Mrs. Siddons and Cecy are with Mrs. Kemble at Leamington. Mrs. Harry Siddons is, I fear, but little better; she has had another attack of erysipelas, and I am very anxious to get to her, but the distance, and the dependence of all interesting young females in London on the legs and leisure of chaperons, prevents me from seeing her as often as I wish.
German is an arduous undertaking, and I have once more abandoned it, not only on account of its difficulty, but because I do not at present wish to enter upon the study of a foreign language, when I am but just awakened to my radical ignorance of my own. God bless you, dear H——.
Yours ever, FANNY.
As long as I retained a home of my own, I resisted my friend's half-expressed wish that I should destroy her letters; but when I ceased to have any settled place of habitation, it became impossible to provide for the safe-keeping of a mass of papers the accumulation of which received additions every few days, and by degrees (for my courage failed me very often in the task) my friend's letters were destroyed. Few things that I have had to relinquish have cost me a greater pang or sense of loss, and few of the conditions of my wandering life have seemed to me more grievous than the necessity it imposed upon me of destroying these letters. My friend did not act upon her own theory with regard to my correspondence, and indeed it seems to me that no general rule can be given with regard to the preservation or destruction of correspondence. What revelations of misery and guilt may lie in the forgotten folds of hoarded letters, that have been preserved only to blast the memory of the dead! What precious words, again, have been destroyed, that might have lightened for a whole heavy lifetime the doubt and anguish of the living! In this, as in all we do, we grope about in darkness, and the one and the other course must often enough have been bitterly lamented by those who "did for the best" in keeping or destroying these chronicles of human existence.
Madame Pasta's daughter once said to Charles Young, who enthusiastically admired her great genius, "Vous trouvez qu'elle chante et joue bien, n'est-ce pas?" "Je crois bien," replied he, puzzled to understand her drift. "Well," replied the daughter of the great lyrical artist, "to us, to whom she belongs, and who know and love her, her great talent is the least admirable thing about her; but no one but us knows that."
Doubtless if letters of Shakespeare's could be found, letters developing the mystery of those sorrowful sonnets, or even letters describing his daily dealings with his children, and Mistress Anne Hathaway, his wife; nay, even the fashion, color, and texture of the hangings of "the second-best bed," her special inheritance, a frenzy of curiosity would be aroused by them. All his glorious plays would not be worth (bookseller's value) some scraps of thought and feeling, or mere personal detail, or even commonplace (he must have been sovereignly commonplace) impartment of theatrical business news and gossip to his fellow-players, or Scotch Drummond, or my Lord Southampton, or the Dark Woman of the sonnets. But we know little about him, thank Heaven! and I am glad that little is not more.
I know he must have sinned and suffered, mortal man since he was, but I do not wish to know how. From his plays, in spite of the necessarily impersonal character of dramatic composition, we gather a vivid and distinct impression of serene sweetness, wisdom, and power. In the fragment of personal history which he gives us in his sonnets, the reverse is the case; we have a painful impression of mournful struggling with adverse circumstances and moral evil elements, and of the labor and the love of his life alike bestowed on objects deemed by himself unworthy; and in spite of his triumphant promise of immortality to the false mistress or friend, or both, to whom (as far as he has revealed them to us) he has kept his promise, we fall to pitying Shakespeare, the bestower of immortality. In the great temple raised by his genius to his own undying glory, one narrow door opens into a secret, silent crypt, where his image, blurred and indistinct, is hardly discernible through the gloomy atmosphere, heavy and dim as if with sighs and tears. Here is no clew, no issue, and we return to the shrine filled with light and life and warmth and melody; with knowledge and love of man, and worship of God and nature. There is our benefactor and friend, simplest and most lovable, though most wonderful of his kind; other image of him than that bright one may the world never know!
The extraordinary development of the taste for petty details of personal gossip which our present literature bears witness to makes it almost a duty to destroy all letters not written for publication; and yet there is no denying that life is essentially interesting—every life, any life, all lives, if their detailed history could be given with truth and simplicity. For my own part, I confess that the family correspondence, even of people utterly unknown to me, always seems to me full of interest. The vivid interest the writers took in themselves makes their letters better worth reading than many books we read; they are life, as compared with imitations of it—life, that mystery and beauty surpassing every other; they are morsels of that profoundest of all secrets, which baffles alike the man of science, the metaphysician, artist, and poet. And yet it would be hard if A, B, and C's letters should therefore be published, especially as, had they contemplated my reading them, they would doubtless never have written them, or written them quite other than they did.
To resume my chronicle. My brother John was at this time traveling in Germany; the close of his career at Cambridge had proved a bitter disappointment to my father, and had certainly not fulfilled the expectations of any of his friends or the promise of his own very considerable abilities. He left the university without taking his degree, and went to Heidelberg, where he laid the foundation of his subsequent thorough knowledge of German, and developed the taste for the especial philological studies to which he eventually devoted himself, but his eminence in which brought him little emolument and but tardy fame, and never in the least consoled my father for the failure of all the brilliant hopes he had formed of the future distinction and fortune of his eldest son. When a man has made up his mind that his son is to be Lord Chancellor of England, he finds it hardly an equivalent that he should be one of the first Anglo-Saxon scholars in Europe.
In my last letter to Miss S—— I have referred to some of my brother's friends and their possible influence in determining his choice of the clerical profession in preference to that of the law, which my father had wished him to adopt, and for which, indeed, he had so far shown his own inclination as to have himself entered at the Inner Temple.
Among my brother's contemporaries, his school and college mates who frequented my father's house at this time, were Arthur Hallam, Alfred Tennyson and his brothers, Frederick Maurice, John Sterling, Richard Trench, William Donne, the Romillys, the Malkins, Edward Fitzgerald, James Spedding, William Thackeray, and Richard Monckton Milnes.
These names were those of "promising young men," our friends and companions, whose various remarkable abilities we learned to estimate through my brother's enthusiastic appreciation of them. How bright has been, in many instances, the full performance of that early promise, England has gratefully acknowledged; they have been among the jewels of their time, and some of their names will be famous and blessed for generations to come. It is not for me to praise those whom all English-speaking folk delight to honor; but in thinking of that bright band of very noble young spirits, of my brother's love and admiration for them, of their affection for him, of our pleasant intercourse in those far-off early days,—in spite of the faithful, life-long regard which still subsists between myself and the few survivors of that goodly company, my heart sinks with a heavy sense of loss, and the world from which so much light has departed seems dark and dismal enough.
Alfred Tennyson had only just gathered his earliest laurels. My brother John gave me the first copy of his poems I ever possessed, with a prophecy of his future fame and excellence written on the fly-leaf of it. I have never ceased to exult in my possession of that copy of the first edition of those poems, which became the songs of our every day and every hour, almost; we delighted in them and knew them by heart, and read and said them over and over again incessantly; they were our pictures, our music, and infinite was the scorn and indignation with which we received the slightest word of adverse criticism upon them. I remember Mrs. Milman, one evening at my father's house, challenging me laughingly about my enthusiasm for Tennyson, and asking me if I had read a certain severely caustic and condemnatory article in the Quarterly upon his poems. "Have you read it?" said she; "it is so amusing! Shall I send it to you?" "No, thank you," said I; "have you read the poems, may I ask?" "I cannot say that I have," said she, laughing. "Oh, then," said I (not laughing), "perhaps it would be better that I should send you those?"
It has always been incomprehensible to me how the author of those poems ever brought himself to alter them, as he did, in so many instances—all (as it seemed to me) for the worse rather than the better. I certainly could hardly love his verses better than he did himself, but the various changes he made in them have always appeared to me cruel disfigurements of the original thoughts and expressions, which were to me treasures not to be touched even by his hand; and his changing lines which I thought perfect, omitting beautiful stanzas that I loved, and interpolating others that I hated, and disfiguring and maiming his own exquisite creations with second thoughts (none of which were best to me), has caused me to rejoice, while I mourn, over my copy of the first version of "The May Queen," "OEnone," "The Miller's Daughter," and all the subsequent improved poems, of which the improvements were to me desecrations. In justice to Tennyson, I must add that the present generation of his readers swear by their version of his poems as we did by ours, for the same reason,—they knew it first.
The early death of Arthur Hallam, and the imperishable monument of love raised by Tennyson's genius to his memory, have tended to give him a pre-eminence among the companions of his youth which I do not think his abilities would have won for him had he lived; though they were undoubtedly of a high order. There was a gentleness and purity almost virginal in his voice, manner, and countenance; and the upper part of his face, his forehead and eyes (perhaps in readiness for his early translation), wore the angelic radiance that they still must wear in heaven. Some time or other, at some rare moments of the divine spirit's supremacy in our souls, we all put on the heavenly face that will be ours hereafter, and for a brief lightning space our friends behold us as we shall look when this mortal has put on immortality. On Arthur Hallam's brow and eyes this heavenly light, so fugitive on other human faces, rested habitually, as if he was thinking and seeing in heaven.
