Of Lawrence's merit as a painter an unduly favorable estimate was taken during his life, and since his death his reputation has suffered an undue depreciation. Much that he did partook of the false and bad style which, from the deeper source of degraded morality, spread a taint over all matters of art and taste, under the vicious influence of the "first gentleman of Europe," whose own artistic preferences bore witness, quite as much as the more serious events of his life, how little he deserved the name. Hideous Chinese pagoda pavilions, with grotesque and monstrous decorations, barbarous alike in form and in color; mean and ugly low-roomed royal palaces, without either magnificence or simplicity; military costumes, in which gold and silver lace were plastered together on the same uniform, testified to the perverted perception of beauty and fitness which presided in the court of George the Fourth. Lawrence's own portrait of him, with his corpulent body girthed in his stays and creaseless coat, and his heavy falling cheek supported by his stiff stock, with his dancing-master's leg and his frizzled barber's-block head, comes as near a caricature as a flattered likeness of the original (which was a caricature) dares to do. To have had to paint that was enough to have vulgarized any pencil. The defect of many of Lawrence's female portraits was a sort of artificial, sentimental elegantism. Pictures of the fine ladies of that day they undoubtedly were; pictures of great ladies, never; and, in looking at them, one sighed for the exquisite simple grace and unaffected dignity of Reynolds's and Gainsborough's noble and gentle women.
The lovely head of Lady Nugent, the fine portrait I have mentioned of Mrs. W——, the splendid one of Lady Hatherton, and the noble picture of my grandmother, are among the best productions of Lawrence's pencil; and several of his men's portraits are in a robust and simple style of art worthy of the highest admiration. His likeness of Canning (which, by the bye, might have passed for his own, so great was his resemblance to the brilliant statesman) and the fine portrait he painted for Lord Aberdeen, of my uncle John, are excellent specimens of his best work. He had a remarkable gift of producing likenesses at once striking and favorable, and of always seizing the finest expression of which a face was capable; and none could ever complain that Lawrence had not done justice to the very best look they ever wore. Lawrence's want of conscience with regard to the pictures which he undertook and never finished, is difficult to account for by any plausible explanation. The fact is notorious, that in various instances, after receiving the price of a portrait, and beginning it, he procrastinated, and delayed, and postponed the completion, until, in more than one case, the blooming beauty sketched upon his canvas had grown faded and wrinkled before the image of her youthful loveliness had been completed.
The renewal of intercourse between Lawrence and my parents, so soon to be terminated by his death, was the cause to me of a loss which I shall never cease to regret. My father had had in his library for years (indeed, as long as I remember) a large volume of fine engravings of the masterpieces of the great Italian painters, and this precious book of art we were occasionally allowed to look at for an hour of rare delight; but it belonged to Sir Thomas Lawrence, and had accidentally been kept for this long space of time in my father's possession. One of my mother's first acts, on again entering into friendly relations with Lawrence, was to restore this piece of property to him; a precipitate act of honesty which I could not help deploring, especially when, so soon after this deed of rash restitution, his death brought those beautiful engravings, with all the rest of his property, to the hammer.
There is no early impression stronger in my mind than that of some of those masterpieces, which, together with Winckelmann's fine work on classical art (our familiarity with which I have elsewhere alluded to), were among the first influences of the sort which I experienced. Nor can I ever be too grateful that, restricted as were my parents' means of developing in us the highest culture, they were still such as, combined with their own excellent taste and judgment, preserved us from that which is far worse than ignorance, a liking for anything vulgar or trivial. That which was merely pretty, in music, painting, or poetry, was never placed on the same level in our admiration with that which was fine; and though, from nature as well as training, we enjoyed with great zest every thing that could in any sense be called good, our enthusiasm was always reserved for that which was best, an incalculable advantage in the formation of a fine taste and critical judgment. A noble ideal beauty was what we were taught to consider the proper object and result of all art. In their especial vocation this tendency caused my family to be accused of formalism and artificial pedantry; and the so-called "classical" school of acting, to which they belonged, has frequently since their time been unfavorably compared with what, by way of contrast, has been termed the realistic or natural style of art. I do not care to discuss the question, but am thankful that my education preserved me from accepting mere imitation of nature as art, on the stage or in the picture gallery; and that, without destroying my delight in any kind of beauty, it taught me a decided preference for that which was highest and noblest.
All being in due preparation for my coming out, my rehearsals were the only interruption to my usual habits of occupation, which I pursued very steadily in spite of my impending trial. On the day of my first appearance I had no rehearsal, for fear of over-fatigue, and spent my morning as usual, in practicing the piano, walking in the inclosure of St. James's Park opposite our house, and reading in "Blunt's Scripture Characters" (a book in which I was then deeply interested) the chapters relating to St. Peter and Jacob. I do not know whether the nervous tension which I must have been enduring strengthened the impression made upon me by what I read, but I remember being quite absorbed by it, which I think was curious, because certainly such subjects of meditation were hardly allied to the painful undertaking so immediately pressing upon me. But I believe I felt imperatively the necessity of moderating my own strong nervous emotion and excitement by the fulfillment of my accustomed duties and pursuits, and above all by withdrawing my mind into higher and serener regions of thought, as a respite and relief from the pressure of my alternate apprehensions of failure and hopes of success. I do not mean that it was at all a matter of deliberate calculation or reflection, but rather an instinct of self-preservation, which actuated me: a powerful instinct which has struggled and partially prevailed throughout my whole life against the irregular and passionate vehemence of my temperament, and which, in spite of a constant tendency to violent excitement of mind and feeling, has made me a person of unusually systematic pursuits and monotonous habits, and been a frequent subject of astonishment, not unmixed with ridicule, to my friends, who have not known as well as myself what wholesomeness there was in the method of my madness. And I am persuaded that religion and reason alike justify such a strong instinctive action in natures which derive a constant moral support, like that of the unobserved but all-sustaining pressure of the atmosphere, from the soothing and restraining influence of systematic habits of monotonous regularity. Amid infinite anguish and errors, existence may preserve a species of outward symmetry and harmony from this strong band of minute observance keeping down and assisting the mind to master elements of moral and mental discord and disorder, for the due control of which the daily and hourly subjection to recurring rules is an invaluable auxiliary to higher influences. The external practice does not supply but powerfully supplements the internal principle of self-control.
My mother, who had left the stage for upward of twenty years, determined to return to it on the night of my first appearance, that I might have the comfort and support of her being with me in my trial. We drove to the theater very early, indeed while the late autumn sunlight yet lingered in the sky; it shone into the carriage, upon me, and as I screened my eyes from it, my mother said, "Heaven smiles on you, my child." My poor mother went to her dressing-room to get herself ready, and did not return to me for fear of increasing my agitation by her own. My dear aunt Dall and my maid and the theater dresser performed my toilet for me, and at length I was placed in a chair, with my satin train carefully laid over the back of it; and there I sat, ready for execution, with the palms of my hands pressed convulsively together, and the tears I in vain endeavored to repress welling up into my eyes and brimming slowly over, down my rouged cheeks—upon which my aunt, with a smile full of pity, renewed the color as often as these heavy drops made unsightly streaks in it. Once and again my father came to the door, and I heard his anxious "How is she?" to which my aunt answered, sending him away with words of comforting cheer. At last, "Miss Kemble called for the stage, ma'am!" accompanied with a brisk tap at the door, started me upright on my feet, and I was led round to the side scene opposite to the one from which I saw my mother advance on the stage; and while the uproar of her reception filled me with terror, dear old Mrs. Davenport, my nurse, and dear Mr. Keely, her Peter, and half the dramatis personae of the play (but not my father, who had retreated, quite unable to endure the scene) stood round me as I lay, all but insensible, in my aunt's arms. "Courage, courage, dear child! poor thing, poor thing!" reiterated Mrs. Davenport. "Never mind 'em, Miss Kemble!" urged Keely, in that irresistibly comical, nervous, lachrymose voice of his, which I have never since heard without a thrill of anything but comical association; "never mind 'em! don't think of 'em, any more than if they were so many rows of cabbages!" "Nurse!" called my mother, and on waddled Mrs. Davenport, and, turning back, called in her turn, "Juliet!" My aunt gave me an impulse forward, and I ran straight across the stage, stunned with the tremendous shout that greeted me, my eyes covered with mist, and the green baize flooring of the stage feeling as if it rose up against my feet; but I got hold of my mother, and stood like a terrified creature at bay, confronting the huge theater full of gazing human beings. I do not think a word I uttered during this scene could have been audible; in the next, the ball-room, I began to forget myself; in the following one, the balcony scene, I had done so, and, for aught I knew, I was Juliet; the passion I was uttering sending hot waves of blushes all over my neck and shoulders, while the poetry sounded like music to me as I spoke it, with no consciousness of anything before me, utterly transported into the imaginary existence of the play. After this, I did not return into myself till all was over, and amid a tumultuous storm of applause, congratulation, tears, embraces, and a general joyous explosion of unutterable relief at the fortunate termination of my attempt, we went home. And so my life was determined, and I devoted myself to an avocation which I never liked or honored, and about the very nature of which I have never been able to come to any decided opinion. It is in vain that the undoubted specific gifts of great actors and actresses suggest that all gifts are given for rightful exercise, and not suppression; in vain that Shakespeare's plays urge their imperative claim to the most perfect illustration they can receive from histrionic interpretation: a business which is incessant excitement and factitious emotion seems to me unworthy of a man; a business which is public exhibition, unworthy of a woman.
