Project Canterbury

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 15. A Third--Something Between the Two

If little Louey Carter was strengthened by early affection to do well in life, Jane Barlow ought not to have been far behind her.

A little side-street, a house standing close to a candle factory from which issued at intervals sickening smells; two dirty steps, one broken, leading up to the door; the door battered and old, creaking on its hinges, letting in draughts above and below at its ill-fitting sills, opening to a narrow passage with an ill-fitting door at the left hand­this door let one into a small room very dirty as to paper and ceiling. A large bed not too clean filled half the room; there was only room to pass between the bed and chest of drawers. Under the one window was a small table covered with a glazed cloth. In the bed, except in the height of summer, lay a haggard, pale woman with pretty hollow eyes, her poor frame racked with a cough; and from a chair by the fire there would rise respectfully a young man about twenty-two or three, thin, narrow-chested, and stooping, with hollow cheeks and large eyes, very like his mother's. Generally also Jane herself was there, a slim girl of fifteen; pretty if it had not been for her look of ill-health. And sometimes on Sunday afternoons two more were added to the group. Annie, the little girl of nine, a merry, jolly child; and Florence, the elder daughter of seventeen, one of the girls of "pure gold."

That was all the family; except a married son who was too poor himself to help them. The son at home had been getting on excellently in the Post Office, keeping his mother, a clever, promising lad. But they began to perceive that curious delusions were coming on him. He told them that people kept watching him in the street because he was a genius. One day, to their dismay, they heard that he had been taken to the lock-up for assaulting two gentlemen in the street. The case was plain enough; the poor lad was out of his mind and he was sent to the pauper lunatic asylum. After two years he seemed well, and was only very melancholy and gentle and longed to come home; and finally the authorities sent him back. He tried to get work, but with his antecedents could not, and only brought in a few shillings now and then from going messages. He was very gentle and quiet; sat at home and read any books he could get, especially histories, and waited on his mother.

Florence was the support of the family. She lodged at a butcher's, served in the shop, and got 6s. a week. Of this she gave 4s. to her mother and often more, and dressed herself neatly and well on the remainder, besides often helping her young sisters with a frock or hat. She was always cheerful, careless of herself and thoughtful for them. This and a small pension raised for her mother kept them all.

Until fifteen, Jane had been an ailing, backward girl, never equal to much. She and her younger sister both slept with their mother; a very unhealthy arrangement. The brother slept in the little back room. They were old tenants and so only paid 4s. for the two rooms.

But at about sixteen Jane seemed to take a start into womanliness. It occurred to her that she ought to go away from home and help her mother.

She wrote very sensibly on her own suggestion:

"I want to ask you if you could get me a light place. I should be very grateful if you could and mother would be so pleased and easy in her mind for she is often troubled a great deal about me. I am so glad I feel stronger, mother has been so very bad this winter, how nice it would be if she were strong but god wills not, I should be helping her instead of depending on her."

It seemed more than doubtful whether Jane was strong enough for one of the hard, small places which alone she could get. So it was decided that she should go to the same Training Home which had previously received Louey and Molly.

She was delighted.

"I think it is a very good chance, and I will embrace the chance to my utmost I am sure. I know I am very ignorant in housework as I have not had much chance of learning being rather delicate but I must grow out of that. My mother is so happy and my sister is delighted. The plan has made me very happy."

She was charmed with her outfit; spent the money to the best advantage; and at last departed to the Home.

Then she wrote an enormous letter to describe all about the Training Home, as if it was an entirely new species of institution:

"I have learnt a great deal already though I have only been here a week and I do want to get on and I am trying to please them all here as much as I can and shall continue to do so. I do not think I shall be able to work as hard as some of them do, my back aches sometimes."

Then came a still happier letter: "I have got on capital; my time is passing so quickly. I shall be sorry to leave the Lodge. I am trying my very best to please them and I think that they are very pleased with me. I mean to try so hard when I get to my situation and to help my mother all I can and it does seem to me to be such a bright future in store for me." [Poor child!]

The accounts from the matron were not quite so glowing as might have been hoped.

The girl did very fairly, she said, was never rude; but was forgetful and had not much a grip of her work.

During the remaining month things went not so well.

"Dear Miss, I have tried my best but lately everything does not seem to go right," she wrote. Still the authorities did not complain of her, and her time for leaving the Home was near.

At last the plunge was made. She took a place where there were two young servants and the mistress personally did a good deal of the work. Jane cried a great deal when she left the Lodge; according to every rule and precedent.

"I regularly broke down when I said goodbye. Mrs. Binney cried too she told me she was as sorry to part with me as I was to part with her and she gave me such good advice and I hope to be able with God's help to keep up with it."

But she did not keep up with it long. Very soon the following letter arrived: "I am so sorry to tell you that I have not got a good place I am greatly deceived, the Mistress is not a good woman and makes use of bad words. Mother says I am not to stay. The Mistress all the time I was sitting outside and cleaning the windows shouted at me and kept insulting me and saying such lots of things and said I was no use whatever in the house therefore I said that I should leave at the end of my month, when I had given her notice she was worse towards me and I did have such hard work not to answer her back. She is a wicked woman and told me she would tell such dreadful things to you about me which were not true but she said that you would believe a lady before you would believe a paid servant. I have done my very best to please my mistress therefore I could not do any more could I?"

Inquiry produced the result that though undoubtedly the mistress had lost her temper, and said she had, yet Jane had been far from faultless; had been careless, forgetful, unpunctual, and very rude in a mild and aggravating manner. Moreover she had been rhodomontading to the other girls on her mistress's wickedness, which she had painted in melodramatic colours, and she had even hinted that she drank.

