A COMMENTARY IN AN EASY-CHAIR :
DULLNESS-THE SILLY SEASON-THE QUESTION OF MISTRESS AND SERVANT.
THE questions which crop up for idle discussion at this time of the year are one of the most amusing features of the period of dullness named in journalistic parlance "the silly season." There is no reason why it should be silly because it is dull, or heaven help us who spend the most of our lives in a mild seclusion from all excitements, in a perennial off-season, which little, if any, violent ae6s of society ever breaks. I have a great opinion of dullness, for my own part, and have prescribed it for some of my friends too much addicted to the stimulants of conversation and " contact "—that mysterious method of social amelioration—with the gifted and wise. The advice, I am obliged to say, has seldom been gratefully received. Yet there is good in it to the souls adapted by Nature to meet the treatment, which is the first stipulation in respect to any specific. It is only in the moment of dullness that one learns to appreciate the value and understand the gradations of intelligence : so that the gentle joke at which we should have scoffed in other circumstances becomes almost side-splitting— as near, indeed, as decorum permits : and fine shades of percep- tion come out, gentle, unnoted, which escape human knowledge altogether when there is a daily coruscation of intellect and fancy going on. Epigrams are all very well, and so is the rivalry of lively wits, each capping the other, as sometimes happens in intellectual circles; but after a while the very brilliancy begins to get monotonous. The fireworks crackle too near our ears, and the attention kept upon the strain to know what Mr. So-and-So will say next, or what Madame Untelle will reply, gets limp with over-exertion, and retains its hold no more. Whereas, how prettily a gentle little unexpected remark will come upon the ear in the other region, of twilight, as it were, and uneventful skies. And the dull people, if our brilliant friends but knew it, will give forth between two lights, so to speak, little unconscious glow- worm gleams of quiet sense and discernment that are better a great deal than fine conversation. A just perception, a quiet meaning, and often the truest feeling, come unconscious in these nnilluminated ways. Sometimes, of course, it will not be so, and the dull life will become intolerable, a thing which would make dissipation delightful, and crime itself a -welcome novelty : but that case is extreme.
I thank heaven with honest William in the Forest of Arden, whom foolish actors caricature so vilely, that the literary man in general has a pretty wit, but that, like another of the wide Shakespearian family, he brings it forth only when there is need for such vanities, and is often dull, keeping his good things for his books with praiseworthy frugality. I remember spending a pleasant day once in the country with a member of the fraternity, who enjoyed himself, I have every reason to believe, walked and drove, and ate and drank, and beamed upon the world in general, but, weary perhaps of the strain of town, in which he must have been made to talk, never opened his mouth. His image is clear and smiling in the distance, but the sound of his voice is unknown to me. He was a wise and thrifty soul. That, how- ever is a height to which the ordinary mortal seldom attains, and dullness scarcely tolerates such an exception. The dull world is polite ; it is not inattentive to personal feeling ; it entertains its guest with such as it has. There are long silences, but so are there in Nature, who is chary of speech ; but these are full of surprises, and even the domestic beast, the trustworthy and docile ass, will occasionally find a voice and say—words that are very well worth saying, considering the source from which they spring. We are dull, but we are not silly, probably no more than you are, my dear friends, who are so clever. However, it is a distinct class, neither we nor you, neither the dull folks nor the intelligent folks, but the silly- clever who make all this pother in vacation-times. They hold their breath all the rest of the year, while you are talking and we are (not always) listening, and stand on tip-toe, with their hands up like School Board children, until they can catch the editor's eye and rush in. I do not know what subject is given for discussion this year, but it is surprising if enterprising journalism has not taken advantage of the lead given to it by the two ladies (not at all of the order referred to above) who have been discussing the subject of Domestic Servants in more dignified periodicals. No better subject could be for holiday debate, when nothing is happening, and the columns are free to everybody who has an opinion to let loose. And who has not an opinion to let loose ? This is one of the themes in which there is no distinction of age or sex, — everybody has his or her word, wise or foolish to say. And a great deal of nonsense is spoken, as is inevitable,—but that is all to the benefit of the newspaper. For the people who write nonsense are not less but more anxious to see it in print than those who write sense : and it is the very foolishness of the arguments that makes the debate amusing to the readers, just as, when we cannot see a good play well performed, the next best thing is to see a bad play badly performed, which is a still greater wonder and spectacle.
