The Consequences of Marrying a Farmer/Schoolma’am: 1870

Dodd, Francis; Afternoon in the Parlour; Glasgow Museums;


He and she were driving out together. He was dark, short, and stout—in fact, some people called him fat—a sure way of enraging her. His redeeming points were—a pair of keen black eyes, a certain manly, sensible way he had with him, and a reliable look. She was small and slender, looking as if the wind might blow her away some fine March morning, with “two eyes so soft and brown,” and having, natural—not crimped—chestnut hair, falling in little rings and sprays around a white face, delicate, but full of life and spirit.

Every body in Knipsic Farms said it was perfectly absurd. At the last sewing society there was but one opinion. It was an unusually full meeting, the engagement having but just come out. They were working on a bed quilt for the home missionary in Bariboo. Quilting is the most social work imaginable; it so brings every one together, and over “herring-bone” and “shell” stitch the coldest hearts thaw out. Mrs. Daniel Dodge was there, Lance Lambert’s aunt; and as no one knew exactly how she stood on the all-absorbing question of the day, a little preliminary beating around the bush was necessary. Aunt Polly Griggs boldly opened the campaign like the veteran she was.

“So Lance is really engaged at last,” said she. “He’s flirted round so long I didn’t know’s he’d ever settle down and git married.”

“Oh, you know there’s always something irresistibly fascinating about schoolma’ams,” suggested sarcastic Miss Craps, who had not found the same fate true of dress-makers in her own experience.

“Well, if I am his aunt—“ said Mrs. Dodge.

Every one listened with, as Virgil puts it, “erected ears,” when Mrs. Dodge said, “if I am his aunt.” They felt it a promising beginning. When people mean to abuse their relatives they generally begin by proclaiming the rights of kindred not to spare a story for relation’s sake.

“If I am his aunt,” said Mrs. Dodge, “I must say I think he’s driven his pigs to rather a poor market. What he can fancy in that little, pale-faced schoolma’am is more than I can see. Her high-flown village airs, I suppose. A pretty farmer’s wife she’ll make!”

“Well, that’s jest what I was a-sayin’ to Miss Stowell before you cum in,” said Aunt Polly. “Says I, Miss Stowell, you mark my words, Lance Lambert’ll rue the day he ever let his eyes run away with his good sense. Lance is a fore-handed, well-to-do young man, and he ought to have a real smart, go-ahead wife— some good, stout, capable girl, brought up on a farm, with plain, sensible notions, like your Lesta or Phemie, for instance. Says Miss Stowell, says she, that ain’t for me to say, of course; but one thing I will say, my girls can turn their hand to any thing from making bread to fodderin’ and milkin’ the cows. Says she, a farmer that marries a village girl—and a schoolma’am at that—is a fool. They don’t know nothin’ about work, and are above it, and full of all kinds of extravagant notions, enough to send a man to the poor-house!”

“How does his mother feel about it?” queried Mrs. Jedediah Jones.

“Oh, she don’t say much. It isn’t her way, you know. Besides, it’s no use to oppose Lance when his mind is once made up. He’s dreadful set.”

“Well, I’m afraid he’ll be sorry,” with an accent on the afraid that made it sound singularly like hope.

“Will they live at home with the old folks?”

“No; Lance has bought the Jackson farm over at the Corners. He says there’s no house big enough for two families.”

“The Jackson farm! I shouldn’t s’pose that would be quite grand enough to suit Laury’s idees.”

“They’re goin’ to fix the house up some, I believe. The barns are good, and it’s nice land for tobacco.”

Out in the other room, where the girls were concocting calico dresses for the missionary’s children, the subject raged with even greater virulence, as might have been expected, considering that Lance had been a general favorite, and in the days of his freedom had roamed from flower to flower, after the usual butterfly fashion of young bachelors. They pitied him; they pitied her. They wondered at him; they wondered at her. Poverty and sickness, ruin and disaster, were the mildest of their predictions for this unfortunate couple.

Equal consternation prevailed in Knipsic village, where it was rumored that Laura Bridges was deliberately determined to marry a farmer. No engagement had created such a commotion since the next to the last new minister had married Sue Syllabub. Every body dressed up and called on every one else to talk it over.

