We were now occupying the last of the various houses which for a series of years we inhabited at Bayswater; it belonged to a French Jew diamond seller, and was arranged and fitted up with the peculiar tastefulness which seems innate across the Channel, and inimitable even on the English side of it. There was one peculiarity in the drawing-room of this house which I have always particularly liked: a low chimney with a window over it, the shutter to which was a sliding panel of looking-glass, so that both by day and candle light the effect was equally pretty.
At this time I was promoted to the dignity of a bedroom "to myself," which I was able to make into a small study, the privacy of which I enjoyed immensely, as well as the window opening above our suburban bit of garden, and the sloping meadows beyond it. The following letters, written at this time to my friend Miss S——, describe the interests and occupations of my life. It was in the May of 1827. I was between sixteen and seventeen, which will naturally account for the characteristics of these epistles.
BAYSWATER, May, 1827. DEAR H——:
I fear you will think me forgetful and unkind in not having answered your last letter; but if you do, you are mistaken—nor ungrateful, which my silence, after the kind interest you have taken in me and mine, seems to be. But when I tell you that besides the many things that have occupied my mind connected with the present situation of our affairs, my hands have been full of work nearly as dismal as my thoughts—mourning—you will easily understand and excuse the delay.
Do not be alarmed; the person for whom we are in black has been so little known to me since my childhood, was so old and infirm, and so entirely cheerful, resigned, and even desirous of leaving this world, that few, even of those who knew and loved him better than I did, could, without selfishness, lament his release. Mr. Twiss, the father of my cousin Horace, is dead lately; and it is of him that I speak. He has unfortunately left three daughters, who, though doing well for themselves in the world, will now feel a sad void in the circle of their home affections and interests.
And now, dear H——, for myself, or ourselves, rather; for, as you may well suppose, my whole thoughts are taken up with our circumstances.
I believe in my last I told you pretty nearly all I knew, or indeed any of us knew, of our affairs; the matter is now much clearer, and not a whit pleasanter.
It seems that my father, as proprietor of Covent Garden Theater, in consequence of this lawsuit and the debts which encumber the concern, is liable at any time to be called upon for twenty-seven thousand pounds; which, for a man who can not raise five thousand, is not a pleasant predicament. On the other hand, Mr. Harris, our adversary, and joint proprietor with my father, is also liable to enormous demands, if the debts should be insisted upon at present.
The creditors have declared that they are entirely satisfied that my father, and Messrs. Forbes and Willett, the other partners, have done every thing with respect to them which honorable men could do, and offer to wait till some compromise can be made with Mr. Harris, who, it is thought, will be willing to enter into any arrangement rather than be irretrievably ruined, as we all must be unless some agreement takes place between the proprietors. In the meantime, the lawyers have advised our party to appeal from the decision of the Vice-Chancellor. Amid all this perplexity and trouble, we have had the satisfaction of hearing that John and Henry are both doing well; we received a letter from the latter a short time ago, full of affection and kindness to us all. I wish you could have seen my father's countenance as he read it, and with what fondness and almost gratitude he kissed dear Henry's name, while the tears were standing in his eyes. I can not help thinking sometimes that my father deserved a less hard and toilsome existence.
He has resolved that, come what may, he will keep those boys at their respective schools, if he can by any means compass it; and if (which I fear is the case) he finds Bury St. Edmunds too expensive, we shall remove to Westminster, in order that Henry's education may not suffer from our circumstances. Last Thursday was my father's benefit, and a very indifferent one, which I think is rather hard, considering that he really slaves night and day, and every night and every day, in that theater. Cecilia Siddons and I have opened a poetical correspondence; she writes very prettily indeed. Perhaps, had she not had such a bad subject as myself to treat of, I might have said more of her verses. You will be sorry to hear that not only my poor mother's health, but what is almost as precious, her good spirits, have been dreadfully affected by all her anxiety; indeed, her nerves have been so utterly deranged that she has been alternately deaf and blind, and sometimes both, for the last fortnight. Thank Heaven she is now recovering!
CRAVEN HILL, BAYSWATER, May, 1827. MY DEAREST H——:
I received your letter the day before yesterday, and felt very much obliged to you for it, and was particularly interested by your description of Kenilworth, round which Walter Scott's admirable novel has cast a halo of romance forever; for many who would have cared little about it as the residence of Leicester, honored for some days by the presence of Elizabeth, will remember with a thrill of interest and pity the night poor Amy Robsart passed there, and the scene between her, Leicester, and the queen, when that prince of villains, Varney, claims her as his wife. But in spite of the romantic and historical associations belonging to the place, I do not think it would have "inspired my muse."
Of our affairs I know nothing, except that we are going to remove to Westminster, on account of Henry's schooling, as soon as we can part with this house.
You will be glad to hear that my mother is a great deal better, though still suffering from nervousness. She desires to be most kindly remembered to you and to my aunt Kemble, and would feel very much obliged to you if you can get from Mrs. Kemble the name and address of the man who built her pony carriage. Do this, and send it in the next letter you write to me, which must be long, but not "long a-coming."
I am glad you like Miss W——, but take care not to like her better than me; and I am very glad you think of Heath Farm sometimes, for there, I know, I must be in some corner or other of the picture, be the foreground what it may. At this time, when the hawthorn is all out and the nightingales are singing, even here, I think of the quantities of May we gathered for my wreaths, and the little scrap of the nightingale's song we used to catch on the lawn between tea and bedtime. I have been writing a great deal of poetry—at least I mean it for such, and I hope it is not all very bad, as my father has expressed himself surprised and pleased at some things I read him lately. I wish I could send you some of my perpetrations, but they are for the most part so fearfully long that it is impossible. You ask about my uncle's monument: I can tell you nothing about it at present; it is where the memory of the public, the perseverance of the projectors, Flaxman's genius, and John Kemble's fame are. Do you know where that is? No more do I.
CRAVEN HILL, BAYSWATER, June 8, 1827. MY DEAR H——:
I am sure you will rejoice with us all when I inform you that John has at length exerted himself successfully, and has obtained one of the highest literary honors conferred by Cambridge on its students: these are his tutor's very words, therefore I leave you to imagine how delighted and grateful we all are; indeed, the day we received the intelligence, we all, with my father at our head, looked more like hopeful candidates for Bedlam than any thing else. My poor father jumped, and clapped his hands, and kissed the letter, like a child; as my mother says, "I am glad he has one gleam of sunshine, at least;" he sadly wanted it, and I know nothing that could have given him so much pleasure. Pray tell my aunt Kemble of it. I dare say she will be glad to hear it. [My brother's tutor was Mr. Peacock, the celebrated mathematician, well known at Cambridge as one of the most eminent members of the university, and a private tutor of whom all his pupils were deservedly proud; even those who, like my brother John, cultivated the classical studies in preference to the severe scientific subjects of which Mr. Peacock was so illustrious a master. His praise of my brother was regretful, though most ungrudging, for his own sympathy was entirely with the intellectual pursuits for which Cambridge was peculiarly famous, as the mathematical university, in contradistinction to the classical tendency supposed to prevail at this time among the teachers and students of Oxford.]
And now let me thank you for your last long letter, and the detailed criticism it contained of my lines; if they oftener passed through such a wholesome ordeal, I should probably scribble less than I do. You ask after my novel of "Francoise de Foix," and my translation of Sismondi's History; the former may, perhaps, be finished some time these next six years; the latter is, and has been, in Dr. Malkin's hands ever since I left Heath Farm. What you say of scriptural subjects I do not always think true; for instance, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept," does not appear to me to have lost much beauty by Byron's poetical paraphrase. We are really going to leave this pleasant place, and take up our abode in Westminster; how I shall regret my dear little room, full of flowers and books, and with its cheerful view. Enfin il n'y faut plus penser. I have, luckily, the faculty of easily accommodating myself to circumstances, and though sorry to leave my little hermitage, I shall soon take root in the next place. With all my dislike to moving, my great wish is to travel; but perhaps that is not an absolute inconsistency, for what I wish is never to remain long enough in a place to take root, or, having done so, never to be transplanted. I am writing a journal, and its pages, like our many pleasant hours of conversation, are a whimsical medley of the sad, the sober, the gay, the good, the bad, and the ridiculous; not at all the sort of serious, solemn journal you would write.
CRAVEN HILL, BAYSWATER, ——, 1827. MY DEAREST H——:
I am afraid you are wondering once more whether I have the gout in my hands; but so many circumstances have latterly arisen to occupy my time and attention that I have had but little leisure for letter-writing. You are now once more comfortably re-established in your little turret chamber [Miss S——'s room in her home, Ardgillan Castle], which I intend to come and storm some day, looking over your pleasant lawn to the beautiful sea and hills. I ought to envy you, and yet, when I look round my own little snuggery, which is filled with roses and the books I love, and where not a ray of sun penetrates, though it is high noon and burning hot, I only envy you your own company, which I think would be a most agreeable addition to the pleasantness of my little room. I am sadly afraid, however, that I shall soon be called upon to leave it, for though our plans are still so unsettled as to make it quite impossible to say what will be our destination, it is, I think, almost certain that we shall leave this place.