Of all those very remarkable young men, John Sterling was by far the most brilliant and striking in his conversation, and the one of whose future eminence we should all of us have augured most confidently. But though his life was cut off prematurely, it was sufficiently prolonged to disprove this estimate of his powers. The extreme vividness of his look, manner, and speech gave a wonderful impression of latent vitality and power; perhaps some of this lambent, flashing brightness may have been but the result of the morbid physical conditions of his existence, like the flush on his cheek and the fire in his eye; the over stimulated and excited intellectual activity, the offspring of disease, mistaken by us for morning instead of sunset splendor, promise of future light and heat instead of prognostication of approaching darkness and decay. It certainly has always struck me as singular that Sterling, who in his life accomplished so little and left so little of the work by which men are generally pronounced to be gifted with exceptional ability, should have been the subject of two such interesting biographies as those written of him by Julius Hare and Carlyle. I think he must have been one of those persons in whom genius makes itself felt and acknowledged chiefly through the medium of personal intercourse; a not infrequent thing, I think, with women, and perhaps men, wanting the full vigor of normal health. I suppose it is some failure not so much in the power possessed as in the power of producing it in a less evanescent form than that of spoken words, and the looks that with such organizations are more than the words themselves. Sterling's genius was his Wesen, himself, and he could detach no portion of it that retained anything like the power and beauty one would have expected. After all, the world has twice been moved (once intellectually and once morally), as never before or since, by those whose spoken words, gathered up by others, are all that remain of them. Personal influence is the strongest and the most subtle of powers, and Sterling impressed all who knew him as a man of undoubted genius; those who never knew him will perhaps always wonder why.
My life was rather sad at this time: my brother's failure at college was a source of disappointment and distress to my parents; and I, who admired him extremely, and believed in him implicitly, was grieved at his miscarriage and his absence from England; while the darkening prospects of the theater threw a gloom over us all. My hitherto frequent interchange of letters with my dear friend H—— S—— had become interrupted and almost suspended by the prolonged and dangerous illness of her brother; and I was thrown almost entirely upon myself, and was finding my life monotonously dreary, when events occurred that changed its whole tenor almost suddenly, and determined my future career with less of deliberation than would probably have satisfied either my parents or myself under less stringent circumstances.
It was in the autumn of 1829, my father being then absent on a professional tour in Ireland, that my mother, coming in from walking one day, threw herself into a chair and burst into tears. She had been evidently much depressed for some time past, and I was alarmed at her distress, of which I begged her to tell me the cause. "Oh, it has come at last," she answered; "our property is to be sold. I have seen that fine building all covered with placards and bills of sale; the theater must be closed, and I know not how many hundred poor people will be turned adrift without employment!" I believed the theater employed regularly seven hundred persons in all its different departments, without reckoning the great number of what were called supernumeraries, who were hired by the night at Christmas, Easter, and on all occasions of any specially showy spectacle. Seized with a sort of terror, like the Lady of Shallott, that "the curse had come upon me," I comforted my mother with expressions of pity and affection, and, as soon as I left her, wrote a most urgent entreaty to my father that he would allow me to act for myself, and seek employment as a governess, so as to relieve him at once at least of the burden of my maintenance. I brought this letter to my mother, and begged her permission to send it, to which she consented; but, as I afterward learned, she wrote by the same post to my father, requesting him not to give a positive answer to my letter until his return to town. The next day she asked me whether I seriously thought I had any real talent for the stage. My school-day triumphs in Racine's "Andromaque" were far enough behind me, and I could only answer, with as much perplexity as good faith, that I had not the slightest idea whether I had or not. She begged me to learn some part and say it to her, that she might form some opinion of my power, and I chose Shakespeare's Portia, then, as now, my ideal of a perfect woman—the wise, witty woman, loving with all her soul and submitting with all her heart to a man whom everybody but herself (who was the best judge) would have judged her inferior; the laughter-loving, light-hearted, true-hearted, deep-hearted woman, full of keen perception, of active efficiency, of wisdom prompted by love, of tenderest unselfishness, of generous magnanimity; noble, simple, humble, pure; true, dutiful, religious, and full of fun; delightful above all others, the woman of women. Having learned it by heart, I recited Portia to my mother, whose only comment was, "There is hardly passion enough in this part to test any tragic power. I wish you would study Juliet for me." Study to me then, as unfortunately long afterward, simply meant to learn by heart, which I did again, and repeated my lesson to my mother, who again heard me without any observation whatever. Meantime my father returned to town and my letter remained unanswered, and I was wondering in my mind what reply I should receive to my urgent entreaty, when one morning my mother told me she wished me to recite Juliet to my father; and so in the evening I stood up before them both, and with indescribable trepidation repeated my first lesson in tragedy.
They neither of them said anything beyond "Very well,—very nice, my dear," with many kisses and caresses, from which I escaped to sit down on the stairs half-way between the drawing-room and my bedroom, and get rid of the repressed nervous fear I had struggled with while reciting, in floods of tears. A few days after this my father told me he wished to take me to the theater with him to try whether my voice was of sufficient strength to fill the building; so thither I went. That strange-looking place, the stage, with its racks of pasteboard and canvas—streets, forests, banqueting-halls, and dungeons—drawn apart on either side, was empty and silent; not a soul was stirring in the indistinct recesses of its mysterious depths, which seemed to stretch indefinitely behind me. In front, the great amphitheater, equally empty and silent, wrapped in its gray holland covers, would have been absolutely dark but for a long, sharp, thin shaft of light that darted here and there from some height and distance far above me, and alighted in a sudden, vivid spot of brightness on the stage. Set down in the midst of twilight space, as it were, with only my father's voice coming to me from where he stood hardly distinguishable in the gloom, in those poetical utterances of pathetic passion I was seized with the spirit of the thing; my voice resounded through the great vault above and before me, and, completely carried away by the inspiration of the wonderful play, I acted Juliet as I do not believe I ever acted it again, for I had no visible Romeo, and no audience to thwart my imagination; at least, I had no consciousness of any, though in truth I had one. In the back of one of the private boxes, commanding the stage but perfectly invisible to me, sat an old and warmly attached friend of my father's, Major D——, a man of the world—of London society,—a passionate lover of the stage, an amateur actor of no mean merit, one of the members of the famous Cheltenham dramatic company, a first-rate critic in all things connected with art and literature, a refined and courtly, courteous gentleman; the best judge, in many respects, that my father could have selected, of my capacity for my profession and my chance of success in it. Not till after the event had justified my kind old friend's prophecy did I know that he had witnessed that morning's performance, and joining my father at the end of it had said, "Bring her out at once; it will be a great success." And so three weeks from that time I was brought out, and it was a "great success." Three weeks was not much time for preparation of any sort for such an experiment, but I had no more, to become acquainted with my fellow actors and actresses, not one of whom I had ever spoken with or seen—off the stage—before; to learn all the technical business, as it is called, of the stage; how to carry myself toward the audience, which was not—but was to be—before me; how to concert my movements with the movements of those I was acting with, so as not to impede or intercept their efforts, while giving the greatest effect of which I was capable to my own.
I do not wonder, when I remember this brief apprenticeship to my profession, that Mr. Macready once said that I did not know the elements of it. Three weeks of morning rehearsals of the play at the theater, and evening consultations at home as to colors and forms of costume, what I should wear, how my hair should be dressed, etc., etc.,—in all which I remained absolutely passive in the hands of others, taking no part and not much interest in the matter,—ended in my mother's putting aside all suggestions of innovation like the adoption of the real picturesque costume of mediaeval Verona (which was, of course, Juliet's proper dress), and determining in favor of the traditional stage costume for the part, which was simply a dress of plain white satin with a long train, with short sleeves and a low body; my hair was dressed in the fashion in which I usually wore it; a girdle of fine paste brilliants, and a small comb of the same, which held up my hair, were the only theatrical parts of the dress, which was as perfectly simple and as absolutely unlike anything Juliet ever wore as possible.
Poor Mrs. Jameson made infinite protests against this decision of my mother's, her fine artistic taste and sense of fitness being intolerably shocked by the violation of every propriety in a Juliet attired in a modern white satin ball dress amid scenery representing the streets and palaces of Verona in the fourteenth century, and all the other characters dressed with some reference to the supposed place and period of the tragedy. Visions too, no doubt, of sundry portraits of Raphael, Titian, Giorgione, Bronzino,—beautiful alike in color and fashion,—vexed her with suggestions, with which she plied my mother; who, however, determined as I have said, thinking the body more than raiment, and arguing that the unincumbered use of the person, and the natural grace of young arms, neck, and head, and unimpeded movement of the limbs (all which she thought more compatible with the simple white satin dress than the picturesque mediaeval costume) were points of paramount importance. My mother, though undoubtedly very anxious that I should look well, was of course far more desirous that I should act well, and judged that whatever rendered my dress most entirely subservient to my acting, and least an object of preoccupation and strange embarrassment to myself, was, under the circumstances of my total inexperience and brief period of preparation, the thing to be chosen, and I am sure that in the main she judged wisely. The mere appendage of a train—three yards of white satin—following me wherever I went, was to me a new, and would have been a difficult experience to most girls. As it was, I never knew, after the first scene of the play, what became of my train, and was greatly amused when Lady Dacre told me, the next morning, that as soon as my troubles began I had snatched it up and carried it on my arm, which I did quite unconsciously, because I found something in the way of Juliet's feet.
