Essays on Life, Art and Science
by Samuel Butler

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Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902)
English composer, novelist, and satiric author

The Aunt, the Nieces, and the Dog {3}

When a thing is old, broken, and useless we throw it on the dust- heap, but when it is sufficiently old, sufficiently broken, and sufficiently useless we give money for it, put it into a museum, and read papers over it which people come long distances to hear. By- and-by, when the whirligig of time has brought on another revenge, the museum itself becomes a dust-heap, and remains so till after long ages it is re-discovered, and valued as belonging to a neo- rubbish age—containing, perhaps, traces of a still older paleo- rubbish civilisation. So when people are old, indigent, and in all respects incapable, we hold them in greater and greater contempt as their poverty and impotence increase, till they reach the pitch when they are actually at the point to die, whereon they become sublime. Then we place every resource our hospitals can command at their disposal, and show no stint in our consideration for them.

It is the same with all our interests. We care most about extremes of importance and of unimportance; but extremes of importance are tainted with fear, and a very imperfect fear casteth out love. Extremes of unimportance cannot hurt us, therefore we are well disposed towards them; the means may come to do so, therefore we do not love them. Hence we pick a fly out of a milk-jug and watch with pleasure over its recovery, for we are confident that under no conceivable circumstances will it want to borrow money from us; but we feel less sure about a mouse, so we show it no quarter. The compilers of our almanacs well know this tendency of our natures, so they tell us, not when Noah went into the ark, nor when the temple of Jerusalem was dedicated, but that Lindley Murray, grammarian, died January 16, 1826. This is not because they could not find so many as three hundred and sixty-five events of considerable interest since the creation of the world, but because they well know we would rather hear of something less interesting. We care most about what concerns us either very closely, or so little that practically we have nothing whatever to do with it.

I once asked a young Italian, who professed to have a considerable knowledge of English literature, which of all our poems pleased him best. He replied without a moment’s hesitation:-

“Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
   The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
   And the dish ran away with the spoon.”

He said this was better than anything in Italian. They had Dante and Tasso, and ever so many more great poets, but they had nothing comparable to “Hey diddle diddle,” nor had he been able to conceive how any one could have written it. Did I know the author’s name, and had we given him a statue? On this I told him of the young lady of Harrow who would go to church in a barrow, and plied him with whatever rhyming nonsense I could call to mind, but it was no use; all of these things had an element of reality that robbed them of half their charm, whereas “Hey diddle diddle” had nothing in it that could conceivably concern him.

So again it is with the things that gall us most. What is it that rises up against us at odd times and smites us in the face again and again for years after it has happened? That we spent all the best years of our life in learning what we have found to be a swindle, and to have been known to be a swindle by those who took money for misleading us? That those on whom we most leaned most betrayed us? That we have only come to feel our strength when there is little strength left of any kind to feel? These things will hardly much disturb a man of ordinary good temper. But that he should have said this or that little unkind and wanton saying; that he should have gone away from this or that hotel and given a shilling too little to the waiter; that his clothes were shabby at such or such a garden- party—these things gall us as a corn will sometimes do, though the loss of a limb way not be seriously felt.

I have been reminded lately of these considerations with more than common force by reading the very voluminous correspondence left by my grandfather, Dr. Butler, of Shrewsbury, whose memoirs I am engaged in writing. I have found a large number of interesting letters on subjects of serious import, but must confess that it is to the hardly less numerous lighter letters that I have been most attracted, nor do I feel sure that my eminent namesake did not share my predilection. Among other letters in my possession I have one bundle that has been kept apart, and has evidently no connection with Dr. Butler’s own life. I cannot use these letters, therefore, for my book, but over and above the charm of their inspired spelling, I find them of such an extremely trivial nature that I incline to hope the reader may derive as much amusement from them as I have done myself, and venture to give them the publicity here which I must refuse them in my book. The dates and signatures have, with the exception of Mrs. Newton’s, been carefully erased, but I have collected that they were written by the two servants of a single lady who resided at no great distance from London, to two nieces of the said lady who lived in London itself. The aunt never writes, but always gets one of the servants to do so for her. She appears either as “your aunt” or as “She"; her name is not given, but she is evidently looked upon with a good deal of awe by all who had to do with her.

