Frances Wright, General Lafayette, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: A Chapter of Autobiography
I WAS one of ten persons to whom Frances Wright, in December of 1826, conveyed the lands of Nashoba, consisting of eighteen hundred and sixty acres, “in perpetual trust for the benefit of the negro race.” my co-trustees being (besides Miss Wright’s sister) General Lafayette,1 William McClure, Robert Owen, Cadwallader Colden, Richeson Whitby, Robert Jennings, George Flower, and James Richardson ; three of the said trustees, if resident on the lands, to constitute a quorum competent to transact business.
Cadwallader Colden was well-known, in those days, as an eminent New York lawyer and statesman, who had been Mayor of the city. Richeson Whitby and Robert Jennings were both members of the New Harmony Community, Whitby having formerly been a Shaker with a good knowledge of farming, and Jennings an experienced teacher. George Flower was the son of Richard Flower, already spoken of; and James Richardson was a Scotch physician, upright, impracticable, and an acute metaphysician of the Thomas Brown school.
Miss Wright also conveyed to us all her personal property then on these lands, — farming utensils, wagons, horses, and the like, together with five male and three female slaves ; consigning also to our care a family of female slaves (four in number, I think), entrusted to her by a certain Robert Wilson of South Carolina. The conveyance of the slaves was “ on condition that, when their labor shall have paid to the Institution of Nashoba” (not to Miss Wright) “a clear capital of six thousand dollars, with six per cent interest thereon from January 1, 1827, and also a sum sufficient to defray the expenses of colonization, all these slaves shall be emancipated, and colonized out of the limits of the United States by the trustees,”
The Deed of Trust, with an appended declaration touching its objects, provided also for a society of white persons, “ founded on the principle of community of property and labor”; but it is added, “ No life of idleness is proposed to the whites ; those who cannot work must give an annual equivalent.” Board for non-workers was afterwards fixed at two hundred dollars a year. Members were to be admitted in the first place by the trustees ; but no one was to become a member who had not lived six months on the lands ; nor then without receiving a unanimous vote. A member once admitted was not liable to expulsion, and was entitled, in all cases, “ to attention during sickness and protection in old age ” ; the children of members were to be educated, till the age of fourteen, at the expense of the institution.
Details were left to the discretion of the trustees, except that a school to include colored children was at all times to form part of the plan, and that no distinction was there to be made on account of color.
Miss Wright had radical views touching the personal independence of women, whether married or single ; and these caused her to insert a provision that the admission of a husband as member should not carry with it the admission of his wife ; nor the admission of a wife, the admission of her husband: each was to be voted for as an individual.
For the rest, the general tone of the paper was temperate. “In facing the subject of slavery,” said the founder of Nashoba, “ it is necessary to bear in mind the position of the master as well as that of the slave, bred in the prejudices of color, untaught to labor and viewing it as a degradation. We must come to the slaveholder, therefore, not in anger but in kindness ; and when we ask him to change his whole mode of life, we must show him the means by which he may do so, without complete compromise of his ease and his interests.”
Also, “ while acknowledging with pleasure, in the members of emancipating societies, the real friends of the liberty of man,” she says that she would have placed the property under their control, but for essential difference between their views and hers “ respecting the moral instruction of human beings.” She adds : “ Emancipation based on religion has hitherto effected but little ; and, generally speaking, by the tone and arguments employed has tended rather to irritate than to convince.”
Assenting to these views I accepted the trusteeship ; and when, in the spring of 1827, New Harmony had ceased to be a community, I agreed to accompany Miss Wright on a visit to Nashoba, hoping there to find more cultivated and congenial associates than those among whom, for eighteen months past, I had been living. A week later my father left Harmony for Europe, expressing his regret that, because of his recent large expenditures, he could not prudently undertake, as he wished, to educate the village children free of cost ; but adding that he had paid up the debts of the community, and had left in the hands of Mr. James Dorsey, then a resident of New Harmony but late Treasurer of the Miami University, three thousand dollars, as a contribution toward defraying school expenses for the coming year.
At Nashoba, where I remained ten days, I found but three trustees, Richeson Whitby, James Richardson, and the younger Miss Wright. We consulted daily, but even sanguine I had to admit that the outlook was unpromising.
