Leigh Hunt

On washerwomen

Writers, we think, might oftener indulge themselves in direct picture-making, that is to say, in detached sketches of men and things, which should be to manners, what those of Theophrastus are to character.

Painters do not always think it necessary to paint epics, or to fill a room with a series of pictures on one subject. They deal sometimes in single figures and groups; and often exhibit a profounder feeling in these little concentrations of their art, than in subjects of a more numerous description. Their gusto, perhaps, is less likely to be lost, on that very account. They are no longer Sultans in a seraglio, but lovers with a favourite mistress, retired and absorbed. A Madonna of Correggio’s, the Bath of Michael Angelo, the Standard of Leonardo da Vinci, Titian’s Mistress, and other single subjects or groups of the great masters, are acknowledged to be among their greatest performances, some of them their greatest of all.

It is the same with music. Overtures, which are supposed to make allusion to the whole progress of the story they precede, are not always the best productions of the master; still less are choruses, and quintetts, and other pieces involving a multiplicity of actors. The overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute (Zauberflöte) is worthy of the title of the piece; it is truly enchanting; but what are so intense, in their way, as the duet of the two lovers, Ah Perdona,—or the laughing trio in Cosi Fan Tutte,—or that passionate serenade in Don Giovanni, Deh vieni alIa finestra, which breathes the very soul of refined sensuality! The gallant is before you, with his mandolin and his cap and feather, taking place of the nightingale for that amorous hour; and you feel that the sounds must inevitably draw his mistress to the window. Their intenseness even renders them pathetic; and his heart seems in earnest, because his senses are.

We do not mean to say, that, in proportion as the work is large and the subject numerous, the merit may not be the greater if all is good. Raphael’s Sacrament is a greater work than his Adam and Eve; but his Transfiguration would still have been the finest picture in the world, had the second group in the foreground been away; nay, the latter is supposed, and, we think, with justice, to injure its effect. We only say that there are times when the numerousness may scatter the individual gusto;—that the greatest possible feeling may be proved without it;—and, above all, returning to our more immediate subject, that writers, like painters, may sometimes have leisure for excellent detached pieces, when they want it for larger productions. Here, then, is an opportunity for them. Let them, in their intervals of history, or, if they want time for it, give us portraits of humanity. People lament that Sappho did not write more: but, at any rate, her two odes are worth twenty epics like Tryphiodorus.

But, in portraits of this kind, writing will also have a great advantage; and may avoid what seems to be an inevitable stumbling-block in paintings of a similar description. Between the matter-of-fact works of the Dutch artists, and the subtle compositions of Hogarth, there seems to be a medium reserved only for the pen. The writer only can tell you all he means,—can let you into his whole mind and intention. The moral insinuations of the painter are, on the one hand, apt to be lost for want of distinctness; or tempted, on the other, by their visible nature, to put on too gross a shape. If he leaves his meanings to be imagined, he may unfortunately speak to unimaginative spectators, and generally does; if he wishes to explain himself so as not to be mistaken, he will paint a set of comments upon his own incidents and characters, rather than let them tell for themselves. Hogarth himself, for instance, who never does anything without a sentiment or a moral, is too apt to perk them both in your face, and to be over-redundant in his combinations. His persons, in many instances, seem too much taken away from their proper indifference to effect, and to be made too much of conscious agents and joint contributors. He “o’er-informs his tenements.” His very goods and chattels are didactic. He makes a capital remark of a cow’s horn, and brings up a piece of cannon in aid of a satire on vanity.* It is the writer only who, without hurting the most delicate propriety of the representation, can leave no doubt of all his intentions,—who can insinuate his object, in two or three words, to the dullest conception; and, in conversing with the most foreign minds, take away all the awkwardness of interpretation. What painting gains in universality to the eye, it loses by an infinite proportion in power of suggestion to the understanding.

*See the cannon going off in the turbulent portrait of a General Officer, and the cow’s head coming just over that of the citizen who is walking with his wife.

There is something of the sort of sketches we are recommending in Sterne: but Sterne had a general connected object before him, of which the parts apparently detached were still connecting links: and while he also is apt to overdo his subject like Hogarth, is infinitely less various and powerful. The greatest master of detached portrait is Steele: but his pictures too form a sort of link in a chain. Perhaps the completest specimen of what we mean in the English language is Shenstone’s “School-Mistress,” by far his best production, and a most natural, quiet, and touching old dame.—But what? Are we leaving out Chaucer? Alas, we thought to be doing something a little original, and find it all existing already, and in unrivalled perfection, in his portraits of the Canterbury Pilgrims! We can only dilate, and vary upon his principle.

But we are making a very important preface to what may turn out a very trifling subject, and must request the reader not to be startled at the homely specimen we are about to give him, after all this gravity of recommendation. Not that we would apologise for homeliness, as homeliness. The beauty of this unlimited power of suggestion in writing is, that you may take up the driest and most commonplace of all possible subjects, and strike a light out of it to warm your intellect and your heart by. The fastidious habits of polished life generally incline us to reject, as incapable of interesting us, whatever does not present itself in a graceful shape of its own, and a ready-made suit of ornaments. But some of the plainest weeds become beautiful under the microscope. It is the benevolent provision of nature, that in proportion as you feel the necessity of extracting interest from common things, you are enabled to do so;—and the very least that this familiarity with homeliness will do for us is to render our artificial delicacy less liable to annoyance, and to teach us how to grasp the nettles till they obey us.

The reader sees that we are Wordsworthians enough not to confine our tastes to the received elegancies of society; and, in one respect, we go further than Mr Wordsworth, for, though as fond, perhaps, of the country as he, we can manage to please ourselves in the very thick of cities, and even find there as much reason to do justice to Providence, as he does in the haunts of sportsmen, and anglers, and all-devouring insects.