“Is the child crazy?” asked Mrs. General Sampson of Mrs. Judge Jewett, in her most impressive manner. “To throw herself away on a farmer! It is true the Bridges are not wealthy, but they are one of our oldest families; and Laura, with her connections, her fine education, her agreeable, lady- like manners and pretty face, might have married into the very first circles. George Ledell was extremely attentive to her last year, before she went off teaching that miserable district-school, and became infatuated with this coarse farmer”—pronounced co-os fahmah.

Then Mrs. Judge Jewett took up the refrain: “She will have no society whatever. She will be obliged to work like a galley-slave—farmers’ wives always do. Think of Laura making butter and cheese, apple-sauce, soft soap, sausages, mopping, eating with hired men, living on salt pork!” And Mrs. Jewett shuddered at the dreadful picture imagination thus presented of a farmer’s life.

“Oh, it’s truly dreadful!” said Mrs. General Sampson.

“She can’t endure it,” said Mrs. Jewett.

“She’ll break down under it,” said Mrs. Sampson.

“She won’t live long,” said Mrs. Jewett.

Meantime, the victims, “unconscious of their doom,” were jogging along in a state of perfect happiness and infatuation. They were driving over to the Jackson farm to inspect their future home. It was a cloudy, bleak March day, the roads muddy, the grass not yet turned green. People who met on the street added, “A disagreeable day!” to their “Good-afternoon!” But Lance and Laura found it an uncommonly nice day. I think they labored under a dim impression that roses were blooming and bobolinks warbling all along the road. The summer of youth and love in their hearts cast its glamour on all the world outside.

The old Jackson farm-house certainly needed to be looked at through a glamour, if ever house did. It was a story and a half house, the paint worn off, no blinds, the fence, poor at best, now dilapidated, a solitary scraggy lilac representing the shrubbery.

There is always something slightly pathetic in these same scraggy lilacs and flowering almonds, one so often sees struggling for life in the otherwise dreary waste of a farmer’s front yard. Some woman once had heart to try and redeem with such touch of the beautiful as came within her power the desolate barrenness of her surroundings.

Poor Mrs. Jackson set out that lilac when she was young and hopeful, and still expected something of life; before Jackson’s harsh, narrow skinflintedness took all the heart out of her, and made her the broken-spirited drudge, who worked on like a tread-mill horse till one day she dropped into her grave, and there, let us hope, found rest. Then Jackson, finding a housekeeper expensive, sold out, and went to live with his son out West, where he could get twenty per cent, for his money on first mortgage—as much of heaven as his meagre soul was capable of appreciating.

And now another young couple were coming here to try that difficult experiment we call Life—the experiment against whose success there are so many odds—the experiment so many of us would gladly try over again, with the dear-bought experience that comes of failure. Would Lance degenerate into a mere money-making machine, a “keep-what-you-get-and-get-what-you-can” sort of man, like Jackson? Would the light, and hope, and love fade out of Laura’s eyes in the years to come, leaving her another Mrs. Jackson? Certainly, the associations of the new home were not calculated to inspire very cheerful ideas of a farmer’s life.

Fortunately, Laura was one of those happy people who look out on life through rose-colored spectacles. So she immediately fell to seeing the bright side of the Jackson house. If secretly rather dismayed at the forlorn aspect of things, yet the native energy of her character rose up strong within her to meet the emergency. Old Debbie, Mrs. Bridges’s washer-woman, used to say, “Laury’s all grit. Folks say it don’t take but a small skin to hold a deal of spunk, and that’s true of Laury, any how.” She possessed a latent resolution, a power of endurance hardly to be expected from her frail, delicate appearance.

“This doesn’t look like a very suitable place for you, Laura,” said Lance, as he swung her lightly down to terra firma in his strong hands.

“An original conundrum strikes me, Lance. Why are you and I unlike Alexander the Great? Because he sighed for other worlds to conquer, and we don’t need to. This will furnish scope for all our energies at present. It does look dilapidated enough. However, I am thankful it stands upon a hill. I like to ‘view the landscape o’er.'”

“By cutting away those forlorn hemlocks we shall get a view of the river and mountains beyond, picturesque enough to satisfy even you. It’s very pleasant here in summer, little as you would think it now.”

Inside, the house was more dreary still. The papers locked all the more dingy and faded from having been originally of gaudy and flaunting designs and colors. Ochre-yellow being a durable color, not often requiring renewal, every room but the parlor was painted that hue. The ceilings resembled the works of the old masters in that they were very cracked and smoky. Straw, papers, an old hat or two, a broken rush-bottomed chair, littered the floors. The March wind howled round the house, rattling the windows, and wailing down the chimneys, as if it were Mrs. Jackson’s ghost uttering warnings of doleful presage to her successor.

