Monday, December 28, 2015

Surviving a Beggar's Curse

By Grace Elliot

The fascinating thing about history is the fleeting glimpses into how people lived in the past. Letters and diaries give us a chance to do just that. A letter written on December 27th, 1864 by Mrs Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801 – 1866) to a Mrs Russell reveals a vivid exchange with a beggar, during which she was cursed – but survived.

Jane Welsh Carlyle - lady of letters

The scenario in the letter is an interesting one, a complete story in itself, but it also bears breaking down to contrast Ms. Carlyle’s life with that in the modern age. The first point being, that Jane Carlyle is writing a letter which survived over 150 years…the same can’t be said for an email.

Her letter starts thus:
“I was waiting before a shop in Regent Street [London] for some items of stationery; and a young woman black-eyed, rosy-cheeked, with a child in her arms; thrust herself up to the carriage window.”
Mrs Carlyle was shopping for stationery. In Victorian times the shops’ opening hours varied depending on the season: 6 am in the summer and 8 am in the winter.
Mornings were the time when servants shopped, and it was late morning or early afternoon when gentlefolk like Jane Welsh Carlyle took to their carriages to go out. However, well-to-do shoppers had to be wary of thieves and pickpockets were rife on London’s streets, and this was perhaps one reason she stayed in her carriage.

Regent Street in the 19th century

The letter continues:
“[The beggar] broke forth in a paroxysm of begging, refusing to stand aside even when the shop man was showing me some envelopes.”
The shopkeeper had brought his goods to the carriage for the customer to view, rather than the other way round – a whole new take on home-shopping! Indeed, the shopping experience was very different to the modern day. There was no obligation to display the price of the goods and it was common practice for the shopkeeper to alter the price, depending on what he thought the customer would pay.

“Provoked at her noise [the beggar]…I said. ‘No, I will give you not a single penny as an encouragement to annoy others as you are annoying me.’”
Around 25% of the population of Victorian England lived below the poverty level. For those in extreme poverty there was the option of the workhouse, but conditions were so severe that many people preferred to chance their luck on the streets.
There was a cycle of poverty in that a young man may be able to work and earn a living to support himself. But when he married, his wife would no longer be allowed to be in employment so his same wage had to support two people. Things got worse still when children arrived – as this beggar clutching a child would suggest.

25% of the population lived in poverty

“That beggar woman fixed the evil eye on me and slowly said, ‘This is Wednesday lady, perhaps you will be dead by Christmas Day, and have to leave all behind you. Better to have given me a little of it now!’ And she scuttled away leaving with the sensation of being under a curse.”
This may sound dramatic to our modern ears, but in the 19th century people took superstitions much more seriously. Indeed, one superstition was “overlooking” where, in a type of witchcraft,  a specific ‘look’ could curse the individual and cause them to be “sunken in spirits”, lacking in concentration, and taken to an extreme, to waste away.

“I can’t say I took it to heart. At the same time, I was rather glad when, Christmas Day being over, I found myself alive and just as well as before.”
Alas, Mrs Carlyle seems so engrossed with her own situation that she failed to spare a thought for what drove the poor woman to beg in the first instance. Perhaps after all, some things never change….But there again; this is a quote by Mrs Carlyle about children:
“Children as such nasty little beasts”

So perhaps she wasn’t the most warm-hearted person in the world. Move over Ebenezer…

Merry Christmas!

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  1. A wonderful snapshot - thank you for posting. Little episodes like this really remind us that the 'history' we talk about really did involve human beings who had interactions, and feelings, very similar to our own. Stories like this breathe life back into those characters.

  2. What a curious tale! It's wonderful how we can uncover these little pieces of historic life. So often we can forget how steeped in superstition life was for so many. It also reveals, as you mention in your conclusion, how people at the time viewed other members of society. Thank you for sharing Grace. Shared and tweeted.

  3. Thanks for sharing this - and I had to tweet it. Useful too as the book I'm writing has a curse in it,,,made in the 18th century. I suspect they were as superstitious back then.

  4. The woman begging in the picture is probably one of the many street beggars who 'hired' a small child to incite pity. They were a common sight around London.

  5. This is a curious tale indeed. And the story behind the story is tempting for a writer. But what a sorry view of life Mrs. Carlyle had. Such a pretty photo. Such a shabby heart.

  6. A fascinating story that really illustrates the attitude of the wealthy towards the poor and how pronounced the class distinctions were in Victorian England.


  7. Great story and examples of the suffering caused by the English reformation.
    john from Coventry


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