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Miss Philly Firkin, The China-Woman   By: (1787-1855)

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By Mary Russell Mitford

In Belford Regis, as in many of those provincial capitals of the south of England, whose growth and importance have kept pace with the increased affluence and population of the neighbourhood, the principal shops will be found clustered in the close, inconvenient streets of the antique portion of the good town; whilst the more showy and commodious modern buildings are quite unable to compete in point of custom with the old crowded localities, which seem even to derive an advantage from the appearance of business and bustle occasioned by the sharp turnings, the steep declivities, the narrow causeways, the jutting out windows, and the various obstructions incident to the picturesque but irregular street architecture of our ancestors.

Accordingly, Oriel Street, in Belford, a narrow lane, cribbed and confined on the one side by an old monastic establishment, now turned into alms houses, called the Oriel, which divided the street from that branch of the river called the Holy Brook, and on the other bounded by the market place, whilst one end abutted on the yard of a great inn, and turned so sharply up a steep acclivity that accidents happened there every day, and the other terminus wound with an equally awkward curvature round the churchyard of St Stephen's, this most strait and incommodious avenue of shops was the wealthiest quarter of the Borough. It was a provincial combination of Regent Street and Cheapside. The houses let for double their value; and, as a necessary consequence, goods sold there at pretty nearly the same rate; horse people and foot people jostled upon the pavement; coaches and phaetons ran against each other in the road. Nobody dreamt of visiting Belford without wanting something or other in Oriel Street; and although noise, and crowd, and bustle, be very far from usual attributes of the good town, yet in driving through this favoured region on a fine day, between the hours of three and five, we stood a fair chance of encountering as many difficulties and obstructions from carriages, and as much din and disorder on the causeway as we shall often have the pleasure of meeting with out of London.

One of the most popular and frequented shops in the street, and out of all manner of comparison the prettiest to look at, was the well furnished glass and china warehouse of Philadelphia Firkin, spinster. Few things are indeed more agreeable to the eye than the mixture of glittering cut glass, with rich and delicate china, so beautiful in shape, colour, and material, which adorn a nicely assorted showroom of that description. The manufactures of Sèvres, of Dresden, of Derby, and of Worcester, are really works of art, and very beautiful ones too; and even the less choice specimens have about them a clearness, a glossiness, and a nicety, exceedingly pleasant to look upon; so that a china shop is in some sense a shop of temptation: and that it is also a shop of necessity, every housekeeper who knows to her cost the infinite number of plates, dishes, cups, and glasses, which contrive to get broken in the course of the year, (chiefly by that grand demolisher of crockery ware called Nobody,) will not fail to bear testimony.

Miss Philadelphia's was therefore a well accustomed shop, and she herself was in appearance most fit to be its inhabitant, being a trim, prim little woman, neither old nor young, whose dress hung about her in stiff regular folds, very like the drapery of a china shepherdess on a mantel piece, and whose pink and white complexion, skin, eyebrows, eyes, and hair, all tinted as it seemed with one dash of ruddy colour, had the same professional hue. Change her spruce cap for a wide brimmed hat, and the damask napkin which she flourished in wiping her wares, for a china crook, and the figure in question might have passed for a miniature of the mistress. In one respect they differed The china shepherdess was a silent personage. Miss Philadelphia was not; on the contrary, she was reckoned to make, after her own mincing fashion, as good a use of her tongue as any woman, gentle or simple, in the whole town of Belford... Continue reading book >>

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