The land, all second-rate only, and scarcely a hundred acres of it cleared ; three or four squared log houses, and a few small cabins for the slaves, the only buildings ; slaves released from fear of the lash working indolently under the management of Whitby, whose education in an easy-going Shaker village had not at all fitted him for the post of plantation overseer: these were the main facts, to which it was to be added that Miss Wright’s health, which had been feeble at New Harmony, became so much worse ere we reached Memphis that she had to be conveyed from that town to Nashoba in a hammock swung in a covered wagon. Richardson informed me that during the preceding year, intent on organizing her institution, she had rashly exposed herself on horseback during the midday suns of July and August, sometimes even sleeping in the forest at night ; had barely escaped a sunstroke, and had not escaped a brain-fever, which prostrated her for weeks, and almost baffled his skill and her sister’s unremitting care. Fearing its return, he earnestly recommended a sea-voyage and a residence during the ensuing summer in Europe. Thereupon Whitby declared that, if both the sisters left Nashoba, he despaired of being able to manage the slaves : they would obey either, as their owner and mistress, and himself only when he had their authority to back his orders.
Discouraging enough, certainly! But I was then much in the state of mind in which, more than thirty years before, Southey and Coleridge may have been when they resolved to found, amid the wilds of the Susquehanna, a pantisocracy free from worldly evils and turmoils and cares, from which individual property and selfishness were to be excluded ; so I adhered to my resolution, Frances Wright encouraging me to hope that in Paris and London we might find congenial associates.
Finally, a loadstar beckoning me to Braxfield, I proposed to accompany Miss Wright across the Atlantic. She found an elderly Scotchwoman as attendant. We took a Havre packet at New Orleans, and after a tedious voyage reached France in July. I had fears even for her life, till we got fairly out to sea ; but after that she gradually gathered strength, and when I left her in Paris with intimate friends, her health was, in a measure, restored.
I spent several weeks in the French metropolis. Politically, it was a period of much interest. Twelve years before, the prestige with which overshadowing talent and military glory had long invested arbitrary power in France had died out on the field of Waterloo, Louis, the corpulent and the gastronomic, —
Some called Dix-Huit and some Des Huîtres,”—
had presented such a humiliating contrast to the great Corsican that all classes instinctively felt it. The reign of Charles X., the last of that dynasty which “forgot nothing and learned nothing,” commencing three years before I reached Paris, had been but a succession of plots against human liberty. In 1824 the nation had been loaded down with a debt of a thousand millions as indemnity to emigrants ; in 1826 futile attempts had been made to restore the feudal law of primogeniture and to muzzle the press ; finally, the Jesuits had been re-established in France under the title of Fathers of the Faith, — all this during the premiership of the ultra-royalist Villèle. At a review, held three months before my arrival, by the king in person, the public discontent had broken loose, as the royal cortège approached, in loud cries of “ Down with the Ministers ! Down with Villèle ! ”
The contempt with which the common people regarded Charles was expressed without reserve. “ What sort of king have you got ? ” said I to the driver of a fiacre, which I had hired to take me to Versailles; “do you like him ?
“ If I like him ? ” answered the man, in a tone of disgust. “ Sacre ! what is there to like ? He does nothing but hunt and pray to the good God all day.”
It was a terse description of the royal occupations. The chase and the mass made up the business of Charles’s life.
Ridicule, in France the most powerful of all political weapons, was brought to bear against the imbecile monarch. At every corner one could buy weekly journals filled with pasquinades and caricatures. A trifling incident, of recent occurrence, had stirred up all Paris just then, and furnished fresh material for fun and jest. The Pasha of Egypt had presented to the King of France a camelopard. This animal, the first of its kind, I believe, that had ever reached Paris, seemed to be the universal theme of conversation, from the most fashionable circle down to the meanest beggar. Its picture was exhibited in every print-shop window, was painted on every stage-coach. Every new invention, every fashionable article of dress, was àla giraffe. I ts long neck and sloping body were to be seen all over the papered walls, on the ladies’ sashes, on the gentlemen’s pockethandkerchiefs, nay, the pettiest retailer of gingerbread had given his cakes the same all-fashionable form.
I went to see this most popular of quadrupeds at the Jardin des Plantes. The crowd was immense, and their exclamations of delight at every movement of the creature resembled the cries of children at sight of a new toy : — “ Mais, voyez-vous, elle se couche ! Elle se couche toute seule ! Elle est couchée ! Elle reste là ! Quelle drôle de bête ! ” and so on, in every varied tone of gratification and surprise.
