What is a tweeny? A faddist? Researching Sara Jeannette Duncan for an essay this summer, I came across some startling vocabulary, not quite as fun as boffin but interesting. During the First World War, Duncan wrote plays, the typescripts of which are held in the special collections of the D.B.Weldon Library of the University of Western Ontario (donated by her husband’s second wife). The title page of Beauchamp and Beecham* states “as produced at the Lyric Theatre” in London in 1915, but I have so far found no proof of this. The play is a comedy involving two soldiers, two young women, two older women and two older men. What startles me about the play is not Duncan’s magpie gathering of odd words, but how she declares her politics with choice little words.
First the fun. The maid in the cast list of “Beauchamp and Beecham” is described as “a promoted tweenie” and again as an “impetuous little tweeny, khaki-mad.” Tweeny in this case has nothing to do with the transition between childhood and the teens, but to do with her movement between the downstairs and upstairs staff. One of the men looking after the soldiers says that the women are suffering from “khakiphobia.” (He means its opposite, or “khakiphilia”.) One of the soldiers speaks of his mother not leaving the countryside for ten years and the other replies, “What an advertisement for Stickphast!” (super glue) And why on earth would the woman of the house ask the soldiers if they are “heart-whole”?
Now for the less fun part. Mrs Boyd, the woman who accepts the two soldiers into her house, is described as “an elderly lady of the faddist type. Firm, kind-hearted, impressive. Slightly unbalanced and Fabian. Benevolent, arbitrary. A eugenist in her leisure time.” Unbalanced and Fabian. Eugenist in her leisure time. Amusing conjunctions. And a condemnation of her character. We laugh, we judge. If Mrs Boyd were not middle class, we might say her actions and decisions are based on class rather than eugenics. A quick look at The Canadian Encyclopedia reveals that Duncan might have had some Canadian women in mind for this English woman of a “suburban culture.” Ok, this is pure speculation and not scholarly at all.
Eugenist is defined as an advocate of eugenics (OED online), which in turn concerns itself with the reproduction of the human race towards perfection — such as eradicating the weak elements of the species by preventing reproduction of “degenerates.” (Now there’s a word with a meaning that shifts with the decades.) And who in Canada might promote such an idea? Our famous suffragette, Nellie McClung, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. Which also introduces us to: “Helen MacMurchy, who in 1915 became Ontario’s ‘inspector of the feeble-minded.’ She guided the National Council of Women to endorse sterilization.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
It would seem grumpy old Horace Hubbard is quite justified at the end of the play in saying “biff” in annoyance. Curiouser yet, a search of The Canadian Encyclopedia brings us to a vaudeville troupe called The Dumbells, formed by members of the Canadian army in France. They carried on after the war and performed Biff, Bing, Bang in London Ontario in 1919.
*Beauchamp and Beecham: a Comedy in Khaki typescript, Sara Jeannette Duncan fonds, 2009-0104, Box B4422, Western University Archives and Research Collections Centre, London, Ontario, Canada
- The Fabian Women’s Network’s 2013/14 Mentoring Programme (fabianwomen.org.uk)
- Khakiphobia as in use today (outlookindia.com)
- tweeny or tweenie
- Sara Jeannette Duncan