The heroine of this pastoral burlesque in one Vainetta, who after a night of troubled rest prepares to meet the fateful day when she is to be separated from her possessions: "When grateful fumes of chocolate arise, | She views the Dresden equipage, and sighs; | Sighs to reflect she may no more behold | Its glossy whiteness, gay with streaky gold" p. 2. She calls for a chair and as she is waiting for it to arrive, throws herself on a couch and reflects on the course of events that has brought her to this sad outcome. William Combe creates unexpected sympathy as Vainetta describes the privations of her youth: "No balmy fluids did our breakfast grace, | Thin, wat'ry porridge ill supplied their place; | Nor ever did the fragrant butter spread | Its yellow surface on the scanty bread" p. 6. An artful maiden, she had captured a husband (the "scare-brain V—s") and "rush'd into the pleasures of the Ton." But pleasure proved elusive, and now her prized possessions are to fall under Christie's hammer to be distributed among assembly-rooms, brothels, and (perhaps worst of all) the house of some "purse-proud Cit." The conveyance arrives, and Vainetta departs to "learn new systems of Oeconomy."
Combe (writing anonymously) implies that he is describing a real event, and the fact that the poem went through three editions would imply as much. The Auction is dedicated to "The Right Honourable Lady V—ll—rs," by "Her Ladyships most obediet and most humble servant, the Author." This would seem to be Frances Villiers (1753-1821), the Lady Sneerwell" of Sheridan's School for Scandal — though that august personage would not have undergone the indignities suffered by Vainetta. Combe, a notorious Grub-street hack, would spend much of his life confined for debt, penning satires and forgeries. Late in life he achieved fame with his The tour of Dr. Syntax (1812, etc.). He prefaces The Auction with a long preface by way of sermon on the follies of expensive taste.
Critical Review: "The preface to this publication has more merit than the poem. We have continual occasion to desire our minor poets would rhyme more to the ear than to the eye — it would not be amiss if they supposed that sightless Milton were to 'hear' all their compositions recited. He would not suffer 'town — own,' 'tone — gone,' 'mourn'd —scorned,' 'shewn — town,' 'shewn — gown,' 'come — down,' 'plac'd — feast,' 'boast — lost.' It does not always happen, that, because two words have two or three letters alike, they must therefore sound alike" 45 (January 1778) 76.
John Langhorne: "Somebody has called Patience a sleepy virtue, but that Somebody was never, certainly, a Reviewer" Monthly Review 58 (February 1778) 162.
Dark was the morn which usher'd in the day,
That bore VAINETTA from herself away.
The low'ring clouds, in pity for her pain,
Distill'd their drops of sympathizing rain.
Capricious Sleep, that thro' the troubled night
Had left her soul a prey to sad affright,
At morning's dawn dispell'd her tort'ring fears,
And for a few short hours dried up her tears.
Now gaudy Fancy, with her painted Train
Of antic Visions, sported o'er her brain,
And scatter'd airy pleasures as she pass'd;
Alas! these pleasures were not made to last!
Too soon from dreams of joy the Fair-one 'woke,
The creaking door her golden slumbers broke.
Starting, in wild disorder up she rose:
The quick but sad remembrance of her woes,
With recollected torture, eager prest
Its thorny sorrows on her tender breast.
In silent haste the toilette is prepar'd;
But, ah! VAINETTA'S eyes no longer dar'd,
With watchful look and lengthen'd zeal, to trace
The doubtful beauty of her bloated face,
Now hideous grown with anxious, pining care,
Hagg'd with despite and blubber'd with despair.
When grateful fumes of chocolate arise,
She views the Dresden equipage, and sighs;
Sighs to reflect she may no more behold
Its glossy whiteness, gay with streaky gold;
Sighs, that in Gr—n-street no longer she
Can idly dawdle o'er her morning's tea,
And glean the new-born scandal of the Town,
As proud of other's follies as her own.
In vain the attending Ministers divide
The flowing tresses, or, in borrow'd pride,
Attach the ringlets: Quick, her hands displace,
With rude attack, the honours of her face.
Before the once-lov'd shrine she cannot stay;
Half-dress'd and unberoug'd, she hastes away;
And, weeping, bellows, in distracted tone,
"A chair! A Chair! I languish to be gone!"
Onward thro' many a gilded room she pass'd,
And on the gaudy splendors look'd her last;
Look'd and bemoan'd her unrelenting fate,
That sunk her so beneath the Vulgar Great;
Then hid her weeping eyes, and inly mourn'd,
That she who dar'd despise should now be scorn'd.
Enrag'd, upon a couch, her length she threw,
And in these accents spoke her sad Adieu!
"Wou'd I had dy'd before my Taste had shewn
A brilliant Pattern to an envious Town;
That now, ungrateful, triumphs in my pain;
Or worse, insults me with a pitying strain.
Sure some ill-omen'd Sprite was sent to guide
My youthful footsteps in the paths of Pride,
Whose magic power, and unresisted art,
In secret chains secur'd my thoughtless heart;
And in one giddy moment turn'd to nought
Each thrifty precept that my Mother taught.
But Life's a scene of misery and woe,
No age or state does real comfort know.