The satirists of the press were, of course, not slow to avail themselves of the passing excitement. Before the animal arrived, they had circulated a news-item, stating that the king had issued an ordinance forbidding the entrance of the camelopard into his dominions, “parcequ’il ne voulait pas avoir une plus grande bête que lui dans son royaume.” Soon after appeared a caricature representing the triumphal entry of the animal into Paris, escorted by the royal body-guards and the officers of the Cabinet; and, as it was still in every one’s memory that Charles, entering Paris in triumph at the time of the Restoration, had sought to win favor by publicly declaring, “ Rien n’est changé; il n’y a qu’un François de plus,” — the artist had projected from the camelopard’s mouth a scroll with the words “ Rien n’est changé ; il n’y a qu’une bête de plus.” All this probably hit harder than even the quasiseditious cries of the malcontent multitude at the review. When Charles, three years later, issued decrees destroying the liberty of a press which thus assailed him, and dissolving a Chamber of Deputies who stood out against these and similar acts of tyranny, it cost him his crown.
But the event of this visit of mine to Paris was my introduction, by Frances Wright, to General Lafayette. Of all men living he was the one I most enthusiastically admired, and the one I had the most earnestly longed to see. These feelings had gained fresh fervor in the United States. Just two months before I landed at New York Lafayette had returned home in the Brandywine, after a year’s sojourn in the land which he had aided to liberate, and by which he had been welcomed as never nation, till then, had welcomed a man.
I heard his praise on every tongue, I found love and gratitude toward him in every heart. Then, too, Frances Wright, familiar with his history, had made me acquainted with many incidents in his life not then generally known; his nice sense of honor in abstaining, during a visit to London in 1777 (just before he embarked as volunteer in the American struggle), from getting any information that might be used against England,—even declining to visit her naval station at Portsmouth ; then his noble conduct to Napoleon, first refusing all honors and office at his hands; then voting against him as Consulfor life, and tellinghim that he had done so ; later, when Bonaparte returned from Waterloo, urging in the Assembly his abdication ; yet finally, with a sympathy for the fallen soldier in adversity which he had never felt for the Emperor while in his pride of power, offering to procure him the means of escape to America,— an offer which Napoleon, unable to forgive old grudges, unfortunately for himself, declined.
These and a hundred other chivalrous traits of self-sacrifice and of delicate generosity had made Lafayette a hero of heroes in my eyes. And when he gave me a cordial invitation to spend a week at La Grange, adding that he would call for me with his carriage next day, I was at the summit of human felicity. The opportunity of intimacy with a man who, while yet a mere stripling, had relinquished in freedom’s cause all that youth commonly most clings to and prizes ! The privilege of a talk in uninterrupted quiet, during a four or five hours' drive, with a leading spirit in two revolutions ! A chance of questioning one of the chief actors in the greatest struggles for social and political liberty which all history records ! I, scarcely slept that night; and well did the morrow — a bright day in mid-August—fulfil more than all I had expected !
My admiration and sympathy were no doubt transparent, and these may have won for me, from one of the most genial of men, a hearty reception. At all events, he devoted himself to satisfy my curiosity, with an overflowing goodnature and a winning kindness and simplicity that I shall remember to my dying day.
A few items of our conversation I still most distinctly recollect. One incident, presenting the Father of his Country in a rare aspect, ever recalls to me, when I think of it, the tender eyes and the gracious, loving manner which made the grand old Frenchman the idol of all young people who were fortunate enough to share his friendship.