I have often admired the consummate good sense with which, confronting a whole array of authorities, historical, artistical, aesthetical, my mother stoutly maintained in their despite that nothing was to be adopted on the stage that was in itself ugly, ungraceful, or even curiously antiquated and singular, however correct it might be with reference to the particular period, or even to authoritative portraits of individual characters of the play. The passions, sentiments, actions, and sufferings of human beings, she argued, were the main concern of a fine drama, not the clothes they wore. I think she even preferred an unobtrusive indifference to a pedantic accuracy, which, she said, few people appreciated, and which, if anything, rather took the attention from the acting than added to its effect, when it was really fine.
She always said, when pictures and engravings were consulted, "Remember, this presents but one view of the person, and does not change its position: how will this dress look when it walks, runs, rushes, kneels, sits down, falls, and turns its back?" I think an edge was added to my mother's keen, rational, and highly artistic sense of this matter of costume because it was the special hobby of her "favorite aversion," Mr. E——, who had studied with great zeal and industry antiquarian questions connected with the subject of stage representations, and was perpetually suggesting to my father improvements on the old ignorant careless system which prevailed under former managements.
It is very true that, as she said, Garrick acted Macbeth in a full court suit of scarlet,—knee-breeches, powdered wig, pigtail, and all; and Mrs. Siddons acted the Grecian Daughter in piles of powdered curls, with a forest of feathers on the top of them, high-heeled shoes, and a portentous hoop; and both made the audience believe that they looked just as they should do. But for all that, actors and actresses who were neither Garrick nor Mrs. Siddons were not less like the parts they represented by being at least dressed as they should be; and the fine accuracy of the Shakespearean revivals of Mr. Macready and Charles Kean was in itself a great enjoyment; nobody was ever told to omit the tithing of mint and cummin, though other matters were more important; and Kean's Othello would have been the grand performance it was, even with the advantage of Mr. Fechter's clever and picturesque "getting up" of the play, as a frame to it; as Mademoiselle Rachel's wonderful fainting exclamation of "Oh, mon cher Curiace!" lost none of its poignant pathos, though she knew how every fold of her drapery fell and rested on the chair on which she sank in apparent unconsciousness. Criticising a portrait of herself in that scene, she said to the painter, "Ma robe ne fait pas ce pli la; elle fait, au contraire, celui-ci." The artist, inclined to defend his picture, asked her how, while she was lying with her eyes shut and feigning utter insensibility, she could possibly tell anything about the plaits of her dress. "Allez-y-voir," replied Rachel; and the next time she played Camille, the artist was able to convince himself by more careful observation that she was right, and that there was probably no moment of the piece at which this consummate artist was not aware of the effect produced by every line and fold of the exquisite costume, of which she had studied and prepared every detail as carefully as the wonderful movements of her graceful limbs, the intonations of her awful voice, and the changing expressions of her terribly beautiful countenance.
In later years, after I became the directress of my own stage costumes, I adopted one for Juliet, made after a beautiful design of my friend, Mrs. Jameson, which combined my mother's sine qua non of simplicity with a form and fashion in keeping with the supposed period of the play.
My frame of mind under the preparations that were going forward for my debut appears to me now curious enough. Though I had found out that I could act, and had acted with a sort of frenzy of passion and entire self-forgetfulness the first time I ever uttered the wonderful conception I had undertaken to represent, my going on the stage was absolutely an act of duty and conformity to the will of my parents, strengthened by my own conviction that I was bound to help them by every means in my power. The theatrical profession was, however, utterly distasteful to me, though acting itself, that is to say, dramatic personation, was not; and every detail of my future vocation, from the preparations behind the scenes to the representations before the curtain, was more or less repugnant to me. Nor did custom ever render this aversion less; and liking my work so little, and being so devoid of enthusiasm, respect, or love for it, it is wonderful to me that I ever achieved any success in it at all. The dramatic element inherent in my organization must have been very powerful, to have enabled me without either study of or love for my profession to do anything worth anything in it.
But this is the reason why, with an unusual gift and many unusual advantages for it, I did really so little; why my performances were always uneven in themselves and perfectly unequal with each other, never complete as a whole, however striking in occasional parts, and never at the same level two nights together; depending for their effect upon the state of my nerves and spirits, instead of being the result of deliberate thought and consideration,—study, in short, carefully and conscientiously applied to my work; the permanent element which preserves the artist, however inevitably he must feel the influence of moods of mind and body, from ever being at their mercy.
I brought but one half the necessary material to the exercise of my profession, that which nature gave me; and never added the cultivation and labor requisite to produce any fine performance in the right sense of the word; and, coming of a family of real artists, have never felt that I deserved that honorable name.
A letter written at this time to Miss S—— shows how comparatively small a part my approaching ordeal engrossed my thoughts.
JAMES STREET, September 24, 1829, MY DEAREST H——,
Your letter grieved me very much, but it did not surprise me; of your brother's serious illness I had heard from my cousin, Horace Twiss. But is there indeed cause for the terrible anxiety you express? I know how impossible it is to argue with the apprehensions of affection, and should have forborne this letter altogether, but that I felt very deeply your kindness in writing to me at such a time, and that I would fain assure you of my heart-felt sympathy, however unavailing it may be. To you who have a steadfast anchor for your hopes, I ought not, perhaps, to say, "Do not despond." Yet, dearest H——, do not despond: is there any occasion when despair is justified? I know how lightly all soothing counsel must be held, in a case of such sorrow as yours, but among fellow-Christians such words still have some significance; for the most unworthy of that holy profession may point unfalteringly to the only consolations adequate to the need of those far above them in every endowment of mind and heart and religious attainment. Dear H——, I hardly know how to tell you how much I feel for you, how sincerely I hope your fears may prove groundless, and how earnestly I pray that, should they prove prophetic, you may be enabled to bear the affliction, to meet which I doubt not strength will be given you. This is all I dare say; those who love you best will hardly venture to say more. To put away entirely the idea of an evil which one may be called upon at any moment to encounter would hardly be wise, even if it were possible, in this world where every happiness one enjoys is but a loan, the repayment of which may be exacted at the very moment, perhaps, when we are forgetting in its possession the precarious tenure by which alone it is ours.
My dear father and mother have both been very unwell; the former is a little recovered, but the latter is still in a sad state of bodily suffering and mental anxiety. Our two boys are well and happy, and I am very well and not otherwise than happy. I regret to say Mrs. Henry Siddons will leave London in a very short time; this is a great loss to me. I owe more to her than I can ever repay; for though abundant pains had been bestowed upon me previously to my going to her, it was she who caused to spring whatever scattered seeds of good were in me, which almost seemed as if they had been cast into the soil in vain.
My dear H——, I am going on the stage: the nearest period talked of for my debut is the first of October, at the opening of the theater; the furthest, November; but I almost think I should prefer the nearest, for it is a very serious trial to look forward to, and I wish it were over. Juliet is to be my opening part, but not to my father's Romeo; there would be many objections to that; he will do Mercutio for me. I do not enter more fully upon this, because I know how few things can be of interest to you in your present state of feeling, but I wished you not to find the first notice of my entrance on the stage of life in a newspaper. God bless you, dearest H——, and grant you better hopes.
Your most affectionate FANNY.
My father not acting Romeo with me deprived me of the most poetical and graceful stage lover of his day; but the public, who had long been familiar with his rendering of the part of Romeo, gained as much as I lost, by his taking that of Mercutio, which has never since been so admirably represented, and I dare affirm will never be given more perfectly. The graceful ease, and airy sparkling brilliancy of his delivery of the witty fancies of that merry gentleman, the gallant defiance of his bearing toward the enemies of his house, and his heroically pathetic and humorous death-scene, were beyond description charming. He was one of the best Romeos, and incomparably the best Mercutio, that ever trod the English stage.
My father was Miss O'Neill's Romeo throughout her whole theatrical career, during which no other Juliet was tolerated by the English public. This amiable and excellent woman was always an attached friend of our family, and one day, when she was about to take leave of me, at the end of a morning visit, I begged her to let my father have the pleasure of seeing her, and ran to his study to tell him whom I had with me. He followed me hastily to the drawing-room, and stopping at the door, extended his arms towards her, exclaiming, "Ah, Juliet!" Lady Becher ran to him and embraced him with a pretty, affectionate grace, and the scene was pathetical as well as comical, for they were both white-haired, she being considerably upward of sixty and he of seventy years old; but she still retained the slender elegance of her exquisite figure, and he some traces of his pre-eminent personal beauty.
