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Monday, February 08, 2021

Eliza’s Husband

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome, at his debut in this blog, the very prolific Barry Pain (1864-1928), whose series of Eliza books are among the funniest books in the English language, certainly influential precursors to P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. Here’s the opening chapter of the first book.


“SUPPOSE,” I SAID to one of the junior clerks at our office the other day, “you were asked to describe yourself in a few words, could you do it?”

Barry Pain
His answer that he could describe me in two was no answer at all. Also the two words were not a description, and were so offensive that I did not continue the conversation.

I believe there are but few people who could give you an accurate description of themselves. Often in the train to and from the city, or while walking in the street, I think over myself—what I have been, what I am, what I might be if, financially speaking, it would run to it. I imagine how I should act under different circumstances—on the receipt of a large legacy, or if for some specially clever action I were taken into partnership, or if a mad bull came down the street. I may say that I make a regular study of myself. I have from time to time recorded on paper some of the more important incidents of our married life, affecting Eliza and myself, and I present them to you, gentle reader, in this little volume. I think they show how with a very limited income—and but for occasional assistance from Eliza’s mother I do not know how we should have got along—a man may to a great extent preserve respectability, show taste and judgment, and manage his wife and home.

The more I think about myself, the more—I say it in all modesty—the subject seems to grow. I should call myself many-sided, and in many respects unlike ordinary men. Take, for instance, the question of taste. Some people would hardly think it worth while to mention a little thing like taste; but I do. I am not rich, but what I have I like to have ornamental, though not loud. Only the other day the question of glass-cloths for the kitchen turned up, and though those with the red border were threepence a dozen dearer than the plain, I ordered them without hesitation. Eliza changed them next day, contrary to my wishes, and we had a few words about it, but that is not the point. The real point is that if your taste comes out in a matter of glass-cloths for the kitchen, it will also come out in antimacassars for the drawing-room and higher things.

Again, ordinary men—men that might possibly call themselves my equals—are not careful enough about respectability. Everywhere around me I see betting on horse-races, check trousers on Sunday, the wash hung out in the front garden, whiskey and soda, front steps not properly whitened, and the door-handle not up to the mark. I could point to houses where late hours on Sunday are so much the rule that the lady of the house comes down in her dressing-gown to take in the milk—which, I am sure, Eliza would sooner die than do. There are families—in my own neighbourhood, I am sorry to say—where the chimneys are not swept regularly, beer is fetched in broad daylight, and attendance at a place of worship on Sunday is rather the exception than the rule. Then, again, language is an important point; to my mind nothing marks a respectable man more than the use of genteel language. There may have been occasions when excessive provocation has led me to the use of regrettable expressions, but they have been few. As a rule I avoid not only what is profane, but also anything that is slangy. I fail to understand this habit which the present generation has formed of picking up some meaningless phrase and using it in season and out of season. For some weeks I have been greatly annoyed by the way some of the clerks use the phrase “What, ho, she bumps!” If you ask them who bumps, or how, or why, they have no answer but fits of silly laughter. Probably, before these words appear in print that phrase will have been forgotten and another equally ridiculous will have taken its place. It is not sensible; what is worse, it is not to my mind respectable. Do not imagine that I object to humour in conversation. That is a very different thing. I have made humourous remarks myself before now, mostly of rather a cynical and sarcastic kind.

I am fond of my home, and any little addition to its furniture or decorations gives me sincere pleasure. Both in the home and in our manner of life there are many improvements which I am prevented by financial considerations from carrying out. If I were a rich man I would have the drawing-room walls a perfect mass of pictures. If I had money I could spend it judiciously and without absurdity. I should have the address stamped in gold on the note-paper, and use boot-trees, and never be without a cake in the house in case a friend dropped in to tea. Nor should I think twice about putting on an extra clean pair of cuffs in the week if wanted. We should keep two servants. I am interested in the drama, if serious, and two or three times every month I should take Eliza to the dress-circle. Our suburb has a train service which is particularly convenient for the theatres. Eliza would wear a dressy blouse,—she shares my objections to anything cut out at the neck,—a mackintosh, and a sailor hat, the two latter to be removed before entering. I should carry her evening shoes in a pretty crewel-worked bag. We have often discussed it. Curiously enough, she already has the bag, though we seldom have an opportunity to use it in this way. Doubtless there are many other innovations which, with appropriate means, I could suggest. But I have said enough to show that they would all be in the direction of refinement and elegance, and the money would not be spent in foolishness or vice.

As Eliza’s husband, I should perhaps say a word or two about her. She is a lady of high principles and great activity. Owing to my absence every day in the exercise of my profession, she is called upon to settle many questions,—as, for instance, the other day the question of what contribution, if any, should be given to the local Fire Brigade,—where a word of advice from me would have been useful. If not actually independent, she is certainly not what would be described as a clinging woman. Indeed, she does occasionally take upon herself to enter on a line of action without consulting me, when my advice is perfectly at her disposal, and would perhaps save her from blunders. Last year she filled the coal-cellar (unusually large for the type of house) right up at summer prices. Undoubtedly, she thought that she was practising an economy. But she was dealing with a coal-merchant who does not give credit—a man who requires cash down and sees that he gets it. And—well, I need not go into details here, but it proved to be excessively inconvenient for me. She has lost the silly playfulness which was rather a mark of her character during the period of our engagement, and if this is due to the sobering effects of association with a steady and thoughtful character, I am not displeased. She herself says it’s the work, but the women do not always know. Possibly, too, her temper is more easily ruffled now than then when I point out things to her. I should say that she was less ambitious than myself. I do not mention these little matters at all by way of finding fault. On the contrary, I have a very high opinion of Eliza.

We have no children living.

With these few prefatory words, gentle reader, I fling open the front door—to use a metaphorical expression—and invite you to witness a few scenes of our domestic life that I have from time to time recorded.

– Barry Pain, Eliza, Chatto & Windus, London, 1900.

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