Fanny Squeers's Tea Party
Classics of Political Incorrectness Dept. (3)
I must admit, this one is hardly politically incorrect at all. The book from which it is taken, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, may never have been banned from any high school library, and very probably has inspired no demonstrations, much less riots, on university campuses. The following scene very certainly could be disapproved of by feminists, however, so it is fair game. Besides, it’s one of my favorite passages from all the Dickens I’ve ever read (which admittedly isn’t all that much). I consider this to be hilarious. Besides, Dickens is one of those infamous dead white males on whom oppressive patriarchal western culture is based.
One stereotype capitalized upon is the old one of the hulking, slow-thinking Yorkshireman; although of course making fun of white males isn’t politically incorrect at all, unless maybe they aren’t cis-normative. The stereotype which might inspire some feminist shrillness of tone, however, and which is brilliantly caricatured in this scene, is the classic one of catty, spiteful women. Also there’s an older and somewhat obsolete one of women seeing each other as rivals on the quest of catching themselves a husband.
I may discuss the social progressivism of Charles Dickens some other time; but here I’ll just set the scene and then let him speak for himself: Nicholas Nickleby is a young English gentleman whose father has recently died, bankrupt, leaving the family penniless and homeless. They appeal to the father’s brother, a heartless businessman named Ralph, who despises Nicholas on sight, but perceives that he can use Nicholas’s beautiful sister Kate as a kind of bait for luring gentlemen into dubious business deals. So he gets young Nicholas out of the way by getting him an extremely low-paying job as an usher (assistant teacher) at Dotheboy’s Academy, a boarding school (or rather an internment camp for unwanted boys) in Yorkshire run by the sadistic Wackford Squeers.
Mr. Squeers’s daughter Fanny is plain-looking at best, with one squinty eye, and foul-tempered besides; but she takes a fancy to Nicholas and, grotesquely overestimating her own attractions, and assuming her superior social position as the boss’s daughter to be decisive, gets the idea into her head that he is smitten by her and that they are, or might as well be, engaged—despite the fact that he is depressed and almost completely oblivious to her existence. She tells Matilda, her best friend, about this engagement, and the friend of course wants to get a look at him. So Fanny invites Nicholas, her friend, and her friend’s fiancé to a tea party, with catastrophic results.
* * *
To be sure Miss Squeers was in a desperate flutter as the time approached, and to be sure she was dressed out to the best advantage: with her hair — it had more than a tinge of red, and she wore it in a crop — curled in five distinct rows, up to the very top of her head, and arranged dexterously over the doubtful eye; to say nothing of the blue sash which floated down her back, or the worked apron or the long gloves, or the green gauze scarf worn over one shoulder and under the other; or any of the numerous devices which were to be as so many arrows to the heart of Nicholas. She had scarcely completed these arrangements to her entire satisfaction, when the friend arrived with a whity-brown parcel — flat and three-cornered — containing sundry small adornments which were to be put on upstairs, and which the friend put on, talking incessantly. When Miss Squeers had 'done' the friend's hair, the friend 'did' Miss Squeers's hair, throwing in some striking improvements in the way of ringlets down the neck; and then, when they were both touched up to their entire satisfaction, they went downstairs in full state with the long gloves on, all ready for company.
'Where's John, 'Tilda?' said Miss Squeers.
'Only gone home to clean himself,' replied the friend. 'He will be here by the time the tea's drawn.'
'I do so palpitate,' observed Miss Squeers.
'Ah! I know what it is,' replied the friend.
'I have not been used to it, you know, 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, applying her hand to the left side of her sash.
'You'll soon get the better of it, dear,' rejoined the friend. While they were talking thus, the hungry servant brought in the tea-things, and, soon afterwards, somebody tapped at the room door.
'There he is!' cried Miss Squeers. 'Oh 'Tilda!'
'Hush!' said 'Tilda. 'Hem! Say, come in.'
'Come in,' cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.
'Good-evening,' said that young gentleman, all unconscious of his conquest. 'I understood from Mr. Squeers that — '
'Oh yes; it's all right,' interposed Miss Squeers. 'Father don't tea with us, but you won't mind that, I dare say.' (This was said archly.)
Nicholas opened his eyes at this, but he turned the matter off very coolly — not caring, particularly, about anything just then — and went through the ceremony of introduction to the miller's daughter with so much grace, that that young lady was lost in admiration.
'We are only waiting for one more gentleman,' said Miss Squeers, taking off the teapot lid, and looking in, to see how the tea was getting on.
