Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for his book Three Men in a Boat also penned a series of essays that are at times funny and at times deeply insightful.
Oh the pain of looking for a room for rent! In this essay, On Furnished Apartments, Jerome delves into the surprisingly similar furnishings to be found in nearly every rented room, and to the surprising number of visionaries who lived in attics.
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
ON FURNISHED APARTMENTS.
“Oh, you have some rooms to let.”
“Well, what is it?”
“‘Ere’s a gentleman about the rooms.”
“Ask ‘im in. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“Will yer step inside, sir? Mother’ll be up in a minute.”
So you step inside and after a minute “mother” comes slowly up the kitchen stairs, untying her apron as she comes and calling down instructions to some one below about the potatoes.
“Good-morning, sir,” says “mother,” with a washed-out smile. “Will you step this way, please?”
“Oh, it’s hardly worth while my coming up,” you say. “What sort of rooms are they, and how much?”
“Well,” says the landlady, “if you’ll step upstairs I’ll show them to you.”
So with a protesting murmur, meant to imply that any waste of time complained of hereafter must not be laid to your charge, you follow “mother” upstairs.
At the first landing you run up against a pail and a broom, whereupon “mother” expatiates upon the unreliability of servant-girls, and bawls over the balusters for Sarah to come and take them away at once. When you get outside the rooms she pauses, with her hand upon the door, to explain to you that they are rather untidy just at present, as the last lodger left only yesterday; and she also adds that this is their cleaning-day—it always is. With this understanding you enter, and both stand solemnly feasting your eyes upon the scene before you. The rooms cannot be said to appear inviting. Even “mother’s” face betrays no admiration. Untenanted “furnished apartments” viewed in the morning sunlight do not inspire cheery sensations. There is a lifeless air about them. It is a very different thing when you have settled down and are living in them. With your old familiar household gods to greet your gaze whenever you glance up, and all your little knick-knacks spread around you—with the photos of all the girls that you have loved and lost ranged upon the mantel-piece, and half a dozen disreputable-looking pipes scattered about in painfully prominent positions—with one carpet slipper peeping from beneath the coal-box and the other perched on the top of the piano—with the well-known pictures to hide the dingy walls, and these dear old friends, your books, higgledy-piggledy all over the place—with the bits of old blue china that your mother prized, and the screen she worked in those far by-gone days, when the sweet old face was laughing and young, and the white soft hair tumbled in gold-brown curls from under the coal-scuttle bonnet—
Ah, old screen, what a gorgeous personage you must have been in your young days, when the tulips and roses and lilies (all growing from one stem) were fresh in their glistening sheen! Many a summer and winter have come and gone since then, my friend, and you have played with the dancing firelight until you have grown sad and gray. Your brilliant colors are fast fading now, and the envious moths have gnawed your silken threads. You are withering away like the dead hands that wove you. Do you ever think of those dead hands? You seem so grave and thoughtful sometimes that I almost think you do. Come, you and I and the deep-glowing embers, let us talk together. Tell me in your silent language what you remember of those young days, when you lay on my little mother’s lap and her girlish fingers played with your rainbow tresses. Was there never a lad near sometimes—never a lad who would seize one of those little hands to smother it with kisses, and who would persist in holding it, thereby sadly interfering with the progress of your making? Was not your frail existence often put in jeopardy by this same clumsy, headstrong lad, who would toss you disrespectfully aside that he—not satisfied with one—might hold both hands and gaze up into the loved eyes? I can see that lad now through the haze of the flickering twilight. He is an eager bright-eyed boy, with pinching, dandy shoes and tight-fitting smalls, snowy shirt frill and stock, and—oh! such curly hair. A wild, light-hearted boy! Can he be the great, grave gentleman upon whose stick I used to ride crosslegged, the care-worn man into whose thoughtful face I used to gaze with childish reverence and whom I used to call “father?” You say “yes,” old screen; but are you quite sure? It is a serious charge you are bringing. Can it be possible? Did he have to kneel down in those wonderful smalls and pick you up and rearrange you before he was forgiven and his curly head smoothed by my mother’s little hand? Ah! old screen, and did the lads and the lassies go making love fifty years ago just as they do now? Are men and women so unchanged? Did little maidens’ hearts beat the same under pearl-embroidered bodices as they do under Mother Hubbard cloaks? Have steel casques and chimney-pot hats made no difference to the brains that work beneath them? Oh, Time! great Chronos! and is this your power? Have you dried up seas and leveled mountains and left the tiny human heart-strings to defy you? Ah, yes! they were spun by a Mightier than thou, and they stretch beyond your narrow ken, for their ends are made fast in eternity. Ay, you may mow down the leaves and the blossoms, but the roots of life lie too deep for your sickle to sever. You refashion Nature’s garments, but you cannot vary by a jot the throbbings of her pulse. The world rolls round obedient to your laws, but the heart of man is not of your kingdom, for in its birthplace “a thousand years are but as yesterday.”
