This was the day fixed for the marriage of my very great grand-niece Florence Oliphant to Frederick Steele, and I was glad to see that with all the changes made by a century of revolution, most people, including my own kindred, still looked on marriage as a religious ceremony, and had it performed by a clergyman, or by what might be called a clergywoman — for the clerical profession had opened its gates to women. The officiating minister was the lady whom Mr. Oliphant called St. Bridget, and a most impressive ceremony she made it. She knew both the bridegroom and the bride well. Many marriages still took place in Church, but this was performed in the house which had been that of the bride’s family for so many generations. Several friends and kinsfolk were invited to whom I was introduced as a relative from Adelaide; there was no need to let my extraordinary story run the gauntlet of more than Mrs. Carmichael and the Oliphants, to whom I was therefore obliged to keep close, lest my ignorance and absurd questions should betray me. There were also a good many members of the Owen Home present by invitation.
Although the ceremony was religious it was not indissoluble. The fervent prayer for constancy, which closed the service, showed that this was a thing which might or might not follow the vows, which were more like aspirations than oaths. The early marriages, which were all but universal in the society of the twentieth century, demanded a much less stringent bond than either the Catholic or Protestant Church in our times would permit. Young, unproved boys and girls became attached to each other, desired to be companions for life, and afterwards found they had made a mistake — as was the case with the pretty girl I called Lizzie, at the Co-operative Dressmaking establishment. Marriage was considered to be a matter which should be perfectly free for young people to engage in, according to liking or even caprice.
The evils of checking early marriages had been felt to be too great, too destructive to virtue, to health, and to happiness for any considerations of prudence or ambition to stand in the way. Parents, indeed, warned against excessively early unions, and public opinion (here, as in other things, the collective conscience) discouraged marriages under the age of nineteen for lads, and seventeen for girls. But though marriage, even earlier, was free and quite legal, parenthood was never allowed till the young people were in the full vigor of manhood and womanhood. Science has put it into the power of the married people to regulate their families, and it was considered disgraceful not only to have too many children, but to bring into the world the progeny of the immature or the sickly. Until the bride and bridegroom, whose marriage I witnessed, were able to maintain themselves and to provide for children, they would remain childless. The parents, on both sides, continued to maintain them, and to carry their professional education to its conclusion; but they were spared the responsibilities of a family.
Mr. Oliphant did not give the bride away, as in our time. The young people gave themselves to each other. It was evidently looked upon as their own affair; they did not actually promise and vow to love, honor, and cherish each other, but only to try to do these things; the vow of obedience was left out. I recollect, so well, Jeannie’s Bethel saying to me — it was with regard to her sister Florrie, who found it so hard to obey her husband, when she saw his real character —“It is not the obedience that is so hard, auntie; if Florrie could love and honor him, it would be easy to obey; obedience is the least part of it!” I thought it a very clever remark on Jeannie’s part.
These early marriages entered into with faith in the future, but not making too heavy a pull on the present, relieved society from the incubus of wedding presents, which I have always thought a tax levied in inverse proportion to need, for the richer the couple were, the handsomer the gifts were bound to be. There was no wedding breakfast, though the guests all partook of a meal with the rest of the families, and with the bride and bridegroom, who, after it, got on to a tricycle and went down to the seaside at a quiet place to spend the time till Monday, when they would return to take up their quarters together in the Owen Home, and continue their studies as if nothing had happened. They had both heard lectures that morning, and chose this time, because Friday happened to be a light day, and they thought they might have one holiday.
How much less expense and trouble and worry there seemed to be for all parties concerned when marriage was the common natural event of one’s teens, and not, as with too many, “the dim far-off event” that never came at all, or came late in life, after many hopes and disappointments. Although interesting to the young people and to their affectionate parents, a marriage was no longer a great or fashionable affair, with lawyers drawing up settlements, milliners and dressmakers and needlewomen making mountains of clothes, houses to buy or to rent, furniture to choose, and cards and cake to be sent to the chosen circle of friends and acquaintances, and presents to receive from the liberal or the conventional. There was not now any chance of the celibacy that stared so many single women in the face when there were a million in England who could not be married unless Mormon ideas prevailed. Population had not only been kept stationary, but the sexes had been equalised.