It was matter of equal moment to Nicholas whether they were waiting for one gentleman or twenty, so he received the intelligence with perfect unconcern; and, being out of spirits, and not seeing any especial reason why he should make himself agreeable, looked out of the window and sighed involuntarily.
As luck would have it, Miss Squeers's friend was of a playful turn, and hearing Nicholas sigh, she took it into her head to rally the lovers on their lowness of spirits.
'But if it's caused by my being here,' said the young lady, 'don't mind me a bit, for I'm quite as bad. You may go on just as you would if you were alone.'
''Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, colouring up to the top row of curls, 'I am ashamed of you;' and here the two friends burst into a variety of giggles, and glanced from time to time, over the tops of their pocket-handkerchiefs, at Nicholas, who from a state of unmixed astonishment, gradually fell into one of irrepressible laughter — occasioned, partly by the bare notion of his being in love with Miss Squeers, and partly by the preposterous appearance and behaviour of the two girls. These two causes of merriment, taken together, struck him as being so keenly ridiculous, that, despite his miserable condition, he laughed till he was thoroughly exhausted.
'Well,' thought Nicholas, 'as I am here, and seem expected, for some reason or other, to be amiable, it's of no use looking like a goose. I may as well accommodate myself to the company.'
We blush to tell it; but his youthful spirits and vivacity getting, for the time, the better of his sad thoughts, he no sooner formed this resolution than he saluted Miss Squeers and the friend with great gallantry, and drawing a chair to the tea-table, began to make himself more at home than in all probability an usher has ever done in his employer's house since ushers were first invented.
The ladies were in the full delight of this altered behaviour on the part of Mr. Nickleby, when the expected swain arrived, with his hair very damp from recent washing, and a clean shirt, whereof the collar might have belonged to some giant ancestor, forming, together with a white waistcoat of similar dimensions, the chief ornament of his person.
'Well, John,' said Miss Matilda Price (which, by-the-bye, was the name of the miller's daughter).
'Weel,' said John with a grin that even the collar could not conceal.
'I beg your pardon,' interposed Miss Squeers, hastening to do the honours. 'Mr. Nickleby — Mr. John Browdie.'
'Servant, sir,' said John, who was something over six feet high, with a face and body rather above the due proportion than below it.
'Yours to command, sir,' replied Nicholas, making fearful ravages on the bread and butter. Mr. Browdie was not a gentleman of great conversational powers, so he grinned twice more, and having now bestowed his customary mark of recognition on every person in company, grinned at nothing in particular, and helped himself to food.
'Old wooman awa', bean't she?' said Mr. Browdie, with his mouth full.
Miss Squeers nodded assent. Mr. Browdie gave a grin of special width, as if he thought that really was something to laugh at, and went to work at the bread and butter with increased vigour. It was quite a sight to behold how he and Nicholas emptied the plate between them.
'Ye wean't get bread and butther ev'ry neight, I expect, mun,' said Mr. Browdie, after he had sat staring at Nicholas a long time over the empty plate.
Nicholas bit his lip, and coloured, but affected not to hear the remark.
'Ecod,' said Mr. Browdie, laughing boisterously, 'they dean't put too much intiv'em. Ye'll be nowt but skeen and boans if you stop here long eneaf. Ho! ho! ho!'
'You are facetious, sir,' said Nicholas, scornfully.
'Na; I dean't know,' replied Mr. Browdie, 'but t'oother teacher, 'cod he wur a learn 'un, he wur.' The recollection of the last teacher's leanness seemed to afford Mr. Browdie the most exquisite delight, for he laughed until he found it necessary to apply his coat-cuffs to his eyes.
'I don't know whether your perceptions are quite keen enough, Mr. Browdie, to enable you to understand that your remarks are offensive,' said Nicholas in a towering passion, 'but if they are, have the goodness to — '
'If you say another word, John,' shrieked Miss Price, stopping her admirer's mouth as he was about to interrupt, 'only half a word, I'll never forgive you, or speak to you again.'
'Weel, my lass, I dean't care aboot 'un,' said the corn-factor, bestowing a hearty kiss on Miss Matilda; 'let 'un gang on, let 'un gang on.'
It now became Miss Squeers's turn to intercede with Nicholas, which she did with many symptoms of alarm and horror; the effect of the double intercession was, that he and John Browdie shook hands across the table with much gravity; and such was the imposing nature of the ceremonial, that Miss Squeers was overcome and shed tears.
