My Godmother’s Legacy;
or, The Art of Consoling
“So your Godmother is dead!” said one of my friends, as we met on the Esplanade. Now, be it known to my readers, that this is a misfortune which happens very frequently to people of fashion, especially at watering-places. Sixty years ago, a Godmother was generally a good-natured rich spinster, who wore large pockets, and made patch-work counterpanes; preserved plums for her little cousins, and worked point-caps for her sister’s children. A Godmother in 1822 is a personage of great property, who lives nobody chooses to tell where, and dies as often as it may be convenient to whisper about a legacy.—Mine, however, had real and long existence, which a nervous fever terminated at last in the largest white house of a village, whose inhabitants ought to have voted her a piece of plate, or at least built her monument, in gratitude for the diversion and employment she afforded them. Both were prolonged after her death by a most animating curiosity to know who, and what she had left her heir. As my wife put on the wide breadth of crape which indicates an ample inheritance, I was congratulated on my good fortune, though many doubted it; as half-yard crape has been invariably laid on the petticoat of a rich defunct’s god-daughter ever since a dozen tucks have been understood to signify only ten pounds for a ring. Gold bodkins, vast burnished stay-buckles, and shoe-clasps, were found in her cabinet, enough to have melted into a thousand modern rings, but we were not without hopes of more substantial bullion; and spying a bundle of paper in the most secret drawer, I opened it with the due respect of a residuary legatee. It was six sheets closely written and stitched together, entitled “The Art of Consoling;” and the very first five sentences gave us a most affectionate and ardent admiration for the writer’s style of composition.
“I bequeath this manuscript to my godson; and as he will find between the last pages my banker’s Stock-receipts for ten thousand pounds, I have no doubt that he will preserve this essay on an art of which I prove my knowledge so well.—There have been, I know, abundant treatises written on the science of tormenting, and I have heard a college was once proposed for its improvement; but the professors were so many, that pupils would have been wanting, and few are willing to learn when all are able to practise. Therefore my attention to the Art of Consoling has more utility, more moral fitness, and, what is best, more novelty.
As method is a second memory, or a great help to it, I shall divide my thoughts into six sections, each devoted to the subjects which appear to me most appropriate to my purpose. I begin with Sick Uncles and Aunts, whose need of my art has never been doubted. Dr. Jeremy Taylor once said, “Sickness is no evil, because it produces, or may produce, all the Christian virtues.” Whether in ourselves or others is not distinctly expressed.—I, who have been a sick aunt, believe in both; for if self-sacrifice and humility be Christian virtues, what can be nobler than to lose or conceal all the merits of patience, or bounty, or affection, to console our survivors?—But I shall address myself first to sick uncles, who usually have been, and are, persons of much more dignity and importance than spinster-aunts, however rich and notable. They must be unmarried, or childless widowers, or they are not fit disciples of my school; as parents and children would find my rules needless or impracticable.
An honest good-natured gentleman, who has bought or improved two or three estates, and after killing all the foxes and partridges during fifty seasons intends to bestow them on his brother’s son, has a great right to that son’s gratitude. And if he fed and cherished the insolvent brother, educated the orphan boy abundantly, and now protects him under his own roof as his acknowledged heir with an open hand and heart, how will this orphan nephew be consoled when he loses his benefactor, and by what means will his grateful and affectionate heart be inured to see the pangs and decay of such an uncle without agony? This is the best point of my science; for the hard-hearted need no comfort on such occasions.