To think, for instance, of that laborious and inelegant class of the community—Washerwomen, and of all the hot, disagreeable dabbling, smoking, splashing, kitcheny, cold-dining, anti-company-receiving associations, to which they give rise. What can be more annoying to any tasteful lady or gentleman, at their first waking in the morning, than when that dreadful thump at the door comes, announcing the tub-tumbling viragoes, with their brawny arms and brawling voices? We must confess, for our own parts, that our taste, in the abstract, is not for washerwomen; we prefer Dryads and Naiads, and the figures that resemble them;—

Fair forms, that glance amid the green of woods,
Or from the waters give their sidelong shapes
Half swelling.

Yet we have lain awake sometimes in a street in town, after this first confounded rap, and pleased ourselves with imagining how equally the pains and enjoyments of this world are dealt out, and what a pleasure there is in the mere contemplation of any set of one’s fellow-creatures and their humours, when our knowledge has acquired humility enough to look at them steadily.

The reader knows the knock which we mean. It comes like a lump of lead and instantly wakes the maid, whose business it is to get up, though she pretends not to hear it. Another knock is inevitable, and it comes, and then another; but still Betty does not stir, or stirs only to put herself in a still snugger posture, knowing very well that they must knock again. “Now, ’drat that Betty,” says one of the washerwomen; “she hears as well as we do, but the deuce a bit will she move till we give her another”; and at the word another, down goes the knocker again. “It’s very odd,” says the master of the house, mumbling from under the bedclothes, “that Betty does not get up to let the people in; I’ve heard that knocker three times.” “Oh,” returns the mistress, “she’s as lazy as she’s high,”—and off goes the chamber-bell;—by which time Molly, who begins to lose her sympathy with her fellow-servant in impatience of what is going on, gives her one or two conclusive digs in the side; when the other gets up, and rubbing her eyes, and mumbling, and hastening and shrugging herself downstairs, opens the door with—“Lard, Mrs Watson, I hope you haven’t been standing here long?”—“Standing here long, Mrs Betty! Oh, don’t tell me; people might stand starving their legs off, before you’d put a finger out of bed.”—“Oh, don’t say so, Mrs Watson; I’m sure I always rises at the first knock; and there—you’ll find everything comfortable below, with a nice hock of ham, which I made John leave for you.” At this the washerwomen leave their grumbling, and shuffle downstairs, hoping to see Mrs Betty early at breakfast. Here, after warming themselves at the copper, taking a mutual pinch of snuff, and getting things ready for the wash, they take a snack at the promised hock; for people of this profession have always their appetite at hand, and every interval of labour is invariably cheered by the prospect of having something at the end of it. “Well,” says Mrs Watson, finishing the last cut, “some people thinks themselves mighty generous for leaving one what little they can’t eat; but, howsomever, it’s better than nothing.” “Ah,” says Mrs Jones, who is a minor genius, “one must take what one can get now-a-days; but Squire Hervey’s for my money.” “Squire Hervey!” rejoins Mrs Watson, “what’s that the great what’s-his-name as lives yonder?” “Ay,” returns Mrs Jones, “him as has a niece and nevvy, as they say eats him out of house and land”; and here commences the history of all the last week of the whole neighbourhood round, which continues amidst the dipping and splashing fists, the rumbling of suds, and the creaking of wringings-out, till an hour or two are elapsed; and then for another snack and a pinch of snuff, till the resumption of another hour’s labour or so brings round the time for first breakfast. Then, having had nothing to signify since five, they sit down at half-past six in the wash-house, to take their own meal before the servants meet at the general one. This is the chief moment of enjoyment. They have just laboured enough to make the tea and bread and butter welcome, are at an interesting point of the conversation, (for there they contrive to leave off on purpose), and so down they sit, fatigued and happy, with their red elbows and white corrugated fingers, to a tub turned upside down, and a dish of good Christian souchong, fit for a body to drink.

We could dwell a good deal upon this point of time, but shall only admonish the fastidious reader, who thinks he has all the taste and means of enjoyment to himself, how he looks with scorn upon two persons, who are perhaps at this moment the happiest couple of human beings in the street,—who have discharged their duty, have earned their enjoyment, and have health and spirits to relish it to the full. A washerwoman’s cup of tea may vie with the first drawn cork at a bon-vivant’s table, and the complacent opening of her snuff-box with that of the most triumphant politician over a scheme of partition. We say nothing of the continuation of their labours, of the scandal they resume, or the complaints they pour forth, when they first set off again in the indolence of a satisfied appetite, at the quantity of work which the mistress of the house, above all other mistresses, is sure to heap upon them. Scandal and complaint, in these instances, do not hurt the complacency of our reflections; they are in their proper sphere; and are nothing but a part, as it were, of the day’s work, and are so much vent to the animal spirits. Even the unpleasant day which the work causes upstairs in some houses,—the visitors which it excludes, and the leg of mutton which it hinders from roasting, are only so much enjoyment kept back and contrasted, in order to be made keener the rest of the week. Beauty itself is indebted to it, and draws from that steaming out-house and splashing tub the well-fitting robe that gives out its figure, and the snowy cap that contrasts its curls and its complexion. In short, whenever we hear a washerwoman at her foaming work, or see her plodding towards us with her jolly warm face, her mob cap, her black stockings, clattering patterns, and tub at arm’s length resting on her hip-joint, we look upon her as a living lesson to us to make the most both of time and comfort, and as a sort of allegorical compound of pain and pleasure, a little too much, perhaps, in the style of Rubens.


MLA Citation

Hunt, Leigh. “On washerwomen.” 1816. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 26 Jun 2008. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/washerwomen/>.

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