We have had Mrs. Henry Siddons, with her youngest daughter, staying with us for a short time; she is now going on through Paris to Switzerland, on account of my cousin's delicate health, which renders Scotland an unsafe residence for her. John is also at home just now, which, as you may easily believe, is an invaluable gain to me; I rather think, however, that my mother is not of that opinion, for he talks and thinks of nothing but politics, and she has a great dread of my becoming imbued with his mania; a needless fear, I think, however, for though I am willing and glad to listen to his opinions and the arguments of his favorite authors, I am never likely to study them myself, and my interest in the whole subject will cease with his departure for Cambridge.
Henry returned from Bury St. Edmunds, and my father left us for Lancaster last night, and we are now in daily expectation of departing for Weybridge, so that the last fortnight has been one continual bustle.
I have had another reason for not writing to you, which I have only just made up my mind to tell you. Dick —— has been taking my likeness, or rather has begun to do so. I thought, dear H——, that you would like to have this sketch, and I was in hopes that the first letter you received in Ireland from me would contain it; but, alas! Dick is as inconstant and capricious as a genius need be, and there lies my fac-simile in a state of non-conclusion; they all tell me it is very like, but it does appear to me so pretty that I am divided between satisfaction and incredulity. My father, I lament to say, left us last night in very bad spirits. I never saw him so depressed, and feared that my poor mother would suffer to-day from her anxiety about him; however, she is happily pretty well to-day, and I trust will soon, what with Weybridge and pike-fishing, recover her health and spirits entirely.
I suspect this will be the last summer we shall spend at Weybridge, as we are going to give our cottage up, I believe. I shall regret it extremely for my mother; it is agreeable to and very good for her. I do not care much about it for myself; indeed, I care very little where I go; I do not like leaving any place, but the tie of habit, which is quickly formed and strong in me, once broken, I can easily accommodate myself to the next change, which, however, I always pray may be the last. My mother and myself had yesterday a serious, and to me painful, conversation on the necessity of not only not hating society, but tolerating and mixing in it. She and my father have always been disinclined to it, but their disinclination has descended to me in the shape of active dislike, and I feel sometimes inclined to hide myself, to escape sitting down and communing with my fellow-creatures after the fashion that calls itself social intercourse. I can't help fancying (which, however, may be a great mistake) that the hours spent in my own room reading and writing are better employed than if devoted to people and things in which I feel no interest whatever, and do not know how to pretend the contrary.
I must do justice to my mother, however, for any one more reasonable, amiable, and kind, in this as in most respects, can not exist than herself; but nevertheless, when I went to bed last night I sat by my open window, looking at the moon and thinking of my social duties, and then scribbled endless doggerel in a highly Byronic mood to deliver my mind upon the subject, after which, feeling amazingly better, I went to bed and slept profoundly, satisfied that I had given "society" a death-blow. But really, jesting apart, the companionship of my own family—those I live with, I mean—satisfies me entirely, and I have not the least desire for any other.
Good-by, my dearest H——; do not punish me for not writing sooner by not answering this for two months; but be a nice woman and write very soon to yours ever,
P.S.—I am reading the memoirs of Mademoiselle de Montpensier, la Grande Mademoiselle, written by herself: if you never read them, do; they are very interesting and amusing.
The "Dick" mentioned in this letter was the nephew of my godmother, Miss A—— W——, of Stafford, and son of Colonel ——, a Staffordshire gentleman of moderate means, who went to Germany and settled at Darmstadt, for the sake of giving a complete education in foreign languages and accomplishments to his daughters. His eldest son was in the Church. They resided at the little German court till the young girls became young women, remarkable for their talents and accomplishments. In the course of their long residence at Darmstadt they had become intimate with the reigning duke and his family, whose small royalty admitted of such friendly familiarity with well-born and well-bred foreigners. But when Colonel —— brought his wife and daughters back to England, like most other English people who try a similar experiment, the change from being decided somebodies in the court circle of a German principality (whose sovereign was chiefly occupied, it is true, with the government of his opera-house) to being decided nobodies in the huge mass of obscure, middle-class English gentility, was all but intolerable to them.
The peculiar gift of their second son, my eccentric friend Richard, was a genius for painting, which might have won him an honored place among English artists, had he ever chosen to join their ranks as a competitor for fame and fortune.
EASTLANDS COTTAGE, WEYBRIDGE, ——, 1827. MY DEAR H——:
I wrote to you immediately upon our arriving here, which is now nearly a month ago, but having received no answer, and not having heard from you for some time, I conjecture that our charming post-office has done as it did last year, and kept my letters to itself. I therefore take the opportunity, which my brother's departure for town to-morrow gives me, of writing to you and having my letter posted in London. John's going to town is an extreme loss to me, for here we are more thrown together and companionable than we can be in London. His intellectual occupations and interests engross him very much, and though always very interesting to me, are seldom discussed with or communicated to me as freely there as they are here—I suppose for want of better fellowship. I have latterly, also, summoned up courage enough to request him to walk with me; and to my some surprise and great satisfaction, instead of the "I can't, I am really so busy," he has acquiesced, and we have had one or two very pleasant long strolls together. He is certainly a very uncommon person, and I admire, perhaps too enthusiastically, his great abilities.
My father is in Paris, where he was to arrive yesterday, and where to-morrow he will act in the first regularly and decently organized English theater that the French ever saw. He is very nervous, and we, as you may easily conceive, very anxious about it; when next I write to you I will let you know all that we hear of the result. I must repeat some part of my last letter, in case you did not receive it. We have taken a house in James Street, Buckingham Gate, Westminster, which appears to be in every way a desirable and convenient abode; in itself it is comfortable and cheerful, and its nearness to Henry's school and comparative nearness to the theatre, together with its view over the park, and (though last, not least) its moderate rent, make up a mass of combined advantages which few other situations that we could afford can present.
I am extremely busy, dearest H——, and extremely elated about my play; I know I mentioned it before to you, but you may have reckoned it as one of the soap-bubbles which I am so fond of blowing, admiring, and forgetting; however, when I tell you that I have finished three acts of it, and that the proprietors of Covent Garden have offered me, if it succeeds, two hundred pounds (the price Miss Mitford's "Foscari" brought her), you will agree that I have some reason to be proud as well as pleased.
As nobody but myself can give you any opinion of it, you must be content to take my own, making all allowances for etc., etc., etc. I think, irrespective of age or sex, it is not a bad play—perhaps, considering both, a tolerably fair one; there is some good writing in it, and good situations; the latter I owe to suggestions of my mother's, who is endowed with what seems to me really a science by itself, i.e. the knowledge of producing dramatic effect; more important to a playwright than even true delineation of character or beautiful poetry, in spite of what Alfieri says: "Un attore che dira bene, delle cose belle si fara ascoltare per forza." But the "ben dire cose belle" will not make a play without striking situations and effects succeed, for all that; at any rate with an English audience of the present day. Moreover (but this, as well as everything about my play, must be entre nous for the present), my father has offered me either to let me sell my play to a bookseller, or to buy it for the theatre at fifty pounds.
Fifty pounds is the very utmost that any bookseller would give for a successful play, mais en revanche, by selling my play to the theater it cannot be read or known as a literary work, and as to make a name for myself as a writer is the aim of my ambition, I think I shall decline his offer. My dearest H——, this quantity about myself and my pursuits will, I am afraid, appear very egotistical to you, but I rely on your unchangeable affection for me to find some interest in what is interesting me so much.
Always you most affectionate FANNY.
The success of the English theater in Paris was quite satisfactory; and all the most eminent members of the profession—Kean, Young, Macready, and my father—went over in turn to exhibit to the Parisian public Shakespeare the Barbarian, illustrated by his barbarian fellow-countrymen. I do not remember hearing of any very eminent actress joining in that worthy enterprise; but Miss Smithson, a young lady with a figure and face of Hibernian beauty, whose superfluous native accent was no drawback to her merits in the esteem of her French audience, represented to them the heroines of the English tragic drama; the incidents of which, infinitely more startling than any they were used to, invested their fair victim with an amazing power over her foreign critics, and she received from them, in consequence, a rather disproportionate share of admiration—due, perhaps, more to the astonishing circumstances in which she appeared before them than to the excellence of her acting under them.
One of the most enthusiastic admirers of the English representations said to my father, "Ah! parlez moi d'Othello! voila, voila la passion, la tragedie. Dieu! que j'aime cette piece! il y a tant de remue-menage."
A few rash and superficial criticisms were hardly to be avoided; but in general, my father has often said, in spite of the difficulty of the foreign language, and the strangeness of the foreign form of thought and feeling and combination of incident, his Parisian audience never appeared to him to miss the finer touches or more delicate and refined shades of his acting; and in this respect he thought them superior to his own countrymen. Lamartine and Victor Hugo had already proclaimed the enfranchisement of French poetical thought from the rigid rule of classical authority; and all the enthusiastic believers in the future glories of the "Muse Romantique" went to the English theater, to be amazed, if not daunted, by the breadth of horizon and height of empyrean which her wings might sweep, and into which she might soar, "puisque Shakespeare l'a bien ose."
ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, October 11, 1827, MY DEAREST H——,
I do not think you would have been surprised at my delay in answering your last, when I told you that on arriving here I found that all my goods and chattels had been (according to my own desire) only removed hither, and that their arrangement and bestowal still remained to be effected by myself; and when I tell you that I have settled all these matters, and moreover finished my play, I think you will excuse my not having answered you sooner. Last Monday, having in the morning achieved the termination of the fourth act, and finding that my father did not act on Tuesday, I resolved, if possible, to get it finished in order to read it to him on Tuesday evening. So on Monday evening at six o'clock I sat down to begin my fifth act, and by half-past eleven had completed my task; I am thus minute because I know you will not think these details tiresome, and also because, even if it succeeds and is praised and admired, I shall never feel so happy as when my father greeted my entrance into the drawing-room with, "Is it done, my love? I shall be the happiest man alive if it succeeds!"
On Tuesday evening I read it to them, and I was so encouraged by the delighted looks my father and mother were continually exchanging, that I believe I read it with more effect than they either of them had thought me capable of. When it was done I was most richly rewarded, for they all seemed so pleased with me and so proud of me, that the most inordinate author's vanity would have been satisfied. And my dear mother, oh, how she looked at me!—forgive me, dear, and grant some little indulgence to my exultation. I thought I deserved some praise, but thrice my deserts were showered upon me by those I love above everything in the world.
When commendation and congratulation had a little given way to reflection, my mother and John entreated my father not to let the play be acted, or, if he did, to have it published first; for they said (and their opinion has been sanctioned by several literary men) that the work as a literary production (I repeat what they say, mind) has merit enough to make it desirable that the public should judge of it as a poetical composition before it is submitted to the mangling necessary for the stage.
Of course, my task being finished, I have nothing more to do with it; nor do I care whether it is published first or after, provided only it may be acted: though I dare say that process may not prove entirely satisfactory to me either; for though Mr. Young and my father would thoroughly embody my conception of the parts intended for them, yet there is a woman's part which, considering the materials history has furnished, ought to be a very fine one—Louisa of Savoy; and it must be cut down to the capacity of a second-rate actress. The character would have been the sort of one for Mrs. Siddons; how I wish she was yet in a situation to afford it the high preferment of her acceptance!
My father has obtained a most unequivocal success in Paris, the more flattering as it was rather doubtful, and the excellent Parisians not only received him very well, but forthwith threw themselves into a headlong furor for Shakespeare and Charles Kemble, which, although they might not improbably do the same to-morrow for two dancing dogs, we are quite willing to attribute to the merits of the poet and his interpreter. The French papers have been profuse in their praises of both, and some of our own have quoted their commendations. My mother is, I think, recovering, though slowly, from her long illness. She is less deaf, and rather less blind; but for the general state of her health, time, and time alone, will, I am sure, restore it entirely. I have just seen the dress that my father had made abroad for his part in my play: a bright amber-colored velours epingle, with a border of rich silver embroidery; this, together with a cloak of violet velvet trimmed with imitation sable. The fashion is what you see in all the pictures and prints of Francis I. My father is very anxious, I think, to act the play; my mother, to have it published before it is acted; and I sit and hear it discussed and praised and criticised, only longing (like a "silly wench," as my mother calls me when I confess as much to her) to see my father in his lovely dress and hear the alarums of my fifth act.
I am a little mad, I suppose, and my letter a little tipsy, I dare say, but I am ever your most affectionate
16 ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, WESTMINSTER, October 21, 1827. MY DEAR H——,
Your letter was short and sweet, but none the sweeter for being short. I should have thought no one could have been worse provided than myself with news or letter chit-chit, and yet I think my letters are generally longer than yours; brevity, in you, is a fault; do not be guilty of it again: "car du reste," as Madame de Sevigne says, "votre style est parfait." John returned to Cambridge on Thursday night. He is a great loss to me, for though I have seen but little of him since our return to town, that little is too much to lose of one we love. He is an excellent fellow in every way, and in the way of abilities he is particularly to my mind. We all miss him very much; however, his absence will be broken now by visits to London, in order to keep his term [about this time my brother was entered at the Inner Temple, I think], so that we shall occasionally enjoy his company for a day or two. I should like to tell you something about my play, but unluckily have nothing to tell; everything about it is as undecided as when last I wrote to you. It is in the hands of the copyist of Covent Garden, but what its ultimate fate is to be I know not. If it is decided that it is to be brought out on the stage before publication, that will not take place at present, because this is a very unfavorable time of year. If I can send it to Ireland, tell me how I can get it conveyed to you, and I will endeavor to do so. I should like you to read it, but oh, how I should like to go and see it acted with you! I am now full of thoughts of writing a comedy, and have drawn out the plan of one—plot, acts, and scenes in due order—already; and I mean to make it Italian and mediaeval, for the sake of having one of those bewitching creatures, a jester, in it; I have an historical one in my play, Triboulet, whom I have tried to make an interesting as well as an amusing personage.
My mother, by the aid of a blister and my play, is, I think, recovering, though slowly, from her illness; she is still, though, in a state of great suffering, which is by no means alleviated by being unable to write, read, work, or occupy herself in any manner.
We have been to the play pretty regularly twice a week for the last three weeks, and shall continue to do so during the whole winter; which is a plan I much approve of. I am very fond of going to the play, and Kean, Young, and my father make one of Shakespeare's plays something well worth seeing. I saw the "Merchant of Venice" the other evening, for the first time, and returned home a violent Keanite. That man is an extraordinary creature! Some of the things he did, appeared, on reflection, questionable to my judgment and open to criticism; but while under the influence of his amazing power of passion it is impossible to reason, analyze, or do anything but surrender one's self to his forcible appeals to one's emotions. He entirely divested Shylock of all poetry or elevation, but invested it with a concentrated ferocity that made one's blood curdle. He seemed to me to combine the supernatural malice of a fiend with the base reality of the meanest humanity. His passion is prosaic, but all the more intensely terrible for that very reason. I am to see him to-morrow in "Richard III.," and, though I never saw the play before, am afraid I shall be disappointed, because Richard III. is a Plantagenet Prince, and should be a royal villain, and I am afraid Mr. Kean will not have the innate majesty which I think belongs to the part; however, we shall see, and when next I write I will tell you how it impressed me.
You deserve that I should bestow all my tediousness upon you, for loving me as well as you do. Mrs. Harry Siddons and her daughter are here for two or three days, on their return from their tour through Switzerland. Mrs. Harry is all that is excellent, though she does not strike me as particularly clever; and Lizzy is a very pretty, very good, very sweet, very amiable girl. Her brother, my cousin, the midshipman, is here too, having come up from Portsmouth to meet his mother and sister, so that the house is full. Think of that happy girl having travelled all through Switzerland, seen the Jungfrau—Manfred's mountain—been in two violent storms at night on the lakes, and telling me placidly that "she liked it all very well." Oh dear, oh dear! how queerly Heaven does distribute privileges! Good-by, dear.
Yours ever, FANNY.
16 ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, December, 1827. MY DEAREST H——,
My heart is full of joy, and I write that you may rejoice with me; our dear John has distinguished himself greatly, but lest my words should seem sisterly and exaggerated, I will repeat what Mr. Peacock, his tutor, wrote to my father: "He has covered himself with glory. Such an oration as his has not been heard for many years in Cambridge, and it was as tastefully and modestly delivered as it was well written." This has made us all very, very happy, and though the first news of it overcame my poor mother, whose nerves are far from firm, she soon recovered, and we are impatiently expecting his return from college. My play is at present being pruned by my father, and will therefore not occupy my thoughts again till it comes out, which I hope will be at Easter. I did not write sooner, because I had nothing to say; but now that this joy about my brother has come to me, je te l'envoie. Since last you heard from me I have seen the great West India Dock and the Thames Tunnel. Oh, H——, "que c'est une jolie chose que l'homme!" Annihilated by any one of the elements if singly opposed to its power, he by his genius yet brings their united forces into bondage, and compels obedience from all their manifold combined strength. We penetrate the earth, we turn the course of rivers, we exalt the valleys and bow down the mountains; and we die and return to our dust, and they remain and remember us no more. Often enough, indeed, the names of great inventors and projectors have been overshadowed or effaced by mere finishers of their work or adapters of their idea, who have reaped the honor and emolument due to an obscure originator, who passes away from the world, his rightful claim to its admiration and gratitude unknown or unacknowledged. But these obey the law of their being; they cannot but do the work God's inspiration calls them to.