So long as there were no children born of a marriage, divorce was easily obtained. A declaration by both parties that they sought release, repeated after three months given for reconsideration, was sufficient. After children were born, matters became more serious and difficult, this required three declarations, extending over twelve months. The nearest relatives on both sides were chosen as arbiters of the guardianship of the child or children. When divorce was sought by one party and not by the other, which was comparatively rare, the complainant was at a disadvantage with regard to the children, and this was frequently a cause of re-union, for the love of children was exceedingly strong, and it was possible for either man or woman to bring up the small family. The divorces were published, as I had seen, in the ordinary newspapers, after the marriages, and one month after divorce the parties might marry again. It was generally as easy for the woman to marry again as the man, especially when the family of two was divided, one to each. When there were three, though the odd child could not be halved, the parents shared the cost of maintenance.
I was afraid to ask the proportion of divorces to marriages. It was large, but not so large as I feared, and much larger in the youthful and childless stages than afterwards.
“But you have many divorces,” I said.
“It is not given to everyone to be constant,” said Mrs. Oliphant, “even public opinion, which discountenances many marriages and many divorces, cannot control everyone. But constancy is on the whole a stronger principle with the bulk of our race than the love of change, and all our institutions foster it. For my own part I have a tolerably firm belief that Florrie and Fred Steele will go on pulling together as happily as her father and I have done, and as her grandmother did before us with the dear old grandfather. Florrie is a good, true-hearted girl, and her little ambitions are such as Fred will aid and not discourage. This is, of course, as far as I can see; but if he were to change, if we were all mistaken in his character, so that misery and not happiness were the result of their union, then we have the resource of separation, and a chance of better things for Florrie with another.”
“Divorce is not disgraceful or discreditable now-a-days, then? The proceedings in the Divorce Court used to be the most sickening of reading.”
“Ah, true!” said Mrs. Oliphant, “because it was only granted for one cause, and that was difficult of proof, and in the search for evidence much dirty linen was washed in public; but now, owing to the easiness of procuring divorce, that cause is comparatively rare. Fidelity to the marriage bond, while it lasts, seems to be a point of honor with people who can sever it on reasonable grounds.”
“I have often felt the need of relaxation of the strongest marriage vows in especial cases, but yet this seems undue laxity. I see, too, great dangers to the permanence of your early marriages, before young people rightly know their own mind, in your living together in associated homes. Florrie may see and become intimately acquainted with someone who pleases her better than her husband; Fred might be captivated by another woman. There appears no restful finality in your matrimonial bond.”
“Does it really strike you in that way? We are used to the contingencies through habit.”
“Jealousy might be so easily awakened, and so hard to lull to sleep, or do you consider jealousy one of the primitive passions that were necessary for the evolution of the race from the community of wives and husbands which made the social unit, the family, an impossibility? On jealousy, I suppose, has been built monogamy, the one husband of one wife, which, with a little latitude for change, is still your social order.”
“Jealousy, as it was felt long ago between husband and wife, has been much modified and softened,” said Mrs. Oliphant. “Did not the pictures of savage jealousy and revenge in Shakespeare and the older dramatists, such as are given in Othello and the Winter’s Tale, shock even your generation?”
“Yes,” I said, “especially the younger among us.”
“And even in your day, it was possible for a husband warmly attached to his wife to enjoy friendship of a very tender kind with other women — her friends and companions, or his own old friends — and for a married woman keenly to enjoy the society and the deference of an intelligent and agreeable man not her husband, without either party taking umbrage at it?”
“That depends so much on the disposition,” I said. “Some men and some women would be jealous of shadows. Even where the coarser form of jealousy is absent there always has been, and I thought there always would be, a certain exclusiveness about married love, and a sense of the paramount claim which husband and wife have over each other. The things you speak of were pleasant, no doubt, but they had in them more or less of danger.”
“Yes, especially in an idle society, or in a society where the husband was absorbed in business, and furnished the means for his wife to be extravagant and luxurious as well as idle. Too engrossed with money-making to spare time to be agreeable to her, or to keep his hold on her heart by letting her share his cares, he might think he satisfied all her claims, reasonable and unreasonable, with his cheque-book. In our busy hives there is neither overwork for the many, or that plethora of leisure for the wealthy, or the out-of-work periods for the poorer classes, which led to the vice and crime of old society. Everyone works and works with the whole heart for a large portion of the day, and this gives us relish for the leisure which is allowed to everyone in the same proportion.”
