meaning and origin of ‘Mrs Grundy’

 

 

MEANING

 

an imaginary personage who is proverbially referred to as a personification of the tyranny of social opinion in matters of conventional propriety

 

ORIGIN

 

Mrs Grundy is the name of an unseen character in Speed the Plough, a comedy first performed in 1798, written by the English playwright Thomas Morton (1764-1838). In this play, Dame Ashfield is represented as constantly fearing to give occasion for the sneers of her neighbour, Mrs Grundy. Her frequent questions, “What will Mrs. Grundy say?”, What will Mrs. Grundy think?”, became proverbial as expressing the attitude of those who regard the disapproval of society as the worst of evils. This is the beginning of the comedy:

(2nd edition, 1800)
Act I. Scene I.—In the fore-ground a Farm House—A view of a Castle at a distance.
Farmer Ashfield discovered with his jug and pipe.
Enter Dame Ashfield in a riding dress, and a basket under her arm.
– Farmer Ashfield: Well, Dame, welcome whoam. What news does thee bring vrom market?

– Dame Ashfield: What news, husband? What I always told you; that Farmer Grundy’s wheat brought five shillings a quarter more than ours did.
– Ashfield: All the better vor he.
– Dame: Ah! the sun seems to shine on purpose for him.
– Ashfield: Come, come, Missus, as thee has not the grace to thank God for prosperous times, dan’t thee grumble when they be unkindly a bit.
– Dame: And I assure you Dame Grundy’s butter was quite the crack of the market.
– Ashfield: Be quiet, woolye? aleways ding, dinging Dame Grundy into my ears—what will Mrs. Grundy zay? What will Mrs. Grundy think?—Casn’t thee be quiet, let ur alone, and behave thyzel pratty?

One of the songs of a pantomime created in 1810 may have further popularised the character; the following was announced in the Morning Advertiser (London) on Monday 23rd July of that year:

NEW COMIC PANTOMIME.
AQUATIC THEATRE, Sadler’s Well.

THIS PRESENT EVENING, July 23, and following Evenings, a New Dance, composed by Mr. Grimaldi, called The Bold Serjeant, or Fairly Taken In.—A new Pantomime (including four scenes from three of the Author’s most popular Pantomimes) called BANG UP, or HARLEQUIN PRIME. […] Songs in the Pantomime, […] “Tea Table Talk, or What’ll Mrs. Grundy say,” by Mr. Grimaldi.

An article in The Examiner (London) of Sunday 14th March 1813 alludes to Speed the Plough and to the phrase What will Mrs Grundy say?; deploring the modern dramatists’ “want of discrimination and incapacity of observation”, the journalist praises Shakespeare and writes:

We do not ask from our playwrights to display this [= Shakespeare’s] liberal profusion which might beggar half the writers in the world; but we do entreat that they will take the pains to walk a little about the streets, pay a few visits, turn over the catalogue of their acquaintance, and try to observe and recollect other traits besides the dress they wear, the oaths they use, and the number of bottles they drink. Then we might have some more vivid discriminations than are presented by bucks running about and crying, “Keep* moving;” by sleepy personages telling us that “they have an idea;” or by women asking, “What will Mrs. Grundy say?
* Cure for the Heart-Ache
 The Dramatist
 Speed the Plough

In the following passage from Liberality, published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal of July 1829, Mrs. Grundy probably refers to the literary character:

In liberality of opinion, England (I speak it with bitter regret) is far behind the rest of Europe. If exclusion be not (as the member for Newark lately said) a fundamental principle of our political constitution, it is of our moral complex. There is little expansive in the thoughts, feelings, or habits, of the mass of Englishmen. It is not only in religion that we are disposed to be damnatory; we are continually splitting into categories and predicaments, and shutting up ourselves in clubs and coteries, on all manner of pretences, each of which looks on the rest of the species as knaves and fools—if not as heretics and idolaters. […] The Clapham householders who keep their carriages, refuse to fraternize with those of their neighbours who travel by the stage; and Mrs. Grundy, who inhabits the one-pair back room, maintains her superiority over Mrs. Soapsuds, who lives in the two pair of stairs forwards. So also an officer of cavalry looks down upon an officer of foot; and he of the line exhibits ineffable disdain of the commander of militia-men. To the same narrow spirit belongs the rigorous exclusion of strangers from public libraries, or the inconvenient and jealous terms on which they are admitted.

In 1841, the same periodical, retitled The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, published Phineas Quiddy; or, Sheer Industry, a novel by the English author John Poole (1786-1872), which contains the following:

What will Mrs. Grundy say!” exclaims the sensitive Dame Ashfield in the play. Many people take the entire world to be one huge Mrs. Grundy, and, upon every act and circumstance of their lives, please, or torment themselves, according to the nature of it, by thinking of what that huge Mrs. Grundy, the World, will say about it. Now they may rest assured that in ninety-nine cases in a hundred, that good lady is otherwise (we will not wound their self-love by suggesting that she is, possibly, better) employed, than in thinking either of them or their affairs; so that there is just so much valuable anxiety thrown away to no purpose. Would they but reflect upon this, how many a gratuitous heart-burning might be spared them.