But I must tell you what this tunnel is like, or at least try to do so. You enter, by flights of stairs, the first door, and find yourself on a circular platform which surrounds the top of a well or shaft, of about two hundred feet in circumference and five hundred in depth. This well is an immense iron frame of cylindrical form, filled in with bricks; it was constructed on level ground, and then, by some wonderful mechanical process, sunk into the earth. In the midst of this is a steam engine, and above, or below, as far as your eye can see, huge arms are working up and down, while the creaking, crashing, whirring noises, and the swift whirling of innumerable wheels all round you, make you feel for the first few minutes as if you were going distracted. I should have liked to look much longer at all these beautiful, wise, working creatures, but was obliged to follow the last of the party through all the machinery, down little wooden stairs and along tottering planks, to the bottom of the well. On turning round at the foot of the last flight of steps through an immense dark arch, as far as sight could reach stretched a vaulted passage, smooth earth underfoot, the white arches of the roof beyond one another lengthening on and on in prolonged vista, the whole lighted by a line of gas lamps, and as bright, almost, as if it were broad day. It was more like one of the long avenues of light that lead to the abodes of the genii in fairy tales, than anything I had ever beheld. The profound stillness of the place, which was first broken by my father's voice, to which the vaulted roof gave extraordinary and startling volume of tone, the indescribable feeling of subterranean vastness, the amazement and delight I experienced, quite overcame me, and I was obliged to turn from the friend who was explaining everything to me, to cry and ponder in silence. How I wish you had been with us, dear H——! Our name is always worth something to us: Mr. Brunel, who was superintending some of the works, came to my father and offered to conduct us to where the workmen were employed—an unusual favor, which of course delighted us all. So we left our broad, smooth path of light, and got into dark passages, where we stumbled among coils of ropes and heaps of pipes and piles of planks, and where ground springs were welling up and flowing about in every direction, all which was very strange. As you may have heard, the tunnel caved in once, and let the Thames in through the roof; and in order that, should such an accident occur again, no lives may be lost, an iron frame has been constructed—a sort of cage, divided into many compartments, in each of which a man with his lantern and his tools is placed—and as they clear the earth away this iron frame is moved onward and advances into new ground. All this was wonderful and curious beyond measure, but the appearance of the workmen themselves, all begrimed, with their brawny arms and legs bare, some standing in black water up to their knees, others laboriously shovelling the black earth in their cages (while they sturdily sung at their task), with the red, murky light of links and lanterns flashing and flickering about them, made up the most striking picture you can conceive. As we returned I remained at the bottom of the stairs last of all, to look back at the beautiful road to Hades, wishing I might be left behind, and then we reascended, through wheels, pulleys, and engines, to the upper day. After this we rowed down the river to the docks, lunched on board a splendid East Indiaman, and came home again. I think it is better for me, however, to look at the trees, and the sun, moon, and stars, than at tunnels and docks; they make me too humanity proud.
I am reading "Vivian Grey." Have you read it? It is very clever.
Ever your most affectionate
16 ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, January, 1828. DEAREST H——,
I jumped, in despite of a horrid headache, when I saw your letter. Indeed, if you knew how the sight of your handwriting delights me, you would not talk of lack of matter; for what have I to tell you of more interest for you, than the health and proceedings of those you love must be to me?
Dear John is come home with his trophy. He is really a highly gifted creature; but I sometimes fear that the passionate eagerness with which he pursues his pursuit, the sort of frenzy he has about politics, and his constant excitement about political questions, may actually injure his health, and the vehemence with which he speaks and writes in support of his peculiar views will perhaps endanger his future prospects.
He is neither tory nor whig, but a radical, a utilitarian, an adorer of Bentham, a worshiper of Mill, an advocate for vote by ballot, an opponent of hereditary aristocracy, the church establishment, the army and navy, which he deems sources of unnecessary national expense; though who is to take care of our souls and bodies, if the three last-named institutions are done away with, I do not quite see. Morning, noon, and night he is writing whole volumes of arguments against them, full of a good deal of careful study and reading, and in a close, concise, forcible style, which is excellent in itself, and the essays are creditable to his laborious industry; but they will not teach him mathematics, or give him a scholarship or his degree. That he will distinguish himself hereafter I have no doubt; but at present he is engrossed by a passion (for it seems to me nothing less) which occupies his mind and time, to the detriment, if not the exclusion, of all other studies.
I feel almost ashamed of saying anything about myself, after the two or three scoldings you have sent me of late. Perhaps while my blue devils found vent in ridiculous verses, they did not much matter; but their having prompted me lately to throw between seven and eight hundred pages (about a year's work) into the fire, seems to me now rather deplorable. You perhaps will say that the fire is no bad place for seven or eight hundred pages of my manuscript; but I had spent time and pains on them, and I think they should not have been thrown away in a foolish fit of despondency. I am at present not very well. I do not mean that I have any specific illness, but headaches and side-aches, so that I am one moment in a state of feverish excitement and the next nervous and low-spirited; this is not a good account, but a true one.
I have no "new friends," dearest H——; perhaps because my dislike to society makes me stupid and disagreeable when I am in it. I have made one acquaintance, which might perhaps grow to a friendship were it not that distance and its attendant inconveniences have hitherto prevented my becoming more intimate with the lady I refer to. She is a married woman; her name is Jameson. She is an Irishwoman, and the authoress of the "Diary of an Ennuyee." I like her very much; she is extremely clever; I wish I knew her better. I have been to one dance and one or two dinners lately, but to tell you the truth, dear H——, the old people naturally treat me after my years, as a young person, and the young people (perhaps from my self-conceit) seem to me stupid and uninteresting, and so, you see, I do not like society. Cecilia Siddons is out of town at present, and I have not seen her for some time. You may have heard that the theatre has gained a lawsuit against Sinclair, the celebrated singer, by a reversal of the former verdict in the case. We were not even aware that such a process was going on, and when my father came home and said, "We have won our cause," my mother and myself started up, supposing he meant the chancery suit. That, unfortunately, is still pending, pending, like the sword of Damocles, over our heads, banishing all security for the present or hope for the future. The theatre is, I believe, doing very well just now, and we go pretty often to the play, which I like. I have lately been seeing my father playing Falstaff several times, and I think it is an excellent piece of acting; he gives all the humor without too much coarseness, or charging, and through the whole, according to the fat knight's own expression, he is "Sir John to all the world," with a certain courtly deportment which prevents him from degenerating into the mere gross buffoon. They are in sad want of a woman at both the theatres. I've half a mind to give Covent Garden one. Don't be surprised. I have something to say to you on this subject, but have not room for it in this letter. My father is just now acting in the north of England. We expect him back in a fortnight. God bless you, dear H——.
Yours ever, FANNY.
The vehement passion of political interest which absorbed my brother at this time was in truth affecting the whole of English society almost as passionately. In a letter written in 1827, the Duke of Wellington, after speaking of the strong partisan sentiment which was agitating the country, added, "The ladies and all the youth are with us;" that is, with the Tory party, which, under his leadership, was still an active power of obstruction to the imminent changes to which both he and his party were presently to succumb. His ministry was a period of the stormiest excitement in the political world, and the importance of the questions at issue—Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform—powerfully affected men's minds in the ranks of life least allied to the governing class. Even in a home so obscure and so devoted to other pursuits and interests as ours, the spirit of the times made its way, and our own peculiar occupations became less interesting to us than the intense national importance of the public questions which were beginning to convulse the country from end to end. About this time I met with a book which produced a great and not altogether favorable effect upon my mind (the blame resting entirely with me, I think, and not with what I read). I had become moody and fantastical for want of solid wholesome mental occupation, and the excess of imaginative stimulus in my life, and was possessed with a wild desire for an existence of lonely independence, which seemed to my exaggerated notions the only one fitted to the intellectual development in which alone I conceived happiness to consist. Mrs. Jameson's "Diary of an Ennuyee," which I now read for the first time, added to this desire for isolation and independence such a passionate longing to go to Italy, that my brain was literally filled with chimerical projects of settling in the south of Europe, and there leading a solitary life of literary labor, which, together with the fame I hoped to achieve by it, seemed to me the only worthy purpose of existence. While under the immediate spell of her fascinating book, it was of course very delightful to me to make Mrs. Jameson's acquaintance, which I did at the house of our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Basil Montagu. They were the friends of Coleridge, Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Proctor (Barry Cornwall, who married Mrs. Montagu's daughter), and were themselves individually as remarkable, if not as celebrated, as many of their more famous friends. Basil Montagu was the son of the Earl of Sandwich and the beautiful Miss Wray, whose German lover murdered her at the theatre by shooting her in her private box, and then blew his own brains out. Mr. Montagu inherited ability, eccentricity, and personal beauty, from his parents. His only literary productions that I am acquainted with were a notice of Bacon and his works, which he published in a small pamphlet volume, and another volume of extracts from some of the fine prose writers of the seventeenth century. I have a general impression that his personal intercourse gave a far better idea of his intellectual ability than anything that he achieved either in his profession or in letters.
His conversation was extremely vivid and sparkling, and the quaint eccentricity of his manner added to the impression of originality which he produced upon one. Very unlike the common run of people as he was, however, he was far less so than his wife, who certainly was one of the most striking and remarkable persons I have known. Her appearance was extraordinary: she was much above middle height, with a beautiful figure and face, the outline of which was of classical purity and severity, while her whole carriage and appearance was dignified and majestic to the highest degree. I knew her for upwards of thirty years, and never saw her depart from a peculiar style of dress, which she had adopted with the finest instinct of what was personally becoming as well as graceful and beautiful in itself. She was so superior in this point to her sex generally, that, having found that which was undoubtedly her own proper individual costume, she never changed the fashion of it. Her dress deserved to be called (what all dress should be) a lesser fine art, and seemed the proper expression in clothes of her personality, and really a part of herself. It was a long, open robe, over an underskirt of the same material and color (always moonlight silver gray, amethyst purple, or black silk or satin of the richest quality), trimmed with broad velvet facings of the same color, the sleeves plain and tight fitting from shoulder to wrist, and the bosom covered with a fine lace half-body, which came, like the wimple of old mediaeval portraits, up round her throat, and seemed to belong in material and fashion to the clear chin-stay which followed the noble contour of her face, and the picturesque cap which covered, without concealing, her auburn hair and the beautiful proportions of her exquisite head.