The letters almost all of them relate to visits either of the aunt to London, or of the nieces to the aunt’s home, which, from occasional allusions to hopping, I gather to have been in Kent, Sussex, or Surrey. I have arranged them to the best of my power, and take the following to be the earliest. It has no signature, but is not in the handwriting of the servant who styles herself Elizabeth, or Mrs. Newton. It runs:-

“MADAM,—Your Aunt Wishes me to inform you she will be glad if you will let hir know if you think of coming To hir House thiss month or Next as she cannot have you in September on a kount of the Hoping If you ar coming she thinkes she had batter Go to London on the Day you com to hir House the says you shall have everry Thing raddy for you at hir House and Mrs. Newton to meet you and stay with you till She returnes a gann.

“if you arnot Coming thiss Summer She will be in London before thiss Month is out and will Sleep on the Sofy As She willnot be in London more thann two nits. and She Says she willnot truble you on anny a kount as She Will returne the Same Day before She will plage you anny more. but She thanks you for asking hir to London. but She says She cannot leve the house at prassant She sayhir Survants ar to do for you as she cannot lodge yours nor she willnot have thim in at the house anny more to brake and destroy hir thinks and beslive hir and make up Lies by hir and Skandel as your too did She says she mens to pay fore 2 Nits and one day, She says the Pepelwill let hir have it if you ask thim to let hir: you Will be so good as to let hir know sun: wish She is to do, as She says She dos not care anny thing a bout it. which way tiss she is batter than She was and desirs hir Love to bouth bouth.

“Your aunt wises to know how the silk Clocks ar madup [how the silk cloaks are made up] with a Cape or a wood as she is a goin to have one madeup to rideout in in hir littel shas [chaise].

“Charles is a butty and so good.

“Mr & Mrs Newton ar quite wall & desires to be remembered to you.”

I can throw no light on the meaning of the verb to “beslive.” Each letter in the MS. is so admirably formed that there can be no question about the word being as I have given it. Nor have I been able to discover what is referred to by the words “Charles is a butty and so good.” We shall presently meet with a Charles who “flies in the Fier,” but that Charles appears to have been in London, whereas this one is evidently in Kent, or wherever the aunt lived.

The next letter is from Mrs. Newton

“DER Miss —, I Receve your Letter your Aunt is vary Ill and Lowspireted I Donte think your Aunt wood Git up all Day if My Sister Wasnot to Persage her We all Think hir lif is two monopolous. you Wish to know Who Was Liveing With your Aunt. that is My Sister and Willian—and Cariline—as Cock and Old Poll Pepper is Come to Stay With her a Littel Wile and I hoped [hopped] for Your Aunt, and Harry has Worked for your Aunt all the Summer. Your Aunt and Harry Whent to the Wells Races and Spent a very Pleasant Day your Aunt has Lost Old Fanney Sow She Died about a Week a Go Harry he Wanted your Aunt to have her killed and send her to London and Shee Wold Fech her 11 pounds the Farmers have Lost a Greet Deal of Cattel such as Hogs and Cows What theay call the Plage I Whent to your Aunt as you Wish Mee to Do But She Told Mee She Did not wont aney Boddy She Told Mee She Should Like to Come up to see you But She Cant Come know for she is Boddyley ill and Harry Donte Work there know But he Go up there Once in Two or Three Day Harry Offered is self to Go up to Live With your Aunt But She Made him know Ancer. I hay Been up to your Aunt at Work for 5 Weeks Hopping and Ragluting Your Aunt Donte Eat nor Drink But vary Littel indeed.

