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The Aunt, Nieces and the Dog

When a thing is old, broken, and useless we throw it on the dust-
heap, but when it is sufficiently old, sufficiently broken, and
sufficiently useless we give money for it, put it into a museum, and
read papers over it which people come long distances to hear. By-
and-by, when the whirligig of time has brought on another revenge,
the museum itself becomes a dust-heap, and remains so till after
long ages it is re-discovered, and valued as belonging to a neo-
rubbish age--containing, perhaps, traces of a still older paleo-
rubbish civilisation. So when people are old, indigent, and in all
respects incapable, we hold them in greater and greater contempt as
their poverty and impotence increase, till they reach the pitch when
they are actually at the point to die, whereon they become sublime.
Then we place every resource our hospitals can command at their
disposal, and show no stint in our consideration for them.

It is the same with all our interests. We care most about extremes
of importance and of unimportance; but extremes of importance are
tainted with fear, and a very imperfect fear casteth out love.
Extremes of unimportance cannot hurt us, therefore we are well
disposed towards them; the means may come to do so, therefore we do
not love them. Hence we pick a fly out of a milk-jug and watch with
pleasure over its recovery, for we are confident that under no
conceivable circumstances will it want to borrow money from us; but
we feel less sure about a mouse, so we show it no quarter. The
compilers of our almanacs well know this tendency of our natures, so
they tell us, not when Noah went into the ark, nor when the temple
of Jerusalem was dedicated, but that Lindley Murray, grammarian,
died January 16, 1826. This is not because they could not find so
many as three hundred and sixty-five events of considerable interest
since the creation of the world, but because they well know we would
rather hear of something less interesting. We care most about what
concerns us either very closely, or so little that practically we
have nothing whatever to do with it.

I once asked a young Italian, who professed to have a considerable
knowledge of English literature, which of all our poems pleased him
best. He replied without a moment's hesitation:-

"Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon."

He said this was better than anything in Italian. They had Dante
and Tasso, and ever so many more great poets, but they had nothing
comparable to "Hey diddle diddle," nor had he been able to conceive
how any one could have written it. Did I know the author's name,
and had we given him a statue? On this I told him of the young lady
of Harrow who would go to church in a barrow, and plied him with
whatever rhyming nonsense I could call to mind, but it was no use;
all of these things had an element of reality that robbed them of
half their charm, whereas "Hey diddle diddle" had nothing in it that
could conceivably concern him.

So again it is with the things that gall us most. What is it that
rises up against us at odd times and smites us in the face again and
again for years after it has happened? That we spent all the best
years of our life in learning what we have found to be a swindle,
and to have been known to be a swindle by those who took money for
misleading us? That those on whom we most leaned most betrayed us?
That we have only come to feel our strength when there is little
strength left of any kind to feel? These things will hardly much
disturb a man of ordinary good temper. But that he should have said
this or that little unkind and wanton saying; that he should have
gone away from this or that hotel and given a shilling too little to
the waiter; that his clothes were shabby at such or such a garden-
party--these things gall us as a corn will sometimes do, though the
loss of a limb way not be seriously felt.

I have been reminded lately of these considerations with more than
common force by reading the very voluminous correspondence left by
my grandfather, Dr. Butler, of Shrewsbury, whose memoirs I am
engaged in writing. I have found a large number of interesting
letters on subjects of serious import, but must confess that it is
to the hardly less numerous lighter letters that I have been most
attracted, nor do I feel sure that my eminent namesake did not share
my predilection. Among other letters in my possession I have one
bundle that has been kept apart, and has evidently no connection
with Dr. Butler's own life. I cannot use these letters, therefore,
for my book, but over and above the charm of their inspired
spelling, I find them of such an extremely trivial nature that I
incline to hope the reader may derive as much amusement from them as
I have done myself, and venture to give them the publicity here
which I must refuse them in my book. The dates and signatures have,
with the exception of Mrs. Newton's, been carefully erased, but I
have collected that they were written by the two servants of a
single lady who resided at no great distance from London, to two
nieces of the said lady who lived in London itself. The aunt never
writes, but always gets one of the servants to do so for her. She
appears either as "your aunt" or as "She"; her name is not given,
but she is evidently looked upon with a good deal of awe by all who
had to do with her.

