Justus Möser (1720-1794)
A letter from a Lady to her Chaplain on the use of her time
(Schreiben einer Dame an ihren Kapellan über den Gebrauch ihrer Zeit)
Most Reverend Father,
I must pose you some questions of conscience. You are always telling me that I must at the end of my life make account for every hour of it, and that the hour of this reckoning is drawing nearer with every moment. Now, as this year draws to its close, and in order not to be rushed at the end, I wanted to make a start with these accounts, but I come across some few difficulties, on which I must ask your clarification.
Firstly, I have seen in the countryside that those who work hardest sleep only five or six hours. I, for my part, am in bed every evening at eleven and up again at eight, in all stay four hours longer in bed. Will I have to account for these also, or will they be counted with the rest?
Secondly, in my younger years I spent not a few hours at the coffee table or dressing table. But now, given that I find little joy in the mirror and put my nightcap on as quickly as I can, I spend these hours most tediously. Should I not therefore be easily able to claim indemnification for them?
Thirdly, I have often thanked God that I could linger at table for three hours, for the time until our réunion would otherwise be too long. This beneficence I enjoy with gratitude; shall it be desired of me that I should render long account for it?
Fourthly, I have this year, between five and eight o’clock in the evening, helped to use up seven-hundred-and-thirty playing cards, and in this way supported indigent manufacturers; can I not enter double in my accounts such useful employment of my time?
Sixthly, I have dined between eight and eleven in the evening and prepared myself to some extent for the duties of the following day, and then, after having settled myself, taken some congenial book in hand, in order to recreate myself. These hours can be fully accounted for, but could you perhaps write me a certificate for them, which might allow me passage?
Don’t tell me that I could have put my time to better use. For this, here, where we have neither opera nor theatre, neither masked balls nor university, is quite impossible. Supposing that I had wanted to spend less time in bed and at table, what in the world should I have done with myself? I have never learned to ride; hunting is too wearying; I soon grow tired of strolling; and through any work which I might have undertaken, some poor person would have been losing their daily bread. My considerable income raises me above working, and the less I do myself, the more I allow some industrious worthy to earn. It would be a punishable miserliness in me were I to see to the cooking myself or to keep one less chambermaid.
I tried it once and with heroic resolve arose at four in the morning, only, as true as my honour, I had to lie down again at six, just to recover from the boredom. What a terrible morning that was. I was frozen; I was yawning; my chambermaid was sullen; the servants were grumbling; and the whole household fell into disarray. I read a book, without the least sensibility as to what I was reading; I busied myself without getting anything done. And besides it was raining, or I would have gone and trembled with the nightingales in the woods. In short, I wasn’t right the whole day, and there and then I made an oath, that never again, barring emergencies, would I get out of bed before eight.
In the same vein, I was once at home alone one afternoon. At four I drank my coffee, at five my tea. At six I felt a little jaded; I had a little drop and a bottle of Cape brought to me. I took a little and read, and then took another sip, and what do you think? The bottle was finished before eight o’clock had struck. At table that evening I was not a little gay, and all that I could manage to get down, with effort, was a cup of chocolate, and after dinner I had to go straight to bed. That was how badly that attempt went.
Whatever might have been for the best in all this, my dear chaplain, I count those people happy who can spend sixteen hours each day in useful work. I envy them even, if that might help toward my absolution. Indeed, it seems to me that those who in life are lucky enough to be able spend all their hours usefully, when it should finally come to the rendering of accounts will merit less than I, for whom it is so bitter to put down even one hour outside of sleeping, playing cards and dining. I speak in all seriousness; the days go by so slowly and the years so quickly that I am completely bewildered by it. I sometimes even reproach my sainted mother in her grave, that she did not instil in me more of a taste for housekeeping, and that in those years when the desire to please gave me no great pause for thought I didn’t at least acquire a solid fist with which I might pull a pot from the fire. But then my mother used to say, “Child, who will want to kiss your hand if it smells of the kitchen?” and in order to keep my feet dainty, the most I would do was to tiptoe about on a grassy terrace. And now at the age I’m at, I can’t even wean myself off going to bed with gloves on; how should I change myself in other things?
You, dearest chaplain, have often said to me that you couldn’t put down an hour without taking a pinch of snuff. Take one now, and reflect on how I can emend my accounts. Propose me a plan suited to my forces and my habits, a plan whereby it is not necessary to rise any earlier or to forego our réunions. Accept that I am a creature with weak hands and feet, and with a head that with the passing of time is so spoiled that it is no longer fit for serious considerations of its own forming, that is caused the most frightful headaches even by Young’s Night Thoughts, and that won’t sleep tonight for having spent so long writing.
Yours in expectation, etc.