“But there are many instances of change of affection in your twentieth century marriages.”
“I do not deny it, but on the whole we think happiness is promoted by making the marriage tie reasonably elastic.”
“All your arrangements seem to be brought to the test of happiness. The old Benthamite principle, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, seems to decide everything with you.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Oliphant calmly, “can you suggest any better test?”
“It would be despised by saints and ascetics.”
“Hear St. Bridget on this subject. Saints despise their own happiness, but not that of other people, and as for asceticism even she has given that up. And as to St. Bridget herself, she is an instance in point about the jealousy you think so dangerous. No man can love his wife more than my husband loves me, but yet there are points in his spiritual nature that are touched by our dear old maid as I cannot touch them. He delights in her society. He quotes her sayings, he has taken her advice — especially about the children — but I am not jealous. I have professional relations and warm friendships with the other sex, and especially with one old schoolfellow settled here in the Owen Home, but I am sure it never occurred to Arthur to be jealous.”
“I am not naturally jealous myself,” said I, “I always thought that my friends loved me as much as I deserved, and as much as I could make them love me, but then there was no lover and no husband in my case, and I have always been told that while human nature continued to be human nature, jealousy must be the watchful guardian of love.”
“Well, one reason of our feeling of security may be that we live so much in public in our Associated Homes, and are so much in the habit of seeking out our affinities openly, that intrigue has little, if any, place in our lives. When a separation of married people is imminent there is generally another preference on one side, rarely on both, but the matter is openly and candidly handled.”
“You think then that secrecy, intrigue, and the idea that there was the excitement of wrong doing, led to our old divorce court suits, which I confess were a scandal among a moral and civilised people. You may never have heard of the Frenchman who had been in the habit of spending all his spare time with a certain madame, a widow, charming and lively, and when his own wife died and he thought of a successor, being recommended to marry this fascinating lady, protesting that it was impossible, for in that case where could he spend his evenings?”
“Here, if we spend our evenings with an affinity our husband or wife can follow us and make one of the group. At least in the Home, where you consider the element of danger is strongest.”
“It certainly was in the countries where divorce was impossible that marital relations were most unsatisfactory. The disgraceful menage-à-trois which was so common among the higher ranks in France, could not have existed if the bond could have been broken. Just as I left the world divorce was allowed by the State in France, though not by the Church. There must have been license at first, I feel sure.”
“Yes, there was, but we have settled down.”
“But what say the churches, especially the Catholic Church, which, I understand, still exists?”
“The churches have developed a marvellous faculty of adaptation, and by so doing have prevented their own extinction. Even the Catholic Church has been made to feel that the interests of humanity as interpreted by common sense and experience are paramount. Of course it still claims infallibility but it had shifted ground even in your day, and has shifted much more since. The socialism which was a greater terror to her than heresy and Protestantism, she has been obliged to accept, in order that she may keep hold of her people. She has had to lose her temporalities and work like other churches of the day, and as to marriage she would lose all hold on society if she refused to marry divorced people.”
“This is all so new to me that I need to take breath over it,” said I. “I acknowledge that our old marriage system had many failures, and that holding parties to a bond of the most intimate personal relations after all the love and honor had died out, was, in many cases, very cruel.”
“It was not only cruel, it was degrading and demoralising,” said Mrs. Oliphant. “Those who love each other feel the bond to be final and rest in it. Those who do not love each other are not compelled to drag a chain. We have got used to our system, and find it works well in most cases, while it has put an end, as nothing else could have done, to the foulest spot in your old civilisation — mercenary love, and to the one-sided arrangement by which a man could (as it was called) protect a woman one day, and turn her adrift the next, with a stigma on her character which prevented her from forming an honorable union, while he might be sought by mothers for their innocent daughters.”
“And you have really put an end to venal love and to temporary liaisons?”
“Yes. Every woman can be married. She will not give herself for anything less honorable. When love exists, human nature desires permanent union. You know, Miss Bethel, it is the love that sanctifies the marriage rather than the marriage that sanctifies the love.”
“Yes; perhaps that is the right way to look on it. And, of course, anything that could grapple successfully with what you rightly call the plague spot of civilisation, may have some slight drawbacks, and yet be a mighty boon to humanity.”
