The Last Generation in England


Elizabeth Gaskell

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First published in 1849.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 13:37.

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I have just taken up by chance an old number of the Edinburgh Review (April 1848), in which it is said that Southey had proposed to himself to write a ‘history of English domestic life.’ I will not enlarge upon the infinite loss we have had in the nonfulfilment of this plan; every one must in some degree feel its extent who has read those charming glimpses of home scenes contained in the early volumes of the ‘Doctor, &c.’ This quarter of an hour’s chance reading has created a wish in me to put upon record some of the details of country town life, either observed by myself, or handed down to me by older relations; for even in small towns, scarcely removed from villages, the phases of society are rapidly changing; and much will appear strange, which yet occurred only in the generation immediately preceding ours. I must however say before going on, that although I choose to disguise my own identity, and to conceal the name of the town to which I refer, every circumstance and occurrence which I shall relate is strictly and truthfully told without exaggeration. As for classing the details with which I am acquainted under any heads, that will be impossible from their heterogeneous nature; I must write them down as they arise in my memory.

The town in which I once resided is situated in a district inhabited by large landed proprietors of very old family. The daughters of these families, if unmarried, retired to live in - on their annuities, and gave the ton to the society there, stately ladies they were, remembering etiquette and precedence in every occurrence of life, and having their genealogy at their tongue’s end. Then there were the widows of the cadets of these same families; also poor, and also proud, but I think more genial and less given to recounting their pedigrees than the former. Then came the professional men and their wives; who were more wealthy than the ladies I have named, but who always treated them with deference and respect, sometimes even amounting to obsequiousness; for was there not ‘my brother, Sir John — ’ and ‘my uncle, Mr — of — ’ to give employment and patronage to the doctor or the attorney? A grade lower came a class of single or widow ladies; and again it was possible, not to say probable, that their pecuniary circumstances were in better condition than those of the aristocratic dames, who nevertheless refused to meet in general society the ci-devant housekeepers, or widows of stewards, who had been employed by their fathers and brothers, they would occasionally condescend to ask ‘Mason,’ or ‘that good Bentley,’ to a private tea-drinking, at which I doubt not much gossip relating to former days at the hall would pass; but that was patronage; to associate with them at another person’s house, would have been an acknowledgment of equality.

Below again came the shopkeepers, who dared to be original; who gave comfortable suppers after the very early dinners of that day, not checked by the honourable Mr D—’s precedent of a seven o’clock tea on the most elegant and economical principles, and a supperless turn-out at nine. There were the usual respectable and disrespectable poor; and hanging on the outskirts of society were a set of young men, ready for mischief and brutality, and every now and then dropping off the pit’s brink into crime. The habits of this class (about forty years ago) were much such as those of the Mohawks a century before. They would stop ladies returning from the card-parties, which were the staple gaiety of the place, and who were only attended by a maidservant bearing a lantern, and whip them; literally whip them as you whip a little child; until administering such chastisement to a good, precise old lady of high family, ‘my brother, the magistrate,’ came forward and put down such proceedings with a high hand.

Certainly there was more individuality of character in those days than now; no one even in a little town of two thousand inhabitants would now be found to drive out with a carriage full of dogs; each dressed in the male or female fashion of the day, as the case might be; each dog provided with a pair of house-shoes, for which his carriage boots were changed on his return. No old lady would be so oblivious of ‘Mrs Grundy’s ‘ existence now as to dare to invest her favourite cow, after its unlucky fall into a lime-pit, in flannel waistcoat and drawers, in which the said cow paraded the streets of - to the day of its death.

There were many regulations which were strictly attended to in the society of -, and which probably checked more manifestations of eccentricity. Before a certain hour in the morning calls were never paid, nor yet after a certain hour in the afternoon; the consequence was that everybody was out, calling on everybody at the same time, for it was de rigueur that morning calls should be returned within three days; and accordingly, making due allowance for our proportion of rain in England, every fine morning was given up to this employment. A quarter of an hour was the limit of a morning call.