My mother had a great admiration and personal regard for Lady Becher, and told me an anecdote of her early life which transmitted those feelings of hers to me. Lord F——, eldest son of the Earl of E——, a personally and mentally attractive young man, fell desperately in love with Miss O'Neill, who was (what the popular theatrical heroine of the day always is) the realization of their ideal to the youth, male and female, of her time, the stage star of her contemporaries. Lord F——'s family had nothing to say against the character, conduct, or personal endowments of the beautiful, actress who had enchanted, to such serious purpose as marriage, the heir of their house; but much, reasonably and rightly enough, against marriages disproportionate to such a degree as that, and the objectionable nature of the young woman's peculiar circumstances and public calling. Both Miss O'Neill, however, and Lord F—— were enough in earnest in their mutual regard to accept the test of a year's separation and suspension of all intercourse. She remained to utter herself in Juliet to the English public, and her lover went and travelled abroad, both believing in themselves and each other. No letters or communication passed between them; but toward the end of their year of probation vague rumors came flying to England of the life of dissipation led by the young man, and of the unworthy companions with whom he entertained the most intimate relations. After this came more explicit tales of positive entanglement with one particular person, and reports of an entire devotion to one object quite incompatible with the constancy professed and promised to his English mistress.
Probably aware that every effort would, till the last, be made by Lord F——'s family to detach them from each other, bound by her promise to hold no intercourse with him, but determined to take the verdict of her fate from no one but himself, Miss O'Neill obtained a brief leave of absence from her theatrical duties, went with her brother and sister to Calais, whence she travelled alone to Paris (poor, fair Juliet! when I think of her, not as I ever knew her, but such as I know she must then have been, no more pathetic image presents itself to my mind), and took effectual measures to ascertain beyond all shadow of doubt the bitter truth of the evil reports of her fickle lover's mode of life. His devotion to one lady, the more respectable form of infidelity which must inevitably have canceled their contract of love, was not indeed true, and probably the story had been fabricated because the mere general accusation of profligacy might easily have been turned into an appeal to her mercy, as the result of reckless despondency and of his utter separation from her; and a woman in her circumstances might not have been hard to find who would have persuaded herself that she might overlook "all that," reclaim her lover, and be an Earl's wife. Miss O'Neill rejoined her family at Calais, wrote to Lord F——'s father, the Earl of E——, her final and irrevocable rejection of his son's suit, fell ill of love and sorrow, and lay for some space between life and death for the sake of her unworthy lover; rallied bravely, recovered, resumed her work,—her sway over thousands of human hearts,—and, after lapse of healing and forgiving and forgetting time, married Sir William Wrixon Becher.
The peculiar excellence of her acting lay in the expression of pathos, sorrow, anguish,—the sentimental and suffering element of tragedy. She was expressly devised for a representative victim; she had, too, a rare endowment for her special range of characters, in an easily excited, superficial sensibility, which caused her to cry, as she once said to me, "buckets full," and enabled her to exercise the (to most men) irresistible influence of a beautiful woman in tears. The power (or weakness) of abundant weeping without disfigurement is an attribute of deficient rather than excessive feeling. In such persons the tears are poured from their crystal cups without muscular distortion of the rest of the face. In proportion to the violence or depth of emotion, and the acute or profound sensibility of the temperament, is the disturbance of the countenance. In sensitive organizations, the muscles round the nostrils and lips quiver and are distorted, the throat and temples swell, and a grimace, which but for its miserable significance would be grotesque, convulses the whole face. Men's tears always seem to me as if they were pumped up from their heels, and strained through every drop of blood in their veins; women's, to start as under a knife stroke, direct with a gush from their heart, abundant and beneficent; but again, women of the temperament I have alluded to above have fountains of lovely tears behind their lovely eyes, and their weeping, which is indescribably beautiful, is comparatively painless, and yet pathetic enough to challenge tender compassion. I have twice seen such tears shed, and never forgotten them: once from heaven-blue eyes, and the face looked like a flower with pearly dewdrops sliding over it; and again, once from magnificent, dark, uplifted orbs, from which the falling tears looked like diamond rain-drops by moonlight.
Miss O'Neill was a supremely touching, but neither a powerful nor a passionate actress. Personally, she was the very beau ideal of feminine weakness in its most attractive form—delicacy. She was tall, slender, elegantly formed, and extremely graceful; her features were regular and finely chiseled, and her hair beautiful; her eyes were too light, and her eyebrows and eyelashes too pale for expression; her voice wanted variety and brilliancy for comic intonation, but was deep and sonorous, and of a fine pathetic and tragic quality.
It was not an easy matter to find a Romeo for me, and in the emergency my father and mother even thought of my brother Henry's trying the part. He was in the first bloom of youth, and really might be called beautiful; and certainly, a few years later, might have been the very ideal of a Romeo. But he looked too young for the part, as indeed he was, being three years my junior. The overwhelming objection, however, was his own insuperable dislike to the idea of acting, and his ludicrous incapacity for assuming the faintest appearance of any sentiment. However, he learned the words, and never shall I forget the explosion of laughter which shook my father, my mother, and myself, when, after hearing him recite the balcony scene with the most indescribable mixture of shy terror and nervous convulsions of suppressed giggling, my father threw down the book, and Henry gave vent to his feelings by clapping his elbows against his sides and bursting into a series of triumphant cock-crows—an expression of mental relief so ludicrously in contrast with his sweet, sentimental face, and the part he had just been pretending to assume, that I thought we never should have recovered from the fits it sent us into. We were literally all crying with laughter, and a more farcical scene cannot be imagined. This, of course, ended all idea of that young chanticleer being my Romeo; and yet the young rascal was, or fancied he was, over head and ears in love at this very time, and an exquisite sketch Hayter had just made of him might with the utmost propriety have been sent to the exhibition with no other title than "Portrait of a Lover."
The part of Romeo was given to Mr. Abbot, an old-established favorite with the public, a very amiable and worthy man, old enough to have been my father, whose performance, not certainly of the highest order, was nevertheless not below inoffensive mediocrity. But the public, who were bent upon doing more than justice to me, were less than just to him; and the abuse showered upon his Romeo, especially by my more enthusiastic admirers of the male sex, might, I should think, have embittered his stage relations with me to the point of making me an object of detestation to him, all through our theatrical lives. A tragicomic incident was related to me by one of the parties concerned in it, which certainly proved that poor Mr. Abbot was quite aware of the little favor his Romeo found with my particular friends. One of them, the son of our kind and valued friends the G——s, an excellent, good-hearted, but not very wise young fellow, invariably occupied a certain favorite and favorable position in the midst of the third row of the pit every night that I acted. There were no stalls or reserved seats then, though not long after I came out the majority of the seats in the orchestra were let to spectators, and generally occupied by a set of young gentlemen whom Sir Thomas Lawrence always designated as my "body guard." This, however, had not yet been instituted, and my friend G—— had often to wait long hours, and even to fight for the privilege of his peculiar seat, where he rendered himself, I am sorry to say, not a little ludicrous, and not seldom rather obnoxious to everybody in his vicinity, by the vehement demonstrations of his enthusiasm—his frantic cries of "bravo," his furious applause, and his irrepressible exclamations of ecstasy and agony during the whole play. He became as familiar to the public as the stage lamps themselves, and some of his immediate neighbors complained rather bitterly of the incessant din and clatter of his approbation, and the bruises, thumps, contusions, and constant fears which his lively sentiments inflicted upon them. This fanatico of mine, walking home from the theater one night with two other like-minded individuals, indulged himself in obstreperous abuse of poor Mr. Abbot, in which he was heartily joined by his companions. Toward Cavendish Square the broad, quiet streets rang with the uproarious mirth with which they recapitulated his "damnable faces," "strange postures," uncouth gestures, and ungainly deportment; imitation followed imitation of the poor actor's peculiar declamation, and the night became noisy with the shouts of mingled derision and execration of his critics; when suddenly, as they came to a gas-light at the corner of a crossing, a solitary figure which had been preceding them, without possibility of escape, down the long avenue of Harley Street, where G—— lived, turned abruptly round, and confronted them with Mr. Abbot's unimpressive countenance. "Gentlemen," he said, "no one can be more aware than myself of the defects of my performance of Romeo, no one more conscious of its entire unworthiness of Miss Kemble's Juliet; but all I can say is, that I do not act the part by my own choice, and shall be delighted to resign it to either of you who may feel more capable than I am of doing it justice." The young gentlemen, though admiring me "not wisely, but too well," were good-hearted fellows, and were struck with the manly and moderate tone of Mr. Abbot's rebuke, and shocked at having unintentionally wounded the feelings of a person who (except as Romeo), was every way deserving of their respect. Of course they could not swallow all their foolish words, and Abbot bowed and was gone before they could stutter an apology. I have no doubt that his next appearance as Romeo was hailed with some very cordial, remorseful applause, addressed to him personally as some relief to their feelings, by my indiscreet partisans. My friend G——, not very long after this theatrical passion of his, became what is sometimes called "religious," and had thoughts of going into the Church, and giving up the play-house. He confided to my mother, who was his mother's intimate friend, and of whom he was very fond, his conscientious scruples, which she in no wise combated; though she probably thought more moderation in going to the theater, and a little more self-control when there, might not, in any event, be undesirable changes in his practice, whether his taking holy orders cut him off entirely from what was then his principal pleasure, or not. One night, when the venerable Prebend of St. Paul's, her old friend, Dr. Hughes, was in her box with her, witnessing my performance (which my mother never failed to attend), she pointed out G——, scrimmaging about, as usual, in his wonted place in the pit, and said, "There is a poor lad who is terribly disturbed in his own mind about the very thing he is doing at this moment. He is thinking of going into the Church, and more than half believes that he ought to give up coming to the play." "That depends, I should say," replied dear old Dr. Hughes, "upon his own conviction in the matter, and nothing else; meantime, pray give him my compliments, and tell him I have enjoyed the performance to-night extremely."
