AN ESSAY ON OLD MAIDS.
PART I. ON THE PARTICULAR FAILINGS OF OLD MAIDS.
CHAP. I. On the Situation and Treatment of Old Maids in general.
I WISHED to imitate the example of those philosophers who begin a new and elaborate work by the definition of some im|portant term, to secure themselves from the petty cavils which so frequently arise from ambiguity and misunderstanding.—I was apprehensive of being exposed to such cavils, Page 2 if I did not clearly ascertain the period when that state commences, which I have chosen for the subject of a moral essay; and from this apprehension, I was on the point of de|fining an Old Maid to be, an unmarried wo|man, who has compleated her fortieth year. Though idle witlings might have carped at my definition, as too loose to be strictly phi|losophical, I am convinced that every sober reader would have found it sufficiently pre|cise for our present purpose.
But, alas, I am afraid that every benevo|lent person, who begins a work to befriend any part of his species, must be surprised, as he advances, with unexpected difficulties. At the very outset of my present labour, I have been harrassed by so unforeseen and so dis|tressing a perplexity, that I think it expe|dient, for my own credit, to give a candid account of it to my readers. This per|plexity arose from my desire to fix, in the most unexceptionable manner, the aera of Old-Maidism; a phrase which I use, indeed, without authority: but, as I write on a new Page 3 branch of philosophy, let me vindicate the philosophical privilege of coining such new words as my original work may require.—I proceed to the account of my distress. In conversing with people of all ages, particu|larly of the female sex, I perceived they had very unsettled and discordant notions of the aera, which I hoped they would ena|ble me to ascertain. The misses of twenty considered all their unmarried friends, who had passed their thirtieth year, as absolute Old Maids; those of thirty supposed the aera to commence at about forty-five; and some ladies of fifty convinced me how dif|ferently they thought upon the subject, by calling others, about three or four years younger than themselves, by the infantine appellation of girls; from whence I pre|sumed they would advance the aera I speak of to the age of sixty at least. Finding it impossible to collect, from the different voices in the female world, one harmonious and satisfactory opinion, I had recourse to the most profound philosophers of my ac|quaintance; Page 4 but, alas, my embarrassment encreased in proportion to the number of the persons I consulted. One of these learned gentlemen, who, unfortunately for his own happiness, has as much scepticism as erudition, attempted to crush my whole philosophical work, by asserting, that Old Maids are absolute non-entities; and he in|sultingly defied me to produce a scientific demonstration of their existence. I soon left this licentious sceptic to the full enjoy|ment of his own sarcastical humour, and consulted an eminent physician of an oppo|site character, who had lately married an amiable lady of forty-three, and was just become, in consequence of that union, the happy father of a very promising boy. This more candid doctor pleaded with great energy against my giving the name of Old Maid to single ladies of forty; he as|serted that every female ought to be re|garded as in a juvenile state, while she has the power of conferring on a husband so lively a blessing as that which he had just Page 5 had the happiness of receiving. I felt all the weight of the living argument which this forcible reasoner produced against me. In this embarrassment, I resolved to sacrifice my philosophical accuracy to my politeness; and, instead of setting out with a positive definition, I shall decline the dangerous task of drawing the precise line where the epocha of Old-Maidism commences: but having observed that the world in general, who are far from possessing the energetic good-na|ture of my friend the doctor, never fail to give the unwelcome title of Old Maid to unmarried ladies of forty, I determined to comply, in some measure, with this com|mon and vulgar prejudice, in a dilemma where neither female wit nor masculine knowledge could afford me a satisfactory direction.
And let me observe, that by my conduct in this delicate point, I generously consult the interest of the good maidens, for whom I write, at the painful hazard of their dis|pleasure; for if they should affirm, what I Page 6 am by no means unwilling to allow, that a single lady of forty cannot with strict pro|priety be called an Old Maid, yet surely there is great chance of her being so in due course of time; if she is not a profest mem|ber of the sisterhood, she may certainly be regarded as a noviciate, and as such she is undoubtedly concerned in all the salutary admonitions addressed to that insulted yet respectable order.
At the age, then, when ladies allow them|selves to be forty, I desire my fair and single friends to consider themselves as standing, if not within the gates, at least upon the threshold of that community of which I treat. I request them to recollect what qualities and conduct will most become the character they are preparing to support; what will most effectually protect it from ridicule and reproach, alleviate its vexations, and en|crease its comforts. These are surely points, which it is their interest to study: it is my ambition to assist them in the attainment of this useful knowledge; and, if I am not de|ceived Page 7 by that species of benevolent illu|sion, to which a philosopher is peculiarly subject, they may render themselves both wiser and happier by the frequent perusal of these little volumes.
Let us take a survey of the circumstances which usually attend the Old Maid, at the time of her first acquiring that title. If she has received a polite education—and to such I address myself—it is probable, that after having passed the sprightly years of youth in the comfortable mansion of an opulent father, she is reduced to the shelter of some contracted lodging in a country town, attended by a single female servant, and with difficulty living on the interest of two or three thousand pounds, reluctantly, and perhaps irregularly, paid to her by an avaricious or extravagant brother, who considers such payment as a heavy incum|brance on his paternal estate. Such is the condition in which the unmarried daughters of English gentlemen are too frequently found. To support such a change of situ|ation, Page 8 with that chearfulness and content which several of these fair sufferers possess, requires a noble firmness, or rather dignity of mind; a quality which many illustrious men have failed to exhibit in a similar re|verse, and which ought therefore to be doubly honourable in these its more deli|cate possessors; particularly when we add, that the mortifications of their narrow for|tune must be considerably embittered by their disappointment in the great object of female hope. Without the minutest breach of delicacy, we may justly suppose, that it is the natural wish and expectation of every amiable girl, to settle happily in marriage; and that the failure of this expectation, from whatever causes it may arise, must be inevitably attended by many unpleasant, and many depressive sensations:
It was my good fortune to be present at an entertaining conversation between a lively married lady, not insensible to the burthen of a numerous family, whom I shall call Euphrasia, and a very amiable, but ra|ther elderly virgin, whom I shall distin|guish by the name of Maranthe. After they had discussed, with much vivacity and good-humour, the different comforts and troubles of their respective conditions;
The vexations of a contracted fortune, and the mortifying neglect with which the indigent are usually treated, however gall|ing to a generous mind, are not evils, per|haps, so productive of pain, as that coarse and contemptuous raillery, with which the ancient maiden is perpetually insulted. Ha|bit and discretion may teach her to be con|tented with a very scanty income, and a noble ingenuous pride is her natural remedy Page 17 against the wounds of neglect; but she seems utterly destitute of all adequate de|fence against her most provoking and most active enemy, the incessant impertinence of indelicate ridicule. How often does the amiable Old Maid smart under the flippant jocularity of the unfeeling rustic merchant, or the boorish 'squire, who never fail to comment on the variations of her counte|nance, repeatedly wonder why she does not get her a husband, and very kindly hint to her, with equal delicacy of sentiment and language, that if she does not take great care, she will slip out of the world without answering the end of her creation!
As I most cordially wish, that the sister|hood may be less pestered in future with such offensive pleasantry, I shall remark, that jests of this nature must proceed from a very unthinking head, or a very callous heart: we may rally, indeed, with some de|gree of reason and justice, the intemperate curiosity or affectation of an Old Maid; we may even chastise her impertinence or Page 18 ill-nature; but to sneer at the ancient vir|gin, merely because she has a claim to that title, is not only inconsistent with good-na|ture and good manners, but, in truth, a piece of cruelty as wanton and malicious as it is to laugh at the personal blemishes of any unfortunate being, who has been maimed by accident, or deformed from his birth. Just and obvious as this sentiment must appear, it occurs not to jokers of a certain class, who, having met with some ri|diculous Old Maids, are tempted to make the whole sisterhood their standing jest. Perhaps the particular failings, which are commonly imputed to the Old Maid in ge|neral, may be found to arise from the pe|culiarity of her situation, and the injurious treatment she receives from the world; a consideration, which, placing the character in a fairer point of view, will, I hope, be the occasion of its being treated more ten|derly. But, as I mean to consider these par|ticular failings distinctly, I shall now assign a separate chapter to each.
CHAP. II. On the Curiosity of Old Maids.
THE human mind is naturally active, and when its faculties are not called into rational exercise, by the interesting cares, or the elegant amusements, of domes|tic life, it is apt to perplex itself in the most idle pursuits and frivolous enquiries. The lady, who has little or no business to regulate, if she has unluckily failed to cul|tivate a passion for the pleasing occupa|tions of needle-work, drawing, music, or literature, is often reduced to the necessity of sending her thoughts abroad, and at last is rendered, by habit, a kind of perpetual spy on the conduct of her neighbours. Hence the curiosity of an Old Maid is be|come proverbial: and, as I consider it as one of the foibles which contribute most largely to the abasement of the character, I shall treat it with the severity it deserves.
Page 20The curious Old Maid is a restless being, whose insatiate thirst for information is an incessant plague both to herself and her ac|quaintance; her soul seems to be conti|nually flying, in a giddy circuit, to her eyes, ears, and tongue; she appears inflamed with a sort of frantic desire to see all that can be seen, to hear all that can be heard, and to ask more questions than any lips can utter. This raging solicitude for intelligence may be considered as a kind of mental fever; and, like other fevers, it is frequently brought on by petty habits of unregarded intemperance, by forming, in early life, no government over the tongue, but allowing it the fullest indulgence in every inquisitive and impertinent caprice. The guardians of female youth cannot caution their pupils too strongly against the dangerous custom of asking idle and insignificant questions; for a frivolous curiosity, though it amount not to vice, is, perhaps, the most offensive of all foibles; and, when it has rooted itself in the mind of an Old Maid, the most diffi|cult Page 21 to eradicate or subdue. Such curiosity is a kind of ravenous monster, which hangs upon its prey,
If any thing can tame this wild spirit of impertinent enquiry, in the curious Old Maid, it may be the knowledge of a truth, which I shall therefore most freely commu|nicate to her, and which, I dare say, her own experience will confirm; it is this— of all the qualities which can debase or counteract the natural attractions of wo|man, the foible, of which I am now speak|ing, is what our sex is most apt to fear and avoid. I have known a very amiable man, who had really no vices to conceal, take as much pains to shun an inquisitive Old Maid, as if he had been trying to es|cape the bite of a rattle-snake; and I have observed, that the character acts upon the generality of men as an object of antipathy. There are, however, a set of frolicksome Page 22 and daring blades, who are able to make this teazing impertinence of the ancient virgin a perpetual source of diversion. They sport with the curiosity of an Old Maid with that kind of fearless levity, by which a lively school-boy is sometimes tempted to play with an adder. I knew a sprightly gentleman of this humour, who, living in a country town, and having been long pestered by his opposite neighbours, two maidenly gentlewomen of the most in|quisitive spirit, contrived to render this provoking nuisance an eternal fund of en|tertainment. At first, indeed, they teazed him so much, by their constant practice of peeping and prying into every minute arti|cle of his domestic concerns, that, although he was naturally mild and benevolent, his temper was materially injured, and he could hardly mention his neighbours without ut|tering a vehement execration against their impertinence. But at length he began to speculate on the nature and the force of that inordinate passion, which could impel Page 23 two rational creatures, in the decline of life, to exert such indefatigable activity for the most trivial purposes. He diverted himself in framing a thousand little devices to try the full extent of this frivolous curiosity; and the avidity of their desire to know every thing which passed in his house, and the history of every individual who entered it, furnished him with the opportunity of putting their curiosity to innumerable trials. A particular account of these devices, and their success, would form too large an epi|sode for this little work; I shall mention, therefore, only one of his manoeuvres, which afforded him his most capital sport, and which he distinguished by the whimsi|cal phrase of
Trifling as it may appear, I am induced Page 32 to insert the preceding incident in this essay, by having remarked, on many different oc|casions, that of all the questions in familiar life, which the curious Old Maiden is tempted to ask, there is none which she utters with more frequency, or more eager|ness, than questions concerning the preg|nancy of her most common acquaintance. As I apprehend that the sisterhood, in walk|ing upon such tender ground, may be often galled and pelted by the scurvy jests of many merciless wags, I wish the amiable, though inquisitive Old Maid, to be cau|tioned by the foregoing anecdote, and to secure herself from such raillery, by applying for information of this sort to persons of her own sex, and in the hours of female re|tirement; assuring her, however, that it is only my intention to direct her in the mode of enquiry, and not to suppress her very innocent desire of being made acquainted with the progressive state of the world.
The gratification of curiosity, even in matters of little moment, is undoubtedly Page 33 pleasant; and, as I am very far from desir|ing to abridge the scanty pleasures of the Old Maid, I would wish her curiosity to be indulged in all points, where it has no ten|dency to disturb the tranquillity of others, or to bring the galling burthen of con|tempt and ridicule upon herself.
CHAP. III. On the Credulity of Old Maids.
IN the days of Addison, the credulity of superstition was reckoned among the most striking characteristics of the ancient virgin, as we learn from the excellent paper of that engaging moralist, on the most ab|surd and depressive of human follies.
"An Old Maid" (says the Spectator),
I must observe, however, to the credit of reason and philosophy, and to the honour of their most amiable and successful advo|cate, the great author whom I have quoted, that the superstitious follies of our country are almost eradicated. Such an antiquated sibyl as Addison painted, possibly from the life, is now, I think, very rarely to be found among us. In reckoning credulity among the peculiar foibles of the Old Maid, I mean a credulity diametrically opposite to that which he has so justly satirized; I mean a credulity, which busies itself with matter much more than with spirit, which, totally disregarding the incorporeal beings of another world, attaches itself to the most substantial living bodies of the earth we in|habit. The credulous Old Maid of the present time is one, who, instead of seeing apparitions in the vacancy of air, sees a lover in every man by whom she is civilly accosted, and, instead of hearing death-watches, Page 36 hears a hint at least, if not an offer of marriage, in every common compliment that is casually addressed to her. I have known some unfortunate ladies reduced to a deplorable condition by a very serious misconstruction of the most trivial and un|meaning civilities.
Let me remark, however, that the cre|dulous Old Maiden is seldom much affected by the loss of one imaginary lover; she is, generally speaking, a most active architect, supremely skilled in the ingenious and happy art of building castles in the air, and, as fast as one fabric of amorous illusion is demolished, she erects another in its place. Her life is a scene of perpetual and ever varying hope; and, as hope is one of the most lively passions, her temper is na|turally gay. Her head may be compared to one of those raree-shew-boxes, which are filled with splendid and successive pictures of one magnificent object: at the first peep you may discern the temple of Hymen; the structure presently vanishes, but disap|pears Page 37 only to make room for a more capti|vating view, either of the temple itself, or of some delightful avenue, which is termi|nated by the same noble edifice. The cre|dulous Old Maid has a memory completely stored with histories of love at first sight; she can recollect a thousand instances in real life, as well as romance, of ladies who have made the most sudden and fortunate conquests, by the simple and natural cir|cumstance of looking out of window, and she, therefore, devotes herself, with parti|cular assiduity, to this favourite amusement. I know a sprightly ancient virgin of this description, who, as constantly as my lord mayor's day returns, continues to plant herself in some conspicuous window of the city, and, as the festive procession advances in her sight, she is animated with the hope of wounding an alderman or a sheriff: she looks, indeed, on these occasions, as if she was thoroughly convinced, that the inces|sant fire of her eyes did prodigious execu|tion upon the passing crowd; yet, I believe, Page 38 if we except her intention, she is as per|fectly innocent of metaphorical man-slaugh|ter, as the honest man in armour, who forms a part of the cavalcade, is innocent of blood. Fruitless as the experiment has hi|therto proved, she is firmly persuaded, that her destiny has ordained her to captivate some unknown lover, by the graceful action of leaning from a window; and, I am cre|dibly informed, that she passed a great part of several nights in that position, at the time of those outrageous riots, which threa|tened to lay the metropolis in ashes. At the moment when other females of her neigh|bourhood had started from their beds, un|der the terrific ideas of murder and confla|gration, this happier fair one was observed to loiter in the most easy attitude, at her open sash, with the enlivening hope of striking some gallant hero, at the head of those military parties who then paraded the streets. Her night-dress was adjusted with peculiar elegance for this purpose, and she has ever since flattered herself with the as|surance Page 39 of having made a very deep im|pression on the heart of a certain captain of the guards, who kissed his hand to her at the time, and, according to her supposition, has only been prevented from a farther ex|planation of his love, by the unfortunate circumstance of his having a proud and in|tractable old peer for his father.
There is one danger, to which the cre|dulous Old Maid, if she happens to be rich, is particularly exposed; I mean, the very serious danger arising from those vigilant and assiduous gentlemen, 'ycleped fortune|hunters, who think themselves entitled to plunder an opulent and deluded female, in the character of a bridegroom. One of the most wretched examples (alas! I wish I could say the only one!) I ever knew of this fatal credulity, was the unfortunate Flaccilla.
Flaccilla was a good-natured Old Maid, who inherited an ample fortune at a late season of life, and possessed, from her childhood, a romantic turn of mind. She happened to pass some months, in autumn, Page 40 at the seat of a nobleman, to whom she was distantly related. The peer had lately re|ceived a new game-keeper into his service, a stout and enterprising son of Hibernia, who had seen, though under thirty, many vicissi|tudes of life, and had sustained the active parts of a travelling valet, a common soldier, and a strolling player, before he engaged in his present occupation. The lively Patrick soon contracted a great intimacy with the fair attendant of Flaccilla, who diverted him, in their vacant moments, by relating, with ludicrous humour, the whimsies of her lady. The ingenious Hibernian, who had founded his amusement on the foibles of the maid, now determined to build his for|tune on the foibles of the mistress. Having arrayed himself in his new suit of green, he surprised the tender Flaccilla alone, in a se|questered spot of her favourite wood, to which she delighted to retire, for the con|venience of devouring a new novel without interruption. Patrick soon prevailed on her to quit the visionary tale for a more en|gaging romance. In short, he persuaded Page 41 her, that he was the son of an Irish peer, in disguise, who had only submitted to his present humiliation to secure the extatic de|light, which he now enjoyed, of throwing himself at her feet. The steady impostor played his part with dexterity and success. The lady consented to elope—was married, and made miserable, before the activity of her friends could undeceive her. All, in|deed, that they were at last able to do for her was, to prevail on the reasonable Pa|trick to leave his wife to reflect on her cre|dulous imprudence, and to bargain for a chance of future tranquillity at the expence of her fortune. Some inconsiderable share of this, indeed, she was lucky enough to recover and retain; but her health and spirits were impaired by the disgrace of her adventure, and her latter years were embit|tered by unavailing repentance for her ab|surd credulity.
