December 1992

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The Misses Elliot

of Geneva


Warren Hunting Smith

Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
The Misses Elliot of Geneva was first published in 1940 by Farrar & Rinehart. Two printings
were made that year, and seven years later the W. F. Humphrey Press made a third printing.

1992 Preface

The Misses Elliot of Geneva was written as a humorous tribute to the eccentric characters who flourished in Geneva, N.Y., at the beginning of this century. The two characters who are featured in the title were based on an actual pair, but anecdotes about other bygone Genevans are often interwoven with the originals, so that to some extent they are composites. The original pair were more polite, and their utterances more circuitous than those of 'Miss Primrose' and 'Miss Candida,' whose tongues have been greatly sharpened, though I have not exaggerated their underlying prejudices. One of the pair, I am told, actually left money in her will to the City of Geneva, and had taught a Sunday-School class in her younger days.

The other characters are also somewhat exaggerated, but together they present a picture of a small-town society.

When the book first appeared, there was some indignation among older Genevans, but one of them admitted that "after all, I wouldn't mind being remembered for my witty remarks."

Chapter I

There are certain people to whom the name "Geneva" suggests, not the home of the League of Nations, but a town in western New York. Residents of that town use its name with great complacency. If a stranger knows anything, he knows that a Geneva residence is a hallmark of distinction—and, if he doesn't, his ignorance merely exposes him. The old Geneva families came from the proudest stock in the country, and even the obscurest Genevans are some how distinguished, and know how to live like individuals and not like a flock of sheep.

Two women were choice examples of this Geneva tradition. They weren't unusually handsome or talented; they certainly weren't rich; but they typified those pairs of unmarried sisters, who, like twin constellations, have illuminated Geneva's Main Street—that Great White Way of dazzling personalities. People still talk of the Griscom sisters (who were very good), or the Tibbs sisters (who were very queer), but no sisterly pair has made such inimitable conversation as the Elliot sisters.

They were named Primrose and Candida, names which had a somewhat virginal sound, appropriate to the one hundred and sixty-five years of celibacy which their two lives represented. The Elliots were landed gentry, though the ancestral acres had dwindled to a small and unproductive tract; they were also noted as a family for their wit. The aunts of Miss Primrose and Miss Candida contributed to the "tin-pail poetry" which sent an old kitchen pail banging from door to door on Main Street, accumulating doggerel as it went. Even the most saintly Elliots became deliciously wicked when they had pen in hand and the neighbors in sight.

Their mother was a Miss McGregor, whose family originated in Scotland and ended in a big columned house on Main Street. The McGregors specialized in eccentricity and some of them over-did it. Old Miss Harriet McGregor, for instance, had been dead to the world several years before her actual death led Miss Primrose to remark that "We are supposed to be in affliction!"

Then there was Uncle Peter McGregor, a retired clergyman with matrimonial ambitions. He began by courting the Misses Bemis, who lived in an old farmhouse, and who, when their charms began to wane, received visitors by candlelight, in a darkened room—with "plumpers" in their cheeks. Uncle Peter proposed marriage to every girl on Main Street, and he proved conclusively that all Geneva's spinsters were spinsters by preference—not one of them chose to become Mrs. Peter McGregor! Uncle Peter wrote a treatise explaining the Book of Revelation, and sometimes appeared in the chancel with his ear muffs on.

A cousin by marriage was Mrs. James McGregor—a Protestant of Protestants. As someone said, "In those days we were all Low-Church, but the James McGregors were simply groveling!" Mrs. James would hold up her fan in church to preserve her eyes from glimpses of Popish ritual, and would linger in the vestibule until the processional cross had wended its Rome-ward way into the chancel.

Also there was Aunt Annabel, a precursor of the Prohibitionists, whose zeal for temperance was only abated by great old age and a doddering mind. There was Aunt Maria, who had eighty-one godchildren, and prayed for each one by name, every night. There was Aunt Tabitha, who tied strings to her cats so that she could catch them even when they climbed trees. There was Aunt Louisa who took her siesta under a pink veil to improve her complexion. There was cousin Augusta who kept her baby chickens under a feather duster when the mother hen died.