“You cannot tell how much health has improved after about three generations of early marriages. Another point that makes such youthful unions easy and desirable is that there is no uncertain quantity in the way of family to be provided for. I suppose you have seen families of twelve and more?”
“Oh, yes. An ancestress of mine and, of course, of yours, had twenty-one children. If she heard of any family smaller, she thought nothing of it; if she heard of any larger, she did not believe it. My father used to visit in his young days two of her children, who were his great aunts — two out of a set of triplets, who, all three, lived till they were eighteen, and the two survivors to a great age.”
“Well, was there anything remarkable about them, except their belonging to so large a family?” said Mrs. Oliphant rather cynically.
“Not that I know of. It was not the dominant strain in the blood of the Bethels. But,” continued I, “quoting from the last book I read (before Scientific Meliorism, one of the Eminent Women series), Susannah Wesley was the twenty-fifth child of her father (by his second wife, certainly), and she bore to her husband — a poor clergyman in Lincolnshire — no less than 19 children, of whom John, the founder of Methodism, was the sixteenth, and Charles, the sweet singer of the connexion, was the eighteenth. Under your régime these great English revivalists would never have been born, and England would have missed much. Sir Isaac Newton, too, was so sickly when born that the Spartans would have given him his quietus, and, I suppose, so should you; you object to delicate children, I understand?”
“No; except when there is idiocy, we preserve, by all means in our power, the most delicate children, and often find they have rare gifts. We object to delicate adults becoming parents, but where life is, we try to make the most and the best of it. My mother tells me you were interested in Eveline Smith, whom you called Lottie. That girl cost me a great deal of thought and care, but she has repaid it, for not only has she special talent in the higher branch of her trade, but she has a wonderful voice for singing.”
“But the Wesleys?”
“I give up the Wesleys; but I certainly think that we have a greater chance of capacity, and even genius, from members of small families all in sound health and carefully brought up — not dragged up, as so many of your large families were.”
“I am not so sure of the genius,” said I. “The average may be high, but the exceptions may be less striking and less useful.”
“I cannot, of course, be sure. To the great ones who led the van of civilisation, and especially to those who might be called the forlorn hope, through persecution, through dense stupidity, through misrepresentation, we are fully sensible of our infinite obligations. Life is so much easier now that there appears less to do, but the good and wise are always doing something. I think the world is better since I first knew it, and that is a cheerful thought.”
“But, in marrying your daughter, you do not get her off your hands,” said I, recurring to the old subject.
“No, not for some years, even pecuniarily. We continue to maintain Florence till she is fitted to take the position she aims at; and Fred’s parents do the same by him. I don’t want to get my only girl off my hands, by any means, and I was glad she chose the Owen Home instead of Mrs. Steele’s, at the Evergreen.”
“But is there room at these homes for married people to settle down where they please?”
“Florrie only moves from a small room to a larger one — exchanging with a widow whose husband died lately, and who wished the small room. The homes are fairly elastic. They could have managed at the Evergreen for all they need for the present. You see, the young people cost us no more than they did, and they are happier; they work more earnestly. You cannot think how restful to the brain and to the nerves an early, happy marriage is.”
“I suppose it is so; more than the long engagement which was the only spur in my time, but which had its uncertainties, its jealousies, its discouragements. Loving mothers have assured me that they objected to the wearing nature of a long, or uncertain, engagement for their daughters; prudent fathers considered it a clog on their sons, and, yet I have seen instances in which it was like salvation to both parties.”
“Fred and his wife, you see, need no costly furnishing. They take no wedding trip. Florrie’s trousseau is made to last. We don’t expect to have much to buy for her for the next two years or more, so it comes to the same thing, and the girl rejoices in her new clothes.”
“It used to be thought very dangerous for young married people to take up their abode in their parents’ house, but I observe that it is very frequent with you. Most families in the Owen Home seem to have three generations — though, of course, there is not room for all of your descendants.”
“Sometimes people are bought out to make room, but, as a rule, we object to selling our home. But, with a stationary population, we can accommodate each other generally. Either the husband or the wife finds a corner in a parent nest.”