At four different periods of my life I have been constrained by circumstances to maintain myself by the exercise of my dramatic faculty; latterly, it is true, in a less painful and distasteful manner, by reading, instead of acting. But though I have never, I trust, been ungrateful for the power of thus helping myself and others, or forgetful of the obligation I was under to do my appointed work conscientiously in every respect, or unmindful of the precious good regard of so many kind hearts that it has won for me; though I have never lost one iota of my own intense delight in the act of rendering Shakespeare's creations; yet neither have I ever presented myself before an audience without a shrinking feeling of reluctance, or withdrawn from their presence without thinking the excitement I had undergone unhealthy, and the personal exhibition odious.
Nevertheless, I sat me down to supper that night with my poor, rejoicing parents well content, God knows! with the issue of my trial; and still better pleased with a lovely little Geneva watch, the first I had ever possessed, all encrusted with gold work and jewels, which my father laid by my plate and I immediately christened Romeo, and went, a blissful girl, to sleep with it under my pillow.
BUCKINGHAM GATE, JAMES STREET, December 14th. DEAREST ——,
I received your letter this morning, before I was out of my room, and very glad I was to get it. You would have heard from me again ere this, had it not been that, in your present anxious state of mind respecting your brother, I did not like to demand your attention for my proceedings. My trial is over, and, thank heaven! most fortunately. Our most sanguine wishes could hardly have gone beyond the result, and at the same time that I hail my success as a source of great happiness to my dear father and mother, I almost venture to hope that the interest which has been excited in the public may tend to revive once more the decaying dramatic art. You say it is a very fascinating occupation; perhaps it is, though it does not appear to me so, and I think it carries with it drawbacks enough to operate as an antidote to the vanity and love of admiration which it can hardly fail to foster. The mere embodying of the exquisite ideals of poetry is a great enjoyment, but after that, or rather for that, comes in ours, as in all arts, the mechanical process, the labor, the refining, the controlling the very feeling one has, in order to manifest it in the best way to the perception of others; and when all, that intense feeling and careful work can accomplish, is done, an actor must often see those points of his performance which are most worthy of approbation overlooked, and others, perhaps crude in taste or less true in feeling, commended; which must tend much, I think, to sober the mind as to the value of applause. Above all, the constant consciousness of the immeasurable distance between a fine conception and the best execution of it, must in acting, as in all art, be a powerful check to vanity and self-satisfaction.
As to the mere excitement proceeding from the public applause of a theater, I am sure you will believe me when I say I do not think I shall ever experience it. But should I reckon too much upon my own steadiness, I have the incessant care and watchfulness of my dear mother to rely on, and I do rely on it as an invaluable safeguard, both to the purity and good taste of all that I may do on the stage, and the quiet and soberness of my mind under all this new excitement. She has borne all her anxieties wonderfully well, and I now hope she will reap some repayment for them. My dear father is very happy; indeed, we have all cause for heartfelt thankfulness when we think what a light has dawned upon our prospects, lately so dismal and overcast. My own motto in all this must be, as far as possible, "Beget a temperance in all things." I trust I shall be enabled to rule myself by it, and in the firm hope that my endeavor to do what is right will be favored and assisted, I have committed myself, nothing doubting, to the stormy sea of life. Dearest H——, the papers will give you a detailed account of my debut; I only wish to assure you that I have not embraced this course without due dread of its dangers, and a firm determination to watch, as far as in me lies, over its effect upon my mind. It is, after all, but lately, you know, that I have become convinced that fame and gratified ambition are not the worthiest aims for one's exertions. With affectionate love, believe me ever your fondly attached
I most sincerely hope that your brother's health is improving, and if we do not meet sooner, I shall now look forward to Dublin as our point de reunion; that will not be the least of the obligations I shall owe this happy turn of affairs.
I do not know whence I derived the deep impression I expressed in this letter of the moral dangers of the life upon which I was entering; certainly not from my parents, to whom, of course, the idea that actors and actresses could not be respectable people naturally did not occur, and who were not troubled, I am sure, as I then was, with a perception of the more subtle evils of their calling. I had never heard the nature of it discussed, and was absolutely without experience of it, but the vapid vacuity of the last years of my aunt Siddons's life had made a profound impression upon me,—her apparent deadness and indifference to everything, which I attributed (unjustly, perhaps) less to her advanced age and impaired powers than to what I supposed the withering and drying influence of the overstimulating atmosphere of emotion, excitement, and admiration in which she had passed her life; certain it is that such was my dread of the effect of my profession upon me, that I added an earnest petition to my daily prayers that I might be defended from the evil influence I feared it might exercise upon me.
As for my success, there was, I believe, a genuine element in it, for puffing can send upward only things that have a buoyant, rising quality in themselves; but there was also a great feeling of personal sympathy for my father and mother, of kindly indulgence for my youth, and of respectful recollection of my uncle and aunt; and a very general desire that the fine theater where they had exercised their powers should be rescued, if possible, from its difficulties. All this went to make up a result of which I had the credit.
Among my experiences of that nauseous ingredient in theatrical life, puffery, some have been amusing enough. The last time that I gave public readings in America, the management of them was undertaken by a worthy, respectable person, who was not, I think, exceptionally addicted to the devices and charlatanism which appear almost inseparable from the business of public exhibition in all its branches. At the end of our first interview for the purpose of arranging my performances, as he was taking his leave he said, "Well, ma'am, I think everything is quite in a nice train. I should say things are in a most favorable state of preparation; we've a delightful article coming out in the ——." Here he mentioned a popular periodical. "Ah, indeed?" said I, not quite apprehending what my friend was aiming at. "Yes, really, ma'am, I should say first-rate, and I thought perhaps we might induce you to be good enough to help us a little with it." "Bless me!" said I, more and more puzzled, "how can I help you?" "Well, ma'am, with a few personal anecdotes, perhaps, if you would be so kind." "Anecdotes?" said I (with three points of interrogation). "What do you mean? What about?" "Why, ma'am" (with a low bow), "about Mrs. Kemble, of course." Now, my worthy agent's remuneration was to consist of a certain proportion of the receipts of the readings, and, that being the case, I felt I had no right absolutely to forbid him all puffing advertisements and decently legitimate efforts to attract public attention and interest to performances by which he was to benefit. At the same time, I also felt it imperatively necessary that there should be some limit to these proceedings, if I was to be made a party to them. I therefore told him that, as his interest was involved in the success of the readings, I could not forbid his puffing them to some extent, as, if I did, he might consider himself injured. "But," said I, while refusing the contribution of any personal anecdotes to his forthcoming article, "take care what you do in that line, for if you overdo it in the least, I will write an article, myself, on my readings, showing up all their faults, and turning them into ridicule as I do not believe any one else either would or could. So puff just as quietly as you can." I rather think my agent left me with the same opinion of my competency in business that Mr. Macready had expressed as to my proficiency in my profession, namely, that "I did not know the rudiments of it."
Mr. Mitchell, who from the first took charge of all my readings in England, and was the very kindest, most considerate, and most courteous of all managers, on one occasion, complaining bitterly to my sister of the unreasonable objection I had to all laudatory advertisements of my readings, said to her, with a voice and countenance of the most rueful melancholy, and with the most appealing pathos, "Why, you know, ma'am, it's really dreadful; you know, Mrs. Kemble won't even allow us to say in the bills, these celebrated readings; and you know, ma'am, it's really impossible to do with less; indeed it is! Why, ma'am, you know even Morrison's pills are always advertised as these celebrated pills!"—an illustration of the hardships of his case which my sister repeated to me with infinite delight.
When I saw the shop-windows full of Lawrence's sketch of me, and knew myself the subject of almost daily newspaper notices; when plates and saucers were brought to me with small figures of me as Juliet and Belvidera on them; and finally, when gentlemen showed me lovely buff-colored neck-handkerchiefs which they had bought, and which had, as I thought, pretty lilac-colored flowers all over them, which proved on nearer inspection to be minute copies of Lawrence's head of me, I not unnaturally, in the fullness of my inexperience, believed in my own success.
I have since known more of the manufacture of public enthusiasm and public triumphs, and, remembering to how many people it was a matter of vital importance that the public interest should be kept alive in me, and Covent Garden filled every night I played, I have become more skeptical upon the subject.
Seeing lately a copy of my play of "Francis the First," with (to my infinite astonishment) "tenth edition" upon it, I said to a friend, "I suppose this was a bit of bookseller's puffery; or did each edition consist of three copies?" He replied, "Oh, no, I think not; you have forgotten the furor there was about you when this came out." At twenty I believed it all; at sixty-eight I find it difficult to believe any of it.
It is certain, however, that I played Juliet upward of a hundred and twenty times running, with all the irregularity and unevenness and immature inequality of which I have spoken as characteristics which were never corrected in my performances. My mother, who never missed one of them, would sometimes come down from her box and, folding me in her arms, say only the very satisfactory words, "Beautiful, my dear!" Quite as often, if not oftener, the verdict was, "My dear, your performance was not fit to be seen! I don't know how you ever contrived to do the part decently; it must have been by some knack or trick which you appear to have entirely lost the secret of; you had better give the whole thing up at once than go on doing it so disgracefully ill." This was awful, and made my heart sink down into my shoes, whatever might have been the fervor of applause with which the audience had greeted my performance.
