Fashionable Benevolence: 1866

The Empty Purse, James Collinson, 1857. Tate Gallery

The Empty Purse, James Collinson, 1857. Tate Gallery

An improving work of fiction to inspire us all to thankfulness and a zeal for charity in this holiday season.

“And she works exquisitely, too, so much better than that impudent Mrs. Blanchard , who, if you will believe it, Ann, never put on that double frill, even after my express direction; and I, not doubting but that the creature had done as I told her, never perceived the omission until I put on the dress to wear to the ball.”

“But where did you hear of this poor woman, Emma, who works so well and so cheap? She must be destitute, to do it for such a trifle.”

“Oh! yes, she is wretchedly poor, with a family of children, and her husband dead or absent. Our girl, Mary accidentally found her out, and told me she thought Mrs. M—, that is the woman’s name, would be glad to sew for me; so I sent for her, and bargained her down, until she was willing to do it for almost anything, rather than not at all. But all this is entre nous , for you know I could not withdraw my former seamstress to bestow on a new one, unless she was cheaper. I thought she might sew for you, when she was not engaged for me. It is something of an object to save more than half what we give Mrs. Blanchard .”

“I am half delighted to think that you have met with such a prize, for I am convinced that these fashionable milliners and mantua-makers are very expensive; and most all of the work this woman can do just as well, I dare say.”

“She works beautifully, although Mary says one would not think, to see her wretched condition, that she could have the heart to do anything; that is what makes her willing to throw away her work so, as Mrs. Blanchard would call it. Are you going to the ‘Social Circle’ this afternoon, Ann?”

“Certainly; Mr. Handon is to read us some extracts from the new novel; and besides the object is so good. ‘Angels of mercy,’ you know he called us. But do you know, Emma, why Jane Gleason has never joined? She must have been invited.”

“No; for I asked her myself, and her reply was, that she would inform me if she concluded to become a member of the ‘Circle,’ and I have never heard a word from her on the subject since that.”

“She is very peculiar; but, as it is whispered that she does good to the poor, I thought she would be among the first to aid an enterprise like this. Did you read a description of the fair at P—? We shall have a splendid one soon, and then Jane will repent of her oddity. Is it time to go?”

“Yes, a little past the hour appointed; and I must hear that affecting scene in the new novel, if it is read.”

Shall we follow our young friends to the scene of their charity? Attractive as it was, we fear that it is impossible to do justice. Bright faces might be seen grouped here and there, and fair fingers employed in every kind of fanciful and ornamental devices. Gentlemen too, who, although not privileged “to wield the polished shaft,” yet creditably sustained their part as the inspirers of the inspirees. Books, though sometimes listened to with tolerable attention, were soon thrown aside as less interesting, than conversation. Dress, manners, and characters were fully discussed; parties and balls projected; flirtations canvassed— “all the endless round of nothings.” Emma Roberts and her cousin Ann, were among the most zealous; Emma being one of the directresses of the “Social Circle.”

“How handsome she is!” said Henry Benton to his friend Harwin; “and so benevolent, too. Did you hear how enthusiastically she spoke of the approaching fair? I heard her tell sister Catherine that it would do so much good. How unusual to hear young ladies talk of such things. I must become acquainted with her,” and crossing the room he began an animated conversation with Miss Roberts, who failed not to convince him still more, that she was truly and uncommonly disinterested.

“I had no idea,” said Henry, to his sister, on their return home, “that your Circle was so pleasant. I think I shall accompany you more frequently in the future.”

“It is sufficiently pleasant,” replied Catherine, “but I sometimes doubt its utility. The work which is accomplished by the young ladies, I have feared was taken from, and thus injuring the interests of the poor persons, and the time, exertion, and money thus spent in ostentation and parade, might be employed in a more simple and private way by individuals.”

“You are too scrupulous, my dear Catherine; surely united effort must accomplish more than individual; and sociability, and friendly feeling are thus promoted, and, as Miss Roberts told you others are benefitted.”

“I hope it may be so, but do not think me censorious if I say that sometimes others might be benefitted still more if these young ladies were each of them to visit those scenes of poverty and distress, and give their counsel, sympathy, and assistance. Now, it seems pleasant to them to meet together, when they have no other engagements, and talk in general terms of charity, etc., but how few, it is to be feared, know what are self-denial and perseverance against obstacles, in order to do good.”

“I cannot judge them so harshly. It seems to me that ladies like Miss Roberts, for instance, are more likely to be admired for the sincere benevolence of heart which they display, than for all the charms of person or even of mind.”

“I know nothing of Miss Roberts which would contradict that appearance of kindness, so delightful, so praiseworthy, where-ever and whenever seen, of which you speak. With you, I have often admired the interest she manifests in everything relating to our circle, and I only hope my dear brother, that public and private charity may accompany her. But I have been surprised not to see Miss Gleason at any of our meetings; she always seems social and friendly, and I expected to meet her there.”

Months passed by, bringing the wished-for fair near at hand, and report said that Henry Benton was becoming daily more pleased with the pretty, interesting, and benevolent Miss Roberts. No one could approve these on dits, or wished they might prove true, more ardently than the lady herself; for Mr. Benton was, as the fathers would have styled him, a safe party, to mothers a desirable one, and the daughter a perfect one. With wealth, rank and talents, joined to accomplished manners, and firm integrity, his society was universally courted. As yet, however, he had never paid his devoirs at any fair shrine; but, like most of those whom fashion or interest has not moulded to do her bidding, he had a beau ideal in his own mind of the being he should wish to call his, and that had never yet been realized. Miss Roberts, attractive as she was person, would probably have excited in him no peculiar interest, had not her apparent benevolence of heart won his attention. One who could talk thus eloquently of relieving suffering, must, he thought, be amiable to no common degree. She cannot be one of those frivolous heartless beings, absorbed in selfish gratification, thinking not of the responsibility devolving upon them, and forgetting the sacred ties that bind us each to each.