After inspecting the whole premises, and discussing their capabilities—after Lance had shown Laura how he intended to put a sink in the kitchen, with pumps to bring hard and soft water directly into it, instead of her lugging the former by the pailful from the well in the yard, and catching the latter in tubs or however she could, as Mrs. Jackson had been obliged to do, Jackson never having time to “fuss about women’s nonsense”—after Laura had confidentially assured Lance he was “the best old fellow in the world,” and Lance had reciprocated in kind, only more so, they returned to the front room, where, seated in state on an old dry goods box, they proceeded to engage in the pleasing occupation of erecting air-castles.

Let not the youthful reader sneer at this hero and heroine of mine as prosy, tiresome, uninteresting, because their talk turned on pumps, furnaces, and similar unromantic topics. They, too, had been through the era of hopes, despair, moonlight, ecstasy, rhapsodies. Now there was a charm better than romance in the words “our house,” “we will do thus and so;” it signified so much to them of the future, when they were never to be separated, the happy home they were to share. Besides, hath not Solomon said there is a time for all things—a time for moonlight, and a time for bread and butter, a time for raptures, and a time for furnaces?

This was how they came to talk of furnaces: Lance said, ” How mouldy and musty this room smells! I wonder if Jackson kept his cheese here? What’s that verse you quote about

“‘You may break, you may shatter the vase If you will.

But the scent of the roses—'”

“Barbarian!” broke in Laura; “to deliberately desecrate Moore by such an application! Probably this was the best parlor, and the sun was never permitted to fairly shine into it more than once a year. New paper, paint, and whitewash, and plenty of air and sun for a while, will remedy it, I suspect; But that reminds me. Do you suppose Knipsic would be able to bear it, if we should have a furnace? It makes a house so much pleasanter and more usable.”

“It certainly is a great innovation. No one in Knipsic Farms has one. The idea of a farmer’s selling his wood and buying coal will probably be a great shock to the public; but, after all, I don’t know whose concern it is but ours.”

“Aunt Polly Griggs—” mischievously suggested Laura.

“Aunt Polly Griggs may ‘hang her harp on a willow-tree,’ so far as we are concerned. I’m glad you haven’t the idea, Laura, most women seem to have, that one’s house is altogether too good to be used, by the family, and must be kept most of the time in solemn state and gloom.”

“I believe,” said Laura, “in furnishing a house pleasantly and comfortably, but not expensively — nothing merely for show. Then take all the comfort you can out of it. I expect to do wonders with that six hundred dollars Aunt Dunlap left me, to say nothing about that two hundred I’ve laid up—profits of ‘teaching the young idea,’ etc.”

“How delightful it is to marry an Heiress!” observed Lance.

“Mercenary young man! Thou shalt be twigged by the ear for that speech!” said Laura, suiting the action to the word, and being repaid by a sound kissing, which it only needed the slightest provocation in the world to tempt Lance to inflict, as Laura ought to have known—in fact, I fear, did know.

Then Laura said there was something on her mind, and Lance was anxious to officiate as father confessor.

“It’s a fancy of mine, a secret desire, that I’m afraid to tell you. I know you will think it is really extravagant, far worse than the furnace. You will begin to repent of your bargain, I fear, and think there is some truth in every one’s forebodings about my ‘high notions,’ village airs, etc.;” for people always find out, sooner or later, what “they say” about them, and Lance and Laura were no exceptions.

“Nonsense, Laura. What is it—a roc’s egg?”

“Almost as foolish, for us, I fear. A bow-window, if you must know. I always did like bow-windows, they are so cheerful and sunny; and filled with plants in the winter, they give a room a perfectly summer-like look. Then one takes off the stiff angularity of a room, and gives it individuality. Here’s a proposition in the Rule of Three for you, ‘founded on fact,’ as story-writers say: As a spice of romance and imagination to a woman’s character, so is a bow-window to a square room.”

“Ah, Laura, you have such an artful way of putting things! I foresee I shall be ‘managed,’ and never know it. However, we’ll contrive the bow-window somehow, if possible,” said the indulgent Lance, who—being in that delightfully acquiescent state of mind often manifested in mankind before marriage, when the wish of the beloved object is law—if Laura had suggested a three-story cupola as a desirable addition to their modest mansion, would undoubtedly have seen at once the extreme feasibility and necessity of the thing.