Mr. Abbot was in truth not a bad actor, though a perfectly uninteresting one in tragedy; he had a good figure, face, and voice, the carriage and appearance of a well-bred person, and, in what is called genteel comedy, precisely the air and manner which it is most difficult to assume, that of a gentleman. He had been in the army, and had left it for the stage, where his performances were always respectable, though seldom anything more. Wanting passion and expression in tragedy, he naturally resorted to vehemence to supply their place, and was exaggerated and violent from the absence of all dramatic feeling and imagination. Moreover, in moments of powerful emotion he was apt to become unsteady on his legs, and always filled me with terror lest in some of his headlong runs and rushes about the stage he should lose his balance and fall; as indeed he once did, to my unspeakable distress, in the play of "The Grecian Daughter," in which he enacted my husband, Phocion, and flying to embrace me, after a period of painful and eventful separation, he completely overbalanced himself, and swinging round with me in his arms, we both came to the ground together. "Oh, Mr. Abbot!" was all I could ejaculate; he, poor man, literally pale green with dismay, picked me up in profound silence, and the audience kindly covered our confusion, and comforted us by vehement applause, not, indeed, unmixed with laughter. But my friends and admirers were none the more his after that exploit; and I remained in mortal dread of his stage embraces for ever after, steadying myself carefully on my feet, and bracing my whole figure to "stand fast," whenever he made the smallest affectionate approach toward me. It is not often that such a piece of awkwardness as this is perpetrated on the stage, but dramatic heroines are nevertheless liable to sundry disagreeable difficulties of a very unromantic nature. If a gentleman in a ball-room places his hand round a lady's waist to waltz with her, she can, without any shock to the "situation," beg him to release the end spray of her flowery garland, or the floating ribbons of her head-dress, which he may have imprisoned; but in the middle of a scene of tragedy grief or horror, of the unreality of which, by dint of the effort of your imagination, you are no longer conscious, to be obliged to say, in your distraction, to your distracted partner in woe, "Please lift your arm from my waist, you are pulling my head down backwards," is a distraction, too, of its kind.
The only occasion on which I ever acted Juliet to a Romeo who looked the part was one when Miss Ellen Tree sustained it. The acting of Romeo, or any other man's part by a woman (in spite of Mrs. Siddons's Hamlet), is, in my judgment, contrary to every artistic and perhaps natural propriety, but I cannot deny that the stature "more than common tall," and the beautiful face, of which the fine features were too marked in their classical regularity to look feeble or even effeminate, of my fair female lover made her physically an appropriate representative of Romeo. Miss Ellen Tree looked beautiful and not unmanly in the part; she was broad-shouldered as well as tall, and her long limbs had the fine proportions of the huntress Diana; altogether, she made a very "pretty fellow," as the saying was formerly, as all who saw her in her graceful performance of Talfourd's "Ion" will testify; but assumption of that character, which in its ideal classical purity is almost without sex, was less open to objection than that of the fighting young Veronese noble of the fourteenth century. She fenced very well, however, and acquitted herself quite manfully in her duel with Tybalt; the only hitch in the usual "business" of the part was between herself and me, and I do not imagine the public, for one night, were much aggrieved by the omission of the usual clap-trap performance (part of Garrick's interpolation, which indeed belongs to the original story, but which Shakespeare's true poet's sense had discarded) of Romeo's plucking Juliet up from her bier and rushing with her, still stiff and motionless in her death-trance, down to the foot-lights. This feat Miss Tree insisted upon attempting with me, and I as stoutly resisted all her entreaties to let her do so. I was a very slender-looking girl, but very heavy for all that. (A friend of mine, on my first voyage to America, lifting me from a small height, set me down upon the deck, exclaiming, "Oh, you solid little lady!" and my cousin, John Mason, the first time he acted Romeo with me, though a very powerful, muscular young man, whispered to me as he carried my corpse down the stage with a fine semblance of frenzy, "Jove, Fanny, you are a lift!") Finding that all argument and remonstrance was unavailing, and that Miss Tree, though by no means other than a good friend and fellow-worker of mine, was bent upon performing this gymnastic feat, I said at last, "If you attempt to lift or carry me down the stage, I will kick and scream till you set me down," which ended the controversy. I do not know whether she believed me, but she did not venture upon the experiment.
I am reminded by this recollection of my pleasant professional fellowship with Miss Ellen Tree of a curious instance of the unprincipled, flagrant recklessness with which scandalous gossip is received and circulated in what calls itself the best English society.
In Mr. Charles Greville's "Memoirs," he makes a statement that Miss Tree was never engaged at Covent Garden. The play-bills and the newspapers of the day abundantly contradicted this assertion (at the time he entered it in his diary), and, of course, the discreditable motive assigned for the fact.
I cannot help thinking that, had Mr. Greville lived, much of the voluminous record he kept of persons and events would have been withheld from publication. He told me, not long before his death, that he had no recollection whatever of the contents of the earlier volumes of his MS. journal which he had lent me to read; and it is infinitely to be regretted, if he did not look over them before they were published, that the discretion he exercised (or delegated) in the omission of certain passages was not allowed to prevail to the exclusion of others. Such partial omissions would not indeed alter the whole tone and character of the book, but might have mitigated the shock of painful surprise with which it was received by the society he described, and by no one more than some of those who had been on terms of the friendliest intimacy with him and who had repeatedly heard him assert that his journal would never be published in the lifetime of any one mentioned in it.
I consider that I was quite justified in using even this naughty child's threat to prevent Miss Tree from doing what might very well have ended in some dangerous and ludicrous accident; nor did I feel at all guilty toward her of the species of malice prepense which Malibran exhibited toward Sontag, when they sang in the opera of "Romeo and Juliet," on the first occasion of their appearing together during their brilliant public career in England. Malibran's mischievousness partook of the force and versatility of her extraordinary genius, and having tormented poor Mademoiselle Sontag with every inconceivable freak and caprice during the whole rehearsal of the opera, at length, when requested by her to say in what part of the stage she intended to fall in the last scene, she, Malibran, replied that she "really didn't know," that she "really couldn't tell;" sometimes she "died in one place, sometimes in another, just as it happened, or the humor took her at the moment." As Sontag was bound to expire in loving proximity to her, and was, I take it, much less liable to spontaneous inspiration than her fiery rival, this was by no means satisfactory. She had nothing like the original genius of the other woman, but was nevertheless a more perfect artist. Wanting weight and power and passion for such parts as Norma, Medea, Semiramide, etc., she was perfect in the tenderer and more pathetic parts of Amina, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamouni; exquisite in the Rosina and Carolina of the "Barbiere" and "Matrimonio Segreto;" and, in my opinion, quite unrivaled in her Countess, in the "Nozze," and, indeed, in all rendering of Mozart's music, to whose peculiar and pre-eminent genius hers seemed to me in some degree allied, and of whose works she was the only interpreter I ever heard, gifted alike with the profound German understanding of music and the enchanting Italian power of rendering it. Her mode of uttering sound, of putting forth her voice (the test which all but Italians, or most carefully Italian-trained singers, fail in), was as purely unteutonic as possible. She was one of the most perfect singers I ever heard, and suggests to my memory the quaint praise of the gypsy vocal performance in the ballad of "Johnny Faa"—
"They sang so sweet, So very complete,"
She was the first Rosina I ever heard who introduced into the scene of the music-lesson "Rhodes Air," with the famous violin variations, which she performed by way of a vocalise, to the utter amazement of her noble music-master, I should think, as well as her audience. Mademoiselle Nilsson is the only prima donna since her day who has at all reminded me of Sontag, who was lovely to look at, delightful to listen to, good, amiable, and charming, and, compared with Malibran, like the evening star to a comet.
Defeated by Malibran's viciousness in rehearsing her death-scene, she resigned herself to the impromptu imposed upon her, and prepared to follow her Romeo, wherever she might choose to die; but when the evening came, Malibran contrived to die close to the foot-lights and in front of the curtain; Sontag of necessity followed, and fell beside her there; the drop came down, and there lay the two fair corpses in full view of the audience, of course unable to rise or move, till a couple of stage footmen, in red plush breeches, ran in to the rescue, took the dead Capulet and Montague each by the shoulders, and dragged them off at the side scenes; the Spanish woman in the heroism of her maliciousness submitting to this ignominy for the pleasure of subjecting her gentle German rival to it.