The Elliots' spiritual ancestors were more important, however, than their lineal ones. The English race has been noted for its peppery old ladies, ever since the days of Queen Elizabeth, who was the most peppery of them all. You can read about them in any Victorian novel. You used to find them in inexpensive hotels in Brittany and Normandy, maintaining British frigidity among voluble foreigners; you could see them in every English country town, arguing with the vicar, and putting the squire in his place; you could find them in Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah, running boardinghouses and saying what they thought about the Yankees; you could get glimpses of them in New England villages, in old white houses under the elms. Above all, you could see them in English cathedrals, when the choirboys had disappeared down the dark aisles after evensong, and the organ fugue was punctuated by the tapping of canes from old ladies going home to tea.

It was said that Miss Primrose and Miss Candida refused their many suitors because they were afraid of perpetuating the family eccentricities. Nothing could be more unlikely; the Elliots were rather proud to be different from other people; the truth probably was that they were happier as they were. When you have once lived with an Elliot, living with a mere husband would have seemed very dull. Miss Agatha Van Bruggen said that she'd rather be kicked downstairs every day by a husband than remain an old maid, but the Elliots regarded Miss Agatha as a traitor to her sex—after all, she could have married their Uncle Peter, who never kicked anybody. People like Miss Agatha deserved a few kicks, but nobody would ever dare kick the Elliots!

Certainly the two sisters couldn't have had a better time. They had coming-out parties in the 1860s and were launched on the endless succession of dinners, dances, picnics, and sketching jaunts which were Geneva's chief diversions then. They had friends in all the eastern states, and they visited and entertained constantly. They didn't have much money, but in Geneva that doesn't matter.

To those of us who saw the Elliots only in their old age, their youth is hard to imagine. The perfect Geneva gentlewoman was such a finished product, that we forgot about her formative stages; she seemed to have sprung, full-grown, like Athena from the brain of Zeus. There was nothing girlish about the Elliots as I remember them. Miss Primrose was the shorter of the two, and stockier in build; she wore glasses. Miss Candida was taller, and slightly stooped, with fluffy gray hair escaping from the confinement of her hat. Their clothes were rather old-fashioned, as befitted Geneva ladies of their type; even gentlemen, in Geneva, clung to old styles, and a man's parasol was still seen there in recent years, pursued by small boys shouting, "Hey, mister, it ain't raining!"

The golden age of the Elliot sisters started in their middle years when they retired to a many-gabled cottage, a little apart from the more pretentious mansions on Main Street. They designed it themselves, and made it so inconvenient that it remained vacant for years after they died. Here began that career of sparkling originality which made the Elliots a real Geneva institution. To be merely queer is no achievement, but to be brilliantly individualistic is a fine art which Geneva brought to perfection.

We were rather scornful, in Geneva, when well-meaning visitors compared our town to Cranford. Mrs. Gaskell's village was charming, we admitted, but most Genevans would have found it rather dull and prim. In Geneva we called a spade a spade, and we would have used a much earthier word if we could have found one—none of this middle-class prudery for us! When a bathing beauty performed in our midst, we said that she looked like a hussy with her clothes on, and looked even hussier with them off!

The Elliot sisters never minced their words. Their teamwork was excellent. Miss Candida supplied the gunpowder, and Miss Primrose exploded the fireworks. There would be a quiver of eyeglasses on Miss Primrose's emphatic nose, and out would come a sentence which would shatter the entire tea party. The collaborations of the two sisters were usually concealed, and Miss Primrose got all the credit for their masterpieces until her death left Miss Candida in possession of the field—and of most of the gunpowder.

People noticed that the Elliots' witticisms usually had a strong Biblical flavor. Somebody said that "to hear them talk, you'd think that God had given us the Bible just so that Primrose and Candida could make puns from it."

