He walked to the very end, this consistent old warrior; walked while the pangs of illness were creeping over his disabled frame; and at last, when he could save no more sixpences, he died, and left nearly two million pounds to be squandered briskly by his heirs.
His wife, too, the beautiful, brilliant, high-tempered Duchess Sarah, was every bit as thrifty as her lord. She built the triumphal arch of Blenheim at her own expense, and wrangled mightily all the while over the price of lime, "sevenpence half-penny per bushel, when it could be made in the park." She was the richest peeress in England, but her keen blue eyes, as fiery as Marlborough's own, were ever awake to any attempted depredation. Her dressmaker, one Mrs. Buda, essayed, not knowing with whom she had to deal, to hold back from her some yards of cloth; whereupon the duchess borrowed Mrs. Buda's diamond ring "for a pattern," and refused to give it up until the stuff was returned. She understood also the admirable art of utilizing her friends, and there is a delighful letter written by her to Lord Stair, then minister at France, commissioning him to buy her a night-gown, or more properly a dressing-gown, "easy and warm, with a light silk wadd in it, such as are used to come out of bed and gird round, without any train at all, but very full. 'T is no matter what color, except pink or yellow—no gold or silver in it; but some pretty striped satin or damask, lined with a tafetty of the same color." She also desires for her daughter, Lady Harriet, then a child of thirteen, "a monto and petticoat to go abroad in, no silver or gold in it, nor a stuff that is dear, but a middling one that may be worn either in winter or in summer." The canny duchess prudently adds that she will wait for the things until "no one need be troubled with the custom-house people," a euphuism worthy of an American conscience, and she thanks Lord Stair at the same time for sending her "a pair of bodyes," which were so well-fitting, and evidently so cheap, that she will have two more pairs of "white tabby from the same taylor." Fancy asking a foreign minister to purchase one's stays, and wrappers, and little daughter's petticoats, and to please wait his opportunity to smuggle them in without duty!
Yet "Queen Sarah" was capable of sudden deeds of generosity that quite take away our breath by their magnificence, and so, for the matter of that, was another noble termagant, Queen Elizabeth, who gave away right royally with one hand, even while she held out the other for beggarly gratuities. We see her heaping riches into Sir Walter Raleigh's lap, and managing to get a great deal of it back again, when his treasure-laden ships came slowly to port. Nay, did she not seize on "a waistcoat of carnation colour, curiously embroidered," which the brave navigator, always passionately addicted to fine clothes, had snatched from some Spanish galleon for the adornment of his own handsome figure, and which the queen straightway proceeded to flaunt as a stomacher before his injured eyes? If we read a list of Elizabeth's New Year gifts, we are both astonished and edified by their number and variety. Here is Fulke Greville presenting his sovereign with a night-dress; not a wrapper this time, but a genuine night-dress, "made of cambric, wrought about the collar and sleeves with Spanish work of roses and letters, and a night-coif with a forehead-cloth of the same work." And here is Mrs. Carre offering her majesty an embroidered cambric sheet; and Dr. Bayly, one of the court physicians, arriving brisk and early with a pot of green ginger under his arm; and Mrs. Amy Shelton with six handkerchiefs all edged with gold and silver braid; and Sir Philip Sidney with a most beautiful cambric smock, "and a suite of ruffs of cut-work, flourished with gold and silver, and set with spangles containing four ounces of gold." And here, best of all, are several gentlemen of rank, who, being unacquainted with the intricacies of the female toilet, feel afraid to venture upon smocks, and ruffs, and night-dresses, so solve their dilemma by plumply handing down ten pounds apiece, a practical donation which the virgin monarch accepts with all possible alacrity and good-will.