On Thursday 3rd June 1926, The Times (London) published an article commenting on “Professor Allardyce Nicoll’s work with the School of Dramatic Study at East London College (University of London)”; Nicoll having chosen to revive Thomas Norton’s Speed the Plough, the journalist remarks that Mrs Grundy has “become a national ghost, an accumulating legend”:

Like other legendary beings, she has changed her nature with the flight of time. In the year 1800 she was little else than a generally censorious woman, a personification of other people’s opinion upon one’s own conduct. Gradually her sphere of criticism was restricted to the territory of courtship and gallantry, with its attached colonies of chaperonage, flirtation, and amatory indiscretion. She became, in short, a specialist in maiden modesty and wifely precaution. Then—perhaps in the seventies or eighties—her history took a strange turn. She, who had begun as something of an ogress, became almost popular, except among the irreverent young. No longer thought of as a captious busybody, she won for herself a reputation as a true model of propriety. It was she who would kindly teach young ladies how not to be “conspicuous,” how to avoid being “talked about,” how to fish in dangerous waters without tumbling in. She became a kind of deified aunt, stern but—and here was the essence of the change in her—helpful and necessary. Her tenure of Olympus was not, however, prolonged. Irreverent youth rebelled, dragged her down, and, in a thousand angry or hysterical novels, made of her an Aunt Sally. Now even that phase in her career is ended. Her name, which, in jest or earnest, was once on every lip, is seldom spoken. No one thinks her worth pelting or praising.

The following Monday, 7th June, the same newspaper published a letter from the English historian Ernest Law (1854-1930), evoking a real-life Mrs Grundy, who was employed as housekeeper at Hampton Court Palace long after Thomas Norton wrote Speed the Plough and did not, therefore, originate the figurative use of Mrs Grundy (Ernest Law, an expert on Tudor history, was appointed official historian at Hampton Court Palace and given a residence there):

In reference to your article on Tuesday [sic] last on “Mrs. Grundy,” that lady was, as a fact, embodied in the Housekeeper of that name at Hampton Court Palace in the late ’forties and early ’fifties of last century. Her fame is perpetuated in a dark space—one of the mystery chambers of the Palace—the door of which is rarely opened, and which is still known as “Mrs. Grundy’s Gallery.” Here she impounded any picture or sculpture which she considered unfit for exhibition in the State Rooms; and here she kept them under lock and key, in defiance of the authority and protests of the Queen’s Surveyor of Pictures. No entreaty, no persuasion would ever induce Mrs. Grundy to let any one so much as peep into her Gallery, still less penetrate into it.
The story goes that on one occasion the First Commissioner of Works, on a visit of inspection, noticing a closed door, asked what it led to. “That is Mrs. Grundy’s Gallery, sir,” replied the Clerk of Works in awestricken tones, and he had no key to admit him. So Mrs. Grundy was sent for. In answer to the First Commissioner’s request, she declined to open the door for him. “But I am one of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and I have authority over the structure of the palace.” “I cannot help that, sir,” replied Mrs. Grundy, “only on an order signed by his Lordship the Lord Chamberlain of her Majesty’s Household can I allow anybody to enter my Gallery.” That is the sort of thing that “Mrs. Grundy would say.”
History does not record the eventual result; though he did not get in on that occasion. But in the century-old struggle between the Office of Works and the Lord Chamberlain’s Department, some 40 years after her death the First Commissioner succeeded in having the occupation of “Mrs. Grundy’s Gallery” transferred to his Department, to be used for stores. Some 15 years afterwards its treasures were gradually brought forth, and the pictures hung in the State Rooms, notably Cariani’s beautiful “Venus Recumbent,” No. 88 in the Second Presence Chamber, identified three years ago by Mr. Tancred Borenius as having belonged to the famous Venetian collector, Andrea Vandramin, from a drawing in his catalogue of 1627. It was not until 20 years ago that a leaden statue of Venus, which had been sent from Windsor and was stored in “Mrs. Grundy’s Gallery,” was brought forth to adorn Henry VIII’s Pond Garden. “What would Mrs. Grundy say?”

Hampton Court - Illustrated London News - 26 June 1926

Showing the leaden statue of Venus (in the centre background) which had been sent from Windsor and was long kept by Mrs. Grundy hidden away in her “Gallery”; Henry the Eighth’s Pond Garden at Hampton Court.

photograph and caption: The Illustrated London News – 26th June 1926

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