As the kind of credulity, which I am now speaking of, is often founded on the most arrogant and preposterous vanity, it is undoubtedly a fair subject for comic satire, Page 42 and it has not escaped the lash of our mo|dern dramatic authors. The spirited little comedy of two acts, entitled, The Old Maid, has exhibited such credulity in a very ludicrous and lively manner. This foible of the antiquated virgin can hardly be ex|posed with more ingenious or more poig|nant ridicule; I shall therefore proceed to consider it in the opposite point of view, and to shew, that this very foible, though rising to a high degree of absurdity, may still be an object more worthy of tenderness and pity, than of contempt and derision. Instead of being the offensive offspring of arrogance and vanity, it is frequently the mere baby of simplicity and benevolence: it often arises solely from the most natural and the most amiable of human wishes, the wish of being beloved; and, when its ori|gin is such, who would not be tender to the child for the sake of its parent? As hope is one of the most potent of our illu|sive passions, we cannot wonder, that the just and laudable hope of finding a husband should often cheat the most sensible of Page 43 maidens into an erroneous belief of having found him. How often does the philoso|pher delude himself in much clearer mat|ters, and where the silence of his heart af|fords him not so good an excuse for the confusion of his judgment! I have ob|served this easiness of belief, in some elderly virgins, so perfectly free from every other blemish, that I could not but lament the raillery to which it is exposed. I have seen it united with such frames, that, instead of deriding it as a human weakness, I have been almost led to regard it as a gift from heaven, to compensate for the misfortunes of deformity. The young and inconside|rate cannot be expected to view it in so se|rious a light; but, to caution them from the danger of treating it with such unin|tended cruelty as they may afterwards re|gret, I shall relate the brief history of a lady, whose fate was as singular as her per|son was unfortunate, and her character de|serving.
Harriot Aspin was the youngest of four Page 44 sisters, who in their childhood had all a prospect of passing through life with every advantage that beauty and fortune can be|stow. But destiny ordained it otherwise. The extravagance of their father abridged the portion of each, and the little Harriot had the additional affliction of personal ca|lamities. From a fall which her nurse oc|casioned, and concealed, she contracted a great degree of deformity; and the injuries that her frame had received from accident, were completed in what her countenance suffered from that cruel distemper, by which beauty was so frequently destroyed, before the happy introduction of inoculation. Her countenance and person were wretchedly disfigured; but her mind still possessed the most valuable of mental powers, and her heart was embellished by every generous affection. Her friends were many; but she had passed her fortieth year without once hearing the addresses of a single lover; yet the fancied whisper of this en|chanting passion often vibrated in her ear; Page 45 for, with a solid and brilliant understand|ing, she was deeply tinctured with this cre|dulous foible. As she advanced towards fifty, finding her income very narrow, and her situation unpleasant, she took shelter in the family of her favourite sister, married to a good-natured man of easy fortune; who, though he had several children, very readily allowed his wife to afford an asylum, and administer all the comforts in her power to this unfortunate relation.
The good deeds of benevolence rarely pass unrewarded. The obliging temper of Harriot, united to infinite wit and vivacity, contributed to restore the declining health of her sister, and enlivened the house, into which she was so kindly admitted. She endeared herself to every branch of it; but her second nephew, whose name is Edward, became her principal favourite, and re|turned her partiality with more esteem and affection than nephews are used to feel for an old maiden aunt. Indeed, there was a striking similarity in their characters, for Page 46 they both possessed a very uncommon por|tion of wit, with extreme generosity and good-nature. Harriot had the most per|fect penetration into the foibles of every character but her own, and had the art of treating them with such tender and salutary mirth, that she preserved her nephew, whose constitution was amorous and vain, from a thousand follies, into which the giddiness of his passions would otherwise have betrayed him; and, what is still more to her honour, when he was really fallen into some juvenile scrape, which sometimes would happen, she never failed to assist him, both with secret advice, and the private aid of such little sums of money as she always contrived to save from her slender income, for the most generous of purposes. By her last benefi|cence of this nature, she had enabled her nephew to redeem his gold watch, which Edward, who stood in awe of his father, had actually pawned, to deliver a poor and unfortunate girl from a spunging-house.
Page 47It was almost impossible not to love a maiden aunt of so engaging a character; and Edward, whose affections were natu|rally ardent, loved her, indeed, most sin|cerely; but his penetration discovered her foible, and the vivacity of his spirit often tempted him to sport with it. Hitherto, however, he had done so in the most harm|less manner; but a circumstance arose, which fully proved the danger of this ordi|nary diversion. Edward, being a younger brother, was designed for the profession of physic. He had studied at Edinburgh, and, returning from thence to London, had brought with him a medical friend, who was a native of Savoy, and was preparing to settle as a physician at Turin. In the gaiety of his heart, Edward informed his aunt Harriot, that he had provided her with a husband; and he enlarged on the excellent qualities of his friend. The Sa|voyard was extremely polite, and, either attracted by the pleasantry of her conver|sation, or touched with medical pity for the Page 48 striking infelicity of her distorted frame, he had paid particular attention to Miss Aspin; for, being yet under fifty, she had not as|sumed the title of Mrs. This particular attention was full sufficient to convince the credulous Harriot, that her nephew was se|rious; but she was unluckily confirmed in that illusion, by his saying to her one even|ing,
CHAP. IV. On the Affectation of Old Maids.
IN the list of those foibles which most frequently expose their possessor to ridi|cule and contempt, we may justly place af|fectation; it assumes, indeed, a thousand different shapes, but in whatever form it appears, it is so far from obtaining the af|fection or the applause, which it anxiously solicits, that it is sometimes observed to render even youth and beauty disgusting. What then must its influence be, when it obtrudes itself upon our sight in the stiff fi|gure, and with the hard features, of the an|tiquated virgin? Yet the situation of the Old Maid has, perhaps, a particular ten|dency to produce and cherish this foible. Having found that her natural charms have not, in the short period of their bloom, been so fortunate as she wished, she may easily be tempted to affect, either such graces as she retains no longer, or such new Page 55 attractions as she thinks may become her maturer season of life. A minute observer may perceive many different kinds of af|fectation in this single character; but I shall confine myself to three, which I have par|ticularly remarked in the sisterhood; and these are, an affectation of youth, an affec|tation of a certain censorial importance, and an affectation of extreme sensibili|ty. The first, if not the most ridiculous, is, I think, the most common. We can|not enter an assembly-room, without seeing many virgins of this description, who, with the heavy wing of the beetle, affect the sportive motions of the butterfly. The kind-hearted Old Maid, who considers age as the great obstacle to that tender con|nection which is the object of her just de|sire, is tempted to hazard every expedient to conceal the advances of this inexorable power. But age is a jealous tyrant, and every effort of the faded virgin to proclaim herself free from its influence, tends only to make her feel the utmost severity of its do|minion. Page 56 I therefore entreat the sisterhood to reflect, that every injudicious and unsea|sonable attempt to please, is generally pro|ductive of disgust. I advise them to avoid every kind of personal decoration, which custom has in any degree appropriated to youth, and, above all, the use of pink ri|bands, to which they have a particular pro|pensity. A wag of my acquaintance de|clares, that he looks upon every Old Maid, who arrays herself in ornaments of this co|lour, as a vessel displaying signals of distress, and inviting every bold adventurer to hasten to her relief; but, as the cruelty of man is apt to contemplate distress, of this nature without a particle of generous sym|pathy, the pink ensign, on these occasions, is commonly hoisted in vain. Indeed, the juvenile Old Maid, if I may use such an expression, is so perfectly blind to her real interest, that she often condemns herself to the very state she is trying to avoid, by ex|changing the natural charms, which she might still exert with success, for the artifi|cial Page 57 attractions which she is eager to ac|quire. Cosmelia will, I fear, be an unfor|tunate example of this melancholy truth. It has been the perverse destiny of this lady, to lose all the advantages that might be ex|pected from superior endowments. She has appeared, through life, to despise the powers she possessed, and endeavoured to fix her empire by those she had not. In youth, her person and features were su|premely handsome; but at nineteen she was a beautiful pedant, whose tongue inces|santly counteracted the influence of her eyes. She then neglected her dress, in a disgusting degree, to devote herself, with an absurd assiduity, to the acquisition of lan|guages. These, indeed, she attained; but the chief effect she produced by her learn|ing was, to frighten her young acquaint|ance, and astonish an old schoolmaster by her marvellous intimacy with the dialects of Greece.
Cosmelia is now forty-seven. Her mind is enriched by a long commerce with the Page 58 best of ancient and modern authors, and her person is still very handsome; but her beauty and her knowledge seem to be ren|dered ineffectual by her rage for appearing young. She now labours to conceal her erudition, with an affectation superior to what she formerly shewed in displaying it. Notwithstanding her early disposition to pedantry, in the tender graces of epistolary writing she is hardly inferior to the marchi|oness de Sevigné; but this enchanting ta|lent she very rarely exerts; for she unluckily thinks, that, at her present time of life, a smooth skin is more worthy of care and im|provement, than a lively imagination.
Instead, therefore, of employing her pen in the composition of such letters as would delight her friends, she deserts her corre|spondents, and devotes a great portion of her time to the more interesting occupation of tickling her own forehead with a greasy feather. Qualified as she is to receive pleasure from books, she hardly ever adds a volume to her collection; but expends as Page 59 much money as might purchase an elegant library, in amassing all the various washes that are said either to give or to preserve a very delicate complexion. She examines the advertisements for a new lotion for the face, with as much avidity as the curious Old Maid discovers in looking into the list of marriages. Having tried all that the newspapers have celebrated, from the Milk of Roses to the Olympian Dew; as their effects, however, seldom correspond with her wishes, she is often tempted to try new inventions of her own, and she fre|quently watches the simmer of a little pipkin, with as much eagerness and an|xiety as the alchymist used to exhibit over the vessel that he expected to teem with his imaginary gold: I might add, indeed, with similar success; for, whether devices of this kind have little or no efficacy in themselves, or whether her raging passion for a clear countenance makes the strongest cosmetic appear defective, she never at|tempts to render herself more fair, but she Page 60 grows more discontented with her com|plexion. Such attempts, by leading her to look more frequently in her mirror, only confirm her more and more in that most grievous apprehension, that she cannot ap|pear quite so young as she wishes to be thought. This apprehension seems to haunt her like an evil genius, and is for ever marring all the natural grace, both of her words and actions. In moments when she had just enchanted a little party of friends by her various talents, I have seen this un|fortunate foible start up, and dissolve the spell of pleasure in an instant; so that the persons who had for some time heard and beheld her with the highest admiration, began to survey her with an odd mixture of pity and derision, which nothing but the deference due to her sex and character in|duced them to conceal. This oppressive dread of not appearing young, which is, in|deed, for ever present to her fancy, was re|markably conspicuous the other day, when she sat for her picture to oblige a relation. Page 61 When she cast her eye upon the sketch, after the first sitting, in which the painter, to secure a likeness, had given peculiar strength to his outline, her vexation arose to agony; she apprehended, that all the spectators of her portrait would read the horrid words, forty-seven, in every line of her countenance. This idea continued to prey on her mind to such a degree, that when she ascended a second time into the sitting chair of the painter, her features ex|hibited more visible terror, than those lovely victims, Anne Boleyn and the Queen of Scots, are said to have discovered when they mounted the block. Indeed, though her head was secure, she considered herself as going to lose in effigy the most precious part of it, namely, that fictitious expression of youth, which she had incessantly la|boured to preserve; and her dread of this loss arose to such an astonishing height, that she had certainly fallen into an hyste|rical fit, if an early peep at the improve|ment of the painter had not happily re|lieved Page 62 her. His penetration had discovered her foible; and, as he had known her inti|mately in her bloom, he generously called his recollection to his aid, and gave, as he advanced, so youthful an air to her face, that it harmonised with the wreath of roses, and all the juvenile decorations with which she had requested him to adorn her resem|blance. Her raptures encreased with the encreasing beauty of the portrait, which became so young and lovely in the last sitting, that the lady gazed upon her own image with such doating delight as almost entitled her to the name of an old Nar|cissus in petticoats.
I have dwelt the longer on this foible of Cosmelia's, because it overshadows the lustre of a brilliant understanding, and a warm benevolent heart; it is a sort of ma|lady, which, though wretched in its effects, if permitted to gain ground, appears at present to admit of a very easy cure. Let her cease to think of her own age, and the idea of it will never occur unpleasantly to Page 63 the imagination of others. If she could her|self once forget, that she is turned of forty, she has a thousand attractions by which she might make any man forget it, whose recol|lection of so unpleasant a circumstance she might particularly wish to prevent. Let her discard the artificial affectation of youth, and she will find herself amply furnished with native powers to engage both esteem and affection; for (if a prosaic writer may be allowed to alter a verse of Pope for his convenience) we may affirm that Cosmelia
This is by no means the case with the second kind of affectation, which I have engaged to consider, as being frequently found in the sisterhood; I mean the affec|tation of censorial importance. The af|fected Old Maid of this character, instead of endeavouring to appear more airy and frolicsome than time allows her to be, as|sumes all the dignity of advanced life, and affects to survey, and to comment upon, the Page 64 world with the asperity of a Cato. The censorial spirit, that I now speak of, is en|tirely distinct from envy and ill-nature, which are to form the subjects of my fol|lowing chapter. I cannot more clearly ex|plain the peculiarities of this affectation, than by a little description of Altamira, as she is the most striking example of the foible that ever came within the scope of my observation. Altamira is a tall virgin of forty-two, of a lank and pale visage, and with a neck as long and meagre as that of Cicero, whom she also resembles, not in|deed in the force and elegance, but in the length and volubility, of her orations; for, unluckily, having a barrister for her cousin, she has learnt to harangue on the real and imaginary failings of her acquaintance, with all the formality, and with all the as|surance, of a lawyer. She is frequently ob|served, in a large circle, stretching forth all her length of neck, to question some distant lady concerning the minute circumstances of a suspected intrigue, or to inveigh against Page 65 the irregularities of some person, who is ac|cidentally mentioned, and of whose cha|racter she has no real knowledge. It is hardly possible to behold her in this posi|tion, without comparing her to a poor goose upon a common, who hisses at every passenger without any provocation, without any design to wound, and apparently with|out any purpose, but that of shewing the awkwardness of its figure, and the disso|nance of its voice.
Envy and malevolence are such active principles, that we are never surprised, when persons under their influence indulge themselves in descanting on the frailties of their acquaintance: but Altamira is neither envious nor malignant; she is uncommonly tall, and, as she luckily thinks that a tall woman is the finest female production of nature, she sees nothing to envy in the per|sons of the little women around her, and looks down upon the comparative pigmies with a kind of complacent contempt. The peculiar elevation of her own figure mis|leads Page 66 her into a mistaken estimate of her own sex; but the superior elevation of her mind renders her perfectly just towards ours. She does not appear to think, that the graces and talents of man are at all dependent on his size or stature; and, so far from despising any of her male acquaint|ance, because he is shorter than herself, she has the good-nature and condescension to stoop, for a salute, to the most diminutive of men.
I was once inclined to impute her offen|sive affectation of censorial dignity to the mere habit of haranguing, which she acci|dentally caught from her cousin at the bar; or to a nobler motive, namely, that ardent admiration of virtue, which frequently leads its possessor into spirited, though injudicious invectives against the supposed adherents of vice: but my friend Sophronius, who loves to investigate every nice discrimination of character, and is very shrewd in his remarks upon the sex, corrected my mistake. In our discourse concerning the foible of Al|tamira, Page 67 "You have surely attended little to human nature," said my friend, "if you can seriously believe that Altamira's incessant invectives against dissipation and inconti|nence, proceed from that purity and recti|tude of mind, which feels and delights in contemplating both the beauty and the bene|ficence of all the temperate virtues. If you study her character more attentively, you will discover, that the reverse of your idea is much nearer the truth. She perpetually declaims against the intrigues of inconti|nence, because, under the mask of such de|clamation, she acquires the privilege of treating her own fancy with those licentious images, on which it loves to dwell; and, believe me, there are many preachers of her order in the same predicament."
Whether Sophronius was perfectly right in this sarcastic censure, I will not pretend to determine; but I think his remark may be of service to the sisterhood, and I hope it will caution them against launching forth into such intemperate orations as those of Page 68 Altamira, by shewing them the construction to which her eloquence is exposed.
But I quit this affected censor in petti|coats, to consider an affectation of a more gentle and insinuating nature, I mean the affectation of extreme sensibility. The Old Maid is frequently tempted to counterfeit this superlative delicacy of feeling. I know a tender virgin of about forty-six, who, having read in divers poems and romances, that woman is irresistible in tears, has some|how contrived to form an inexhaustible re|servoir of water in the neighbourhood of her eyes, and, to captivate every new ac|quaintance, she plays off those two radiant fountains as readily as the master of a French garden entertains every foreign visitant by an occasional shower from his favourite jet d'eau: the lady, indeed, has this great ad|vantage over the gardener, that her watery exhibition is never obstructed by accident; she can at all seasons command both the shower and the apt occasion to introduce it; she can pluck a withering flower from the Page 69 nosegay in her bosom, and drop a tear of tenderness in remarking the transient beau|ties of vegetation; or, if she finds not any occasion to weep, she can talk of the soft|ness of her own heart, and bring forth her tears by only thinking of the facility with which she can produce them.
Nor does this affectation appear only in a superfluity of tears; it divides itself into many minute branches, and all the little airs and apprehensions of prudery may be referred to this source. I shall not, how|ever, descend to a particular examination of these, but confine myself to a single view of this foible in one of its most whimsical shapes, I mean a preposterous fondness for the irrational parts of the creation. When the Old Maid has no real or imaginary lover, on whom she can display this affected tenderness, she is sometimes contented to take a lap-dog, a parrot, or a monkey, as the object of her caresses; or, if she does not think a single irrational companion a sufficient substitute for the noble creature of Page 70 reason, she collects a group of animals, and lavishes upon them those delicate endear|ments, which she has no opportunity of be|stowing upon man.