Elizabeth, moreover, was known to be a costly and often a sadly unremunerative guest when it pleased her to visit her loyal people. There is a letter written by the Earl of Bedford to Lord Burleigh that is positively pathetic in its apprehension of the impending honor. "I trust truly," says the expectant host, "that your lordship will have in remembrance to provide and help that her majesty's tarrying be not above two nights and a day, for so long time do I prepare." As it was one of the queen's whims to give scant warning of her coming, the unfortunate gentlemen suddenly called upon to harbor their sovereign and her suite often found themselves at their wits' end for food and entertainment; and not unfrequently it happened that, after days of ruinous expenditure, they had the satisfaction of seeing their prospects as blighted as their larders. Lord Henry Berkely lamenting the loss of his good red deer, twenty-seven of which were slain in one day—in their owner's absence, be it noted—for Elizabeth's diversion, was at least a happier man than the luckless young Rookwood of Euston Hall, whom her majesty requited for his hospitality by cruel insult and imprisonment. Even King John, who has come down to us in history as the least profitable of royal guests, could not well do worse than this, though his visits, being occasionally of longer duration, were just so much harder to be borne. In the chronicles of Jocelin of Brakelond, we read how once the king came with a large retinue to the convent of St. Edmundsbury, and stayed there for two whole weeks, eating up the monk's provisions at a fearful rate, emptying the cellars of their choicest wines, and making, no doubt, what with drunken, swearing soldiers and insolent court parasites, sad riot and confusion within those peaceful walls. At last, however, the weary fortnight was over, and the guests stood marshaled to depart; but not before his gracious majesty had made offering, as guerdon for two weeks' entertainment, of a silk cloak to cover St. Edmund's shrine, which same cloak was promptly borrowed back again by one of the royal train, and the monks beheld it no more. In addition to this elusive legacy, which left the shrine as bare as it found it, Jocelin records that the monarch, ere he rode forth, presented the convent with the handsome sum of thirteen pence, in consideration of a mass being said for his soul, which sorely needed all the spiritual aliment the good monks could furnish it. We can fancy Abbot Samson standing at his monastery door, and regarding those thirteen pence very much as the Genoese consul must have regarded the Duke of Kingston's old spectacles, which the dowager duchess tendered him in return for his hospitality; or as Commodore Barnet regarded the paste emerald ring with which Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gracefully acknowledged the valuable services of his man-of-war.
"Lady Mary's avarice seems to have been generally credited at the time, though we have no proofs of it," says one of her recent biographers, who is disposed, and rightly, to put scant faith in Walpole's malicious jibes. But if the story of the ring be a true one, she can hardly be acquitted of amazing thrift, and of a still more amazing assurance. It is said that the gallant commodore, never doubting the worth of her token, was wont to show it with some ostentation to his friends, until one of them, who knew the lady well, stoutly maintained that if the stone were genuine she would never have parted with it, and a closer inspection proved the melancholy accuracy of his suspicions. As for much of her so-called greed, it was not without solid justification. If she drove a hard bargain with Mr. Wortley, stipulating most unromantically for her marriage settlement before she ran away with him, be it remembered that upon this auspicious occasion she was compelled to act as her own guardian; and if she had an inexplicable fancy for wearing her old clothes, the dimity petticoat, and the gray stockings, and the faded green brocade riding-jacket which so deeply offended Walpole's fastidious eyes, let us deal charitably with a fault in which she has but few feminine successors. Those were times when fashions had not yet learned to change with such chameleon-like speed, and people did occasionally wear their old clothes with an unblushing effrontery that would be well-nigh disgraceful to-day. Silks and satins, laces and furbelows, were all of the costliest description, and their owners were chary of discarding them, or even of lightly exposing them to ruin. Emile Souvestre's languid lady, who proves the purity of her blood, somewhat after the manner of the princess and the rose leaf, by supercilious indifference to the fate of her velvet mantle in a snowstorm, could hardly have existed a few hundred years ago. We have in Pepys's diary a most amusing record of his disgust at being over-persuaded by his wife to wear his best suit on a certain threatening May Day, and how of course it rained, and all their pleasure was spoiled. The guilty Eve was quite as unfortunate as her husband, for she too had gone forth "extraordinary fine in her flowered tabby gown," which we are greatly relieved to learn a little later was two years old, but smartly renovated with brand-new lacings. Only fancy being so careful of a two-year gown as to begrudge it to the sight of court and commoners on May Day!
