Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Charitable Ladies

Some characters you may know, courtesy of Mr. Dickens.

“In-deed! Mrs Jellyby,” said Mr Kenge, standing with his back to the fire, and casting his eyes over the dusty hearth-rug as if it were Mrs Jellyby’s biography, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population. Mr Jarndyce, who is desirous to aid any work that is considered likely to be a good work, and who is much sought after by philanthropists, has, I believe, a very high opinion of Mrs Jellyby.”
[W]e turned up under an archway, to our destination: a narrow street of high houses, like an oblong cistern to hold the fog. There was a confused little crowd of people, principally children, gathered about the house at which we stopped, which had a tarnished brass plate on the door with the inscription JELLYBY.

“Don’t be frightened!” said Mr Guppy, looking in at the coach-window. “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!”

“O poor child,” said I; “let me out, if you please!”

“Pray be careful of yourself, miss. The young Jellybys are always up to something,” said Mr Guppy.

I made my way to the poor child, who was one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw, and found him very hot and frightened and crying loudly, fixed by the neck between two iron railings, while a milkman and a beadle, with the kindest intentions possible, were endeavouring to drag him back by the legs, under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means. As I found (after pacifying him), that he was a little boy, with a naturally large head, I thought that, perhaps where his head could go, his body could follow, and mentioned that the best mode of extrication might be to push him forward. This was so favourably received by the milkman and beadle, that he would immediately have been pushed into the area, if I had not held his pinafore, while Richard and Mr Guppy ran down through the kitchen, to catch him when he should be released. At last he was happily got down without any accident, and then he began to beat Mr Guppy with a hoop-stick in quite a frantic manner.

Nobody had appeared belonging to the house, except a person in pattens, who had been poking at the child from below with a broom; I don’t know with what object, and I don’t think she did. I therefore supposed that Mrs Jellyby was not at home; and was quite surprised when the person appeared in the passage without the pattens, and going up to the back room on the first floor, before Ada and me, announced us as, “Them two young ladies, Missis Jellyby!” We passed several more children on the way up, whom it was difficult to avoid treading on in the dark; and as we came into Mrs Jellyby’s presence, one of the poor little things fell down-stairs — down a whole flight (as it sounded to me), with a great noise.

Mrs Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces, as the dear child’s head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair — Richard afterwards said he counted seven, besides one for the landing — received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if — I am quoting Richard again — they could see nothing nearer than Africa!

“I am very glad indeed,” said Mrs Jellyby in an agreeable voice, “to have the pleasure of receiving you. I have a great respect for Mr Jarndyce, and no one in whom he is interested can be an object of indifference to me.”

We expressed our acknowledgments, and sat down behind the door where there was a lame invalid of a sofa. Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled, dropped on to her chair when she advanced to us; and as she turned to resume her seat, we could not help noticing that her dress didn’t nearly meet up the back, and that the open space was railed across with a lattice-work of stay-lace — like a summer-house.

The room, which was strewn with papers and nearly filled by a great writing-table covered with similar litter, was, I must say, not only very untidy but very dirty. We were obliged to take notice of that with our sense of sight, even while, with our sense of hearing, we followed the poor child who had tumbled down-stairs: I think into the back kitchen, where somebody seemed to stifle him.

But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And, from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place.

“You find me, my dears,” said Mrs Jellyby, snuffing the two great office candles in tin candlesticks which made the room taste strongly of hot tallow (the fire had gone out, and there was nothing in the grate but ashes, a bundle of wood, and a poker), “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies, and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species all over the country. I am happy to say it is advancing. We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

As Ada said nothing, but looked at me, I said it must be very gratifying.

“It is gratifying,” said Mrs Jellyby. “It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that you never turned your thoughts to Africa.”

This application of the subject was really so unexpected to me that I was quite at a loss how to receive it. I hinted that the climate—

“The finest climate in the world!” said Mrs Jellyby.

“Indeed, ma’am?”

“Certainly. With precaution,” said Mrs Jellyby. “You may go into Holborn, without precaution, and be run over. You may go into Holborn, with precaution, and never be run over. Just so with Africa.”

I said, “No doubt.” — I meant as to Holborn.

“If you would like,” said Mrs Jellyby, putting a number of papers towards us, “to look over some remarks on that head, and on the general subject, which have been extensively circulated, while I finish a letter I am now dictating — to my eldest daughter, who is my amanuensis—”

The girl at the table left off biting her pen, and made a return to our recognition, which was half bashful and half sulky.

“I shall then have finished for the present,” proceeded Mrs Jellyby with a sweet smile, “though my work is never done. Where are you, Caddy?”

‘“Presents her compliments to Mr Swallow, and begs—”’ said Caddy.

“‘—And begs,’” said Mrs Jellyby, dictating, “‘to inform him, in reference to his letter of inquiry on the African project’ — No, Peepy! Not on my account!”