In early days, beneath a Parent's care,
Forc'd to my morning and my evening prayer,
I learn'd the saintly look, and hypocritic air,
In a small room, and full three stories high,
A kind of grown-up Miss's Nursery,
I pass'd my time beneath that harsh restraint,
Which language cannot tell, nor fancy paint;
Our youthful, playsome spirits, kept in awe
By the stern rigours of maternal law,
Ne'er aim'd at higher joys than to bestow
Our eager gazings on the streets below.
Happy indeed, if, on the First of May,
The dancing chimney-sweeper came that way.
No balmy fluids did our breakfast grace,
Thin, wat'ry porridge ill supplied their place;
Nor ever did the fragrant butter spread
Its yellow surface on the scanty bread.
At length the time arriv'd that I was shewn,
In all the honours of my mother's gown,
To meet the sneers and censures of the Town.
Yet to preserve my pride, my Sisters wore
Each faded robe that I could wear no more.
But, ah! this World, which I so long'd to see,
Prov'd an uninteresting scene to me!
No gentle whisper from the gazing throng,
Gave sweet importance as I pass'd along:
Instead of praises whereso'er we came,
Continued censure hung upon our name.
Around the Fair the youthful Nobles bow'd;
We stood alone unnotic'd in the crowd.
At length the unexpected Hymen came:
Pleas'd with its freedom, tho' without its flame,
I rush'd into the pleasures of the Ton,
Laugh'd at the world, and was myself alone.
Dress, Equipage, Diversions, all supply
Fresh fuel for the flame of Vainty.
But, oh! Diversions, Equipage, and Dress,
Did not procure the expected happiness!
To make it worse, one Mother shook her head,
The other sorrow'd o'er my barren bed;
While scare-brain V—s hopp'd from fair to fair,
As careless of himself as of an heir.
But still, at times, the World's gay, giddy scene
Banish'd the vapours, and dispell'd the spleen;
Some pleasure yet was found amid the smart,
—The World saw not the sorrow at my heart.
Shrouded in splendor, I could well beguile
The secret care with hypocritic smile.
But Fortune snatch'd the gilded mask away,
And forc'd the hidden sorrow into day;
Expos'd me to the taunting sneers of those
Who, lessen'd by my triumphs, were my foes;
And strew'd our names, with long-continu'd rage,
Upon the Morning's foul and tainted page.
DEVON in laughter will my fate bewail,
And antic DERBY triumph in the tale.
Now let her triumph — but the time may come,
When CHRISTIE'S Hammer shall pronounce her doom;
That magic symbol, whose Cicean art
Will from these walls make every charm depart;
Tear all their gay and splendid trappings down,
And scatter them throughout the greedy Town.
"Ye glitt'ring Lustres, whose reflecting ray
Charm'd wond'ring night with all the glare of day,
Perhaps it may be your disgraceful doom
To decorate some vile Assembly-room.
Thou crystal Mirror! whose transparent face
With gratitude return'd the frequent grace
To every Belle and Beau that glanc'd aside
To snatch the faithful image of their pride;
Who knows, but in some City-Tavern plac'd,
To glutton eyes you may reflect the feast!
Some purse-proud Cit, who, tir'd of foggy air,
Deserts old Broad-street for St. James's-square,
May press this downy Couch, and loll in yonder Chair.
Ye splendid forms, the gay and costly boast
Of Seve and Dresden, where will you be lost!
No more from you will sav'ry incense rise,
To wake the sense to evening sacrifice;
O'er some old-fashion'd gaudy chimney plac'd,
Your Owner, bless'd with pride, but void of taste,
May leave your beauties to the dust a prey,
And let your orient colours fade away.
Ye silken Sofas, gay in streaky dress
Of varied colours, in what dark recess
Will you be hid? To paltry crimson dy'd,
You may become the Brothel's only pride!
"Such is my fate; and such the sad rewards
Of Folly, Fashion, Vanity, and Cards.
Oh then, farewel! ye gay, much-lov'd delights!
Ye days of pleasure, and ye festive nights!
The ribbon'd steed, the varnish'd Vis-a-vis,
The figure of the Dame of Quality;
The envy-stirring Plume, and splendid Dress,
Pride, Pomp, and circumstance of happiness,
That oft throughout the wond'ring Town has shown;
Farewel! VAINETTA'S OCCUPATION'S GONE!
"Oh Brother B—! had I been like you,
To ev'ry sordid interest meanly true;
Like you had borne, with smiles, the general sneer
Of all degrees, from Thomas to a Peer;
Then had I 'scap'd this moritifying woe,
Nor soaring high, had sunk so very low.
—And must I quit the dear enchanting Ton
For Henly's Shades, and Step-Dame GR—SON!
Or sometimes be admitted, as a treat,
To make my beef's cheek-pye in G—r-street!
Or, mid the vapours of a sulky day,
To weep with every-weeping D—A!"
She could no more; but with a parting eye
Glanc'd o'er the scene of splendid misery:
Then sought, with dubious haste, th' attending Chair:
Its hackney bearers hurry off their fare.
One solitary Footman walk'd before,
And gave the unwelcome rap at H—'s door:
There poor VAINETTA enter'd, with a sigh,
To learn new systems of Oeconomy.