Madame Malibran was always an object of the greatest interest to me, not only on account of her extraordinary genius, and great and various gifts, but because of the many details I heard of her youth from M. de la Forest, the French consul in New York, who knew her as Marie Garcia, a wild and wayward but most wonderful girl, under her father's tyrannical and harsh rule during the time they spent in the United States. He said that there was not a piece of furniture in their apartment that had not been thrown by the father at the daughter's head, in the course of the moral and artistic training he bestowed upon her: it is perhaps wonderful that success in either direction should have been the result of such a system; but, upon the whole, the singer seems to have profited more than the woman from it, as might have been expected. Garcia was an incomparable artist, actor, and singer (no such Don Giovanni has ever been heard or seen since), and bestowed upon all his children the finest musical education that ever made great natural gifts available to the utmost to their possessors. I suppose it was from him, too, that Marie derived with her Spanish blood the vehement, uncontrollable nature of which M. de la Forest told me he had witnessed such extraordinary exhibitions in her girlhood. He said she would fly into passions of rage, in which she would set her teeth in the sleeve of her silk gown, and tear and rend great pieces out of the thick texture as if it were muslin; a test of the strength of those beautiful teeth, as well as of the fury of her passion. She then would fall rigid on the floor, without motion, breath, pulse, or color, though not fainting, in a sort of catalepsy of rage.
Her marriage with the old French merchant Malibran was speedily followed by their separation; he went to France, leaving his divine devil of a wife in New York, and during his absence she used to write letters to him, which she frequently showed to M. de la Forest, who was her intimate friend and adviser, and took a paternal interest in all her affairs. These epistles often expressed so much cordial kindness and warmth of feeling toward her husband, that M. de la Forest, who knew her separation from him to have been entirely her own act and choice, and any decent agreement and harmonious life between them absolutely impossible, was completely puzzled by such professions toward a man with whom she was determined never to live, and occasionally said to her, "What do you mean? Do you wish your husband to come here to you? or do you contemplate going to him? In short, what is your intention in writing with all this affection to a man from whom you have separated yourself?" Upon this view of her epistle, which did not appear to have struck her, M. de la Forest said, she would (instead of rewriting it) tack on to it, with the most ludicrous inconsistency, a sort of revocatory codicil, in the shape of a postscript, expressing her decided desire that her husband should remain where he was, and her own explicit determination never again to enter into any more intimate relations with him than were compatible with a correspondence from opposite sides of the Atlantic, whatever personal regard or affection for him her letter might appear to express to the contrary notwithstanding.
To my great regret I only saw her act once, though I heard her sing at concerts and in private repeatedly. My only personal encounter with her took place in a curious fashion. My father and myself were acting at Manchester, and had just finished performing the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Beverley, one night, in "The Gamester." On our return from the theater, as I was slowly and in considerable exhaustion following my father up the hotel stairs, as we reached the landing by our sitting-room, a door immediately opposite to it flew open, and a lady dressed like Tilburina's Confidante, all in white muslin, rushed out of it, and fell upon my father's breast, sobbing out hysterically, "Oh, Mr. Kembel, my deare, deare Mr. Kembel!" This was Madame Malibran, under the effect of my father's performance of the Gamester, which she had just witnessed. "Come, come," quoth my father (who was old enough to have been hers, and knew her very well), patting her consolingly on the back, "Come now, my dear Madame Malibran, compose yourself; don't now, Marie, don't, my dear child!" all which was taking place on the public staircase, while I looked on in wide-eyed amazement behind. Madame Malibran, having suffered herself to be led into our room, gradually composed herself, ate her supper with us, expressed herself with much kind enthusiasm about my performance, and gave me a word of advice as to not losing any of my height (of which I had none to spare) by stooping, saying very amiably that, being at a disadvantage as to her own stature, she had never wasted a quarter of an inch of it. This little reflection upon her own proportions must have been meant as a panacea to my vanity for her criticism of my deportment. My person was indeed of the shortest; but she had the figure of a nymph, and was rather above than below middle height. There was in other respects some likeness between us; she was certainly not really handsome, but her eyes were magnificent, and her whole countenance was very striking.
The first time I ever saw her sister, Madame Viardot, she was sitting with mine, who introduced me to her; Pauline Viardot continued talking, now and then, however, stopping to look fixedly at me, and at last exclaimed, "Mais comme elle ressemble a ma Marie!" and one evening at a private concert in London, having arrived late, I remained standing by the folding-doors of the drawing-room, while Lablache finished a song which he had begun before I came in, at the end of which he came up to me and said, "You cannot think how you frightened me, when first I saw you standing in that doorway; you looked so absolutely like Malibran, que je ne savais en verite pas ce que c'etait." Malibran's appearance was a memorable event in the whole musical world of Europe, throughout which her progress from capital to capital was one uninterrupted triumph; the enthusiasm, as is general in such cases, growing with its further and wider spread, so that at Venice she was allowed, in spite of old-established law and custom, to go about in a gold and crimson gondola, as fine as the Bucentaur itself, instead of the floating hearses that haunt the sea-paved thoroughfares, and that did not please her gay and magnificent taste.
Her debut in England was an absolute conquest of the nation; and when it was shocked by the news of her untimely death, hundreds of those unsympathetic, unaesthetic, unenthusiastic English people put mourning on for the wonderfully gifted young woman, snatched away in the midst of her brilliant career. Madame Malibran composed some charming songs, but her great reputation derives little of its luster from them,—that great reputation already a mere tradition.
At a challenge I would not decline, I ventured upon the following harsh and ungraceful but literal translation of some of the stanzas from Alfred de Musset's fine lament for Malibran. My poetical competitor produced an admirable version of them, and has achieved translations of other of his verses, as perfect as translations can be; a literary feat of extraordinary difficulty, with the works of so essentially national a writer, a genius so peculiarly French, as De Musset.
"Oh, Maria Felicia! the painter and bard Behind them, in dying, leave undying heirs. The night of oblivion their memory spares, And their great eager souls, other action debarred, Against death, against time, having valiantly warred, Though struck down in the strife, claim its trophies as theirs.
"In the iron engraved, one his thought leaves enshrined; With a golden-sweet cadence another's entwined Makes for ever all those who shall hear it his friends. Though he died, on the canvas lives Raphael's mind; And from death's darkest doom till this world of ours ends, The mother-clasped infant his glory defends.
"As the lamp guards the flame, so the bare, marble halls Of the Parthenon keep, in their desolate space, The memory of Phidias enshrined in their walls. And Praxiteles' child, the young Venus, yet calls From the altar, where, smiling, she still holds her place, The centuries conquered to worship her grace.
"Thus from age after age, while new life they receive, To rest at God's feet the old glories are gone; And the accents of genius their echoes still weave With the great human voice, till their speech is but one. And of thee, dead but yesterday, all thy fame leaves But a cross in the dim chapel's darkness, alone.
"A cross and oblivion, silence, and death! Hark! the wind's softest sob; hark! the ocean's deep breath! Hark! the fisher boy singing his way o'er the plains! Of thy glory, thy hope, thy young beauty's bright wreath, Not a trace, not a sigh, not an echo remains."
Those Garcia sisters were among the most remarkable people of their day, not only for their peculiar high artistic gifts, their admirable musical and dramatic powers, but for the vivid originality of their genius and great general cultivation. Malibran danced almost as well as she sang, and once took a principal part in a ballet. She drew and painted well, as did her sister Pauline Viardot, whose spirited caricatures of her friends, and herself were admirable specimens both of likenesses and of humorous talent in delineating them. Both sisters conversed brilliantly, speaking fluently four languages, and executed the music of different nations and composers with a perception of the peculiar character of each that was extraordinary. They were mistresses of all the different schools of religious, dramatic, and national compositions, and Gluck, Jomelli, Pergolesi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Scotch and Irish melodies, Neapolitan canzonette, and the popular airs of their own country, were all rendered by them with equal mastery.
To resume my story (which is very like that of the knife-grinder). When I returned to the stage, many years after I had first appeared on it, I restored the beautiful end of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as he wrote it (in spite of Garrick and the original story), thinking it mere profanation to intrude sharp discords of piercing agony into the divine harmony of woe with which it closes.
"Thus with a kiss I die," "Thy husband in thy bosom there lies dead,"
are full enough of bitter-sweet despair for the last chords of that ineffable, passionate strain—the swoon of sorrow ending that brief, palpitating ecstasy, the proper, dirge-like close to that triumphant hymn of love and youth and beauty. All the frantic rushing and tortured writhing and uproar of noisy anguish of the usual stage ending seemed utter desecration to me; but Garrick was an actor, the first of actors, and his death-scene of the lovers and ending of the play is much more theatrically effective than Shakespeare's.
The report of my approaching appearance on the stage excited a good deal of interest among the acquaintances and friends of my family, and occasioned a renewal of cordial relations which had formerly existed, but ceased for some time, between Sir Thomas Lawrence and my father and mother.