“How do you avoid the friction which was all but universal in joint households among English and American people? The French managed it better. Economy dictated the common homes; but I used to think they agreed better because they lived more out of doors than the Anglo–Saxon, and the proverbially small French family might also have helped.”
“Possibly so; but I dare say the French people were more accommodating. What did your contemporaries quarrel about when they attempted to live together?”
“Housekeeping, very frequently. The older generation thought the younger lavish and thoughtless; the younger thought the older prejudiced and stingy.”
“Well, the housekeeping is done for us, so that element of discord is absent.”
“They differed often as to the choice of society. Sometimes the older generation were slaves to Mrs. Grundy (if you ever heard of that potentate) and saw advantages in cultivating the acquaintance of rich or titled, but dull and tiresome people, while the young folks liked those who were more frivolous and amusing. On the other hand, the young used to class as old fogies and bores many excellent, and sensible, and intelligent old family friends and relatives. People of different ages naturally chose different friends.”
“Here we, as a rule, are most intimate with the inhabitants of our own Home, though others are open to us, where we may go as guests and visitors. Among a community which averages more than a hundred, there are generally to be found those who suit each other, and as the young people have been brought up together, and the older people have grown old together, they are likely to form strong friendships in the home. We are accustomed to choose the society we prefer, and to be civil and polite to those we are more indifferent to. So this cause of friction is reduced in proportions by our arrangements.”
“Then, though the gentlemen might have agreed fairly well, only seeing each other after business hours, the women who had to stay at home all day, could rarely stand the strain.”
“Well, our women have their work, generally out of doors, like men, which makes this danger the less.”
“The Germans used to have a proverb that a man could live happily with his wife’s mother (the bête noir of English and American Satirists), but that no woman could live amicably with her husband’s mother, whom she could never escape from, whose Argus eyes discovered all her short-comings, and saw slights to herself, and neglects or injuries to her son when none was intended; but the strain in your Associated Homes must be much slighter. The mother-in-law can find congenial society with people of her own age, and knit and gossip to her heart’s content, and leave her daughter-in-law to follow out her own life. But, I believe that servants were another fruitful cause of quarrel as well as an unfailing subject for gossip and tattle. You can surely still talk about your attendants.”
“Yes, but we cannot dismiss them at our own caprice; all complaints must be made to the home committee, both by the inhabitants of the home and by the attendants.”
“And they cannot leave you in the lurch on the approach of the Christmas holiday, or just on the eve of a dinner party, as I have seen over and over again in Australia?”
“No, the arrangement holds good for a year and is generally renewed. Each attendant has a right to certain holidays. We cannot possibly quarrel about servants.”
“But you may about children. Is no devoted mother convinced that her darling gets less than his or her share of attention from the nurses? The common nursery would, in my day, have been a common battle ground. Even the most reasonable of women seemed to lose her balance where her children were concerned.”
“All I can say is that I suppose our mothers have become accustomed to the system, and the devoted mothers have more of their children’s society than those who are more philosophical.”
“I dare say the large numbers and the noisiness of the young Britons and the young Americans, were hard on the old people when there was joint-housekeeping, without extensive nursery arrangements.”
“I dare say they were. Mr. Oliphant gave me to read, as a curiosity, an old book he had picked up, called ‘Helen’s Babies.’ Of course it was satire, but it must have had some foundation. How intolerable the American child of a century back must have been!”
“Perhaps one cause of friction with us was divided authority — the noise of children was hard on the nerves and temper of old folks; they were apt to be irritated but not firm, and the grandparents would concede what the parents forbade. John Wesley said his mother — though the firmest and wisest of Autocrats with her own large family whom she taught and trained with Spartan rigor — spoiled her grandchildren.”
“Probably she was worn out with her hard life, and was glad to be indulgent when she had no responsibility. I cannot recollect of any trouble in this way. Florrie and her elder brothers Jack and Everard, were a great pleasure and resource to their grandmother, and to my father while he lived.”
“And you have lived without a quarrel, without a difference?”
“Not without a difference, but certainly without a quarrel.”
“Do you hope to make room for your younger son, Everard, when he returns from his travels and chooses a wife for himself, and goes, as you intend him to do, into his father’s office?”
“Everard is still on our books as an inmate, and we should like very much to keep him, for Mr. Oliphant would like to have Everard always at his side in his hobbies as well as in the office work, especially the “History of Co-operation;” but, of course, it will depend upon what the young lady likes.”