The subject of Servants is almost as large and varied as that of marriage, or any other of the universal ills that flesh is heir to. But the writers on the subject, unfortunately, are but little apt to recognise this fact, and discourse upon the subject as if it were a model of simplicity and unity. In like manner, I have an excellent friend, of Irish lineage, who takes fire at any disrespectful allusion to her country, and is ready to throw down her glove to all the world in defence of its loyalty, truth, and every noble quality. But then the question arises, which Ireland is it of which this lady constitutes herself the champion? It is the landlord Ireland, the gentle- men, the squires, the aristocracy, the Geraldines and Desmonds, the descendants of the heroes of the Pale. Land Leaguers, Home-rulers, moonlighters, and all the rest, the peasant with his gun, of whom the rest of us are thinking, some with rage, and some with an ache of pity, have no share in her thoughts. She sweeps these aside as not worth thinking of,—and what, indeed, more gallant, more witty, more dashing, and, in most eases, more loyal than the Irish squire, landlord and gentleman P But it is not of him that we are thinking when we speak of Ireland as the most distressful country. And, again, my friend makes a moue of contempt when one insinuates a word in favour of the honest North. " The North ! oh, I don't call that Ireland !" she says. Here we find ourselves in a dilemma, and are compelled to suggest that thus there are three Irelands, all demanding separate and distinct appreciation.
In the case of the servants, the debaters generally fall into the same fault,—they are too apt, if they are benevolently minded, to take up the hard fate of the maid-of-all-work, and treat the profession in general as if she were its representa- tive, an assumption which no one would more indignantly repudiate than the highly respectable housemaids and parlour- maids, not to say cooks, that authoritative branch—who know themselves (if we have not sense enough to know them) to be as much superior to her, to say the least, as we think ourselves superior to the greengrocer. How would the gentlemen in
her Majesty's public offices stare, were their necessities con- sidered from the point of view of a clerk in a merchant's office passing rich on a hundred pounds a year ? But the difference is not more great. On the other hand, the satirist assumes Jeames and his superb associates to be representative of domestic service in England. Can the imagination con- ceive a greater leap than that from the poor drudge of the poor lodging-house to Jeames, or rather, to the ineffable Mr. Butler, Jeames's superior and chief ! There are at least three great lines of distinction thus to be drawn. The rules which apply to the maid-of-all-work at the very bottom of the scale—not Miss Mande Stanley's respectable and well-off maid-of-all-work, who prefers to be a general servant, independent of other servants and the jealousies and tempers they may bring with them, but the miserable one, the hopeless drudge upon whom no holiday smiles—do not apply to a great establishment where there is much luxury and a crowd of servants, and no alarming amount of work to do ; and neither does either of their rules apply to the intermediate mass of servants, chiefly women, belonging to families who keep from two to six or seven, who are the persons on behalf of whom the philanthropic ladies generally interest themselves most, though with a strong inclination to consider them from the maid-of-all- work point of view. It is of them, I presume, that Mrs. Francis Darwin was thinking when she demanded that each servant should have two hours in the day to herself, in which she should not be obliged to disturb herself for any sound of bell. " I wish I could have two hours a day to myself," said an indignant lady, to whom this proposal was repeated : it is a sentiment which will be largely echoed among the mistresses, and in which I fully concur. What woman who has anything to do at all has two hours a day to herself, in which she can retire from the world, write her letters, and pursue her meditations undisturbed by the sound of any bell ? Not the mother of a family, at all events, and in any degree that I am acquainted with. Can the Duchess of High-ton calculate on so much spare time ? I do not know her Grace, but I greatly doubt it. And I am sure the most illustrious Lady in the land, notwithstanding her weight of seventy years, cannot do it. How much less Mrs. Plain-Smith, who has a number of young children and five or six maids to look after. I have seen that lady's pretty parlour- maid, a handsome and charming young woman, sitting at the window of her little chamber upstairs, at her personal needlework, in great comfort in the afternoon, while the mistress was hard at work settling household matters or re- ceiving visitors, corresponding with Tom's tutor or smoothing down Miss Molly's governess,—and I know which of the two had the easiest time of it. But Rebecca was undoubtedly within sound of the bells, and would have felt her honour touched had the mistress rung in vain. Such a demand on behalf of the maids is part of that curious philanthropical idiocy which seems to attack some highly cultured persons, and which, as it must arise from pure want of understanding, is probably hopeless. It is something like the naïve suggestion of the Princess, who, hearing that the poor had no bread to eat, recommended that they should take to cakes—a very old joke indeed, and of a grim kind—but not less foolish than this last modern instance of how much foolishness theory, even when benevolent, is capable.
The parlourmaids and the housemaids of my acquaintance, which is not small, are exceedingly nice-looking persons, well dressed, well set-up, and intensely comfortable. I have the pleasure of knowing their mistresses also in many cases, and I have the same opinion of these ladies ; and in the majority of cases, the two sets of women " get on " remarkably well together, it being to the interest of both to do so. The balance of human nature swings very evenly between them. There are some difficult on both sides, and some easy : for which it is personal character that is to blame, and not the relation of mistress and maid. But it is a capital question to throw to those uneasy spirits that are longing to occupy this their hour in discussion, and who upon a subject so prolific will find myriads of things to say.