28 April 2020

from Gaudy Night, chapter 11 (Dorothy L. Sayers)

The only member missing from the Senior Common Room was Mrs Goodwin, whose small son (a most unfortunate child) had come out with measles immediately upon his return to school and again required his mother's nursing.

'Of course she can't help it,' said the Dean, 'but it's a very great nuisance, just at the beginning of the Summer Term.  If I'd only known, I could have come back earlier.'

'I don't see,' observed Miss Hillyard, grimly, 'what else you can expect, if you give jobs to widows with children.  You have to be prepared for these perpetual interruptions.  And for some reason, these domestic pre-occupations always have to be put before the work.'

'Well,' said the Dean, 'one must put work aside in a case of serious illness.'

'But all children get measles.'

'Yes; but he's not a very strong child, you know.  His father was tubercular, poor man - in fact, that's what he died of - and if measles should turn to pneumonia, as it so often does, the consequences might be serious.'

'But has it turned to pneumonia?'

'They're afraid it may.  He's got it very badly.  And, as he's a nervous little creature, he naturally likes to have his mother with him.  And in any case, she'd be in quarantine.'

'The longer she stays with him, the longer she'll be in quarantine.'

'It's very tiresome, of course,' put in Miss Lydgate, mildly.  'But if Mrs Goodwin had isolated herself and come back at the earliest possible moment - as she very bravely offered to do - she would have been suffering a great deal of anxiety.'

'A great many of us have to suffer anxiety in one way or another,' said Miss Hillyard, sharply.  'I have been very anxious about my sister.  It is always an anxious business to have a first baby at thirty-five.  But if the event had happened to occur in term-time, it would have had to take place without my assistance.'

'It is always difficult to say which duty one should put first,' said Miss Pyke.  'Each case must be decided individually.  I presume that, in bringing children into the world, one accepts a certain responsibility towards them.'

'I'm not denying it,' said Miss Hillyard.  'But if the domestic responsibility is to take precedence of the public responsibility, then the work should be handed over to someone else to do.'

'But the children must be fed and clothed,' said Miss Edwards.

'Quite so.  But the mother should not take a resident post.'

'Mrs Goodwin is an excellent secretary,' said the Dean.  'I should be very sorry to lose her.  And it's nice to think that we are able to help her in her very difficult position.'

Miss Hillyard lost patience.

'The fact is, though you will never admit it, that everybody in this place has an inferiority complex about married women and children.  For all your talk about careers and independence, you all believe in your hearts that we ought to abase ourselves before any woman who has fulfilled her animal functions.'

'That is absolute nonsense,' said the Bursar.

'It is natural, I suppose, to feel that married women lead a fuller life,' began Miss Lydgate.

'And a more useful one,' retorted Miss Hillyard.  'Look at the fuss that's made over "Shrewsbury grandchildren"!  Look how delighted you all are when old members get married!  As if you were saying "Aha! education doesn't unfit us for real life after all!  And when a really brilliant scholar throws away all her prospects to marry a curate, you say perfunctorily, "What a pity!  But of course her own life must come first."'

'I've never said such a thing,' cried the Dean indignantly.  'I always say they're perfect fools to marry.'

'I shouldn't mind,' said Miss Hillyard, unheeding, 'if you said openly that intellectual interests were only a second-best; but you pretend to put them first in theory and are ashamed of them in practice.'

'There's no need to get so heated about it,' said Miss Barton, breaking in upon the angry protest of Miss Pyke.  'After all, some of us may have deliberately chosen not to marry.  And, if you will forgive my saying so -'

At this ominous phrase, always the prelude to something quite unforgiveable, Harriet and the Dean broke hastily into the discussion.

'Considering that we are devoting our whole lives -'

'Even for a man, it is not always easy to say -'

Their common readiness confronted their good intention.  Each broke off and begged the other's pardon, and Miss Barton went on unchecked:

'It is not altogether wise - or convincing - to show so much animus against married women.  It was the same unreasonable prejudice that made you get that scout removed from your staircase -'

'I object,' said Miss Hillyard, with a heightened colour, 'to preferential treatment.  I do not see why we should put up with slackness on duty because a servant or a secretary happens to be a widow with children.   I do not see why Annie should be given a room to herself in the Scouts' Wing, and charge over a corridor, when servants who have been here for longer than she has have to be content to share a room.  I do not -'

'Well,' said Miss Stevens, 'I think she is entitled to a little consideration.  A woman who has been accustomed to a nice home of her own -'

'Very likely,' said Miss Hillyard.  'At any rate, it was not my lack of consideration that led to her precious children being placed in the charge of a common thief.'

'I was always against that,' said the Dean.

'And why did you give in?  Because poor Mrs Jukes was such a nice woman and had a family to keep.  She must be considered and rewarded for being fool enough to marry a scoundrel.  What's the good of pretending that you put the interests of the College first, when you hesitate for two whole terms about getting rid of a dishonest porter, because you're so sorry for his family?'

'There,' said Miss Allison, 'I entirely agree with you.  The College ought to come first in a case like that.'

'It ought always to come first.  Mrs Goodwin ought to see it, and resign her post if she can't carry out her duties properly.'  She stood up.  'Perhaps, however, it is as well that she should be away and stay away.  You may remember that, last time she was away, we had no trouble from anonymous letters or monkey-tricks.'

Miss Hillyard put down her coffee-cup and stalked out of the room.  Everybody looked uncomfortable.

'Bless my heart!' said the Dean.

'Something very wrong there,' said Miss Edwards, bluntly.

'She's so prejudiced,' said Miss Lydgate.  'I always think it's a very great pity she never married.' 

Miss Lydgate had a way of putting into language that a child could understand things which other people did not say, or said otherwise.

'I should be sorry for the man, I must say,' observed Miss Shaw; 'but perhaps I am showing an undue consideration for the male sex.  One is almost afraid to open one's mouth.'

'Poor Mrs Goodwin!' exclaimed the Bursar.  'The very last person!'

She got up angrily and went out.  Miss Lydgate followed her.  Miss Chilperic, who had said nothing, but looked quite alarmed, murmured that she must get along to work.  The Common Room slowly cleared, and Harriet was left with the Dean.

'Miss Lydgate has the most terrifying way of hitting the nail on the head,' said Miss Martin; 'because it is obviously much more likely that -'

'A great deal more likely,' said Harriet.

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