There was good reason, however, for this scriptural basis. The Bible supplied the two sisters with much more than puns. The Elliots were often fired with righteous indignation, and were at their fiercest in ecclesiastical disputes. They provided plenty of entertainment for their fellow townspeople, but they supplied a good deal of propaganda with it; it was the propaganda which gave cohesion to the entertainment, because a mere string of bon mots would have been pointless without the Elliots' crusades behind them. The two sisters stood up for the things in which they believed, and they seemed to think that divine aid was supporting them; their political and religious convictions were the backbone of their conversation and behavior. You had to respect them even while you laughed with them.

The Mayor of Geneva was almost routed from his office after the Elliots had seen the architect's drawings for the new city hall. "We may not be architects," said Miss Candida, "but we know an ugly building when we see one!"

"We won't give any of our money to this municipal chicken coop of yours!" said Miss Primrose.

"If those plate-glass windows shed any light on the city administration, we'll approve of them," said Miss Candida.

"If your window washing is like your street cleaning, you'll see through a glass darkly," said Miss Primrose.

"You city officials always see through a glass darkly," said Miss Candida. "Except when you assess us for taxes, and then you see through a magnifying glass!" said Miss Primrose. As the dialogue progressed, the Elliots grew hotter and hotter, and every word sounded like a stone smashing one of the infamous plate-glass windows. The mayor almost had to call the fire department to extinguish the Elliots. There was something Olympian about their wrath; they didn't scowl and sputter like cross old women, nor did they raise their voices to a cackle; they merely stood in majesty, filling the air with crackling sparks of invective.

On their travels, they were Geneva's best ambassadors. "You have never heard of Geneva?" exclaimed Miss Primrose, "—then who can your friends be!" Though they had occasionally lived in other places, the Elliots wouldn't dream of saying that they were from Newport or Washington; the treachery of a Genevan who preferred to mention his Milwaukee origins aroused their loftiest scorn. Wherever they went, they were "the Misses Elliot of Geneva." At parties, they used to wear long kid gloves which enveloped them to the elbows in leathery armor. Hostesses found them stimulating but rather alarming; they left the impression that no place could be so well-bred or so terrifying as Geneva. To an adopted Genevan, Miss Primrose said:

"That happened before you were born—I mean, before you came to Geneva, because of course you weren't really born till you came here!"

"A woman who can pass muster in Geneva can pass muster anywhere!" they used to say.

In spite of such loyalties, they were full of sinister suspicions. They suspected the postman of stealing letters (their letters were well worth stealing, but the postman didn't know it), and so they took their mail "downstreet" to the post office. "There go the steam engines," a neighbor would say on seeing the Elliot sisters puffing down the street, on a hot July afternoon, to post a letter. They quarreled with the cemetery commission over a burial lot; their ancestors had probably fought over castles and manors with the same feudal vigor which Miss Primrose and Miss Candida displayed over a few yards of cemetery turf.

Such tenacity, however, is in the true Geneva tradition. Genevans are apt to be greatly attached to worldly possessions, and one of the Van Bruggen sisters refused to mention her diamonds in her will, "because it would be too bad if she couldn't keep something for herself!" The other sister used to wear a sort of necklace of ancestral miniatures which she prized so highly that somebody suggested that she use it for a rosary. People's possessions often seemed to be the most important part of them; one gentleman's obituary devoted most of its space to the deceased's house, and merely referred to the late owner as a worthy occupant of the family mansion.

The Elliots, besides contesting the ownership of the cemetery lot, waged war on the local railroad company. The had bought shares of stock in it and got no dividends. Obviously the president of the company must be an embezzler. When they read in the paper that he had bought a new yacht, with red trimmings, they said that it had good reason to blush—it was named The Dardanelles but they called it The Dividends. Likewise their baker was suspected of conniving at a gas station near their house, and instantly their weekly order of a loaf of bread was canceled. They became embroiled with the Ladies' Book Club, that circulating library which, the Elliots said, circulated only in the opposite direction to their house. They resigned from the club with great éclat, and so it was very awkward when a missing pair of the red-covered books was found amid snowdrifts on the Elliots' porch, one winter morning. Amazing things were always happening to them, and someone said that if you threw a leg of lamb out the window it would be sure to hit Miss Candida on the head. They installed a new lavatory in their house, and the plumber put the most essential fixture in a place where it couldn't possibly be sat upon—he probably couldn't imagine the Misses Elliot really using it.

