‘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 trying hard to sound upbeat, but her first Christmas in Cambridge was a pretty miserable one. She was missing her family back in Philadelphia, and the happy chaos of exchanging gifts with her young nieces and nephews. When she sailed to England six months previously to marry the Classics scholar Richard Jebb, it had seemed at first, she told her sister, deeply romantic and ‘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 she did not know very well, who was usually either in his college or in his study. She suspected Richard was drinking too much and hiding it from her.
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 reassured her that he was interested in her, not her money, so did not expect her to hand her money over, but in any case Caroline was determined to remain financially independent from him. Her trunk containing her clothes from America had still not arrived, and at the beginning of December she refused to ask Richard 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 unfortunately so did his bills. Caroline was shocked to discover how much he owed. Richard loved clothes and fashion, and took pride in his appearance, but paid little attention to how much he could actually 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. ‘Think of fifty pounds for piano hire, and the same for cigars, and double that for books!’ Before he married, Richard had always solved his familiar problem of overspending by borrowing from his relatives – he didn’t mind living beyond his means. Caroline did, very much. In total, the bills came to £500, five times as much as Richard had estimated they would be 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 her generous husband 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 her financial embargo and presented her with an enormous Japanese black satin fan. It was the perfect gift, and Caroline could not resist. ‘These fans are all the fashion in London, nobody carries anything else,’ she told her sister happily. The craze for all things Japanese, known as japonisme, had spread from Paris to London. Less than six months later, in May 1875, Arthur Lasenby Liberty would open his department store on Regent Street selling ornaments, fabric and rare objects from Japan and the East, as well as working with William Morris. An article in The Independent earlier this year about the history of Liberty describes how ‘the brand’s initial success owed a lot to the era’s obsession with Japan and China, a cultural trend that could be seen as clearly in furniture and painting as it could in fabric and jewellery.’
Richard’s present of a Japanese fan shows how in touch he was with fashion, and even though they were both ‘as poor as church mice’ that Christmas, he knew that Caroline would love it. More importantly, he felt ashamed for the first time in his life about his habitual over-spending and financial mismanagement. He promised to hand over control of all money matters to her from then on, which for Caroline was the best New Year’s gift she could have wished for.
© Ann Kennedy Smith (revised December 2018)
Please reference as follows: Dr Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Gift’ https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: 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.