The letters almost all of them relate to visits either of the aunt
to London, or of the nieces to the aunt's home, which, from
occasional allusions to hopping, I gather to have been in Kent,
Sussex, or Surrey. I have arranged them to the best of my power,
and take the following to be the earliest. It has no signature, but
is not in the handwriting of the servant who styles herself
Elizabeth, or Mrs. Newton. It runs:-

"MADAM,--Your Aunt Wishes me to inform you she will be glad if you
will let hir know if you think of coming To hir House thiss month or
Next as she cannot have you in September on a kount of the Hoping If
you ar coming she thinkes she had batter Go to London on the Day you
com to hir House the says you shall have everry Thing raddy for you
at hir House and Mrs. Newton to meet you and stay with you till She
returnes a gann.

"if you arnot Coming thiss Summer She will be in London before thiss
Month is out and will Sleep on the Sofy As She willnot be in London
more thann two nits. and She Says she willnot truble you on anny a
kount as She Will returne the Same Day before She will plage you
anny more. but She thanks you for asking hir to London. but She says
She cannot leve the house at prassant She sayhir Survants ar to do
for you as she cannot lodge yours nor she willnot have thim in at
the house anny more to brake and destroy hir thinks and beslive hir
and make up Lies by hir and Skandel as your too did She says she
mens to pay fore 2 Nits and one day, She says the Pepelwill let hir
have it if you ask thim to let hir: you Will be so good as to let
hir know sun: wish She is to do, as She says She dos not care anny
thing a bout it. which way tiss she is batter than She was and
desirs hir Love to bouth bouth.

"Your aunt wises to know how the silk Clocks ar madup [how the silk
cloaks are made up] with a Cape or a wood as she is a goin to have
one madeup to rideout in in hir littel shas [chaise].

"Charles is a butty and so good.

"Mr & Mrs Newton ar quite wall & desires to be remembered to you."

I can throw no light on the meaning of the verb to "beslive." Each
letter in the MS. is so admirably formed that there can be no
question about the word being as I have given it. Nor have I been
able to discover what is referred to by the words "Charles is a
butty and so good." We shall presently meet with a Charles who
"flies in the Fier," but that Charles appears to have been in
London, whereas this one is evidently in Kent, or wherever the aunt

The next letter is from Mrs. Newton

"DER Miss --, I Receve your Letter your Aunt is vary Ill and
Lowspireted I Donte think your Aunt wood Git up all Day if My Sister
Wasnot to Persage her We all Think hir lif is two monopolous. you
Wish to know Who Was Liveing With your Aunt. that is My Sister and
Willian--and Cariline--as Cock and Old Poll Pepper is Come to Stay
With her a Littel Wile and I hoped [hopped] for Your Aunt, and Harry
has Worked for your Aunt all the Summer. Your Aunt and Harry Whent
to the Wells Races and Spent a very Pleasant Day your Aunt has Lost
Old Fanney Sow She Died about a Week a Go Harry he Wanted your Aunt
to have her killed and send her to London and Shee Wold Fech her 11
pounds the Farmers have Lost a Greet Deal of Cattel such as Hogs and
Cows What theay call the Plage I Whent to your Aunt as you Wish Mee
to Do But She Told Mee She Did not wont aney Boddy She Told Mee She
Should Like to Come up to see you But She Cant Come know for she is
Boddyley ill and Harry Donte Work there know But he Go up there Once
in Two or Three Day Harry Offered is self to Go up to Live With your
Aunt But She Made him know Ancer. I hay Been up to your Aunt at
Work for 5 Weeks Hopping and Ragluting Your Aunt Donte Eat nor Drink
But vary Littel indeed.