Therefore, my dear godson, if you live to advanced age, and have such a dependent, begin your operations in time. If he has wit and genius, don’t forget to tell him every day how stupid Oliver Goldsmith looked, how much coxcombry and avarice made David Garrick ridiculous, and, in short, how many follies every clever man has played in every age of the world. Of course, as he loves and esteems you, for both these must be certain before you practise my art, he will put on grave looks, speak seldom, and behave precisely. Then you may ask whether he means to study with a cat on each shoulder, like Sacchini or Montaigne; and if, like Haydn, he cannot compose without a diamond ring, and his best suit on. If he steals out into the fields, tell him how Gluck chose to write concertos in a meadow with a bottle of champaigne on each side of him; and give a shrewd hint concerning your cellar-key. Or you may send your butler after him to see whether, like a certain learned man, he is not carrying the bridle after his horse has slipped out of it, and forgotten the way home, as did that celebrated person who lodged at the Silver Lion, and could not recollect the sign, till he saw a man with a shaggy head holding a shilling in his mouth. By these pleasant and true anecdotes, you will enrich his knowledge, and effectually *console* him for any absurdities he may commit, as he will be very ready to remember how many subjects for ridicule have been furnished by the ablest men. If your nephew is a native of any other province or country than your own, a timely jest on it has great effect in forwarding your benevolent purpose. When you take up a modern miscellany, read, or pretend to read, the page which tells how Scotland is said to have been offered to the French Directory as the price of peace, but was refused, unless Cumberland, *which was worth something*, was added to it. If your nephew comes from Ireland, George Colman’s Gleanings, or the Percy Anecdotes will supply you with new and admirable strokes; but unluckily, if he has the high mind which best deserves our Art of Consoling, he will remember the wit and forget the personality; but in nine cases out of ten, these jokes console a nephew for any fit of the gout he may see the utterer in. He will hardly help rejoicing when you choose to withdraw your bounty, and be quite consoled for the loss of benefits which so many insults overweigh. I remember a comical resident at Bow-wow Hall, who used the rights of a sick uncle with the most consoling perseverance. When his nieces proposed yarn stockings and fleecy doublets, he asked whether they meant to pinion him to the fireside under a heap of linsey-woolsey, like an old burgher of New Amsterdam, swelled into the shape of his own barrels by the innumerable woollen works of his *goede vrow*. If they presumed to disturb his hearth-rug, or gave the housemaid orders to pry near him with her pail, he warned them against the webbed fingers proper for amphibious creatures delighting in pools of water. If nothing of that kind happened in his household, he would swear they meant to make it like a Breton’s inn, with a slushpool in the middle. If they brought him fruit or flowers, he would rave at the sight of a rose, as Cardinal Cardona, and Queen Elizabeth’s maid of honour did, and swoon at the smell of an apple. When they took care to keep such offences out of his way, he would ask if the six thousand acres and ninety thousand persons employed in gardening within twelve miles of London could not afford a poor invalid a bouquet or a dessert. You may imitate this example very creditably, for whole families have been known to abhor apples so much, that all their noses bled when one of them smelt a golden pippin: and the bravest man of his age, the Marquis de la Roche Jaquelin, fainted at the appearance of a squirrel. These unaccountable antipathies are sure to be useful in my system, for nobody can pretend to reason with them, and they make the best man in the world so troublesome that his fondest relatives are never inconsolable for his death.
My neighbour at Bow-wow Hall carried the Art of Consoling to great perfection after his decease. He had derived all the comforts of his age and sickness from sundry kind dowagers and spinsters at leisure, therefore he justly consoled them for the loss of his “esteemed society” by quite forgetting their names in his will. His presumptive heir comforted himself when he found all his uncle’s fortune given to charities, by going to each of these dowagers and spinsters, and respectfully asking for a copy of the will, the lady he addressed being, as he said, reputed sole executrix and residuary legatee. It is amazing how completely he found all these good friends reconciled to his patron’s decease, and how much they comforted him by shewing that they sympathized in his disappointment. And he consoled them not a little when they found or supposed that each had enjoyed the honour of being a reputed legatee, and very much envied by the rest. The good-natured nephew himself received consolation in a little time, by finding a codicil pinned behind his uncle’s bed-curtains.