Orniphila is a lady who entertains her acquaintance with the most sumptuous dis|play of this foible; for she is unluckily pos|sessed of such opulence, as enables her to indulge her most extravagant caprice. Or|niphila was extremely handsome in her youth, and, as she inherited both fortune and beauty, she would probably have settled happily in marriage, had not the affectation of superlative sensibility rendered her more an object of ridicule than of desire. She had the misfortune to fancy, that true deli|cacy consists in an apparent debility of nerves, and she therefore, with the figure of an Amazon, affected the timidity of a fairy. No ghost could start with greater trepidation at the crowing of a cock. On the sudden beat of a drum, she would throw herself into a kind of convulsion; and she has frequently wished, that Heaven had Page 71 made her the inhabitant of some more tran|quil globe, on which the air is never wounded by any sound more powerful than the notes of a nightingale. This gentle|ness of disposition did not, as the lady might possibly wish, induce any sympathetic swain to amuse her with the soothing whis|pers of love. She became an Old Maid; and, as she approached the age of forty, perceiving that she wanted something to caress, she began to provide herself with a train of animals, which she has enlarged to such a degree, that her house is a kind of little ark, though I believe it tends rather to de|stroy, than to preserve, the life of the various creatures it admits. Whether she is of|fended by that neglect which she has expe|rienced from mankind, or whether a passion for animals annihilates our regard towards our own species, may admit of dispute; but it is certain, that her attachment to birds, dogs, and monkies, which has grown, per|haps, from an affected tenderness into a real passion, appears to have rendered Orniphila Page 72 utterly insensible to the merit of human na|ture. She professes to have an aversion to children, because she is distracted by their noise; yet, so inconsistent is affectation, she has chosen for her constant companion, and even for her bedfellow, a great surly Pome|ranian dog, whose incessant barking is more offensively loud than the most noisy infant that ever squalled in a cradle! She has many nephews and nieces, to whom little presents of money would be very accept|able; but Orniphila will not bestow even a crown to treat one of these children with a play; yet she will frequently throw away a guinea to purchase a little fruit from a hot-house, as a delicious indulgence to her old talking parrot.—Our foibles, like our vices, are very fruitful sources of vexation and distress; and I happened to be an ocular witness of a very heavy punishment, which accident inflicted on the unamiable weak|ness of Orniphila. As she does me the honour to rank me among her distant re|lations, and as she thinks I have some Page 73 knowledge of natural history, she lately sent me a very pressing invitation to tea, that she might consult me on a new foreign bird just presented to her by one of her dependents. I was pleased to find two of her nieces, and their brother, admitted to her tea-table. The girls, who are almost women, were going from school to their parents in the country. The boy, a lively lad of thirteen, was just arrived from Eton, to escort his sisters, and appeared to divert himself not a little with the oddities of his aunt. She is always seen, like Circe, sur|rounded with animals. A few tame little birds, who fly unconfined about her cham|ber, are generally perched on her shoulder or her cap; the fat Pomeranian, when he is not growling, reposes at her feet; and a large squirrel occasionally peeps from her pocket, as he is indulged with a kind of banquetting-house under her hoop: but of all the creatures who usually reside in her room, the most striking is a very large and magnificent, but ill-tempered mackaw. Page 74 The two girls had contemplated the fine plumage of this bird with great admiration, which he appeared to return; for, allured perhaps by an ornament of flowers which she wore in her cap, he hopped, on a sud|den, from his stand upon the head of the eldest. The poor girl was exceedingly alarmed, and her brother hastened, with in|finite good-humour, to her relief. He, at first, endeavoured to remove the bird very gently; but the mackaw did not chuse to relinquish his prize, and, in a scuffle which ensued, tore off the thumb-nail of his oppo|nent. In the keen resentment, which this violent anguish produced, the young Eto|nian exerted all his strength, and wrung off the neck of his antagonist, without a single reflection on the feelings of his aunt. Or|niphila, who was utterly unaffected by the wound of her nephew, fell into extreme agonies on beholding the mangled body of her favourite bird; and, leaving all her guests to take such care as they could of themselves, she summoned her servants to Page 75 convey her instantly to bed, for the cala|mity rendered her unable to support her own frame. I have not seen her since, and nothing, I believe, will ever tempt me to visit her again, as I hear that, instead of atoning for her ill behaviour, she sent for her lawyer the next morning, and made him erase from her will the name of the spirited youth, who had excited her implacable re|sentment by ridding the world of her mis|chievous mackaw. But if this little book engages her attention, as I intend it shall, I trust it may induce her to correct her in|justice, and to double the legacy which she so hastily cancelled.
I shall here take an opportunity of doing justice to my old acquaintance Petraea, who is supposed, by many people, to be a per|fect model of the refined affectation which I am now considering, and to boast of ex|quisite sensibility, with a heart harder than marble.
Petraea is perpetually engaged by a tra|gedy or a novel, which she reads with infi|nite Page 76 avidity, and a profusion of tears: you would suppose her, in these moments, the open-handed daughter of pity; but, if the ideal hero or heroine, whose distresses have convulsed her bosom with sympathy, could start into real life, and ask the sympathetic Petraea for five shillings, there would be an end of her sympathy; her open heart would contract, and become as closely puckered up as her purse. Yet the tenderness of Petraea is not affectation, as I once erro|neously believed. Having studied her with attention, I am at length convinced, that her tender feelings are genuine, and that her true character, which is that of huma|nity, will always shew itself in its natural colours, except when it is overclouded by avarice, that cold and gloomy passion, which is not only apt to steal over advanced life, but to prevail more in celibacy than in wedlock! It was the following little inci|dent which confirmed my present opinion of Petraea:—During one of my visits to her, a clergyman came in, whom we both Page 77 esteem as a man of veracity and virtue. He told a story of singular distress, that had just befallen a family not unknown to us. The facts were well related, and the lady was much affected; but, in the close of his narration, the good man happening to drop a compassionate hint of a five guinea sub|scription, the gushing tears of Petraea were suddenly dispersed; her eyes became se|vere; her lips, pale and trembling, began to mutter doubts concerning the worthi|ness which she had just acknowledged; she then entered on a nonsensical disserta|tion on the frequency of impostures, and the propriety of people's suffering for im|prudence.
The sensible divine perceived the rock on which his charitable hopes were now splitting; and, avoiding it with great dex|terity, he pointed out to her a line of con|duct, in which her weight and interest might relieve the distressed family without expending a shilling. The heart of Petraea now opened again; she cordially promised Page 78 her assistance, and ultimately succeeded in the plan proposed, though it was attended with infinite trouble, which she uniformly supported with benevolent chearfulness and charitable pleasure.
I must not close a chapter on affectation, without a few remarks on one species of this foible, which deserves my particular attention, not only as being peculiar to Old Maids, but as having a great tendency to injure such well-meaning authors as my|self, who, in treating subjects of extreme nicety, are unavoidably exposed to all the frowns and grimaces of prudish miscon|struction.
I mean the affectation of superlative de|licacy, both in sentiments and language. Many pure and prim virgins are betrayed, by this foible, into very ludicrous distress; they discover indecency in the most inno|cent expressions, and then distort their stiff features at the terrific grossness of their own misconception: they exemplify, in the most striking manner, the maxim of Swift, that Page 79 nice persons are full of nasty ideas. In|deed, the head of the over-delicate Old Maid may be aptly compared to the foul cask, in which, according to the expression of Horace, the purest infusion immediately turns sour. By ladies of this description, a word of the most harmless signification is considered as obscene, and the language of religion herself is arraigned, as fit only for a brothel.
The most consummate model, that I can recollect, of this common character, the over-delicate Old Maid, is a lady, who has been distinguished, for some years, among her acquaintance, by the appellation of Miss Delia Dainty. From her unparal|leled delicacy she has obtained the rare privilege of preserving the title of Miss to the advanced age of seventy. The extreme nicety of her ideas was displayed by the fol|lowing little incident, at the age of thirty|two: —Her father, a rich, honest, and rough country gentleman, inherited, from a more elegant uncle, a noble house, with Page 80 some admirable statues. In compliment to the ladies who visited at this mansion, the former master of it, a man of the politest manners, had thrown a little veil over every part of his marble treasures, where he thought the extreme freedom of ancient art could excite any painful surprise in the modest fair ones of his neighbourhood. When the father of Miss Dainty succeeded to these possessions, the statues remained in this decent state: it had been thought, that modesty herself could require nothing more; but Delia, who examined these fine works of antiquity with uncommon attention, discovered a beautiful marble greyhound unprovided with a veil. As the animal was sitting in a very quiet position, his late master had never entertained an idea, that any eye could be startled at his appearance; but calm as the creature sat, he alarmed the chaste eyes of Delia, and her extreme deli|cacy induced her to furnish him with a little apron of paper. The honest 'squire, her father, soon discovered the strange apparel on Page 81 his favourite statue, and rallied his daughter rather coarsely on her new invention, as he called it, of putting a dog into breeches. It was reported, at the time, that the consi|derate 'squire (who was very familiar and jocose with a facetious divine, that lived with him as a chaplain) made the doctor an immediate offer of his daughter, with a handsome portion. The story went farther, and it was said, that the divine, who lived in the habit of returning his patron's jocu|larity, thanked him for the honour, but begged leave to decline it, declaring that he could never venture on so delicate a wife, since he apprehended, that a lady, who required such decorum from a hound in marble, would hardly allow her husband to wear his nose uncovered.
I will not vouch for the truth of this anecdote; but it is certain, not only that Miss Dainty has remained unmarried, but that she has exerted her delicacy, on all oc|casions, in passing a severe censure on the language of clergymen; who are very apt, Page 82 she says, even in the pulpit, to run into im|modest allusions. It was in consequence of this wonderful nicety of apprehension, that she once sent her Abigail, with an angry message to the young curate of her parish, reprimanding him for having used the word carnal in his last sermon, and commanding him never to wound her ears any more by so gross an expression. It happened, I think, about the forty-third year of her life, that she refused subscribing to the charity for the propagation of the gospel, because the directors of that pious and noble institution insulted, she said, every chaste and refined ear, by using a word so very gross as the term propagation. The clergyman, who applied to her on this oc|casion, was both piqued and diverted by her refusal to contribute; and, possessing a considerable share of satyrical humour, he thought proper to punish her uncharitable delicacy by an epigram, which was eagerly circulated among the lady's acquaintance. Page 83 With this unpublished little piece of poe|tical raillery I shall terminate this chapter.
EPIGRAM ON MISS DELIA DAINTY.
CHAP. V. On the Envy and Ill-nature of Old Maids.
I HAVE hitherto considered only those foibles in the ancient virgin, which ex|pose her to derision; I am now to speak of more serious defects, of qualities which ne|ver fail to render their unhappy possessor an object of abhorrence. It is a common idea, I hope I may call it a vulgar preju|dice, that Old Maids are peculiarly infected with envy and ill-nature; and this general opinion may partly account for the extreme cruelty which the sisterhood has experi|enced, for their being universally treated, according to the observation of a great moralist, "as the refuse of the world." Little, indeed, would be their claim to compassion and regard, if they were par|ticularly distinguished by these detestable characteristics; but I am firmly persuaded, Page 85 that, in the circle of every one's acquaint|ance, many individuals of this order may be found, who are not only free from the vices in question, but eminently graced with the very opposite virtues. If, in speaking of Old Maids collectively, we must allow them to be envious, we may at least apologise for the sisterhood, by ob|serving, that they are not more envious than every class of beings who stand in a similar predicament. In the fine arts, it has been remarked through every age, that envy rarely fails to infect the tribe of un|successful adventurers. In painting and sculpture, in music, and every branch of li|terature, the most exquisite productions of applauded genius have been insulted by the envious and malevolent strictures of disap|pointed vanity. Now, the fair sex may be considered as students in the most impor|tant and the most delicate of all arts, the art of pleasing; and, of course, the Old Maid may be reckoned in the number of unsuccessful artists, when she has lost the Page 86 chance of obtaining the golden chain of Hymen, that honourable prize, which she has probably exerted her utmost skill to acquire, and which is generally bestowed on every tolerable proficient in the art that she endeavoured to practise.
Considered in this point of view, the Old Maid has generally a more reasonable ground for discontent and invective, than the neglected painter or poet. The ap|plause of the public is not often mis|placed: those laurel wreaths, which are the chief incitements, and frequently the sole rewards, of genius, are commonly be|stowed by the hand of justice herself; but the chaplets of Hymen are promiscuously distributed by interest, ambition, and ca|price. The mortified and necessitous artist, who vents his spleen against his successful and opulent rival, is generally guilty of in|justice and detraction against talents and industry far superior to his own; but the Old Maid, who is betrayed into envious expressions concerning the comforts and Page 87 the splendor of the married dame, has often a better title to those comforts and that splendor, than the more fortunate lady by whom she sees them possessed.
Let us run this parallel a little farther, it will be found yet more to the advantage of the ancient virgin.
The failing artist is hardly ever wounded or provoked by the insolent or contume|lious behaviour of an exalted antagonist. There is a magnanimity in true genius, more inclined to pity the vexations, and to relieve the necessities, than to deride the weakness and incapacity of his unsuccessful competitors. It is just the reverse with the unfortunate Old Maid: her solitary distress, and her curious ignorance, are for ever in|sulted by the supercilious knowledge, and the arrogant importance, of many luckier females, initiated in those splendid and ho|nourable mysteries, to which she is unhap|pily a stranger.
From the preceding view of their pe|culiar hardships and provocations, I may Page 88 venture to assert, that a slight tincture of envy is more pardonable in the sisterhood, than in any class of beings whatever.
I mean not to appear as the apologist of envy, when it exerts its most baneful in|fluence, and bursts out into active malig|nity. When it grows to this height, it is at once the most absurd and the most odious of vices; absurd, because it pursues torment for pleasure, and odious, as the enemy of all social delight. It certainly deserves no quarter wherever it may be found, and particularly none when it exists among the sisterhood, because there is hardly a creature to be found on the earth more detestable in itself, and more perni|cious to all around it, than the active and officious Old Maid, who is for ever goaded by this malignant passion.
Envy is a disease most prevalent in vain, in narrow, and uncultivated minds; and I have observed, that the most envious of the ancient virgins are generally persons who, in their youth, have amused themselves Page 89 with the most haughty expectations, in con|sequence either of personal or pecuniary advantages. As the finest Burgundy, when spoiled, produces the most poignant vine|gar, the superannuated beauty turns into the sharpest and most acrimonious Old Maid; her ill-nature, in declining life, is proportioned to that proud and imaginary value which she vainly set upon her youth|ful graces. The neglect that those graces have experienced, is an injury which ran|kles perpetually in her heart, and which she is ever trying to revenge upon the world at large: she has all the vindictive malevo|lence of Juno, and would gladly plunge the whole universe in dissention and misery, because she thinks herself defrauded of that provoking fruit, which she considered as due to her imperious beauty.
There is no situation, where a being of this restless nature may not exert, with a very mischievous effect, her malignant ac|tivity: but a country town is the proper theatre of the envious Old Maid; a theatre, Page 90 where she frequently exhibits a busy and bold malevolence, little inferior to that which Milton has so finely made the cha|racteristic of Satan! If she happens to be rich, she rivals the arch-fiend in dignity, as well as in rancour, and has a splendid pan|daemonium to receive those subordinate spirits, who are the ready ministers of her diabolical pleasure: nor is it less the busi|ness of this assembly, than of the Miltonic pandaemonium, to wage an insidious war against heaven, by attacking the lovely works of the Creator, and attempting to destroy the happiness of innocence and beauty.
The envious Old Maid is a complete proficient in the black art of detraction; and, if she possesses both opulence and wit, all the evils that the ignorance of the dark ages imputed to witchcraft, are inferior to those which her malicious spirit has the power of producing. Her tongue is armed with a corrosive venom, and, by its insi|dious application, she delights in dissolving Page 91 the ties of ancient friendship, in annihilat|ing the festive bands of Hymen at the mo|ment of their formation, and in poisoning all the fountains of social pleasure.
She may be justly reckoned a real sor|ceress, who surpasses, in malicious power, the most terrific of all the fabulous en|chanters. But it is not easy to give a per|fect description of the many mysterious spells, by which she incessantly pursues the gratification of her malice. Her favourite and most successful instruments of mischief are anonymous letters, those insidious de|stroyers of domestic peace, written under the false pretence of a friendly concern for the very persons whom they are really in|tended to harrass and torment! From the subtle fabrication of such letters, a lovely and innocent girl is abridged of her liberty by a rigorous and deluded parent; a lover is led to mistrust the fidelity of his mistress; and the fairest blossoms of affection are shaken suddenly to the ground by the hand of that cunning envy, which, working for Page 92 ever in the dark, is rarely punished by a complete detection.
There are a thousand petty modes of defamation, which derive astonishing in|fluence from the ingenious acuteness of the sarcastic Old Maid. I have known a ma|levolent hag, of this order, contrive to sully a very fair reputation, without uttering a syllable, by one significant glance of her eye, and an artful shake of her head. This lady, indeed, possessed an uncommon bit|terness of spirit; and, as one anecdote of her life may afford an useful lesson to some of her sisterhood, I shall introduce her to the acquaintance of my reader, under the title of Mrs. Winifred Wormwood.
Mrs. Wormwood was the daughter of a rustic merchant, who, by the happy union of many lucrative trades, amassed an enor|mous fortune. His family consisted of three girls, and Winifred was the eldest: long before she was twenty, she was surrounded with lovers, some probably attracted by the splendid prospect of her expected portion, Page 93 and others truly captivated by her personal graces; for her person was elegant, and her elegance was enlivened with peculiar vi|vacity. Mr. Wormwood was commonly called a kind parent, and an honest man; and he might deserve, indeed, those ho|nourable appellations, if it were not a pro|fanation of language to apply them to a narrow and a selfish spirit. He indulged his daughters in many expensive amuse|ments, because it flattered his pride; but his heart was engrossed by the profits of his extensive traffic: he turned, with the most repulsive asperity, from every proposal that could lead him to diminish his capital, and thought his daughters unreasonable, if they wished for any permanent satisfaction above that of seeing their father increase in opu|lence and splendor. His two younger children, who inherited from their deceased mother a tender delicacy of frame, lan|guished and died at an early period of life, and the death of one of them was imputed, with great probability, to a severe disap|pointment Page 94 in her first affection. The more sprightly Winifred, whose heart was a per|fect stranger to genuine love, surmounted the mortification of seeing many suitors discarded; and, by the insensate avarice of her father, she was naturally led into habits of artifice and intrigue. Possessing an un|common share of very shrewd and piercing wit, with the most profound hypocrisy, she contrived to please, and to blind, her plod|ding old parent; who perpetually harangued on the discretion of his daughter, and be|lieved her a miracle of reserve and pru|dence, at the very time when she was sus|pected of such conduct as would have dis|qualified her, had it ever been proved, for the rank she now holds in this essay. She was said to have amused herself with a great variety of amorous adventures, which eluded the observation of her father; but of the many lovers, who sighed to her in secret, not one could tempt her into mar|riage, and, to the surprise of the public, the rich heiress of Mr. Wormwood reached the Page 95 age of thirty-seven, without changing her name. Just as she arrived at this mature season of life, the opulent old gentleman took his leave of a world, in which he had acted a busy part, pleased with the idea of leaving a large fortune, as a monument of his industry, but wanting the superior satis|faction, which a more generous parent would probably have derived from the happy estab|lishment of a daughter. He gained, how|ever, from the hypocrisy of Winifred, what he could not claim from her affection, the honour of being lamented with a profusion of tears. She distinguished herself by dis|playing all the delicate gradations of filial sorrow; but recovered, at a proper time, all the natural gaiety of her temper, which she had now the full opportunity of in|dulging, being mistress of a magnificent mansion, within a mile of a populous town, and enabled to enliven it with all the arts of luxury, by inheriting such accumulated wealth, as would safely support the utmost efforts of provincial splendor. Miss Worm|wood Page 96 now expected to see every batchelor of figure and consequence a suppliant at her feet: she promised to herself no little entertainment in sporting with their ad|dresses, without the fear of suffering from a tyrannical husband, as she had learned cau|tion from her father, and had privately re|solved not to trust any man with her mo|ney; a resolution the more discreet, as she had much to apprehend, and very little to learn, from so dangerous a master! The good-natured town, in whose environs the rich Winifred resided, very kindly pointed out to her no less than twenty lively beaux for her choice; but, to the shame or the honour of those gentlemen, they were too timid, or too honest, to make any ad|vances. The report of her youthful fro|lics, and the dread of her sarcastic wit, had more power to repel, than her person and her wealth had to attract. Passing her fif|tieth year, she acquired the serious name of Mistress, without the dignity of a wife, and without receiving a single offer of marriage Page 97 from the period in which she became the possessor of so opulent a fortune.
