The Employments of a Housewife in the Country by Samuel Johnson.

The Statue of Samuel Johnson in London
by Percy Fitzgerald (1910).
Before I begin on Johnson, a quick note on the Deal Me In Challenge: why I don't know, but I can't seem to settle into it this year. I was supposed to be writing about an Oscar Wilde essay this week but was put off by it (one day I'll write about it and give a considered reason why!), so, again, I've changed a few of the titles and added plays back into the mix as well (I always enjoyed Deal Me In with a plays category!). So, this week, not Wilde but The Employments of a Housewife in the Country by Samuel Johnson.

This is an essay first published in The Rambler on 11th September 1750. It opens with a quote from Marcus Valerius Martialis, a Roman poet:
"Stultus labor est ineptiarum."
["'Tis silly to waste time on foolish trifles"]
And one from James Elphinstone (a writer, 1721 - 1809),
"How foolish is the toil of trifling cares!"
The essay begins,
"As you have allowed a place in your paper to Euphelia’s letters from the country, and appear to think no form of human life unworthy of your attention, I have resolved, after many struggles with idleness and diffidence, to give you some account of my entertainment in this sober season of universal retreat, and to describe to you the employments of those who look with contempt on the pleasures and diversions of polite life, and employ all their powers of censure and invective upon the uselessness, vanity, and folly, of dress, visits, and conversation."
Johnson describes how he was invited to stay at someone's house (as he is every year for the past seven years) and what he observed during that time he stayed there. He did not find "leisure and tranquillity" as he expected, more "a confused wildness of care, and a tumultuous hurry of diligence, by which every face was clouded, and every motion agitated". He writes of an old lady, his father's relation, who spent much of her time instructing and losing patience with her daughters. There appears to be some preparations for a big event: a funeral perhaps? Or a wedding more likely, he decides. Later, he enquires and is met with a fairly oblique answer, and then was told they were to go to bed early that evening for "they were to rise early in the morning to make cheesecakes."

The next morning Johnson took a walk around the garden, seeing nothing remarkable, and then spent some time with the lady:
"It was not long before her ladyship gave me sufficient opportunities of knowing her character, for she was too much pleased with her own accomplishments to conceal them, and took occasion, from some sweetmeats which she set next day upon the table, to discourse for two long hours upon robs and jellies; laid down the best methods of conserving, reserving, and preserving all sorts of fruit; told us with great contempt of the London lady in the neighbourhood, by whom these terms were very often confounded; and hinted how much she should be ashamed to set before company, at her own house, sweetmeats of so dark a colour as she had often seen at mistress Sprightly's."
There is, Johnson goes on, rather a large degree of being busy with trivialities and that is that: "The lady has settled her opinions, and maintains the dignity of her own performances with all the firmness of stupidity accustomed to be flattered." Books are "follies", orange puddings "sublime", and pickles take precedent.
"Lady Bustle has, indeed, by this incessant application to fruits and flowers, contracted her cares into a narrow space, and set herself free from many perplexities with which other minds are disturbed. She has no curiosity after the events of a war, or the fate of heroes in distress; she can hear, without the least emotion, the ravage of a fire, or devastations of a storm; her neighbours grow rich or poor, come into the world or go out of it, without regard, while she is pressing the jelly-bag, or airing the store-room; but I cannot perceive that she is more free from disquiets than those whose understandings take a wider range. Her marigolds, when they are almost cured, are often scattered by the wind, and the rain sometimes falls upon fruit, when it ought to be gathered dry. While her artificial wines are fermenting, her whole life is restlessness and anxiety. Her sweetmeats are not always bright, and the maid sometimes forgets the just proportions of salt and pepper, when venison is to be baked. Her conserves mould, her wines sour, and pickles mother; and, like all the rest of mankind, she is every day mortified with the defeat of her schemes, and the disappointment of her hopes."
It is a rather harsh essay I thought on women and rural life. Rather than be impatient with Lady Bustle I sympathised: she liked to be engaged, she liked things just right, and this is where her energies were directed. Had she have been a man, perhaps she could have done great things. That said, I don't necessarily hold this against Johnson, it is quite a funny essay, but I do think it does shed some light on life for women in the mid-18th Century and attitudes to such women wholly concerned with domestic tasks.

And that was my 29th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Thyestes by Seneca.

Comments

  1. haven't read this one; i'm struck by the proposition that all lives, regardless of focus, hold equal amounts of frustration, distraction, and unhappiness... only Johnson could have communicated this in precisely this accurate way.... interesting... tx....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it :) I must try and get more Johnson essays. I read this in a book of essays, it's called something odd... A Century of Essays or something, despite the fact that the essays come from different centuries...

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular Posts of the Month