TWO LADIES AND A PHILOSOPHER.
AN amusing book has been written about Herbert Spencer by two ladies who towards the end of his life kept house for him (" Home Life with Herbert Spencer," by Two ; J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, 3s. 6d.) To amuse their readers was not, we are given to understand, the primary object of the writers ; but it is the object in which they have succeeded, and in it their success is prodigious. They
would, they say, willingly have "treasured the memory" of the philosopher "in silence," but they felt it incumbent upon them to "reveal the brighter and kindlier side" of the man they had "learned to know and admire and reverence"; not to let his personal reputation "go down to posterity tarnished with the suspicion of meanness, pettiness, and vulgarity," but to depict, as far as they could, "the depth and the width of the great, kindly nature that lay beneath that remarkable exterior." If the chief purpose of the book is accurately described in these sentences, the writers have failed to accom- plish it. The "remarkable exterior" is all we see—and we should imagine it to be all that they saw—but it is certainly remarkable and most graphically portrayed.
The great man was already sixty-nine when chance threw him across the path of the authoresses. He was tired of the London boarding-houses wherein be had lived for twenty- three years, and desired to have a house of his own. He bad, however, a horror of solitude, and a great fear of the worries entailed by housekeeping. A mutual friend introduced him to the ladies in question, who had lately lost money, and were looking out for some means of increasing their income. They decided to try the plan of a joint household. The business arrangements were soon completed. A villa was taken in Avenue Road, St. John's Wood, Herbert Spencer agreeing to furnish three rooms, and pay the rent, the taxes, and the servants' wages, while the ladies furnished the rest of the house and paid for the keep of the whole party. The writers were, according to their own account, very much awed at the idea of living under the same roof with so eminent a philosopher. They were unused to literary society of any kind. "Our way of life," we read, "had been more of the domestic than the intellectual order," and they had heard that Mr. Spencer was regarded among his friends as a man of singular habits. As soon as the house was ready, and the ladies and the servants were installed, the philosopher drove up in his victoria ; and from the moment that he set foot in his new abode his eccentricities began to show themselves. To all appearance he was in good health : a well-preserved, upright man looking young for his years. In the hall "he shook hands cordially, and then, entering the dining-room, sank in silence into an armchair. The silence lasted several seconds, after which he informed us that he had been feeling his pulse !" Herbert Spencer was, as every one knows, a confirmed vale- tudinarian, but hypochondria was by no means the most trying of his peculiarities. However, the ladies were prepared to find him odd, and for a long time the arrangement so hastily entered upon seems to have worked very well. They firmly believed him to be the greatest man alive, and marvelled that he was not more puffed up by the fact. "He was, of course, fully conscious of his reputation, and knew that some people regarded him as the greatest of living Thinkers, while others looked on him as Anti-Christ." The homage they paid him, though more genuine than discriminating—one of them naïvely confesses that she alluded to his sympathetic, in mistake for synthetic, philosophy—undoubtedly gave him pleasure. "I used to be discontented, and you have made me contented, so you have something to be proud of," he remarked upon one occasion. The fact that he ever talked so as to be understood by the unlearned gave his auditors some evident surprise and relief; and when he said be did not like clever women, and spoke of the benefit to health derivable from thick socks, they were wholly delighted. In spite, however, of his plain conversation—often, we are assured, interspersed with puns and little jokes, set down at length to show " the delightful terms we were upon"—" the strangeness of some of his ways was disconcerting at first." He dined at the Athenaeum, whence be returned at about nine o'clock in the evening, and habitually sat for about an hour in the drawing-room with his friends. "If the conversation proved too trying for him, he would produce his ear-stoppers and shut himself off from the world of sound." These convenient, if somewhat unsocial, inventions "were formed of a band almost semi-circular in shape, with a little velvet-covered knob at each end, which was pressed by the spring in the band on the flaps over the hole of each ear." If the stoppers were not by him, he would say : "Take a book, mustn't talk now,"—a less ludicrous, but hardly perhaps a less chilling, expedient. Now and then he seems to have completely unbent. We hear of at least one evening party at which the philosopher certainly romped, and once when the conversation took a
romantic turn he told them, "gravely and unimpas- sionedly, what he knew about love from personal experience." It happened that in his engineering days, at the age of twenty-one, he made acquaintance with the niece of his chief, who was "bright, unconventional, and rather pretty." They met often, and "discussed religion and endless other sub- jects." But one sad day the lady introduced her fiancé to him, and "he told us that even after fifty years he well remembered the unpleasant feeling he experienced on seeing her hanging on his rival's arm." From time to time he seems to have let drop a few rather in- teresting remarks upon art and music, both of which he regarded as different forms of "make-believe." Music, how- ever, gave him great pleasure, and he took much delight in colour. His taste was bad, but he knew what he liked, and stuck to his opinion. He insisted upon filling his sitting-room with artificial flowers because he thought they looked bright and decorative. When remonstrated with upon the heinous- ness of his taste, he replied: "Why in the world, now, do you object to artificial flowers in a room any more than to an artificial landscape ?"