Whether this mortifying disappointment had given a peculiar asperity to her temper, or whether malevolence was the earlier cha|racteristic of her mind, I will not pretend to determine; but it is certain, that from this autumnal or rather wintry season of her life, Mrs. Wormwood made it her chief occupation to amuse herself with the most subtle devices of malicious ingenuity, and to frustrate every promising scheme of af|fection and delight, which she discovered in the wide circle of her acquaintance. She seemed to be tormented with an incessant dread, that youth and beauty might secure to themselves that happiness, which she found wit and fortune were unable to be|stow; hence she watched, with the most piercing eye, all the lovely young women of her neighbourhood, and often insinuated herself into the confidence of many, that she might penetrate all the secrets of their love, and privately blast its success. She was Page 98 enabled to render herself intimate with the young and the lovely, by the opulent splendor in which she lived, and by the bewitching vivacity of her conversation. Her talents of this kind were, indeed, ex|traordinary: her mind was never polished or enriched by literature, as Mr. Worm|wood set little value on any books, except|ing those of his counting-house; and the earlier years of his daughter were too much engaged by duplicity and intrigue, to leave her either leisure or inclination for a voluntary attachment to more improving studies. She read very little, and was ac|quainted with no language but her own; yet a brilliant understanding, and an un|common portion of ready wit, supplied her with a more alluring fund of conversation, than learning could bestow. She chiefly re|commended herself to the young and inex|perienced, by the insinuating charm of the most lively ridicule, and by the art of sea|soning her discourse with wanton innuendos of so subtle a nature, that gravity knew Page 99 not how to object to them: she had the singular faculty of throwing such a soft and dubious twilight over the most licentious images, that they captivated curiosity and attention, without exciting either fear or disgust. Her malevolence was perpetually disguised under the mask of gaiety, and she completely possessed that plausibility of malice, so difficult to attain, and so for|cibly recommended in the words of lady Macbeth:
It was the custom of Mrs. Wormwood to profess the most friendly solicitude for female youth, and the highest admiration of beauty; she wished to be considered as their patroness, because such an idea af|forded Page 100 her the fairest opportunities of se|cretly mortifying their insufferable pre|sumption. With a peculiar refinement in malice, she first encouraged, and afterwards defeated, those amusing matrimonial pro|jects, which the young and the beautiful are so apt to entertain. The highest gratifica|tion, which her ingenious malignity could devise, consisted in torturing some lovely inexperienced girl, by playing upon the tender passions of an open and unsuspecting heart.
Accident threw within her reach a most tempting subject for such fiend-like diver|sion, in the person of Amelia Nevil, the daughter of a brave and accomplished offi|cer, who, closing a laborious and honour|able life in very indigent circumstances, had left his unfortunate child to the care of his maiden sister. The aunt of Amelia was such an Old Maid as might alone suffice to rescue the sisterhood from ridicule and contempt. She had been attached, in her early days, to a gallant youth, who unhap|pily Page 101 lost his own life in preserving that of his dear friend, her brother: she devoted herself to his memory with the most tender, unaffected, and invariable at••••ent; re|fusing several advantageous offers o•••r|riage, though her income was so narrow that necessity obliged her to convert her whole fortune into an annuity, just before the calamitous event happened, which made her the only guardian of the poor Amelia. This lovely but unfortunate girl was turned of fourteen on the death of her fa|ther. She found, in the house of his sister, the most friendly asylum, and a relation, whose heart and mind made her most able and willing to form the character of this engaging orphan, who appeared to be as highly favoured by nature, as she was per|secuted by fortune. The beauty of Ame|lia was so striking, and the charms of her lively understanding began to display them|selves in so enchanting a manner, that her affectionate aunt could not bear the idea of placing her in any lower order of life: she Page 102 gave her the education of a gentlewoman, in the flattering and generous hope, that her various attractions must supply the ab|solute want of fortune, and that she should enjoy the delight of seeing her dear Amelia settled happily in marriage, before her death exposed her lovely ward to that poverty, which was her only inheritance.—Heaven disposed it otherwise. This amiable wo|man, after having acted the part of a most affectionate parent to her indigent niece, died before Amelia attained the age of twenty. The poor girl was now appa|rently destitute of every resource; and ex|posed to penury, with a heart bleeding for the loss of a most indulgent protector. A widow lady of her acquaintance very kindly afforded her a refuge in the first moments of her distress, and proposed to two of her opulent friends, that Amelia should reside with them by turns, dividing her year be|tween them, and passing four months with each. As soon as Mrs. Wormwood was informed of this event, as she delighted in Page 103 those ostentatious acts of apparent benefi|cence, which are falsely called charity, she desired to be admitted among the voluntary guardians of the poor Amelia. To this proposal all the parties assented, and it was settled, that Amelia should pass the last quarter of every year, as long as she re|mained single, under the roof of Mrs. Wormwood. This lovely orphan had a sensibility of heart, which rendered her ex|tremely grateful for the protection she re|ceived, but which made her severely feel all the miseries of dependence. Her beauty attracted a multitude of admirers, many of whom, presuming on her poverty, treated her with a licentious levity, which always wounded her ingenuous pride. Her per|son, her mind, her manners, were univer|sally commended by the men; but no one thought of making her his wife. "Amelia," they cried,
Mrs. Wormwood began, therefore, to insinuate, in the most artful manner, that Mr. Nelson was very particular in his civi|lities Page 110 to Amelia; magnified all his amiable qualities, and expressed the greatest plea|sure in the prospect of so delightful a match. These petty artifices, however, had no effect on the natural modesty and diffidence of Amelia; she saw nothing that authorised such an idea in the usual polite|ness of a well-bred man of thirty-seven; she pitied the misfortune, she admired the elegant and engaging, though serious man|ners, and she revered the virtues, of Mr. Nelson; but, supposing his mind to be en|tirely engrossed, as it really was, by his sin|gular charitable pursuits, she entertained not a thought of engaging his affection. Mrs. Wormwood was determined to play off her favourite engine of malignity, a counterfeited letter. She had acquired, in her youth, the very dangerous talent of forging any hand that she pleased; and her passion for mischief had afforded her much practice in this treacherous art. Having previously, and secretly, engaged Mr. Nel|son to drink tea with her, she wrote a billet Page 111 to Amelia, in the name of that gentleman, and with the most perfect imitation of his hand. The billet said, that he designed himself the pleasure of passing that afternoon at the house of Mrs. Wormwood, and requested the favour of a private conference with Miss Nevil in the course of the evening, intimating, in the most delicate and doubt|ful terms, an ardent desire of becoming her husband. Mrs. Wormwood contrived that Amelia should not receive this billet till just before dinner-time, that she might not shew it to her friend and confidant, Mrs. Melford, and, by her means, detest its fal|lacy before the hour of heir intended humi|liation arrived.
Amelia blushed in reading the note, and, in the first surprise of unsuspecting inno|cence, gave it to the vigilant Mrs. Worm|wood; who burst into vehement expressions of delight, congratulated her blushing guest on the full success of her charms, and tri|umphed in her own prophetic discernment. They sat down to dinner, but poor Amelia Page 112 could hardly swallow a morsel; her mind was in a tumultuous agitation of pleasure and amazement. The malicious impostor, enjoying her confusion, allowed her no time to compose her hurried spirits in the solitude of her chamber. Some female vi|sitors arrived to tea; and, at length, Mr. Nelson entered the room. Amelia trem|bled and blushed as he approached her; but she was a little relieved from her em|barrassment by the business of the tea-table, over which she presided. Amelia was na|turally graceful in every thing she did, but the present agitation of her mind gave a temporary awkwardness to all her motions: she committed many little blunders in the management of the tea-table; a cup fell from her trembling hand, and was broken; but the politeness of Mr. Nelson led him to say so many kind and graceful things to her on these petty incidents, that, instead of increasing her distress, they produced an opposite effect, and the tumult of her bo|som gradually subsided into a calm and Page 113 composed delight. She ventured to meet ihe eyes of Mr. Nelson, and thought them expressive of that tenderness which pro|mised a happy end to all her misfortunes. At the idea of exchanging misery and de|pendence for comfort and honour, as the wife of so amiable a man, her heart ex|panded with the most innocent and grateful joy. This appeared in her countenance, and gave such an exquisite radiance to all her features, that she looked a thousand times more beautiful than ever. Mrs. Wormwood saw this improvement of her charms, and, sickening at the sight, deter|mined to reduce the splendor of such insuf|ferable beauty, and hastily terminate the triumph of her deluded guest. She began with a few malicious and sarcastic remarks on the vanity of beautiful young women, and the hopes, which they frequently en|tertain, of an imaginary lover; but finding these remarks produced not the effect she intended, she took an opportunity of whis|pering in the ear of Amelia, and begged Page 114 her not to harbour any vain expectations, for the billet she had received was a coun|terfeit, and a mere piece of pleasantry. Amelia shuddered, and turned pale: sur|prise; disappointment, and indignation, con|spired to overwhelm her. She exerted her utmost power to conceal her emotions; but the conflict in her bosom was too vio|lent to be disguised. The tears, which she vainly endeavoured to suppress, burst forth, and she was obliged to quit the room in very visible disorder. Mr. Nelson expressed his concern; but he was checked in his benevolent enquiries by the caution of Mrs. Wormwood, who said, on the occasion, that Miss Nevil was a very amiable girl, but she had some peculiarities of temper, and was apt to put a wrong construction on the innocent pleasantry of her friends. Mr. Nelson observing that Amelia did not re|turn, and hoping that his departure, might contribute to restore the interrupted har|mony of the house, took an early leave of Mrs. Wormwood; who immediately flew to Page 115 the chamber of Amelia, to exult, like a fiend, over that lovely victim of her suc|cessful malignity. She found not the per|son, whom she was so eager to insult. Amelia had, indeed, retired to her cham|ber, and passed there a very miserable half hour, much hurt by the treacherous cruelty of Mrs. Wormwood, and still more wounded by reflections on her own credulity, which she condemned with that excess of severity so natural to a delicate mind in arraigning itself. She would have flown for imme|diate consolation to her friend, Mrs. Mel|ford, but she had reason to believe that lady engaged on a visit, and she therefore resolved to take a solitary walk for the pur|pose of composing her spirits: but neither solitude nor exercise could restore her tran|quillity; and, as it grew late in the evening, she hastened to Mrs. Melford's, in hopes of now finding her returned. Her worthy old confidant was, indeed, in her little par|lour alone, when Amelia entered the room. The eyes of this lovely girl immediately Page 116 betrayed her distress; and the old lady, with her usual tenderness, exclaimed
Mr. Nelson had observed the sarcastic manner of Mrs. Wormwood towards Ame|lia, and, as soon as he had ended his un|comfortable visit, he hastened to the worthy Mrs. Melford, to give her some little ac|count of what had passed, and to concert with her some happier plan for the support of this amiable insulted orphan.
Mrs. Melford was the first who reco|vered from the kind of trance, into which our little party had been thrown by their general surprise; and she enabled the ten|der pair, in the prospect of whose union her warm heart exulted, to regain that easy and joyous possession of their faculties, which they lost for some little time in their mutual embarrassment. The applause of her friend, and the adoration of her lover, soon taught the diffident Amelia to think less severely of herself. The warm-hearted Mrs. Melford declared, that these occur|rences were the work of Heaven. "That," replied the affectionate Nelson,
The surprise and mortification of Mrs. Wormwood arose almost to frenzy; she racked her malicious and inventive brain Page 123 for expedients to defeat the match, and cir|culated a report for that purpose, which decency will not allow me to explain. Her artifice was detected and despised. Amelia was not only married, but the most ad|mired, the most beloved, and the happiest of human beings; an event which preyed so incessantly on the spirit of Mrs. Worm|wood, that she fell into a rapid decline, and ended, in a few months, her mischievous and unhappy life, a memorable example, that the most artful malignity may some|times procure for the object of its envy, that very happiness which it labours to prevent!
If the envious and ill-natured Old Maid has a passion for verse, and has indulged herself in the habit of tacking ill-assorted rhymes together, she frequently vents her malevolence in a miserable lampoon. I once knew an elderly virgin, whose spleen betrayed her into this dangerous kind of authorship; and her fate was such, as ought Page 124 to deter every rhyming sister from satirical composition. This antiquated lampooner, instead of hurting the innocent and good-humoured female, whom she made the heroine of her woeful song, injured only herself: she actually reversed the ancient fable of Orpheus, and, instead of attracting all creation by the music of her lyre, in|duced every being to avoid her society; till, finding herself unable to support the soli|tude, which her poetry had occasioned, she was obliged to abandon the town, where she had resided from her childhood, and to take refuge in a distant county.
I shall conclude this long chapter with the remark of a famous Grecian philoso|pher, which may have more influence in exterminating envy from the sisterhood, than all the volumes that have been written on this very powerful and mischievous vice. "As rust consumes iron," said Antisthenes, "so does envy the envious person." There cannot, I think, be a happier illustration of Page 125 the effects produced by this corroding in|firmity. There is no passion that more darkly disfigures "the human face divine;" and I can assure my fair reader, that when the rust of envy has been allowed to har|bour, for any length of time, in the lines of the visage, there is no lotion in the world that can restore the lost radiance. I there|fore entreat every Old Maiden, who feels an envious emotion arising in her breast, to consider what hideous effects it may pro|duce in her countenance, and to reflect, that she will improve her features by reco|vering her good-nature.
Having thus far expatiated on the pe|culiar foibles and defects of the sisterhood, I shall devote the subsequent part of this volume to the more pleasing consideration of their amiable qualities, for amiable qua|lities they have, which are, like their foibles, peculiarly their own; and a writer, who involves either the whole sex, or any class of females, in one blind, undistinguishing Page 126 censure, appears to me as absurd, as that person would be, who should pronounce a pine-apple a very bad fruit, because he accidentally tasted only a piece of the rind, which had left a blister on his lips.
PART II. ON THE PARTICULAR GOOD QUALITIES OF OLD MAIDS.
CHAP. I. On the Ingenuity of Old Maids.
WHILE other antiquarians have la|boriously employed and exhausted their powers in searching for old ruins of Gothic architecture, or some Druidical re|mains, I have traversed the kingdom in quest of curious characters in the sisterhood of Old Maids, and, whenever I gain intel|ligence of a new curiosity belonging to this class, I forsake all other occupations, to study it with the patient attention of a true vir|tuoso.
Page 128As soon as I am properly introduced to the fresh ancient maiden, I sit philosophi|cally down, and endeavour to discover, through that incrustation of little singula|rities which a long life of celibacy has pro|duced, her genuine character, the real dis|position of her heart, and the exact altitude of her head.
Having made an accurate drawing of this piece of antiquity in its present state, I consider what she must have been in her youth; and, having settled my conjectures on that point, I proceed to reflections on the kind of wife she might probably have made, and teach myself whether I ought to contemplate her present state with satis|faction or concern.
Every man has his taste. Whether my speculations may be superior or not to those of more fafhionable antiquaries, is a point that I shall leave the world to consider; I will only say, that if the society of antiqua|rians should think this study of mine may entitle me to be admitted of their commu|nity, Page 129 I could enrich their Archaeologia with sketches of many a fair neglected ruin, which have hitherto escaped their researches.
With some of these sketches I have, in|deed, attempted to adorn my own little vo|lumes; but others I shall still retain in my private cabinet, till I have happily awa|kened in our country a more lively and af|fectionate relish for the singular branch of virtù, which I am now introducing, for the first time, to the notice, and, I hope, the cultivation, of the enlightened public.
In the many years of profound specula|tion, which I devoted to the study of Old Maids, before I began this elaborate, and, I trust, this immortal essay, I observed that the better part of the sisterhood are distin|guished by three amiable characteristics— ingenuity, patience, and charity. To each of these I shall give a separate chapter, and, as the sagacious Aristotle says, in dividing a subject of less importance,
Ingenuity may, indeed, be considered as Page 130 a characteristic of the fair sex in general; but there are many circumstances which tend to weaken and diminish this quality in the married dame, and many which have an equal tendency to strengthen and en|crease it in the ancient virgin. The for|mer may be compared to the high-fed and indolent prelate, who, having gained the object of his pursuit, and being elated with the ceremonious dignity of his station, is apt to neglect the cultivation of those spi|ritual talents which ought to adorn it; the latter resembles the unbeneficed ecclesiastic, who, conscious of his humiliating condi|tion, endeavours to surmount its disadvan|tages by the acquisition and display of those accomplishments, which, if they do not raise him to a higher rank, may secure to him, undignified as he is, both attention and esteem.
Nothing is more common, than, to hear complaints against married ladies for hav|ing neglected those ingenious pursuits, by which their youth was distinguished: the Page 131 harpsichord and the pencil, those pleasing and graceful amusements of female life, are generally consigned to oblivion in the se|cond or third year after marriage; even a musical voice, the most delightful gift of nature, is so frequently neglected in that business or dissipation which succeeds the festivity of Hymen, that I have heard more than one husband upbraid his wife, for hav|ing forgot every favourite song, which, in their single days, had a powerful influence in securing his affection.
Now, with the more discreet and good-natured Old Maids, the case is just the re|verse. I never met with even one ancient virgin, who, retaining her health and facul|ties, had ceased to practise any ingenious art, or to display any amusing accomplish|ment, which had ever gained her applause.
That perfect leisure, and that exemption from all the more burthensome houshold cares, which the Old Maid enjoys, is highly calculated to assist her progress in works of ingenuity; and such works, by detaching Page 132 the mind from idle, impertinent, and cen|sorious ideas, contribute not a little to sup|port the natural benevolence of the heart, and to confer a considerable degree of hap|piness on many a worthy spinster of gentle manners and of easy fortune.