"I am Happy to Say We are Both Quite Well and I am Glad no hear you
are Both Quite Well


This seems to have made the nieces propose to pay a visit to their
aunt, perhaps to try and relieve the monopoly of her existence and
cheer her up a little. In their letter, doubtless, the dog motive
is introduced that is so finely developed presently by Mrs. Newton.
I should like to have been able to give the theme as enounced by the
nieces themselves, but their letters are not before me. Mrs. Newton

"MY DEAR GIRLS,--Your Aunt receiv your Letter your Aunt will Be vary
glad to see you as it quite a greeable if it tis to you and Shee is
Quite Willing to Eair the beds and the Rooms if you Like to Trust to
hir and the Servantes; if not I may Go up there as you Wish. My
Sister Sleeps in the Best Room as she allways Did and the Coock in
the garret and you Can have the Rooms the same as you allways Did as
your Aunt Donte set in the Parlour She Continlery Sets in the
Ciching. your Aunt says she Cannot Part from the dog know hows and
She Says he will not hurt you for he is Like a Child and I can
safeley say My Self he wonte hurt you as She Cannot Sleep in the
Room With out him as he allWay Sleep in the Same Room as She Dose.
your Aunt is agreeable to Git in What Coles and Wood you Wish for I
am know happy to say your Aunt is in as Good health as ever She Was
and She is happy to hear you are Both Well your Aunt Wishes for
Ancer By Return of Post."

The nieces replied that their aunt must choose between the dog and
them, and Mrs. Newton sends a second letter which brings her
development to a climax. It runs:-

"DEAR MISS --, I have Receve your Letter and i Whent up to your Aunt
as you Wish me and i Try to Perveal With her about the Dog But she
Wold not Put the Dog away nor it alow him to Be Tied up But She
Still Wishes you to Come as Shee says the Dog Shall not interrup you
for She Donte alow the Dog nor it the Cats to Go in the Parlour
never sence She has had it Donup ferfere of Spoiling the Paint your
Aunt think it vary Strange you Should Be so vary Much afraid of a
Dog and She says you Cant Go out in London But What you are up a
gance one and She says She Wonte Trust the Dog in know one hands But
her Owne for She is afraid theay Will not fill is Belley as he Lives
upon Rost Beeff and Rost and Boil Moutten Wich he Eats More then the
Servantes in the House there is not aney One Wold Beable to Give
Sattefacktion upon that account Harry offerd to Take the Dog But She
Wood not Trust him in our hands so I Cold not Do aney thing With her
your Aunt youse to Tell Me When we was at your House in London She
Did not know how to make you amens and i Told her know it was the
Time to Do it But i Considder She sets the Dog Before you your Aunt
keep know Beer know Sprits know Wines in the House of aney Sort
Oneley a Little Barl of Wine I made her in the Summer the Workmen
and servantes are a Blige to Drink wauter Morning Noon and Night
your Aunt the Same She Donte Low her Self aney Tee nor Coffee But is
Loocking Wonderful Well

"I Still Remane your Humble Servant Mrs Newton

"I am vary sorry to think the Dog Perventes your Comeing

"I am Glad to hear you are Both Well and we are the same."

The nieces remained firm, and from the following letter it is plain
the aunt gave way. The dog motive is repeated pianissimo, and is
not returned to--not at least by Mrs. Newton.

"DEAR Miss --, I Receve your Letter on Thursday i Whent to your Aunt
and i see her and She is a Greable to everry thing i asked her and
seme so vary Much Please to see you Both Next Tuseday and she has
sent for the Faggots to Day and she Will Send for the Coles to
Morrow and i will Go up there to Morrow Morning and Make the Fiers
and Tend to the Beds and sleep in it Till you Come Down your Aunt
sends her Love to you Both and she is Quite well your Aunt Wishes
you wold Write againe Before you Come as she ma Expeckye and the Dog
is not to Gointo the Parlor a Tall

"your Aunt kind Love to you Both & hopes you Wonte Fail in Coming
according to Prommis


From a later letter it appears that the nieces did not pay their
visit after all, and what is worse a letter had miscarried, and the
aunt sat up expecting them from seven till twelve at night, and
Harry had paid for "Faggots and Coles quarter of Hund. Faggots Half
tun of Coles 1l. 1s. 3d." Shortly afterwards, however, "She" again
talks of coming up to London herself and writes through her servant

"My Dear girls i Receve your kind letter & I am happy to hear you ar
both Well and I Was in hopes of seeing of you Both Down at My House
this spring to stay a Wile I am Quite well my self in Helth But vary
Low Spireted I am vary sorry to hear the Misforting of Poor charles
& how he cum to flie in the Fier I cannot think. I should like to
know if he is dead or a Live, and I shall come to London in August &
stay three or four daies if it is agreable to you. Mrs. Newton has
lost her mother in Law 4 day March & I hope you send me word Wather
charles is Dead or a Live as soon as possible, and will you send me
word what Little Betty is for I cannot make her out."