It was just before the unmasking of the sole traitor who loomed up during our Revolution, on one of the most eventful days in all that eventful period, and more than four years after the immortal Declaration had been read from the steps of the old Philadelphia statehouse ; it was the twenty-fifth of September, 1780. On the afternoon of the preceding day, Washington, after dining at Fishkill, had set out with his suite, intending to reach Arnold’s headquarters, 2 eighteen miles distant, that evening. What would have happened had he carried out his intention, we can now only conjecture. 3 What men call chance — a casual meeting near Fishkill with the French minister, De Luzerne — induced him to remain there that night. Next morning, after sending notice to Arnold that he might expect him to breakfast, he again changed his intention, turning off to visit some redoubts on the Hudson, opposite West Point, and sending two aides-de-camp to apologize. It was while these officers were at breakfast with the family that Arnold received the despatch which announced Andre’s capture, and caused his (Arnold’s) instant flight, on pretence, to his visitors, of a call from West Point. Some hours later, Washington, arriving with General Knox and General Lafayette and finding Arnold gone, followed him, as he supposed, across the river, and, learning that Arnold had not been to West Point, returned to dinner. As Washington approached the house, his aide, Colonel Hamilton, who had remained behind, came hurriedly to meet him, and placed in his hands a despatch which, as confidential staff-officer, he had already opened, and which disclosed Arnold’s treachery. Washington communicated its contents, doubtless before dinner, to General Knox, and to him alone, with the brief and significant words, “ Whom can we trust now ? ”
The usual version is that he thus communicated the portentous news to Generals Knox and Lafayette jointly ; but that is an error. The statement made to me by the latter, during our journey to La Grange, surprised and interested me at the time, and has remained indelibly impressed on my memory. It was this :
When Washington sat down to dinner, no unusual emotion was visible on his countenance. He was grave and silent, but not more so than often happened when recent tidings from the army occupied his thoughts. At the close of the meal he beckoned to Lafayette to follow him, passed to an inner apartment, turned to his young friend without uttering a syllable, placed the fatal despatch in his hands, and then, giving way to an ungovernable burst of feeling, fell on his neck and sobbed aloud. The effect produced on the young French marquis, accustomed to regard his general (cold and dignified in his usual manner) as devoid of the common weaknesses of humanity, may be imagined. “ I believe,” said Lafayette to me in relating this anecdote, “ that this was the only occasion throughout that long and sometimes hopeless struggle that Washington ever gave way, even for a moment, under a reverse of fortune ; and perhaps I am the only human being who ever witnessed in him an exhibition of feeling so foreign to his temperament. As it was, he recovered himself before I had perused the communication that had given rise to his excitement, and when we returned to his staff not a trace remained in his demeanor either of grief or despondency.”
In the course of conversation, another incident from Lafayette’s early life came up, — that outrage alike against international law and a decent regard for humanity, — his seizure in 1792 by Austria and his confinement in the citadel of Olmütz for five years in a dark and noisome dungeon. Though his prison was shared, for the twentytwo last months, by his devoted wife, yet for more than three years previously he had been condemned to utter solitude, cut off from the world, and from all outside news, whether of events or of persons. In alluding to these terrible days, and expressing to me the opinion that a few months more of such stagnant isolation would have deprived him of reason, his characteristic thought for others rather than himself shone out. “ My young friend,” he said, “you will probably some day be one of the law-makers in your adopted country — ”
“ What, I, General ? A foreigner ? ”
“ Was not I a foreigner, and how have I been treated ? If you ever become a member of a legislative body, bear this in mind : that utter seclusion from one’s fellow-creatures for years is a refinement of cruelty which no human being has a right to inflict upon another, no matter what the provocation. Vote against all attempts to introduce into the criminal code of your State, as penalty for any offence, solitary confinement, at all events for more than a few months. Prolonged beyond that term it is torture, not reformatory punishment.”
I told him I should surely conform to his advice; and when, seven or eight years later, I served in the Indiana legislature, I kept my promise.
Of course we spoke of the French Revolution and the causes of its failure.
“ Our people had not the same chance as the Americans,” said Lafayette, “ because the feudal wrongs under which they had suffered for ages were far more dreadful than anything that is complained of in your Declaration of Independence ; and these involved a lack of education and a political ignorance which never existed in the United States. The recollection of such wrongs maddened them, and so led to intolerable excesses. Yet, even at such disadvantage, I believe we might have succeeded if other nations had let us alone.”
“ Do you think that England interfered to encourage the revolutionary excesses ? ”
“ I am certain that was William Pitt’s policy ; and when we reach La Grange I will give you proof of this.”
“ But was there not lack of harmony between those who, in the first years of your Revolution, honestly sought the public good ? ”
“Yes; lack of harmony and of a correct appreciation of each other’s views and motives. I have often thought, since, that if, in those early days, I had justly judged the noble character and enlightened views which, afterwards, when it was too late, I learned to ascribe to Madame Roland ; and if we two and the friends who trusted us had acted in cordial unison, it is possible that our desperate struggle for liberty might have had a happier end. Even as it is, it has left inestimable gains behind it. The king, you see, has failed to re-establish primogeniture. Villèle has been defeated in his attempts to procure a censorship of the press. Our people despise the weak sovereign who misrules them, and our Chamber of Deputies holds out against him. A very few years will see another revolution ; and our past experience will doubtless tend to give it a wiser and more peaceful character than the last.”
