August 1846-June 1847

The Collected Letters, Volume 21


JWC TO SUSAN STIRLING; 29 December 1846; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18461229-JWC-SS-01; CL 21:122-125.


29th December [1846]

My dearest Susan,

I wonder if you are out of anxiety about your Sister!1 I am almost afraid to begin telling you of my own troubles without being first satisfied of that. But it seems unkind, after all your exertions to provide me with a servant, not to tell you the catastrophe of the one sent me by Betty! It is only now for the first time that I am in a condition to give you the disgusting history—for I was taken ill in the second week of her—have been three weeks confined to bed and a week more to my bedroom fireside—and am but just emerged into the Library, between which and my bed room I look forward, with “a certain” resignation, to passing all the rest of the winter—

You would see by my last letter that I was dubious as to the result of that Edinr damsel— I tried to hope the best and cultivate patience and cheerfulness—but your notion that she had been too much petted for this situation gained on me every day. She showed no disposition to learn her work—in fact every day she became more sulky and slovenly—and on the first washing day she burst out on me with a sort of hysterical insolence declared she “had never been told by anybody that she was to wash”—that “no one woman living could do my work”—and when I told her the answer to that was, that it had been done by “one woman” for eleven years without the slightest complaint, she said almost screamed “Oh yes there are women that like to make slaves of themselves, and her you had was of that sort but I will never slave myself for anybody's pleasure”! I asked here if she would be so good as state calmly what she meant to do. To “go to be sure”— “Did she propose repaying me her expenses then?”— “No she had no money”— I thought the only way to treat such a creature who seemed to have no sense of obligation or anything else but her “own sweet will,” was to let her depart in peace, and remain a loser of only two guineas and not of my temper as well— So I told her well! she might go at the end of her month only to make no noise if possible for the remaining three weeks. But even that was too much to ask—in the second week of hers I was laid up in bed with one of my serious colds—caught in doing the most of her work myself and exposing myself after quite an unusual fashion—and there I lay with a Dr attending me daily—and dozing me with tartar-emetic and opium till I had hardly my sense left. and was too weak to cough, while Carlyle and my Cousin had to shift for themselves and me too, with an occasional helping hand from our Post-Man's Wife2— Isabella meanwhile crying about her “hands getting all spoilt with dirty work,” and doing nothing she could help. Till on Saturday night—just a fortnight after she had come, she sent me word in my bed that if I did not let her go—next day (Sunday!) she “would take fits and be laid up in my house a whole year as happened to her once before in a place where the work was too hard” Carlyle told her to go in the Devil's name—and a little more of his mind he told her which was a satisfaction for me to have said in his emphatic way since I was unable to rebuke her myself! But you may fancy the mischief all this did to a poor woman taking tartar-emetic and opium every two hours! When my Dr came next day he said it was “well he had not been here at the time, as he would certainly have dashed her brains out!!” By that time however she was gone—actually rushed off after breakfast—on Sunday (!) (So much for “free grace” of which she professed to be full!) smartly dressed and very happy—they told me—off to the “seven cousins” with whom I had more goodnaturedly than wisely permitted her at her own request to pass all the previous Sundays—leaving me very ill in bed and no servant in the house! The day after she brought an omnibus and a female friend to the door—in the finest spirits, to take away her box—and from that day to this I have heard no more of her! but if such a character as she exhibited here do not lead her to the Streets someday I shall be greatly surprised. Of course her respectable appearance backed out by the seven cousins will have got her another place are now—where if menservants be kept she may exert herself— My Dr said he could tell by her looks the first day she opened the door to him that she had then or had quite lately had the greensickness3—and that I was well rid of her—

And now I might write a few sheets more of the old half-dead cook whom a Lady who was going to part with her at any rate on account of her “shocking bad temper” obligingly made over to us as “a temporary” at an hours notice. Such as she is she has been an improvement on Isabella for she does her best—but Oh what a puddle it has been! and rushing down of an orderly house to chaos! Another fortnight of it would send my not too patient Husband raving mad! Since I got out of bed I have been seeing all sorts of horrid looking females “inquiring after the place”—and two days ago finally settled with one not horried looking, but a cheery little button of a creature with a sort of cockney resemblance to Helen— She has been nearly three years in a similar situation close by; which she has only left in consequence of the Mistress having died and the Master going into Lodgings— He gave her an excellent character to my cousin. especially for quiet habits. “She had only one Lover who came to see her and one female friend (happy little woman!) both highly respectable and not too troublesome”— She is to come on the last night of the year!

This will reach you on the first day of the new year—and I put many good wishes and a kiss into it— Do write to me how your Sister is—

Ever your affectionate

Jane Carlyle

[TC's Note]4

This is the catastrophe or utter down-break of Pessima [the Worst], whom I still remember as a handsome, cultivated-looking Edinburgh girl, speaking Scotch like an Edinburgh gentlewoman, and exhibiting a characeter and style of procedure detestable beyond any previous specimen I had ever known of. She had been carefully trained by pious Edinburgh ladies; was filled with the consciousness of free grace; and, I believe, would have got more real education, as I told her, if she had been left to puddle through the gutters with her neglected fellow brats, by whom she would have been trampled out of the world had she behaved no better than now. Indisputably the worst specimen of Scotch character I have ever seen produced. My brief request to her was to disappear straightway, and in no region of God's universe, if she could avoid it, ever to let me behold her again. The poor devil, I believe, died in a year or two, and did not come upon the streets as predicted of her.

Betty, the old Haddington servant, who had been concerned in the sending or sanctioning of this wretched creature, was deeply grieved and disappointed. The charm for Betty had been the perfect Free Kirk orthodoxy and free grace professions of this Pessima, who, I think, reported at home that she had been obliged to leave us, having actually noticed once or oftener that we ‘received’ on Sabbath.

The cousin mentioned here is good Helen Welsh, of Liverpool, Maggie's eldest sister, whose amiable behaviour and silent helpfulness in this sordid crisis I still well remember. The improvised old woman, I remember, got the name of slowcoach between us, and continued for perhaps three weeks or more. She was a very white-aproned, cleanly old creature, and I once noticed her sitting at some meal in her kitchen, with a neatness of tablecloth and other apparatus, and a serene dignity of composure in her poor old self, that were fairly pathetic to me. For the rest, never did I see so sordid a domestic crisis appointed for such a mistress, in this world! But it had its kind of compensation too; and is now more noble and queenlike to me than all the money in the bank could have made it.

The little creature called Anne did prove a good cockney parallel of Scotch Helen Mitchell, and served us well (with only one follower, our butcher's lad, who came silently, and sat two hours once a week): follower and she were then wedded, went to Jersey, where we heard of their doing well in the butcher's business; but, alas, before long, of poor Anne's falling ill and dying.

Before Anne's quitting us, dottle Helen had finished her ladyhood at Dublin, quarrelled with her fool of a brother there, and retired to Kirkcaldy, signifying the warmest wish to return hither. She did return, poor wretch, but was at once discerned (not by me) to be internally in a state of chaos; and within three months, for open and incurable drunkenness, had to be dismissed. Endless pains were taken about her; new place provided (decent old widow in straitened circumstances, content to accept so much merit in a servant and tried to cure the drunkenness). But nothing whatever could avail; the wretched Helen went down and down in this London element, and at last was sent home to her kindred in Kirkcaldy to die. ‘Poor bit dottle,’ what a history and tragedy in small!—T.C.