Darby and Joan
There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?
There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.”
The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.
It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.
What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.
By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.
There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.
Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.