I may add here that, in the autumn of 1830 when these predictions had been fulfilled, I received from the General a letter giving me his reasons for acceding to the measures of the party which placed an Orleans Bourbon on the throne. A monarchy limited by the surroundings of republican institutions was all that Lafayette then thought his countrymen able to sustain. The son of one whose republican preferences had won for him the title of Égalité, himself educated from infancy in the humanitarian principles of Rousseau ; an adherent, at the age of seventeen and under solemn pledges, to the revolutionary doctrines of 1790; a faithful soldier of the Republic up to 1793 ; finally, trained from that time forth for twenty years in the stern school of adversity, it seemed as if Louis Philippe, direct descendant of Louis XIV. though he was, might here be the right man in the right place. Yet Lafayette (so he wrote to me) accepted him with reluctance, as a stepping-stone, which even then he did not fully trust, to something better in the future. “ On the thirty-first of July,” he added, “ when I presented him to the people from a balcony of the Hotel de Ville, as Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, I never said, as the newspapers made me say, ‘ Voilà la meilleure des républiques ! ’ ” He did but surrender his own political preferences to what he regarded as the necessity of the hour; and it is well known that a programme of government, agreed upon between Lafayette and Louis Philippe before the latter was elected king, embodied provisions far more liberal than any which were ever carried into practice during his reign. Little wonder that the miscalled “citizen king” rejoiced, as he notoriously did, when the man to whom he virtually owed his throne resigned in disgust his commission as commander of the National Guards.
The day after we arrived, the General fulfilled his promise by showing me various letters, intercepted during the Reign of Terror, which afforded conclusive evidence that the British government had, throughout France, secret emissaries, paid to originate, or encourage, the very atrocities which brought reproach on the republican cause. He kindly gave me one of these letters, which I kept for many years, but finally lost through the carelessness of a friend to whom I had lent it. It was addressed to the president of the revolutionary committee at St. Omer, stating that Mr. Pitt had been well pleased with his action so far, and that he should soon have an additional remittance for his services. Among other recommendations, it contained, I remember, this, “ Women and priests are the safest persons to work upon and take into your pay.”
Lafayette’s beautiful country-seat is too well known to justify any elaborate description here. The château struck me as a fine specimen of the old French castle, built on three sides of a quadrangle, and surrounded by a moat which modern convenience had converted into a fish-pond. The park had evidently been laid out by an English landscape gardener, and with much taste ; a beautiful lawn around the castle was dotted with clumps of trees of every variety of foliage, some of which had been planted by the General’s own hand. Beyond was a farm of some four hundred acres under excellent culture. The offices, which were extensive and neatly kept, contained folds for a flock of a thousand merinos ; and in the cow-houses we found a numerous collection of the best breeds, French, Swiss, and English, the latter from the farm ot Mr. Coke of Norfolk. America had contributed a flock of wild geese from the Mississippi, a flock of wild turkeys, and a variety of other curiosities.
At La Grange I found various members of the Lafayette family, including a married daughter, and a granddaughter seventeen or eighteen years old, Natalie de Lafayette, next whom at table her grandfather, much to my satisfaction, did me the honor to assign me a seat. She conversed with a knowledge of general subjects and with a freedom rarely to be met with among unmarried French girls, who are wont to reply in monosyllables if a casual acquaintance touches on any topic beyond the commonplaces of the hour. She was strikingly handsome, too ; and when I was first introduced to her, her beauty seemed to me strangely familiar. After puzzling over this for some time, it occurred to me that this young lady’s features recalled the female faces in some of Ary Scheffer’s best paintings, especially', if I remember aright, his “ Mignon aspirant au Ciel.” When I mentioned this casually to an English gentleman, then a visitor at La Grange, he smiled. “ Have you remarked it also ? ” I asked.
“ I, and almost every one who is acquainted with Mademoiselle de Lafayette. Common rumor has it that Scheffer is hopelessly in love with her; at all events, his ideal faces of female loveliness almost all partake, more or less, of her style of beauty.”
I had a glimpse, during my visit, of a singular phase of French life. Among General Lafayette’s guests was a distinguished-looking, middle-aged lady of rank and fashion ; and, after a few days, I began to observe that a young French noble, also a visitor, paid her assiduous attentions ; in the quietest and most unobtrusive manner, however, and with an air of marked respect. “Is Monsieur le Marquis a relative of Madame de — ?” I asked Monsieur Levasseur, the General’s.private secretary, with whom I had become well acquainted.
“A relative ? O no. He is, — you do not know it, then ? — her friend.” The emphasis marked the meaning, and Levasseur added: “ He is usually invited where she happens to be.”
“ Did he come to La Grange with her ? ”
“Ah!” (smiling), “one sees that you are not acquainted with our usages. It would have been a great impropriety to accompany Madame. He arrived a day or two after her.”
