Miss Phelps has given us some sentences which convey an epigram in a keen and delicate fashion, as:
“All forms of self-pity, like Prussian blue, should be sparingly used.”
“As a rule, a man can’t cultivate his mustache and his talents impartially.”
“As happy as a kind-hearted old lady with a funeral to go to.”
“No men are so fussy about what they eat as those who think their brains the biggest part of them.”
“The professor’s sister, a homeless widow, of excellent Vermont intentions and high ideals in cup-cake.”
And this longer extract has the same characteristics:
“You know how it is with people, Avis; some take to zoology, and some take to religion. That’s the way it is with places. It may be the Lancers, and it may be prayer-meetings. Once I went to see my grandmother in the country, and everybody had a candy-pull; there were twenty-five candy-pulls and taffy-bakes in that town that winter. John Rose says, in the Connecticut Valley, where he came from, it was missionary barrels; and I heard of a place where it was cold coffee. In Harmouth it’s improving your mind. And so,” added Coy, “we run to reading-clubs, and we all go fierce, winter after winter, to see who’ll get the ‘severest.’ There’s a set outside of the faculty that descends to charades and music and inconceivably low intellectual depths; and some of our girls sneak off and get in there once in a while, like the little girl that wanted to go from heaven to hell to play Saturday afternoons, just as you and I used to do, Avis, when we dared. But I find I’ve got too old for that,” said Coy, sadly. “When you’re fairly past the college-boys, and as far along as the law students—”
“Or the theologues?” interposed Avis.
“Yes, or the theologues, or even the medical department; then there positively is nothing for it but to improve your mind.”
Listen to Lavinia, one of Mrs. Rose Terry Cooke’s sensible Yankee women:
“Land! if you want to know folks, just hire out to ‘em. They take their wigs off afore the help, so to speak, seemingly.”
“Marryin’ a man ain’t like settin’ alongside of him nights and hearin’ him talk pretty; that’s the fust prayer. There’s lots an’ lots o’ meetin’ after that!”
And what an amount of sense, as well as wit, in Sam Lawson’s sayings in “Old Town Folks.” As this book is not to be as large as Worcester’s Unabridged Dictionary, I can only give room to one.
“We don’t none of us like to have our sins set in order afore us. There was David, now, he was crank as could be when he thought Nathan was a talkin’ about other people’s sins. Says David: ‘The man that did that shall surely die.’ But come to set it home and say, ‘Thou art the man!’ David caved right in. ‘Lordy massy, bless your soul and body, Nathan!’ says he, ‘I don’t want to die.’”
And Mrs. A.D.T. Whitney must not be forgotten. “As Emory Ann said once about thoughts: ‘You can’t hinder ‘em any more than you can the birds that fly in the air; but you needn’t let ‘em light and make a nest in your hair.’”
And what a capital hit on the hypocritical apologies of conceited housekeepers is this bit from Mrs. Whicher (“Widow Bedott”): “A person that didn’t know how wimmin always go on at such a place would a thought that Miss Gipson had tried to have everything the miserablest she possibly could, and that the rest on ‘em never had anything to hum but what was miserabler yet.”
And Marietta Holley, who has caused a tidal-wave of laughter by her “Josiah Allen’s Wife” series, shall have her say.
“We, too, are posterity, though mebby we don’t realize it as we ort to.”
“She didn’t seem to sense anything, only ruffles and such like. Her mind all seemed to be narrowed down and puckered up, just like trimmin’.”
But I must have convinced the most sceptical of woman’s wit in epigrammatic form, and will now return to an older generation, who claim a fair share of attention.
HUMOR OF LITERARY ENGLISHWOMEN.
In reviewing the bon-mots of Stella, whom Swift pronounced the most witty woman he had ever known, it seems that we are improving. I will give but two of her sayings, which were so carefully preserved by her friend.
When she was extremely ill her physician said, “Madam, you are near the bottom of the hill, but we will endeavor to get you up again;” she answered: “Doctor, I fear I shall be out of breath before I get up to the top.”
After she had been eating some sweet thing a little of it happened to stick on her lips. A gentleman told her of it, and offered to lick it off. She said: “No, sir, I thank you; I have a tongue of my own.”
Compare these with the wit of George Eliot or the irony of Miss Phelps.
Some of Jane Taylor’s stories and poems were formerly regarded as humorous; for instance, the “Discontented Pendulum” and the “Philosopher’s Scales.” They do not now raise the faintest smile.
Fanny Burney’s novels were considered immensely humorous and diverting in their day. Burke complimented her on “her natural vein of humor,” and another eminent critic speaks of “her sarcasm, drollery, and humor;” but it would be almost impossible to find a passage for quotation that would now satisfy on these points. Even Jane Austen’s novels, which strangely retain their hold on the public taste, are tedious to those who dare to think for themselves and forget Macaulay’s verdict.
Mrs. Barbauld, in her poem on “Washing Day,” shows a capacity seldom exercised for seeing the humorous side of every-day miseries.
“Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites!
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy
Shall he receive. Vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savory pie,
Or tart, or pudding; pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try
Mending what can’t be helped to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Cheer up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.”
But her style is too stiff and stately for every day.
There were many literary Englishwomen who had undoubted humor. Hannah More did get unendurably poky, narrow, and solemn in her last days, and not a little sanctimonious; and we naturally think of her as an aged spinster with black mitts, corkscrew curls, and a mob cap, always writing or presenting a tedious tract, forgetting her brilliant youth, when she was quite good enough, and lively, too. She was a perennial favorite in London, meeting all the notables; the special pet of Dr. Johnson, Davy Garrick, and Horace Walpole, who called her his “holy Hannah,” but admired and honored her, corresponding with her through a long life. She was then full of spirit and humor and versatile talent. An extract from her sister’s lively letter shows that Hannah could hold her own with the Ursa Major of literature:
“Tuesday evening we drank tea at Sir Joshua’s with Dr. Johnson. Hannah is certainly a great favorite. She was placed next him, and they had the entire conversation to themselves. They were both in remarkably high spirits. It was certainly her lucky night. I never heard her say so many good things. The old genius was extremely jocular, and the young one very pleasant. You would have imagined we had been at some comedy had you heard our peals of laughter. They, indeed, tried which could pepper the highest, and it is not clear to me that the lexicographer was really the highest seasoner.”
And how deliciously does she set out the absurdity then prevailing, and seen now in editions of Shakespeare and Chaucer, of writing books, the bulk of which consists of notes, with only a line or two at the top of each page of the original text.