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    Thoughts on Cheapness and My Aunt Charlotte

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    Chapter 1
    The world mends. In my younger days people believed in mahogany; some of
    my readers will remember it--a heavy, shining substance, having a
    singularly close resemblance to raw liver, exceedingly heavy to move,
    and esteemed on one or other count the noblest of all woods. Such of us
    as were very poor and had no mahogany pretended to have mahogany; and
    the proper hepatite tint was got by veneering. That makes one incline to
    think it was the colour that pleased people. In those days there was a
    word "trashy," now almost lost to the world. My dear Aunt Charlotte used
    that epithet when, in her feminine way, she swore at people she did not
    like. "Trashy" and "paltry" and "Brummagem" was the very worst she could
    say of them. And she had, I remember, an intense aversion to plated
    goods and bronze halfpence. The halfpence of her youth had been vast and
    corpulent red-brown discs, which it was folly to speak of as small
    change. They were fine handsome coins, and almost as inconvenient as
    crown-pieces. I remember she corrected me once when I was very young.
    "Don't call a penny a copper, dear," she said; "copper is a metal. The
    pennies they have nowadays are bronze." It is odd how our childish
    impressions cling to us. I still regard bronze as a kind of upstart
    intruder, a mere trashy pretender among metals.

    All my Aunt Charlotte's furniture was thoroughly good, and most of it
    extremely uncomfortable; there was not a thing for a little boy to break
    and escape damnation in the household. Her china was the only thing with
    a touch of beauty in it--at least I remember nothing else--and each of
    her blessed plates was worth the happiness of a mortal for days
    together. And they dressed me in a Nessus suit of valuable garments. I
    learned the value of thoroughly good things only too early. I knew the
    equivalent of a teacup to the very last scowl, and I have hated good,
    handsome property ever since. For my part I love cheap things, trashy
    things, things made of the commonest rubbish that money can possibly
    buy; things as vulgar as primroses, and as transitory as a morning's
    frost.

    Think of all the advantages of a cheap possession--cheap and nasty, if
    you will--compared with some valuable substitute. Suppose you need this
    or that. "Get a good one," advises Aunt Charlotte; "one that will last."
    You do--and it does last. It lasts like a family curse. These great
    plain valuable things, as plain as good women, as complacently assured
    of their intrinsic worth--who does not know them? My Aunt Charlotte
    scarcely had a new thing in her life. Her mahogany was avuncular; her
    china remotely ancestral; her feather beds and her bedsteads!--they were
    haunted; the births, marriages, and deaths associated with the best one
    was the history of our race for three generations. There was more in her
    house than the tombstone rectitude of the chair-backs to remind me of
    the graveyard. I can still remember the sombre aisles of that house, the
    vault-like shadows, the magnificent window curtains that blotted out the
    windows. Life was too trivial for such things. She never knew she tired
    of them, but she did. That was the secret of her temper, I think; they
    engendered her sombre Calvinism, her perception of the trashy quality of
    human life. The pretence that they were the accessories to human life
    was too transparent. _We_ were the accessories; we minded them for a
    little while, and then we passed away. They wore us out and cast us
    aside. We were the changing scenery; they were the actors who played on
    through the piece. It was even so with clothing. We buried my other
    maternal aunt--Aunt Adelaide--and wept, and partly forgot her; but her
    wonderful silk dresses--they would stand alone--still went rustling
    cheerfully about an ephemeral world.

    All that offended my sense of proportion, my feeling of what is due to
    human life, even when I was a little boy. I want things of my own,
    things I can break without breaking my heart; and, since one can live
    but once, I want some change in my life--to have this kind of thing and
    then that. I never valued Aunt Charlotte's good old things until I sold
    them. They sold remarkably well: those chairs like nether millstones for
    the grinding away of men; the fragile china--an incessant anxiety until
    accident broke it, and the spell of it at the same time; those silver
    spoons, by virtue of which Aunt Charlotte went in fear of burglary for
    six-and-fifty years; the bed from which I alone of all my kindred had
    escaped; the wonderful old, erect, high-shouldered, silver-faced clock.

