Max of the Month 5. When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.
This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from John Bull’s Womankind, published in 1884, which focusses on women in England at the time. O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.
I know of an Englishman who, about fifty years ago succeeded in winning the hand of a rich girl, and supplanting a lover to whom she had previously plighted her troth. After having passed his life in reproaching his wife for her infidelity to the man she had jilted for him, this domestic tyrant vouchsafed to depart this life last year, and a few years of widowhood and peace seemed in store for his wife. But alas! when the will of this love of a husband was examined, it turned out that though there was no mistake about the widowhood, the peace was not so clear. He left everything to his son, that is to say, his own fortune and that of his wife which he had taken possession of, and was not even polite enough to restore to her. At the same time he charged his son to pay that lady £100 per annum, as long as she remained a widow: liberal treatment, was it not? . . . for a faithful old servant. As for the supposition that it could enter into the head of the good woman to marry again, it was a joke in very doubtful taste on the part of the worthy defunct. She is at present in her seventy-third year. Her son is fast ruining himself on the Stock Exchange and the turf, so that her pittance of £100 a year is not so safe as it might be. But, whatever may happen, there is no danger that the poor lady, urged by despair, will go and drown herself; she would be too much afraid of rejoining her husband.
If you would study John Bull as a will maker, open the Illustrated London News, which gives testamentary news every Friday. The dearly beloved wife — this is the formula — will often be the object of your lively compassion.
If one may trust epitaphs, there are widows who seem, however, far from having cause of complaint against their poor defuncts.
I read on a handsome monument in Kensal Green Cemetery:
“Here lies John Davies,
The friend of the friendless,
The most tender of husbands.”
And lower down, on the same stone:
“Here lies Thomas Millard,
The friend of the friendless,
Tender husband of the Widow of John Davies
I religiously pay a visit to Kensal Green Cemetery every year. I am still young, and I live in hopes of seeing the complete list of the tender husbands of this exemplary widow.
Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time. O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women.
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