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The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 3. Keeping Company--How they do it

"We have been keeping company nine months. But I have known him from childhood. My parents are quite satisfied."

The writer of this letter was aged nineteen. She lived in an entirely unexceptionable home; as unexceptionable as her young man. Her mother had been in service. Her elder sister was in service, and she too was much valued. Her mistress once said, "I could trust the baby to Jenny, be she only fourteen, sooner than I would to many women of forty." Her elder brother was in the navy, and the things his captain used to say of that young man would bear repeating, and did bear it any number of times. He said more than once, "If I want a bit of work done up to time and right, give me Sperling," and he used habitually to say that "of all the young fellows he had ever come across Sperling beat them out and out." The two younger boys were still at school, and they regularly brought home prizes for Scripture and prizes for good conduct.

And the family did not only go in for solid virtues, but for the refinements of life. They had a parlour, and in the parlour there must have been about a dozen glass cases of wax fruit, and over each glass case there was a small ornamental square of crochet. And on the middle table there was a case of worsted flowers on a fluffy mat, and from that the prize-books radiated in sets of two. And while enjoying all this refinement and appreciation they were good, kind neighbours, and very much devoted to each other.

And so, when Milly was old enough to keep company, it was no wonder that her parents were quite satisfied.

The only fly in the ointment was that she was a churchwoman and he used to attend chapel. He called it the Something Road Chapel because he was not aware to what denomination it belonged. But he always had attended it. For a little while there was trouble about it. She "did not think it right for us to attend different places of worship." Finally the matter was solved by her taking him to church on Sunday mornings, and his taking her to chapel on Sunday evenings. On Sunday afternoons they each attended a Bible-class, and after class had a walk on the Embankment, unless they went to tea with his married sister; in which case they absented themselves from class and took the train. They were always at home by ten o'clock.

Such a case may be called a satisfactory ideal of keeping company. There would be little doubt that in time, if life goes well, the curtain may be dropped on a scene of domestic bliss. There was old association, old habit, old affection, ties and bonds and aids to good life on every side. And she was a girl of affectionate, at times almost hysterically affectionate, temperament. When he went away for a month, she wept many tears in the parlour at home and wrote him long letters.

But of course it cannot be always that fancy will light upon one who has been known from childhood, and perhaps the following may be cited as a good example of satisfactory courtship of a more sudden nature.

The heroine in this case was of a very different class to Milly Sperling. She had an enormous fringe which almost fell into her eyes, and a hat in which three large blue ostrich feathers were kept together by an amethyst brooch in front, and fell in rich profusion about her back hair. She wore her locket outside her jacket, and no gloves. She could only go out walking on fine Sundays, for though she could afford a hat--and that hat must have cost at least 7s. 11d. in Burney Row--she afforded it as some of her betters afford to pay house rent in a fashionable quarter. If she had not had such a hat she would have been disabled entirely from walking out on Sundays at all, or taking her position among her equals. But an umbrella was a different matter; and though she might have bought a silk one with a golden knob or a rich silver handle for 1s. 3d. any Saturday night by the light of a glaring naphtha lamp of a hand-truck, or 4d. cheaper at an auction, yet as it was not a necessity, she did not get it. And so, as I say, on wet Sundays, she stayed at home.

She was a good honest girl, aged seventeen, and had her code of manners as the following story in her own words will show:

"Yes, I'm a keepin' company now with a young man as works over at Jennings' in the city. This was ow me and im come to know each other. Liza come for me to go out a walk on Sunday afternoon about three o'clock. Three o'clock? no, it was four; because we didn't set down to dinner till three. Father never will get up on Sundays till one o'clock pretty near, and sometimes it's later--and mother says e works ard all the week and e'd better take out his rest on Sundays. So, when we'd done dinner, me and Liza went along down the road, and just as we was a lookin' at Thomas's, there come up three young men in volunteer uniform, and Liza says Ello, ow are yer?' and they says Ello.' It turned out one on em was er cousin, and the other two was his mates where he worked. And then we walked with em. I don't care about talking to young men as I don't know nothing about--and if he was her cousin, well, that ain't everything, is it? So I kept long of Liza, and didn't talk except when they spoke to me. Well, it seems as if one of em, im as is my young man now, took a lot of notice of me keeping so quiet, and when we said good-bye and they said good-bye, he says to me, 'Mightn't he know where I lived and come for me on Sunday afternoon, and to see mother?' Well, I'd been taking a deal of notice of im, though I hadn't talked much. I thought it so nice wanting to see mother and all that, so I said I was quite agreeable. And next Sunday he come, and he told mother where he worked, and what his parents was, and ever since then we've been keeping company. He always comes for me and takes me ome by half-past ten o'clock. Mother says she thinks that's as it should be. Oh, he is a tall young man, you'd be surprised--and only one and twenty come the 5th of September, which my birthday is on the sixth."

That was a well-begun courtship, and it is succeeding remarkably well. It has gone on for two years, and only the other day he gave her a ring, and they hope to be married in a year or so. And she is very happy with such a prospect, especially as she is a social success where she works, and a good deal thought of.

But a frequent cause of the course of true love not running smooth, or rather of the course of keeping company not leading to anything further, is the age at which the practice is begun. "Really to see them little girls thirteen and fourteen, and some of em twelve years old, goin' out walking with young men, I can't think whatever their mothers is a thinking of," said a scandalized, careful mother, whose daughter at seventeen has never had a young man.

