Yet Still More Dame Shirley

Here’s another descriptive passage from “The Shirley Letters” by Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, a.k.a. Dame Shirley, describing life in the mining camps of California in 1851:

“You must know that today is the anniversary of the Independence of Chile. The procession got up in honor of it consisted, perhaps, of twenty men, nearly a third of whom were of that class of Yankees who are particularly conspicuous in all celebrations where it is each man’s most onerous duty to get what is technically called ‘tight.’

“The man who headed the procession was a complete comic poem in his own individual self. He was a person of Falstaffean proportions and coloring; and if a brandy barrel ever does ‘come alive’ and, donning a red shirt and buckskin trowsers, betake itself to pedestrianism, it will look more like my hero than anything else that I can at present think of.

“With that affectionateness so peculiar to people when they arrive at the sentimental stage of intoxication — although it was with the greatest difficulty that he could sustain his own corporocity — he was tenderly trying to direct the zigzag footsteps of his companion, a little withered-up, weird-looking Chileno. Alas for the wickedness of human nature! The latter, whose drunkenness had taken a Byronic and misanthropical turn, rejected with the basest ingratitude these delicate attentions.

“Do not think that my incarnated brandy cask was the only one of the party ‘who did unto others as he would they should do unto him;’ for the entire band were officiously tendering to each other the same Samaritan-like assistance. I was not astonished at the Virginia fence-like style* of their marching when I heard a description of the feast of which they had partaken a few hours before.

“A friend of mine who stopped into the tent where they were dining said the board — really board — was arranged with a bottle of claret at each plate; and after the cloth — metaphorically speaking, I mean, for table linen is a mere myth in the mines — was removed, a twenty-gallon keg of brandy was placed in the center, with quart dippers gracefully encircling it, that each one might help himself as he pleased.

“Can you wonder, after that, that every man vied with his neighbor in illustrating Hogarth’s line of beauty?** It was impossible to tell which nation was the most gloriously drunk; but this I will say, even at the risk of being thought partial to my own beloved countrymen; that though the Chilenos reeled with a better grace, the Americans did it more naturally.”

It’s great fun to track down Dame Shirley’s allusions, something that would be impossible before the “Age of Google.” Both she and her sister Mary jane, to whom she wrote “The Shirley Letters,” were extremely well read, so the letters have hundreds of interesting allusions that will have you Googling to beat the band.

*A “Virginia fence” is a fence of crossed rails supporting one another and forming a zigzag pattern.

**In “The Analysis of Beauty” (1753) William Hogarth writes:

“It is to be observed, that straight lines vary only in length, and therefore are least ornamental. That curved lines as they can be varied in their degrees of curvature as well as in their lengths, begin on that account to be ornamental. That straight and curv’d lines join’d, being a compound line, vary more than curves alone, and so become somewhat more ornamental. That the waving line, or line of beauty, varying still more, being composed of two curves contrasted, becomes still more ornamental and pleasing, insomuch that the hand takes a lively movement in making it with pen or pencil.”