The Tardis in the library, part one

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their \”best\” behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider \”best\” behaviour.\” Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

The other day I pulled out one of these time machines [1] only to find myself gazing at the life of two middle-aged men in London, England in the early 1920s. How different was their life than would be the lives of two similar men today.

First, they (Mr. Beaumont and Mr. Bradley) do no work and yet they are neither poverty stricken nor immensely wealthy. Apparently at that time there was a goodly number of people similarly situated. They may have worked for some time \”in the City\” but many of them had never worked, would never work and had lived their entire life on the income of investments bequeathed to them by aunts and uncles. [2]

Second, they have servants. At least one of whom \’lives in.\’ As the story opens they are faced with the disastrous news that their housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholson, is leaving them to get married. Mrs. Nicholson has been the mainstay of their comfort but in addition to her they also employ a gardener and \”a girl\” who comes in every day.

Third, not only do they do no cooking or cleaning or working they also do no shopping for the gardener grows and picks the vegetables and Mrs. Nicholson orders in the rest of their food as well as their wine and other household supplies.

Fourth, there is no suggestion that the relationship of the two men is sexual or even homosocial. They are just friends who find it convenient to pool their resources in order to have a well-ordered and comfortable home.

Fifth, it is considered not unusual that absent a women (wife or housekeeper) two men are unable to adequately see to the supervision of the servants.

Sixth, that when Mrs. Glover (Mr. Beaumont\’s sister) arrives she brings her maid with her and the two of them naturally take over the care of the household.

Seventh, the original readers of the story find it amusing but not beyond belief that Mr. Bradley would propose to the widowed Mrs. Glover in order to have a permanent replacement for Mrs. Nicholson.

Finally, two well off men living in the London of that time did not already have electricity in their home. Of course as the story begins they have no need of it since they had human beings to do all the work. Mrs. Nicholson got up before them, lit the fires, warmed the house, shopped almost daily, mended their clothes, supervised the washing of their clothes, planned their meals and cooked their meals. Someone (housekeeper, girl or gardener) weeded for them, dusted for them, made their beds, lit their candles, swept their floors and heated their water. When the men finally decide to get their house \”electrified\” it is not to make life easier for their servants but rather to save money and increase their comfort by replacing servants with the electrical equipment.

[T]hey had completely made up their minds, and having ascertained that every labour-saving device in stock could be installed in their house in three weeks, they dismissed the entire household with a month\’s wages instead of a month\’s warning, and moved across to the admirable hotel, where in comfort, they could superintend the refitting of their home. (68)

The devices were not \”labour-saving\” in the sense that they made the labour of the servants easier for the servants. The devices were \”labour-saving\” in the sense that the bachelors would no longer have to hire someone to do the labour.

What the one-way glass showed me was a world in which it was somewhat less \”suspect\” for men to live together in order to pool their financial aspects than it is today. It also showed me a world in which men value women (be they wives or housekeepers) more for their ability to ensure the men\’s physical comfort than for anything else. And it showed me a world in which \”labour-saving\” meant a way to replace someone who worked for a living with a machine.

In other words, less had changed than one might have thought.


[1] \”The Hapless Bachelors\” in Benson, E. Desirable residences and other stories. Oxford England New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Originally published March 1921 in Pearson\’s Magazine &#8617

[2] I want to wave at them and warn them–this way of life will soon end. Taxation, inflation and the desire of servants to be paid wages large enough to allow them to house and feed a family will soon eat away your comfortable incomes.&#8617

5 thoughts on “The Tardis in the library, part one

  1. Maybe this is something that's different among 20- and 30-somethings in cities with high rent than it is among people your age where you live, but I wouldn't suspect a gay relationship if two men were living together as housemates with separate bedrooms. In fact, my boyfriend has a male flatmate and I've never found it suspicious in the slightest. Among my peers in Toronto and even in Hamilton (where housing is very cheap in much of the city), it is very common for people to live with housemates in order to save money and have some companionship. I'd say more of the people I know who aren't in very long-term romantic relationships live with housemates than live alone, actually, and I even know couples who share living space with friends. You just get more living space for the money if you split the cost of a two-bedroom apartment or a house with other people–the only reasons I don't are my allergies and my lack of local female friends.

  2. kisekileia: Benson (and others) were writing about a class that doesn't really exist today — but these were men in their late 20s to mid 30s who were extremely well-off by the standards of their time and who didn't date, have girl friends or socialize much with women. They didn't live together out of economic straits but because if they pooled their resources they could live in greater luxury.One collects butterflies and the other miniature china pieces. Neither takes part in sport. Today, if this was a movie, they would be shown as effeminate and affected.They are wealthy. Not as wealthy as they would like to be but extremely wealthy compared to the population around them. They can afford live-in servants and when they are having their house wired for electricity they stay for a month at a very, very nice hotel. Interestingly Benson did write (as did others at the time) about men (and women) who would probably today self-identify as gender-queer but strangely enough given our presumptions about the way people were 100 years ago the upper class in England was far more accepting of rather \”interesting\” self-identifications than many people are today.And men were allowed to live together for decades on end, have social relations only with other men and yet have no interests which were accepted at the time as \”manly\” without anyone presuming there was an emotional relationship between the men involved other than mutual narcissism.

  3. Okay, if those men didn't date or have girlfriends that makes it a little different. And I know men who mostly socialize with other men, but those are men whose interests aren't shared by a lot of women (geeks). The feminine interests do make the situation a little strange.

  4. Man, I really thought due to the title of this post that there was something Doctor Who related. But the idea of books as \”time travel\” is quite intriguing. I don't read much historical fiction, but I do wonder what \”travelers\” from the future will think of our fiction today.

  5. I really should use those paper time machines much more, but a couple weeks ago I turned on the Glass Teat Time Machine and watched a Cary Grant comedy from 1948 called \”Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home\”. It had a lot of jokes that are still relevant today about how contractors nickel-and-dime young couples during the house buying process. But I noticed a few odd things:1) Cary Grant is a mid-to-high level advertising executive on Madison Avenue, pulling down the kingly salary of $15,000 per year. That's _per year_.2) This salary lets him afford a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan _plus_ a live-in black maidservant.3) Cary Grant pays $10,000 for a 50-acre lot in Connecticut with a peach orchard. This lot is specified to be within an hour's commute of his New York job. His lawyer tells him he was ripped off: \”You paid $200 per acre. I know that area of Connecticut, and the locals sell each other land at $40 per acre.\” 4) Cary Grant budgeted $10,000 for the construction of a 4-Bedroom, 4-bath house on two stories with a basement playroom.5) Through all the mis-steps, comedic mistakes and travails, the house construction costs him the exorbitant sum of $36,000.6) An honest drilling contractor returns him a refund of $12 which Cary Grant wasn't expecting, so Cary decides that the house building industry isn't a rip-off after all, and we have a happy ending.Wow. Just, wow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s