“You have no idea of his keeping single. I suppose you have very few old maids or bachelors now-a-days?”
“Very few indeed. I have a pretty large acquaintance, but I could count the number of unmarried people over twenty-five years old on the fingers of one hand. We are quite proud of Miss Somerville, ‘St. Bridget’ as my husband calls her, because she is that exceptional person — an old maid. She seems to belong to all of us in the Home, because she has not given herself to any husband; not but that she has had many offers, but her vocation, she says, is for single life and general motherhood. In old days she would have been a tender mystic and, probably, a dedicated nun.”
“She has been born out of due time then?”
“I do not think so. There can never be a state of society which is not the better for saintly souls.”
“But what is there left for these saintly souls to do? I feel puzzled to think what I, Emily Bethel, with the wisdom and the experience of my sixty-two years, could find to employ me in this world of yours. I should miss the charitable and philanthrophic work that occupied so much of my time and my thoughts before my mother’s failing health made such exclusive demands on me. Nobody now is called on to furnish doctor, and nurse, and baby linen to the impecunious many-childed — nobody is needed to go district visiting to bestow advice and charity, and to keep eyes and ears open to detect imposition. Not only the Union Workhouse, but the Benevolent Asylum is shut up. There are no longer State children to find homes for, or to visit in these homes. There is no crêche to establish and superintend; there are no fallen girls to attempt to rescue, and even in the more hopeful work of prevention there is nothing to do. The Girls’ Friendly Society is without an object. Penny clubs and clothing clubs are, of course, extinct. Even in prosperous Australia, the number of voluntary benevolent associations was large, and continually increasing. I used to help with money and personal service in many such organisations, and was requested to help in as many more.”
“In fact all the old patronage of the poor is abolished,” said Mrs. Oliphant. “It was because of ignorance, neglect and vice being so prevalent that the army of philanthropic workers were called out to spend and be spent in the service of humanity, and their endeavors seemed to exonerate the mass of mankind from doing anything at all.”
“There were those who gave cheques and those who gave service, and some who gave both, but an immense number gave nothing — scarcely good will,” said I, “and I confess that I often felt that our well-meant efforts sapped the spirit of self-respect and independence among my poorer brothers, and especially among the women.”
“A laborer’s wife would now-a-days be insulted by the offer of baby-linen, or of old clothes,” said Mrs. Oliphant. “The common contribution to her Associated Home covers her medical expenses, and if she cannot afford to pay a nurse, there are members of the home who attend on her, she being willing to take her share with others. The common nursery, for which she pays the full value, answers for a crêche when she has to leave her young children to earn her livelihood. All the comforts which in old times were so difficult to purchase for herself, and which there was a demoralising chance that other people might bestow on her, are now taken into her reckoning of necessary expenses.”
“Then I go back to my old question:— What would there be for such a woman as me to do beyond supplying my own necessities and taking my own pleasure? It seems to set life on a lower level.”
“We can help our fellows in many ways still. Miss Somerville is a born religious teacher, and she works at our continuation schools, and with our little ones at the Owen Home, endeavouring to add to the excellent secular influences which go to form character, a spiritual motive, and a lofty ideal.”
“What is her avocation? Oh, I forgot, she is a clergywoman.”
“Oh, don’t you know she is a milliner, especially clever in styles for the middle-aged and old. The other calling, of course, brings in no income.”
“Indeed, this is a very voluntary sort of church. Caps and bonnets seem rather frivolous concerns to occupy the working hours of a religious genius.”
“Do you think so?” said my kinswoman. “So long as people wear caps and bonnets, it is worthwhile to make them becoming and suitable to age. I think the bread earning employment keeps our religious teachers healthy in mind and body.”
“I thought,” said I, hesitatingly, “that this was a middle-class home, representing the educated and professional classes, but I heard Mr. Black to-day talk of the foundry at which he works, and Mrs. Roberts told me she was a bookbinder, and here you say Miss Somerville is a milliner!”