'What's the matter, Fanny?' said Miss Price.
'Nothing, 'Tilda,' replied Miss Squeers, sobbing.
'There never was any danger,' said Miss Price, 'was there, Mr. Nickleby?'
'None at all,' replied Nicholas. 'Absurd.'
'That's right,' whispered Miss Price, 'say something kind to her, and she'll soon come round. Here! Shall John and I go into the little kitchen, and come back presently?'
'Not on any account,' rejoined Nicholas, quite alarmed at the proposition. 'What on earth should you do that for?'
'Well,' said Miss Price, beckoning him aside, and speaking with some degree of contempt — 'you ARE a one to keep company.'
'What do you mean?' said Nicholas; 'I am not a one to keep company at all — here at all events. I can't make this out.'
'No, nor I neither,' rejoined Miss Price; 'but men are always fickle, and always were, and always will be; that I can make out, very easily.'
'Fickle!' cried Nicholas; 'what do you suppose? You don't mean to say that you think — '
'Oh no, I think nothing at all,' retorted Miss Price, pettishly. 'Look at her, dressed so beautiful and looking so well — really ALMOST handsome. I am ashamed at you.'
'My dear girl, what have I got to do with her dressing beautifully or looking well?' inquired Nicholas.
'Come, don't call me a dear girl,' said Miss Price — smiling a little though, for she was pretty, and a coquette too in her small way, and Nicholas was good-looking, and she supposed him the property of somebody else, which were all reasons why she should be gratified to think she had made an impression on him, — 'or Fanny will be saying it's my fault. Come; we're going to have a game at cards.' Pronouncing these last words aloud, she tripped away and rejoined the big Yorkshireman.
This was wholly unintelligible to Nicholas, who had no other distinct impression on his mind at the moment, than that Miss Squeers was an ordinary-looking girl, and her friend Miss Price a pretty one; but he had not time to enlighten himself by reflection, for the hearth being by this time swept up, and the candle snuffed, they sat down to play speculation.
'There are only four of us, 'Tilda,' said Miss Squeers, looking slyly at Nicholas; 'so we had better go partners, two against two.'
'What do you say, Mr. Nickleby?' inquired Miss Price.
'With all the pleasure in life,' replied Nicholas. And so saying, quite unconscious of his heinous offence, he amalgamated into one common heap those portions of a Dotheboys Hall card of terms, which represented his own counters, and those allotted to Miss Price, respectively.
'Mr. Browdie,' said Miss Squeers hysterically, 'shall we make a bank against them?'
The Yorkshireman assented — apparently quite overwhelmed by the new usher's impudence — and Miss Squeers darted a spiteful look at her friend, and giggled convulsively.
The deal fell to Nicholas, and the hand prospered.
'We intend to win everything,' said he.
''Tilda HAS won something she didn't expect, I think, haven't you, dear?' said Miss Squeers, maliciously.
'Only a dozen and eight, love,' replied Miss Price, affecting to take the question in a literal sense.
'How dull you are tonight!' sneered Miss Squeers.
'No, indeed,' replied Miss Price, 'I am in excellent spirits. I was thinking YOU seemed out of sorts.'
'Me!' cried Miss Squeers, biting her lips, and trembling with very jealousy. 'Oh no!'
'That's well,' remarked Miss Price. 'Your hair's coming out of curl, dear.'
'Never mind me,' tittered Miss Squeers; 'you had better attend to your partner.'
'Thank you for reminding her,' said Nicholas. 'So she had.'
The Yorkshireman flattened his nose, once or twice, with his clenched fist, as if to keep his hand in, till he had an opportunity of exercising it upon the features of some other gentleman; and Miss Squeers tossed her head with such indignation, that the gust of wind raised by the multitudinous curls in motion, nearly blew the candle out.
'I never had such luck, really,' exclaimed coquettish Miss Price, after another hand or two. 'It's all along of you, Mr. Nickleby, I think. I should like to have you for a partner always.'
'I wish you had.'
'You'll have a bad wife, though, if you always win at cards,' said Miss Price.
'Not if your wish is gratified,' replied Nicholas. 'I am sure I shall have a good one in that case.'
To see how Miss Squeers tossed her head, and the corn-factor flattened his nose, while this conversation was carrying on! It would have been worth a small annuity to have beheld that; let alone Miss Price's evident joy at making them jealous, and Nicholas Nickleby's happy unconsciousness of making anybody uncomfortable.