Next day the lady left for Paris ; and the day after I took my departure, leaving the “friend” still at La Grange.
If we are disposed to regard such a relation as an anomaly in refined society, we may, at least, readily detect its cause. An English lady, whose acquaintance I had made soon after I arrived in Paris, told me that a few weeks before, during an afternoon visit, she was conversing in a fashionable drawing-room with the eldest daughter of the house, when the mother, who was standing at a front window, called out, “ Tiens, ma fille ; voilà ton futur ! Don’t you want to see your intended ?”
“ But without doubt, dear mamma. Which is he ? ”
“ You see these three gentlemen who are coming up arm in arm ? ”
“ Yes, yes.”
“ Well, it is the middle one of the three ; he who wears the blue coat.”
As a general rule marriage is a negotiation between two families ; and, “if there be no repugnance ” (that is deemed the sole necessary inquiry), the young people ratify the bargain and the ceremony follows. Position in society, but still more frequently the relative wealth of the parties, stamps the suitability of the match. Quarter of a million livres ought to win and marry quarter of a million livres ; and, if there be birth and beauty, ought to attract and subdue half a million. Purses are mated. What wonder that poor hearts, thus cheated, take their after revenge ?
Young men are somewhat more at liberty than their marriageable sisters; but even they seldom choose for themselves. It is not said of a young gentleman, “He is about to marry,” but “ His father is about to marry him.” My experience, then and later, of French life in the upper classes is, that if a young bachelor, by a rare chance, should even happen to originate an attachment, it is, as a general rule, lightly felt and soon passed over. Ere I left Paris I met at a small evening party a young Frenchman, who, having just returned from a visit to the United States, sought my acquaintance, and confided to me in the first half hour what he seemed to consider a love adventure. “It was in Philadelphia. Two months ago I loved her much, for she was, indeed, very well, one might say, quite charming. It was what is called there a good family ; rich too ; and the parents allowed me to see her alone several times. I think she did not regard me with indifference, and sometimes she looked quite pretty. But what would you have ? My father was not there, and who can tell in what light he might have regarded it ? He had always warned me against a mésalliance. Then, after a time, I drifted into another circle and did not see her for several weeks,— de manière que la chose se passait. But I think of her still sometimes. She was très gentille, and really carried herself with a grace which one does not expect out of Paris.”
All said in the easiest tone, just as he might have related to me a visit to the theatre, and made a confession that he was struck with a pretty little actress whom he met there ; to a stranger, too, whom he saw then for the first time, and never expected to see again ! It amazed me.
Although at that time half a century had passed since America had declared her independence, and made good her declaration, some of the inhabitants of Paris had evidently not yet awakened to the fact. Soon after reaching the city I went to have my haircut. When I sat down, the barber, stepping back a pace or two, seemed to take a survey of his visitor.
“ Apparently,” he said at last, “ Monsieur’s hair was not cut the last time in Paris.”
I confessed that it was not.
“ May I ask,” he then added, “where Monsieur’s hair was last cut ? ”
“It was at some distance from here, — in the United States.”
“Pardon ! Where did Monsieur say that his hair was cut ? ”
“In the United States, — in America.”
“Ah! In the colonies? Are there, then, already hairdressers in the colonies ? ” 4
I assured him that in the United States of America many of his profession were to be found ; and I hope that thenceforth he regarded us, if not as an independent, at least as a civilized nation.
I had heard, as every one has, of the politeness for which the French of all classes are famous; and I resolved strictly to test it.
On one of the crowded boulevards I saw, one day, a woman who might be of any age from sixty to eighty, sitting bowed as with infirmity, over a stall loaded with apples and oranges ; her wrinkled face the color of time-stained parchment, her eyes half closed, and her whole expression betokening stolid sadness and habitual suffering. I made no offer to buy, but doffed my hat to her, as one instinctively does in France when addressing any woman, told her I was a stranger, that I desired to reach such a street, naming it, and begged that she would have the goodness to direct me thither.
I shall never forget the transformation that took place while I was speaking. The crouched figure erected itself; the face awoke, its stolid look and half its wrinkles, as it seemed, gone; the apparent sullenness replaced by a gentle and kindly air; while the voice was pitched in a pleasant and courteous tone. It said, “ Monsieur will be so good as to cross the boulevard just here, then to pass on, leaving two cross-streets behind him ; at the third cross-street he will please turn to the right, and then he will be so kind as to descend that street until he shall have passed a cathedral on the left; Monsieur will be careful not to leave this street until he shall have passed the cathedral and another cross-street; then he will turn to the left and continue until he reaches a fountain, after which — ” and so on through sundry other turnings and windings.