“We were originally a middle-class home,” said Mrs. Oliphant; “but people cannot keep up the old proportion of distributors and soft-handed clerks. Every child who comes out of our schools is fitted to be a clerk — but the market is limited. Quite half of the inhabitants of the Owen Home are engaged in work which would have been considered infra dig. by their great-grand parents. We have still some of the possessions and the traditions of a time when we had material and mental superiority. If Florrie had not had a love of books and a taste for teaching, she would probably have learned millinery from Miss Somerville, of whom she is fond. By-the-by, it may interest you to know that she is a descendant of the Mrs. Somerville who was an eminent person in your day.”
“Yes, her life was a favorite book with my mother, who, though she did not know her, knew the Somervilles well. Her honorable life and her serene, cheerful old age, occupied and interested to the last, were pleasant to read of, and to think of.”
I had a peep at the room prepared for the young people on their return. A friend of the bridegroom’s — a clever mechanic — had made a special writing-table, at which two could work together. Some of the furniture was new, but most of it was old. As old pillow lace was only held as heirlooms, and valued highly, I made a gift of a piece of handsome lace which had been my mother’s, which had somehow found its way into my bag, for the bride to receive on her return.
There had been little of what we would call romance in the courtship and marriage. The young people did not require much, and the parents were reasonable and kind. The great charm in the match was that they were fellow-students, but that was too common to be specially held up for felicitations. It was simply the natural order of things that two young people should prefer each other to all the world beside, and with the least possible delay, convert their dream of love into a reality. Dear me! where was the chance for the novel writer of the nineteenth century, when would he find a love situation interesting enough to keep his readers awake for half the night, as has happened to me many a time both in my youth and my middle age?
I glanced at the little shelf of books which were specially Florrie’s own; they were mostly books for study. Her light literature was obtained from the Owen Home library, but there were two volumes of poetry presented by Fred, with evident marks of reading, a novel written by an aunt, which was a presentation copy, and another which Florrie had bought with her own pocket-money. I was living so intensely that I could not find time for reading, and the little I read seemed much more unreal than the conversation, but I felt I ought to go and overhaul the books in the Owen Home, and see how many of our old standard books had a place on the permanent staff. I was disappointed to find how few books, that I had thought were written for all time, were to be seen there. Of course, in the British Museum and at the great public libraries which existed in all large towns, I could find my old favorites, but the ordinary daily reading of the people of the twentieth century was the more recent work of contemporaries.
As I stood reading the titles of the books on the shelves, and occasionally opening one, Mrs. Oliphant joined me and recommended one especially to me as giving a history of the Industrial and Social Revolution, and another of earlier date as the most powerful book written on behalf of the relaxation of the marriage laws, and the limitation of families.
“I cannot read,” I said — at least nothing at all demanding thought or study. “This week is so short, I must get my information made as easy as possible. I may glance at Florrie’s favorite novel and her favorite poems, but I fear I could not read even your great history of co-operation in my present condition of mind.”
“I can quite understand that reading is all but impossible to you.”
“I am very troublesome to you with my questions, but I dare not ask other people, lest I should show my ignorance of things here, and I fear to be questioned about the Australia of to-day, because I would show quite as great ignorance of things there. But the permanence of your homes, the way they descend to new pairs, makes me think what a terrible collapse there must have been in all the building trades, after the furore there must have been before the building of Associated Homes. Were many of the old houses available?
“A good many churches and public buildings were remodelled and enlarged, and often the nucleus was old, but the best and most convenient were those which were planned from foundation to attics for twenty or more families, like this Owen Home. The Ossulton Home, which you saw, is newer, but not more comfortable, and, of course, not so much beautified. Fred leaves a beautiful home, the Evergreen. There have been several generations of artists in that home, who always leave traces of their presence, and he tells me the lawn is better than ours.”
“But, to return to my puzzle,” I said, “there must have been a period of inflation in the building trades, when homes were thus reconstructed, as well as a prodigious loss of property when the old homes were abandoned.”
“Yes, of course, there was loss. The general gain was at the cost of enormous individual losses. Millionaires found a shrinkage in values unprecedented in the severest crisis or panic before. Territorial magnates, especially ground landlords, and owners of houses, freehold or leasehold, were ruined by the thousands and tens of thousands. But, somehow, nobody starved.”
“Then, when the Associated Homes were all built and tenanted, and England — or the old three kingdoms, as I knew them — made less population by the emigration of a sixth part of their inhabitants, and the population kept thereafter rigidly stationary, what could there be for the members of the building trade to do?”