The truth of this remark is very strongly exemplified in the elderly daughter of Dr. Coral, a lady whose conduct has been so singular and amiable, that I shall present to my reader a little history both of her and her father.—Dr. Coral was educated in the study of physic, and took his degree in that science; but having a greater passion for what is curious, than for what is useful, he degenerated from a physician into a vir|tuoso. The country, in which he settled, soon observed that the Doctor was more disposed to examine the veins of the earth, than to feel the pulse of a patient: his practice of course declined; but he was happily enabled to live without the aid of his profession, by the affluent fortune of his wife. She was a lady of a mild and en|gaging Page 133 character, but of a delicate consti|tution, and, dying in child-bed, left him an only daughter, whom he called Theo|dora. The Doctor was by no means a man of warm passions, and never enter|tained an idea of marrying again; though a female fossilist once endeavoured to work upon his foible, and to entice him into se|cond nuptials, by an artful hint, that an union of their two cabinets would enhance the value of both. Indeed, he had little or no occasion for conjugal assistance; for, being himself a most active spirit, he not only discharged those common offices of life which belong to the master of a family, but was able and willing to direct or execute all the minuter domestic business, which is generally considered within the female de|partment. His activity, though, from the want of an enlarged understanding, it wasted itself on trifles, supported the chearfulness of his temper. He was, indeed, frequently officious, but always benevolent. Though he had ceased to practise physic at the sum|mons Page 134 of the wealthy, he was eager, at all times, to afford every kind of relief to the sufferings of the poor. He was gentle and indulgent to his servants, and as fond of his little daughter as a virtuoso can be of any living and ordinary production of nature. Theodora discovered, in her childhood, a very intelligent spirit, with peculiar sweet|ness of temper. As she grew up, she dis|played a striking talent for the pencil, and particularly endeared herself to her father, by surprising him with a very accurate and spirited delineation of three the most pre|cious articles in his cabinet; a compli|ment which so warmed the heart of the de|lighted old naturalist, that he declared he would give her five thousand pounds on the day of her marriage. No one doubted his ability to fulfil such a promise; for though he had squandered considerable sums on many useless baubles, he was, in all com|mon articles of expence, so excellent a ma|nager, that, instead of injuring, he had in|creased his fortune; and from this circum|stance Page 135 he was generally believed to be much richer than he really was. Theodora had now reached the age of nineteen, and, though not a beauty, she had an elegant person, and a countenance peculiarly ex|pressive of sensible good-nature: her heart was so very affectionate, that it not only led her to love her father most tenderly, but even to look upon his whimsical hobby-horse with a partial veneration. This singularity of sentiment contributed very much to their mutual happiness, and rendered our gentle and ingenious damsel not so eager to escape from the custody of a fanciful old father, as young ladies of fashion very frequently appear. Yet, happy as she was, Theodora admitted the visits of a lover, who had the address to ingratiate himself with Dr. Coral. This lover was a Mr. Blandford, a young man of acute un|derstanding and polished manners, settled in London as a banker, and supposed to be wealthy. He had been introduced to Miss Coral at an assembly, and soon afterwards Page 136 solicited the honour of her hand for life. The Doctor, who was remarkably frank in all pecuniary affairs, very candidly told the young gentleman what he intended for his daughter, declaring at the same time, that he left her entirely at her own disposal; but, either from the favourable opinion he entertained himself of Mr. Blandford, or perhaps, from some expressions of approba|tion which had fallen from his daughter, the Doctor was very firm in his belief, that the match would take place; and, being alert in all his transactions, he actually pre|pared his five thousand pounds for the bridegroom, before there was any imme|diate prospect of a wedding. Theodora was certainly prejudiced in favour of Mr. Blandford; yet, whether she really felt a reluctance to forsake her indulgent father, or whether she considered it as dangerous to accept a husband on so short an ac|quaintance, she had hitherto given no other answer to his addresses, but that she thought herself too young to marry. Blandford con|sidered Page 137 this reply as nothing more than a mo|dest preliminary to a full surrender of her per|son, and continued his siege with increasing assiduity. In this very critical state of af|fairs, Dr. Coral was summoned to a dis|tance by a letter from a friend, who an|nounced to him the death of a brother vir|tuoso, with a hint, that the Doctor might enrich himself by the purchase of a very choice collection of the most valuable rari|ties, which, if he was quick enough in his application, he might possibly obtain by a private contract. For this purpose, his correspondent had inclosed to him a letter of recommendation to the executors of the deceased collector. This was a temptation that Dr. Coral could not resist. Without waiting for the return of his daughter, who was abroad on an evening visit, he threw himself into a post-chaise, and travelled all night, to reach the mansion of this departed brother in the course of the following day, He was received very cordially by a rela|tion of the deceased, and surveyed with avi|dity Page 138 and admiration innumerable curiosities, of which he panted to become the possessor. But as the collection was very various and extensive, the Doctor began to tremble at the idea of the sum, which the proprietors would unquestionably demand for so peer|less a treasure. The delight, with which his whole frame was animated in surveying it, sufficiently proved that he had a high sense of its value, and precluded him from the use of that profound and ingenious art, so honourably practised by the most intelli|gent persons in every rank of life, I mean the art of vilifying the object which they design to purchase. Dr. Coral, after com|mending most of the prime articles with a generous admiration, demanded, with that degree of hesitation which anxiety pro|duces, if any price had been settled for the whole collection. The gentleman, who at|tended him, enlarged on the great trouble and expence with which his departed rela|tion had amassed this invaluable treasure, and'concluded a very elaborate harangue in Page 139 its praise, by informing the Doctor, that he might become the happy master of the whole on the immediate payment of three thousand five hundred pounds. The Doc|tor was more encouraged than dismayed by the mention of this sum; for, in the first place, the price was really moderate; and, secondly, he had the comfortable know|ledge, that he had the power of instantly securing to himself these manifold sources of delight. But the comfort arising from this assurance was immediately destroyed by the reflection, that all his ready money was devoted to the approaching marriage of his daughter; and his parental affection combating, with some little success, against his passion for virtù, the good Doctor had almost resolved to relinquish all ideas of the purchase. Unluckily, he took a second survey of the choicest rarities, and met with an article which had been accidentally mis|laid, and overlooked in his first view of the collection—perhaps its present effect upon him was the greater from this casual delay; Page 140 certain it is, that this additional rarity fell with an amazing force on the wavering ba|lance of his mind; it entirely overset his prudential affectionate resolution, and, has|tily seizing a pen, which lay ready in a massive ink-stand of a curious and antique form, he instantly wrote a draught upon his banker for the three thousand five hun|dred pounds.
At this passage of my little work, I fore|see that many an honest spinster, who may be reading it to her companions, will pause for a moment, and express an eager desire to know what this wonderful rarity could be. When I inform her it was a very little box, containing the uneatable product of a tree, she may, perhaps, imagine it a pip of the very apple which tempted our inconsi|derate grand mother:—Eve, indeed, may be said to have instituted the order of vir|tuosos, being the first of the many persons on record, who have ruined themselves and their family by a passion for rarities.
But to return to her legitimate descen|dant, Page 141 the curious Dr. Coral. This gentle|man considered, that if he neglected the present opportunity, he might never again be able to acquire the very scarce and mar|vellous production of nature, which he had long thirsted to possess, and which now stood before him.
Not to teaze my fair readers with any longer suspence, I will directly tell them, the above-mentioned little box contained a vegetable poison, collected, with extremest hazard of life, from the celebrated upas-tree in the island of Java. A Dutch surgeon had received this inestimable treasure from the sultan of Java himself, as a part of his reward for having preserved the life of a fa|vourite beauty in the royal seraglio; and the surgeon, on his return to Europe, had gratefully presented it to the deceased vir|tuoso, who had been the generous patron of his youth.
Dr. Coral was inflamed with the keenest desire of beginning various experiments with this rarest of poisons, without suspect|ing Page 142 that it might deprive his daughter of a husband; taking, therefore, this inestimable little box, with a few more of the most pre|cious and portable articles in his new ac|quisition, and giving the necessary direc|tions concerning some weighty cabinets of medals, and other more bulky rarities, he re-entered his post-chaise with that trium|phant festivity of mind, which can be con|ceived only by a successful collector.
As the Doctor delighted almost as much in the idea of buying a bargain, as in the possession of a rarity, he amused himself, in his journey home, with various projects for the disposal of his ample treasure. It was his plan, to select the articles which he par|ticularly prized, and, by a judicious sale of the remainder, to regain almost the whole sum that he had so rapidly expended. Possessing a high opinion of his own judg|ment in affairs of this nature, he pleased himself with the apparent facility of his de|sign, and, under the lively influence of these agreeable thoughts, he arrived at his Page 143 own door. The affectionate Theodora flew with peculiar eagerness to receive him, having suffered no little anxiety from his extraordinary absence. The sprightliness of his appearance soon relieved her from all her solicitude, and they entered the parlour very gaily together, where Theodora had just been making tea for a female relation, and the assiduous Mr. Blandford.
The Doctor, like most people of a busy turn, had a particular pleasure in talking of whatever he did, as he never meant to do any thing that a man ought to blush for; and he now began to entertain his company with an account of his adventures: he en|larged with rapture on his purchase, inti|mating that it had cost him a very large sum, and not mentioning his undigested scheme of repaying himself.
Observing, however, that his narration produced a very striking and gloomy change in the countenance of Mr. Bland|ford, he withdrew with that gentleman into his study, and very candidly told him, that Page 144 this recent and expensive-transaction should make no material difference in the fortune of his daughter: he explained his intention of regaining the money by a partial sale of the collection, and added, that as this mode of replacing the sum expended might not be very expeditious, he should more than compensate for the deficiency by a bond for four thousand pounds, with full interest, and strict punctuality of payment.
Mr. Blandford happened to be one of those adventurous gentlemen, who, as they tremble on the verge of bankruptcy, inge|niously disguise the shudderings of real fear under artful palpitations of pretended love, and endeavour to save themselves from falling down a tremendous precipice by hastily catching at the hand of the first wealthy and benevolent virgin or widow, whom they suppose within their reach: he was a great projector in the management of ready money, and had raised many splen|did visions on the expected fortune of Miss Coral; but the little box of poison, which Page 145 the Doctor had brought home, converted his daughter, in the eyes of Mr. Blandford, into a second Pandora; and as that gentle|man had all the cunning of Prometheus, he resolved, like the cautious son of Japetus, to have no connection with the lady offered to him as a bride, because he foresaw the evils included in her dower.
Mr. Blandford, on this occasion, thought proper to imitate the policy of those, who try to conceal a base purpose of their own, by accusing another person of baseness: he upbraided Dr. Coral for having shamefully disappointed his very just expectations, and, taking the subject in that key, he pur|sued it through all the notes of high and artificial passion; which produced a su|perior burst of louder and more natural anger from the honest insulted virtuoso. Poor Theodora, in passing the door of the study, heard the voice of her father so unu|sually violent, that, from a sudden impulse of affectionate apprehension, she entered the room, where the two gentlemen were en|gaged Page 146 in the most angry altercation. Mr. Blandford seized the opportunity of bidding his mistress an eternal adieu. While she stood motionless with surprise, he made his final bow with a sarcastic politeness, rushed eagerly out of the house, and decamped the very next day from the town, which con|tained the lovely object of his transient adoration.
The approach or miscarriage of an ex|pected wedding is a favourite subject of general conversation in every country town, and the disunion of Mr. Blandford and Miss Coral was very amply discussed. The separated young pair were universally pi|tied, and the whole weight of popular re|proach fell immediately on the head of the unfortunate naturalist. As he was a man, who, from the peculiarity of his pursuits, withdrew himself from cards and common company, the little parties of the town most eagerly seized an opportunity of attacking his character: as a humorist, he was ridi|culed, perhaps, with some justice; as a man Page 147 of unrivalled benevolence and active cha|rity, he was the object of much secret envy and malice, and of course was very unjustly vilified. The good people, who arraigned him on the present occasion, did not scru|ple to represent him, even to his daughter, as an unnatural monster, who had sacrificed for a cockle-shell the happiness of his child. Nor was the little box of gum from the upas-tree omitted in these charitable remarks. One lady of peculiar spirit as|serted, that if her father had robbed her of so handsome a husband, for the sake of pur|chasing such a rarity, she might have been tempted to anticipate the old gentleman, in his experiments on the poison, by secretly preparing the first dose of it for himself. Happily for Theodora, she had such gen|tleness and purity of heart, that every at|tempt to inflame her against her father served only to increase her filial affection. She reproved, with a becoming spirit, all those who insulted her by malignant obser|vations on his conduct; and, perceiving Page 148 that he was deeply vexed by the late oc|currences, and the comments of the neigh|bourhood upon them, she exerted all her powers, in the most endearing manner, to dissipate his vexation. "It is true," she said, as they were talking over the recent transaction;
As she uttered this judicious and tender sentiment, a few starting tears appeared in evidence of its truth; they melted the good Doctor, and converted all his chagrin into Page 149 affectionate pride and delight. The justice of Theodora's observation was soon after|wards confirmed in a very striking manner, by the fate of Mr. Blandford, who plunging into all the hazardous iniquity of Change-alley, became at last a bankrupt, and with such fraudulent appearances against him, that the compassion, which his misfortune might have inspired, was lost in the abhor|rence of his treachery. Dr. Coral, who, by studying the inanimate wonders of the creation, had increased the natural piety of his mind, was now most devoutly thankful to Heaven for the escape of his child. The tender Theodora was still more con|firmed in her partial attachment to the house of her father; she took a kind and sympathetic pleasure in assisting his fanciful pursuits; she persuaded him to retain every article in his new purchase, which she ob|served him to contemplate with particular delight; she gave an air of uncommon ele|gance to the arrangement of all the curio|sities which he determined to keep; and, Page 150 by an incessant attention to the peace and pleasure of her father's life, most effectually established the felicity of her own. Their comfort and their amusements, being founded on the purest and most permanent of human affections, have continued, with|out diminution, through several succeeding years. I should fill many pages in record|ing the several ingenious works and de|vices, by which Theodora has contrived to amuse herself, and to delight her father; let it suffice to say, that, being always engaged in occupations of benevolent ingenuity, she is never uneasy; and she has grown imper|ceptibly into an Old Maid, without enter||taining a wish for the more honourable title of a wife. Her mild and gentle pa|rent has secured himself from all the irk|some infirmities of age, by long habits of temperance, exercise, and, what is perhaps stiil more salutary, universal benevolence: he is still in possession of all his faculties, at the age of eighty-seven; and, if he has not the satisfaction of seeing a numerous group Page 151 of descendants, he beholds, however, with infinite delight, one virtuous and happy daughter, most tenderly attached to him, and wishing for no higher enjoyment than what arises from their reciprocal affection.
In the last visit that I made to these two amiable and singular characters, I was at|tended by a lively friend, who loves to in|dulge himself in a laugh at every oddity that he meets with in human life. On our quitting the house together, my companion concluded a few sprightly remarks, on the lady whom we had left, with the following quotation from Monsieur de la Bruyere:
"I grant you," I replied,
The condition of the autumnal virgin is so highly favourable to ingenious pursuits, Page 153 that the Goddess of Ingenuity, among the ancients, was herself an Old Maid; and, had there arisen, in the days of antiquity, any genius as zealous as I am for the chaste and elderly votaries of Minerva, he would certainly have left us an invaluable history of the sisterhood, and a particular account of their various elegant works, and their ingenious inventions. But, to the shame of past ages, and to the glory of this my original essay, let me remark, that I am the very first author who has expressly devoted a literary labour to these choice and de|serving objects of philosophic attention. The writers, indeed, of antiquity were by no means insensible to the beauty or the merit of the fair sex, and it would be easy to fill several pages with a bare catalogue of the many compositions which have been written in the praise of women. The fu|rious Amazon, the heroic matron, the wan|ton poetess, and the voluptuous courtezan, are all immortalized in the works of many an ancient author; but even the mild and Page 154 amiable Plutarch, who has written ex|pressly in honour of the sex, has failed to celebrate the patient and ingenious Old Maid, a character whose quiet and useful virtues give her a peculiar title to philoso|phical panegyric.
Athenaeus has left us many curious and amusing particulars relating to those illus|trious ladies of pleasure, Aspasia, Phryne, and Lais; to the last, a monument was erected on the banks of the river Peneus, and her epitaph is still preserved. The vain and licentious Greeks, who paid these honours to an insolent and rapacious cour|tezan, committed, I apprehend, to the fu|neral pile, many a gentle and ingenious antiquated virgin, without either lamenting her loss or recording her accomplishments. But I shall enlarge on this topic in a sub|sequent volume, as I mean to take a gene|ral survey of the treatment which Old Maids have met with in the different ages and regions of tlie world: I shall confine inyfelf at prefent to the subject more im|mediately Page 155 before me, the ingenuity of the sisterhood.
The arts of music, painting, and poetry, those general soothers of human care, are eminently useful to the ancient virgin; each of these three enchanting sister-arts is endued with the power of dissipating that restless languor, which a solitary condition is so apt to produce; each is able to check, and to eradicate, those maladies, to which the female frame is particularly subject, when the heart is vacant, and the mind unemployed.
In the more active and less sickly days of antiquity, a Grecian lady, who was a na|tive of Argos, and whose name was Tele|silla, labouring under a very infirm state of health, consulted an oracle for relief; the answer she received was, a direction to de|vote herself to the Muses, with an assurance that she would find them the most success|ful physicians. She obeyed this divine in|junction, and was so completely restored, that she not only gained the highest honour Page 156 by many admirable verses, but was enabled to preserve her country from ruin by a signal exertion of heroic spirit. When Argos, whose warriors were engaged in a distant enterprize, was invaded by the Spartans, Telesilla assembled, and animated her countrywomen to the defence of their native city; and obtained the glory of re|pelling the invaders, though led to the assault by the two kings of Sparta, Cleo|menes and Demaratus. Whether Telesilla was, at this juncture, an Old Maid or not, the candid Plutarch, who relates her ex|ploit in his treatise on the virtues of wo|men, has forgot to inform us. Instead of entering into critical conjectures on a point so difficult to determine, I shall content myself with advising all my fair readers, who may labour; like Telesilla, under an oppressive derangement of health, without a particular name, or a medicinal remedy, to follow her happy example, and attempt their own cure, by devoting themselves to the muses; or, in other words, to forget and Page 157 lose their petty maladies in a steady appli|cation to any elegant and feminine art, in which nature and education may have pre|pared them to excel. Our own age and country may furnish me with more than one signal proof, that the divinities of Par|nassus are sometimes highly propitious to the chaste and mature votaries of Minerva: not to mention the philosophic and poetical lady to whom these volumes are addressed, I am credibly informed, that two other most eminent female poets of our nation may probably become very honourable members of that sisterhood, in whose ser|vice I am writing; and it enhances the ob|ligations which the literary world is still re|ceiving from these fair and delightful au|thors, that, endued, as I am told they are, with personal as well as mental attractions, they have declined to engage in the alluring rites of Hymen, for the sake of devoting themselves, with an undivided ardour, to the more glorious, yet less tempting, ser|vice of Apollo and the Nine.