Under such circumstances the keeping company is short. If a girl begins young to have a young man, it may be sadly and safely prophesied that she will have a great many of them. The matter wears a very frivolous face, and a very frivolous cause is sufficient to break it off. As in the case of a girl who never went out again with a young man because when he took her home at night he fell asleep in the bus and snored with his mouth open. There were, however, extenuating circumstances in this case. The chief extenuating circumstance was a barman. The girl was in service in a public house, and the barman made advances. She was a motherless girl, only sixteen; and was further in a quandary, for her grandmother, who belonged to the class of persons colloquially known as tartars, had much pressed the young man of the bar upon her notice, and she dared not wholly reject him. But her decision came out in the following conversation, which she held with her father (who had a standing quarrel with her grandmother) on her next afternoon out.
He greeted her by--

"Well, and how's your young man?

"Which on'em do you mean?" says the unabashed Annie.

"Ho! How many have you got then?"

"Two," says Annie. "There's Bill Johnson, as grandmother sends home with me when I've been up there of a night, and there's the barman down at our place."

Whereupon her father, who had been lying on the bed with his boots off, took his feet off the bed and sat up.

"Now look ere, Annie," he said, "You're only sixteen, you know that, don't yer?"

"Yes, father," says Annie: "But you know what grandmother is."

He fell to pondering--and then asked:

"Well, what are you a going to do?"

So Annie then unfolded her feelings as to the young man who snored on the bus. She also said that she had told the barman she wasn't going to listen to any of his talk yet; but if he liked to wait and speak to her again when she was nineteen she wouldn't say he mightn't. Altogether Annie had acted with wisdom and decision, and her father parted from her approvingly.

The temptation that had assailed her to go out, not with one only, but with two young men, is a temptation which often conquers. Sometimes it is with two young men at once. This is a more elementary, and more distracting course to take, but at the same time more innocent than that of going out with two young men on different afternoons.

Such was the course of a girl whose story was told by her sister, who herself had happily married at the early age of nineteen. Her husband was a very respectable, steady young man, who wouldn't allow her to go to music halls or to walk about the streets. "Lor' there, when I'm walking along with George," she said, "If a man as much as looks at me, I can see how fierce and jealous he looks. Oh, don't he? He don't bother me with any of it; he knows I'm to be trusted; but don't he look at them? And as to going to a music hall--no, there--'Go to a concert,' he says, 'if you want music, but not to one o' them alls.'" With such a husband, it was not perhaps wonderful that she should take a stern view of her sister's conduct. She herself had been rather a rowdy girl before her marriage; had danced when an organ played in the streets; certainly had gone to music halls.

"But, Polly, I'm ashamed to think she's my sister sometimes. She's so flirty, and don't she carry on with the men! Her first young man was before she was sixteen. He was very short to Polly [she meant in height, not in speech] and we used to larf at him, but never let her see. Well, while she was a-walkin' out with him, she was a-walkin' with another young man, too. And I don't think that's right, do you? But Polly was always so flirty. And the way she treats mother too--croole!--only giv' her 3s. 6d. a week for her food and washing too, and the girls at the shop say she's makin' 16s. But she was always a-walkin' out with one of the two young men, and wouldn't put a and to elp mother, when she was ever so porly--and such hats and dresses she wore too--and never gave one to mother to cut down for the children, or nothing. Beautiful they were. There--I say what she'd throw away would serve me for Sunday. Well, this short grocer's man one day met er out walkin' with the other young man--come upon er; and after that he wouldn't have nothing to say to her; and mother and all of us said it served her quite right. But she didn't mind. It was only a week after, she took up with another one. Such a gentleman he was. Had a stick and all, just like a gentleman would, and kid gloves and all. And he'd think nothing of taking her back in a cab from work. Well, one day she and him went to a music all together--and when they come out they come across one of this young gentleman's mates, as you may say. 'Well, Alf,' he says to him, to Polly's young man, 'What have you done with Maud?' And it turned out that this young man, Alf he called him, was gettin' a ome together at that very time for another young woman. So that done em. But Polly didn't care. Father says she's got a fresh one now. I don't old to having so many. I say to her, 'If one's not enough, twenty's not too many.'"

Polly still continues on her course. She seems to get neither worse nor better, and no one has any influence over her, not even the young man, or young men, of the current week. "She really don't care for em, not one of em. She don't care for anybody but herself." She certainly does not care for her mother, who is a hard-pressed, much-suffering woman, with more children than she is fit to see to, and is in pain from morning to night. But Polly is pretty and smart, and she finds any number of admirers ready to her hand. And her relations to her family consist of her thinking them very shabby, and the children very naughty and troublesome, and getting out of them all the work she can. "She'd see the child crying and never ask what it was for," said her mother, bitterly, "and as for Carry [the marred sister whose views have been expounded]--when she was at home, she'd make her slave for her, and then mock her because she was dirty and shabby. She'd make quite an outcast of her. It's her young men as have turned her head."

The outlook for Polly is dark.

One word before ending the chapter as to the element which apparently figures a good deal less in these courtships than in those of a higher rank; the element of romance. That it is there, there is no doubt: though the vocabulary for its expression is more limited.

Now and then it appears. For example, another sister of the same family had never learnt to write, and her mother used to write to her young man for her. He found this out after a while, and then he said to her, "Don't you do that again, Liza. I'd rather have a cross on the paper as you put there yourself, than ever such long letters as your mother wrote for you."

Or again, I was once surprised by being greeted with:

"And then after all, Jim and me couldn't go to the flower show. I was that disappointed. I cried like a silly. Why, I'd gone in the morning and got our tickets, and then he was kep' late at work, and couldn't go. There! I cried. Mary said she'd be ashamed to cry--a married woman like me."

She was not a very old married woman, but it did seem disproportionate, and this was the explanation:

"You see it was a twelvemonth come the Sunday before the Tuesday as it was the flower-show on that day, as we met first."

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