Nige celebrates a gem of Victorian comic writing…
Born in 1803, Douglas William Jerrold was one of those industrious Victorians writers who seem never to have slept. He was a successful dramatist (his first staged piece written when he was 14), a hugely prolific critic and journalist, a famous conversationist and wit, friend of Dickens, founder-editor of half a dozen magazines and a mainstay of the early Punch. It was there that he published the work for which he is still (just) remembered – that gem of Victorian comedy, Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures.
These are verbatim accounts, written from memory (as a kind of bitterwseet memorial) by the widowed Mr Caudle, of a series of withering monologues delivered by his wife as the hapless Mr C climbed into bed in hope of sleep – only to be reminded of some indiscretion that would surely bring about in due course the fall of the house of Caudle.
A naturally generous and convivial type, Mr C is sometimes a little the worse for wear when he comes to bed, and knows what he must expect. On other occasions, though, it is some insignificant and barely noticed lapse that has set Mrs Caudle’s dark imaginings to work, and he must be forcibly reminded of the inevitable consequences.
Here, for example, he has thoughtlessly lent an umbrella. Oh dear…
‘BAH! That’s the third umbrella gone since Christmas.
“What were you to do?
“Why, let him go home in the rain, to be sure. I’m very certain there was nothing about him that could spoil. Take cold, indeed! He doesn’t look like one of the sort to take cold. Besides, he’d have better taken cold than take our only umbrella. Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear the rain? And as I’m alive, if it isn’t St. Swithin’s day! Do you hear it against the windows? Nonsense; you don’t impose upon me. You can’t be asleep with such a shower as that! Do you hear it, I say? Oh, you do hear it! Well, that’s a pretty flood, I think, to last for six weeks; and no stirring all the time out of the house. Pooh! don’t think me a fool, Mr. Caudle. Don’t insult me. He return the umbrella! Anybody would think you were born yesterday. As if anybody ever did return an umbrella! There—do you hear it! Worse and worse! Cats and dogs, and for six weeks, always six weeks. And no umbrella!
“I should like to know how the children are to go to school tomorrow? They sha’n't go through such weather, I’m determined. No: they shall stop at home and never learn anything—the blessed creatures!—sooner than go and get wet. And when they grow up, I wonder who they’ll have to thank for knowing nothing—who, indeed, but their father? People who can’t feel for their own children ought never to be fathers.
“But I know why you lent the umbrella. Oh, yes; I know very well. I was going out to tea at dear mother’s to-morrow—you knew that; and you did it on purpose. Don’t tell me; you hate me to go there, and take every mean advantage to hinder me. But don’t you think it, Mr. Caudle. No, sir; if it comes down in buckets-full I’ll go all the more. No: and I won’t have a cab. Where do you think the money’s to come from? You’ve got nice high notions at that club of yours. A cab, indeed! Cost me sixteenpence at least—sixteenpence! two-and-eightpence, for there’s back again. Cabs, indeed! I should like to know who’s to pay for ‘em; I can’t pay for ‘em, and I’m sure you can’t, if you go on as you do; throwing away your property, and beggaring your children—buying umbrellas!
“Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear it? But I don’t care—I’ll go to mother’s to-morrow: I will; and what’s more, I’ll walk every step of the way,—and you know that will give me my death. Don’t call me a foolish woman, it’s you that’s the foolish man. You know I can’t wear clogs; and with no umbrella, the wet’s sure to give me a cold—it always does. But what do you care for that? Nothing at all. I may be laid up for what you care, as I daresay I shall—and a pretty doctor’s bill there’ll be. I hope there will! It will teach you to lend your umbrellas again. I shouldn’t wonder if I caught my death; yes: and that’s what you lent the umbrella for. Of course!
“Nice clothes I shall get too, traipsing through weather like this. My gown and bonnet will be spoilt quite.
“Needn’t I wear ‘em then?
“Indeed, Mr. Caudle, I shall wear ‘em. No, sir, I’m not going out a dowdy to please you or anybody else. Gracious knows! it isn’t often that I step over the threshold; indeed, I might as well be a slave at once,—better, I should say. But when I do go out,—Mr. Caudle, I choose to go like a lady. Oh! that rain—if it isn’t enough to break in the windows.
“Ugh! I do look forward with dread for to-morrow! How I am to go to mother’s I’m sure I can’t tell. But if I die I’ll do it. No, sir; I won’t borrow an umbrella. No; and you sha’n't buy one. Now, Mr. Caudle, only listen to this: if you bring home another umbrella, I’ll throw it in the street. I’ll have my own umbrella or none at all.
“Ha! and it was only last week I had a new nozzle put to that umbrella. I’m sure, if I’d have known as much as I do now, it might have gone without one for me. Paying for new nozzles, for other people to laugh at you. Oh, it’s all very well for you—you can go to sleep. You’ve no thought of your poor patient wife, and your own dear children. You think of nothing but lending umbrellas!
“Men, indeed!—call themselves lords of the creation!—pretty lords, when they can’t even take care of an umbrella!
“I know that walk to-morrow will be the death of me. But that’s what you want—then you may go to your club and do as you like—and then, nicely my poor dear children will be used—but then, sir, then you’ll be happy. Oh, don’t tell me! I know you will. Else you’d never have lent the umbrella!
“You have to go on Thursday about that summons and, of course, you can’t go. No, indeed, you don’t go without the umbrella. You may lose the debt for what I care—it won’t be so much as spoiling your clothes—better lose it: people deserve to lose debts who lend umbrellas!
“And I should like to know how I’m to go to mother’s without the umbrella! Oh, don’t tell me that I said I would go—that’s nothing to do with it; nothing at all. She’ll think I’m neglecting her, and the little money we were to have we sha’n't have at all—because we’ve no umbrella.
“The children, too! Dear things! They’ll be sopping wet; for they sha’n't stop at home—they sha’n't lose their learning; it’s all their father will leave ‘em, I’m sure. But they shall go to school. Don’t tell me I said they shouldn’t: you are so aggravating, Caudle; you’d spoil the temper of an angel. They shall go to school; mark that. And if they get their deaths of cold, it’s not my fault—I didn’t lend the umbrella.”
“At length,” writes Caudle, “I fell asleep; and dreamt that the sky was turned into green calico, with whalebone ribs; that, in fact, the whole world turned round under a tremendous umbrella!”
Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures quite often turns up in bookshops in nice illustrated Victorian editions. It has also been reprinted in the excellent series of Prion Humour Classics, with an appreciative introduction by Peter Ackroyd, no less [and there's even a Kindle version available for free - Ed].