Page 158While I am thus zealously recommend|ing ingenious occupations to the whole community of autumnal virgins, let me pay due regard to needle-work, that peculiar province of the fair sex, on which our an|cestors wisely set so much value. If the ladies of our time do not work with that patient assiduity, which our good grand|mothers exerted, they have happily ac|quired the art of executing more graceful performances; the many excellent pictures, which we have lately seen produced by the needle, will, I hope, encourage our fair countrywomen to persevere; in a branch of art which is peculiarly their own, and in which they cannot be mortified by the jea|lous and arrogant rivalship of man.
The needle, indeed, has one great ad|vantage over the pencil and the lyre; it is not the mere instrument of decoration or amusement; it can answer the most ordi|nary, as well as the most refined, purposes, and is equally conducive to utility and de|light. In commending to the sisterhood Page 159 all the employments of ingenuity, let me request my fair reader to give the pre|ference to those which are peculiarly be|coming. If a worthy spinster has a talent for music, let her adhere to such graceful instruments as belong to her sex, and avoid the example of an English lady, whom I saw, many years ago, displaying to her ac|quaintance the unfeminine accomplishment of beating a drum. For the rejection of every ungraceful amusement, the maiden sisterhood has the high authority of their patroness, Minerva. We are told, that when this sage goddess beheld herself play|ing on the pipe, which she had just invented, she was so disgusted by the distortion which it produced in her countenance, that she in|dignantly threw her recent and ingenious invention into that watery mirror, which had presented to her the reflection of her own bloated cheeks.
There may, however, be great and extra|ordinary occasions, on which the sincere Old Maid may obtain signal honour by exerting her ingenuity in violation of the Page 160 graces; and I shall close this chapter by a memorable example of this important truth. It is recorded by an historian of the dark ages, whose name I am at present unable to recollect, that two illustrious virgins, con|fined in a besieged city, were distressed by infinite apprehensions of indecent outrage, when the victorious enemy took possession of the place; but their ingenuity suggested to them a fortunate, though uncleanly ex|pedient, by which their chastity was pre|served; they covered their bosoms with the slices of a putrified chicken. The conse|quence was, that the licentious soldier, who rushed to their embrace, was repelled by the idea of pestilent disease, and they hap|pily escaped the injury they dreaded, by being considered as objects of abhorrence instead of desire. That these virtuous, though deceitful, ladies were virgins, I am confident; but whether they were really Old Maids or not, as I relate the anecdote only from memory, I must submit to the conjectures of the ingenious reader.
CHAP. II. On the Patience of Old Maids.
I REMEMBER to have heard it said by a late eminent anatomist, in a pro|fessional discourse on the female frame, that it almost appeared an act of cruelty in na|ture to produce such a being as woman. This remark may, indeed, be the natural exclamation of refined sensibility, in con|templating the various maladies to which a creature of such delicate organs is ine|vitably exposed; but if we take a more en|larged survey of human existence, we shall be far from discovering any just reason to arraign the benevolence of its provi|dent and gracious author. If the de|licacy of woman must render her familiar with pain and sickness, let us remember, that her charms, her pleasures, and her happiness, arise also from the same attrac|tive Page 162 quality; she is a being, to use the for|cible and elegant expression of a poet,
There is, perhaps, no charm, by which she more effectually secures the tender ad|miration and the lasting love of the more hardy sex, than her superior endurance, her mild and graceful submission to the com|mon evils of life. Nor is this the sole ad|vantage she derives from her gentle forti|tude; it is the prerogative of this lovely virtue to lighten the pressure of all those incorrigible evils, which it chearfully en|dures. The frame of man may be com|pared to the sturdy oak, which is often shattered by resisting the tempest; woman is the pliant osier, which, in bending to the storm, eludes its violence.
The accurate observers of human nature will readily allow, that patience is most eminently the characteristic of woman. To what a sublime and astonishing height this virtue has been carried by beings of Page 163 the most delicate texture, we have striking examples in the history of the many virgin martyrs, who were exposed, in the first ages of Christianity, to the most barbarous and lingering tortures. Nor was it only from Christian zeal, that woman derived the power of defying the utmost rigors of per|secution with invincible fortitude: Saint Ambrose, in his elaborate and pious trea|tise on virgins, records the resolution of a fair disciple of Pythagoras, who, being se|verely urged by a tyrant to reveal the se|crets of her sect, to convince him that no torments should reduce her to so unworthy a breach of her vow, bit her own tongue asunder, and darted it in the face of heir oppressor. In consequence of those happy changes, which have taken place in the world, from the progress of purified reli|gion, the inflexible spirit of the tender sex is no longer exposed to such inhuman trials; but if the earth is happily delivered from the demons of torture and super|stition; if beauty and innocence are no Page 164 more in danger of being dragged to perish at the stake, I fear there are situations in female life, that require as much patience and magnanimity as were formerly exerted in the fiery torments of the virgin martyr. It has been justly remarked, by those who have studied human nature, that it is more difficult to support an accumulation of mi|nute infelicities, than any single calamity of the most terrific magnitude. If this maxim is true, as I believe it to be, it will justify me in asserting, that the indigent, unfortunate Old Maid of the present time, is a being as fully entitled to pity, as those female victims formerly were, who, in the ages of persecution, were led to tortures and death. If my reader is startled, or tempted to smile, at a comparison of two sufferers, whose destiny may be thought so dissimilar, I entreat him to consider atten|tively the frame of mind, which we may reasonably attribute to these different ob|jects of compassion. During the torments of the virgin martyr, the fervour of enthu|siasm, Page 165 and a passion for religious glory, are sufficient to give new vigour to the soul, in proportion as the most excruciating out|rages are inflicted on the body; but what animating ideas can arise, to sustain the re|solution of the more unhappy Old Maid, reduced from a state of affluence and plea|sure to poverty and contempt? reduced to a condition opposite to her wishes, un|friendly to her talents, and destructive to the health both of her body and her mind? To support such a condition with a placid and chearful magnanimity, appears to me one of the highest exertions of human for|titude; and I have, therefore, always re|garded my poor friend Constantia as a cha|racter of as much genuine heroism and piety, as the celebrated St. Agnes, or any other the most heroic female saint in the ample calendar of Rome.
Constantia was the daughter of a mer|chant, who, being left a widower at an early period of life, with two beautiful little girls, bestowed upon them a very fashionable and Page 166 expensive education. It happened that, when Constantia had just attained the age of twenty-one, her sister, who was a year older, received, and delighted in, the ad|dresses of a man, considered as her equal in rank and fortune; a man who was not, in|deed, devoid of affection to his mistress, yet distinguished by a superior attention to her dower. This prudent lover informed the old gentleman, that he was a warm ad|mirer of his eldest daughter, and that he was also happy in having gained the young lady's good opinion; but that it was im|possible for him to marry, unless he re|ceived, at the time of his marriage, a parti|cular sum, which he specified. The wor|thy merchant was disconcerted by this de|claration, as he had amused himself with the prospect of a promising match for his child. He replied, however, with calmness and integrity; he paid some general com|pliments to his guest; he said, he should be happy to settle a very good girl with a man of character, whom she seemed to ap|prove; Page 167 but he was under a painful neces|sity of rejecting the proposal, because it was impossible for him to comply with the terms required, without a material injury to his youngest daughter. The cautious suitor took a formal leave, and departed. The honest father, in a private conference, with his eldest child, gave her a full and ingenuous account of his conduct. She applauded the justice of his decision, but felt her own loss so severely, that the house soon became a scene of general distress. Constantia, finding her sister in tears, would not leave her without knowing the cause of her affliction. As soon as she had disco|vered it, she flew to her father; she thanked him for his parental attention to her inte|rest, but, with the most eager and generous entreaties, conjured him not to let a mis|taken kindness to her prove the source of their general unhappiness. She declared, with all the liberal ardour and sincerity of a young affectionate mind, that she valued fortune only as it might enable her to pro|mote Page 168 the comfort of those she loved; and that, whatever her own future destiny might be, the delight of having secured the felicity of her sister, would be infinitely more valuable to her than any portion whatever. She enlarged on the delicacy of her sister's health, and the danger of thwarting her present settled affection. In short, she pleaded for the suspended mar|riage with such genuine and pathetic elo|quence, that her father embraced her with tears of delight and admiration; but the more he admired her generosity, the more he thought himself obliged to refuse her request. He abhorred the idea of making such a noble-minded girl, what she was desirous, indeed, of making herself, an ab|solute sacrifice to the establishment of her sister; and he flattered himself, that the affection of his eldest girl, which the kind zeal of Constantia had represented to him in so serious a light, would be easily obliterated by time and reflection. In this hope, how|ever, he was greatly deceived: the poor Page 169 girl, indeed, attempted, at first, to display a resolution, which she was unable to sup|port; her heart was disappointed, and her health began to suffer. Constantia was almost distracted at the idea of proving the death of a sister whom she tenderly loved, and she renewed her adjurations to her father with such irresistible importunity, that, touched with the peculiar situation of his two amia|ble children, and elated with some new prospects of commercial emolument, he re|solved, at last, to comply with the generous entreaty of Constantia, though at some little hazard of leaving her exposed to indigence.
The prudent lover was recalled; his re|turn soon restored the declining health of his mistress; all difficulties were adjusted by a pecuniary compliance with his de|mands; the day of marriage was fixed; and Constantia, after sacrificing every shilling of her settled portion, attended her sister to church, with a heart more filled with exul|tation and delight, than that of the bride herself, who had risen from a state of de|jection Page 170 and despair to the possession of the man she loved. But the pleasure that the generous Constantia derived from an event which she had so nobly promoted, was very soon converted into concern and anxiety. In a visit of some weeks, to the house of the new-married couple, she soon disco|vered that her brother-in-law, though entitled to the character of an honest and well-meaning man, was very far from possessing the rare and invaluable ta|lent of conferring happiness on the objects of his regard. Though he had appeared, on their first acquaintance, a man of a cul|tivated understanding, and an elegant ad|dress, yet, under his own roof, he indulged himself in a peevish irritability of temper, and a passion for domestic argument, pecu|liarly painful to the quick feelings of Con|stantia, who, from the exquisite sensibility of her frame, possessed an uncommon deli|cacy both of mind and manners. She ob|served, however, with great satisfaction, and with no less surprise, that her sister was Page 171 not equally hurt by this fretful infirmity of her husband. Happily for her own com|fort, that lady was one of those good, loving women, whose soft yet steady affection, like a drop of melted wax, has the property of sticking to any substance on which it acci|dentally falls. She often adopted, it is true, the quick and querulous style of her husband; nay, their domestic debates have run so high, that poor Constantia has some|times dreaded, and sometimes almost wished, an absolute separation; but her lively ter|rors on this subject were gradually dimi|nished by observing, that although they frequently skirmished, after supper, in a very angry tone, yet, at the breakfast-table the next morning, they seldom failed to re|sume a becoming tenderness of language. These sudden and frequent transitions from war to peace, and from peace to war, may possibly be very entertaining to the belli|gerent parties themselves; but I believe they always hurt a benevolent spectator. Constantia shortened her visit. She departed, Page 172 indeed, disappointed and chagrined; but she generously concealed her sensations, and cherished a pleasing hope, that she might hereafter return to the house with more satisfaction, either from an improve|ment in the temper of its master, or, at least, from opportunities of amusing herself with the expected children of her sister; but, alas! in this her second hope, the warm-hearted Constantia was more cruelly disap|pointed. Her sister was, in due time, de|livered of a child; but it proved a very sickly infant, and soon expired. The af|flicted mother languished for a considerable time, in a very infirm state of health, and, after frequent miscarriages, sunk herself into the grave. The widower, having passed the customary period in all the de|cencies of mourning, took the earliest op|portunity of consoling himself for his loss, by the acquisition of a more opulent bride; and, as men of his prudent disposition have but little satisfaction in the sight of a per|son from whom they have received great Page 173 obligations, which they do not mean to repay, he thought it proper to drop all in|tercourse with Constantia. She had a spirit too noble to be mortified by such neglect. Indeed, as she believed, in the fondness of her recent affliction, that her sister might have still been living, had she been happily united to a man of a more amiable temper, she rejoiced that his ungrateful conduct re|lieved her from a painful necessity of prac|tising hypocritical civilities towards a rela|tion, whom in her heart she despised. By the death of her sister she was very deeply afflicted, and this affliction was soon fol|lowed by superior calamities.
The affairs of her father began to assume a very alarming appearance. His health and spirits deserted him on the approaching wreck of his fortune. Terrified with the prospect of bankruptcy, and wounded to the soul by the idea of the destitute condi|tion, in which he might leave his only sur|viving child, he reproached himself inces|santly for the want of parental justice, in Page 174 having complied with the entreaties of the too generous Constantia. That incomparable young woman, by the most signal union of tenderness and fortitude, endeavoured to alleviate all the sufferings of her father. To give a more chearful cast to his mind, she exerted all the vigour and all the viva|city of her own; she regulated all his do|mestic expences with an assiduous but a tranquil oeconomy, and discovered a pecu|liar pleasure in denying to herself many usual expensive articles, both of dress and diversion. The honest pride and delight which he took in the contemplation of her endearing character, enabled the good old man to triumph, for some time, over sick|ness, terror, and misfortune. By the assist|ance of Constantia, he struggled through se|veral years of commercial perplexity; at last, however, the fatal hour arrived, which he had so grievously apprehended; he became a bankrupt, and resolved to retire into France, with a faint hope of repairing his ruined fortune, by the aid of connections Page 175 which he had formed in that country. He could not support the thought of carrying Constantia among foreigners, in so indigent a condition, and he therefore determined to leave her under the protection of her aunt, Mrs. Braggard, a widow lady, who, pos|sessing a comfortable jointure, and a no|table spirit of oeconomy, was enabled to make a very considerable figure in a coun|try town. Mrs. Braggard was one of those good women, who, by paying the most punctual visits to a cathedral, imagine they acquire an unquestionable right, not only to speak aloud their own exemplary virtues, but to make as free as they please with the conduct and character of every person, both within and without the circle of their ac|quaintance. Having enjoyed from her youth a very hale constitution, and not having injured it by any foolish tender ex|cesses, either of love or sorrow, she was, at the age of fifty-four, completely equal to all the business and bustle of the female world. As she wisely believed activity to Page 176 be a great source both of health and amuse|ment, she was always extremely active in her own affairs, and sometimes in those of others.
She considered the key of her store-room as her sceptre of dominion, and, not wish|ing to delegate her authority to any minister whatever, she was very far from wanting the society of her niece, as an assistant in the management of her house; yet she was very ready to receive the unfortunate Con|stantia under her roof, for the sake of the pleasure which would certainly arise to her, not indeed from the uncommon charms of Constantia's conversation, but from repeating herself, to every creature who visited at her house, what a great friend she was to that poor girl.
Painful as such repetitions must be to a mind of quick sensibility, Constantia sup|ported them with a modest resignation. There were circumstances in her present si|tuation that galled her much more. Mrs. Braggard had an utter contempt, or rather a Page 177 constitutional antipathy, for literature and music, the darling amusements of Constantia, and indeed the only occupations by which she hoped to sooth her agitated spirits, un|der the pressure of her various afflictions. Her father, with a very tender solicitude, had secured to her a favourite harpsichord, and a small but choice collection of books. These, however, instead of proving the sources of consolatory amusement, as he had kindly imagined, only served to increase the vexations of the poor Constantia, as she seldom attempted either to sing or to read, without hearing a prolix invective from her aunt, against musical and learned ladies.
Mrs. Braggard seemed to think, that all useful knowledge, and all rational delight, are centered in a social game of cards; and Constantia, who, from principles of grati|tude and good-nature, wished to accommo|date herself to the humour of every person from whom she received obligation, assi|duously endeavoured to promote the diver|sion of her aunt; but having little or no Page 178 pleasure in cards, and being sometimes un|able, from uneasiness of mind, to command her attention, she was generally a loser; a circumstance which produced a very bitter oration from the attentive old lady, who declared that inattention of this kind was inexcusable in a girl, when the money she played for was supplied by a friend. At the keenness, or rather the brutality, of this reproach, the poor insulted Constantia burst into tears, and a painful dialogue ensued, in which she felt all the wretchedness of depending on the ostentatious charity of a relation, whose heart and soul had not the least affinity with her own. The conversa|tion ended in a compromise, by which Con|stantia obtained the permission of renoun|cing cards for ever, on the condition, which she herself proposed, of never touching her harpsichord again, as the sound of that in|strument was as unpleasant to Mrs. Brag|gard, as the sight of a card-table was to her unfortunate niece.
Constantia passed a considerable time in this Page 179 state of unmerited mortification, wretched in her own situation, and anxious, to the most painful degree, concerning the fate of her father. Perceiving there were no hopes of his return to England, she wrote him a most tender and pathetic letter, enumerat|ing all her afflictions, and imploring his consent to her taking leave of her aunt, and endeavouring to acquire a more peaceable maintenance for herself, by teaching the rudiments of music to young ladies; an employment to which her talents were per|fectly equal. To this filial petition she received a very extraordinary, and a very painful answer, which accident led me to peruse, a few years after the death of the unhappy father who wrote it.
