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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Dickensian Contract

Dickens_by_Watkins_detail I was amused to come across this 19th-century account of how "refined" people concluded contracts in the 19th century.  It comes from Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens (left).   The exchange is between William Dorrit, recently released from the debtors prison and now (suddenly and rather mysteriously) a wealthy man, and a Mrs. General, whom he is contemplating as an agent for the cultivation of his daughters' manners -- or mannerisms.

'Might I be excused,' said Mr Dorrit, 'if I inquired--ha--what remune--'

'Why, indeed,' returned Mrs General, stopping the word, 'it is a subject on which I prefer to avoid entering. I have never entered on it with my friends here; and I cannot overcome the delicacy, Mr Dorrit, with which I have always regarded it. I am not, as I hope you are aware, a governess--'

'O dear no!' said Mr Dorrit. 'Pray, madam, do not imagine for a moment that I think so.' He really blushed to be suspected of it.

Mrs General gravely inclined her head. 'I cannot, therefore, put a price upon services which it is a pleasure to me to render if I can render them spontaneously, but which I could not render in mere return for any consideration. Neither do I know how, or where, to find a case parallel to my own. It is peculiar.'

No doubt. But how then (Mr Dorrit not unnaturally hinted) could the subject be approached.

'I cannot object,' said Mrs General--'though even that is disagreeable to me--to Mr Dorrit's inquiring, in confidence of my friends here, what amount they have been accustomed, at quarterly intervals, to pay to my credit at my bankers'.'

Mr Dorrit bowed his acknowledgements.

'Permit me to add,' said Mrs General, 'that beyond this, I can never resume the topic. Also that I can accept no second or inferior position. If the honour were proposed to me of becoming known to Mr Dorrit's family--I think two daughters were mentioned?--'

'Two daughters.'

'I could only accept it on terms of perfect equality, as a companion, protector, Mentor, and friend.'Littledorrit_serial_cover

Mr Dorrit, in spite of his sense of his importance, felt as if it would be quite a kindness in her to accept it on any conditions.  He almost said as much.

'I think,' repeated Mrs General, 'two daughters were mentioned?'

'Two daughters,' said Mr Dorrit again.

'It would therefore,' said Mrs General, 'be necessary to add a third more to the payment (whatever its amount may prove to be), which my friends here have been accustomed to make to my bankers'.'

Mr Dorrit lost no time in referring the delicate question to the county-widower, and finding that he had been accustomed to pay three hundred pounds a-year to the credit of Mrs General, arrived, without any severe strain on his arithmetic, at the conclusion that he himself must pay four. Mrs General being an article of that lustrous surface which suggests that it is worth any money, he made a formal proposal to be allowed to have the honour and pleasure ofregarding her as a member of his family. Mrs General conceded that high privilege, and here she was.

[Jeremy Telman]

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