I am getting away, though, I fear, from my “furnished apartments,” and I hardly know how to get back. But I have some excuse for my meanderings this time. It is a piece of old furniture that has led me astray, and fancies gather, somehow, round old furniture, like moss around old stones. One’s chairs and tables get to be almost part of one’s life and to seem like quiet friends. What strange tales the wooden-headed old fellows could tell did they but choose to speak! At what unsuspected comedies and tragedies have they not assisted! What bitter tears have been sobbed into that old sofa cushion! What passionate whisperings the settee must have overheard!
New furniture has no charms for me compared with old. It is the old things that we love—the old faces, the old books, the old jokes. New furniture can make a palace, but it takes old furniture to make a home. Not merely old in itself—lodging-house furniture generally is that—but it must be old to us, old in associations and recollections. The furniture of furnished apartments, however ancient it may be in reality, is new to our eyes, and we feel as though we could never get on with it. As, too, in the case of all fresh acquaintances, whether wooden or human (and there is very little difference between the two species sometimes), everything impresses you with its worst aspect. The knobby wood-work and shiny horse-hair covering of the easy-chair suggest anything but ease. The mirror is smoky. The curtains want washing. The carpet is frayed. The table looks as if it would go over the instant anything was rested on it. The grate is cheerless, the wall-paper hideous. The ceiling appears to have had coffee spilt all over it, and the ornaments—well, they are worse than the wallpaper.
There must surely be some special and secret manufactory for the production of lodging-house ornaments. Precisely the same articles are to be found at every lodging-house all over the kingdom, and they are never seen anywhere else. There are the two—what do you call them? they stand one at each end of the mantel-piece, where they are never safe, and they are hung round with long triangular slips of glass that clank against one another and make you nervous. In the commoner class of rooms these works of art are supplemented by a couple of pieces of china which might each be meant to represent a cow sitting upon its hind legs, or a model of the temple of Diana at Ephesus, or a dog, or anything else you like to fancy. Somewhere about the room you come across a bilious-looking object, which at first you take to be a lump of dough left about by one of the children, but which on scrutiny seems to resemble an underdone cupid. This thing the landlady calls a statue. Then there is a “sampler” worked by some idiot related to the family, a picture of the “Huguenots,” two or three Scripture texts, and a highly framed and glazed certificate to the effect that the father has been vaccinated, or is an Odd Fellow, or something of that sort.
You examine these various attractions and then dismally ask what the rent is.
“That’s rather a good deal,” you say on hearing the figure.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” answers the landlady with a sudden burst of candor, “I’ve always had” (mentioning a sum a good deal in excess of the first-named amount), “and before that I used to have” (a still higher figure).
What the rent of apartments must have been twenty years ago makes one shudder to think of. Every landlady makes you feel thoroughly ashamed of yourself by informing you, whenever the subject crops up, that she used to get twice as much for her rooms as you are paying. Young men lodgers of the last generation must have been of a wealthier class than they are now, or they must have ruined themselves. I should have had to live in an attic.
Curious, that in lodgings the rule of life is reversed. The higher you get up in the world the lower you come down in your lodgings. On the lodging-house ladder the poor man is at the top, the rich man underneath. You start in the attic and work your way down to the first floor.
A good many great men have lived in attics and some have died there. Attics, says the dictionary, are “places where lumber is stored,” and the world has used them to store a good deal of its lumber in at one time or another. Its preachers and painters and poets, its deep-browed men who will find out things, its fire-eyed men who will tell truths that no one wants to hear—these are the lumber that the world hides away in its attics. Haydn grew up in an attic and Chatterton starved in one. Addison and Goldsmith wrote in garrets. Faraday and De Quincey knew them well. Dr. Johnson camped cheerfully in them, sleeping soundly—too soundly sometimes—upon their trundle-beds, like the sturdy old soldier of fortune that he was, inured to hardship and all careless of himself. Dickens spent his youth among them, Morland his old age—alas! a drunken, premature old age. Hans Andersen, the fairy king, dreamed his sweet fancies beneath their sloping roofs. Poor, wayward-hearted Collins leaned his head upon their crazy tables; priggish Benjamin Franklin; Savage, the wrong-headed, much troubled when he could afford any softer bed than a doorstep; young Bloomfield, “Bobby” Burns, Hogarth, Watts the engineer—the roll is endless. Ever since the habitations of men were reared two stories high has the garret been the nursery of genius.
No one who honors the aristocracy of mind can feel ashamed of acquaintanceship with them. Their damp-stained walls are sacred to the memory of noble names. If all the wisdom of the world and all its art—all the spoils that it has won from nature, all the fire that it has snatched from heaven—were gathered together and divided into heaps, and we could point and say, for instance, these mighty truths were flashed forth in the brilliant salon amid the ripple of light laughter and the sparkle of bright eyes; and this deep knowledge was dug up in the quiet study, where the bust of Pallas looks serenely down on the leather-scented shelves; and this heap belongs to the crowded street; and that to the daisied field—the heap that would tower up high above the rest as a mountain above hills would be the one at which we should look up and say: this noblest pile of all—these glorious paintings and this wondrous music, these trumpet words, these solemn thoughts, these daring deeds, they were forged and fashioned amid misery and pain in the sordid squalor of the city garret. There, from their eyries, while the world heaved and throbbed below, the kings of men sent forth their eagle thoughts to wing their flight through the ages. There, where the sunlight streaming through the broken panes fell on rotting boards and crumbling walls; there, from their lofty thrones, those rag-clothed Joves have hurled their thunderbolts and shaken, before now, the earth to its foundations.
