The Contributors' Club

LETTER-WRITING has become one of the characteristic occupations of our time. We keep up multiplied correspondences with people whom we know and like in very various degrees, just as we also possess photographs of people whose lives have cut accidentally across our own, but whom we may never meet again. How different from the more concentrated life of three or four generations ago, when a letter and a portrait were solemn things, both connected only with persons really interested in one another! Notwithstanding the occasional pleasure of a letter from a stranger, or the excitement of some unusual sentiments expressed in language more telling and natural than is generally used, letter-writing has become a conventional matter and an onerous tax on one’s time. If we must answer for every idle word we speak, it is to be hoped that the idle words we write are not to be exempt from responsibility. Women especially treat their correspondence as an affair of state, magnify its idleness into pressing business, make it a pretext almost as universally available as the old-fashioned “ headache,” and end by believing themselves as important as cabinet ministers. A man in any public position is generally assailed with letters, many utterly frivolous; editors have protected themselves only by the avowed use of the waste-basket; but even in the quietest walks of private life, the letter-writing which affectionate friends expect from one is frequently a severe and unavoidable ordeal. Business letters can be dispatched in five minutes ; great interests and important transactions can be compressed into half a dozen lines and a few moments of time ; but when it comes to the friendly letter which politeness requires you to write, you look hopelessly round, with the conviction that you will be dubbed heartless unless you devote at least three quarters of an hour to detailing the state of your health, your trivial occupations, the last book you read, the last local news you heard, the state of the weather, etc. It such letters are a relief to a sick person, or to one buried in cares likely to damp his spirits, charity may be alleged as a reason for the inditing of them ; but this is a specious pretext, often used in cases to which it really does not apply. We have forged an additional social chain in thus gradually making correspondence a necessary part of our life. “ The mail ” has come to be the turning-point of the day in many households. What you hear and what you write is nothing more or less than gossip, which does not change its character, nor grow more respectable, by being written. Two thirds of our letters are utterly unnecessary, and a waste of time to the writer, while to the recipient they are often the source of foolish and unwholesome excitement. As usual, the ease and cheapness of communication have been abused, like the invention of printing and every other beneficial institution. In London, where city mails are delivered every two hours with unfailing accuracy, the evil has grown even worse than we know of here. During the “ season,” the number of notes, on cardboard paper, with elaborate monograms, treating of such weighty subjects as a toilet, a drive, an invitation, a begging for some social protégé who wants to go to So and So’s ball, an appointment or an excuse for some party of pleasure, is bewildering, and a still greater tax on the time of the recipients than even their customary daily correspondence. However, such people have so much time to “ kill ” that they need not quarrel with the facilities which the post-office gives them of accomplishing their object and yet seeming immensely busy ; but for ordinary human beings, it is a great pity that fashion should encourage aimless correspondence to the degree usual at present. Let us hope that our cities will not do more in the way of repeated mail deliveries than exist at present, and that when letters open with excuses for previous silence our friends will take the hint.

— The father, the uncle, even the mother-in-law or the step-mother, plays an important part in fiction; but the mother, if she is introduced at all, is always an uncomfortable figure, is always in the way. Can any student of human nature explain this ? No love like mother’s love ever was known, — so sings the ballad, though in many keys and in many ways ; but in love stories every love but mother’s love is sung, and sung and sung again. The practical Scotch lassie said not long after her marriage, “ A man’s a man, ye ken ! but he’s no’ a body’s mither ! ” Put the practical Scotch lassie into a novel, and see how quickly and how completely she forgets and forsakes her mither, and cleaves to her man. The mothers who ran to catch us when we fell were not common even in the literature of our childhood. The English Orphans certainly were motherless. Robinson Crusoe’s mother was rarely, if ever, in his thoughts. Friday found his father, but does not seem to have asked for his mother. There were no mothers in Sandford and Merton, in The Boy Hunters, or in The Wide, Wide World! Mother Goose was a mother only to other people’s children ; Mother Hubbard’s only child seems to have been her dog; and the old lady who lived in the shoe went so far to the other extreme that her children were greater in number than she could properly bring up.