Lawrence's enthusiastic admiration for my uncle John and Mrs. Siddons, testified by the numerous striking portraits in which he has recorded their personal beauty and dramatic picturesqueness, led to a most intimate and close friendship between the great painter and the eminent actors, and, subsequently, to very painful circumstances, which estranged him for years from all our family, and forbade all renewal of the relations between himself and Mrs. Siddons which had been so cruelly interrupted.
While frequenting her house upon terms of the most affectionate intimacy, he proposed to her eldest daughter, my cousin Sarah, and was accepted by her. Before long, however, he became deeply dejected, moody, restless, and evidently extremely and unaccountably wretched. Violent scenes of the most painful emotion, of which the cause was inexplicable and incomprehensible, took place repeatedly between himself and Mrs. Siddons, to whom he finally, in a paroxysm of self-abandoned misery, confessed that he had mistaken his own feelings, and that her younger daughter, and not the elder, was the real object of his affection, and ended by imploring permission to transfer his addresses from the one to the other sister. How this extraordinary change was accomplished I know not; but only that it took place, and that Maria Siddons became engaged to her sister's faithless lover. To neither of them, however was he destined ever to be united; they were both exceedingly delicate young women, with a tendency to consumption, which was probably developed and accelerated in its progress in no small measure by all the bitterness and complicated difficulties of this disastrous double courtship.
Maria, the youngest, an exceedingly beautiful girl, died first, and on her death-bed exacted from her sister a promise that she would never become Lawrence's wife; the promise was given, and she died, and had not lain long in her untimely grave when her sister was laid in it beside her. The death of these two lovely and amiable women broke off all connection between Sir Thomas Lawrence and my aunt, and from that time they never saw or had any intercourse with each other.
It was years after these events that Lawrence, meeting my father accidentally in the street one day, stopped him and spoke with great feeling of his sympathy for us all in my approaching trial, and begged permission to come and see my mother and become acquainted with me, which he accordingly did; and from that time till his death, which occurred but a few months later, he was unwearied in acts of friendly and affectionate kindness to me. He came repeatedly to consult with my mother about the disputed point of my dress, and gave his sanction to her decision upon it. The first dress of Belvidera, I remember, was a point of nice discussion between them. Plain black velvet and a lugubrious long vail were considered my only admissible wear, after my husband's ruin; but before the sale of our furniture, it was conceded that I might relieve the somber Venetian patrician's black dress with white satin puffs and crimson linings and rich embroidery of gold and pearl; moreover, before our bankruptcy, I was allowed (not, however, without serious demur on the part of Lawrence) to cover my head with a black hat and white feather, with which, of course, I was enamored, having never worn anything but my hair on my head before, and feeling an unspeakable accession of dignity in this piece of attire. I begged hard to be allowed to wear it through the tragedy, but this, with some laughter at my intense desire for it, was forbidden, and I was reduced after the first scene of the play to my own unadorned locks, which I think greatly strengthened my feeling of the abject misery into which I had fallen.
When in town, Lawrence never omitted one of my performances, always occupying the stage box, and invariably sending me the next morning a letter, full of the most detailed and delicate criticism, showing a minute attention to every inflection of my voice, every gesture, every attitude, which, combined with expressions of enthusiastic admiration, with which this discriminating and careful review of my performance invariably terminated, was as strong a dose of the finest flattery as could well have been offered to a girl of my age, on the very first step of her artistic career. I used to read over the last of these remarkable criticisms, invariably, before going to the theater, in order to profit by every suggestion of alteration or hint of improvement they contained; and I was in the act of reperusing the last I ever received from him, when my father came in and said, "Lawrence is dead."
I had been sitting to him for some time previously for a pencil sketch, which he gave my mother; it was his last work, and certainly the most beautiful of his drawings. He had appointed a day for beginning a full-length, life-size portrait of me as Juliet, and we had seen him only a week before his death, and, in the interval, received a note from him, merely saying he was rather indisposed. His death, which was quite unexpected, created a very great public sensation, and there was something sufficiently mysterious about its circumstances to give rise to a report that he had committed suicide.
The shock of this event was terrible to me, although I have sometimes since thought it was fortunate for me rather than otherwise. Sir Thomas Lawrence's enthusiastically expressed admiration for me, his constant kindness, his sympathy in my success, and the warm interest he took in everything that concerned me, might only have inspired me with a grateful sense of his condescension and goodness. But I was a very romantic girl, with a most excitable imagination, and such was to me the melancholy charm of Lawrence's countenance, the elegant distinction of his person, and exquisite refined gentleness of his voice and manner, that a very dangerous fascination was added to my sense of gratitude for all his personal kindness to me, and my admiration for his genius; and I think it not at all unlikely that, had our intercourse continued, and had I sat to him for the projected portrait of Juliet, in spite of the forty years' difference in our ages, and my knowledge of his disastrous relations with my cousins, I should have become in love with him myself, and been the fourth member of our family whose life he would have disturbed and embittered. His sentimentality was of a peculiar mischievous order, as it not only induced women to fall in love with him, but enabled him to persuade himself that he was in love with them, and apparently with more than one at a time.
While I was sitting to him for the beautiful sketch he gave my mother, one or two little incidents occurred that illustrated curiously enough this superficial pseudo-sensibility of his. On one occasion, when he spent the evening with us, my mother had made me sing for him; and the next day, after my sitting, he said in a strange, hesitating, broken manner, as if struggling to control some strong emotion, "I have a very great favor to beg of you; the next time I have the honor and pleasure of spending the evening with you, will you, if Mrs. Kemble does not disapprove of it, sing this song for me?" He put a piece of music into my hand, and immediately left us without another word. On our way home in the carriage, I unrolled the song, the title of which was, "These few pale Autumn Flowers." "Ha!" said my mother, with, I thought, rather a peculiar expression, as I read the words; but she added no further comment. Both words and music were plaintive and pathetic, and had an original stamp in the melancholy they expressed.
The next time Lawrence spent the evening with us I sang the song for him. While I did so, he stood by the piano in a state of profound abstraction, from which he recovered himself, as if coming back from very far away, and with an expression of acute pain on his countenance, he thanked me repeatedly for what he called the great favor I had done him.
At the end of my next sitting, when my mother and myself had risen to take leave of him, he said, "No, don't go yet,—stay a moment,—I want to show you something—if I can;" and he moved restlessly about, taking up and putting down his chalks and pencils, and standing, and sitting down again, as if unable to make up his mind to do what he wished. At length he went abruptly to an easel, and, removing from it a canvas with a few slight sketches on it, he discovered behind it the profile portrait of a lady in a white dress folded simply across her bosom, and showing her beautiful neck and shoulders. Her head was dressed with a sort of sibylline turban, and she supported it upon a most lovely hand and arm, her elbow resting on a large book, toward which she bent, and on the pages of which her eyes were fixed, the exquisite eyelid and lashes hiding the eyes. "Oh, how beautiful! oh, who is it!" exclaimed I. "A—a lady," stammered Lawrence, turning white and red, "toward whom—for whom—I entertained the profoundest regard." Thereupon he fled out of the room. "It is the portrait of Mrs. W——," said my mother; "she is now dead; she was an exceedingly beautiful and accomplished woman, the authoress of the words and music of the song Sir Thomas Lawrence asked you to learn for him."
The great painter's devotion to this lovely person had been matter of notoriety in the London world. Strangely enough, but a very short time ago I discovered that she was the kinswoman of my friend Miss Cobb's mother, of whom Miss Cobb possessed a miniature, in which the fashion of dress and style of head-dress were the same as those in the picture I saw, and in which I also traced some resemblance to the beautiful face which made so great an impression on me. Not long after this Mrs. Siddons, dining with us one day, asked my mother how the sketch Lawrence was making of me was getting on. After my mother's reply, my aunt remained silent for some time, and then, laying her hand on my father's arm, said, "Charles, when I die, I wish to be carried to my grave by you and Lawrence." Lawrence reached his grave while she was yet tottering on the brink of hers.
After my next sitting, my mother, thinking he might be gratified by my aunt's feeling toward him, mentioned her having dined with us. He asked eagerly of her health, her looks, her words, and my mother telling him of her speech about him, he threw down his pencil, clasped his hands, and, with his eyes full of tears and his face convulsed, exclaimed, "Good God! did she say that?"
When my likeness was finished, Lawrence showed it to my mother, who, though she had attended all my sittings, had never seen it till it was completed. As she stood silently looking at it, he said, "What strikes you? what do you think?" "It is very like Maria," said my mother, almost involuntarily, I am sure, for immediately this strange man fell into one of these paroxysms of emotion, and became so agitated as scarcely to be able to speak; and at last, with a violent effort, said, "Oh, she is very like her; she is very like them all!"
