Louise Imogen Guiney

On teaching one’s grandmother how to suck eggs

*Quotidiana Note: According to various online resources, “Teach one’s grandmother to suck eggs” means to “patronize someone” or to “presume to advise someone who is more experienced.”

In the days of the Schoolmen, when no vexed question went without its fair showing, it seems incredible that the important thesis hereto affixed as a title went a-begging among those hair-splitting philosophers. Since Aristotle himself overlooked it, Duns Scotus and the noted Paracelsus, Aureolus Philip Theophrastus Bombast de Hohenheim, were quite content to repeat his sin of omission. Even Sir Thomas Browne, “the horizon of whose understanding was much larger than the hemisphere of this world,” neither unearthed the origin of this singular implied practice, nor attempted in any way to uphold or depreciate it. The phrase hath scarce the grace of an Oriental precept, and scarce the dignity of Rome. It might sooner appertain to Sparta, where the old were held in reverence, and where their education, in a burst of filial anxiety, might be prolonged beyond the usual term of mental receptivity.

It is reserved therefore, for some modern inquirer to establish, whether the strange accomplishment in mind was at any time, in any nation, barbarous or enlightened, in universal repute among venerable females; or else especially imparted, under the rose, as a sort of witch-trick, to conjurers, fortune-tellers, pythonesses, sibyls, and such secretive and oracular folk; whether the initiatory lessons were theoretical merely; and at what age the grandams (for the condition of hyper-maternity was at least imperative) were allowed to begin operations.

It is a partial argument against the antiquity of the custom, and against the supposition of its having prevailed among old Europe’s nomadic tribes, that several of these are accused by historians of having destroyed their progenitors so soon as the latter became idle and enfeebled: whereas it is reasonably to be inferred that the gentle process of ovisugescence, had such then been invented, would have kept the savage fireside peopled with happy and industrious centenarians. After the arduous labor of their long lives, this new, leisurely, mild, and genteel trade could be acquired with imperceptible trouble. Cato mastering Greek at eighty, Dandolo leading hosts when past his October, are kittenish and irreverend figures beside that of a toothless Goth grandmother, learning, with melancholy energy, to suck eggs.

We know not why the privilege of education, if granted to them without question, should have been withheld from their gray spouses, who certainly would have preferred so sociable an industry to whetting the knives of the hunters, or tending watch-fires by night. But no one of us ever heard of a grandfather sucking eggs. The gentle art was apparently sacred to the gentle sex, and withheld from the shaggy lords of creation, by whom the innutritious properties of the shell were happily unsuspected.

By what means was the race of hens, for instance, preserved? Statistics might be proffered concerning the ante-natal consumption of fledglings, which would edify students of natural history. One bitterly-disputed point, the noble adage under consideration permanently settles; a quibble which ought to have

staggered that stout Stagy rite,

and which has come even to the notice of grave inductive theologians: vide licet, that the bird, and not the egg, may claim the priority of existence. For had it been otherwise, one’s grandmother would been early acquainted with the very article which her posterity recommended to her as a novelty, and which, with respectful care, they taught her to utilize, after a fashion best adapted to her time of life.

Fallen into desuetude is this judicious and salutary custom. There must have been a time when a yellowish stain about the mouth denoted an age, a vocation, a limitation, effectually as did the bulla of the lad, the maiden’s girdle, “the marshal’s truncheon, or the judge’s robe,” or any of the picturesque distinctions now crushed out of the social code. But the orthodox sucking of eggs, the innocent, austere, meditative pastime, is no more, and the glory of grandams is extinguished forever.

The dreadful civility of our western woodsmen, the popular dissentient voice alike of the theatre and of the political meeting, the casting of eggs wherefrom the element of youth is wholly eliminated, affords a speculation on heredity, and appears to be a faint echo of some traditional squabble in the morning of the world, among disagreeing kinswomen; the very primordial battle, where reloading was superfluous, where every shell told, whose blackest spite was spent in a golden rain and hail. What havoc over the face of young creation; what coloring of pools, and of errant butterflies! What distress amid the cleanly pixies and dryads, whose shady haunts trickled unwelcome moisture: a terror not unshared in the recesses of the coast:

Intus aqua dukes, vivoque sedilia saxo, Nympbarum domus

One can fancy the younglings of the vast human family, the success of whose lesson to their elders was thus over-well demonstrated, marking the ebb and flow of hostilities, like the superb spirits of Richelieu and the fourteenth Louis, eyeing the great Revolution. What marvel, if, struck with remorse at the senile strife of the “she-citizens,” they vowed never, never to teach another grandmother to suck eggs! So it was, maybe, that the abused custom was lost from the earth.

Nay, more; its remembrance is perverted into a taunt more scorching than lightning, more silencing than the bolt of Jove. Sus Minervam is Cicero’s elegant equivalent; and Partridge says to Tom Jones, quoting his old schoolmaster: “Polly Matete cry town is my daskalon”: the English whereof runneth: Teach your grandmother how to suck eggs! Is not the phrase the cream of scorn, the catchword of insubordination, the blazing defiance of tongues unbroken as a one-year’s colt? It grated strangely on our ear. We grieved over the transformation of a favorite saw, innocuous once, and conveying a meek educational suggestion. We came to admit that the Academe where the old sat at the feet of their descendants, to be ingratiated into the most amiable of professions, was nothing better, in memory, than an impertinence. And we sadly avowed, in the underground chamber of our private heart, that, as for worldly prospects, it would be fairly suicidal, all things considered, to aspire now to the chair of that professorship.

Let some reformer, who cherishes his ancestress, and who is not averse to break his fast on an omelet, dissuade either object of his regard from longer lending name and countenance to a vulgar sneer Shall such be thy mission, reader? We would wish the extended acquaintance with that mysterious small cosmos which suggests to the liberal palate broiled wing and giblets in posse; and joy for many a year of thy parent’s parent, who is in some sort thy reference and means of identification, the hub of thy far-reaching and more active life; but, prithee, wrench apart their sorry association in our English speech. Purists shall forgive thee if thou shalt, meanwhile, smile in thy sleeve at the fantastic text which brought them together.

(1885)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “On teaching one’s grandmother how to suck eggs.” 1885. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Apr 2007. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/teaching_ones_grandmother/>.

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