“I am Happy to Say We are Both Quite Well and I am Glad no hear you are Both Quite Well


This seems to have made the nieces propose to pay a visit to their aunt, perhaps to try and relieve the monopoly of her existence and cheer her up a little. In their letter, doubtless, the dog motive is introduced that is so finely developed presently by Mrs. Newton. I should like to have been able to give the theme as enounced by the nieces themselves, but their letters are not before me. Mrs. Newton writes:-

“MY DEAR GIRLS,—Your Aunt receiv your Letter your Aunt will Be vary glad to see you as it quite a greeable if it tis to you and Shee is Quite Willing to Eair the beds and the Rooms if you Like to Trust to hir and the Servantes; if not I may Go up there as you Wish. My Sister Sleeps in the Best Room as she allways Did and the Coock in the garret and you Can have the Rooms the same as you allways Did as your Aunt Donte set in the Parlour She Continlery Sets in the Ciching. your Aunt says she Cannot Part from the dog know hows and She Says he will not hurt you for he is Like a Child and I can safeley say My Self he wonte hurt you as She Cannot Sleep in the Room With out him as he allWay Sleep in the Same Room as She Dose. your Aunt is agreeable to Git in What Coles and Wood you Wish for I am know happy to say your Aunt is in as Good health as ever She Was and She is happy to hear you are Both Well your Aunt Wishes for Ancer By Return of Post.”

The nieces replied that their aunt must choose between the dog and them, and Mrs. Newton sends a second letter which brings her development to a climax. It runs:-

“DEAR MISS —, I have Receve your Letter and i Whent up to your Aunt as you Wish me and i Try to Perveal With her about the Dog But she Wold not Put the Dog away nor it alow him to Be Tied up But She Still Wishes you to Come as Shee says the Dog Shall not interrup you for She Donte alow the Dog nor it the Cats to Go in the Parlour never sence She has had it Donup ferfere of Spoiling the Paint your Aunt think it vary Strange you Should Be so vary Much afraid of a Dog and She says you Cant Go out in London But What you are up a gance one and She says She Wonte Trust the Dog in know one hands But her Owne for She is afraid theay Will not fill is Belley as he Lives upon Rost Beeff and Rost and Boil Moutten Wich he Eats More then the Servantes in the House there is not aney One Wold Beable to Give Sattefacktion upon that account Harry offerd to Take the Dog But She Wood not Trust him in our hands so I Cold not Do aney thing With her your Aunt youse to Tell Me When we was at your House in London She Did not know how to make you amens and i Told her know it was the Time to Do it But i Considder She sets the Dog Before you your Aunt keep know Beer know Sprits know Wines in the House of aney Sort Oneley a Little Barl of Wine I made her in the Summer the Workmen and servantes are a Blige to Drink wauter Morning Noon and Night your Aunt the Same She Donte Low her Self aney Tee nor Coffee But is Loocking Wonderful Well

“I Still Remane your Humble Servant Mrs Newton

“I am vary sorry to think the Dog Perventes your Comeing

“I am Glad to hear you are Both Well and we are the same.”

The nieces remained firm, and from the following letter it is plain the aunt gave way. The dog motive is repeated pianissimo, and is not returned to—not at least by Mrs. Newton.

“DEAR Miss —, I Receve your Letter on Thursday i Whent to your Aunt and i see her and She is a Greable to everry thing i asked her and seme so vary Much Please to see you Both Next Tuseday and she has sent for the Faggots to Day and she Will Send for the Coles to Morrow and i will Go up there to Morrow Morning and Make the Fiers and Tend to the Beds and sleep in it Till you Come Down your Aunt sends her Love to you Both and she is Quite well your Aunt Wishes you wold Write againe Before you Come as she ma Expeckye and the Dog is not to Gointo the Parlor a Tall

“your Aunt kind Love to you Both & hopes you Wonte Fail in Coming according to Prommis


From a later letter it appears that the nieces did not pay their visit after all, and what is worse a letter had miscarried, and the aunt sat up expecting them from seven till twelve at night, and Harry had paid for “Faggots and Coles quarter of Hund. Faggots Half tun of Coles 1l. 1s. 3d.” Shortly afterwards, however, “She” again talks of coming up to London herself and writes through her servant -

“My Dear girls i Receve your kind letter & I am happy to hear you ar both Well and I Was in hopes of seeing of you Both Down at My House this spring to stay a Wile I am Quite well my self in Helth But vary Low Spireted I am vary sorry to hear the Misforting of Poor charles & how he cum to flie in the Fier I cannot think. I should like to know if he is dead or a Live, and I shall come to London in August & stay three or four daies if it is agreable to you. Mrs. Newton has lost her mother in Law 4 day March & I hope you send me word Wather charles is Dead or a Live as soon as possible, and will you send me word what Little Betty is for I cannot make her out.”