Spring and summer passed away. Lance haunted carpenters like an avenging spirit, became an object of terror to painters and tinners, worked hard on the farm daytimes, took Laura out driving in the pleasant summer evenings. Laura took a trip to New York, and made a few modest purchases at Stewart’s. Not much for herself; she saw no special reason why she should dress more or differently after marriage than before. Besides, she was carefully husbanding Aunt Dunlap’s six hundred with a view to furniture. She felt an honest pride in doing something to help toward providing the mutual home, in being a little of a helpmeet to start with, at least, even if she were to prove the miserable failure in the end every one predicted. Long webs of cotton cloth grew into sheets, pillow-cases, curtains, what not, under her busy needle, flying in and out through the long summer days. Also, she found time to practice various culinary arts in the kitchen. A bit of the summer was put away for winter use, in shape of canned berries, peaches, etc. Her bread and pies were really quite wonderful, so Lance thought.

Early in October they were married, and moved into their new home, now hardly to be recognized in its daintiness of fresh paint, pretty papers, new furniture. It was far from being a fashionable or imposing residence; nothing Gothic, or Italian, or Elizabethan about it, unless indeed we except Laura’s one extravagance—the little bow-window; but it had an eminently cozy, homelike air. The moment you stepped inside, you received a comfortable, cheerful impression, as if here were a place where people were in the habit of enjoying themselves. Entering a little square hall—on one side was the dining-room; on the other, the parlor; back of the parlor, the bedroom. The furnace imparting a summer temperature, the doors of these adjoining rooms all stood open, giving good air, and a deal of roominess for so small a house. The parlor paper was a green and gilt flower on a light drab ground; the carpet, an ingrain, small checks, green the predominant color. Through the bow-window the sun shone brightly in over Laura’s plants, making a summer within, even if the ground were white with snow outside and the mercury down among the zeros. Each side of the bow window, on little brackets, Parian busts, Eve and Psyche, wedding presents, looked out from English ivy that twined around them, and then met over the hanging basket in the middle of the window. On the walls hung two or three good engravings and photographs, over them clusters of bright autumn leaves—souvenirs of the wedding tour. A set of hanging bookshelves, bearing the united libraries of Lance and Laura, presented an odd combination of poetry and works on Agriculture and “The Horse.” Then there was a lounge which was a lounge—not a rack contrived to exasperate the human frame to the utmost by its knobbiness—an easy-chair, a camp-chair, a shaker rocking-chair, one or two cane-seated chairs, a centre-table with the big lamp, books, papers, Laura’s work-basket.

This was the family sitting-room. Looking in of an evening, you would have seen Lance one side of the table in the big easy-chair, reading his paper, or chatting with Laura, sitting opposite in her shaker rocker with her sewing. One great advantage in marrying a farmer is, that you have him at home with you evenings, provided you make yourself tolerably agreeable to him. Laura, even if she were married, still thought it worthwhile to fashionably arrange her hair, wear the bright bow, the dainty collar, the little et ceteras that really add so much to a woman’s attractions. Lance had too much respect for Laura and himself too to sit down for the evening in his old frock, tumbled hair, overalls tucked into coarse boots, savoring strongly of the barn-yard. He brushed his hair, donned an old coat and slippers, and so, with a little trouble, gained vastly in comfort and his wife’s affections.

From their windows the light of a happy home streamed cheerfully out over the snow, a benediction to the passer-by. People were fond of dropping in there for an evening, it was “so pleasant,” they said. Many a farmer’s boy and girl, after an evening at Lance’s, went home thinking farming wasn’t so bad, after all, and they wouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow old enough to leave for the city, if it could be as pleasant at home. For fashion in Knipsic Farms had ordained an entirely different order of things from that prevailing at Lance’s. The parlor of every respectable farmer must contain a very hard and slippery hair-cloth sofa, six chairs, and a huge rocking-chair possessing the same qualities in even greater degree; other furniture to correspond, arranged at stiff angles around the walls. This sacred apartment, as well as the whole main part of the house, was kept cold, dark, shut up, suggestive to the bold invader who dared penetrate their dreary shades only of funerals. The family lived mostly in the kitchen, sustained, probably, by the proud consciousness of possessing a best parlor and hair-cloth furniture. Passing by at night, you would think the house uninhabited, did not a ray of light from way back in the L reassure you. Did company come unexpectedly, so great a parade was made of building fires, opening rooms, getting out the best things, that the unfortunate guest felt he should never dare come again. So Lance and Laura were unconsciously doing missionary work in demonstrating that a farmer’s home need not necessarily be destitution of any desirable comfort or refinement. That we may see how the public stood affected, we will lift the curtain on Aunt Polly Griggs’s “east room,” on an occasion of more than usual solemnity. Ten years of meetings, funerals, sewing societies, tea-drinkings, having in a measure destroyed the primitive lustre of Aunt Polly’s best black alpaca, it was being turned and modernized, Miss Scraps having been summoned to aid on this important occasion. To them, thus momentously engaged, entered Mrs. Stowell, dropping in on her way to the village to do a little “trading,” ostensibly out of pure affection for Aunt Polly, but really to crib a sleeve pattern gratis out of Miss Scraps. This little preliminary settled, Mrs. Stowell said:

“As I came down by the Lamberts, there sat Laura at her front window, as large as life, prinked up as much as I should be if I was going to tea at the minister’s. You don’t suppose they’ve got company, do you?”

“La, no,” replied Aunt Polly; “she sets there every afternoon, fadin’ her best carpet all out. I never heerd any thing to equal it.”

“Nothing’s too good for some folks, you know,” observed Miss Scraps, with a spiteful snap of her scissors.

“I shouldn’t think Lance would allow it,” suggested Mrs. Stowell. “That wa’n’t old Miss Lambert’s way of doing.”

“Allow it! My, he thinks she’s just right, and every thing she says law and gospel!”

“Well, they do say she makes a tip-top housekeeper, better than folks thought for before they were married. Mrs. Jedediah Jones told me she gets fifty-five cents a pound for all her butter, in Boston.”

“Fifty-five cents!” almost shrieked Aunt Polly, who only had fifty for hers.

“Yes; fifty-five cents. You see she fixes it all up in some sort of fancy balls. She’s a regular manager, I tell you.”

So it will be seen Laura was gradually rising in popular esteem. It was a fact that the same system, culture, judgment, patience, that had made her a successful teacher, also made her a good housekeeper. Instead of doing every thing at the hardest, driving it through by main strength, she put some mind into her work, planned, had method and order, made her brains save her hands.

But some skeptical reader may possibly suggest that the life of a farmer’s wife does not consist entirely of sitting in ivy-wreathed parlors with bright bows on; that there are certain disagreeable actualities of churnings, bakings, washings, pig-killings, hired men, not to be ignored. It is true it was not all sunshine. Few lives are. Keats says:

“Where’s the eye, however blue,
Doth not weary?”

So it may be presumed Laura did not escape her share of the discipline Life has for every station. Sometimes she was dreadfully tired, and consequently a little blue. Sometimes, after a hard day’s work, a day when she did not feel very well, and the children were cross, and every thing went wrong—such days as will come occasionally in every household—she was tempted perhaps to look back half-regretfully to the peaceful days of girlhood. But Lance was so good, so considerate. If Laura was a trifle cross, he discreetly said nothing, which course soon brought her to a very becoming state of humility and penitence. He did not look upon women’s work as nothing, because different from his. He felt it as right that Laura should have help in the house as he on the farm, even if in the end he owned less bank stock and government bonds as a result. he actually thought more of his wife than of money. So if Laura were pecuniarily less profitable to him than big strapping Phemie Stowell would have been, and if Laura sometimes had her trials and vexations, yet they never regretted yielding to the secret attraction of the strong love that drew them toward each other—a love that bound them only the more closely to each other as the years went on, and the experiences they brought were enjoyed and endured together.

Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 4, 1870

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Best Parlour was a recognised institution. When its hermetically-sealed door was opened, the visitor was treated to a chill scent of horse-hair upholstery, camphor balls–and death–for the room was the place where the dead were laid out in their last sleep. The shades and curtains were kept drawn so that the best carpet would not become “faded all out.” The walls were adorned with such treasures as steel-cut engravings of the grimmer Biblical episodes and framed coffin-plates.

If bow-windows are an extravagance, we should all be labeled spendthrifts…

Mrs Daffodil has written previously on the over-worked farmer’s wife, also, sadly, a recognised institution. While it is pleasant to know that Lance and Laura did not regret their troth-plighting, Mrs Daffodil could have done with less of the apropos quotations; no husband, coming in from the farm-yard, whether willing to brush his hair or not, wishes to be met with some Shakespearean injunction to wipe his feet: “Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.”

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.

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