The next letter is a new handwriting, and tells the nieces of their
aunt's death in the the following terms: -

"DEAR Miss --, It is my most painful duty to inform you that your
dear aunt expired this morning comparatively easy as Hannah informs
me and in so doing restored her soul to the custody of him whom she
considered to be alone worthy of its care.

"The doctor had visited her about five minutes previously and had
applied a blister.

"You and your sister will I am sure excuse further details at
present and believe me with kindest remembrances to remain

"Yours truly, &c."

After a few days a lawyer's letter informs the nieces that their
aunt had left them the bulk of her not very considerable property,
but had charged them with an annuity of 1 pound a week to be paid to
Harry and Mrs. Newton so long as the dog lived.

The only other letters by Mrs. Newton are written on paper of a
different and more modern size; they leave an impression of having
been written a good many years later. I take them as they come.
The first is very short:-

"DEAR Miss --, i write to say i cannot possiblely come on Wednesday
as we have killed a pig. your's truely,


The second runs:-

"DEAR Miss --, i hope you are both quite well in health & your Leg
much better i am happy to say i am getting quite well again i hope
Amandy has reached you safe by this time i sent a small parcle by
Amandy, there was half a dozen Pats of butter & the Cakes was very
homely and not so light as i could wish i hope by this time Sarah
Ann has promised she will stay untill next monday as i think a few
daies longer will not make much diferance and as her young man has
been very considerate to wait so long as he has i think he would for
a few days Longer dear Miss -- I wash for William and i have not got
his clothes yet as it has been delayed by the carrier & i cannot
possiblely get it done before Sunday and i do not Like traviling on
a Sunday but to oblige you i would come but to come sooner i cannot
possiblely but i hope Sarah Ann will be prevailed on once more as
She has so many times i feel sure if she tells her young man he will
have patient for he is a very kind young man

"i remain your sincerely


The last letter in my collection seems written almost within
measurable distance of the Christmas-card era. The sheet is headed
by a beautifully embossed device of some holly in red and green,
wishing the recipient of the letter a merry Xmas and a happy new
year, while the border is crimped and edged with blue. I know not
what it is, but there is something in the writer's highly finished
style that reminds me of Mendelssohn. It would almost do for the
words of one of his celebrated "Lieder ohne Worte":

"DEAR MISS MARIA,--I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your kind
note with the inclosure for which I return my best thanks. I need
scarcely say how glad I was to know that the volumes secured your
approval, and that the announcement of the improvement in the
condition of your Sister's legs afforded me infinite pleasure. The
gratifying news encouraged me in the hope that now the nature of the
disorder is comprehended her legs will--notwithstanding the process
may be gradual--ultimately get quite well. The pretty Robin
Redbreast which lay ensconced in your epistle, conveyed to me, in
terms more eloquent than words, how much you desired me those
Compliments which the little missive he bore in his bill expressed;
the emblem is sweetly pretty, and now that we are again allowed to
felicitate each other on another recurrence of the season of the
Christian's rejoicing, permit me to tender to yourself, and by you
to your Sister, mine and my Wife's heartfelt congratulations and
warmest wishes with respect to the coming year. It is a common
belief that if we take a retrospective view of each departing year,
as it behoves us annually to do, we shall find the blessings which
we have received to immeasurably outnumber our causes of sorrow.
Speaking for myself I can fully subscribe to that sentiment, and
doubtless neither Miss -- nor yourself are exceptions. Miss --'s
illness and consequent confinement to the house has been a severe
trial, but in that trouble an opportunity was afforded you to prove
a Sister's devotion and she has been enabled to realise a larger (if
possible) display of sisterly affection.