I thanked the good woman, but begged that she would have the kindness to repeat her directions, as I feared to forget them. This she did, word for word, with the utmost patience and bonhomie, accompanying her speech, as she had done before, with little, appropriate gestures. I was sorely tempted to offer her a piece of money. But something restrained me, and I am satisfied that she did not expect it. So I merely took off my hat a second time, bowed, and bade her farewell. She dismissed me as gracefullyas a grande dame of the Faubourg St. Germain might some visitor to her gorgeous boudoir.
From France I crossed over to Scotland. My readers already know how I fared there. I took leave of the family at Braxfield, and of Jessie, in the middle of October, and proceeded directly to London.
The most interesting person I met there was Mrs. Shelley, daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and widow since Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death in 1822 of that poet: — interesting, not only because of the celebrity of her parents and of her husband, but far more for her own sake ; interesting, too, because of the remarkable discrepancy which I discovered that there was between her actual character and all her antecedents and surroundings.
I expected to find Mrs. Shelley a radical reformer, probably self-asserting, somewhat aggressive, and at war with the world ; more decidedly heterodox in religion and morals than I myself was ; endorsing and enforcing the extreme opinions of her father and mother, and (as I then understood them) of her husband. I found her very different from my preconceptions.
Gentle, genial, sympathetic, thoughtful and matured in opinion beyond her years, for she was then but twenty-nine ; essentially liberal in politics, ethics, and theology, indeed, yet devoid alike of stiff prejudice against the old or ill-considered prepossession in favor of the new ; and, above all, womanly, in the best sense, in every sentiment and instinct ; she impressed me also as a person with warm social feelings, dependent for happiness on loving encouragement ; needing a guiding and sustaining hand.
I felt all this, rather than reasoned it out, during our too brief acquaintance ; and few women have ever attracted me so much in so short a time. Had I remained in London I am sure we should have been dear friends. She wrote me several charming letters to America.
In person, she was of middle height and graceful figure. Her face, though not regularly beautiful, was comely and spiritual, of winning expression, and with a look of inborn refinement as well as culture. It had a touch of sadness when at rest ; yet when it woke up in animated conversation, one could see that underneath there was a bright, cheerful, even playful nature, at variance, I thought, with depressing circumstances and isolated position.
Looking back on those days, I feel assured that, if fate had thrown Mary Shelley and myself together at that period of my life, instead of bringing me in contact with Frances Wright, the influence would have been much more salutary. I required to be restrained, not urged ; needed not the spur, but the guiding-rein. Mrs. Shelley shared many of my opinions and respected them all ; and as well on that account as because I liked her and sympathized with her from the first, I should have taken kindly, and weighed favorably, advice or remonstrance from her lips, which when it came later in aggressive form, from the pens of religious or political opponents, carried little weight and no conviction. I am confirmed in these opinions by having read, only a few years since, an extract from this excellent lady’s private journal, written eleven years after I made her acquaintance, and which vividly recalls the pleasant and profitable hours I spent with her.
It is dated October 21st, 1838. She writes, “ I have often been abused for my lukewarmness in 'the good cause,’ and shall put down here a few thoughts on the subject..... Some have a passion for reforming the world, others do not cling to particular opinions. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class makes me respect it. For myself I earnestly desire the good and enlightenment of my fellow-creatures; I see all, in the present course, tending to this, and I rejoice ; but I am not for violent extremes, which only bring injurious reaction. I have never written a word in disfavor of liberalism, but neither have I openly supported it: first, because I have not argumentative power; I see things pretty clearly, but cannot demonstrate them : next, because I feel the counter arguments too strongly. On some topics (especially with regard to my own sex), I am far from having made up my own mind.”
Then, farther on, she adds, “ I like society ; I believe all persons in sound health, and who have any talent, do. Books do much ; but the living intercourse is the vital heat. Debarred from that, how have I pined and died ! Yet I never crouched to society, — never sought it unworthily. If I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have, at every risk, befriended women, when oppressed. God grant a happier and better day is near ! ” 5
She did not live to see it. Ere the clouds of detraction which then obscured Shelley’s fame had fully cleared away, and the world had learned to recognize, despite extravagance of sentiment and immaturity of opinion, the upright, unselfish man, and the true poet, his widow, weary of heart solitude, had passed away, to join in a better world the husband whose early loss had darkened her life in this. She died in about twelve years after the above extracts were written.