'We have all the talking to ourselves, it seems,' said Nicholas, looking good-humouredly round the table as he took up the cards for a fresh deal.
'You do it so well,' tittered Miss Squeers, 'that it would be a pity to interrupt, wouldn't it, Mr. Browdie? He! he! he!'
'Nay,' said Nicholas, 'we do it in default of having anybody else to talk to.'
'We'll talk to you, you know, if you'll say anything,' said Miss Price.
Thank you, 'Tilda, dear,' retorted Miss Squeers, majestically.
'Or you can talk to each other, if you don't choose to talk to us,' said Miss Price, rallying her dear friend. 'John, why don't you say something?'
'Say summat?' repeated the Yorkshireman.
'Ay, and not sit there so silent and glum.'
'Weel, then!' said the Yorkshireman, striking the table heavily with his fist, 'what I say's this — Dang my boans and boddy, if I stan' this ony longer. Do ye gang whoam wi' me, and do yon loight an' toight young whipster look sharp out for a brokken head, next time he cums under my hond.'
'Mercy on us, what's all this?' cried Miss Price, in affected astonishment.
'Cum whoam, tell 'e, cum whoam,' replied the Yorkshireman, sternly. And as he delivered the reply, Miss Squeers burst into a shower of tears; arising in part from desperate vexation, and in part from an impotent desire to lacerate somebody's countenance with her fair finger-nails.
This state of things had been brought about by divers means and workings. Miss Squeers had brought it about, by aspiring to the high state and condition of being matrimonially engaged, without good grounds for so doing; Miss Price had brought it about, by indulging in three motives of action: first, a desire to punish her friend for laying claim to a rivalship in dignity, having no good title: secondly, the gratification of her own vanity, in receiving the compliments of a smart young man: and thirdly, a wish to convince the corn-factor of the great danger he ran, in deferring the celebration of their expected nuptials; while Nicholas had brought it about, by half an hour's gaiety and thoughtlessness, and a very sincere desire to avoid the imputation of inclining at all to Miss Squeers. So the means employed, and the end produced, were alike the most natural in the world; for young ladies will look forward to being married, and will jostle each other in the race to the altar, and will avail themselves of all opportunities of displaying their own attractions to the best advantage, down to the very end of time, as they have done from its beginning.
'Why, and here's Fanny in tears now!' exclaimed Miss Price, as if in fresh amazement. 'What can be the matter?'
'Oh! you don't know, miss, of course you don't know. Pray don't trouble yourself to inquire,' said Miss Squeers, producing that change of countenance which children call making a face.
'Well, I'm sure!' exclaimed Miss Price.
'And who cares whether you are sure or not, ma'am?' retorted Miss Squeers, making another face.
'You are monstrous polite, ma'am,' said Miss Price.
'I shall not come to you to take lessons in the art, ma'am!' retorted Miss Squeers.
'You needn't take the trouble to make yourself plainer than you are, ma'am, however,' rejoined Miss Price, 'because that's quite unnecessary.'
Miss Squeers, in reply, turned very red, and thanked God that she hadn't got the bold faces of some people. Miss Price, in rejoinder, congratulated herself upon not being possessed of the envious feeling of other people; whereupon Miss Squeers made some general remark touching the danger of associating with low persons; in which Miss Price entirely coincided: observing that it was very true indeed, and she had thought so a long time.
''Tilda,' exclaimed Miss Squeers with dignity, 'I hate you.'
'Ah! There's no love lost between us, I assure you,' said Miss Price, tying her bonnet strings with a jerk. 'You'll cry your eyes out, when I'm gone; you know you will.'
'I scorn your words, Minx,' said Miss Squeers.
'You pay me a great compliment when you say so,' answered the miller's daughter, curtseying very low. 'Wish you a very good-night, ma'am, and pleasant dreams attend your sleep!'
With this parting benediction, Miss Price swept from the room, followed by the huge Yorkshireman, who exchanged with Nicholas, at parting, that peculiarly expressive scowl with which the cut-and-thrust counts, in melodramatic performances, inform each other they will meet again.
They were no sooner gone, than Miss Squeers fulfilled the prediction of her quondam friend by giving vent to a most copious burst of tears, and uttering various dismal lamentations and incoherent words. Nicholas stood looking on for a few seconds, rather doubtful what to do, but feeling uncertain whether the fit would end in his being embraced, or scratched, and considering that either infliction would be equally agreeable, he walked off very quietly while Miss Squeers was moaning in her pocket-handkerchief.