It happened, that a friend requested me to point out some accomplished woman, in humble circumstances, and about the mid|dle season of life, who might be willing to live as a companion with a lady of great fortune and excellent character, who had the misfortune to lose the use of her eyes. Page 180 Upon this application, I immediately thought of Constantia. My acquaintance with her had commenced before the mar|riage of her sister, and the uncommon spirit of generosity, which she exerted on that oc|casion, made me very ambitious of cultivat|ing a lasting friendship with so noble a mind; but living at a considerable distance from each other, our intimacy had for several years been supported only by a regular correspondence. At the time of my friend's application, Constantia's letters had informed me that her father was dead, and that she had no prospect of escaping from a mode of life which I knew was utterly incompatible with her ease and comfort. I ;oncluded, therefore, that I should find her most ready to embrace the proposal which I had to communicate, and I reslved to pay her a visit in person, for the pleasure of being myself the bearer of such welcome intelli|gence. Many years had elapsed since we met, and they were years that were not cal|culated to improve either the person or Page 181 the manners of my unfortunate friend. To say truth, I perceived a very striking alte|ration in both. It would be impossible, I believe, for the most accomplished of wo|men to exist in such society, as that to which Constantia had been condemned, with|out losing a considerable portion of her ex|ternal graces. My friend appeared to me like a fine statue, that had been long ex|posed to all the injuries of bad weather; the beautiful polish was gone, but that su|perior excellence remained, which could not be affected by the influence of the sky. I was, indeed, at first, greatly struck by a new and unexpected coarseness in her lan|guage and address; but I soon perceived, that although her manners had suffered, she still retained all the spirited tenderness, and all the elegance of her mind. She magnified the unlooked-for obligation of my visit, with that cordial excess of gra|titude, with which the amiable unhappy are inclined to consider the petty kindnesses of a friend. I wished, indeed, to assist her, Page 182 and believed that chance had enabled me to do so; but there were obstacles to prevent it, of which I had no apprehension. The first reply that Constantia made to my proposal, for her new settlement in life, was a silent but expressive shower of tears. To these, however, I gave a wrong interpretation; for, knowing all the misery of her present situation, I imagined they were tears of joy, drawn from her by the sudden prospect of an unexpected escape from a state of the most mortifying dependence. She soon undeceived me, and, putting into my hand two letters, which she had taken from a little pocket-book, "Here," she said,
The entrance of Mrs. Braggard gave a new turn to our conversation, but without affording us relief. That good lady en|deavoured to entertain me with particular attention; but there was such a strange mixture of vulgar dignity and indelicate facetiousness in her discourse, that she was very far from succeeding in her design. She asked me, if I was not greatly struck by the change that a few years had made in the countenance of her niece, hinting, in Page 188 very coarse terms of awkward jocularity, that the loss of her complexion was to be imputed to her single life; and adding, with an affected air of kindness, that, as she had some very rich relations in Jamaica, she believed she should be tempted to carry the poor girl to the West Indies, to try all the chances of new acquaintance in a warmer climate. I perceived the pale cheek of Con|stantia begin to redden at this language of her aunt. As the expressions of that good lady grew more and more painful to her ingenuous pride, the unfortunate Constantia, who found it impossible to suppress her tears, now quitted the room; but she re|turned to us again in a few minutes, with an air of composed sorrow, and of meek endurance.
I soon ended my mortifying visit, and left the town in which Constantia resided, with a disposition to quarrel with fortune for her injustice and cruelty to my amiable friend. It seemed to me as if nature had designed, that an affectionate activity, and a joyous Page 189 benevolence, should be the vital springs in Constantia's existence; but that chance having thrown her into a situation, which afforded no nourishment to the lovely qua|lities of her heart and mind, she was perish|ing like a flower in an unfriendly soil.
My imagination was wounded by the image of her destiny; but the generous Constantia, seeing the impression which her sufferings had made upon me, wrote me a letter of consolation. She arraigned herself, with an amiable degree of injustice, for having painted to me, in colours much too strong, the unpleasant qualities of her aunt, and the disquietude of her own condition: she flattered me with the idea, that my visit and advice to her had given a more chearful cast to her mind; and she encou|raged me to hope, that time would make her a perfect philosopher. In the course of a few years, I received several letters from my friend, and all in this comfortable strain. At length she sent me the follow|ing billet:
My dear friend,
I am preparing to set out, in a few days, for a distant country; and, before my departure, I wish to trouble you with an interesting commission: if possible, indulge me with an opportunity of im|parting it to you in person, where I now am. As it will be the last time I can expect the satisfaction of seeing you in this world, I am persuaded you will comply with this anxious request of
Your much obliged, and very grateful, CONSTANTIA.
In perusing this note, I concluded that Mrs. Braggard was going to execute the project she had mentioned, and was really preparing to carry her niece to Jamaica; yet, on reflection, if that were the case, Con|stantia might, I thought, have contrived to see me with more convenience in her passage through London. However, I obeyed her summons as expeditiously as I could. In a Page 191 few minutes after my arrival in the town where she resided, I was informed, by the landlord of the inn at which I stopped, that the life of my poor friend was sup|posed to be in danger. This information at once explained to me the mystery of her. billet. I hastened to the house of Mrs. Braggard, and, in the midst of my concern and anxiety for my suffering friend, I felt some comfort on finding, that in our inter|view we should not be tormented by the presence of her unfeeling aunt, as that lady had been tempted to leave her declining charge, to attend the wedding of a more fortunate relation, and was still detained, by scenes of nuptial festivity, in a distant county. When I entered the apartment of Constantia, I perceived in her eyes a ray of joyous animation, though her frame was so emaciated, and she laboured under such a general debility, that she was unable to stand a moment without assistance.
Having dismissed her attendant, she seemed to collect all the little portion of Page 192 strength that remained in her decaying frame, to address me in the following manner:
CHAP. III. On the Charity of Old Maids.
WHEN nature has bestowed on the ancient virgin a constitutional fund of benevolence, and fortune has blessed her with wealth, her condition is highly fa|vourable to the exercise of beneficent vir|tue. As she is not encumbered with that load of houshold care, and parental solici|tude, which is apt to cramp the munifi|cence of the married dame, and to confine it within the circle of a single family, her kindness and liberality will be often found to indulge themselves in a more ample field. If, among the many virtues that dignify human nature, there is any one that may claim pre-eminence in the sight of earth and heaven, I apprehend it must be charity;—and of charity, in the most en|larged and apostolical sense of it, I had Page 198 once the happiness of knowing a singular and perfect image, in the person of a most amiable Old Maid. To a faithful descrip|tion of this lady, under the name of Cha|riessa, I shall devote this chapter, sensible that nothing which my own fancy or un|derstanding might suggest, on the present subject, could afford to my fair readers a more useful lesson, than they will find in the character of a departed sister, whom an easy fortune, and unexampled benevolence, ren|dered, perhaps, the very happiest Old Maid that ever existed.
Chariessa was the youngest child of a worthy and active gentleman, who, though his name had a place in the will of a very opulent father, suffered many hardships, in the early part of his life, from the scantiness of his patrimony. His father was infected with that ridiculous, or rather detestable, family pride, by which many persons are tempted to leave their younger children in absolute indigence, from the vain and ab|surd project of aggrandising an eldest son; Page 199 a project which was suggested to the old gentleman we are speaking of, by his dis|covery of a genealogical table, which un|luckily enabled him to trace his progeni|tors to the reign of Edward the Fourth, when it appeared that one of his ancestors was high sheriff for the county in which he resided.
As the father of Chariessa had felt all the evils arising from an unjust distribution of property, he determined to leave whatever fortune he might himself acquire, in equal proportions among his children. From a very fortunate marriage, and much unex|pected success in life, he was enabled, at his decease, to leave to his son, and to each of his two daughters, a portion equivalent to sixteen thousand pounds.
The son had been educated in one of the first mercantile houses of London, and, at the time of his father's death, was just re|turned from a tour to the continent, where he had been engaged in fixing his future Page 200 correspondences, before he settled as a merchant.
He had passed some few years in trade, when his uncle, the eldest brother of his father, died without issue, and left him the family estate, on the condition of his quit|ting commerce entirely, and residing at the ancient seat of the Trackums. He obeyed the injunction of the will, and retired into the country with his wife, who, though a celebrated beauty, was a lady of infinite discretion, and distinguished through life by the most prudent attention to a numerous family.
'Squire Trackum, as we shall now call him, changed his manners with his place of abode, and quitted the grave address of the important merchant, to assume the boisterous jocularity of the esquires that surrounded him. In a short time he was so completely metamorphosed, that in his first visit to town he greatly astonished and entertained his old acquaintance of the Page 201 city; but his real character remained the same. He now concealed, under the mask of rustic joviality, that uncommon share of worldly wisdom, which he formerly hid under the mantle of serious and solemn frankness; he even carried into the field of rural sport, that incessant attention to inte|rest which he used to exert upon Change, and, in the very moment when he was gal|loping after a hare, would calculate the chances of settling a daughter in marriage, or letting a farm to advantage. In one unguarded moment of real frankness, when he was warmed by the bottle, he boasted, to an intimate friend, that he never passed ten minutes in the company of any man, with|out considering how he might derive some degree of pecuniary or interested advantage from his acquaintance.
Before the 'squire assumed his rural cha|racter, Erinnis, the eldest of his two sisters, had married a gentleman of a distant county, who was respected as the descen|dant Page 202 of an ancient family, and the possessor of a large estate.
The unmarried Chariessa, whose temper, suitable to her pleasing, elegant person, was sprightly, generous, and unsuspecting, con|ceived a most lively attachment to the wife and children of her brother, whom she al|ways regarded with such affectionate confi|dence, that she suffered herself to be guided, in all important points, by his judgment and advice.
The provident 'squire, considering that a rich maiden aunt is an admirable prop to the younger branches of a very fruitful house, had very early determined within himself, that his sister, Chariessa, should pass her life in single blessedness; and he doubted not but he had sufficient address to confirm her an Old Maid, by the artful device of perpetually expressing the most friendly solicitude for her marrying to ad|vantage. He had persuaded her, on his leaving London, to chuse for her residence Page 203 a provincial town, in the neighbourhood of Trackum-hall, and by thus securing her within the reach of his constant observation, and studying to increase the influence which he had already acquired over her frank and affectionate spirit, he took the most effectual precautions for accomplish|ing his wishes. As Chariessa was in, that rank of life, in which matrimonial ap|proaches are made rather in a slow and ceremonious, than a rapid and ardent, man|ner, the watchful 'squire had sufficient time and opportunity to counteract the attempt of every man, whom he found guilty, or whom he suspected, of a design on the heart and hand of this devoted vestal. By in|ducing his innocent sister to believe, that he most heartily wished to see her well mar|ried, and by persuading her, at the same time, to think highly of his penetration into the real characters of men—a penetra|tion which it is difficult for single ladies to acquire—he brought the good and credu|lous Chariessa to see all her lovers exactly Page 204 in that unfavourable point of view, in which his own interest and artifice con|trived to shew them. In consequence of her affectionate reliance on his assiduous counsel, she absolutely rejected the over|tures of three gentlemen, who were gene|rally esteemed unexceptionable; but the friendly zeal of the vigilant 'squire had discovered, that they were all utterly unworthy of so excellent a creature as Chariessa.
The mean designs of self-interest are fre|quently punished with the heavy tax of so|licitude, concerning the many dangers to which they are commonly exposed. It happened thus with our prudent and suc|cessful 'squire. He triumphed, indeed, by putting every suitor to flight, while Chariessa resided within the reach of his indefatigable attention; but there were pe|riods, in which he was tormented by the restless apprehension of losing all the fruits of his ungenerous labour.
Attached as she was to the person and Page 205 family of her brother, Chariessa did not cease to love or to visit her sister Erinnis; and she resolved to pass the summer of every third year at the house of that lady, who was settled in a very distant part of the kingdom. Erinnis was one of those extra|ordinary women, whom nature, in a fit of perversity, now and then produces, appa|rently for no purpose, but that of proving a burthen to themselves, and a torment to all around them. Erinnis had possessed, like her sister, youth and beauty, opulence and understanding; but she possessed them only to shew, that, valuable as these en|dowments are, they are utterly insufficient to secure happiness or esteem, without the nobler blessings of a benevolent heart and a regulated mind. She was early married to Sir Gregory Gourd, a placid and honest baronet, who, in rather an advanced season of life, had united himself to this young lady, by the advice of his relations, for the two following purposes: first, to pay off an incumbrance on his ancient estate with a part Page 206 of her ample dower; and secondly, to pro|vide a male heir to that honourable house, whose antiquity he contemplated with a complacent and inoffensive pride. The luckless knight was doubly disappointed in these his two favourite projects. As to the first, indeed, he paid off a mortgage; but soon found himself involved, by the profu|sion of his wife, in much heavier debts: as to his second hope, whether he had entered too far into the vale of years to be gra|tified in such an expectation, or whether nature, who had certainly given no mater|nal tenderness to the temper of Erinnis, had therefore wisely determined, that she should never be a mother, I will not pretend to decide; but certain it is, that, vehemently as she panted for this event, Erinnis had never any near prospect of producing a child. This disappointment, from what cause soever it might proceed, had such an incessant tendency to inflame the natural contemptuous malignity of her spirit, that she insulted the poor submissive old knight Page 207 with every humiliating outrage, which an imperious wife can inflict on a terrified and unresisting husband.
The extreme envy with which the fine and flourishing group of her brother's chil|dren inspired her, tempted the desperate Erinnis to try the delusive and dangerous assistance of quacks; who, lured by the pro|digality with which she was willing to pay for what could not be purchased, fed her, for a long time, with fresh hopes of produ|cing, by their various nostrums, what nature was resolutely determined to withhold.
These villainous drugs had not only all the mischievous effect of drams, both on her countenance and temper, but led her into the habit of applying for present relief, in all her uneasy sensations of mind and body, to those flattering and false friends of the perturbed spirit.
Her passions, naturally vehement and acrimonious, were thus inflamed into fits of frenzy; but in the moments of her most intemperate absurdity and extravagance, she Page 208 constantly retained a considerable portion of hypocritical cunning, and, however in|solent and injurious in her treatment of all her other relations, she for ever expressed, though in a disgusting manner, the fondest affection for her sister Chariessa. This affection was partly real, and partly pre|tended. There was, indeed, so engaging, so pure, so sublime a spirit of indulgent benevolence in the character of Chariessa, that it could not fail to inspire even malignity and madness with some portion either of love or respect. But this passionate attach|ment of Erinnis to her sister arose chiefly from a mercenary motive. Though Cha|riessa was, in general, blessed with good health and good spirits, she was frequently subject to certain feverish attacks, in which her life was supposed to be in danger; and Erinnis, who had squandered enormous sums in the public display of much awk|ward magnificence, and in many private articles of expence, was grown so needy and rapacious, that she looked forward, Page 209 with all the eagerness of avarice, to the se|veral thousand pounds, which she was sure of gaining, if the good angel Chariessa took her flight to heaven. In her most stupefying fits of intoxication, and in her most furious fallies of ill-humour, she never lost sight of this expected legacy. Cha|riessa, whose pure and generous mind could hardly have been induced to believe, that such an idea ever entered into any human breast, not only never suspected the profuse professions of this pretended love, but gave a very singular and touching proof of the genuine sisterly affection and confidence, with which her own heart was inspired. It happened, that she was attacked by a very dangerous fever, at the house of Erinnis. After many days confinement to her bed, being alone with her physician, she said to him, in a very calm and unembarrassed manner,
Though her own affectionate and unsus|pecting temper made her receive, with an amiable credulity, all the lavish endear|ments Page 211 of Erinnis, Chariessa was very far from being blind to the many glaring faults of her turbulent sister; but she generously found an excuse for them, which converted them at once into objects of the tenderest compassion. She persuaded herself, that the sallow and ferocious appearance, in the altered countenance of Erinnis, proceeded entirely from a disease in her liver, and that all the furious perversities of her temper were owing either to the internal pain of this cruel disorder, or to the hot medicines which she was tempted to try. Under the influence of this kind idea, she most assi|duously laboured, not only to apologise for the offensive irregularities in the conduct and manners of Erinnis, but to counteract, to the utmost of her power, all the mis|chievous effects of her capricious and vin|dictive ill-humour: she raised and com|forted the poor knight, whenever she saw him reduced to a painful state of humilia|tion, by the frantic insolence of his wife; she consoled and rewarded the innocent Page 212 and unfortunate domestics, whenever she found them stript and discarded by their turbulent and offended mistress: in short, she endeavoured to maintain a degree of order, justice, and decency, throughout a numerous houshold, under the chaotic do|minion of a malevolent intoxicated fury; and whoever has seen her in this trying si|tuation, has seen a perfect image of charity,
Although the peaceable and chearful spirit of Chariessa could find but little plea|sure in a house like that of Erinnis, a com|passionate affection to her sister made her very exact in the stated season of her vi|sits: their duration always extended to six months, and sometimes amounted to seven; a circumstance which did not fail to in|crease the tormenting fears of her distant brother Trackum, who always contem|plated the return of Chariessa into his neigh|bourhood, with that sort of satisfaction, which is felt by the tamer of a bird, on Page 213 seeing it, after fluttering to the limits of an extensive chamber, return, in an easy and voluntary manner, to the open door of its cage.
Chariessa, however, was very far from feeling any degree of constraint: she de|parted on many of these distant visits, and returned as often to her own mansion, with|out once suspecting the inquietude which her long absence never failed to excite. Indeed, the fearful 'squire might have saved himself the pain of many teazing doubts, and many private perplexing enquiries, had he been capable of forming a just estimate of the heart and mind of Chariessa; but this, indeed, he was not; and, although he knew that the magnificent but lonely habi|tation of Erinnis was as much avoided as the den of a savage, yet he trembled at the idea of the lovers that the unguarded Cha|riessa might meet in that pompous solitude. He was assured, that a rustic apothecary, and a more rustic divine, were the only frequent visiters at this dreary castle; but, Page 214 as he had no confidence in female delicacy or discretion, and, as he found that the man of physic and the man of God were both single men, and that each would have many opportunities of being alone with Chariessa, he greatly feared that she and her fortune might fall a sacrifice to one or the other of these formidable assailants. This ground|less terror, instead of being diminished by time, increased with the increasing age of Chariessa. The 'squire was very coarse in his idea of Old Maids; he concluded, that no virgin turned of forty, and left entirely to her own discretion, could resist any ma|trimonial offer whatever; and, as his sister had reached that decisive period on her last visit to Erinnis, his spirits were not a little depressed by his despair of her return in that state of vestal purity, which he had so zealously wished her to maintain. At length, however, his apprehension was ef|fectually terminated by an event, which, though much more probable than the dreaded marriage of Chariessa, was not so Page 215 strongly anticipated by the imagination of the distant 'squire. This event was the death of Erinnis; who, having utterly worn out a good constitution by the most absurd and disgraceful intemperance, died, as she had lived, in magnificent misery. The tender Chariessa paid the last offices of af|fection to her unworthy sister, and returned in a calm and pious state of mind from the abode of joyless grandeur, whose vanity was now most completely shewn, to her own peaceful and comfortable mansion. Her disposition was still remarkably chear|ful, and she took too kind and too virtuous an interest in the general happiness of the living, to think affected sorrow a proper compliment to the dead. She had too clearly seen all the various infelicity of Erinnis, not to consider her release as a blessed event; and it pleased Heaven to reward the long and indulgent attention, which she had paid to the bodily and men|tal infirmities of that unhappy relation, with many years of undisturbed tranquil|lity, Page 216 and the purest social enjoyment. I had opportunities to contemplate her inte|resting character at this season of her life, and, as I believe her to have been, for se|veral years, one of the happiest of mortals, I shall enlarge on the particular circum|stances which constituted that happiness, and minutely examine that invaluable cast of mind, which enabled her to gain, and to secure, the rarest and most precarious of all human possessions.—Chariessa was about forty-two, when she returned to a constant residence in her own quiet and comfortable mansion: she was naturally fond of society, and her easy fortune enabled her to enjoy it in that temperate and rational manner, which suited her inclination. Having made many just remarks on the different conditions of female life, she was perfectly convinced, that she had great reason to be satisfied with her own single state, and no incidents arose, that could make her wish to change it. Her patrimonial fortune had been much increased by some considerable Page 217 legacies, and she enjoyed an income, which, by her prudent regulation of it, not only supplied her with all the usual comforts of affluence, but furnished her with the exalted pleasure of conferring happiness on a se|lected number of industrious poor. She had a spacious and chearful house, that pe|culiarly pleased her own fancy, and a set of intelligent and good-humoured domestics, who were attached, more by affection than by interest, to her person; and the neigh|bouring seat of her brother afforded her a young flourishing family, whom she fre|quently surveyed with all the tender de|light of an affectionate parent.