My life now became settled in its new shape. I acted regularly three times a week; I had no rehearsals, since "Romeo and Juliet" went on during the whole season, and so my mornings were still my own. I always dined in the middle of the day (and invariably on a mutton-chop, so that I might have been a Harrow boy, for diet); I was taken by my aunt early to the theater, and there in my dressing-room sat through the entire play, when I was not on the stage, with some piece of tapestry or needlework, with which, during the intervals of my tragic sorrows, I busied my fingers; my thoughts being occupied with the events of my next scene and the various effects it demanded. When I was called for the stage, my aunt came with me, carrying my train, that it might not sweep the dirty floor behind the scenes; and after spreading it out and adjusting its folds carefully, as I went on, she remained at the side scene till I came off again, then gathered it on her arm, and, folding a shawl around me, escorted me back to my dressing-room and tapestry; and so my theatrical evenings were passed. My parents would not allow me to go into the green-room, where they thought my attention would be distracted from my business, and where I might occasionally meet with undesirable associates. My salary was fixed at thirty guineas a week, and the Saturday after I came out I presented myself for the first and last time at the treasury of the theater to receive it, and carried it, clinking, with great triumph, to my mother, the first money I ever earned.
It would be difficult to imagine anything more radical than the change which three weeks had made in the aspect of my whole life. From an insignificant school-girl, I had suddenly become an object of general public interest. I was a little lion in society, and the town talk of the day. Approbation, admiration, adulation, were showered upon me; every condition of my life had been altered, as by the wand of a fairy. Instead of the twenty pounds a year which my poor father squeezed out of his hard-earned income for my allowance, out of which I bought (alas, with how much difficulty, seeing how many other things I would buy!) my gloves and shoes, I now had an assured income, as long as my health and faculties were unimpaired, of at least a thousand a year; and the thirty guineas a week at Covent Garden, and much larger remuneration during provincial tours, forever forbade the sense of destitution productive of the ecstasy with which, only a short time before I came out, I had found wedged into the bottom of my money drawer in my desk a sovereign that I had overlooked, and so had sorrowfully concluded myself penniless till next allowance day. Instead of trudging long distances afoot through the muddy London streets, when the hire of a hackney-coach was matter of serious consideration, I had a comfortable and elegant carriage; I was allowed, at my own earnest request, to take riding lessons, and before long had a charming horse of my own, and was able to afford the delight of giving my father one, the use of which I hoped would help to invigorate and refresh him. The faded, threadbare, turned, and dyed frocks which were my habitual wear were exchanged for fashionably made dresses of fresh colors and fine texture, in which I appeared to myself transfigured. Our door was besieged with visitors, our evenings bespoken by innumerable invitations; social civilities and courtesies poured in upon us from every side in an incessant stream; I was sought and petted and caressed by persons of conventional and real distinction, and every night that I did not act I might, if my parents had thought it prudent to let me do so, have passed in all the gayety of the fashionable world and the great London season. So much cordiality, sympathy, interest, and apparent genuine good-will seemed to accompany all these flattering demonstrations, that it was impossible for me not to be touched and gratified,—perhaps, too, unduly elated. If I was spoiled and my head turned, I can only say I think it would have needed a strong head not to be so; but God knows how pitiful a preparation all this tinsel, sudden success, and popularity formed for the duties and trials of my after-life.
Among the persons whom I used to see behind the scenes were two who, for different reasons, attracted my attention: one was the Earl of W——, and the other the Rev. A.F. C——. I was presented to Lord and Lady W—— in society, and visited them more than once at their place near Manchester. But before I had made Lord W——'s acquaintance, he was an object of wondering admiration to me, not altogether unmixed with a slight sense of the ridiculous, only because it passed my comprehension how any real, live man could be so exactly like the description of a particular kind of man, in a particular kind of book. There was no fault to find with the elegance of his appearance and his remarkable good looks; he certainly was the beau ideal of a dandy,—with his slender, perfectly dressed figure, his pale complexion, regular features, fine eyes, and dark, glossy waves of hair, and the general aristocratic distinction of his whole person,—and was so like the Earl of So-and-So, in the fashionable novel of the day, that I always longed to ask him what he did at the end of the "third volume," and "whether he or Sir Reginald married Lady Geraldine." But why this exquisite par excellence should always have struck me as slightly absurd, I cannot imagine. The Rev. A.F. C—— was the natural son of William IV. and Mrs. Jordan, and vicar of Maple Durham; when first I came out, this young gentleman attended every one of my performances, first in one of the stage boxes and afterward in a still nearer position to the stage, one of the orchestra reserved seats. Thence, one night, he disappeared, and, to my surprise, I saw him standing at one of the side scenes during the whole play. My mother remarking at supper his non-attendance in his usual place, my father said that he had come to him at the beginning of the play, and asked, for his mother's sake, to be allowed occasionally to present himself behind the scenes. My father said this reference to Mrs. Jordan had induced him to grant the request so put, though he did not think the back of the scenes a very proper haunt for a gentleman of his cloth. There, however, Mr. F. C—— came, and evening after evening I saw his light kid gloves waving and gesticulating about, following in a sort of sympathetic dumb show the gradual development of my distress, to the end of the play. My father, at his request, presented him to me, but as I never remained behind the scenes or went into the green-room, and as he could not very well follow me upon the stage, our intercourse was limited to silent bows and courtesies, as I went on and off, to my palace in Verona, or from Friar Laurence's cell. Mr. F. C—— appeared to me to have slightly mistaken his vocation: that others had done so for him was made more manifest to me by my subsequent acquaintance with him. I encountered him one evening at a very gay ball given by the Countess de S——. Almost as soon as I came into the room he rushed at me, exclaiming, "Oh, do come and dance with me, that's a dear good girl." The "dear good girl" had not the slightest objection to dancing with anybody, dancing being then my predominant passion, and a chair a perfectly satisfactory partner if none other could be come by. While dancing, I was unpleasantly struck with the decidedly unreverend tone of my partner's remarks. Clergymen danced in those days without reproach, but I hope that even in those days of dancing clerks they did not often talk so very much to match the tripping of the light fantastic toe. My amazement reached its climax when, seeing me exchange signs of amicable familiarity with some one across the room, Mr. F. C—— said, "Who are you nodding and smiling to? Oh, your father. You are very fond of him, ain't you?" To my enthusiastic reply in the affirmative, he said, "Ah, yes; just so. I dare say you are." And then followed an expression of his filial disrespect for the highest personage in the realm, of such a robust significance as fairly took away my breath. Surprised into a momentary doubt of my partner's sobriety, I could only say, "Mr. F. C——, if you do not change your style of conversation I must sit down and leave you to finish the dance alone." He confounded himself in repeated apologies and entreaties that I would finish the dance with him, and as I could not find a word to say to him, he went on eagerly to excuse himself by a short sketch of his life, telling me that he had not been bred to the Church and had the greatest disinclination to taking orders; that he had been trained as a sailor, the navy being the career that he preferred above all others, but that in consequence of the death of a brother he had been literally taken from on board ship, and, in spite of the utmost reluctance on his part, compelled to go into the Church. "Don't you think it's a hard case?" reiterated he, as I still found it difficult to express my opinion either of him or of his "case," both appearing to me equally deplorable. At length I suggested that, since he had adopted the sacred calling he professed, perhaps it would be better if he conformed to it at least by outward decency of language and decorum of demeanor. To this he assented, adding with a sigh, "But, you see, some people have a natural turn for religion; you have, for instance, I'm sure; but you see I have not." This appeared to me incontrovertible. Presently, after a pause, he asked me if I would write a sermon for him, which tribute to my talent for preaching, of which he had just undergone a sample, sent me into fits of laughter, though I replied with some indignation, "Certainly not; I am not a proper person to write sermons, and you ought to write your own!" "Yes," said he, with rather touching humility, "but you see I can't,—not good ones, at least. I'm sure you could, and I wish you would write one for me; Mrs. N—— has." This statement terminated the singular conversation, which had been the accompaniment to a quadrille. The vicar of Maple Durham is dead; had he lived he would doubtless have become a bishop; his family had already furnished its contingent to the army and navy, in Lord E. and Lord A.F. C——, and the living of Maple Durham had to be filled and he to be provided for; and whenever the virtues of the Established Church system are under discussion, I try to forget this, and one or two similar instances I have known of its vices as it existed in those days. But that was near "fifty years since," and such a story as that of my poor sailor-parson friend could hardly be told now. Nor could one often now in any part of England find the fellow of my friend H. D——, who was also the predestined incumbent of a family living. He was passionately fond of hunting; and, clinging to his beloved "pink" even after holy orders had made it rather indecorous wear, used to huddle on his sacred garments of office at week-day solemnities of marrying or burying, and, having accomplished his clerical duties, rapidly divest himself of his holy robes, and bloom forth in unmitigated scarlet and buckskins, while the temporary cloud of sanctity which had obscured them was rapidly rolled into the vestry closet.