It was a cold and dreary night when Henry Benton and his sister sat by their cheerful fire conversing on the merit of a book, from which he had just been reading. Everything around looked bright and pleasant, and it might well seem almost impossible for the inmates of that dwelling to think that any one could be less happy than themselves. It seems to be the natural effect of extremes of joy or sorrow, to prevent us from realizing the misery of others. It is difficult for the heart bounding with joy, to whom all things round bear la couleur de rose, to imagine the smaller miseries and greater sufferings of others, and one who is himself plunged into the depth of unhappiness, is too apt to be absorbed by the consideration of his own calamities. Our friends were not selfish, but certain it is, that the misfortunes that “flesh is heir to” were not then present to their minds, when Catherine was informed that a poor woman lived near her, who was or had been very sick.

“You were going out for a short time, Henry,” said she to her brother, “and I will go with you to this woman’s house, where you can call for me as you return.”

“Do not venture out such and evening as this, Catherine. You can send some one to inquire into her circumstances, and give her aid.”

“But I shall feel better satisfied to see how she does, myself—nay, do not object, my dear,” said she smiling; “do you think the cold can penetrate through all this fur? I know the exercise will benefit me. Come, let us go. This is the house,” said she, as they arrived at the dwelling where she had been told the object of her visit resided. “Now you can come for me as you return,” and she gently opened the door of a room where a light faintly glimmered. But she was not, as she afterwards declared, prepared for the scene that met her view. In a miserable hut insufficient to protect its inmates from the inclemency of the weather, was extended the sick woman on a low bed, supported by Miss Gleason, who was administering a cordial. The apartment, too, though indicating poverty, bore an air of neatness, and little comforts were strewed here and there, as if some kind hand had lent its aid.

“And you are here before me, Jane?” said Catherine, advancing towards her.

“Yes, I have been here some time. Mrs. M. has been very sick, but she seems more comfortable now.”

“I had never heard of her until to-day,” replied Catherine, “or I should have visited her before. I have brought some trifles, which I hope may benefit her till we can do something more.”

The sick woman groaned—”Oh! if I had what is justly my due, I need not trouble others so much. Lady,” said she, striving to speak distinctly, “long, long nights have I never closed my eyes to sleep, striving to earn something for myself and my poor children. She told me unless I did the work cheap, I could not have it, and I did it almost for nothing rather than not do it at all; but I have never been paid even that.”

“Who employed you, Mrs. M—.”asked Catherine.

“Miss Roberts sent for me, and gave me her sewing to do, and last night she sent me word, unless I completed some work which I have had out for a week, she must withdraw it all from me.”

“Do not agitate yourself about it Mrs. M—,”said Miss Gleason gently; “your wants shall be supplied, until you are able to exert yourself without injury.”

“But, my dear young lady, I cannot but think of it. I should not have minded it for myself, for I am sure, unless I could hope to show my gratitude for your kindness, and, watch over my children, I have nothing to live for; but to think of them!”

Mr. Benton at this instant stepped into the door, but not being perceived, he did not interrupt her by accosting his sister.

“I have seen them cry for bread, and I told Miss Roberts that destitute as I was, I could sew for anything that could procure them bread. Long nights have I never slept, but labored without a moment’s rest to procure them something. And when I asked her for the money, she said she never paid those little sums till they amounted to something; and added, she could not stop, either, for she was going to some society or circle as she called it, and could not listen. I came home, but could support it no longer; I could not even go out to beg food, and oh! my children, I must have perished had not this angel”—said she, turning to Miss Gleason, with tears in her eyes, and then sinking back, exhausted with the effort of speaking.

“She shall not be alone for the future, in her errands of mercy,” said Catherine, hardly able to speak. “Rejoice,” added she, turning as she perceived her brother, “that I came here, Henry, for I have learned a lesson not soon to be forgotten.”

The character and life of Jane Gleason were indeed worthy of being remembered and imitated. With a gifted and cultivated mind, she had a feeling heart and firm principles. Although every way fitted, if she had been so inclined, to become “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” she chose rather to improve the talents committed to her charge, to higher and nobler purposes. In her charity she was constant and kind, and scrupulously followed His example who “went about doing good;” and although her name might never have been seen in public prints, as “lady president,” or directress of public societies, or a graceful presider over a fair, it was graven in the heart of many a widow and orphan, whom she gladdened by her kindness. To those who feel interested in the fate of Mrs. M—, we will add, that she did recover, and through the efforts of her friends, was enabled to maintains herself and family comfortably—of course with more generous employers than Miss Roberts, who still continued her enthusiasm for public charity, although we will confess, it has never since excited so much admiration in Henry Benton. The scene at the cottage often recurs in his memory.

Since the evening of which we speak, he has seen Jane Gleason the centre of attraction in the circle of her friends, exhibiting all the graces of mind and person, but never has she looked more lovely in his eyes, and never has he found her less worthy to be the companion of joy and sorrow, the sharer and heightener of one, the reliever of the other, than when in that poor cottage, dispensing alleviation to the afflicted, and affording such a striking contrast to “fashionable benevolence.”

The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun 4 August 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Well, good gracious! The moral could not have been more pointed if the author had knocked the reader on the head with a pick-axe.  Happy endings all ’round!

Mrs Daffodil is always astonished how effective moral fiction can be and how it insinuates itself into the conscience, should one happen to possess such an article.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


1 thought on “Fashionable Benevolence: 1866

  1. Pingback: The Cost of a Fine Lady: 1857 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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