This lady knew no language but her own, and to that ignorance (which one is tempted in these days occasionally to think desirable) she probably owed the remarkable power and purity with which she used her mother tongue. Her conversation and her letters were perfect models of spoken and written English. Her marriage with Mr. Montagu was attended with some singular circumstances, the knowledge of which I owe to herself. She was a Yorkshire widow lady, and came with her only child (a little girl) to visit some friends in London, with whom Basil Montagu was intimate. Mrs. S—— had probably occasionally been the subject of conversation between him and her hosts, when they were expecting her; for one evening soon after her arrival, as she was sitting partly concealed by one of the curtains in the drawing-room, Basil Montagu came rapidly into the room, exclaiming (evidently not perceiving her), "Come, where is your wonderful Mrs. S——? I want to see her." During the whole evening he engrossed her attention and talked to her, and the next morning at breakfast she laughingly complained to her hosts that he had not been content with that, but had tormented her in dreams all night. "For," said she, "I dreamt I was going to be married to him, and the day before the wedding he came to me with a couple of boxes, and said solemnly, 'My dear Anne, I want to confide these relics to your keeping; in this casket are contained the bones of my dear first wife, and in this those of my dear second wife; do me the favor to take charge of them for me.'" The odd circumstance was that Basil Montagu had been married twice, and that when he made his third matrimonial venture, and was accepted by Mrs. S——, he appeared before her one day, and with much solemnity begged her to take charge of two caskets, in which were respectively treasured, not the bones, but the letters of her two predecessors. It is quite possible that he might have heard of her dream on the first night of their acquaintance, and amused himself with carrying it out when he was about to marry her; but when Mrs. Montagu told me the story I do not think she suggested any such rationalistic solution of the mystery. Her daughter, Anne S—— (afterwards Mrs. Procter), who has been all my life a kind and excellent friend to me, inherited her remarkable mother's mental gifts and special mastery over her own language; but she added to these, as part of her own individuality, a power of sarcasm that made the tongue she spoke in and the tongue she spoke with two of the most formidable weapons any woman was ever armed with. She was an exceedingly kind-hearted person, perpetually occupied in good offices to the poor, the afflicted, her friends, and all whom she could in any way serve; nevertheless, such was her severity of speech, not unfrequently exercised on those she appeared to like best, that Thackeray, Browning, and Kinglake, who were all her friendly intimates, sometimes designated her as "Our Lady of Bitterness," and she is alluded to by that title in the opening chapter of "Eothen." A daily volume of wit and wisdom might have been gathered from her familiar talk, which was crisp, with suggestions of thought in the liveliest and highest form. Somebody asking her how she and a certain acrid critic of her acquaintance got on together, she replied, "Oh, very well; we sharpen each other like two knives." Being congratulated on the restoration of cordiality between herself and a friend with whom she had had some difference, "Oh yes," said she, "the cracked cup is mended, but it will never hold water again." Both these ladies, mother and daughter, had a most extraordinary habit of crediting their friends with their own wise and witty sayings; thus Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Procter would say, "Ah yes, you know, as you once said," and then would follow something so sparkling, profound, concise, incisive, and brilliant, that you remained, eyes and mouth open, gasping in speechless astonishment at the merit of the saying you never said (and couldn't have said if your life had depended on it), and the magnificence of the gift its author was making you. The princes in the Arabian Nights, who only gave you a ring worth thousands of sequins, were shabby fellows compared with these ladies, who declared that the diamonds and rubies of their own uttering had fallen from your lips. Persons who lay claim to the good things of others are not rare; those who do not only disclaim their own, but even credit others with them, are among the very rarest. In all my intercourse with the inhabitants of two worlds, I have known no similar instance of self-denial; and reflecting upon it, I have finally concluded that it was too superhuman to be a real virtue, and could proceed only from an exorbitant superabundance of natural gift, which made its possessors reckless, extravagant, and even unprincipled in the use of their wealth; they had wit enough for themselves, and to spare for all their friends, and these were many.
At an evening party at Mrs. Montagu's, in Bedford Square, in 1828, I first saw Mrs. Jameson. The Ennuyee, one is given to understand, dies; and it was a little vexatious to behold her sitting on a sofa, in a very becoming state of blooming plumptitude; but it was some compensation to be introduced to her. And so began a close and friendly intimacy, which lasted for many years, between myself and this very accomplished woman. She was the daughter of an Irish miniature-painter of the name of Murphy, and began life as a governess, in which capacity she educated the daughters of Lord H——, and went to Italy with the family of Mrs. R——. When I first knew her she had not long been married to Mr. Robert Jameson, a union so ill-assorted that it restored Mrs. Jameson to the bosom of her own family, to whom her conjugal ill-fortune proved a blessing, for never did daughter and sister discharge with more loving fidelity the duties of those relationships. Her life was devoted to her parents while they lived, and after their death to her sisters and a young niece whom she adopted. Her various and numerous gifts and acquirements were exercised, developed, and constantly increased by a life of the most indefatigable literary study, research, and labor. Her reading was very extensive; her information, without being profound, was general; she was an excellent modern linguist, and perfectly well versed in the literature of her own country and of France, Germany, and Italy. She had an uncommon taste and talent for art, and as she added to her knowledge of the theory and history of painting familiar acquaintance with most of the fine public and private galleries in Europe, a keen sensibility to beauty, and considerable critical judgment, her works upon painting, and especially the exceedingly interesting volumes she published on the "Sacred and Legendary Art of the Romish Church," are at once delightful and interesting sources of information, and useful and accurate works of reference, to which considerable value is added by her own spirited and graceful etchings.
The literary works of hers in which I have a direct personal interest, are a charming book of essays on Shakespeare's female characters, entitled "Characteristics of Women," which she did me the honor to dedicate to me; some pages of letterpress written to accompany a series of sketches John Hayter made of me in the character of Juliet; and a notice of my sister's principal operatic performances after she came out on the stage. Mrs. Jameson at one time contemplated writing a life of my aunt Siddons, not thinking Boaden's biography of her satisfactory; in this purpose, however, she was effectually opposed by Campbell, who had undertaken the work, and, though he exhibited neither interest nor zeal in the fulfillment of his task, doggedly (in the manger) refused to relinquish it to her. Certainly, had Mrs. Jameson carried out her intention, Mrs. Siddons would have had a monument dedicated to her memory better calculated to preserve it than those which the above-named gentlemen bestowed on her. It would have been written in a spirit of far higher artistic discrimination, and with infinitely more sympathy both with the woman and with the actress.
Late in middle life Mrs. Jameson formed an intimate acquaintance, which at one time assumed the character of a close friendship, with Lady Byron, under the influence of whose remarkable mind and character the subjects of artistic and literary interest, which had till then absorbed Mrs. Jameson's attention and occupied her pen, gave place to others of a very different kind—those which engrossed for a time, to the exclusion of almost all others, the minds of men and women in England at the beginning of the Crimean War; when the fashion of certain forms of philanthropy set by that wonderful woman, Florence Nightingale, was making hospital nurses of idle, frivolous fine ladies, and turning into innumerable channels of newly awakened benevolence and activity—far more zealous than discreet—the love of adventure, the desire for excitement, and the desperate need of occupation, of many women who had no other qualifications for the hard and holy labors into which they flung themselves.
Mrs. Jameson felt the impulse of the time, as it reached her through Lady Byron and Miss Nightingale, and warmly embraced the wider and more enlightened aspect of women's duties beginning to be advocated with extreme enthusiasm in English society. One of the last books she published was a popular account of foreign Sisters of Mercy, their special duties, the organization of their societies, and the sphere of their operations; suggesting the formation of similar bodies of religiously charitable sisterhoods in England. She had this subject so much at heart, she told me, that she had determined to give a series of public lectures upon it, provided she found her physical power equal to the effort of making herself heard by an audience in any public room of moderate size. She tested the strength of her chest and voice by delivering one lecture to an audience assembled in the drawing-rooms of a friend; but, as she never repeated the experiment, I suppose she found the exertion too great for her.
When first I met Mrs. Jameson she was an attractive-looking young woman, with a skin of that dazzling whiteness which generally accompanies reddish hair, such as hers was; her face, which was habitually refined and spirituelle in its expression, was capable of a marvelous power of concentrated feeling, such as is seldom seen on any woman's face, and is peculiarly rare on the countenance of a fair, small, delicately featured woman, all whose personal characteristics were essentially feminine. Her figure was extremely pretty; her hands and arms might have been those of Madame de Warens.
Mrs. Jameson told me that the idea of giving public lectures had suggested itself to her in the course of her conversations with Lady Byron upon the possible careers that might be opened to women. I know Lady Byron thought a very valuable public service might be rendered by women who so undertook to advocate important truths of which they had made special study, and for the dissemination of which in this manner they might be especially gifted. She accepted in the most liberal manner the claim put forward by women to more extended spheres of usefulness, and to the adoption of careers hitherto closed to them; she was deeply interested, personally, in some who made the arduous attempt of studying and practicing medicine, and seemed generally to think that there were many directions in which women might follow paths yet unopened, of high and noble exertion, and hereafter do society and the cause of progress good service.