But the Art of Consoling can never be so exquisitely and fully practised as by a protecting aunt: for those on whom she exercises it are usually, like herself, of the tenderer kind, and rendered dependent on her by the thousand bonds which link women to the sick chamber and the fireside. Men, independent in their avocations and amusements, can seek consolation abroad for small grievances, but a female has few comforts if her domestic associates refuse them. Her patroness enjoys all the manifold powers which are derived from the right of dictating in dress, gesture, words, and looks. She may interpose her advice every moment, and on occasions which are as much out of the recollection as out of the reach of a male relative. If the protegée is so heedless of her beauty, and of the arts of dress, that advice can find no pretext, you may console her for her want of taste and attractions, by reminding her that the Apostle of Reason, Thomas Paine, went unshaven a fortnight, with nails like bird’s claws, and a hearth heaped with cinders to the edge of the chimney. Then a patroness may console herself by hinting that she need not absolutely fear to be taken, like the poor philosopher, out of a bed worse than Nebuchadnezzar’s into a stranger’s garret, and then to be accused of robbing it. I had once a clever little sloven in my house, who continually lamented her want of a musical instrument and a singing-master, till I comforted her by a suggestion that she had better learn St. John’s hymn than the gamut derived from it. But it is easy enough to comfort ignorance for the absence of wit, and many have cured the poor of envying the rich, by shewing how useless and how odious wealth may become in sordid or prodigal hands. I have aimed at higher things. I have discovered how to comfort my friends,—not merely for want of the blessings, but for their future and probable loss. I have made those who possessed youth, talents, affluence, and honour, well prepared and ready to console themselves for their cessation, by proving any and all of these blessings valueless.
My niece Lucy was one of my subjects. Her brother was forced by ill chances to leave her at seventeen under my guidance, while he sought better fortune abroad. In ten years he returned, and invited her to join him in their birth-place, where he had rebuilt their family-mansion as her future home, —I,—but example is better than precept, and I remember perfectly our little dialogue next day. Poor Lucy sat stringing beads in that flush of fallacious joy which needs so much consolation:—“You will have time enough, my love,” said I, “for such pastime hereafter.”
“O no, madam there will be my harp and my greenhouse,—and we shall have so many of our dear old walks to seek in the summer-evenings.”
“They will be quite long enough to tire your brother, child; and I never heard that men of wit and fortune cared much for their sisters’ harps and herbs.—You will be very lucky if he does not plant a flower of his own choosing in your garden.”
“His late wife’s children will grow there, I hope, dear aunt! and I shall have a great deal more joy in rearing them than my moss-roses.”
“O, of course!—children are always so grateful and kind to their aunts, and so fond of seeing strangers in their mothers’ place!”
Lucy looked calmer, and in a fitter way to enjoy consolation. While I added,—“You need not give those children my lace ruffles nor my best pearl earrings, my love.”—“Certainly not, madam; I shall wear what I value most myself.”—“But at your age a cough is so dangerous, and you may not want them very long.”—“Indeed, madam, I shall be quite well in my native air.”—“Yes, my dearest, and you need not make yourself in the least uneasy about me. Anybody will attend to the last kind offices, and I have been preparing myself to do without my friends.”—“O, madam! you know your accompanying us was our first hope,—an express condition;—but we will wait,—we will arrange:—tell me what we can do for your satisfaction?”— I consoled her by an ample assurance that I cared nothing for her attendance, and had a perfect foresight of her abandonment. She would not regard either, and steadily devoted herself ten more years to my fireside; and I consoled her for the deprivation of her pleasant prospects, by assurances that every body laughed at her fancying any such could last. When she was dead, I found she had been most urgently entreated to leave me, and had the consolation of knowing she did exactly as she pleased. This is the truest and shortest way to console ourselves and our dependents. If we did not mix a few asperities with our bounties,—if we gave to munificence all the graces of kindness, the regrets of the grateful for the loss of a benefactress would be too bitter; and we could not be comforted for the death of a faithful attendant, if we were not quite sure that death was welcomed as a release. My next remarks are applicable to the five classes most in want of comfort,—People in the country. Poor old friends, Wits out of place, Ladies out of fashion, and Husbands and Wives. I place these two in my last class, not because, as hackney wits say, they are past consolation, but because in general they seem pretty well disposed to learn my art of administering it.”