Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Three Old Maids of Lee


This is Old Maid's Cottage, Lee, near Ilfracombe - subject of a large number of historical postcards - which turned up as one of the Mystery Devon images locations in a recent Devon History Society post. The house still exists, as what looks like an extremely pleasant holiday rental.



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The house has become associated - for no clear historical reason I can find - with a piece of Victorian doggerel by the lawyer, author, lyricist and broadcaster Frederic Edward Weatherly, an incredibly prolific songwriter.
The Bird in Hand
(The Three Maids of Lee)

There were three young maids of Lee,   
They were fair as fair can be,   
And they had lovers three times three,   
For they were fair as fair can be,   
These three young maids of Lee.
But these young maids they cannot find   
A lover each to suit her mind;   
The plain-spoke lad is far too rough,   
The rich young lord is not rich enough,   
And one is too poor and one too tall,
And one just an inch too short for them all.   
“Others pick and choose and why not we?"
“We can very well wait,” said the maids of Lee.
There were three young maids of Lee,
They were fair as fair can be,
And they had lovers three times three,   
For they were fair as fair can be,
These three young maids of Lee.

There are three old maids of Lee,   
And they are old as old can be,
And one is deaf, and one cannot see,   
And they all are cross as a gallows tree,
These three old maids of Lee.
Now if any one chanced—’t is a chance remote—
One single charm in these maids to note,
He need not a poet nor handsome be,   
For one is deaf and one cannot see;   
He need not woo on his bended knee,   
For they all are willing as willing can be.   
He may take the one, or the two, or the three,
If he’ll only take them away from Lee.   
There are three old maids at Lee,   
They are cross as cross can be,   
And there they are, and there they ’ll be   
To the end of the chapter one, two, three,
These three old maids of Lee.
Although now it's chiefly known as a poem, it was published as a song in 1881, set to a polka tune by Joseph L Roeckel. To modern sensibilities, it's excruciating in the sexism of an era that ridiculed women who remained unmarried by accident or choice, and assumed they'd be desperate for anyone who came along - while the male equivalent would be respected as a 'confirmed bachelor'. However, it became an instant hit as a comic ballad; newspaper archives find it was being sung at soirees and concerts from Christmas 1881, and it continued in popularity for a few decades.

The score for the largely forgotten song is findable in the Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 046, Item 035: jhir.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/16122

Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 046, Item 035:
jhir.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/16122

In case the score cover doesn't make it clear its horrible subtext, here's how to stage it:
The song of the "Three Old Maids of Lee" makes a charming little set of tableaux, very easy to arrange. Three pretty girls are necessary. They are seen in the first scene in eighteenth-century dresses, sitting in a garden. In the second scene, three lovers are looking over the wall at the girls, who turn haughtily away. The third scene shews the same girls fourty years after, sitting knitting—and with a cat and a parrot and any other old-maidish detail that can be thought of. One must wear spectacles.
- Tableaux Vivants. How to arrange them. By Mabel Collins, The Derby Mercury, December 19, 1900.
- Ray

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