The Sadness of Rural Life
— A writer in a recent number of The Atlantic concludes a sketch of New England rural landscape with the question if it will have to her readers “a tinge of sadness.” Any one who knows something more of country life than appears on the surface to the eyes of the summer sojourners in our pleasant New England villages, must answer to the above query that more than a tinge of sadness is discoverable in the little picture the writer has presented. Wherever she leaves the external scene and touches on anything relating to the life of the people the note of melancholy is apparent. She speaks of the “ sorrows and almost undiverted toil ” of the inhabitants of the quiet-looking homes; records the loneliness which doubles the pain of long illnesses in one family, and in another the lack of all gladness in the lives of the children who had learned already “ to lift and carry their share of the burdens ” of a bereaved and saddened household.
Let me tell something of what I know of life in one little village, — as pretty a one as will be found anywhere. The houses of the more well-to-do are always neat, if not architecturally pleasing ; and even the poorer sort, the low, weather-beaten cots set among the straggling phlox and clumps of tiger-lilies of the “ front yard,” have without a certain picturesqueness, and often within more comfort of a simple kind than their exterior promises. But the lives of the inmates are seldom cheerful ones. Such, at least, is the impression left by the glimpses afforded an outsider.
Of course one must not make the mistake of endowing others with one’s own susceptibilities. It is possible, for instance, that the joyless monotony of their existence does not weigh as heavily upon the native villagers as the imagination of it does upon the spectator. And yet tell upon them it does, to some extent, though perhaps unconsciously, and with persons of a certain temperament it must be counted among the burdens daily borne. I have in mind a middleaged woman, who in youth must have been as light-hearted and merry a girl as one could find. She married into a family of the utmost respectability, and was lifted to as high a social position as the village knew. But trouble came: her husband turned out an amiable goodfor-nothing, who, with idleness and conviviality, squandered his father’s money; and gradually the good old family sank down in the world, till the roof over them was theirs on sufferance only, and the poor disheartened daughter-in-law had hard work to struggle on under the burden of the aged father’s helplessness and the care of the two or three boarders who scarce paid for their keep. She lost hope and energy, as persons of her naturally light and happy temperament often do. Yet she was full of the real New England humor and capacity for pleasure, and no one more enjoyed a little break in the dull jog-trot of her days. I think she never fell into that sort of stupid, spiritless acquiescence in the inevitable miscalled content; and though she did not often complain, I always pitied the good, kindly woman as heartily as I loved her.
There is little pauperism in the village, but much poverty of the proud and independent kind. Our rural population may live in far greater comparative comfort than the same class in other countries ; but even if so, there is much to be desired for them. The families of farmers are as a rule rather underfed ; and if enough in quantity, the food is not so wholesome and nourishing as it should be. The men are not ruddy nor well fleshed; their wives look pinched and worn. The poverty of mechanic and farmer folk reveals itself to a sympathetic observer By the way in which the life of a younger member of a family is sometimes seen to be quite sacrificed to maintain that of the parents. So in one family I know the father is so aged and the mother so helpless that the daughter’s life is wholly spent for the exacting old pair; and she, imagining she owes this excess of duty, scarcely stirs beyond the threshold to gather the few flowers she loves, in her homely little plot, and foregoes altogether the pleasure of church-going and visiting her neighbors. Poor old maid ! It is partly her own fault, — the dreary sameness of her existence ; but there is wonderful strength in the bands that tie the unselfish to the side of those they labor for.
There is a house in a pretty though secluded spot, a good-sized white building, — far too shady with close-surrounding trees for the feeble old man and the consumptive young one, father and son, who pass their lonely days there. The son, a man of unusual intelligence and refinement, is condemned to this solitary, and it would seem most melancholy, existence because he would not leave his father if he could, and could not if he would. The old man holds the purse, and, like so many of those who are more well off among the country folk, is inclined to miserliness. He even grudges his dutiful son the price of his medicines. Money is come by hardly, and those who have it are unwilling to part with it. I have known an old woman of eighty, living alone, too niggardly to keep a servant, till in her last illness the relatives who were to inherit her money came and brought her aid and service. These old people often show an indomitable will and fortitude, which is both heroic and pitiful. Directly opposite the house of the person above mentioned is a tumble - down - looking gray tenement, of Revolutionary date, and in it lives — or exists — a woman of ninety or over, blind and deaf. Her nephew lives with her, and does the rougher “ chores,” but the nonagenarian takes as full a share of the household work as he. She comes of a good stock and has well-to-do relatives, but old lady S–dribbles out the remainder of her years in a strange, apathetic contentment with her dreary lot.
The more able and enterprising young men of the place go away as soon as possible, to seek their fortune elsewhere. The young women of superior intelligence and refinement have no escape but by marriage, and their very superiority limits their choice.
I have dwelt upon the dark side of country life ; and though to me it has been the most apparent, I would not deny that it has also a brighter one.