Huddle them up in your lumber-rooms, oh, world! Shut them fast in and turn the key of poverty upon them. Weld close the bars, and let them fret their hero lives away within the narrow cage. Leave them there to starve, and rot, and die. Laugh at the frenzied beatings of their hands against the door. Roll onward in your dust and noise and pass them by, forgotten.
But take care lest they turn and sting you. All do not, like the fabled phoenix, warble sweet melodies in their agony; sometimes they spit venom—venom you must breathe whether you will or no, for you cannot seal their mouths, though you may fetter their limbs. You can lock the door upon them, but they burst open their shaky lattices and call out over the house-tops so that men cannot but hear. You hounded wild Rousseau into the meanest garret of the Rue St. Jacques and jeered at his angry shrieks. But the thin, piping tones swelled a hundred years later into the sullen roar of the French Revolution, and civilization to this day is quivering to the reverberations of his voice.
As for myself, however, I like an attic. Not to live in: as residences they are inconvenient. There is too much getting up and down stairs connected with them to please me. It puts one unpleasantly in mind of the tread-mill. The form of the ceiling offers too many facilities for bumping your head and too few for shaving. And the note of the tomcat as he sings to his love in the stilly night outside on the tiles becomes positively distasteful when heard so near.
No, for living in give me a suit of rooms on the first floor of a Piccadilly mansion (I wish somebody would!); but for thinking in let me have an attic up ten flights of stairs in the densest quarter of the city. I have all Herr Teufelsdrockh’s affection for attics. There is a sublimity about their loftiness. I love to “sit at ease and look down upon the wasps’ nest beneath;” to listen to the dull murmur of the human tide ebbing and flowing ceaselessly through the narrow streets and lanes below. How small men seem, how like a swarm of ants sweltering in endless confusion on their tiny hill! How petty seems the work on which they are hurrying and skurrying! How childishly they jostle against one another and turn to snarl and scratch! They jabber and screech and curse, but their puny voices do not reach up here. They fret, and fume, and rage, and pant, and die; “but I, mein Werther, sit above it all; I am alone with the stars.”
The most extraordinary attic I ever came across was one a friend and I once shared many years ago. Of all eccentrically planned things, from Bradshaw to the maze at Hampton Court, that room was the most eccentric. The architect who designed it must have been a genius, though I cannot help thinking that his talents would have been better employed in contriving puzzles than in shaping human habitations. No figure in Euclid could give any idea of that apartment. It contained seven corners, two of the walls sloped to a point, and the window was just over the fireplace. The only possible position for the bedstead was between the door and the cupboard. To get anything out of the cupboard we had to scramble over the bed, and a large percentage of the various commodities thus obtained was absorbed by the bedclothes. Indeed, so many things were spilled and dropped upon the bed that toward night-time it had become a sort of small cooperative store. Coal was what it always had most in stock. We used to keep our coal in the bottom part of the cupboard, and when any was wanted we had to climb over the bed, fill a shovelful, and then crawl back. It was an exciting moment when we reached the middle of the bed. We would hold our breath, fix our eyes upon the shovel, and poise ourselves for the last move. The next instant we, and the coals, and the shovel, and the bed would be all mixed up together.
I’ve heard of the people going into raptures over beds of coal. We slept in one every night and were not in the least stuck up about it.
But our attic, unique though it was, had by no means exhausted the architect’s sense of humor. The arrangement of the whole house was a marvel of originality. All the doors opened outward, so that if any one wanted to leave a room at the same moment that you were coming downstairs it was unpleasant for you. There was no ground-floor—its ground-floor belonged to a house in the next court, and the front door opened direct upon a flight of stairs leading down to the cellar. Visitors on entering the house would suddenly shoot past the person who had answered the door to them and disappear down these stairs. Those of a nervous temperament used to imagine that it was a trap laid for them, and would shout murder as they lay on their backs at the bottom till somebody came and picked them up.
It is a long time ago now that I last saw the inside of an attic. I have tried various floors since but I have not found that they have made much difference to me. Life tastes much the same, whether we quaff it from a golden goblet or drink it out of a stone mug. The hours come laden with the same mixture of joy and sorrow, no matter where we wait for them. A waistcoat of broadcloth or of fustian is alike to an aching heart, and we laugh no merrier on velvet cushions than we did on wooden chairs. Often have I sighed in those low-ceilinged rooms, yet disappointments have come neither less nor lighter since I quitted them. Life works upon a compensating balance, and the happiness we gain in one direction we lose in another. As our means increase, so do our desires; and we ever stand midway between the two. When we reside in an attic we enjoy a supper of fried fish and stout. When we occupy the first floor it takes an elaborate dinner at the Continental to give us the same amount of satisfaction.