I confess to having heard with sincere sympathy the story of a certain excellent clergyman of Yorkshire breeding, who, finding it impossible to relinquish his hunting, carried it on simultaneously with the most exact and faithful discharge of his clerical duties until, arriving at length at the high dignity of the archbishopric of York, though neither less able for, nor less devoted to, his favorite pursuit, thought it expedient to abandon it and ride to hounds no more. He still rode, however, harder, farther, faster, and better than most men, but conscientiously avoided the hunting-field. Coming accidentally, one day, upon the hounds when they had lost the scent, and trotting briskly away, after a friendly acknowledgment of the huntsman's salutation, he presently caught sight of the fox, when, right reverend prelate as he was, he gave a "view halloo" to be heard half the county over, and fled in the opposite direction at a full gallop, while the huntsman, in an ecstasy, cheered on his pack with an exclamation of "That's gospel truth, if ever I heard it!"
A.F. C—— was pleasant-looking, though not handsome, like the royal family of England, whose very noble port de tete he had, with a charming voice that, my father said, came to him from his mother.
I have spoken of my being allowed to take riding lessons, and of purchasing a horse, which was not only an immense pleasure to me, but, I believe, a very necessary means of health and renovation, in the life of intense and incessant excitement which I was leading.
For some time after my first coming out I lost my sleep almost entirely, and used to lie wide awake the greater part of the night. With more use of my new profession this nervous wakefulness wore off; but I was subject to very frequent and severe pains in the side, which any strong emotion almost invariably brought on, and which were relieved by nothing but exercise on horseback. The refreshment of this panacea for bodily and mental ailments was always such to me, that often, returning from balls where I had danced till daylight, I used to feel that if I could have an hour's gallop in the fresh morning air, I should be revived beyond all sleep that I could then get.
Once only I was allowed to test my theory, and I found that the result answered my expectations entirely. I had been acting in Boston every night for a whole week, and on Saturday night had acted in two pieces, and was to start at one o'clock in the morning for New York, between which and Boston there was no railroad in those days. I was not feeling well, and was much exhausted by my hard work, but I was sure that if I could only begin my journey on horseback instead of in the lumbering, rolling, rocking, heavy, straw-and-leather-smelling "Exclusive Extra" (that is, private stage-coach), I should get over my fatigue and the rest of the journey with some chance of not being completely knocked up by it. After much persuasion my father consented, and after the two pieces of our farewell night, to a crowded, enthusiastic house, all the excitement of which of course told upon me even more than the actual exertion of acting, I had some supper, and at one o'clock, with our friend, Major M——, and ——, got on horseback, and rode out of Boston. Major M—— rode with us only about three miles, and then turned back, leaving us to pursue our road to Dedham, seven miles farther, where the carriage, with my father and aunt, was to meet us.
The thermometer stood at seventeen degrees below zero; it was the middle of a Massachusetts winter, and the cold intense. The moon was at the full, and the night as bright as day; not a stone but was visible on the iron-hard road, that rang under our horses' hoofs. The whole country was sheeted with snow, over which the moon threw great floods of yellow light, while here and there a broken ridge in the smooth, white expanse turned a sparkling, crystalline edge up to the lovely splendor. It was wonderfully beautiful and exhilarating, though so cold that my vail was all frozen over my lips, and we literally hardly dared utter a word for fear of swallowing scissors and knives in the piercing air, which, however, was perfectly still and without the slightest breath of wind. So we rode hard and fast and silently, side by side, through the bright, profound stillness of the night, and never drew rein till we reached Dedham, where the carriage with my father and aunt had not yet arrived. Not a soul was stirring, and not a sound was heard, in the little New England village; the country tavern was fast shut up; not a light twinkled from any window, or thread of smoke rose from any chimney; every house had closed its eyes and ears, and gone to sleep. We had ridden the whole way as fast as we could, and had kept our blood warm by the violent exercise, but there was every danger, if we sat many minutes on our saddles in the piercing cold, that we should be all the worse instead of the better for that circumstance. Mr. —— rode along the houses, looking for some possible shelter, and at last, through the chink of a shutter, spying a feeble glimmer of light, dismounted, and, knocking, asked if it were possible for me to be admitted there for a few minutes, till the carriage, which could not be far distant, came up. He was answered in the affirmative, and I jumped down from my saddle, and ran into the friendly refuge, while he paced rapidly to and fro before the house, leading the horses, to keep himself and them alike from freezing; a man was to come on the coach-box with the driver, to take them back to Boston. On looking round I found myself in a miserable little low room, heated almost to suffocation by an iron stove, and stifling with the peculiar smell of black dye-stuffs. Here, by the light of two wretched bits of candle, two women were working with the utmost dispatch at mourning-garments for a funeral which was to take place that day, in a few hours. They did not speak to me after making room for me near the stove, and the only words they exchanged with each other were laconic demands for scissors, thread, etc.; and so they rapidly plied their needles in silence, while I, suddenly transported from the cold brightness without into this funereal, sweltering atmosphere of what looked like a Black Hole made of crape and bombazine, watched the lugubrious occupation of the women as if I was in a dream, till the distant rumbling of wheels growing more and more distinct, I took leave of my temporary hostesses with many thanks (they were poor New England workwomen, by whom no other species of acknowledgment would have been received), and was presently fast asleep in the corner of the carriage, and awoke only long after to feel rested and refreshed, and well able to endure the fatigue of the rest of the journey. In spite of this fortunate result, I do not now, after a lapse of forty years, think the experiment one that would have answered with many young women's constitutions, though there is no sort of doubt that the nervous energy generated by any pleasurable emotion is in itself a great preservative from unfavorable influences.
My riding-master was the best and most popular teacher in London—Captain Fozzard—or, as he was irreverently called among his young Amazons, "Old Fozzard." When my mother took me to the riding school, he recalled, with many compliments, her own proficiency as an equestrian, and said he would do his best to make me as fine a horsewoman as she had been. He certainly did his best to improve a very good seat, and a heavy, defective hand with which nature had endowed me; the latter, however, was incorrigible, and so, though I was always a fearless horsewoman, and very steady in my saddle, I never possessed the finer and more exquisite part of the accomplishment of riding, which consists in the delicate and skillful management of a horse's mouth. Fozzard's method was so good that all the best lady riders in London were his pupils, and one could tell one of them at a glance, by the perfect squareness of the shoulders to the horse's head, which was one invariable result of his teaching. His training was eminently calculated to produce that result, and to make us all but immovable in our saddles. Without stirrup, without holding the reins, with our arms behind us, and as often as not sitting left-sided on the saddle, to go through violent plunging, rearing, and kicking lessons, and taking our horses over the bar, was a considerable test of a firm seat, and in all these special feats I became a proficient.
One day, when I had gone to the school more for exercise than a lesson, and was taking a solitary canter in the tan for my own amusement, the little door under the gallery opened, and Fozzard appeared, introducing a middle-aged lady and a young girl, who remained standing there while he advanced toward me, and presently began to put me through all my most crucial exercises, apparently for their edification. I was always delighted to go through these particular feats, which amused me excessively, and in which I took great pride. So I sat through them all, till, upon a sign from the elder lady, Fozzard, with extreme deference, opened the door and escorted them forth, and then returning to dismount me, informed me that I had given a very satisfactory sample of his teaching to the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria, the latter of whom was to be placed under his tuition forthwith.
This was the first time I ever saw the woman who holds the most exalted position in the world, the Queen of England, who has so filled that supreme station that her name is respected wherever it is heard abroad, and that she is regarded by her own people with a loyal love such as no earthly dignity but that of personal worthiness can command.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE. DEAREST H——,
The kind exertion you made in writing to me so soon after leaving London deserved an earlier acknowledgment; but when I tell you that every day since Christmas I have fully purposed writing to you, and have not been able to do so before to-day, I hope you will excuse the delay, and believe me when I assure you that not only the effort you made in going to the theater, but your seeing me at all, are appreciated by me as very strong marks of your affection for me.
Now let me say something to you about Lady C—— L——'s criticism of my performance. In the first place, nothing is easier than to criticise by comparison, and hardly anything much more difficult than to form a correct judgment of any work of art (be it what it may) upon the foundation of abstract principles and fundamental rules of taste and criticism; for this sort of analysis is really a study. Comparison is the criticism of the multitude, and I almost wonder at its being resorted to by a woman of such ability as Lady C——. I only say this by the way, for to be compared with either Mrs. Siddons or Miss O'Neill is above my expectation. They were both professional actresses, which I can hardly yet claim to be; women who had for years studied the mechanical part of their art, and rendered themselves proficients in their business; while although I have certainly had many advantages, in hearing the stage and acting constantly, tastefully, and thoughtfully discussed, I am totally inexperienced in all the minor technical processes, most necessary for the due execution of any dramatic conception. As to my aunt Siddons—look at her, H——; look at her fine person, her beautiful face; listen to her magnificent voice; and supposing that I were as highly endowed with poetical dramatic imagination as she was (which I certainly am not), is it likely that there can ever be a shadow of comparison between her and myself, even when years may have corrected all that is at present crude and imperfect in my efforts?
This is my sole reply to her ladyship. To you, dearest H——, I can add that I came upon the stage quite uncertain as to the possession of any talent for it whatever; I do not think I am now deceived as to the quantity I can really lay claim to, by the exaggerated praises of the public, who have been too long deprived of any female object of special interest on the boards to be very nice about the first that is presented to them; nor am I unconscious of the amount of work that will be requisite to turn my abilities to their best use. Wait; have patience; by and by, I hope, I shall do better. It is very true that to be the greatest actress of my day is not the aim on which my happiness depends. But having embraced this career, I think I ought not to rest satisfied with any degree of excellence short of what my utmost endeavor will enable me to attain in it....