Such were the external circumstances that contributed to form the happiness of Chariessa; circumstances, indeed, highly desirable in themselves, yet utterly insuffi|cient to make a woman happy, without those nobler internal blessings, which were the true riches of Chariessa. She possessed, in the most eminent degree, a chearful sim|plicity of heart, inexhaustible benevolence, Page 218 and unaffected piety. It was by the con|stant yet modest exercise of these admirable qualities, that Chariessa secured to herself, not only more felicity, but even more pub|lic regard and attention, than was obtained by some single ladies of her neighbour|hood, who were undoubtedly her superiors in the attractive endowments of beauty, opulence, and wit. Chariessa, perhaps, was never known in her life to utter a witty repartee; but, such is the lively influence of genuine good-nature, that her conversa|tion never failed to delight, and her house was frequented as the abode of benevolent vivacity. Though she had passed the gay period of youth, and never affected to dis|guise her age, she took a particular satisfac|tion in promoting the innocent amusements of the young; indeed, she was a general friend to every season and every rank of life: even the common acquaintance of Chariessa, if they had any occasion to wish for her assistance, were sure of finding her, Page 219 without solicitation, a zealous promoter of their prosperity and pleasure.
There was a period in her life, at which some of her uncandid neighbours conjec|tured, that the subtle vice of avarice was be|ginning to infect her; she suddenly parted with her chariot, and reduced her establish|ment, without assigning her reasons for conduct so surprising. In a few years she resumed her equipage, and recom|menced her usual style of living, with as much or rather more splendor than ever. This still more engaged the attention of the neighbourhood; and the very people, who, on the former alteration, had accused her of avarice, now exclaimed, that she was either seized with the frenzy of extrava|gance, or was endeavouring to allure a husband. It was, however, proclaimed upon her death, by the worthy family of a deceased merchant, that, under the promise of the most absolute secrecy, she had al|lotted to his assistance, during the years of the above-mentioned retrenchment, a full Page 220 moiety of her income, by which generous exertion she had supported him through some most cruel and undeserved distresses, enabled him to retrieve his circumstances, and preserve his family from impending ruin.
Though her spirits were naturally quick, and her affections very strong, I never heard an instance of her being at any time betrayed into an uncandid animosity. The town, in which she resided, was frequently distracted by ecclesiastical and parliamentary contention. In those uncharitable strug|gles for power, the relations of Chariessa were often hotly engaged. Her affectionate heart never failed, indeed, to take a lively interest in all their pursuits, but she never ridiculed or vilified their opponents, with those eager and illiberal invectives, which have been known to flow, upon such ex|asperating occasions, from the lips of many a quiet spinster, and of many a sober ma|tron. The enmity of Chariessa was as ge|nerous as her friendship; and, whenever Page 221 she heard such petty abusive tales, as are basely fabricated in every popular contest, for the purpose of the hour, although they favoured her own party, she would dis|countenance their circulation, or expose their absurdity. Nor was this liberality of conduct without its reward: Chariessa had the satisfaction of perceiving, that she con|ciliated to herself the perfect respect and good-will of the most opposite contending characters. Perhaps there never lived a human being, so fairly and fully possessed of general esteem; and, to a mind truly amiable, there can hardly be a state of earthly enjoyment superior to what arises from incessant and open proofs of being universally beloved. Having possessed, for many years, this tranquil and pure delight, the tender Chariessa began to sink under natural infirmity: she sustained a short but severe illness with exemplary com|posure, and, in the close of it, with that calm and chearful devotion which had distinguished her life, she resigned her bene|volent Page 222 spirit to the great parent of all be|nevolence.
The influence of her virtue was very far from ceasing with her mortal existence; and, though twelve years have now elapsed since the decease of this admirable woman, her excellent qualities are still fresh in the memory of all who had the happiness of her acquaintance; and they hardly ever pass the house in which she resided, with|out bestowing a sigh of regret, or a sen|tence of praise, on the merits of Chariessa.
It was, undoubtedly, the warm and ge|nuine spirit of charity, in the scriptural comprehensive sense of that word, which gave so strong an effect to the simple cha|racter of this excellent person. Indeed, in the formation of her character, it seemed as if nature had determined to shew how far her own powers were sufficient to make a woman both amiable and happy, without borrowing any assistance from art. To the various elegant accomplishments that par|ticularly belong to her sex and her station, Page 223 we might almost say, that Chariessa was an absolute stranger: she had no ear for mu|sic, no taste for painting, no talents for any elaborate and graceful works of the needle; she had no passion for books, and had there|fore contracted so slender an acquaintance with polite literature, that, in common dis|course, she adopted many terms of provincial vulgarity: yet, so admirably did chearfulness and good-nature atone for all her defi|ciencies, that it was impossible to think her conversation tiresome, or her company insipid. I once, indeed, heard it remarked, by an ancient spinster of her neighbour|hood, who, though infinitely more opulent, was not half so much respected, that Cha|riessa had a very weak understanding: but if to avoid all the little jealousies, suspi|cions, and bickerings of ordinary spirits; if to conciliate universal regard, without practising the ungenerous arts of hypocrisy and adulation; if to pursue and relish the most innocent and rational pleasures with moderation and gratitude, if to discharge Page 224 the most essential duties with regularity, devoid of ostentation; if, in short, to enjoy and to distribute the valuable, though transi|tory happiness of this world, and at the same time to secure the permanent and in|estimable felicity of that which is an|nounced to us by the promises of Heaven; if, I say, to do all this may be considered as a proof of wisdom, envy herself must allow, that Chariessa was one of the wisest as well as the most fortunate of women.
I have dwelt with peculiar pleasure on the character of this amiable person, not only from the affection which I bear to her memory, but from the wish of exciting many a worthy Old Maid to emulate that benevolent alacrity which formed the hap|piness of my departed friend. No example can, I think, be presented to the sisterhood, which they may follow with greater ease, or with superior advantage. It must, in|deed, be allowed, that few ancient virgins possess the comfortable affluence of Cha|riessa; yet her excellence arose not from Page 225 external circumstances; with a much hum|bler revenue, she would have possessed and discovered the same generous felicity of spirit. Nature is equally indulgent to every rank in life; as in her vegetable kingdom she has kindly made the sweetest of flowers the most common, so, in the moral world, she has placed the lovely vir|tue, which conduces most to human happi|ness, equally within the reach and cultiva|tion of the rich and the poor. Benevolence may be considered as the rose, which is found as beautiful and as fragrant in the narrow border of the cottager, as in the ample and magnificent garden of the noble. The truth of genuine charity is not esti|mated by the weight of what she gives; and the mite of the indigent Old Maid, like that of the poor widow, may be supe|rior in real merit to the most splendid do|nation. Charity is a theme, on which the sublimest spirits have so often and so ably discoursed; it is a virtue of such acknow|ledged value and lustre, that to speak far|ther Page 226 in its praise may appear like an at|tempt
The unhappiness of ancient virgins often arises from a certain vacuity of heart, which is frequently the natural consequence of their peculiar situation. I have sometimes considered the Bosom of an Old Maid as a kind of cell, in which it was intended that the lively bee, Affection, should treasure up its collected sweets; but this bee happen|ing to perish, before it could properly settle on the flowers that should afford its wealth, the vacant cell may unluckily become the Page 227 abode of that drone Indifference, or of the wasp Malignity. To speak in less figura|tive language:—the want of proper objects to engage and employ that fund of tender|ness, which nature seldom fails to bestow on the female frame, may render the joyless unconnected spinster both troublesome to her acquaintance, and a burthen to herself. Of all the different kinds of want, I appre|hend that, which originates in the heart, must be the most depressing. The pains of disappointed hunger and thirst are un|doubtedly great; yet a destiny far more deplorable than that of Tantalus would be assigned to that being (if we may suppose such a being to exist) who, with a spirit full of generous and kind affections, should never be allowed to indulge itself in a single act or expression of generosity or kindness. Now the solitary yet benevolent Old Maid, who has no husband to love, no child to idolize, and, perhaps, no friend to esteem, would be almost reduced to the dreary and miserable condition which I have here Page 228 imagined, were not charity, who has the power of supplying even the tenderest rela|tion, and of giving children to the child|less —were not charity, I say, both perfectly able, and perpetually ready.
It is the privilege of charity to possess one signal advantage over some of the most eminent passions and virtues of the human spirit. Ambition, love, and friendship, are not only subject to mortification and disap|pointment, but cannot even exist without the assistance of time and chance. But charity is by no means the offspring or the slave of accident, and all her delights are permanent and certain. It is possible, that a heart, which nature has rendered capable of the most tender and sublime attachment, may wander through the wilderness of human life, without tasting the sweets either of love or friendship. But a charitable spirit, though confined to the most narrow and barren field of action, may find even there abundance of Page 229 objects to call forth, and to reward, the most salutary and delightful exertions. I exhort, therefore, the solitary Old Maid— who may be considered as the inhabitant of a wilderness, where the flowers of love are ut|terly withered, and those of friendship very thinly scattered—to make charity her fa|vourite and constant companion. She who does so, will infallibly find, in the delight arising from such intercourse, an adequate and lively substitute for all the more preca|rious pleasures, of which the caprice of chance may have cruelly deprived her.
I was on the point of closing my present chapter with the preceding exhortation, when an old acquaintance entered my study, and, before he ended his visit, obliged me with a pleasing and useful proof of genuine friendship, in a full and frank opinion of the newly-written pages that happened to lie before me. After some animating com|pliments on the design and tendency of my work in general, by which my vanity was more flattered than it may become me, as a Page 230 philosopher, to confess, my friend proceeded in the following manner:—
My very dear friend,
Having enjoyed your entire confi|dence from our infancy, I think myself bound to apologise to you, for having re|turned it, during several years, with dis|guise and delusion. Be not startled at this surprising intelligence—but why do I say startled? the moments for such ter|ror will be past, and you will be able to feel only a melancholy tenderness towards your beloved Angelica, when you read this paper, as it is not to reach you till she is no more: perhaps it may never reach you; yet I hope it will. I pray to Heaven that you may survive me, and in that comfortable expectation I shall here pour forth to you my whole heart.
You may remember, that when we were first enlivened by the acquaintance of Eumenes, I was frequently rallied on his attention to me: as that attention was sufficient to mislead the vanity of any girl, I need not blush in confessing to you its Page 250 effect upon me—I forgot, in your absence, the superiority of your attractions, and, credulously supposing that the affection of Eumenes was settled on myself, I hastily gave him my heart. As I never designed, however, that this foolish heart should hide any of its foibles from my Faustina, I was preparing to tell you the true state of it, when you imparted to me the sur|prising important letter, which declared the wiser choice of Eumenes. Yes, my dear, I say sincerely, the wiser choice, and shall prove it so. Remember that I am now speaking as from the grave, and you will not suspect me of flattery.—But to return to that heart-searching letter. I will confess to you, that I wept bitterly for some minutes, as soon as I had first perused it. I felt as foolish as a child, who, having built for the first time a castle of cards, sees it suddenly over|thrown. But my heart soon corrected the errors of my vain imagination: I began to commune with my own soul; I said to myself, why am I thus mortified? Page 251 what is my wish? is it not to see and to make Eumenes happy? and is not this still in my power? not, indeed, as a wife, since he has judiciously chosen a lovely girl, much more likely to succeed in that character; but still as the friend of two excellent creatures, formed for each other, and equally dear to me. It was thus I reasoned with myself. My benevolence and my pride were highly flattered in this self-debate; and it gave me spirit to act towards you both in the manner you well remember. It hurt me much to find, that my darling proposal for your speedy union was thwarted so long, shall I say, by your nobleness of nature, or by your false delicacy? I believe I called it at the time by the latter name, being thoroughly persuaded, that in your condition I would have accepted from you the offer which I made. At length, however, the time ar|rived, in which I was enabled to accom|plish, in a manner unknown to you, the darling object of my ambition.
Page 252 Allow me, my dearest friends, to boast in this paper, that I have been the invisible architect of the happiness which we have now enjoyed together for many years. It was the unseen hand of your Angelica, that made you the happy wife of Eumenes, by placing him in that pre|ferment, to which his virtues have given him so just a title. How I was fortu|nately enabled to make, and to conceal, so desirable a purchase, you will perfectly comprehend, from the collection of papers which I shall leave in the cabinet with my will and this letter. As long as the discovery could wound your honest pride, by a load of imaginary obligation, I de|termined never to make it; but, so strange is human pride! we are never hurt by the idea of obligation to the dead; and remember, as I said once be|fore, that I am now speaking from the grave. By this conduct I am humour|ing, at one and the same time, both your pride and my own; for I will here avow, Page 253 that I am very ambitious of increasing, after my death, that pure and perfect re|gard which ye have both shewn, through the course of many social years, to your living Angelica.—But, while I am thus soliciting an increase of your affection, let me guard that very affection from one painful excess. I know you both so well, that I am almost sure you will exclaim together, on first reading these papers, Good God, what a generous creature, to make such a sacrifice of herself for our sakes! But, affectionate as these expres|sions may be, they will be far from just. Be assured, my dear friends—and I now speak the language of sober reason—I have made no sacrifice; so far from it, I am convinced, from a long and serious survey of human life, that the most selfish and worldly being could not have pur|sued any system more conducive to their own private interest and advantage than mine has been. You will agree with me in this truth, when I impart to you some Page 254 of my own philosophical remarks, I will begin with one of the most impor|tant, and it will surprise you; it is this— I am thoroughly convinced, that I should not have been happy, had I been, what I once ardently hoped to be, the wife of Eumenes. Hear my reason, and sub|scribe to its truth. Amiable as he is, he is a little hasty in his temper; and this circumstance would have been sufficient to make us unhappy; for, even supposing I had been able to treat it with the in|dulgent good sense of his gentle Faustina, yet all the good-humour that I could have put, on such occasions, into my homely visage, would have had but a slow effect in suppressing those frequent sparks of irritation, which are extin|guished in a moment by one of her lovely smiles. Take it, my dear, as one of my maxims, that every man of hasty spirit ought to have a very handsome wife; for, although sense and good temper in the lady may be the essential remedies Page 255 for this masculine foible; yet, believe me, their operation is quickened tenfold by the heart-piercing light of a beau|tiful countenance. I was led to this remark by a very painful scene, which once passed between Eumenes and me: he was angry with me for taking the part of his son Charles, in a little dispute be|tween them; and, though I argued the point with him very calmly, he said sharply, after the boy had quitted the room, that I shewed, indeed, much fond|ness to the child, but no true friendship to the father. The expression stung me so deeply, that I no longer retained a per|fect command over my own temper; and, to convince him of the truth and the ex|tent of that friendship, which he ar|raigned so unjustly, I should certainly have betrayed the darling secret of my life, which I had resolved to keep invio|late to the end of my days, had not the sudden appearance of my dear Faustina suggested to me all the affectionate rea|sons Page 256 for my secrecy, and thus restored me to myself. Her smiles now shewed their very great superiority over my argu|ments; for, almost without the aid of words, but with a sweetness of manner peculiar to herself, she reconciled, in a few minutes, the too hasty father, not only to poor Charles, but to the more childish Angelica. This, I believe, was the only time that I was in danger of be|traying a secret, which I had, I think, ju|diciously imposed upon myself; for my disguise on this point, as it equally con|sulted our mutual pride and delicacy (whether true or false delicacy no matter) has, I conceive, been very favourable to our general happiness; to my own I am sure it has. In all those moments of spleen or depression, to which, I believe, every mortal is in some degree subject, nothing has relieved me so much as the animating recollection, that I have been the unknown architect of my friends feli|city. There is something angelic in the Page 257 idea, supremely flattering to the honest pride of a feeling heart. Yet, pleased as I have ever been with the review of my own conduct, which the world might de|ride as romantic, I would by no means recommend it to another female in my situation; not from an idea that she might not be as disinterested as myself, but lest in her friend she should not find a Faustina; for it has not been my own virtue, but the virtues of my lovely ini|mitable friend, which have given the full success to my project. Had my Faustina and Eumenes lived, like many other mar|ried folks, in scenes of frequent bicker|ing or debate, I should, I doubt not, like many other good spinsters, who are wit|nesses of such connubial altercation, have entertained the vain idea that I could have managed the temper of the lordly creature much better, and, of course, should have been very restless that I was not his wife: but, to do full justice to the uncommon merits of my incomparable Page 258 Faustina, I here most solemnly declare to her, I never, since her marriage, beheld or thought of her and Eumenes, without a full persuasion that Heaven had made them for each other.—But it is high time to finish this singular confession, in which, perhaps, I have indulged myself too long. I will only add my prayers, that Heaven may continue health and human happiness to my two friends, be|yond the period assigned to my mortal existence; and that, whenever I may cease to enjoy their friendship on earth, they will tenderly forget all the foibles, and mutually cherish the memory, of their affectionate
Page 260SUCH is the history of these two amiable ancient virgins, which I have now given to my reader, with the sanction of the bene|volent critic, to whom we are indebted for an acquaintance with such interesting vir|tue. It must, I think, be allowed, that two members of such engaging excellence are alone sufficient to ennoble any community; and, I flatter myself, the mild lustre of their characters will reflect a degree of glory on the sisterhood, and raise it considerably in the estimation of the world. Perhaps, if a just chronicle of Old Maids had been kept since the creation, it would have pre|sented to us many similar examples of ten|der magnanimity.
But, as I have remarked already, the sisterhood has unhappily had no herald to immortalise their perfections, except, in|deed, the pious old maidens of the Romish church: they certainly have not wanted their full share of celebration. But of these, and of their elder and more neglected sisters, the ancient virgins of a remoter pe|riod. Page 261 I shall speak at large in the subsequent part of this Essay. I shall there, to the ut|most of my abilities, collect all the scatter|ed rays of light, with which antiquity can supply me, for the illustration of my inte|resting subject. To rival the curious re|searches of our present most celebrated an|tiquarians, and, in the wide field which I have chosen, to leave no bush or bramble unexplored, I shall examine, in the first chapter of my second volume, if there ever existed an antediluvian Old Maid.