Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

The Condescension Of Borrowers
by [?]

“Il n’est si riche qui quelquefois ne doibve. Il n’est si pauvre de qui quelquefois on ne puisse emprunter.”–Pantagruel.

“I lent my umbrella,” said my friend, “to my cousin, Maria. I was compelled to lend it to her because she could not, or would not, leave my house in the rain without it. I had need of that umbrella, and I tried to make it as plain as the amenities of language permitted that I expected to have it returned. Maria said superciliously that she hated to see other people’s umbrellas littering the house, which gave me a gleam of hope. Two months later I found my property in the hands of her ten-year-old son, who was being marshalled with his brothers and sisters to dancing-school. In the first joyful flash of recognition I cried, ‘Oswald, that is my umbrella you are carrying!’ whereupon Maria said still more superciliously than before, ‘Oh, yes, don’t you remember?’ (as if reproaching me for my forgetfulness)–‘you gave it to me that Saturday I lunched with you, and it rained so heavily. The boys carry it to school. Where there are children, you can’t have too many old umbrellas at hand. They lose them so fast.’ She spoke,” continued my friend impressively, “as if she were harbouring my umbrella from pure kindness, and because she did not like to wound my feelings by sending it back to me. She made a virtue of giving it shelter.”

This is the arrogance which places the borrower, as Charles Lamb discovered long ago, among the great ones of the earth, among those whom their brethren serve. Lamb loved to contrast the “instinctive sovereignty,” the frank and open bearing of the man who borrows with the “lean and suspicious” aspect of the man who lends. He stood lost in admiration before the great borrowers of the world,–Alcibiades, Falstaff, Steele, and Sheridan; an incomparable quartette, to which might be added the shining names of William Godwin and Leigh Hunt. All the characteristic qualities of the class were united, indeed, in Leigh Hunt, as in no other single representative. Sheridan was an unrivalled companion,–could talk seven hours without making even Byron yawn. Steele was the most lovable of spendthrifts. Lending to these men was but a form of investment. They paid in a coinage of their own. But Leigh Hunt combined in the happiest manner a readiness to extract favours with a confirmed habit of never acknowledging the smallest obligation for them. He is a perfect example of the condescending borrower, of the man who permits his friends, as a pleasure to themselves, to relieve his necessities, and who knows nothing of gratitude or loyalty.

It would be interesting to calculate the amount of money which Hunt’s friends and acquaintances contributed to his support in life. Shelley gave him at one time fourteen hundred pounds, an amount which the poet could ill spare; and, when he had no more to give, wrote in misery of spirit to Byron, begging a loan for his friend, and promising to repay it, as he feels tolerably sure that Hunt never will. Byron, generous at first, wearied after a time of his position in Hunt’s commissariat (it was like pulling a man out of a river, he wrote to Moore, only to see him jump in again), and coldly withdrew. His withdrawal occasioned inconvenience, and has been sharply criticised. Hunt, says Sir Leslie Stephen, loved a cheerful giver, and Byron’s obvious reluctance struck him as being in bad taste. His biographers, one and all, have sympathized with this point of view. Even Mr. Frederick Locker, from whom one would have expected a different verdict, has recorded his conviction that Hunt had probably been “sorely tried” by Byron.

It is characteristic of the preordained borrower, of the man who simply fulfils his destiny in life, that not his obligations only, but his anxieties and mortifications are shouldered by other men. Hunt was care-free and light-hearted; but there is a note akin to anguish in Shelley’s petition to Byron, and in his shamefaced admission that he is himself too poor to relieve his friend’s necessities. The correspondence of William Godwin’s eminent contemporaries teem with projects to alleviate Godwin’s needs. His debts were everybody’s affair but his own. Sir James Mackintosh wrote to Rogers in the autumn of 1815, suggesting that Byron might be the proper person to pay them. Rogers, enchanted with the idea, wrote to Byron, proposing that the purchase money of “The Siege of Corinth” be devoted to this good purpose. Byron, with less enthusiasm, but resigned, wrote to Murray, directing him to forward the six hundred pounds to Godwin; and Murray, having always the courage of his convictions, wrote back, flatly refusing to do anything of the kind. In the end, Byron used the money to pay his own debts, thereby disgusting everybody but his creditors.