My print, or rather the print of me, from Sir Thomas Lawrence's drawing, is out. He has promised you one, so I do not. There are also coming out a series of sketches by Mr. Hayter, from my Juliet, with a species of avant propos written by Mrs. Jameson; this will interest you, and I will send you a copy of it when it is published.
I will tell you a circumstance of much anxious hope to us all just now, but as the result is yet uncertain, do not mention it. We have a species of offer of a living for my brother John, who, you know, is going into the Church. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and I most sincerely hope we may not be disappointed. He is still in Germany, very happy and very metaphysical; should we obtain this living, however, I suppose he would return immediately. Independently of my wish to see him again, I shall be glad when he leaves Germany I think; but I have not time for what I think about Germany to-day, and you must be rather tired of
Yours most affectionately, F. A. K.
Mr. Hayter's graceful sketches of me in Juliet were lithographed and published with Mrs. Jameson's beautifully written but too flattering notice of my performance; the original drawings were purchased by Lord Ellesmere. The second part assigned to me by the theater authorities was Belvidera, in Otway's "Venice Preserved." I had never read the play until I learned my part, nor seen it until I acted it. It is, I believe, one of the longest female parts on the stage. But I had still my school-girl capacity for committing quickly to memory, and learned it in three hours. Acting it was a very different matter. I was no longer sustained by the genius of Shakespeare, no longer stimulated by the sublime passion and exquisite poetry. Juliet was a reality to me, a living individual woman, whose nature I could receive, as it were, into mine at once, without effort, comprehending and expressing it. Belvidera seemed to me a sort of lay figure in a tragic attitude, a mere, "female in general," without any peculiar or specific characteristics whatever; placed as Belvidera is in the midst of sordidly painful and coarsely agonizing circumstances, there was nothing in the part itself that affected my feelings or excited my imagination; and the miserable situations into which the poor creature was thrown throughout the piece revolted me, and filled me with disgust for the men she had to do with, without inspiring me with any sympathy for her. In this piece, too, I came at once into the unfavorable light of full comparison with my aunt's performance of the part, which was one of her famous ones. A friend of hers and mine, my dear and excellent William Harness, said that seeing me was exactly like looking at Mrs. Siddons through the diminishing end of an opera glass. My personal likeness to her, in spite of my diminutive size and irregular features, was striking, and of course suggested, to those who remembered her, associations which were fatal to my satisfactory performance of the part. I disliked the play and the character of Belvidera, and I am sure I must have played it very indifferently.
I remember one circumstance connected with my first performance of it which proved how painfully the unredeemed horror and wretchedness of the piece acted upon my nerves and imagination. In the last scene, where poor Belvidera's brain gives way under her despair, and she fancies herself digging for her husband in the earth, and that she at last recovers and seizes him, I intended to utter a piercing scream; this I had not of course rehearsed, not being able to scream deliberately in cold blood, so that I hardly knew, myself, what manner of utterance I should find for my madness. But when the evening came, I uttered shriek after shriek without stopping, and rushing off the stage ran all round the back of the scenes, and was pursuing my way, perfectly unconscious of what I was doing, down the stairs that led out into the street, when I was captured and brought back to my dressing-room and my senses.
The next piece in which I appeared was Murphy's "Grecian Daughter;" a feeble and inflated composition, as inferior in point of dramatic and poetical merit to Otway's "Venice Preserved," as that is to any of Shakespeare's masterpieces. It has situations of considerable effect, however, and the sort of parental and conjugal interest that infallibly strikes sympathetic chords in the pater familias bosom of an English audience. The choice of the piece had in it, in my opinion, an ingredient of bad taste, which, objectionable as it seemed to me, had undoubtedly entered into the calculation of the management, as likely to increase the effect and success of the play; I mean the constant reference to Euphrasia's filial devotion, and her heroic and pious efforts in behalf of her old father—incidents in the piece which were seized upon and applied to my father and myself by the public, and which may have perhaps added to the feeling of the audience, as they certainly increased my dislike for the play. Here, too, I again encountered the formidable impression which Mrs. Siddons had produced in the part, of which, in spite of the turbid coldness and stilted emphasis of the style, she had made a perfect embodiment of heroic grandeur and classical grace. My Euphrasia was, I am sure, a pitiful picture of an antique heroine, in spite of Macdonald's enthusiasm for the "attitude" in the last scene, and my cousin Horace Twiss's comical verdict of approbation, that it was all good, but especially the scene where "you tip it the tyrant."
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, January 17, 1830. DEAREST H——,
Although my mind is much occupied just now with a new part in which I appear to-morrow, I take advantage of the bodily rest this day affords me to write you a few lines, which I fear I might not find time for again as soon as I wish. There was enough in your last letter, dear H——, to make me melancholy, independently of the question which you ask respecting my picture in Juliet, and which the papers have by this time probably answered to you.
Sir Thomas Lawrence is dead. The event has been most distressing, and most sudden and unexpected to us. It really seemed as though we had seen him but the day before we heard of it; and indeed, it was but a few days since my mother had called on him, and since he had written to me a long letter on the subject of my Belvidera, full of refined taste and acute criticism, as all his letters to me were. It was a great shock; indeed, so much so, that absolute amazement for a little time prevented my feeing all the regret I have since experienced about it. Nor was it till I sat down to write to Cecilia, to request her to prevent any sudden communication of the event to my aunt Siddons, that I felt it was really true, and found some relief in crying. I had to act Belvidera that same night, and it was with a very heavy heart that I repeated those passages in which poor Sir Thomas Lawrence had pointed out alterations and suggested improvements. He is a great loss to me, individually. His criticism was invaluable to me. He was a most attentive observer; no shade of feeling or slightest variation of action or inflection of voice escaped him; his suggestions were always improvements, conveyed with the most lucid clearness; and, as you will easily believe, his strictures were always sufficiently tempered with refined flattery to have disarmed the most sensitive self-love. My Juliet and Belvidera both owe much to him, and in this point of view alone his loss is irreparable to me. It is some matter of regret, too, as you may suppose, that we can have no picture of me by him, but this is a more selfish and less important motive of sorrow than my loss of his advice in my profession. I understand that my aunt Siddons was dreadfully shocked by the news, and cried, "And have I lived to see him go before me!" ... His promise to send you a print from his drawing of me, dearest H——, he cannot perform, but I will be his executor in this instance, and if you will tell me how it can be conveyed to you, I will send you one.
This letter, my dearest H——, which was begun on Sunday, I now sit down to finish on Tuesday evening, and cannot do better, I think, than give you a full account of our last night's success; for a very complete success it was, I am happy to say. Murphy's play of "The Grecian Daughter" I suppose you know; or if you do not, your state is the more gracious, for certainly anything more flat, poor, and trashy I cannot well conceive. It had been, you know, a great part of my aunt Siddons's, and nothing better proves her great dramatic genius than her having clothed so meager a part in such magnificent proportions as she gave to it, and filled out by her own poetical conception the bare skeleton Mr. Murphy's Euphrasia presented to her. This frightened me a great deal; Juliet and Belvidera scarcely anybody can do ill, but Euphrasia I thought few people could do well, and I feared I was not one of them. Moreover, the language is at once so poor and so bombastic that I took double the time in getting the part by rote I should have taken for any part of Shakespeare's. My dress was beautiful; I think I will tell it you. You know you told me even an account of hat and feathers would interest you. My skirt was made immensely full and with a long train; it was of white merino, almost as fine as cashmere, with a rich gold Grecian border. The drapery which covered my shoulders (if you wish to look for the sort of costume in engravings, I give you its classical name, peplum) was made of the same material beautifully embroidered, leaving my arms quite free and uncovered. I had on flesh-colored silk gloves, of course. A bright scarlet sash with heavy gilt acorns, falling to my feet, scarlet sandals to match, and a beautiful Grecian head-dress in gold, devised by my mother, completed the whole, which really had a very classical effect, the fine material of which my dress was formed falling with every movement into soft, graceful folds.
I managed to keep a good heart until I heard the flourish of drums and trumpets, in the midst of which I had to rush on the stage, and certainly when I did come on my appearance must have been curiously in contrast with the "prave 'ords" I uttered, for I felt like nothing but a hunted hare, with my eyes starting from my head, my "nostrils all wide," and my limbs trembling to such a degree that I could scarcely stand. The audience received me very kindly, however, and after a little while I recovered my breath and self-possession, and got on very comfortably, considering that, what with nervousness and the short time they had had to study them in, none of the actors were perfect in their parts. My father acted Evander, which added, no doubt, to the interest of the situation. The play went off admirably, and I dare say it will be of some service to me, but I fear it is too dull and poor in itself, despite all that can be done for it, to be of much use to the theater. One of my great difficulties in the play was to produce some striking effect after stabbing Dionysius, which was a point in which my aunt always achieved a great triumph. She used to fall on her knees as if deprecating the wrath of heaven for what she had done, and her mode of performing this was described to me. But, independently of my anxiety to avoid any imitation that might induce a comparison that could not but be fatally to my disadvantage, I did not (to you I may venture to confess it) feel the situation in the same manner. Euphrasia had just preserved her father's life by a deed which, in her own estimation and that of her whole nation, entitled her to an immortal dwelling in the Elysian fields. The only feeling, therefore, that I can conceive as checking for a moment her exultation would be the natural womanly horror at the sight of blood and physical suffering, the expression of which seems to me not only natural to her, as of the "feminine gender," but not altogether superfluous to reconcile an English audience to so unfeminine a proceeding as stabbing a man. To conciliate all this I adopted the course of immediately dropping the arm that held the dagger, and with the other veiling my eyes with the drapery of my dress, which answered better my own idea of the situation, and seemed to produce a great effect. My dearest H——, this is a long detail, but I think it will interest you and perhaps amuse your niece; if, however, it wearies your spirits, tell me so, and another time I will not confine my communications so much to my own little-corner of life.