In spite of these emotions which I heard and saw Sir Thomas Lawrence express, I know positively that at his death a lady, who had been an intimate acquaintance of our family for many years, put on widow's weeds for him, in the full persuasion that had he lived he would have married her, and that, the mutual regard they entertained for each other warranted her assuming the deepest mourning for him. Not the least curious part of the emotional demonstrations I have described, was the contrast which they formed to Sir Thomas Lawrence's habitual demeanor, which was polished and refined, but reserved to a degree of coldness, and as indicative of reticent discretion and imperturbable self-control as became a man who lived in such high social places, and frequented the palaces of royalty and the boudoirs of the great rival beauties of the English aristocracy. On my twentieth birthday, which occurred soon after my first appearance, Lawrence sent me a magnificent proof-plate of Reynolds's portrait of my aunt as the "Tragic Muse," beautifully framed, and with this inscription: "This portrait, by England's greatest painter, of the noblest subject of his pencil, is presented to her niece and worthy successor, by her most faithful humble friend and servant, Lawrence." When my mother saw this, she exclaimed at it, and said, "I am surprised he ever brought himself to write those words—her 'worthy successor.'" A few days after, Lawrence begged me to let him have the print again, as he was not satisfied with the finishing of the frame. It was sent to him, and when it came back he had effaced the words in which he had admitted any worthy successor to his "Tragic Muse;" and Mr. H——, who was at that time his secretary, told me that Lawrence had the print lying with that inscription in his drawing-room for several days before sending it to me, and had said to him, "Cover it up; I cannot bear to look at it."
One day, at the end of my sitting, Lawrence showed me a lovely portrait of Mrs. Inchbald, of whom my mother, as we drove home, told me a number of amusing anecdotes. She was very beautiful, and gifted with original genius, as her plays and farces and novels (above all, the "Simple Story") testify; she was not an actress of any special merit, but of respectable mediocrity. She stuttered habitually, but her delivery was never impeded by this defect on the stage; a curious circumstance, not uncommon to persons who have that infirmity, and who can read and recite without suffering from it, though quite unable to speak fluently. Mrs. Inchbald was a person of a very remarkable character, lovely, poor, with unusual mental powers and of irreproachable conduct. Her life was devoted to the care of some dependent relation, who from sickness was incapable of self-support. Mrs. Inchbald had a singular uprightness and unworldliness, and a childlike directness and simplicity of manner, which, combined with her personal loveliness and halting, broken utterance, gave to her conversation, which was both humorous and witty, a most peculiar and comical charm. Once, after traveling all day in a pouring rain, on alighting at her inn, the coachman, dripping all over with wet, offered his arm to help her out of the coach, when she exclaimed, to the great amusement of her fellow-travelers, "Oh, no, no! y-y-y-you will give me m-m-m-my death of c-c-c-cold; do bring me a-a-a-a dry man." An aristocratic neighbor of hers, with whom she was slightly acquainted, driving with his daughter in the vicinity of her very humble suburban residence, overtook her walking along the road one very hot day, and, stopping his carriage, asked her to let him have the pleasure of taking her home; when she instantly declined, with the characteristic excuse that she had just come from the market gardener's: "And, my lord, I-I-I have my pocket f-f-full of onions,"—an unsophisticated statement of facts which made them laugh extremely. At the first reading of one of her pieces, a certain young lady, with rather a lean, lanky figure, being proposed to her for the part of the heroine, she indignantly exclaimed, "No, no, no; I-I-I-I won't have that s-s-s-stick of a girl! D-d-d-do give me a-a-a girl with bumps!" Coming off the stage one evening, she was about to sit down by Mrs. Siddons in the green-room, when suddenly, looking at her magnificent neighbor, she said, "No, I won't s-s-s-sit by you; you're t-t-t-too handsome!"—in which respect she certainly need have feared no competition, and less with my aunt than any one, their style of beauty being so absolutely dissimilar. Somebody speaking of having oysters for supper, much surprise was excited by Mrs. Inchbald's saying that she had never eaten one. Questions and remonstrances, exclamations of astonishment, and earnest advice to enlarge her experience in that respect, assailed her from the whole green-room, when she finally delivered herself thus: "Oh no, indeed! I-I-I-I never, never could! What! e-e-e-eat the eyes and t-t-t-the nose, the teeth a-a-a-and the toes, the a-a-a-all of a creature!" She was an enthusiastic admirer of my uncle John, and the hero of her "Simple Story," Doriforth, is supposed to have been intended by her as a portrait of him. On one occasion, when she was sitting by the fireplace in the green-room, waiting to be called upon the stage, she and Miss Mellon (afterward Mrs. Coutts and Duchess of St Albans) were laughingly discussing their male friends and acquaintances from the matrimonial point of view. My uncle John, who was standing near, excessively amused, at length jestingly said to Mrs. Inchbald, who had been comically energetic in her declarations of who she could or would, or never could or would, have married, "Well, Mrs. Inchbald, would you have had me?" "Dear heart!" said the stammering beauty, turning her sweet sunny face up to him, "I'd have j-j-j-jumped at you!"
One day Lawrence took us, from the room where I generally sat to him, into a long gallery where were a number of his pictures, and, leading me by the hand, desired me not to raise my eyes till he told me. On the word of command I looked up, and found myself standing close to and immediately underneath, as it were, a colossal figure of Satan. The sudden shock of finding myself in such proximity to this terrible image made me burst into nervous tears. Lawrence was greatly distressed at the result of his experiment, which had been simply to obtain a verdict from my unprepared impression of the power of his picture. A conversation we had been having upon the subject of Milton and the character of Satan had made him think of showing this picture to me. I was too much agitated to form any judgment of it, but I thought I perceived through its fierce and tragical expression some trace of my uncle's face and features, a sort of "more so" of the bitter pride and scornful melancholy of the banished Roman in the Volscian Hall. Lawrence's imagination was so filled with the poetical and dramatic suggestions which he derived from the Kemble brother and sister, that I thought a likeness of them lurked in this portrait of the Prince of Darkness; and perhaps he could scarcely have found a better model for his archfiend than my uncle, to whom his mother occasionally addressed the characteristic reproof, "Sir, you are as proud as Lucifer!" (He and that remarkable mother of his must really have been a good deal like Coriolanus and Volumnia.) To console me for the fright he had given me, Lawrence took me into his drawing-room—that beautiful apartment filled with beautiful things, including his magnificent collection of original drawings by the old masters, and precious gems of old and modern art—the treasure-house of all the exquisite objects of beauty and curiosity that he had gathered together during his whole life, and that (with the exception of Raphael's and Michael Angelo's drawings, now in the museum at Oxford) were so soon, at his most unexpected death, to be scattered abroad and become, in separate, disjointed portions, the property of a hundred different purchasers. Here, he said, he hoped often to persuade my father and mother and myself to pass our unengaged evenings with him; here he should like to make my brother John, of whom I had spoken enthusiastically to him, free of his art collections; and, adding that he would write to my mother to fix the day for my first sitting for Juliet, he put into my hands a copy of the first edition of Milton's "Paradise Lost." I never entered that room or his house, or saw him again; he died about ten days after that.
Lawrence did not talk much while he took his sketch of me, and I remember very little that passed between him and my mother but what was purely personal. I recollect he told me that I had a double row of eyelashes, which was an unusual peculiarity. He expressed the most decided preference for satin over every other material for painting, expatiating rapturously on the soft, rich folds and infinitely varied lights and shadows which that texture afforded above all others. He has dressed a great many of his female portraits in white satin. He also once said that he had been haunted at one time with the desire to paint a blush, that most enchanting "incident" in the expression of a woman's face, but, after being driven nearly wild with the ineffectual endeavor, had had to renounce it, never, of course, he said, achieving anything but a red face. I remember the dreadful impression made upon me by a story he told my mother of Lady J—— (George the Fourth's Lady J——), who, standing before her drawing-room looking-glass, and unaware that he was in the rooms, apostrophized her own reflection with this reflection: "I swear it would be better to go to hell at once than live to grow old and ugly."
Lawrence once said that we never dreamed of ourselves as younger than we were; that even if our dreams reproduce scenes and people and circumstances of our youth and childhood we were always represented, by our sleeping imagination, at our present age. I presume he spoke of his own experience, and I cannot say that I recollect any instance in mine that contradicts this theory. It seems curious, if it is true, that in the manifold freaks of our sleeping fancy self-consciousness should still exist to a sufficient degree to preserve unaltered one's own conditions of age and physical appearance. I wonder whether this is really the common experience of people's dreams? Frederick Maurice told me a circumstance in curious opposition to this theory of Lawrence's. A young woman whom he knew, of more than usual mental and moral endowments, married a man very much her inferior in mind and character, and appeared to him to deteriorate gradually but very perceptibly under his influence. "As the husband is, the wife is," etc. Toward the middle of her life she told him that at one time she had carried on a double existence in her sleeping and waking hours, her dreams invariably taking her back to the home and period of her girlhood, and that she resumed this dream-life precisely where she left it off, night after night, for a considerable period of time,—poor thing!—perhaps as long as the roots of the young nobler self survived below the soil of a baser present existence. This story seemed to me always very pathetic. It must have been dismal to lose that dream life by degrees, as the real one ate more and more into her nature.