The Spareness of Being: Bag Ladies, Thoreau and Phileas Fogg


I have a horror of shopping malls.

It was not always this way. When I was young, I felt the thrill of the notes and coins in my pocket. I do not know when my Inner Bag Lady first stepped out to take the air.

She came by stealth. She pointed to the rest of life and said simply (as bag ladies so often have the knack of doing): “Life is somewhere else.”

And I looked around, and away from the glassy glamour of the new, and clapped a hand to my forehead. She was right. But like most bag ladies she walks to the beat of her own drum. Most people are content to have their thoughts drowned out by the white noise of acquisition in the shopping mall.

I have a lot of time for a Bag Man I learnt about once.

Mr Thoreau.

Thumbing through his notebooks one can find a reference by Nathaniel Hawthorne to our Henry David. “[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin,” he writes; “long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”

It is said Thoreau wore a neck beard. Shudder. He said the women loved it: but Ralph Waldo Emerson records that Louisa May Alcott told him it “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”

Thoreau went to the woods in the 1840s to see what they could teach him,  and they and he together have bequeathed us words we will never forget.

My favourite bag man has words to say on spending money on appearance: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” he cautions,”and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?”

He grew not only to love natural history but to hunger for tales from around the world of its natural wonders: he loved Charles Darwin’s Travels Of The Beagle’.

I wonder what he would have thought of the style of Phileas Fogg, the fiction adventurer coined by Jules Verne, writing in the same quarter century as Thoreau?

Verne is a literary bag man: he drops every word he does not need, and carries only what is absolutely necessary to convey the precise colours and shades his narrative requires.

Phileas Fogg is incredibly rich, but no-one knows how: he is spare, living in a comfortable house in Saville Row with just one servant; he likes his club, and routine, and we are led to believe he is a slave to the latter: right up until the moment he accepts a wager to go round the world in 80 days, flat.

He has a new servant: Passepartout. It means ‘skeleton-key’. Those keys which can finesse and gain access to any lock.

Passepartout, a Parisian with several trades – travelling singer, circus rider, tightrope walker-  has just accepted a position as Fogg’s valet because it will mean a quiet life. For when has Fogg ever done anything but go to his club and come back again?

Yet Fogg returns with the news that they must set out immediately.

“No trunks necessary. Only a carpet-bag. In it two woollen shirts and three pairs of stockings. The same for you. we will purchase on the way. You may bring down my macintosh and travelling cloak, also stout shoes, although we shall walk but little or not at all. Go.”

Their adventure is peerless. It changes them both forever.And a few, spare new clothes were needed.

He does not eschew the new: but he specifies that life requires only what is really needed. More will weigh the adventurer down.

I wonder how Thoreau would have viewed Fogg, had the flesh-and-blood met the fictional?

I suspect Thoreau might have respected the man who wore Fogg’s clothes.

Even the new ones.

Written in response to an ingenious theme by Side View: Enterprises That Require New Clothes, which you can find here.


42 thoughts on “The Spareness of Being: Bag Ladies, Thoreau and Phileas Fogg

  1. I’ve very much moved into the Bagman psyche since moving to France. Shopping in the country is not the pastime that it is in London.New clothes rarely happen and I’m a lot happier. The thought of going around the world in 80 days, or at all, is a nightmare to me.

    1. The more I hear of that French lifestyle of yours, the more interesting it sounds, Roger. To be permitted to be a Bag Person and ramble around seeking life: oh, yes; that would do splendidly.

  2. I love the quote from your favourite bagman. It sums up my unease about the Trinny and Susannahs of this world.

    There’s a book on my reading list called Overdressed: Responsible shopping in the age of cheap fashion. But because I’m cheap I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback.

    1. Hi Lynley! Hope life is treating you well 🙂 ‘Overdressed’ sound perfect for me. Charity shops (albeit the ones where Ladies Who Lunch ditch their labels) are my first port of call these days.

  3. What a delightful comparison of your favorite Bag Man and Verne. Both spare. Thoreau with clothes, Verne with words. I like that. I raise my hand as another who enters malls as a last resort, and when I must buy clothes, I head straight for the discounters and thrift shops. My husband affectionately calls me a ragamuffin, but clothes, makeup, hairdos, etc. seem superfluous to me. When a friend indicates on Facebook that she’s having a makeup party or going for a mani/pedi, I cringe and wonder why women feel it necessary or even desirable to paint their toenails. I firmly believe that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. (I do admit to a willingness to spend freely on camera gear, though). Terrific post.

  4. ‘Inner Bag Lady’ – bwhahahaha 😉 wonderful post again Kate! I don’t know about going around the world in 80 days – I would rather go to the centre of the earth (wouldn’t need any clothes in that heat).

  5. I love Louisa Alcott’s quote. I’m lucky enough to live in the thick of their prowls. Walden is a few minutes drive, the Alcott’s houses scattered within an afternoon’s drive, Emerson and Hawthorne’s haunts not too far afield… The tour of Orchard House includes lots of anecdotes and quotes from Louisa, but that one I haven’t heard.

    I think Thoreau would have invited Fogg to the Alcott’s drawing room, for there were all the great discussions held. Louisa would have pressed him on women’s suffrage, May done a quick sketch of him, capturing the elusive spark in his eye that drove a man of steady habit to depart his life with nothing but a Parisian and a carpet bag.. Bronson and Henry devouring his description of the natural world thus far visited.

    What a fireside chat, that!

  6. This is such a rich little history, Kate! I had forgotten about Thoreau’s general appearance, but I’m sure I’d never heard the Hawthorne or Alcott quote. Those are just delicious. He was simply not of this world–but his friends must have worried about him! We need characters like Phileas Fogg and our fellow Thoreau to keep us grounded in admiring attitude, character and focused direction, rather than unnecessary trappings–or at least to consider what is real. I have never read “Around the World…” and I think I must! 🙂

    1. It is a really entertaining read, Debra. the only reason I touched it is because it was one of the old books I found in the Winchester cathedral bookshop I was writing about. I’m so pleased I picked it up now.

  7. My Inner Bag Lady. That’s a book title, Kate. For sure.

    I love the way you wove these people together. Alcott is also one of my favorites.

    Sadly, online shopping makes shopping so effortless. 🙂 I cannot stand to go to the mall, but point and click can be fun.

  8. One of my favorites from Henry David Thoreau : I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

    Thank you for the post; it was a delightful read. Many blessings and much love to you. 🙂

    Subhan Zein

  9. I avoid malls like the plague. Their only purpose is to entice me to spend money I don’t have and expend energy I’ve very little of. Shopping online, however … that’s a whole ‘nother story.

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