Cecilia dined with us on Sunday, but was very far from well. I have not seen my aunt Siddons since Sir Thomas Lawrence's death. I almost dread doing so: she must have felt so much on hearing it; he was for many years so mixed up with those dearest to her, and his memory must always recall theirs. I hear Campbell means to write his life. His letters to me will perhaps be published in it. Had I known they were likely to be so used, I would have preserved them all. As it is, it is the merest chance that all of them are not destroyed; for, admirable as they were in point of taste and critical judgment, some of them seemed to me such mere specimens of refined flattery that, having extracted the advice likely to be profitable to me, I committed the epistles themselves to the flames, which probably would have been the ultimate destination of them all; but now they have acquired a sad value they had not before, and I shall keep them as relics of a man of great genius and, in many respects, I believe, a truly amiable person.
The drawing, which is, you know, my mother's property, is safe in Mr. Lane's hands, and will be restored to us on Saturday. The funeral takes place to-morrow; my father, I believe, will attend; neither my mother nor myself can muster courage to witness it, although we had places offered to us. It is to take place in St. Paul's, for Westminster Abbey is full. All the beautiful unfinished portraits which filled his rooms will be returned imperfect to their owners, and I wonder who will venture to complete them, for he has certainly not left his like behind him. Reports have been widely spread that his circumstances were much embarrassed, but I fancy when all his effects are sold there will be a small surplus. He behaved with the utmost liberality about his drawing of me, for he gave it to my mother, and would not accept of any remuneration for the copyright of the print from Mr. Lane—who, it is said, made three hundred pounds by the first impressions taken from it—saying that he had had so much pleasure in the work that he would not take a farthing for either time or trouble.
We are all tolerably well; I am quite so, and rejoice daily in that strength of constitution which, among other of my qualifications, entitles me to the appellation of "Shetland pony."
How are you all? How is E——? Tell her all about me, because it may amuse her. I wish you could have seen me, dear H——, in my Greek dress; I really look very well in it, and taller than usual, in consequence of all the long draperies; moreover, I "stood grandly" erect, and put off the "sidelong stoop" in favor of a more heroic and statue-like deportment. Oh, H——, I am exceedingly happy, et pour peu de chose, perhaps you will think: my father has given me leave to have riding lessons, so that I shall be in right earnest "an angel on horseback," and when I come to Ardgillan (and it won't be long first) I shall make you mount upon a horse and gallop over the sand with me; won't you, my dear? Believe me ever your affectionate
The words in inverted commas at the end of this letter had reference to some strictures Miss S—— had made upon my carriage, and to a family joke against me in consequence of my having once said, in speaking of my desire to ride, that I should not care to be an angel in heaven unless I could be an "angel on horseback." My invariable description of a woman riding was "a happy woman," and after much experience of unhappiness, certainly not dissipated by equestrian exercise, I still agree with Wordsworth that "the horse and rider are a happy pair." After acting the Grecian Daughter for some time I altered my attitude in the last scene, after the murder of Dionysius, more to my own satisfaction: instead of dropping the arm that held the dagger by my side, I raised the weapon to heaven, as if appealing to the gods for justification and tendering them, as it were, the homage of my deed; of course I still continued to vail my eyes and turn my head away from the sight of my victim.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, Saturday, February 20th. DEAREST H——,
I need hardly apologize to you for my long silence, for I am sure that you will have understood it to have proceeded from no want of inclination on my part to answer your last, but from really not having had half an hour at my command in which to do so. I have thought, too (although that has not prevented my writing), much upon the tenor of your letter, and the evident depression it was written in, and I hardly know how to resolve: whether I ought not to forbear wearying you with matters which every way are discordant with your own thoughts and feelings, or whether it is better, by inducing you to answer me, to give you some motive, however trifling, for exertion. Dearest H——, if the effort of writing to me is too painful to you, do not do it. I give you a most disinterested counsel, for I have told you more than once how much I prize your letters, and you know it is true. Still, I do not think my "wish is father to my thought" when I say that I think it is not good for you to lose entirely even such an interest as I am to you. I say "even such an interest," because I believe your trouble must have rendered me and my pursuits, for the present at least, less likely than they have been to occupy a place in your thoughts. But 'tis for you to decide; if my letters weary or annoy you, tell me so, dear H——, and I will not write to you until you can "follow my paces" better. If you do not like to make the exertion of answering me, I will still continue to let you know my proceedings, and take it for granted that you will not cease to love me and think of me. Dear H——, I shall see you this summer again; you, and yours, whom I love for your sake. I shall go on with this letter, because if you are inclined for a gossip you can read it; and if not, it may perhaps amuse your invalid. I have been uncommonly gay, for me, this winter, and I dare say shall continue to be so, as it does not disagree with me, and I am so fond of dancing that a quadrille renders palatable what otherwise would be, I think, disagreeable enough—the manner in which society is now organized. I was at a very large party the other night, at the poet Campbell's, where every material for a delightful evening—good rooms, pretty women, clever men—was brought into requisition to make what, after all, appeared to me nothing but a wearisome, hot crowd. The apartments were overfilled: to converse with anybody for five minutes was impossible. If one stood up one was squeezed to death, and if one sat down one was stifled. I, too (who was the small lioness of the evening), was subjected to a most disagreeable ordeal, the whole night being stared at from head to foot by every one that could pass within staring distance of me. You probably will wonder at this circumstance distressing a young person who three times a week exhibits herself on the stage to several hundred people, but there I do not distinguish the individual eyes that are fixed on me, and my mind is diverted from the annoyances of my real situation by the distressful circumstances of my feigned one. Moreover, to add to my sorrows, at the beginning of the evening a lady spilled some coffee over a beautiful dress which I was wearing for the first time. Now I will tell you what consolations I had to support me under these trials; first, the self-approving consciousness of the smiling fortitude with which I bore my gown's disaster; secondly, a lovely nosegay, which was presented to me; and lastly, at about twelve o'clock, when the rooms were a little thinned, a dance for an hour which sent me home perfectly satisfied with my fate. By the bye, I asked Campbell if he knew any method to preserve my flowers from fading, to which he replied, "Give them to me, and I will immortalize them." I did so, and am expecting some verses from him in return.
On Thursday next I come out in Mrs. Beverley; I am much afraid of it. The play wants the indispensable attribute of all works of art—imagination; it is a most touching story, and Mrs. Beverley is a most admirable creature, but the story is such as might be read in a newspaper, and her character has its like in many an English home. I think the author should have idealized both his incidents and his heroine a little, to produce a really fine play. Mrs. Beverley is not one shade inferior to Imogen in purity, in conjugal devotion, and in truth, but while the one is to all intents and purposes a model wife, a poet's touch has made of the other a divine image of all that is lovely and excellent in woman; and yet, certainly, Imogen is quite as real a conception as Mrs. Beverley. The absence of the poetical element in the play prevents my being enthusiastic about my part, and I am the more nervous about it for that reason; when I am excited I feel that I can excite others, but in this case—However, we shall see; I may succeed with it better than I expect, and perhaps my audience may like to see me as a quiet, sober lady, after the Belvideras and Juliets and Euphrasias they have hitherto seen me represent. I will tell you my dress: it is a silver gray silk, and a white crape hat with drooping feathers. I think it will be very pretty. My father acts Beverley with me, which will be a great advantage to me.
Oh! I must tell you of a delightful adventure which befell me the other night while I was acting in "The Grecian Daughter." Mr. Abbot, who personates my husband, Phocion, at a certain part of the play where we have to embrace, thought fit to clasp me so energetically in his arms that he threw me down, and fell down himself. I fell seated, with all my draperies in most modest order, which was very fortunate, but certainly I never was more frightened or confused. However, I soon recovered my presence of mind, and helped my better half on with his part, for he was quite aghast, poor man, at his own exploit, and I do believe would have been standing with his eyes and mouth wide open to this moment, if I had not managed to proceed with the scene somehow and anyhow.
I gave the commission for your print of me, dear H——, to Colnaghi, and I hope you will like it, and that the more you look at it the stronger the likeness will appear to you. Was my brother John returned from Germany, when last I wrote to you? I forget. However, he has just left us to take his degree at Cambridge, previous to being ordained. Henry, too, returned yesterday to Paris, so that the house is in mourning for its liveliest inmates. I continue quite well, and indeed I think my work agrees with me; or if I am a little tired with acting, why, a night's dancing soon sets me right again. T—— B—— is in town, and came to see me the other day. I like her; she is a gentle, nice person; she is going back in a week to Cassiobury. How I wish you and I had wings, and that Heath Farm belonged to us! It is coming to the time of year when we first became acquainted; and, besides all its associations of kindly feeling and affectionate friendship, your image is connected in my mind with all the pleasantest things in nature—the spring, May blossoms, glow-worms, "bright hill and bosky dell;" and it dates from somewhere "twixt the last violet and the earliest rose," which is not a quotation, though I have put it in inverted commas, but something that just came to the tip of my pen and looks like poetry. I must leave off now, for I got leave to stay at home to-night to write to you instead of going to the opera, with many injunctions that I would go to bed early; so, now it is late, I must do so. Good-by, dearest H——; believe me ever
Yours most affectionately,
F. A. K.
P.S.—This is my summer tour—Bath, Edinburgh, Dublin, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham. I am Miss Fanny Kemble, because Henry Kemble's daughter, my uncle Stephen's granddaughter, is Miss Kemble by right of birth.
