readily in your hand, are most useful after all.
The Talking Lady
Ben Jonson has a play called The Silent Woman, who turns out, as might be expected, to be no woman at all – nothing, as Master Slender said, but 'a great lubberly boy'; thereby, as I apprehend, discourteously presuming that a silent woman is a nonentity. If the learned dramatist, thus happily prepared and predisposed, had happened to fall in with such a specimen of female loquacity as I have just parted with, he might, perhaps, have given us a pendant to his picture in The Talking Lady. Pity but he had! He would have done her justice, which I could not at any time, least of all now: I am too much stunned; too much like one escaped from a belfry on a coronation day. I am just resting from the fatigue of four days' hard listening - four snowy, sleety, rainy days - days of every variety of falling weather , all of them too bad to admit the possibility that any petticoated thing, were she as hardy as a Scotch fir, should stir out – four days chained by 'sad civility' to that fireside, once so quiet, and again – cheering thought! – again I trust to be so, when the echo of that visitor's incessant tongue shall have died away.
The visitor in question is a very excellent and respectable elderly lady, upright in mind and body, with a figure that does honour to her dancing-master, a face exceedingly well preserved, wrinkled and freckled but still fair, and an air of gentility over her whole person, which is not the least affected by her out-of-fashion garb. She could never be taken for anything but a woman of family, and perhaps she could as little pass for any other than an old maid. She took us in her way from London to the west of England: and being, as she wrote, 'not quite well, not equal to much company, prayed that no other guest might be admitted, so that she might have the pleasure of our conversation all to herself' (ours! as if it were possible for any of us to slide in a word edgewise!) 'and especially enjoy the gratification of talking over old times with the master of the house, her countryman.' Such was the promise of her letter, and to the letter it has been kept. All the news and scandal of a large county forty years ago, and a hundred years before, and ever since, all the marriages, deaths, births, elopements, lawsuits, and casualties of her own times, her father's, grandfather's, great-grandfather's, nephews' and grandnephews', has she detailed with a minuteness, an accuracy, a prodigality of learning, a profuseness of proper names, a pedantry of locality, which would excite the envy of a county historian, a king-at-arms, or even a Scotch novelist. Her knowledge is astonishing; but the most astonishing part of all is how she came by that knowledge. It should seem, to listen to her, as if, at some time of her life, she must have listened herself; and yet her countryman declares that, in the forty years he has known her, no such event has occurred; and she knows new news too! It must be intuition.
The manner of her speech has little remarkable. It is rather old-fashioned and provincial, but perfectly lady-like, low, and gentIe, and not seeming so fast as it is; like the great pedestrians, she clears her ground easily, and never seems to use any exertion; yet 'I would my horse had the speed of her tongue, and so good a continuer.' She will talk you sixteen hours a day for twenty days together, and not deduct one poor five minutes for halts and baiting-time. Talking, sheer talking, is meat and drink and sleep to her. She likes nothing else. Eating is a sad interruption. For the tea-table she has some toleration; but dinner, with its clatter of plates and jingle of knives and forks, dinner is her abhorrence. Nor are the other common pursuits of life more in her favour. Walking exhausts the breath that might be better employed. Dancing is a noisy diversion, and singing is worse; she cannot endure any music, except the long, grand, dull concerto which nobody thinks of listening to. Reading and chess she classes together as silent barbarisms, unworthy of a social and civilised people. Cards, too, have their faults: there is a rivalry, a mute eloquence in those four aces, that leads away the attention; besides, partners will sometimes scold; so she never plays at cards; and upon the strength of this abstinence had very nearly passed for serious, till it was discovered that she could not abide a long sermon. She always looks out for the shortest preacher, and never went to above one Bible meeting in her life. 'Such speeches!' quoth she: 'I thought the men never meant to have done. People have great need of patience.' Plays, of course, she abhors, and operas, and mobs, and all things that will be heard, especially children; though for babies, particularly when asleep, for dogs and pictures, and such silent intelligences as serve to talk of and to talk to, she has a considerable partiality; and an agreeable and gracious flattery to the mammas and other owners of these pretty dumb things is a very usual introduction to her miscellaneous harangues. The matter of these orations is inconceivably various. Perhaps the local and genealogical anecdotes, the sort of supplement to the history of –shire, may be her strongest point; but she shines almost as much in medicine and housewifery. Her medical dissertations savour a little of that particular branch of the science called quackery. She has a specific against almost every disease to which the human frame is liable; and is terribly prosy and unmerciful in her symptoms. Her cures kill. In housekeeping, her notions resemble those of other verbal managers: full of economy and retrenchment, with a leaning towards reform, though she loves so well to declaim on the abuses in the cook's department, that I am not sure that she would very heartily thank any radical who should sweep them quite away. For the rest, her system sounds very finely in theory, but rather fails in