The same frugal spirit extended down to the last century, and was of infinite value to the self-respecting poor. Artisans had not yet found it imperative to dress their wives and children in imitation finery, and farmers were even less awake to the exigencies of fashionable attire. We read of rural couples placidly wearing their wedding clothes into their advanced old age, and we are lost in hopeless speculation as to how they accommodated their spreading proportions to the coats and gowns which presumably had fitted the comparative slimness of their youth. With what patient ingenuity did the good dames of Miss Mitford's village, aided occasionally by an itinerant tailoress, turn and return their husbands' cast-off clothing, until, from seeming ruin, they had evolved sound garments for their growing boys; and with what pardonable pride did the strutting youngsters exhibit on the village streets these baggy specimens of their mothers' skill! Among the innumerable anecdotes told of George III., it is said that, strolling once with Queen Charlotte in the woods of Windsor, he met a little red-cheeked, white-haired lad, who proved, on examination, to be the son of one of his majesty's beef-eaters. The gracious king, always well pleased with children, patted the boy's flaxen head, and bade him kneel and kiss the queen's hand, but this the sturdy young Briton declined flatly to do; not, be it said, from any desire to emulate the examples of Penn and Franklin, by illustrating on a minor scale the heroic principles of democracy, but solely and entirely that he might not spoil his new breeches by contact with the grass. So thrifty a monarch, says Thackeray, should have hugged on the spot a child after his own heart; and even if the royal favor failed to manifest itself in precisely this fashion, I make no doubt that the beef-eater's wife, who had stitched those little breeches with motherly solicitude, found ample comfort in such a judicious son.
Perhaps, indeed, he was a worthy scion of the race of Dodsons, with whom it was an honorable tradition to preserve their best clothes, very much as the inhabitants of Ceylon preserved their sacred Bo-trees, by guarding them jealously from the desecrating touch of man. Who that has ever had the happiness of reading "The Mill on the Floss" can forget the dim seclusion of the shrouded room, where, far from the madding crowd, reposes in dignified seclusion Mrs. Pullet's new bonnet? To go to see it is in itself a pilgrimage; to try it on, a solemn ceremonial; what, then, must have been the profound emotions with which it was actually worn! Little Maggie Tulliver, watching with breathless interest while it is lifted reverently from the shrine, feels oppressed with a sense of mystery, and is childishly indignant because no one will tell her what it means. The Dodsons are all fond of fine raiment, but not for the mere vulgar pleasure of self-adornment. Less favored families may take a coarse delight in exhibiting their clothes, but it remains for them to derive a higher gratification from keeping them unseen. Even a third-best front is felt to be much too good for a sister's dinner party, while in the matter of frocks and trimmings they are as adamant. "Other women, if they liked, might have their best thread lace in every wash; but when Mrs. Glegg died, it would be found that she had better lace laid by in the right-hand drawer of her wardrobe in the spotted chamber, than ever Mrs. Wooll of St. Ogg's had bought in her life, although Mrs. Wooll wore her lace before it was paid for." Here, in a humble way, we have the same sentiment that thrilled the heart of Elizabeth Petrovna, when she gazed at the thousand and one gowns hanging up in the royal closets, and felt a true womanly satisfaction in knowing they were there.