The lady who spoiled my pretty cream-colored poplin dress by spilling coffee on the front of it, instantly, in the midst of her vehement self-upbraidings and humble apologies for her awkwardness, adopted a very singular method of appeasing my displeasure and soothing my distress, by deliberately pouring a spoonful of coffee upon the front breadth of her own velvet gown. My amazement at this proceeding was excessive, and it neither calmed my wrath nor comforted my sorrow, but exasperated me with a sense of her extreme folly and her conviction of mine. The perpetrator of this singular act of atonement was the beautiful Julia, eldest daughter of the Adjutant-General, Sir John Macdonald, and the lady whom the Duke of Wellington pronounced the handsomest woman in London; a verdict which appeared to me too favorable, though she certainly was one of the handsomest women in London. An intimate acquaintance subsisted between her family and ours for several years, and I was indebted to Sir John Macdonald's assistance, most kindly exerted in my behalf, for the happiness of giving my youngest brother his commission in the army, which Sir John enabled me to purchase in his own regiment; and I was indebted to the great liberality of Mr. John Murray, the celebrated publisher, for the means of thus providing for my brother Henry. The generous price (remuneration I dare not call it) which he gave me for my play of "Francis the First" obtained for me my brother's commission.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, March 9th. DEAREST H——,
I have been so busy all this day, signing benefit tickets, that I hardly feel as if I could write anything but "25th March, F.A.K." Our two last letters crossed on the road, and yours was so kind an answer to mine, which you had not yet received, that I feel no further scruple in breaking in upon you with the frivolity of my worldly occupations and proceedings.
I was sorry that the newspapers should give you the first account of my Mrs. Beverley, but my time is so taken up with "an infinite deal of nothing" that I have not had an hour to call my own till this evening, and this evening is my only unengaged one for nearly three weeks to come.
The papers will probably have set your mind at ease as to the result of my appearance in "The Gamester;" but although they have forestalled me in the sum total of the account, there are some small details which may perhaps interest you, of which they can give you no knowledge. I shall talk to you much of myself, dearest H——, and hope it will not weary you; that precious little self is just now so fully occupied with its own affairs that I have little else to talk of. [I probably also felt much as our kind and most comical friend Dessauer used, when he emphatically declared, "Mais, je m'interesse extremement a ce qui me regarde."]
I do not think I ever spent a more miserable day than the one in which I acted Mrs. Beverley for the first time. Stage nervousness, my father and mother both tell me, increases instead of diminishing with practice; and certainly, as far as my own limited experience goes, I find it so. The first hazard, I should say, was not half so fearful as the last; and though on the first night that I ever stood upon the stage I thought I never could be more frightened in my life, I find that with each new part my fear has augmented in proportion as previous success would have rendered it more damaging to fail. A stumble at starting would have been bad enough, and might have bruised me; but a fall from the height to which I have been raised might break my neck, or at any rate cripple me for life. I do not believe that to fail in a part would make me individually unhappy for a moment; but so much of real importance to others, so much of the most serious interests and so much of the feelings of those most dear to me, is involved in the continuance of my good fortune, that I am in every way justified in dreading a failure. These considerations, and their not unnatural result, a violent headache and side-ache, together with no very great liking for the part (interesting as it is, it is so perfectly prosaic), had made me so nervous that the whole of the day was spent in fits of crying; and when the curtain drew up, and I was "discovered," I'm sure I must have looked as jaded and tear-worn as poor Mrs. Beverley ever did. However, all went well with me till the last act, when my father's acting and my own previous state of nervousness combined to make my part of the tragedy anything but feigning; I sobbed so violently that I could hardly articulate my words, and at the last fell upon the dead body of Beverley with a hysterical cry that had all the merit of pure nature, if none other, to recommend it. Fortunately the curtain fell then, and I was carried to my dressing-room to finish my fit in private. The last act of that play gives me such pains in my arms and legs, with sheer nervous distress, that I am ready to drop down with exhaustion at the end of it; and this reminds me of the very difficult question which you expect me to answer, respecting the species of power which is called into play in the act, so called, of acting.
I am the worst reasoner, analyzer, and metaphysician that ever was born; and therefore whatever I say on the subject can be worth very little, as a reply to your question, but may furnish you with some data for making a theory about it for yourself.
It appears to me that the two indispensable elements of fine acting are a certain amount of poetical imagination and a power of assumption, which is a good deal the rarer gift of the two; in addition to these, a sort of vigilant presence of mind is necessary, which constantly looks after and avoids or removes the petty obstacles that are perpetually destroying the imaginary illusion, and reminding one in one's own despite that one is not really Juliet or Belvidera. The curious part of acting, to me, is the sort of double process which the mind carries on at once, the combined operation of one's faculties, so to speak, in diametrically opposite directions; for instance, in that very last scene of Mrs. Beverley, while I was half dead with crying in the midst of the real grief, created by an entirely unreal cause, I perceived that my tears were falling like rain all over my silk dress, and spoiling it; and I calculated and measured most accurately the space that my father would require to fall in, and moved myself and my train accordingly in the midst of the anguish I was to feign, and absolutely did endure. It is this watchful faculty (perfectly prosaic and commonplace in its nature), which never deserts me while I am uttering all that exquisite passionate poetry in Juliet's balcony scene, while I feel as if my own soul was on my lips, and my color comes and goes with the intensity of the sentiment I am expressing; which prevents me from falling over my train, from setting fire to myself with the lamps placed close to me, from leaning upon my canvas balcony when I seem to throw myself all but over it. In short, while the whole person appears to be merely following the mind in producing the desired effect and illusion upon the spectator, both the intellect and the senses are constantly engrossed in guarding against the smallest accidents that might militate against it; and while representing things absolutely imaginary, they are taking accurate cognizance of every real surrounding object that can either assist or mar the result they seek to produce. This seems to me by far the most singular part of the process, which is altogether a very curious and complicated one. I am glad you got my print safe; it is a very beautiful thing (I mean the drawing), and I am glad to think that it is like me, though much flattered. I suppose it is like what those who love me have sometimes seen me, but to the majority of my acquaintance it must appear unwarrantably good-looking. The effect of it is much too large for me, but when my mother ventured to suggest this to Lawrence, he said that that was a peculiarity of his drawings, and that he thought persons familiar with his style would understand it.
My dearest H——, you express something of regret at my necessity (I can hardly call it choice) of a profession. There are many times when I myself cannot help wishing it might have been otherwise; but then come other thoughts: the talent which I possess for it was, I suppose, given to me for some good purpose, and to be used. Nevertheless, when I reflect that although hitherto my profession has not appeared to me attractive enough to engross my mind, yet that admiration and applause, and the excitement springing therefrom, may become necessary to me, I resolve not only to watch but to pray against such a result. I have no desire to sell my soul for anything, least of all for sham fame, mere notoriety. Besides, my mind has such far deeper enjoyment in other pursuits; the happiness of reading Shakespeare's heavenly imaginations is so far beyond all the excitement of acting them (white satin, gas lights, applause, and all), that I cannot conceive a time when having him in my hand will not compensate for the absence of any amount of public popularity. While I can sit obliviously curled up in an armchair, and read what he says till my eyes are full of delicious, quiet tears, and my heart of blessed, good, quiet thoughts and feelings, I shall not crave that which falls so far short of any real enjoyment, and hitherto certainly seems to me as remote as possible from any real happiness.
This enviable condition of body and mind was mine while studying Portia in "The Merchant of Venice," which is to be given on the 25th for my benefit. I shall be much frightened, I know, but I delight in the part; indeed, Portia is my favoritest of all Shakespeare's women. She is so generous, affectionate, wise, so arch and full of fun, and such a true lady, that I think if I could but convey her to my audience as her creator has conveyed her to me, I could not fail to please them much. I think her speech to Bassanio, after his successful choice of the casket, the most lovely, tender, modest, dignified piece of true womanly feeling that was ever expressed by woman.
I certainly ought to act that character well, I do so delight in it; I know nothing of my dress. But perhaps I shall have some opportunity of writing to you again before it is acted. Now all I have to say must be packed close, for I ought to be going to bed, and I have no more paper. I have taken two riding lessons and like it much, though it makes my bones ache a little. I go out a great deal, and that I like very much whenever there is dancing, but not else. My own home spoils me for society; perhaps I ought not to say it, but after the sort of conversation I am used to the usual jargon of society seems poor stuff; but you know when I am dancing I am "o'er all the ills of life victorious." John has taken his degree and will be back with us at Easter; Henry has left us for Paris; A—— is quite well, and almost more of a woman than I am; my father desires his love to you, to which I add mine to your eldest niece and your invalid, and remain ever your affectionately attached
F. A. K.
BLACKHEATH. MY DEAREST H——,
I was exceedingly glad to receive your letter. You ask me for my own criticism on my Portia; you know that I think I am able to do myself tolerably impartial justice, which may be a great mistake; but whether it is or not, I request you will believe the following account in preference to any other report, newspaper or letter, public or private, whatever.