“It is a reasonable question. We had had, however, before that, stood the still greater strain of absorbing the armies of the country and all those who lived by the manufacture of arms, ammunition, and accoutrements — all who depended directly or indirectly on the two great arms of the service by land and sea — into the ranks of productive labor. Many of them swelled the building trades, and housed themselves and others. Many of the co-operative artisans’ houses were built by the future inhabitants — each putting so much labor to reduce the original cost — and many excellent ideas were evolved by people building for their own comfort and convenience.”
“But, when the houses were built and tenanted, what did the masons, and carpenters, and plasterers, and half of the painters, and paper-hangers find to do?”
“Everybody has a bye-trade, besides the one followed for a livelihood.”
“In my experience, when trade was dull in one line, it was generally dull in all lines; but then, we had such alternations of inflation and depression. Things are steadier with you.”
“The builders, generally, took to cultivation, and large tracts of inferior land were utilised. A number were kept on for repairs, and the adapted and remodelled old homes needed a great deal of this. But, of course, there was an immense displacement of labor, though not so much as there was in England and the Continent, where general disarming took place.”
“I suppose war was put an end to because the burden of taxation was no longer endurable?’
“Partly so; but quite as much because engines were devised and constructed so destructive that human nature recoiled from them in horror. England, France and Germany were the pioneers in substituting arbitration for war, Austria and Italy followed close, and the pressure of the Great Powers was too much for the brute force of Russia, which was besides honey-combed by the anti-warlike doctrines of Socialists and Nihilists. The less powerful nations, of course, formed a compact phalanx in favor of peace.”
“The saving to the nations of the world by the cessation of war, and of the ever-enlarging preparations to be made in case of the sudden outbreak of war must have been immense, though of course, the crisis must have been acute. Does this nation increase in wealth while the population remains stationary? We used to think wealth expanded with the number of workers.”
“At least the value of property did, measured in money,” said Mr. Oliphant, smiling severely. “The average income or earnings of the people have increased; the average capital or saved earnings may not be so great in the aggregate. Everyone has savings for old age, but very few have much more than is needed.”
“If three or four generations are as saving as I have known them to be, there must be people who are rich?”
“Parsimony of this kind rarely lasts so long in a family, but we have one instance of it in the Owen Home. Mr. Harrop is the descendant of four generations of economists.” “What does he do with his capital?”
“Lends it at two per cent. on excellent security, either on houses or on industrial or agricultural concerns. Cheap money has been the chief factor in reclaiming indifferent land.”
“Cheap capital and costly labor,” said I. “In the colonies we had to work with both at high rates.”
“But your land was cheap enough,” said Mr. Oliphant. “The curse of England in your old days was that capital flowed freely for all sorts of speculative ventures all over the world, but not freely for industrial purposes. The competition of all the world brought such a fall in prices that legitimate industry was paralysed.”
“No doubt,” said I, “in our time there was enormous wealth, enormous waste, and enormous want.”
“Three portentous capital W’s, owing to the withdrawal of capital from its right uses. Now, you will note, we have to eat our own broken victuals, or feed our domestic animals with them; we wear out our own clothes, or make them down for our own children. There are no beggars at our gates desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, or to be clothed with the unsuitable garments of which fashion had grown weary. Neither have we irresponsible and pampered menials wasting what might have fed poor families. We not only save the waste of war, almost all the waste of litigation, the waste of leakage in the raising and disbursing the taxation for the expenses of Government, but we save the personal waste which was so enormous in the days of individualism and unrestricted competition.”
“But you say that the average income is greater than it used to be for the larger population, when the millionaires were included. There were miles and miles of streets in London and other large cities that could only be inhabited by people spending from five to thirty-thousand a year.”
“Yes, the average income is higher, and the average of good food, clothes, lodging, leisure, and amusement, which the income can buy, is also higher — and that is the true test of an income. The rich man could not eat the share of a hundred, or the rich woman wear more than one set of garments at a time, and, so, ninety-nine had less than was good or pleasant for them, that the hundredth might waste the more.”
I sat in the ladies’ workroom for half-an-hour in the evening. Someone was eager to teach me a new stitch in knitting, but I declined, as I had no prospect of practising it. I went early to my room to write down my day’s acquisitions, so as to have a little more sleep than I had had recently.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00