Heroism in Housekeeping, by Jane Welsh Carlyle
So many talents are wasted, so many enthusiasms turned to smoke, so many
lives spoiled for want of a little patience and endurance, for want of
understanding and laying to heart the meaning of THE PRESENT—for want
of recognizing that it is not the greatness or littleness of the duty
nearest hand, but the spirit in which one does it, which makes one's
doing noble or mean! I can't think how people who have any natural
ambition, and any sense of power in them, escape going mad in a world
like this, without the recognition of that. I know I was very near mad
when I found it out for myself (as one has to find out for oneself
everything that is to be of any real practical use to one).
Shall I tell you how it came into my head? Perhaps it may be of comfort
to you in similar moments of fatigue and disgust. I had gone with my
husband to live on a little estate of peat-bog, that had descended to me
all the way down from John Welsh, the Covenanter, [Footnote: Covenanter:
one who defends the "Solemn League and Covenant" made to preserve the
reformed religion in Scotland.] who married a daughter of John Knox.
[Footnote: John Knox: a celebrated Scottish reformer, statesman, and
writer. Born 1505, died in 1572.] That didn't, I'm ashamed to say, make
me feel Craigenputtock [Footnote: Craigenputtock: a town fifteen miles
from Dumfries. Here much of Carlyle's best work was done.] a whit less
of a peat-bog and a most dreary, untoward place to live at. In fact, it
was sixteen miles distant on every side from all the conveniences of
life, shops, and even post-office. Further, we were very poor, and
further and worst, being an only child, and brought up to great
prospects, I was sublimely ignorant of every branch of useful knowledge,
though a capital Latin scholar and very fair mathematician.
It behooved me in these astonishing circumstances to learn to sew.
Husbands, I was shocked to find, wore their stockings into holes, and
were always losing buttons, and I was expected to "look to all that";
also it behooved me to learn to cook! no capable servant choosing to
live at such an out-of-the-way place, and my husband having bad
digestion, which complicated my difficulties dreadfully. The bread,
above all, brought from Dumfries, [Footnote: Dumfries: a town in
southern Scotland.] "soured on his stomach" and it was plainly my duty
as a Christian wife to bake at home.
So I sent for Cobbett's "Cottage Economy," and fell to work at a loaf of
bread. But, knowing nothing about the process of fermentation or the
heat of ovens, it came to pass that my loaf got put into the oven at the
time that myself ought to have been put into bed; and I remained the
only person not asleep in a house in the middle of a desert.
One o'clock struck! and then two!! and then three!!! And still I was
sitting there in the midst of an immense solitude, my whole body aching
with weariness, my heart aching with a sense of forlornness and
degradation. That I, who had been so petted at home, whose comfort had
been studied by everybody in the house, who had never been required to
do anything but cultivate my mind, should have to pass all those hours
of the night in watching a loaf of bread—which mightn't turn out bread
Such thoughts maddened me, till I laid down my head on the table and
sobbed aloud. It was then that somehow the idea of Benvenuto Cellini
[Footnote: Benvenuto Cellini: a famous Italian sculptor and worker in
gold and silver. Born in 1500(?) died in 1571. His autobiography is one
of the most famous of Italian classics. The Perseus of Cellini stands in
the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, and represents the helmeted hero
holding up the severed head of Medusa.] sitting up all night watching
his Perseus in the furnace came into my head, and suddenly I asked
myself: "After all, in the sight of the upper Powers, what is the mighty
difference between a statue of Perseus and a loaf of bread, so that each
be the thing that one's hand has found to do? The man's determined will,
his energy, his patience, his resource were the really admirable things
of which his statue of Perseus was the mere chance expression. If he had
been a woman, living at Craigenputtock with a dyspeptic husband, sixteen
miles from a baker, and he a bad one, all these qualities would have
come out more fitly in a good loaf of bread!"
I cannot express what consolation this germ of an idea spread over my
uncongenial life during the years we lived at that savage place, where
my two immediate predecessors had gone mad, and a third had taken to
—JANE WELSH CARLYLE.
[Footnote: Does the opening paragraph give you any hint as to the source
of this extract? What traits of character does the writer show? Can you
show the evidence of Scotch Covenanter inheritance in the writer's
philosophy? Do you imagine that the writer learned to make bread? Why?
In what does the humor of the account lie?]
Louise de la Ramee