Mothers are specially conspicuous by their absence in all the novels of Dickens : the Pecksniffs, the Chuzzlewits, the Dombeys, Walter Gay, Lizzie Hexam, Dick Swiveller, the Marchioness, the Fat Boy, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Little Em’ly, Little Ned, Smike, Traddles, Poor Jo, the Wards in Chancery, Agnes, Dora, Ham, Sloppy, Pip, and many more knew no mother’s love, no mother’s care. Even the mothers Dickens did create were more entertaining to other people than to their own children. The most motherly of all of them, perhaps, was the mother of Mr. Micawber’s twins. David Copperfield’s mother was ever the “poor baby ” Miss Trotwood called her ; Sam Weller’s mother was his step-mother ; Arthur Clennam’s mother, it seems, was not his mother at all ; Steerforth’s mother was not very lovable, nor was the mother of Uriah Heep; the Nicklebys, the Jellybys, the Wilfers, had but little comfort in their mothers; Esther Summerson’s mother she could never claim, poor girl, and it would have been better for Edith Skewton if her mother had died in giving her birth. And so it goes through the long list of novels, from the History of a Foundling to Elsie Venner and Jane Eyre. The Bruddons, the Ouidas, the Guy Livingstones, even the George Eliots, have little room and little liking for mothers. Trollope has mothers ; so has Charles Reade, Catherine in The Cloister and the Hearth, for instance, and the Baroness in White Lies ; but there are three fathers and no mothers in Foul Play ; Griffith Gaunt has two wives at once, but no mother; we cannot imagine Peg Woffington’s mother; and Lady Bassett, who has no mother of her own, is so anxious to become a mother that she is led into the Terrible Temptation, and borrows another mother’s child. Thackeray, whose critics say he could never draw a woman, has given us mothers, and good ones. Helen Pendennis and Amelia Osborne were, if anything, motherly ; but even these are neutralized by the mother of Clive Newcome’s wife. From Richardson to Henry James, Jr., the novel has been little more than a half orphan asylum. Who can tell why? Who will give us a Becky Sharpe who is not forced to become her own mamma; or a Jenny Wren who is not only her own mother, but her father’s mother too ? Why have all the Pips been brought up by hand ; why have all the Topsys growed ?

— In the Contributors’ Club of November, mention is made of a certain renowned English author who makes an inordinate use of the phrase “all the same; ” and surprise is expressed that the professional critics have not commented upon it.

It has, for years past, been a constant subject of wonder to me that a similar criticism has not been passed upon Mrs. Oliphant’s use of the word soft. At first, its incessant repetition wrought in me a feeling of impatience, and then of disgust; until, one day, I conceived the happy thought of reading her books with a lead-pencil in hand, with which to underscore the word in the text and number it in the margin. Ever afterward, its appearance became a source of unmixed delight to me. I find she is sure to recur to it more than once in a page throughout the book.

But a more outrageous instance of this mannerism is Trollope’s use of the words of course. The hunter for the phrase is sure to bag a brace or two on every page; and the very acme of such sport was found in The Way we Live Now, where (if I recollect rightly) the aggregate amounted to five hundred and twenty.

Without this expedient, — although I have “ a tough faculty of reading,” — I should long ago have been obliged to give up reading the works of these two charming authors, from very weariness.

— Apropos of Mr. White’s article on English manners, it may be said that one mistake of the English, or, to speak accurately, of a good many Englishmen, is that of regarding the manners of a well-bred Englishman as the model for all people. It seems difficult for an ordinary Englishman to get rid of the notion that the best of anything which his country can produce must necessarily be the best that can be found anywhere; he is apt to make the English way of doing or thinking the absolute standard for mankind. It is a foible we all more or less indulge ourselves in, — this of judging things by reference to our own habits and likings ; but the weakness is very marked among the English. Even many of their best writers are not content to characterize an action as simply brave, or strong, or honest, but as a deed of English honesty or courage, as though England produced a special kind of virtue, a little better than is elsewhere to be seen. It is not worth while to be exasperated by this calm, unconscious arrogance; but whatever hostile criticism the English meet with they provoke by their habit of invidious comparison. The type of good manners which England gives is but one type, after all. The essence of good breeding, we know, is one and the same everywhere; yet so long as races and temperaments differ, men’s manners, fortunately, will differ also. Social intercourse would become as monotonous and tedious a thing if we all moved and spoke in the same way, as it would be if we all thought and expressed ourselves alike. We find the manners of a highbred Englishman pleasing; but so, in a somewhat different way, do we those of a thorough-bred Frenchman or German. Taking them in the aggregate, however, one may say that the French are a better-mannered people than the English ; they may have no more essential refinement of thought and feeling, but as a race they are endowed with a superior quickness of intelligence, a grace and tact that render their courtesy a more attractive thing. I should be sorry from a narrow experience to draw too wide an inference, but the civility which Mr. White mentions as commonly to be met with from the lower classes of Englishmen struck me as more like servility and a keen eye to sixpences. An Englishman does not enjoy doing anything for you for nothing. Our own people often exhibit a brusqueness and even positive disrespect of manner which are meant to assert their equality with any one they have to deal with, though the brief replies of our officials and trades-people sometimes come only from a business-like desire not to waste time. One cannot but feel that the more unpleasant manifestations of the democratic spirit among us are partially, at least, compensated for by the genuine self-respect and generous willingness to do a gratuitous kindness, instances of which we have all met frequently.