"A happy Christmas to you both, and may the new year prove a
Cornucopia from which still greater blessings than even those we
have hitherto received, shall issue, to benefit us all by
contributing to our temporal happiness and, what is of higher
importance, conducing to our felicity hereafter.

"I was sorry to hear that you were so annoyed with mice and rats,
and if I should have an opportunity to obtain a nice cat I will do
so and send my boy to your house with it.

"I remain,
"Yours truly."

How little what is commonly called education can do after all
towards the formation of a good style, and what a delightful volume
might not be entitled "Half Hours with the Worst Authors." Why, the
finest word I know of in the English language was coined, not by my
poor old grandfather, whose education had left little to desire, nor
by any of the admirable scholars whom he in his turn educated, but
by an old matron who presided over one of the halls, or houses of
his school.

This good lady, whose name by the way was Bromfield, had a fine high
temper of her own, or thought it politic to affect one. One night
when the boys were particularly noisy she burst like a hurricane
into the hall, collared a youngster, and told him he was "the ramp-
ingest-scampingest-rackety-tackety-tow-row-roaringest boy in the
whole school." Would Mrs. Newton have been able to set the aunt and
the dog before us so vividly if she had been more highly educated?
Would Mrs. Bromfield have been able to forge and hurl her
thunderbolt of a word if she had been taught how to do so, or indeed
been at much pains to create it at all? It came. It was her [Greek
text]. She did not probably know that she had done what the
greatest scholar would have had to rack his brains over for many an
hour before he could even approach. Tradition says that having
brought down her boy she looked round the hall in triumph, and then
after a moment's lull said, "Young gentlemen, prayers are excused,"
and left them.

I have sometimes thought that, after all, the main use of a
classical education consists in the check it gives to originality,
and the way in which it prevents an inconvenient number of people
from using their own eyes. That we will not be at the trouble of
looking at things for ourselves if we can get any one to tell us
what we ought to see goes without saying, and it is the business of
schools and universities to assist us in this respect. The theory
of evolution teaches that any power not worked at pretty high
pressure will deteriorate: originality and freedom from affectation
are all very well in their way, but we can easily have too much of
them, and it is better that none should be either original or free
from cant but those who insist on being so, no matter what
hindrances obstruct, nor what incentives are offered them to see
things through the regulation medium.

To insist on seeing things for oneself is to be in [Greek text], or
in plain English, an idiot; nor do I see any safer check against
general vigour and clearness of thought, with consequent terseness
of expression, than that provided by the curricula of our
universities and schools of public instruction. If a young man, in
spite of every effort to fit him with blinkers, will insist on
getting rid of them, he must do so at his own risk. He will not be
long in finding out his mistake. Our public schools and
universities play the beneficent part in our social scheme that
cattle do in forests: they browse the seedlings down and prevent
the growth of all but the luckiest and sturdiest. Of course, if
there are too many either cattle or schools, they browse so
effectually that they find no more food, and starve till equilibrium
is restored; but it seems to be a provision of nature that there
should always be these alternate periods, during which either the
cattle or the trees are getting the best of it; and, indeed, without
such provision we should have neither the one nor the other. At
this moment the cattle, doubtless, are in the ascendant, and if
university extension proceeds much farther, we shall assuredly have
no more Mrs. Newtons and Mrs. Bromfields; but whatever is is best,
and, on the whole, I should propose to let things find pretty much
their own level.

However this may be, who can question that the treasures hidden in
many a country house contain sleeping beauties even fairer than
those that I have endeavoured to waken from long sleep in the
foregoing article? How many Mrs. Quicklys are there not living in
London at this present moment? For that Mrs. Quickly was an
invention of Shakespeare's I will not believe. The old woman from
whom he drew said every word that he put into Mrs. Quickly's mouth,
and a great deal more which he did not and perhaps could not make
use of. This question, however, would again lead me far from my
subject, which I should mar were I to dwell upon it longer, and
therefore leave with the hope that it may give my readers absolutely
no food whatever for reflection.

Samuel Butler

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