The Gift

japanese-fan‘My Christmas is a bright one enough, and I have great hopes of a happy New Year.’

The letter Caroline Jebb wrote to her sister on 25 December 1874 was cheerful, but her first Christmas in Cambridge was a pretty miserable one. She missed her family back in west Philadelphia, and the happy chaos of exchanging gifts with her young nieces and nephews. When she sailed to England the previous summer to marry the Classics scholar Richard Jebb, it had seemed at first, she told her sister, ‘just like the novels we read of English life’. Now she was living far from her friends and family in a remote university town, sharing a cold house with a man who was either out at his lectures or in his study working so hard that she rarely saw him.

There were other problems with the marriage. In America, Caroline was used to being in charge of her own finances, living on her U.S. Civil War widow’s pension and a small inheritance, and budgeting carefully. When she moved to England to marry Richard, she was put under pressure by his family to hand over her money to him, in accordance with English law at the time. Richard told her that he was interested in her, not her money, but in any case Caroline was determined to hold on to her financial independence. At the beginning of December she even refused to ask her husband for a loan to buy the winter clothes she badly needed.

‘I never like to mix up my money and Dick’s in any way and I don’t like to borrow from him just now while his balance at the bank is so low. His fellowship comes in some time this month and then if all the bills are once paid I shall see my way clear.’

A week later Richard’s fellowship – the term’s payment for his university teaching – came in, but so did his bills, and Caroline was shocked to discover how much he owed. Richard loved clothes and took pride in his appearance, but paid little attention to how much he could afford. ‘Fancy fourteen pounds for your hair-dresser, twenty to your boot-maker, twenty-seven to your flower-merchant, as many more to your hat-man, &c, just for your little bills,’ she wrote to her sister. Richard loved clothes and fashion, and did not mind borrowing beyond his means. Caroline did, very much.  ‘Think of fifty pounds for piano hire, and the same for cigars, and double that for books!’ In total, the bills came to £500, five times as much as Richard had estimated in their marriage settlement the previous August, and much more than he earned for his lectures.

Caroline’s way of punishing him was to refuse to allow him to spend money on her. On Christmas Day they exchanged politely restrained gifts: she presented him with a gold pencil for his waistcoat pocket, and he gave her a butter dish. She would not permit anything more. But on Boxing Day, Caroline’s birthday, Richard managed to find a way around the financial embargo and presented her with an enormous Japanese black satin fan. Caroline could not resist. ‘These fans are all the fashion in London, nobody carries anything else,’ she told her sister. The craze for all things Japanese, known as japonisme, had spread from Paris to England. A few months later, in May 1875, Arthur Liberty would open his department store on Regent Street selling ornaments, fabric and rare objects from Japan and the East. Richard’s gift of a Japanese fan shows how far he was ahead of mainstream fashion, and how even though they were both ‘as poor as church mice’ that Christmas, he knew that she would love it. More importantly, he promised to hand over control of all money matters to her, which for Caroline was the best gift she could have wished for.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Gift’ day/month/year)

Sources: Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber & Faber, 1960); ‘The Victorian vision of China and Japan’ at the Victorian & Albert Museum here. Mimi Matthews has written blogs on  Victorian gifts here and Japanese fashion here. Lesley Downer’s novel The Shogun’s Queen examines the darker aspects of the 19th century’s ‘opening of Japan’ here.


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