At every great Geneva function, the Elliots took a prominent part. They went to a masquerade dressed as mother and daughter (Miss Candida, being younger, slimmer, and without glasses, was "daughter"); their arrivals and departures were significant moments at every party that they attended. They gave parties themselves, and it was a guest of theirs who used up fourteen starched white petticoats in one week's visit to Geneva; the Elliots' kid gloves were in evidence at even the simplest family gatherings. Their own parties were small ones (in that tiny house they had to be!) but the Elliots regarded large entertainments as almost vulgar.

"Party!" said Miss Primrose. "It was a town meeting!"

When they entertained guests at tea, the toast or the biscuits were sure to be slightly burned, and Miss Primrose would say "Have a burnt offering!" as she passed the dish. People hinted that the Elliots' toast was specially singed for the sake of that pun, or, perhaps, to prevent guests from eating too much, though the Elliots certainly weren't like the poor little Misses Griscom, who would invite you to share the drumstick of a chicken for lunch. "Eat a good breakfast, Isabella," said Miss Evelina Scott to her sister, "you're going to the Griscoms' for lunch!"

The Elliots wouldn't have succeeded so well without the support of their fellow citizens. Some places would merely have resented their oddities; Geneva recognized them as artistic triumphs. Other towns might have ignored the Elliot ancestry and family portraits, but Geneva gave them proper homage. It also gave them competition, because there were plenty of people in town who were almost as odd, as aristocratic, and as tempestuous as the Elliots. Somebody once said to an Elliot cousin: "You know, I've met the strangest people lately, and they're all your relations!" It might have been said to almost anybody in Geneva.

When Miss Primrose went out to tea, she could expect to meet people before whom anybody but a true Genevan might well falter. When one woman declined an invitation because her false teeth were being fixed, and might drop out during a brilliant remark, her host answered that if he could be sure of the remark, he wouldn't care what else dropped with it. A real Genevan would hate to admit that her remarks weren't brilliant; she might occasionally overstep the bounds of truth, kindness, and decency, but those of brilliance she considered sacred. She might be completely ignorant, but a Geneva upbringing was the best sort of education for conversational purposes; if it didn't produce at least a sprinkling of wit, nothing else could. When people objected to what she said, she could reply that it was her business as a guest to be entertaining, and that they ought to be grateful, even if she sometimes insulted their friends and outraged their sense of propriety. When anything clever is repeated nowadays, old people can always remember having heard it years ago in Geneva.

The Elliots, therefore, had plenty of competitors in repartee; they had even more rivals in eccentricity. Geneva's garden of individuality produced many rare blooms; they flourished on each side of Main Street; their fragrance still lingers in the places where they were. Perhaps the choicest examples were the clerical ones. These were unusually numerous in Geneva; in fact somebody gave a clerical party in the '60's and overlooked several eligible guests. (We forgot that they were clerical!" wrote the rector's daughter.) The Elliots' Uncle Peter was a rather humble member of this array of exotics; he attributed his oddities to the fact that he had had the measles and a stepmother when he was only three years old. One Geneva cleric retired from his labors to become a Passionist monk, and another should have retired (people said) to become sultan of a harem, although our dear old Miss Susie Griscom said that she had been his secretary for eight years, and he never made any improper advances to her!

In Geneva, you could do just as you pleased, with the reassuring knowledge that other people would probably outdo you. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida had their own way of doing things, and they followed that way without caring what other people might think about it. Even so had the saints of the church and the geniuses of art and science trod their solitary paths. The Elliots might not be saints or geniuses, and their paths certainly weren't solitary, but that made no difference. Other people might need such excuses, but, for Miss Primrose and Miss Candida, it was sufficient to be just "the Misses Elliot of Geneva."

© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
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