Friday, June 20, 2014

Reading the teacups

One of the most entertaining aspects of Diana Holman-Hunt's My Grandmothers and I, which I wrote about briefly on Wednesday, is each grandmother's endless attempts to set herself up as better, more socially prominent, and more important than the other. The desire for recognition of their social prominence extends to all comers, but it takes on particular force when the opposite number is involved.

My favorite example thus far comes when the Holman-Hunt grandmother--widow of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt--is about to have a tea party. The food at her shabby bohemian home is generally unpalatable in its stinginess. Young Diana is mostly fed eggs stamped "foreign" that are, at best, about to go off; one night, her grandmother marvels at the "excellent" turnip she's brought home to boil for three for dinner. But for the tea party, Grand does at least break out the good china:
Each cup had a tag tied to its handle: so-and-so drank from this cup: Lear, Dickens, Burne-Jones, Carlyle, Thackeray, Madox Brown, Meredith, Gladstone, Millais, Patmore . . . There were twenty-four altogether.

"Our tea set at home [with the other grandmother] is quite different," I said, blowing off the dust. The cups and saucers I like best are white and gold, with little views painted on in grey."

"Apart from a few Spanish and Italian things, our china is all oriental. Holman held the strongest views on the design of domestic utensils, maintaining that the whole surface should be covered with symmetrical pattern. Mr Gladstone owned a lot of rubbishy Dresden and Sevres, and yet was most interested to hear Holman's opinions, and in principle William Morris agreed; he and William de Morgan were, in fact, inspired by the idea."

The labelled tea service was a swindle because all these people hadn't come together. She didn't know that any particular cup was really Millais'. "We never tie labels on our cups at home. Arthur [the manservant] wouldn't like it."

"It is rather wearisome, my pet, to be so frequently regaled with Fowler's and Arthur's taboos." She sighed, and then, summoning her patience, went on brightly: "Not everyone has been privileged, as I have , to receive such a galaxy of stars, at one time or another."
So deliciously horrible, no?

The denouement of the tea party scene is fun, too. Diana is talking with one of the guests, who look at her cup:
"What a thrill!" She crooked her little finger. "My cup is labelled Browning!"

"I'm afraid Browning's rather chipped."

"What an At Home it must have been--what a party!"

"They came at different times. It's Grand's idea. It helps people think of conversation . . . " I didn't add that the mistress must have her little fancies.

"You wicked child! Don't spoil it," she pleaded. "I like to think of them all, drinking tea in this wonderful room; the wallpaper and everything is perfect. I can't wait to tell my folks at home. Would it be all right if I wrote my name on the other side of this label? Claire van der Groot?"

"Please do, if you've got a pencil." No one was looking and I could always rub it out.
I love the idea of the nametags as conversation starters: "This reminds me of the time I met the Inimitable Dickens . . . "

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