Peepy (so self-named) was the unfortunate child who had fallen downstairs, who now interrupted the correspondence by presenting himself, with a strip of plaster on his forehead, to exhibit his wounded knees, in which Ada and I did not know which to pity most — the bruises or the dirt. Mrs Jellyby merely added, with the serene composure with which she said everything, “Go along, you naughty Peepy!” and fixed her fine eyes on Africa again.

Bleak House, Chapter 4

Among the ladies who were most distinguished for this rapacious benevolence (if I may use the expression), was a Mrs Pardiggle, who seemed, as I judged from the number of her letters to Mr Jarndyce, to be almost as powerful a correspondent as Mrs Jellyby herself. We observed that the wind always changed, when Mrs Pardiggle became the subject of conversation: and that it invariably interrupted Mr Jarndyce, and prevented his going any farther, when he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all. We were therefore curious to see Mrs Pardiggle, suspecting her to be a type of the former class; and were glad when she called one day with her five young sons.

She was a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. And she really did, for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts that were quite a great way off. As only Ada and I were at home, we received her timidly; for she seemed to come in like cold weather, and to make the little Pardiggles blue as they followed.

“These, young ladies,” said Mrs Pardiggle, with great volubility, after the first salutations, “are my five boys. You may have seen their names in a printed subscription list (perhaps more than one), in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr Jarndyce. Egbert, my eldest (twelve), is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians. Oswald, my second (ten-and-a-half), is the child who contributed two-and-ninepence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial. Francis, my third (nine), one-and-sixpence-halfpenny; Felix, my fourth (seven), eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form.”

We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled — though they were certainly that to — but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent. At the mention of the Tockahoopo Indians, I could really have supposed Egbert to be one of the most baleful members of that tribe, he gave me such a savage frown. The face of each child, as the amount of his contribution was mentioned, darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner, but his was by far the worst. I must except, however, the little recruit into the Infant Bonds of Joy, who was stolidly and evenly miserable.

“You have been visiting, I understand,” said Mrs Pardiggle, “at Mrs Jellyby’s?”

We said yes, we had passed one night there.

“Mrs Jellyby,” pursued the lady, always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a sort of spectacles on too — and I may take the opportunity of remarking that her spectacles were made the less engaging by her eyes being what Ada called “choking eyes,” meaning very prominent: “Mrs Jellyby is a benefactor to society, and deserves a helping hand. My boys have contributed to the African project — Egbert, one-and-six, being the entire allowance of nine weeks; Oswald, one-and-a-penny-halfpenny, being the same; the rest, according to their little means. Nevertheless, I do not go with Mrs Jellyby in all things. I do not go with Mrs Jellyby in her treatment of her young family. It has been noticed. It has been observed that her young family are excluded from participation in the objects to which she is devoted. She may be right, she may be wrong; but, right or wrong, this is not my course with my young family. I take them everywhere.”

I was afterwards convinced (and so was Ada) that from the ill-conditioned eldest child, these words extorted a sharp yell. He turned it off into a yawn, but it began as a yell.

“They attend matins with me (very prettily done), at half-past six o’clock in the morning all the year round, including of course the depth of winter,” said Mrs Pardiggle rapidly, “and they are with me during the revolving duties of the day. I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee, and many general committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive — perhaps no one’s more so. But they are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general — in short, that taste for the sort of thing — which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves. My young family are not frivolous; they expend the entire amount of their allowance, in subscriptions, under my direction; and they have attended as many public meetings, and listened to as many lectures, orations, and discussions, as generally fall to the lot of few grown people. Alfred (five), who, as I mentioned, has of his own election joined the Infant Bonds of Joy, was one of the very few children who manifested consciousness on that occasion, after a fervid address of two hours from the chairman of the evening.”

Alfred glowered at us as if he never could, or would, forgive the injury of that night.

“You may have observed, Miss Summerson,” said Mrs Pardiggle, “in some of the lists to which I have referred, in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr Jarndyce, that the names of my young family are concluded with the name of O. A. Pardiggle, F.R.S., one pound. That is their father. We usually observe the same routine. I put down my mite first; then my young family enrol their contributions, according to their ages and their little means; and then Mr Pardiggle brings up the rear. Mr Pardiggle is happy to throw in his limited donation, under my direction; and thus things are made, not only pleasant to ourselves, but, we trust, improving to others.”

Bleak House, Chapter 9


Anonymous said...

Wow, this was a God-sent post. Really, couldn't have been perfect timing -- I've been struggling lately with getting actual housework done and not resenting constant childish interruptions to my "important work", and our parish DRE just begged me last night at CCD to consider becoming a catechist next year!

I'm going to be contemplating Dickens all day, now... who said lectio had to be with scripture or spiritual reading? ;-)

Lauren said...

Brings to mind advice I recently got in the confessional to mind my own vocation, daily. It's easy for me to have my head in the clouds and forget my duties to those right under my nose. I'm appreciating Dickens much more than I used to. I'll check out Bleak House next, after changing diapers and reading Cat in the Hat for the 800th time.