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Thoughts on Cheapness and My Aunt Charlotte

The world mends. In my younger days people believed in mahogany; some of
my readers will remember it--a heavy, shining substance, having a
singularly close resemblance to raw liver, exceedingly heavy to move,
and esteemed on one or other count the noblest of all woods. Such of us
as were very poor and had no mahogany pretended to have mahogany; and
the proper hepatite tint was got by veneering. That makes one incline to
think it was the colour that pleased people. In those days there was a
word "trashy," now almost lost to the world. My dear Aunt Charlotte used
that epithet when, in her feminine way, she swore at people she did not
like. "Trashy" and "paltry" and "Brummagem" was the very worst she could
say of them. And she had, I remember, an intense aversion to plated
goods and bronze halfpence. The halfpence of her youth had been vast and
corpulent red-brown discs, which it was folly to speak of as small
change. They were fine handsome coins, and almost as inconvenient as
crown-pieces. I remember she corrected me once when I was very young.
"Don't call a penny a copper, dear," she said; "copper is a metal. The
pennies they have nowadays are bronze." It is odd how our childish
impressions cling to us. I still regard bronze as a kind of upstart
intruder, a mere trashy pretender among metals.

All my Aunt Charlotte's furniture was thoroughly good, and most of it
extremely uncomfortable; there was not a thing for a little boy to break
and escape damnation in the household. Her china was the only thing with
a touch of beauty in it--at least I remember nothing else--and each of
her blessed plates was worth the happiness of a mortal for days
together. And they dressed me in a Nessus suit of valuable garments. I
learned the value of thoroughly good things only too early. I knew the
equivalent of a teacup to the very last scowl, and I have hated good,
handsome property ever since. For my part I love cheap things, trashy
things, things made of the commonest rubbish that money can possibly
buy; things as vulgar as primroses, and as transitory as a morning's
frost.

Think of all the advantages of a cheap possession--cheap and nasty, if
you will--compared with some valuable substitute. Suppose you need this
or that. "Get a good one," advises Aunt Charlotte; "one that will last."
You do--and it does last. It lasts like a family curse. These great
plain valuable things, as plain as good women, as complacently assured
of their intrinsic worth--who does not know them? My Aunt Charlotte
scarcely had a new thing in her life. Her mahogany was avuncular; her
china remotely ancestral; her feather beds and her bedsteads!--they were
haunted; the births, marriages, and deaths associated with the best one
was the history of our race for three generations. There was more in her
house than the tombstone rectitude of the chair-backs to remind me of
the graveyard. I can still remember the sombre aisles of that house, the
vault-like shadows, the magnificent window curtains that blotted out the
windows. Life was too trivial for such things. She never knew she tired
of them, but she did. That was the secret of her temper, I think; they
engendered her sombre Calvinism, her perception of the trashy quality of
human life. The pretence that they were the accessories to human life
was too transparent. _We_ were the accessories; we minded them for a
little while, and then we passed away. They wore us out and cast us
aside. We were the changing scenery; they were the actors who played on
through the piece. It was even so with clothing. We buried my other
maternal aunt--Aunt Adelaide--and wept, and partly forgot her; but her
wonderful silk dresses--they would stand alone--still went rustling
cheerfully about an ephemeral world.

All that offended my sense of proportion, my feeling of what is due to
human life, even when I was a little boy. I want things of my own,
things I can break without breaking my heart; and, since one can live
but once, I want some change in my life--to have this kind of thing and
then that. I never valued Aunt Charlotte's good old things until I sold
them. They sold remarkably well: those chairs like nether millstones for
the grinding away of men; the fragile china--an incessant anxiety until
accident broke it, and the spell of it at the same time; those silver
spoons, by virtue of which Aunt Charlotte went in fear of burglary for
six-and-fifty years; the bed from which I alone of all my kindred had
escaped; the wonderful old, erect, high-shouldered, silver-faced clock.

But, as I say, our ideas are changing--mahogany has gone, and repp
curtains. Articles are made for man, nowadays, and not man, by careful
early training, for articles. I feel myself to be in many respects a
link with the past. Commodities come like the spring flowers, and vanish
again. "Who steals my watch steals trash," as some poet has remarked;
the thing is made of I know not what metal, and if I leave it on the
mantel for a day or so it goes a deep blackish purple that delights me
exceedingly. My grandfather's hat--I understood when I was a little boy
that I was to have that some day. But now I get a hat for ten shillings,
or less, two or three times a year. In the old days buying clothes was
well-nigh as irrevocable as marriage. Our flat is furnished with
glittering things--wanton arm-chairs just strong enough not to collapse
under you, books in gay covers, carpets you are free to drop lighted
fusees upon; you may scratch what you like, upset your coffee, cast your
cigar ash to the four quarters of heaven. Our guests, at anyrate, are
not snubbed by our furniture. It knows its place.

But it is in the case of art and adornment that cheapness is most
delightful. The only thing that betrayed a care for beauty on the part
of my aunt was her dear old flower garden, and even there she was not
above suspicion. Her favourite flowers were tulips, rigid tulips with
opulent crimson streaks. She despised wildings. Her ornaments were
simply displays of the precious metal. Had she known the price of
platinum she would have worn that by preference. Her chains and brooches
and rings were bought by weight. She would have turned her back on
Benvenuto Cellini if he was not 22 carats fine. She despised
water-colour art; her conception of a picture was a vast domain of oily
brown by an Old Master. The Babbages at the Hall had a display of gold
plate swaggering in the corner of the dining-room; and the visitor
(restrained by a plush rope from examining the workmanship) was told the
value, and so passed on. I like my art unadorned: thought and skill, and
the other strange quality that is added thereto, to make things
beautiful--and nothing more. A farthing's worth of paint and paper, and,
behold! a thing of beauty!--as they do in Japan. And if it should fall
into the fire--well, it has gone like yesterday's sunset, and to-morrow
there will be another.

These Japanese are indeed the apostles of cheapness. The Greeks lived to
teach the world beauty, the Hebrews to teach it morality, and now the
Japanese are hammering in the lesson that men may be honourable, daily
life delightful, and a nation great without either freestone houses,
marble mantelpieces, or mahogany sideboards. I have sometimes wished
that my Aunt Charlotte could have travelled among the Japanese nation.
She would, I know, have called it a "parcel of trash." Their use of
paper--paper suits, paper pocket-handkerchiefs--would have made her
rigid with contempt. I have tried, but I cannot imagine my Aunt
Charlotte in paper underclothing. Her aversion to paper was
extraordinary. Her Book of Beauty was printed on satin, and all her
books were bound in leather, the boards regulated rather than decorated
with a severe oblong. Her proper sphere was among the ancient
Babylonians, among which massive populace even the newspapers were
built of brick. She would have compared with the King's daughter whose
raiment was of wrought gold. When I was a little boy I used to think she
had a mahogany skeleton. However, she is gone, poor old lady, and at
least she left me her furniture. Her ghost was torn in pieces after the
sale--must have been. Even the old china went this way and that. I took
what was perhaps a mean revenge of her for the innumerable
black-holeings, bread-and-water dinners, summary chastisements, and
impossible tasks she inflicted upon me for offences against her too
solid possessions. You will see it at Woking. It is a light and graceful
cross. It is a mere speck of white between the monstrous granite
paperweights that oppress the dead on either side of her. Sometimes I am
half sorry for that. When the end comes I shall not care to look her in
the face--she will be so humiliated.

H.G. Wells