Before the appointed hour of reception, I fancy the employment of many of the ladies was fitting up their laces and muslins (which, for the information of all those whom it may concern, were never ironed, but carefully stretched, and pinned, thread by thread, with most Lilliputian pieces, on a board covered with flannel). Most of these scions of quality had many pounds’ worth of valuable laces descended to them from mothers and grandmothers, which must be ‘got up’ by no hands, as you may guess, but those of Fairly Fair. Indeed when muslin and net were a guinea a yard, this was not to be wondered at. The lace was washed in buttermilk, which gave rise to an odd little circumstance. One lady left her lace, basted up, in some not very sour buttermilk; and unluckily the cat lapped it up, lace and all (one would have thought the lace would have choked her, but so it was); the lace was too valuable to be lost, so a small dose of tartar emetic was administered to the poor cat; the lace returned to view was carefully darned, and decked the good lady’s best cap for many a year after; and many a time did she tell the story, gracefully bridling up in a prim sort of way, and giving a little cough, as if preliminary to a rather improper story. The first sentence of it was always, I remember, ‘I do not think you can guess where the lace on my cap has been;’ dropping her voice, ‘in pussy’s inside, my dear!’

The dinner hour was three o’clock in all houses of any pretensions to gentility; and a very late hour it was considered to be. Soon after four one or two inveterate card-players might he seen in calash and pattens, picking their way along the streets to the house where the party of the evening was to he held. As soon as they arrived and had unpacked themselves, an operation of a good half-hour’s duration in the dining-parlour, they were ushered into the drawing-room, where, unless in the very height of summer, it was considered a delicate attention to have the shutters dosed, the curtains drawn, and the candles lighted. The card-tables were set out, each with two new packs of cards, for which it was customary to pay, each person placing a shilling under one of the candlesticks.

The ladies settled down to Preference, and allowed of no interruption; even the tea-trays were placed on the middle of the card-tables, and tea hastily gulped down with a few remarks on the good or ill fortune of the evening. New arrivals were greeted with nods in the intervals of the game; and as people entered the room, they were pounced upon by the lady of the house to form another table. Cards were a business in those days, not a recreation. Their very names were to be treated with reverence. Some one came to - from a place where flippancy was in fashion; he called the knave ‘lack,’ and everybody looked grave, and voted him vulgar; but when he was overheard calling Preference - the decorous, highly-respectable game of Preference, - Pref., why, what course remained for us but to cut him, and cut him we did.

About half-past eight, notices of servants having arrived for their respective mistresses were given: the games were concluded, accounts settled, a few parting squibs and crackers let off at careless or unlucky partners, and the party separated. By ten o’clock all - was in bed and asleep. I have made no mention of gentlemen at these parties, because if ever there was an Amazonian town in England it was -. Eleven widows of respectability at one time kept house there; besides spinsters innumerable. The doctor preferred his armchair and slippers to the forms of society, such as I have described, and so did the attorney, who was besides not insensible to the charms of a hot supper. Indeed, I suppose it was because of the small incomes, of the more aristocratic portion of our little society not sufficing both for style and luxury, but it was a fact, that as gentility decreased good living increased in proportion. We had the honour and glory of looking at old plate and delicate china at the comme il faut tea-parties, but the slices of bread and butter were like wafers, and the sugar for coffee was rather of the brownest, still there was much gracious kindness among our haute volée. In those times, good Mr Rigmarole, carriages were carriages, and there were not the infinite variety of broughams, droskys, &c., &c., down to a wheelbarrow, which now make locomotion easy’; nor yet were there cars and cabs and flys ready for hire in our little town. A post-chaise was the only conveyance besides the sedan-chair, of which more anon. So the widow of an earl’s son, who possessed a proper old-fashioned coach and pair, would, on rainy nights, send her carriage, the only private carriage of -, round the town, picking up all the dowagers and invalids, and conveying them dry and safe to and from their evening engagement. The various other ladies who, in virtue of their relations holding manors and maintaining game-keepers, had frequent presents, during the season, of partridges, pheasants, &c., &c., would daintily carve off the tid-bits, and putting them carefully into a hot basin, bid Betty or Molly cover it up quickly, and carry it to Mrs or Miss So-and-so, whose appetite was but weakly and who required dainties to tempt it which she could not afford to purchase.

These poorer ladies had also their parties in turn; they were too proud to accept invitations if they might not return them, although various and amusing were their innocent make-shifts and imitations. To give you only one instance, I remember a card-party at one of these good ladies’ lodgings; where, when tea-time arrived, the ladies sitting on the sofa had to be displaced for a minute, in order that the tea-trays, (plates of cake, bread and butter, and all,) might be extricated from their concealment under the valances of the couch.