The next letter is a new handwriting, and tells the nieces of their aunt’s death in the the following terms: -

“DEAR Miss —, It is my most painful duty to inform you that your dear aunt expired this morning comparatively easy as Hannah informs me and in so doing restored her soul to the custody of him whom she considered to be alone worthy of its care.

“The doctor had visited her about five minutes previously and had applied a blister.

“You and your sister will I am sure excuse further details at present and believe me with kindest remembrances to remain

“Yours truly, &c.”

After a few days a lawyer’s letter informs the nieces that their aunt had left them the bulk of her not very considerable property, but had charged them with an annuity of 1 pound a week to be paid to Harry and Mrs. Newton so long as the dog lived.

The only other letters by Mrs. Newton are written on paper of a different and more modern size; they leave an impression of having been written a good many years later. I take them as they come. The first is very short:-

“DEAR Miss —, i write to say i cannot possiblely come on Wednesday as we have killed a pig. your’s truely,


The second runs:-

“DEAR Miss —, i hope you are both quite well in health & your Leg much better i am happy to say i am getting quite well again i hope Amandy has reached you safe by this time i sent a small parcle by Amandy, there was half a dozen Pats of butter & the Cakes was very homely and not so light as i could wish i hope by this time Sarah Ann has promised she will stay untill next monday as i think a few daies longer will not make much diferance and as her young man has been very considerate to wait so long as he has i think he would for a few days Longer dear Miss — I wash for William and i have not got his clothes yet as it has been delayed by the carrier & i cannot possiblely get it done before Sunday and i do not Like traviling on a Sunday but to oblige you i would come but to come sooner i cannot possiblely but i hope Sarah Ann will be prevailed on once more as She has so many times i feel sure if she tells her young man he will have patient for he is a very kind young man

“i remain your sincerely


The last letter in my collection seems written almost within measurable distance of the Christmas-card era. The sheet is headed by a beautifully embossed device of some holly in red and green, wishing the recipient of the letter a merry Xmas and a happy new year, while the border is crimped and edged with blue. I know not what it is, but there is something in the writer’s highly finished style that reminds me of Mendelssohn. It would almost do for the words of one of his celebrated “Lieder ohne Worte”:

“DEAR MISS MARIA,—I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your kind note with the inclosure for which I return my best thanks. I need scarcely say how glad I was to know that the volumes secured your approval, and that the announcement of the improvement in the condition of your Sister’s legs afforded me infinite pleasure. The gratifying news encouraged me in the hope that now the nature of the disorder is comprehended her legs will—notwithstanding the process may be gradual—ultimately get quite well. The pretty Robin Redbreast which lay ensconced in your epistle, conveyed to me, in terms more eloquent than words, how much you desired me those Compliments which the little missive he bore in his bill expressed; the emblem is sweetly pretty, and now that we are again allowed to felicitate each other on another recurrence of the season of the Christian’s rejoicing, permit me to tender to yourself, and by you to your Sister, mine and my Wife’s heartfelt congratulations and warmest wishes with respect to the coming year. It is a common belief that if we take a retrospective view of each departing year, as it behoves us annually to do, we shall find the blessings which we have received to immeasurably outnumber our causes of sorrow. Speaking for myself I can fully subscribe to that sentiment, and doubtless neither Miss — nor yourself are exceptions. Miss —’s illness and consequent confinement to the house has been a severe trial, but in that trouble an opportunity was afforded you to prove a Sister’s devotion and she has been enabled to realise a larger (if possible) display of sisterly affection.

“A happy Christmas to you both, and may the new year prove a Cornucopia from which still greater blessings than even those we have hitherto received, shall issue, to benefit us all by contributing to our temporal happiness and, what is of higher importance, conducing to our felicity hereafter.