Lady Byron was a peculiarly reserved and quiet person, with a manner habitually deliberate and measured, a low, subdued voice, and rather diffident hesitation in expressing herself: and she certainly conveyed the impression of natural reticence and caution. But so far from ever appearing to me to justify the description often given of her, of a person of exceptionally cold, hard, measured intellect and character, she always struck me as a woman capable of profound and fervid enthusiasm, with a mind of rather a romantic and visionary order.
She surprised me extremely one evening as she was accompanying me to one of my public readings, by exclaiming, "Oh, how I envy you! What would I not give to be in your place!" As my vocation, I am sorry to say, oftener appeared to me to justify my own regret than the envy of others, I answered, "What! to read Shakespeare before some hundreds of people?" "Oh no," she said; "not to read Shakespeare to them, but to have all that mass of people under your control, subject to your influence, and receiving your impressions." She then went on to say she would give anything to lecture upon subjects which interested her deeply, and that she should like to advocate with every power she possessed. Lady Byron, like most enthusiasts, was fond of influencing others and making disciples to her own views. I made her laugh by telling her that more than once, when looking from my reading-desk over the sea of faces uplifted towards me, a sudden feeling had seized me that I must say something from myself to all those human beings whose attention I felt at that moment entirely at my command, and between whom and myself a sense of sympathy thrilled powerfully and strangely through my heart, as I looked steadfastly at them before opening my lips; but that, on wondering afterwards what I might, could, would, or should have said to them from myself, I never could think of anything but two words: "Be good!" which as a preface to the reading of one of Shakespeare's plays ("The Merry Wives of Windsor," for instance) might have startled them. Often and strongly as the temptation recurred to me, I never could think of anything better worth saying to my audience. I have some hope that sometimes in the course of the reading I said it effectually, without shocking them by a departure from my proper calling, or deserving the rebuke of "Ne sutor ultra crepidam."
In February, 1828, I fell ill of the measles, of which the following note to Miss S—— is a record.
MY DEAREST H——,
I am in a great hurry, because my parcel is not made up yet, and I expect your brother's emissary to call at every moment. I send you my play, also an album of mine, also an unfinished sketch of me, also a copy of my will. The play you must not keep, because it is my only copy; neither must you keep my album, because I want to finish one of the pieces of verse begun in it; my picture—such as it is—begun, but never finished, by Dick ——, I thought you would like better than nothing. He has finished one that is a very good likeness of me, but it was done for my mother, or I should have wished you to have it. My will I made last week, while I was in bed with the measles, and want you to keep that.
I have been very ill for the last fortnight, but am well again now. I am pressed for time to-day, but will soon write to you in earnest.
I'm afraid you'll find my play very long; when my poor father began cutting it, he looked ruefully at it, and said, "There's plenty of it, Fan," to which my reply is Madame de Sevigne's, "Si j'eusse eu plus de temps, je ne t'aurais pas ecrit si longuement." Dear H——, if you knew how I thought of you, and the fresh, sweet mayflowers with which we filled our baskets at Heath Farm, while I lay parched and full of pain and fever in my illness!
Yours ever, FANNY.
My beloved aunt Dall nursed and tended me in my sickness with unwearied devotion; and one day when I was convalescent, finding me depressed in spirits and crying, she said laughingly to me, "Why, child, there is nothing the matter with you; but you are weak in body and mind." This seemed to me the most degraded of all conceivable conditions, and I fell into a redoublement of weeping over my own abasement and imbecility.
My attention was suddenly attracted to a large looking-glass opposite my bed, and it occurred to me that in my then condition of nerves nothing was more likely than that I should turn visionary and fancy I beheld apparitions. And under this conviction I got up and covered the glass, in which I felt sure I should presently "see sic sights as I daured na tell." I speak of this because, though I was in a physical condition not unlikely to produce such phenomena, I retained the power of perceiving that they would be the result of my physical condition, and that I should in some measure be accessory to my own terror, whatever form it might assume.
I have so often in my life been on the very edge of ghost-seeing, and felt so perfectly certain that the least encouragement on my part would set them before me, and that nothing but a resolute effort of will would save me from such a visitation, that I have become convinced that of the people who have seen apparitions, one half have—as I should term it—chosen to do so. I have all my life suffered from a tendency to imaginary terrors, and have always felt sure that a determined exercise of self-control would effectually keep them from having the dominion over me. The most distressing form of nervous excitement that I have ever experienced was one that for many years I was very liable to, and which always recurred when I was in a state of unusual exaltation or depression of spirits; both which states in me were either directly caused or greatly aggravated by certain electrical conditions of the atmosphere, which seemed to affect my whole nervous system as if I had been some machine expressly constructed for showing and testing the power of such influences on the human economy.
I habitually read while combing and brushing my hair at night, and though I made no use of my looking-glass while thus employed, having my eyes fixed on my book, I sat (for purposes of general convenience) at my toilet table in front of the mirror. While engrossed in my book it has frequently happened to me accidentally to raise my eyes and suddenly to fix them on my own image in the glass, when a feeling of startled surprise, as if I had not known I was there and did not immediately recognize my own reflection, would cause me to remain looking at myself, the intentness with which I did so increasing as the face appeared to me not my own; and under this curious fascination my countenance has altered, becoming gradually so dreadful, so much more dreadful in expression than any human face I ever saw or could describe, while it was next to impossible for me to turn my eyes away from the hideous vision confronting me, that I have felt more than once that unless by the strongest effort of will I immediately averted my head, I should certainly become insane. Of course I was myself a party to this strange fascination of terror, and must, no doubt, have exercised some power of volition in the assumption of the expression that my face gradually presented, and which was in no sense a distortion or grimace, but a terrible look suggestive of despair and desperate wickedness, the memory of which even now affects me painfully. But though in some measure voluntary, I do not think I was conscious at the time that the process was so; and I have never been able to determine the precise nature of this nervous affection, which, beginning thus in a startled feeling of sudden surprise, went on to such a climax of fascinated terror.
I was already at this time familiar enough with the theory of ghosts, of which one need not be afraid, through Nicolai of Berlin's interesting work upon the curious phantasmagoria of apparitions, on which he made and recorded so many singular observations. Moreover, my mother, from a combination of general derangement of the system and special affection of the visual nerves, was at one time constantly tormented by whole processions and crowds of visionary figures, of the origin and nature of which she was perfectly aware, but which she often described as exceedingly annoying by their grotesque and distorted appearance, and wearisome from their continual recurrence and thronging succession. With the recovery of her general health she obtained a release from this disagreeable haunting.
One of the most remarkable and painful instances of affection of the visual organs in consequence of a violent nervous shock was that experienced by my friend Miss T——, who, after seeing her cousin, Lady L——, drowned while bathing off the rocks at her home at Ardgillan, was requested by Lord L—— to procure for him, before his wife's burial, the wedding ring from her finger. The poor lady's body was terribly swollen and discolored, and Miss T—— had to use considerable effort to withdraw the ring from the dead finger. The effect of the whole disastrous event upon her was to leave her for several months afflicted with an affection of the eyes, which represented half of the face of every person she saw with the swollen, livid, and distorted features of her drowned cousin; a horrible and ghastly result of the nervous shock she had undergone, which she feared she should never be delivered from, but which gradually wore itself out.
The only time I ever saw an apparition was under singularly unfavorable circumstances for such an experience. I was sitting at midday in an American railroad car, which every occupant but my maid and myself had left to go and get some refreshment at the station, where the train stopped some time for that purpose. I was sitting with my maid in a small private compartment, sometimes occupied by ladies travelling alone, the door of which (wide open at the time) communicated with the main carriage, and commanded its entire length. Suddenly a person entered the carriage by a door close to where I sat, and passed down the whole length of the car. I sprang from my seat, exclaiming aloud, "There is C——!" and rushed to the door before, by any human possibility, any one could have reached the other end of the car; but nobody was to be seen. My maid had seen nothing. The person I imagined I had seen was upwards of two hundred miles distant; but what was to me the most curious part of this experience was that had I really met the person I saw anywhere, my most careful endeavor would have been to avoid her, and, if possible, to escape being seen by her; whereas this apparition, or imagination, so affected my nerves that I rushed after it as if desirous of pursuing and overtaking it, while my deliberate desire with regard to the image I thus sprang towards would have been never to have seen it again as long as I lived. The state of the atmosphere at the time of this occurrence was extraordinarily oppressive, and charged with a tremendous thunder-storm, a condition of the air which, as I have said, always acts with extremely distressing and disturbing influence upon my whole physical system.
ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, February, 1828. MY DEAREST H——,
I have this instant received your letter, and, contrary to John's wise rule of never answering an epistle till three days after he receives it, I sit down to write, to talk, to be with you. Pray, when your potatoes flourish, your fires are put out by the sun, and your hills are half hid in warm mist, wish one hearty wish for me, such as I spend by the dozen on you. I confess I am disappointed, as far as I can be with a letter of yours, at finding you had not yet received my parcel, for my vanity has been in considerable anxiety respecting your judgment on my production. Now that the effervescence of my poetical furor has subsided, and that repeated perusals have taken a little of the charm of novelty from my play, my own opinion of it is that it is a clever performance for so young a person, but nothing more. The next will, I hope, be better, and I think you will agree with me in regard to this. Dearest H——, in my last letter want of time and room prevented my enlarging on my hint about the stage, but as far as my own determination goes at present, I think it is the course that I shall most likely pursue. You know that independence of mind and body seems to me the great desideratum of life; I am not patient of restraint or submissive to authority, and my head and heart are engrossed with the idea of exercising and developing the literary talent which I think I possess. This is meat, drink, and sleep to me; my world, in which I live, and have my happiness; and, moreover, I hope, by means of fame (the prize for which I pray). To a certain degree it may be my means of procuring benefits of a more substantial nature, which I am by no means inclined to estimate at less than their worth. I do not think I am fit to marry, to make an obedient wife or affectionate mother; my imagination is paramount with me, and would disqualify me, I think, for the every-day, matter-of-fact cares and duties of the mistress of a household and the head of a family. I think I should be unhappy and the cause of unhappiness to others if I were to marry. I cannot swear I shall never fall in love, but if I do I will fall out of it again, for I do not think I shall ever so far lose sight of my best interest and happiness as to enter into a relation for which I feel so unfit. Now, if I do not marry, what is to become of me in the event of anything happening to my father? His property is almost all gone; I doubt if we shall ever receive one pound from it. Is it likely that, supposing I were willing to undergo the drudgery of writing for my bread, I could live by my wits and the produce of my brain; or is such an existence desirable?
Perhaps I might attain to the literary dignity of being the lioness of a season, asked to dinner parties "because I am so clever;" perhaps my writing faculty might become a useful auxiliary to some other less precarious dependence; but to write to eat—to live, in short—that seems to me to earn hard money after a very hard fashion. The stage is a profession that people who have a talent for it make lucrative, and which honorable conduct may make respectable; one which would place me at once beyond the fear of want, and that is closely allied in its nature to my beloved literary pursuits.
If I should (as my father and mother seem to think not unlikely) change my mind with respect to marrying, the stage need be no bar to that, and if I continue to write, the stage might both help me in and derive assistance from my exercise of the pursuit of dramatic authorship. And the mere mechanical labor of writing costs me so little, that the union of the two occupations does not seem to me a difficulty. My father said the other day, "There is a fine fortune to be made by any young woman, of even decent talent, on the stage now." A fine fortune is a fine thing; to be sure, there remains a rather material question to settle, that of "even decent talent." A passion for all beautiful poetry I am sure you will grant me; and you would perhaps be inclined to take my father and mother's word for my dramatic capacity. I spoke to them earnestly on this subject lately, and they both, with some reluctance, I think, answered me, to my questions, that they thought, as far as they could judge (and, unless partiality blinds them entirely, none can be better judges), I might succeed. In some respects, no girl intending herself for this profession can have had better opportunities of acquiring just notions on the subject of acting. I have constantly heard refined and thoughtful criticism on our greatest dramatic works, and on every various way of rendering them effective on the stage. I have been lately very frequently to the theater, and seen and heard observingly, and exercised my own judgment and critical faculty to the best of my ability, according to these same canons of taste by which it has been formed. Nature has certainly not been as favorable to me as might have been wished, if I am to embrace a calling where personal beauty, if not indispensable, is so great an advantage. But if the informing spirit be mine, it shall go hard if, with a face and voice as obedient to my emotions as mine are, I do not in some measure make up for the want of good looks. My father is now proprietor and manager of the theatre, and those certainly are favorable circumstances for my entering on a career which is one of great labor and some exposure, at the best, to a woman, and where a young girl cannot be too prudent herself, nor her protectors too careful of her. I hope I have not taken up this notion hastily, and I have no fear of looking only on the bright side of the picture, for ours is a house where that is very seldom seen.
Good-by; God bless you! I shall be very anxious to hear from you; I sent you a note with my play, telling you I had just got up from the measles; but as my note has not reached you, I tell you so again. I am quite well, however, now, and shall not give them to you by signing myself
Yours most affectionately, FANNY.
P.S.—I forgot to answer your questions in telling you all this, but I will do so methodically now. My side-ache is some disturbance in my liver, evidently, and does not give way entirely either to physic or exercise, as the slightest emotion, either pleasurable or painful, immediately brings it on; my blue devils I pass over in silence; such a liver and my kind of head are sure to breed them.
Certainly I reverence Jeremy Bentham for his philanthropy, plain powerful sense, and lucid forcible writing; but as for John's politics, they are, as Beatrice tells the prince he is, "too costly for every-day wear." His theories are so perfect that I think imperfect men could never be brought to live under a scheme of government of his devising.
I think Mrs. Jameson would like you, and you her, if you met, but my mind is running on something else than this. My father's income is barely eight hundred a year. John's expenses, since he has been at college, have been nearly three. Five hundred a year for such a family as ours is very close and careful work, dear H——, and if my going on the stage would nearly double that income, lessen my dear father's anxieties for us all, and the quantity of work which he latterly has often felt too much for him, and remove the many privations which my dear mother cheerfully endures, as well as the weight of her uncertainty about our future provision, would not this be a "consummation devoutly to be wished"?
ST. JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, March, 1828. MY DEAREST H——,
I have been thinking what you have been thinking of my long silence, about which, however, perhaps you have not been thinking at all. What, you say in one of your last about my destroying your letters troubles me a good deal, dearest H——. I really cannot bear to think of it; why, those letters are one of my very few precious possessions. When I am unhappy (as I sometimes am), I read them over, and I feel strengthened and comforted; if it is your positive desire that I should burn them, of course I must do it; but if it is only a sort of "I think you had better" that you have about it, I shall keep them, and you must be satisfied with one of my old "I can't help it's." As for my own scrawls, I do not desire that you should keep them. I write, as I speak, on the impulse of the moment, and I should be sorry that the incoherent and often contradictory thoughts that I pour forth daily should be preserved against me by anybody.
My father is now in Edinburgh. He has been absent from London about a week. I had a conversation with him about the stage some time before he went, in which he allowed that, should our miserably uncertain circumstances finally settle unfavorably, the theatre might be an honorable and advantageous resource for me; but that at present he should be sorry to see me adopt that career. As he is the best and kindest father and friend to us all, such a decision on his part was conclusive, as you will easily believe; and I have forborne all further allusion to the subject, although on some accounts I regret being obliged to do so.
I was delighted with your long letter of criticisms; I am grateful to you for taking the trouble of telling me so minutely all you thought about my play. For myself, although at the time I wrote it I was rather puffed up and elated in spirit, and looked at it naturally in far too favorable a light, I assure you I have long since come to a much soberer frame of mind respecting it. I think it is quite unfit for the stage, where the little poetical merit it possesses would necessarily be lost; besides, its construction is wholly undramatic. The only satisfaction I now take in it is entirely one of hope; I am very young, and I cannot help feeling that it offers some promise for the future, which I trust may be fulfilled. Now even, already, I am sure I could do infinitely better; nor will it be long, I think, before I try my strength again. If you could see the multiplicity of subjects drawn up in my book under the head of "projected works," how you would shake your wise head, and perhaps your lean sides. I wish I could write a good prose work, but that, I take it, is really difficult, as good, concise, powerful, clear prose must be much less easy to write than even tolerable poetry. I have been reading a quantity of German plays (translations, of course, but literal ones), and I have been reveling in that divine devildom, "Faust." Suppose it does send one to bed with a side-ache, a headache, and a heartache, isn't it worth while? Did you ever read Goethe's "Tasso"? Certainly he makes the mad poet a mighty disagreeable person; but in describing him it seemed to me as if Goethe was literally transcribing my thoughts and feelings, my mind and being.
Now, dearest H——, don't bear malice, and, because I have not written for so long, wait still longer before you answer. My mother has been in the country for a few days, and has returned with a terrible cough and cold, with which pleasant maladies she finds the house full here to welcome her, so that we all croak in unison most harmoniously. I was at the Siddonses' the other evening. My aunt was suffering, I am sorry to say, with one of her terrible headaches; Cecilia was pretty well, but as it was a soiree chantante, I had little opportunity of talking to either of them. Did you mention my notion about going on the stage in any of your letters to Cecy?
The skies are brightening and the trees are budding; it will soon be the time of year when we first met. Pray remember me when the hawthorn blossoms; hail, snow, or sunshine, I remember you, and am ever your affectionate
The want of a settled place of residence compelled me, many years after writing this letter, to destroy the letters of my friend, which I had preserved until they amounted to many hundreds; my friend kept, in the house that was her home from her fourteenth to her sixtieth year, all mine to her—several thousands, the history of a whole human life—and gave them back to me when she was upwards of seventy and I of sixty years old; they are the principal aid to my memory in my present task of retrospection.
My life at home at this time became difficult and troublesome, and unsatisfactory to myself and others; my mind and character were in a chaotic state of fermentation that required the wisest, firmest, and gentlest guidance. I was vehement and excitable, violently impulsive, and with a wild, ill-regulated imagination.
The sort of smattering acquirements from my schooling, and the desultory reading which had been its only supplement, had done little or nothing (perhaps even worse than nothing) towards my effectual moral or mental training. A good fortune, for which I can never be sufficiently thankful, occurred to me at this time, in the very intimate intercourse which grew up just then between our family and that of my cousin, Mrs. Henry Siddons.