You may imagine the subjects of the conversation amongst these ladies; cards, servants, relations, pedigrees, and last and best, much mutual interest about the poor of the town, to whom they were one and all kind and indefatigable benefactresses; cooking, sewing for, advising, doctoring, doing everything but educating them. One or two old ladies dwelt on the glories of former days; when - boasted of two earl’s daughters as residents. Though it must be sixty years since they died, there are traces of their characters yet lingering about the place. Proud, precise, and generous; bitter tories they were. Their sister had married a General, more distinguished for a successful comedy, than for his mode of conducting the war in America; and, consequently, his sisters-in-law held the name of Washington in deep abhorrence. I can fancy the way in which they must have spoken of him, from the shudder of abomination with which their devoted admirers spoke years afterwards of ‘that man Washington.’ Lady lane was moreover a benefactress to -. Before her day, the pavement of the footpath was composed of loose round stones, placed so far apart that a delicate ankle might receive a severe wrench from slipping between; but she left a sum of money in her will to make and keep in repair a flag pavement, on condition that it should only he broad enough for one to walk abreast, in order ‘to put a stop to the indecent custom coming into vogue of ladies linking with gentlemen;’ linking being the old-fashioned word for walking arm-in-arm. Lady Jane also left her sedan and money to pay the bearers for the use of the ladies of -, who were frequently like Adam and Eve in the weather-glass in consequence, the first arrival at a party having to commence the order of returning when the last lady was only just entering upon the gaieties of the evening.

The old ladies were living hoards of family tradition and old custom. One of them, a Shropshire woman, had been to school in London about the middle of the last century. The journey from Shropshire took her a week. At the school to which she was sent, besides fine work of innumerable descriptions, pastry, and the art of confectionery were taught to those whose parents desired it. The dancing-master gave his pupils instructions in the art of using a fan properly. Although an only child, she had never sat down in her parents’ presence without leave until she was married; and spoke with infinite disgust of the modem familiarity with which children treated their parents. ‘In my days,’ said she, ‘when we wrote to our fathers and mothers, we began “Honoured Sir,” or “Honoured Madam,” none of your “Dear Mamas,” or “Dear Papas” would have been permitted; and we ruled off our margin before beginning our letters, instead of cramming writing into every corner of the paper; and when we ended our letters we asked our parents’ blessing if we were writing to them; and if we wrote to a friend we were content to “remain your affectionate friend,” instead of hunting up some newfangled expression, such as “your attached, your loving,” &c. Fanny, my dear! I got a letter to-day signed “Yours cordially,” like a dram-shop! what will this world come to?’ Then she would tell how a gentleman having asked her to dance in her youth, never thought of such familiarity as offering her his arm to conduct her to her place, but taking up the flap of his silk-lined coat, he placed it over his open palm, and on it the lady daintily rested the tips of her fingers. To be sure, my dear old lady once confessed to a story neither so pretty nor so proper, namely, that one of the amusements of her youth was ‘measuring noses’ with some gentlemen, - not an uncommon thing in those days; and, as lips lie below noses, such measurements frequently ended in kisses. At her house there was a little silver basket-strainer, and once remarking on this, she showed me a silver saucer pierced through with holes, and told me it was a relic of the times when tea was first introduced into England; after it had been infused and the beverage drank, the leaves were taken out of the teapot and placed on this strainer, and then eaten by those who liked with sugar and butter, ‘and very good they were,’ she added. Another relic which she possessed was an old receipt-book, dating back to the middle of the sixteenth century. Our grandmothers must have been strong-headed women, for there were numerous receipts for ‘ladies’ beverages,’ &c., generally beginning with ‘Take a gallon of brandy, or any other spirit.’ The puddings, too, were no light matters: one receipt, which I copied for the curiosity of the thing, begins with ‘Take thirty eggs, two quarts of cream,’ &c. These brobdignagian puddings she explained by saying that the afternoon meal, before the introduction of tea, generally consisted of cakes and cold puddings, together with a glass of what we should now call liqueur, but which was then denominated bitters.

The same old lady advocated strongly the manner in which marriages were formerly often brought about. A young man went up to London to study for the bar, to become a merchant, or what not, and arrived at middle age without having thought about matrimony; when, finding himself rich and desirous of being married, he would frequently write to some college friend, or to the clergyman of his native place, asking him to recommend a wife; whereupon the friend would send a list of suitable ladies; the bachelor would make his selection, and empower his friend to wait upon the parents of the chosen one, who accepted or refused without much consultation of their daughter’s wishes; often the first intelligence she had of the affair was by being told by her mother to adorn herself in her best, as the gentleman her parents proposed for her husband was expected by the night-coach to supper.

‘And very happy marriages they turned out, my dear - very,’ my venerable informant would add, sighing. I always suspected that her own had been of this description.

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eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005