In the first place, on my benefit night (my first appearance in the part) I was so excessively nervous about it, and so shaken with the tremendous uproar the audience made with their applause, that I consider that performance entirely out of the pale of criticism, and quite unworthy of it. I was frightened FLAT to a degree I could hardly have believed possible after my previous experience.
I am happy to think that I improve in the part, and sincerely hope that I shall continue to do so for some time. The principal defect of my acting in it is that it wants point—brilliancy. I do not do the trial scene one bit better or worse than the most mediocre actress would, and although the comic scenes are called delightful by people whose last idea of comedy was borrowed from Miss C—— or Miss F——, my mother says (and I believe her) they are very vapid. The best thing I do in the play (and I think it is the best thing I do at all, except Juliet's balcony scene) is the scene of the caskets, with Bassanio, and this I think I do well. But the scene is of so comparatively subdued, quiet, and uneffective a nature that I think the occupants of the stage boxes and the first three rows of the pit must be the only part of the audience who know anything about my acting of that portion of the play. I like the part better than any I have yet played. I delight in the poetry, and my heart goes with every sentiment Portia utters. I have a real satisfaction in acting it, which is more than I can say for anything else I have yet had to do. Juliet, with the exception of the balcony scene, I act; but I feel as if I were Portia—and how I wish I were! It is not a part that is generally much liked by actresses, or that excites much enthusiasm in the public; there are no violent situations with which to (what is called) "bring the house down." Even the climax of the piece, the trial scene, I should call, as far as Portia is concerned, rather grand and impressive than strikingly or startlingly effective; and with the exception of that, the whole character is so delicate, so nicely blended, so true, and so free from all exaggeration, that it seems to me hardly fit for a theater, much less one of our immense houses, which require acting almost as splashy and coarse in color and outline as the scene-painting of the stage is obliged to be. Covent Garden is too large a frame for that exquisite, harmonious piece of portrait painting. This is a long lecture, but I hope it will not be an uninteresting one to you; and now let me tell you something of my dresses, which cost my poor mother sad trouble, and were really beautiful. My first was an open skirt of the palest pink levantine, shot with white and the deepest rose-color (it was like a gown made of strawberries and cream), the folds of which, as the light fell upon them, produced the most beautiful shades of shifting hues possible. The under-dress was a very pale blue satin, brocaded with silver, of which my sleeves were likewise made; the fashion of the costume was copied from sundry pictures of Titian and Paul Veronese—the pointed body, cut square over the bosom and shoulders, with a full white muslin shirt drawn round my neck, and wide white sleeves within the large blue and silver brocade ones. Comprenez-vous all this? My head was covered with diamonds (not real; I'm anxious for my character), and what delighted me much more was that I had jewels in the roses of my shoes. I think if I had been Portia I never would have worn any ornaments but two large diamonds in my shoe bows. You see, it shows a pretty good stock of diamonds and a careless superiority to such possessions to wear them on one's feet. Now pray don't laugh at me, I was so enchanted with my fine shoes! This was my first dress; the second was simply the doctor's black gown, with a curious little authentic black velvet hat, which was received with immense applause when I put it on; I could hardly keep my countenance at the effect my hat produced. My third dress, my own favorite, was made exactly like the first, the ample skirt gathered all round into the stomacher body; the material was white satin, trimmed with old point lace and Roman pearls, with a most beautiful crimson velvet hat, a perfect Rubens, with one sweeping white feather falling over it....
We are spending our holiday of Passion week here for the sake of a little quiet and fresh air; we had intended going to Dover, but were prevented. You ask me after my mother: she is pretty well now, but her health is extremely uncertain, and her spirits, which are likewise very variable, have so much influence over it that her condition fluctuates constantly; she has been very well, though, for the last few days. London, I think, never agrees with her, and we have been racketing to such a degree that quiet had become not only desirable but necessary. Thank you for wishing me plenty of dancing. I have abundance of it, and like it extremely; but I fear I am very unreasonable about it, for my conscience smote me the other day when I came to consider that the night before, although my mother had stayed at a ball with me till three in the morning, I was by no means gracious in my obedience to her request that I should spare myself for my work. You see, dear H——, I am much the same as ever, still as foolishly fond of dancing, and still, I fear, almost as far from "begetting a temperance in all things" as when you and I wandered about Heath Farm together.
We met with a comical little adventure the other evening. We were wandering over the common, and encountered two gypsies. I always had desired to have my fortune told, so A—— and I each seized hold of a sibyl and listened to our fates.
After predicting to me all manner of good luck and two lovers, and foretelling that I should marry blue eyes (which I will not), the gypsy went up to my father, and began, "Pray, sir, let me tell your fortune: you have been much wronged, sir, kept out of your rights, sir, and what belonged to you, sir,—and that by them as you thought was your friends, sir." My father turned away laughing, but my mother, with a face of amazed and amazing credulity, put her hand in her pocket, exclaiming, "I must give her something for that, though!" Isn't that delicious?
Oh, H——! how hard it is to do right and be good! But to be sure, "if to do were as easy as to know what were good to be done," etc. How I wish I could have an hour's talk with you! I have so much to say, and I have neither time nor paper to say it in; so I must leave off.
Good-by, God bless you; pray look forward to the pleasure of seeing me, and believe me ever
Your affectionate F. A. K.
The house where I used to visit at Lea, in the neighborhood of Blackheath, was a girls' school, kept by ladies of the name of Grimani, in which my aunt Victoire Decamp was an assistant governess. These ladies were descended from a noble Venetian family, of which the Reverend Julian Young, their nephew, has given an account in his extremely interesting and amusing memoir of his father; his mother, Julia Grimani, being the sister of my kind friends, the directresses of the Blackheath school. One of these, Bellina Grimani, a charming and attractive woman, who was at one time attached to the household of the ill-fated and ill-conducted Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, died young and single. The elder Miss Grimani married a Mr. H—— within a few years. Though I have never in the intervening fifty years met with them, I have seen two ladies who were nieces of Miss Grimani, and pupils in her school when I was a small visitor there. My principal recollections connected with the place were the superior moral excellence of one of these damsels, E—— B——, who was held up before my unworthy eyes as a model of school-girl virtue, at once to shame and encourage me; Bellina Grimani's sweet face and voice; some very fine cedar trees on the lawn, and a picture in the drawing-room of Prospero with his three-year-old Miranda in a boat in the midst of a raging sea, which work of art used to shake my childish bosom with a tragical passion of terror and pity, invariably ending in bitter tears. I was much spoiled and very happy during my visits to Lea, and had a blissful recollection of the house, garden, and whole place that justified my regret in not being able, while staying at Blackheath fifteen years after, to find or identify it.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, May 2d. MY DEAREST H——,
I received your kind letter the other night (that is, morning) on my return from a ball, and read your reflections on dissipation with an attention heightened by the appropriate comment of a bad headache and abject weariness from top to toe with dancing. The way in which people prosecute their pleasures in this good town of London is certainly amazing; and we are (perforce) models of moderation, compared with most of our acquaintance. I met at that very ball persons who had been to one and two parties previously, and were leaving that dance to hurry to another. Independently of the great fatigue of such a life, it seems to me so strange that when people are enjoying themselves to their hearts' content in one place, they cannot be satisfied to remain there until they wish to return home, but spend half the night in the streets, running from one house to another, working their horses to death, and wasting the precious time when they might be DANCING. You see my folly is not so great but that I have philosophy to spare for my neighbors. Let me tell you again, dear H——, how truly I rejoice in your niece's restored health. The spring, too, is the very time for such a resurrection, when every day and every hour, every cloud and every flower, offer inexhaustible matter for the capabilities of delight thus regained. Indeed, "the drops on the trees are the most beautiful of all!" [E—— T——'s exclamation during one of her first drives after the long imprisonment of her nervous malady.] A wonderful feeling of renewed hope seems to fill the heart of all created things in the spring, and even here in this smoky town it finds its way to us, inclosed as we are by brick walls, dusty streets, and all things unlovely and unnatural! I stood yesterday in the little court behind our house, where two unhappy poplars and a sycamore tree were shaking their leaves as if in surprise at the acquisition and to make sure they had them, and looked up to the small bit of blue sky above them with pleasurable spring tears in my eyes. How I wish I were rich and could afford to be out of town now! I always dislike London, and this lovely weather gives me a sort of mal du pays for the country. My dearest H——, you must not dream of leaving Ardgillan just when I am coming to see you; that would be indeed a disappointment. My father is not at home at this moment, but I shall ask him before I close this letter the exact time when we shall be in Dublin. I look forward with much pleasure to making my aunt Dall known to you. She is, I am happy to say, coming with me, for indeed she is in some sense my "all the world." You have often heard me speak of her, but it is difficult for words to do justice to one whose whole life is an uninterrupted stream of usefulness, goodness, and patient devotion to others. I know but one term that, as the old writers say, "delivers" her fully, and though it is not unfrequently applied, I think she is the only person I know who really deserves it; she is absolutely unselfish. I am sure, dear H——, you will excuse this panegyric, though you do not know how well it is deserved; the proof of its being so is that there is not one of us but would say the same of aunt Dall.