Also it now came out that Jane while at the Lodge had been constantly rude and mildly insubordinate to one of the under-matrons, who, out of mistaken kindness, had kept the fact to herself.

A short letter to Jane while inquiries were pending produced the following reply which confirmed the unfavourable view of her conduct:

"I do hope you will not be angry with me but it is quite impossible to stay here, and if you knew the real facts I think you would be the very last to wish me to stay. Mistress has been unbearable towards me and says that I shall not have a moment's peace while I am in her house. [Hardly likely, this!] I think sometimes she can hardly be in her sober senses for she goes about the house using bad language in such an excited manner. I will try to stay the month but it so upsets me I can hardly eat my food. It grieves me to write these things but I think it best you should know."

Two days after this came a letter from the Home:

"Jane has come back here from her place. Yesterday her mistress called to say that she was so very trying she could stand her no longer. Mrs. Binney says she is not surprised."

An interview with Jane followed. She entered the room with a Christian martyr air upon her; but after various questions she began to blush, to waver in her statements, and finally to confess with floods of tears that though her mistress had behaved badly to her, she had not from the beginning behaved at all well. Finally she sat on her chair and cried without restraint. And that evening wrote the following letter:

"I write to ask you to forgive me (for everything) I am very sorry and can see how foolish I have been, I went home last Thursday and my mother seemed so grieved and heartbroken about it and it made me feel so unhappy to see how I grieved her by my being rude and careless and answering my mistress back. I am very much ashamed of myself now, and I have learnt a lesson and will never forget it. But I have spoken the truth in everything [as indeed she had meant to do] tho' my mistress says I have not, therefore I shall not worry any more. I am afraid you are very grieved about me but I will ask God to give me a humble and contrite spirit night and morning I know that I can do nothing without his help. I know that you will forgive me if I promise to do better and I will promise. I feel much better now I have written this and I do hope that you will forgive me although I know that I deserve everything that has passed since I have been at the Home. I know what you would have me to do now and I will do what you wish I do not want to grieve you and make my mother so unhappy again."

No penitence could be better or more complete, or indeed more genuine. She stayed at the Home ten days and then went to another very nice situation as underhousemaid. She did not write, but she sent messages for a month; rather a good sign; and then came a blissful letter:

"I now take real pleasure in writing to you. You must forgive me for not writing before but I thought it would be a very good plan to wait an whole month before I wrote to tell you how I did get on and I have been here four weeks last Thursday (I feel quite an old servant) but I must now tell you how I am getting on and I hope to get on very well indeed and in time my mistress has not yet complained at me being forgetful and I think myself I am improving. My mother thinks it will be a very good opening and relies on me to do well. I made up my mind to do that long before I came here. I have every opportunity of learning. They are very kind to me. I conclude now with a promise to do my best and ask god to help me to do right."

Could anything have sounded better? That was September. In December the following arrived:

"I hope you will not be vexed but I am leaving here this month as now the winter has come on I am not strong enough for the work. There is a great many fires to attend to. I hope you will not be vexed as I have tried to keep here but really to explain myself there is such a lot to do now that a very quick girl is wanted and as I am not strong of course I am slow. I did want to keep it from mother until the last but after thought I concluded it was best to tell her. Mother says she can quite understand how it is, and is glad to think to herself that I have really tried to do right here though I am not able to keep it."
Her mother told a different tale; she was very sorry at her leaving, and thought too that she was taking the matter far too coolly, and had shown no sort of perseverance in trying to get on. She was well in health, she said. A little wholesome censure and neglect seemed the only thing­especially when the following letter came:

"My mistress says she has found four good traits in me which are

good temper
and also willingness

I am sorry but I think these are all, but I do not think I shall ever get on though I have tried my hardest (though no one thinks I have) to get on."

The mistress gave a different account. She said Jane was careless and forgetful, and had no kind of perseverance with the work or determination to get it well done. A talk to the mother telling her this sifted through to Jane, with the mistaken addition that she had not told the truth about her place. Consequently there came, not unnaturally, the most injured letter:

"I think it was very cruel and unkind of them to say that I was so untruthful. Never has anyone said that about me before­[nor had they now]. I could have borne with anything that was said but that. Mrs. Binney never was the same since I went to that first unfortunate situation altho' she was very good before and everyone had good accounts of me then. then arose complaints of my forgetfulness which was very much exaggerated." Then followed a long rhetorical history of all the places, ending "My poor sister has been in bed all last week­she is a comfort to mother."

Of course the misunderstanding was explained. Shortly afterwards Jane, by her own exertions, obtained a place. And wonderful to say she has kept it now for nine months and is happy.

It is a most peculiar place. She is nursemaid to three children, who are so troublesome that she and they are locked up in the nursery on the outside, and can only get released by ringing the bell for the other servant to come up and unfasten it.

"The children are very trying sometimes and they get so strong that I cannot separate them when they are quarreling sometimes, but I am very fond of them. Their mamma is so passionately fond of them and spoil them so much that they are regular turks."

Sometimes they would break away from her and ring the bell. She has to teach them too, and they get on well with their lessons.

One day she wrote naively:

"My mistress praised me and said I was a very good girl. I was so happy to think that I had pleased her for as you know it is the first praise I have received in service as yet."

So there for the present happily we may leave her. It is probably just the touch of independence in getting the place herself and having to redeem her reputation that has given her a start. She is a good girl at heart, and one has confidence that she will not go far wrong. But she will hardly excel. There is not "grit" enough about her for that.

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