An Anecdote of Baroness Burdett Coutts.
By Mrs. Laura Curtis Bullard
Miss Burdett Coutts, upon whom Queen recently conferred the rank and title of baroness, is a tall, gaunt, angular woman, who more nearly resembles the traditional and popular type of the strong-minded female than any one of the prominent members of the woman’s rights party whom I have ever met. A tolerably wide acquaintance with the leaders of this movement on both sides of the Atlantic has convinced me that scragginess is not a characteristic of the genuine “woman’s rights woman.” But in justice to Miss Coutts, I must hasten to say that her personal resemblance to the typical strong-minded female does not result from sympathy-with the sisterhood. On the contrary, she cherishes for this class the most wholesome aversion, and has taken pains publicly to disavow all participation in their sentiments, aims and purposes.
Miss Coutts is no longer young, but she has a fancy that juvenile bonnets become her—which it is scarcely necessary to say, a mistake on her part. In short, neither in person nor in dress is she the attractive woman she would be if nobility of soul, of heart and purity of character revealed themselves in personal beauty or accompanied by an instinctive knowledge of the sources of good taste which is unfortunately not often the case.
But where Miss Coutts is known no one would ever give a thought to the minor and external defects of this truly noble-souled and generous-hearted woman, whose generous liberality is as widespread as the fact that she is the wealthiest commoner in England.
Of course she is a well-known and most welcome customer at all the fashionable shops in London, but she is not so familiar a habitue of the shops of Paris. During a visit to this latter city, not long since, she learned of the death of a distant relative, and she went to purchase mourning to the shop, the Trois Quartiers, a large dry goods establishment something like, “to compare great things with small,” our own Stewart’s. She asked for mourning dress goods, and was shown, by one of the attentive shop-men to the proper department. “Please show this lady mourning stuffs,” he said, “two-ten.”
Miss Coutts made her selection and then asked for mourning collars; the clerk who waited on her accompanied her to the proper counter. “Please show this lady mourning collars-—two-ten,” said he, and left her. From this department she went look for mourning pocket handkerchiefs, escorted by the clerk, who passed her over to his successor, with the request, “show this lady pocket handkerchiefs—two-ten.”
As she had still other articles to buy, she was escorted from counter to counter, department to department, and everywhere these cabalistic words, ” two-ten,” were repeated by one clerk to another.
Struck by the peculiarity of this refrain, asked the proprietor, as she left the establishment, “Pray what does two-ten mean? I noticed each clerk said it to the other in your shop.”
“Oh, it is nothing,” he replied; “merely a password that they are in the habit of exchanging.”
But Miss Coutts was not satisfied with explanation. Her woman’s curiosity was piqued, and she resolved to unravel the riddle. So, in the evening, when the porter, a young boy, brought home her purchases, after paying her bill, she said, “My boy, would you like to earn five francs?”
Of course the lad had no objection to and only wanted to know in what way he could do it.
“Tell me,” said the lady,’ “what does ‘two-ten’ mean ? I will give you five francs.”
“Why, don’t you know, ma’am?” said he, evidently amazed at her ignorance; “it means keep your two eyes on her ten fingers.”
The mystery was solved at last. All the clerks of the Trois Quarters had taken the richest woman in Great Britain for a shop-lifter.
She tells the story with great gusto, and one of her friends to whom she had related it in Paris repeated it to me.
The Titusville [PA] Herald 6 October 1871: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) was (after the Queen) the wealthiest woman in England. A practical and an energetic woman, she used her fortune for the benefit of a large range of charities including co-founding the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which became The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. While she might have fallen prey to fortune-hunters, she lived with her governess for much of her life, although she did propose to her neighbour, the Duke of Wellington, who at the time was seventy-eight to her thirty-three years. He refused her gently and they remained friends. After the death of her governess, (and a decade after the story above) she shocked the world by marrying her protégé and secretary, a young American named William Ashmead-Bartlett, who was twenty-nine to her sixty-seven. In so doing, she forfeited most of her fortune, (the terms of her inheritance did not allow marriages to foreigners) but by all accounts she counted all well lost for love. Her husband became an MP and carried on a legacy of philanthropy after her death.
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.