“I was sorry to hear that you were so annoyed with mice and rats, and if I should have an opportunity to obtain a nice cat I will do so and send my boy to your house with it.

“I remain, “Yours truly.”

How little what is commonly called education can do after all towards the formation of a good style, and what a delightful volume might not be entitled “Half Hours with the Worst Authors.” Why, the finest word I know of in the English language was coined, not by my poor old grandfather, whose education had left little to desire, nor by any of the admirable scholars whom he in his turn educated, but by an old matron who presided over one of the halls, or houses of his school.

This good lady, whose name by the way was Bromfield, had a fine high temper of her own, or thought it politic to affect one. One night when the boys were particularly noisy she burst like a hurricane into the hall, collared a youngster, and told him he was “the ramp- ingest-scampingest-rackety-tackety-tow-row-roaringest boy in the whole school.” Would Mrs. Newton have been able to set the aunt and the dog before us so vividly if she had been more highly educated? Would Mrs. Bromfield have been able to forge and hurl her thunderbolt of a word if she had been taught how to do so, or indeed been at much pains to create it at all? It came. It was her [Greek text]. She did not probably know that she had done what the greatest scholar would have had to rack his brains over for many an hour before he could even approach. Tradition says that having brought down her boy she looked round the hall in triumph, and then after a moment’s lull said, “Young gentlemen, prayers are excused," and left them.

I have sometimes thought that, after all, the main use of a classical education consists in the check it gives to originality, and the way in which it prevents an inconvenient number of people from using their own eyes. That we will not be at the trouble of looking at things for ourselves if we can get any one to tell us what we ought to see goes without saying, and it is the business of schools and universities to assist us in this respect. The theory of evolution teaches that any power not worked at pretty high pressure will deteriorate: originality and freedom from affectation are all very well in their way, but we can easily have too much of them, and it is better that none should be either original or free from cant but those who insist on being so, no matter what hindrances obstruct, nor what incentives are offered them to see things through the regulation medium.

To insist on seeing things for oneself is to be in [Greek text], or in plain English, an idiot; nor do I see any safer check against general vigour and clearness of thought, with consequent terseness of expression, than that provided by the curricula of our universities and schools of public instruction. If a young man, in spite of every effort to fit him with blinkers, will insist on getting rid of them, he must do so at his own risk. He will not be long in finding out his mistake. Our public schools and universities play the beneficent part in our social scheme that cattle do in forests: they browse the seedlings down and prevent the growth of all but the luckiest and sturdiest. Of course, if there are too many either cattle or schools, they browse so effectually that they find no more food, and starve till equilibrium is restored; but it seems to be a provision of nature that there should always be these alternate periods, during which either the cattle or the trees are getting the best of it; and, indeed, without such provision we should have neither the one nor the other. At this moment the cattle, doubtless, are in the ascendant, and if university extension proceeds much farther, we shall assuredly have no more Mrs. Newtons and Mrs. Bromfields; but whatever is is best, and, on the whole, I should propose to let things find pretty much their own level.

However this may be, who can question that the treasures hidden in many a country house contain sleeping beauties even fairer than those that I have endeavoured to waken from long sleep in the foregoing article? How many Mrs. Quicklys are there not living in London at this present moment? For that Mrs. Quickly was an invention of Shakespeare’s I will not believe. The old woman from whom he drew said every word that he put into Mrs. Quickly’s mouth, and a great deal more which he did not and perhaps could not make use of. This question, however, would again lead me far from my subject, which I should mar were I to dwell upon it longer, and therefore leave with the hope that it may give my readers absolutely no food whatever for reflection.


Introduction  •  Quis Desiderio . . . ? {1}  •  Ramblings in Cheapside {2}  •  The Aunt, the Nieces, and the Dog {3}  •  How to Make the Best of Life {4}  •  The Sanctuary of Montrigone {6}  •  A Medieval Girl School {8}  •  Art in the Valley of Saas {11}  •  Thought and Language {16}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part I  •  The Deadlock in Dawrinism—Part II {29}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part III  •  Footnotes:

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