Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Uncivil Rules

"Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" -- Sir Toby Belch

One of the real -- and few -- pleasures of our exile in Southern California, was taking visitors to The Huntington Library and Museum, in Pasadena. The botanical gardens there are endlessly fascinating, and lunch was the always delightful and affordable high tea in the rose gardens (reservations required.) The museum itself is full of interesting things, including Vermeers and the like, but not the least interesting, as I remember it, is the huge portrait, in a hallway, of Mrs. Arabella Huntington, in which this beneficent lady is seated, decked in dignified black, looking exactly like Stanley Tucci in drag. Bless 'er.

As all such places are designed, a tour of The Huntington tends to end in the gift shop. Among the truly odd choices offered among the postcards, or the books detailing the eclectic collection of the museum, I don't remember which, I once found an image of what looked to be an ancient, wooden comb. This was described as "A recusant pick." A date during the reign of the first Elizabeth was the only other information provided. ??? I don't recall just how, but I eventually learned that this was, in fact, a tool for grooming, though, other than the date, I never learned just what made the damned thing an unreformed Catholic comb; the period? the original owner? the style of the thing -- was it cruciform? I don't remember. What tickled me most though was the thought that either dear Arabella/Stanley, or one of her equally generous descendants, thought enough of the comb to buy the thing, add it to the same collection that features Dutch Masters and acres of succulents, and have said precious comb catalogued, preserved and photographed, presumably as quite a find. Now then, what queen sold the old girl a not very fancy, in fact rather ratty comb?

"This, this is not just a filthy old wooden comb, my dear Arabella. Oh no. Madame, I assure you, this is a very old, very typically Elizabethan pick, or rather not, as this is in fact, a recusant pick! One must have it, really one must... for posterity's sake, dearest Arabella."

"How much?"

Lord love the bountiful rich, egh?

I was reminded of the pick when I took a stray volume of Green's History of the English People with me to lunch today. My work husband decided to part with his pretty little ten volume set of this work, so as to realize a little credit that he might then use on our upcoming Employee Shopping Day. The company holds two of these a year. One at Christmas time, so that employees better than myself might, presumably, buy gifts for family, friends and the deserving poor. The second, upcoming this week, is held just before the store's annual inventory. This, I somewhat cynically assume, is timed to dump such additional ballast as might be shed at the last moment after returns to vendors have been shut off. Doesn't matter. On both days, the employee discount increases by ten percent, at least on necessities like candy and books, and so I gratefully and greedily, load up. I am not alone. The work wife fills boxes, believe me. The work husband, being an otherwise single fellow, and a more restrained character, sensibly plans his purchases according to more careful calculation, thus his determination to lose Green's History. Now he had to know I would find these handsome little books all but irresistible, damn him. As if to prove his hunch, I'd no sooner seen them than I left the book I'd brought to read and snagged Volume VI, 1567 - 1611 for my lunch.

The earlier volumes, particularly the more ancient history of England, would probably have proved less enticing, but I do love me some Elizabethans. In fact, I begin to understand something of Mrs. Huntington's need of a comb. You see, I'd never read John Richard Green. Turns out, his is the kind of Victorian English I like best, but I've usually only seen less attractive, usually broken sets of this, his most popular long work. Green's History, after Macaulay's, was easily the best selling nonfiction work of the day. I now see why. His style is plain and pleasant and, it seems, he all but invented, or at the very least, popularized, social history; writing not just about Kings and Queens, but about folks as well. Green gave agency to the people ruled by, and loved by old Bess. That was a radical idea for the time, and the author managed to do it without resort to either dull statistics or loss of personalities, instead taking as given that human populations actively participate in the fate otherwise assigned them by the powerful. It was an insightful, and elegantly achieved, departure from the established view. I read forty pages at lunch, and another thirty when I took the book home.

I will be buying the set, come Friday. Damn it. It seems, even without the resources of Mrs. Huntington, I too can be sold easily enough, at least when it comes to books I never intended to own. What's worse, I sold myself. All dear J. did was try to sell some books.

There are rules when it comes to Employee Shopping Day, sensible rules. One may only get the additional discount the day of the sale. The books to be purchased must be in the store the day of, no outstanding special-orders or the like. One may not ring up one's own purchases. There are also, or ought to be, rules about just how much one may spend. Trying to be good, I have put books back already from the stack waiting for Friday. I am trying to be sensible you see, like dear J. I am trying to be virtuous this time. Then he springs Green's History on me, admittedly far from expensive, and far from contributing much to the horrifying total of what I already plan to spend, but still...

Who else, other than J. after all, could better appreciate these ten little volumes? They shall find a good home. I'll try being good some other way, some other day. And so it seems, yet again, it's to be cakes & ale come Friday. Damn.

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