Have you ever heard a person described as a “Mrs. Grundy” (a humorless arbiter of strict conventionality) and wondered about its origins? I did.
Turning to Wikipedia, I discovered that Mrs. Grundy was a fictional English character whose unwavering adherence to rigid respectability came to represent other people’s judgement of everyday behavior. She’s first mentioned (though she never appears onstage) in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough, in which one character, Dame Ashfield, continually worries about what her neighbour Mrs. Grundy will say of each development.
By the 19th century, this figure of speech was commonplace, and the tendency to be overly fearful of what others might think was sometimes referred to as Grundyism.
[Excerpted from Wikipedia]:
In the first scene of the play, Dame Ashfield’s mention of Mrs. Grundy provokes a scathing response from her husband.
- Ashfield. Well, Dame, welcome whoam. What news does thee bring vrom market?
- Dame. What news, husband? What I always told you; that Farmer Grundy’s wheat brought five shillings a quarter more than ours did.
- Ash. All the better vor he.
- Dame. Ah! the sun seems to shine on purpose for him.
- Ash. Come, come, missus, as thee hast 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.
- Ash. Be quiet, woolye? Aleways ding, dinging Dame Grundy into my ears — what will Mrs Grundy zay? What will Mrs Grundy think — Canst thee be quiet, let ur alone, and behave thyzel pratty?
A real Mrs. Grundy?
During the reign of William IV (1830–1837) a Mrs. Sarah Hannah Grundy was employed as Deputy Housekeeper at Hampton Court Palace one of Henry VIII of England‘s most famous residences, a position that would have required her to keep a sharp eye out for various infractions.
Ernest Law, chief historian of Hampton Court, noted that a “Mrs Grundy” did really exist.
“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 [the 19th] 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. The story goes that on one occasion the First Commissioner of Works, on a visit of inspection, sent for Mrs Grundy. In answer to the First Commissioner’s request, she declined to open the door for him. It was not until the early 1900s 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?”
However, a book published in 1836 shows that the expression was already in common use before the arrival of the Hampton Court housekeeper. In The Backwoods of Canada Being Letters From The Wife Of An Emigrant Officer, Illustrative Of The Domestic Economy Of British America, by Catharine Parr Traill, the author writes: “Now, we bush-settlers are more independent: we do what we like; we dress as we find most suitable and most convenient; we are totally without the fear of any Mr. or Mrs. Grundy; and having shaken off the trammels of Grundyism, we laugh at the absurdity of those who voluntarily forge afresh and hug their chains.”
The Victorian era ushered in a new morality comprised of decency, serious-mindedness, propriety and community discipline, as well as hypocrisy and self-deception. In the 1841 novel Phineas Quiddy, author John Poole wrote, “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”. In 1869, John Stuart Mill referred to Mrs. Grundy in The Subjection of Women, noting that “Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy”.
Will future lexicographers describe behavior that is embarrassing, belligerent, ignorant and vulgar with the expression, “Trumpism”?