For four years the household in Avenue Road turned satis- factorily round Mr. Spencer. At the end of that time we read that "our happiness became a little clouded." In fact, a serious quarrel about housekeeping expenses took place, and the philosopher and the ladies came very near to parting. The matter was patched up by the intervention of a common friend ; but though the joint arrangement went on for another four years, the tone of the writers is changed, and "the cloud" was never altogether dispersed. Herbert Spencer was now past seventy. His peeuliarities were growing on him "advancing age emphasised his whims and his crotchets." He was not an easy man to cater for. His ideas of housekeeping were lavish and his taste in food uncommon. He had a great belief in the unwholesome effect upon the digestion of tough meat. Consequently, he insisted that extraordinary quantities should be bought and hung. He also "ordered it to be syringed with a solution of permanganate of potash to check decom- position." There came a time, however, when, despite the syringing, "the cook refused to dress it." On one occasion many pounds had to be buried in the garden. This waste weighed upon the ladies' minds, and seriously lightened their purses. At times his irritability—perhaps partly due to his diet—became almost unbearable. Often they dare hardly speak to him, and it was a great thing to venture un- checked upon a few sentences. "We could always tell when one of these bad bouts commenced, for on those occasions he used to adopt a curious garment he Lad devised to protect himself from cold with as little exertion in dressing as possible. It was made of a very warm, woolly material, and compounded in such a way that he had only to step into it and with one pull was fully clad in boots, trousers, and coat. We used to call this the woolly bear '—a name he adopted for it—and when we heard from the housemaid he was clothed in it, it was a warning to us that there was a trying day to be faced."
At last, after many "trying " weeks and months, made bear- able only by long holidays during which Herbert Spencer stayed away in the country, the friends resolved to part. The reader is made to realise that the country sojourns were not always a success, and that the philosopher was in a state when no one could please him. "At one place he took so great a dislike to his hostess that on his return he actually called her a beast.'" At another "he discovered the landlady had been divorced" and left at once, as "that kind of laxity was most abhorrent to him." At last he advertised for "a lively family" who would receive him as a temporary inmate, but how this plan worked we are not told. The initiative in the matter of final separation was taken by the philosopher, and the ladies received what they themselves call their congg with apparently mixed feelings. The impression made upon the mind of the reader is that they were torn between a sense of relief at getting rid of him, and a feeling of chagrin at the final severance of their connection with a celebrity whom fate had privileged them for eight years to observe, to belaud, and to belittle. "After all those years we were to part !" we read. "A crowd of different emotions surged over us." Sometimes "the stern, thoughtful face of Mr. Spencer rose up before us compelling silence" (here the comment of the charwoman quoted earlier in the book rises before the mind of the reader : "Mr. Spencer do look so long-featured when he's ill, don't he, Miss ? "); at another "the same countenance wreathed in smiles." No doubt Mr. Spencer had often been cross ; at the same time, as we read in a former chapter, "he often talked with us about the great people he had known, people whose names are household words, the Carlyles, George Eliot, and so forth." After all, it is something to have lived under the same roof with a philosopher ! His very faults, we are told, "served not to make us disbelieve in his greatness, but to appreciate it the more by comparison, just as one only realises the length of a gigantic fir-tree or poplar when it falls to the ground."
The book these " Two " have felt it their " duty " to write must not, after all, be regarded solely upon its lighter side. It suggests at least two serious, if not moral, reflections. First of all, the obvious one that no man is a hero to his housekeeper—an intimate acquaintance with a man's peculiarities does not imply much knowledge of the man himself—and secondly, that a philosopher who would remain a hero to his readers, if he has no home, should live alone.