She had passed through London on her way to the Continent, whither she was going for the sake of the health of her youngest daughter, an interesting and attractive young girl some years older than myself, who at this time seemed threatened with imminent consumption. She had a sylph-like, slender figure, tall, and bending and wavering like a young willow sapling, and a superabundant profusion of glossy chestnut ringlets, which in another might have suggested vigor of health and constitution, but always seemed to me as if their redundant masses had exhausted hers, and were almost too great a weight for her slim throat and drooping figure. Her complexion was transparently delicate, and she had dark blue eyes that looked almost preternaturally large. It seems strange to remember this ethereal vision of girlish fragile beauty as belonging to my dear cousin, who, having fortunately escaped the doom by which she then seemed threatened, lived to become a most happy and excellent wife and mother, and one of the largest women of our family, all of whose female members have been unusually slender in girlhood and unusually stout in middle and old age. When Mrs. Henry Siddons was obliged to return to Edinburgh, which was her home, she was persuaded by my mother to leave her daughter with us for some time; and for more than a year she and her elder sister and their brother, a lad studying at the Indian Military College of Addiscombe, were frequent inmates of our house. The latter was an extremely handsome youth, with a striking resemblance to his grandmother, Mrs. Siddons; he and my brother Henry were certainly the only two of the younger generation who honorably maintained the reputation for beauty of their elders; in spite of which, and the general admiration they excited (especially when seen together), perhaps indeed from some uncomfortable consciousness of their personal advantages, they were both of them shamefaced and bashful to an unusual degree.
I remember a comical instance of the shy mauvaise honte, peculiar to Englishmen, which these two beautiful boys exhibited on the occasion of a fancy ball, to which we were all invited, at the house of our friend, Mrs. E. G——. To me, of course, my first fancy ball was an event of unmixed delight, especially as my mother had provided for me a lovely Anne Boleyn costume of white satin, point-lace, and white Roman pearls, which raised my satisfaction to rapture. The two Harrys, however, far from partaking of my ecstasy, protested, pouted, begged off, all but broke into open rebellion at the idea of making what they called "guys" and "chimney-sweeps" of themselves; and though the painful sense of any singularity might have been mitigated by the very numerous company of their fellow-fools assembled in the ball-room, to keep them in countenance, and the very unpretending costume of simple and, elegant black velvet in which my mother had attired them, as Hamlet and Laertes (it must have been in their very earliest college days), they hid themselves behind the ball-room door and never showed as much as their noses or their toes, while I danced beatifically till daylight, and would have danced on till noon.
Mrs. Henry Siddons, in her last stay with us, obtained my mother's consent that I should go to Edinburgh to pay her a visit, which began by being of indeterminate length, and prolonged itself for a year—the happiest of my life, as I often, while it lasted, thought it would prove; and now that my years are over I know to have been so. To the anxious, nervous, exciting, irritating tenor of my London life succeeded the calm, equable, and all but imperceptible control of my dear friend, whose influence over her children, the result of her wisdom in dealing with them, no less than of their own amiable dispositions, was absolute. In considering Mrs. Henry Siddons's character, when years had modified its first impression upon my own, my estimate of it underwent, of course, some inevitable alteration; but when I stayed with her in Edinburgh I was at the idolatrous period of life, and never, certainly, had an enthusiastic young girl worshiper a worthier or better idol.
She was not regularly handsome, but of a sweet and most engaging countenance; her figure was very pretty, her voice exquisite, and her whole manner, air, and deportment graceful, attractive, and charming. Men, women, and children not only loved her, but inevitably fell in love with her, and the fascination which she exercised over every one that came in contact with her invariably deepened into profound esteem and confidence in those who had the good fortune to share her intimacy. Her manner, which was the most gentle and winning imaginable, had in it a touch of demure playfulness that was very charming, at the same time that it habitually conveyed the idea of extreme self-control, and a great reserve of moral force and determination underneath this quiet surface.
Mrs. Harry's manner was artificial, and my mother told me she thought it the result of an early determination to curb the demonstrations of an impetuous temper and passionate feelings. It had become her second nature when I knew her, however, and contributed not a little to the immense ascendency she soon acquired over my vehement and stormy character. She charmed me into absolute submission to her will and wishes, and I all but worshiped her.
She was a Miss Murray, and came of good Scottish blood, her great-grandfather having at one time been private secretary to the Young Pretender. She married Mrs. Siddons's youngest son, Harry, the only one of my aunt's children who adopted her own profession, and who, himself an indifferent actor, undertook the management of the Edinburgh theater, fell into ill-health, and died, leaving his lovely young widow with four children to the care of her brother, William Murray, who succeeded him in the government of the theater, of which his sister and himself became joint proprietors.
Edinburgh at that time was still the small but important capital of Scotland, instead of what railroads and modern progress have reduced it to, merely the largest town. Those were the days of the giants, Scott, Wilson, Hogg, Jeffrey, Brougham, Sidney Smith, the Horners, Lord Murray, Allison, and all the formidable intellectual phalanx that held mental dominion over the English-speaking world, under the blue and yellow standard of the Edinburgh Review.
The ancient city had still its regular winter season of fashionable gayety, during which sedan chairs were to be seen carrying through its streets, to its evening assemblies, the more elderly members of the beau monde. The nobility and gentry of Scotland came up from their distant country residences to their town-houses in "Auld Reekie," as they now come up to London.
Edinburgh was a brilliant and peculiarly intellectual center of society with a strongly marked national character, and the theater held a distinguished place among its recreations; the many eminent literary and professional men who then made the Scotch capital illustrious being zealous patrons of the drama and frequenters of the play-house, and proud, with reason, of their excellent theatrical company, at the head of which was William Murray, one of the most perfect actors I have ever known on any stage, and among whom Terry and Mackay, admirable actors and cultivated, highly intelligent men, were conspicuous for their ability.
Mrs. Henry Siddons held a peculiar position in Edinburgh, her widowed condition and personal attractions combining to win the sympathy and admiration of its best society, while her high character and blameless conduct secured the respect and esteem of her theatrical subjects and the general public, with whom she was an object of almost affectionate personal regard, and in whose favor, as long as she exercised her profession, she continued to hold the first place, in spite of their temporary enthusiasm for the great London stars who visited them at stated seasons. "Our Mrs. Siddons," I have repeatedly heard her called in Edinburgh, not at all with the slightest idea of comparing her with her celebrated mother-in-law, but rather as expressing the kindly personal good-will and the admiring approbation with which she was regarded by her own townsfolk, who were equally proud and fond of her. She was not a great actress, nor even what in my opinion could be called a good actress, for she had no natural versatility or power of assumption whatever, and what was opposed to her own nature and character was altogether out of the range of her powers.
On the other hand, when (as frequently happened) she had to embody heroines whose characteristics coincided with her own, her grace and beauty and innate sympathy with every thing good, true, pure, and upright made her an admirable representative of all such characters. She wanted physical power and weight for the great tragic drama of Shakespeare, and passion for the heroine of his love tragedy; but Viola, Rosalind, Isabel, Imogen, could have no better representative. In the first part Sir Walter Scott has celebrated (in the novel of "Waverley") the striking effect produced by her resemblance to her brother, William Murray, in the last scene of "Twelfth Night;" and in many pieces founded upon the fate and fortune of Mary Stuart she gave an unrivaled impersonation of the "enchanting queen" of modern history.
My admiration and affection for her were, as I have said, unbounded; and some of the various methods I took to exhibit them were, I dare say, intolerably absurd, though she was graciously good-natured in tolerating them.
Every day, summer and winter, I made it my business to provide her with a sprig of myrtle for her sash at dinner-time; this, when she had worn it all the evening, I received again on bidding her good night, and stored in a treasure drawer, which, becoming in time choked with fragrant myrtle leaves, was emptied with due solemnity into the fire, that destruction in the most classic form might avert from them all desecration. I ought by rights to have eaten their ashes, or drunk a decoction of them, or at least treasured them in a golden urn, but contented myself with watching them shrivel and crackle with much sentimental satisfaction. I remember a most beautiful myrtle tree, which, by favor of a peculiarly sunny and sheltered exposure, had reached a very unusual size in the open air in Edinburgh, and in the flowering season might have borne comparison with the finest shrubs of the warm terraces of the under cliff of the Isle of Wight. From this I procured my daily offering to my divinity.
The myrtle is the least voluptuous of flowers; the legend of Juno's myrtle-sheltered bath seems not unnaturally suggested by the vigorous, fresh, and healthy beauty of the plant, and the purity of its snowy blossoms. The exquisite quality, too, which myrtle possesses, of preserving uncorrupted the water in which it is placed, with other flowers, is a sort of moral attribute, which, combined with the peculiar character of its fragrance, seems to me to distinguish this lovely shrub from every other flower of the field or garden.
To return to my worship of Mrs. Harry Siddons. On one occasion the sash of her dress came unfastened and fell to the ground, and, having secured possession of it, I retained my prize and persisted in wearing it, baldric fashion, over every dress I put on. It was a silk scarf, of a sober dark-gray color, and occasionally produced a most fantastical and absurd contrast with what I was wearing.