Thursday, January 16, 2003

Tom Pry's Wife -- by Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

YOU say you were diverted with my description of the "Curious Man." Tom is in some respects an amusing character enough, but then it is by no means uncommon. But what power of words can paint Tom's wife? My pencil faulters while I attempt it. But I am ambitious that the portraits should hang side by side: they may set off one another. Tom's passion for knowledge in the pursuit is intense and restless, but when satisfied it sits down and seeks no further. He must know all about everything, but his desires terminate in mere science. Now as far as the pure mathematics, as they are called, transcend the practical, so far does Tom's curiosity, to my mind, in elegance and disinterestedness, soar above the craving, gnawing, mercenary (if I may so call it) inquisitiveness of his wife.

Mrs. Priscina Pry must not only know all about your private concerns, but be as deeply concerned herself for them: she will pluck at the very heart of your mystery. She must anatomise and skin you, absolutely lay your feelings bare. Her passions are reducible to two, but those are stronger in her than in any human creature--pity and envy. I will try to illustrate it. She has intimacy with two families--the Grimstones and the Gubbins's. The former are sadly pinched to live, the latter are in splendid circumstances: the former tenant an obscure third floor in Devereux Court, the latter occupy a stately mansion in May-fair. I have accompanied her to both these domiciles. She will burst into the incommodious lodging of poor Grimstone and his wife at some unseasonable hour, when they are at their meagre dinner, with a " Bless me!" what a dark passage you have! I could hardly find my way upstairs! Isn't there a drain somewhere? Well, I like to see you at your little bit of mutton!" But her treat is to catch them at a meal of solitary potatoes. Then does her sympathy burgeon, and bud out into a thousand flowers of rhetorical pity and wonder; and it is trumpeted out afterwards to all her acquaintance, that the poor Grimstones were "making a dinner without flesh yesterday." The word poor is her favorite; the word (on my conscience) is endeared to her beyond any monosyllable in the language. Poverty in the tone of her compassion, is somehow doubled; it is emphatically what a dramatist, with some licence, has called poor poverty. It is stark-naked indigence, and never in her mind connected with any mitigating circumstances of self- respect and independence in the owner, which give to poverty a dignity. It is an object of pure pity, and nothing else. This is her first way. Change we the scene to May-fair and the Gubbins's. Suppose it a morning call:

" Bless me!--(for she equally blesses herself against want and abundance) what a style you do live in! what elegant curtains! You must have a great income to afford all these things. I wonder you can ever visit such poor folks as we":--with more to the same purpose, which I must cut short, not to be tedious. She pumps all her friends to know the exact income of all her friends. Such a one must have a great salary. Do you think he has as much as eight hundred a year--seven hundred and fifty perhaps? A wag once told her I had fourteen hundred-- (Heaven knows we Bank Clerks, though with no reason to complain, in few cases realise that luxury)--and the fury of her wonder, till I undeceived her, nearly worked her spirits to a fever. Now Pry is equally glad to get at his friends' circum- stances; but his curiosity is disinterested, as I said, and passion- less. No emotions are consequent upon the satisfaction of it. He is a philosopher who loves knowledge for its own sake; she is not content with a lumen siccum (dry knowledge, says
Bacon, is best); the success of her researches is nothing, but as it feeds the two main springs between which her soul is kept in perpetual conflict--Pity, and Envy.