It is in fact a curious and edifying circumstance that the great ones of this earth, if they must be held responsible for much of its unwarranted luxury, have at the same time afforded us many shining examples, not only of that general and indiscriminate parsimony which induced old Frederic William, for instance, to feed his family on pork and cabbage, but also of that more refined and esoteric species of economy which it is our task to recognize and encourage. George III. was frugal in all things, but his particular saving appears to have been in carpets, for, summer or winter, he never permitted these effeminate devices upon his bedroom floor. His great-grandfather, George I., does not figure as an austere or self-denying character; but he, too, stinted bravely in one direction,—the family wash. In that beloved court of Hanover, which he exchanged so reluctantly for the glories of St. James, there was evidently no lack of well-fed, well-paid attendants. Looking down the list, we see seventy odd postilions and stable-men, twenty cooks with six assistants, seven "officers of the cellar," twenty-four lackeys in livery, sixteen trumpeters and fiddlers,—and only two washerwomen. Think of it,—twenty-six people to cook, and only two to wash! "But one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!" Yet the chances are that, of all the officials in that snug, jolly, dirty little Hanoverian court, those two washerwomen alone led comparatively idle lives. When balanced with the arduous labors of the seven officers of the cellar, I ain convinced their position was a sinecure.
Of much the same temper as royal George was that great Earl of Northumberland, whose expense-book, which may be consulted to-day, gives us a delightful insight into some of the curious methods of past housekeeping. Germany, be it confessed, has always been a trifle backward in the matter of cleanliness, but England, until within the last two centuries, was very nearly as conservative. Appalling stories are told of the fine ladies and gentlemen who glittered in the courts of the Tudors and Stuarts, and who, in their light-hearted indifference to dirt, very nearly rivaled the prowess of the Spanish Isabella, when she vowed away her clean linen until Ostend should fall, and gave the honor of her name to that delicate yellow tint which her garments assumed in the interval. The Earl of Northumberland, however, aspired to no such uneasy asceticism. He was simply the model housekeeper of his age. Every item of expenditure in his immense establishment was rigorously defined, and no less rigorously overlooked. With his own noble hands he wrote down the exact proportion of food, fuel, and candles which each body of retainers was expected to consume; and while the upper servants appear to have fared tolerably well, the commoner sort enjoyed an unbroken monotony of salt meat, black bread, and beer. But it is in the matter of tablecloths that his grace chiefly excelled, and that he merits an honorable mention in the ranks of esoteric parsimony. For his own needs, and for the service and pleasure of his many guests,—and let us remember that he kept open house after the hospitable fashion of his day,—eight of these valuable articles were deemed amply sufficient; while in the servants' hall one cloth a month was the allowance. Granted, if you please, that in this rather effeminate age we have grown unduly fastidious about such trivialities; yet who, looking back through the long vista of years, can contemplate without a shudder the condition of that tablecloth when its month's servitude was over?
It is easier, however, to jeer at the honorable efforts of mankind than to arrange our own economies on a strictly satisfactory basis. Beyond a rational and healthy impulse to save on others rather than on ourselves, few of us can boast of much enlightenment in the matter, and even our one unerring guide is, in a measure, neutralized by the consistent determination of others to exert their own saving powers on us. The out-and-out miser is at best a creature of little penetration. He cheats himself sorely throughout life, and gains a sort of shabby posthumous distinction only when he is long past enjoying it. The true economist is, if we may believe Mrs. Oliphant, a rara avis, as exceptional in his way as the true genius. She endeavors, indeed, with much humility, to describe for us such a character in "The Curate in Charge;" but, while laying all possible stress on Mrs. St. John's extraordinary proficiency, she does not for a moment venture to hint at the secret of her power. "I don't pretend to know how she did it," confesses this discriminating authoress, "any more than I can tell you how Shakespeare wrote 'Hamlet.' It was quite easy to him and to her, but if one knew how, one would be as great a poet as he was, as great an economist as she." This is a degree of perfection to which we may not well aspire. Shakespeare and Mrs. St. John lie equally beyond our humble imitation. We do not even feel ambitious of such excellence, but cherish the more contentedly those few finely selected frugalities, those car-fares and match-stumps, those postage stamps and half sheets of paper, those dimly-lighted rooms and evaded custom-house duties, which, while they may not leave us much richer at the year's end, have yet a distinct ethical value of their own, and, breathing an indescribable air of conscious rectitude, serve to keep us in harmony with ourselves.