practice. Her recipes would be capital, only that some way or other they do not eat well; her preserves seldom keep; and her sweet wines are sure to turn sour. These are certainly her favourite topics; but any one will do. Allude to some anecdote of the neighbourhood, and she forthwith treats you with as many parallel passages as are to be found in an air with variations. Take up a new publication, and she is equally at home there; for though she knows little of books, she has, in the course of an up-and-down life, met with a good many authors, and teases and provokes you by telling of them precisely what you do not care to hear – the maiden names of their wives and the Christian names of their daughters, and into what families their sisters and cousins married, and in what towns they have lived, what streets, and what numbers. Boswell himself never drew up the table of Dr Johnson's Fleet Street courts with greater care than she made out to me the successive residences of P. P –, Esq., author of a tract on the French Revolution, and a pamphlet on the Poor Laws. The very weather is not a safe subject. Her memory is a perpetual register of hard frosts, and long droughts, and high winds, and terrible storms, with all the evils that followed in their train, and all the personal events connected with them, so that if you happen to remark that clouds are come up, and you fear it may rain, she replies: 'Aye, it is just such a morning as three-and-thirty years ago, when my poor cousin was married – you remember my cousin Barbara – she married So-and-so, the son of So-and-so'; and then comes the whole pedigree of the bridegroom; the amount of the settlements, and the reading and signing them overnight; a description of the wedding dresses, in the style of Sir Charles Grandison, and how much the bride's gown cost per yard; the names, residences, and a short subsequent history of the bridesmaids and men, the gentleman who gave the bride away, and the clergyman who performed the ceremony, with a learned antiquarian digression relative to the church; then the setting out in procession; the marriage; the kissing; the crying; the breakfasting; the drawing the cake through the ring; and finally, the bridal excursion, which brings us back again at an hour's end to the starting-post – the weather – and the whole story of the sopping, the drying, the clothes-spoiling, the cold-catching, and all the small evils of a summer shower. By this time it rains, and she sits down to a pathetic see-saw of conjectures on the chance of Mrs Smith's having set out for her daily walk, or the possibility that Dr Brown may have ventured to visit his patients in his gig, and the certainty that Lady Green's new" housemaid would come from London on the outside of the coach.
With all this intolerable prosing, she is actually reckoned a pleasant woman! Her acquaintance in the great manufacturing town where she usually resides is very large, which may partly account for the misnomer. Her conversation is of a sort to bear dividing. Besides, there is, in all large societies, an instinctive sympathy which directs each individual to the companion most congenial to his humour. Doubtless her associates deserve the old French compliment: 'Ils ont tous un grand talent pour le silence." Parcelled out amongst some seventy or eighty, there may even be some savour in her talk. It is the tete-a-tete that kills, or the small fireside circle of three or four, where only one can speak, and all the rest must seem to listen – seem! did I say? must listen in good earnest. Hotspur's expedient in a similar situation of crying 'Hem! Go to,' and marking not a word, will not do here; compared to her, Owen Glendower was no conjurer. She has the eye of a hawk, and detects a wandering glance, an incipient yawn, the slightest movement of impatience; the very needle must be quiet; if a pair of scissors do but wag, she is affronted, draws herself up, breaks off in the middle of a story, of a sentence, of a word, and the unlucky culprit must, for civility's sake, summon a more than Spartan fortitude, and beg the torturer to resume her torments – 'That, that is the unkindest cut of all!' I wonder, if she happened to have married, how many husbands she would have talked to death. It is certain that none of her relations are long-lived, after she comes to reside with them. Father, mother, uncle, sister, brother, two nephews, and one niece, all these have successively passed away, though a healthy race, and with no visible disorder – except – But we must not be uncharitable. They might have died though she had been born dumb – 'It is an accident that happens every day.' Since the decease of her last nephew, she attempted to form an establishment with a widow lady, for the sake, as they both said, of the comfort of society. But – strange miscalculation! – she was a talker too! They parted in a week.
And we have also parted. I am just returned from escorting her to the coach, which is to convey her two hundred miles westward; and I have still the murmur of her adieux resounding in my ears, like the indistinct hum of the air on a frosty night. It was curious to see how, almost simultaneously, these mournful adieux shaded into cheerful salutations of her new comrades, the passengers in the mail. Poor souls! Little does the civil young lad who made way for her, or the fat lady, his mamma, who with pains and inconvenience made room for her, or the grumpy gentleman in the opposite corner, who, after some dispute, was at length won to admit her dressing-box – little do they suspect what is to befall them. Two hundred miles! and she never sleeps in a carriage! WeIl, patience be with them, and comfort and peace! A pleasant journey to them! And to her all happiness! She is a most kind and excellent person, one for whom I would do anything in my poor power – aye, even were it to listen to her another four days.
From Our Village by Mary Russell Mitford, 1787–1855