    But, as I say, our ideas are changing--mahogany has gone, and repp
    curtains. Articles are made for man, nowadays, and not man, by careful
    early training, for articles. I feel myself to be in many respects a
    link with the past. Commodities come like the spring flowers, and vanish
    again. "Who steals my watch steals trash," as some poet has remarked;
    the thing is made of I know not what metal, and if I leave it on the
    mantel for a day or so it goes a deep blackish purple that delights me
    exceedingly. My grandfather's hat--I understood when I was a little boy
    that I was to have that some day. But now I get a hat for ten shillings,
    or less, two or three times a year. In the old days buying clothes was
    well-nigh as irrevocable as marriage. Our flat is furnished with
    glittering things--wanton arm-chairs just strong enough not to collapse
    under you, books in gay covers, carpets you are free to drop lighted
    fusees upon; you may scratch what you like, upset your coffee, cast your
    cigar ash to the four quarters of heaven. Our guests, at anyrate, are
    not snubbed by our furniture. It knows its place.

    But it is in the case of art and adornment that cheapness is most
    delightful. The only thing that betrayed a care for beauty on the part
    of my aunt was her dear old flower garden, and even there she was not
    above suspicion. Her favourite flowers were tulips, rigid tulips with
    opulent crimson streaks. She despised wildings. Her ornaments were
    simply displays of the precious metal. Had she known the price of
    platinum she would have worn that by preference. Her chains and brooches
    and rings were bought by weight. She would have turned her back on
    Benvenuto Cellini if he was not 22 carats fine. She despised
    water-colour art; her conception of a picture was a vast domain of oily
    brown by an Old Master. The Babbages at the Hall had a display of gold
    plate swaggering in the corner of the dining-room; and the visitor
    (restrained by a plush rope from examining the workmanship) was told the
    value, and so passed on. I like my art unadorned: thought and skill, and
    the other strange quality that is added thereto, to make things
    beautiful--and nothing more. A farthing's worth of paint and paper, and,
    behold! a thing of beauty!--as they do in Japan. And if it should fall
    into the fire--well, it has gone like yesterday's sunset, and to-morrow
    there will be another.

    These Japanese are indeed the apostles of cheapness. The Greeks lived to
    teach the world beauty, the Hebrews to teach it morality, and now the
    Japanese are hammering in the lesson that men may be honourable, daily
    life delightful, and a nation great without either freestone houses,
    marble mantelpieces, or mahogany sideboards. I have sometimes wished
    that my Aunt Charlotte could have travelled among the Japanese nation.
    She would, I know, have called it a "parcel of trash." Their use of
    paper--paper suits, paper pocket-handkerchiefs--would have made her
    rigid with contempt. I have tried, but I cannot imagine my Aunt
    Charlotte in paper underclothing. Her aversion to paper was
    extraordinary. Her Book of Beauty was printed on satin, and all her
    books were bound in leather, the boards regulated rather than decorated
    with a severe oblong. Her proper sphere was among the ancient
    Babylonians, among which massive populace even the newspapers were
    built of brick. She would have compared with the King's daughter whose
    raiment was of wrought gold. When I was a little boy I used to think she
    had a mahogany skeleton. However, she is gone, poor old lady, and at
    least she left me her furniture. Her ghost was torn in pieces after the
    sale--must have been. Even the old china went this way and that. I took
    what was perhaps a mean revenge of her for the innumerable
    black-holeings, bread-and-water dinners, summary chastisements, and
    impossible tasks she inflicted upon me for offences against her too
    solid possessions. You will see it at Woking. It is a light and graceful
    cross. It is a mere speck of white between the monstrous granite
    paperweights that oppress the dead on either side of her. Sometimes I am
    half sorry for that. When the end comes I shall not care to look her in
    the face--she will be so humiliated.
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