Mrs. Shelley told me that her husband, toward the close of his too short life, saw cause to modify the religious opinions which, in his earlier works, he had expressed, especially his estimate of the character of Christ, and of the ethical and spiritual system which Jesus gave to the world. With this strikingly accords the tenor of a document first printed in the volume from which I have extracted above. Lady Shelley entitles it, “An Essay on Christianity ” ; yet it is, in fact, but notes, fragmentary and suddenly interrupted by death, toward such an essay, — very interesting and significant notes, however.
As to the Gospel record, Shelley’s opinion was : “It cannot be precisely ascertained in what degree Jesus Christ really said all that he is related to have said. But it is not difficult to distinguish the inventions by which his historians have filled up the interstices of tradition, or corrupted the simplicity of truth. They have left sufficiently clear indications of the genuine character of Jesus Christ to rescue it forever from the imputations cast upon it by their ignorance and fanaticism. We discover that he is the enemy of oppression and falsehood ; that he is the advocate of equal justice ; that he is neither disposed to sanction bloodshed nor deceit, under whatever pretences. We discover that he was a man of meek and majestic demeanor ; calm in danger; of natural and simple thoughts and habits ; beloved to adoration by his adherents; unmoved, solemn, and severe.” .... “Jesus Christ opposed, with earnest eloquence, the panic fears and hateful superstitions which have enslaved mankind for ages.”
Then, speaking of him as a reformer believing in human progress, he says: “ The wisest and most sublime of the ancient poets taught that mankind had gradually degenerated from the virtue which enabled them to enjoy or maintain a happy state. Their doctrine was philosophically false. Jesus Christ foresaw what the poets retrospectively imagined.”
Shelley admired and hoped, rather than asserted. But the spiritual tendencies of that delicate nature cannot be mistaken. We have seen that he did not deny the “ signs and wonders ” of the first century; that he declared the power of communing with the invisible world to bean interestingtheme, and conceived the same idea that was expressed a few years later by Isaac Taylor, namely, that “within the field occupied by the visible and ponderable universe, and on all sides of us, there is existing and moving another element fraught with another species of life.” 6 What he needed—what so many strong and earnest souls have needed — was experimental proof (if, as I believe, it is to be had) of man’s continued existence, and of the reality of a better life to come.
Lacking this, he still made encouraging progress toward “ that tranquillity ” (to use his own words) “ which is the attribute and accompaniment of power”; and the chief cause of such advance is not hard to find. After some stormy years of mistake and disappointment, though he never attained entire peace, though the tempest of prejudice still raged without, yet by his hearth, at least, were sympathy and encouragement and love. “ Mrs. Shelley’s influence over him,” says her daughter-in-law, “was of an important kind. His mind, by gradually bending to milder influences, divested itself of much of that hostile bitterness of thought and feeling with which he had hitherto attacked political and social abuses.” 7
He knew and acknowledged this. In the whole range of poetry I call to mind no tribute from husband to wife that can match, in sweetness and power, his dedication to her to whom he ever looked as his “own heart’s home ” of his “ Revolt of Islam.” Uncertain as to its success, even while conscious of its merit, he lays his poem at her feet:—
With thy beloved name, thou Child of love and
And again, a few stanzas farther on, occurs this testimony to her benign influence : —
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain,
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom ! ”
Robert Dale Owen.
- * It may be well, in this connection, to remind the reader that, soon after the close of our Revolutionary War, General Lafayette busied himself in promoting the abolition of slavery in the French colonies ; and that he purchased a plantation in Cayenne, gave freedom to the slaves there employed, and spent a large sum in their education.↩
- At a bouse belonging to Colonel Beverly Robinson, on the opposite bank of the Hudson to West Point, and about two miles below.↩
- Washington, writing October 13, 1780, after commenting on the providential interference which saved West Point, adds, “ How far Arnold intended to involve me in the catastrophe of this place does not appear by any indubitable evidence ; and I am rather inclined to think that he did not wish to hazard the more important object by attempting to combine two events.” — GORDON’S America, 1801 ; Vol. III. p. 134.↩
- “ Y a-t-il done déjà des friseurs dans les colonies?” were, I recollect well, the very words.↩
- Physical Theory of Another Life. London, 1839: p. 232.↩
- Shelley Memorials, from authentic sources, edited by Lady Shelley (wife of Mrs. Shelley’s only son, who became, at his grandfather’s death, Sir Percy Shelley) : Boston reprint, 1859 ; pp. 258-268.↩
- Shelley Memorials, 8 p.2.↩