Interesting People Whom I Met in London: A Chapter of Autobiography
THERE have been, in all ages, men destined to be celebrated who have been called upon to bear up, for long years, — fortunate when it was not for life, — under professional contempt and popular ridicule. Among the number are Drs. Gall and Spurzheim. Half a century ago phrenology, claiming to be a science, was refused admission as such into accredited scientific circles.
I have had occasion elsewhere to express the opinion that the growth of a new-born hypothesis resembles that of a human being. During its infancy its suggestions carry small weight. It is listened to with a slight smile, and set aside with little ceremony. Throughout its years of nonage it may be said to have no rights of property, no privilege of appropriation. Proofs in its favor may present themselves from time to time, but they are not deemed entitled to a judgment by the common rules of evidence. They are listened to as fresh and amusing, but they have no legal virtue ; they obtain no official record ; they are not placed to the credit of the minor. An infant hypothesis is held to be outside the limits of human justice.
Thus, as late as the year 1827, had phrenology been treated. But its very novelty had an attraction for me ; and when, in the autumn of that year, I met Dr. Spurzheim at the house of Mr. Martineau (father of Harriet), I listened to him with eager attention, and expressed to him in strong terms, ere we parted, the deep interest I had felt in his conversation. He smiled, and cordially invited me to visit him in his studio. When I called he gave up to me an entire forenoon, and seemed to take good-natured pleasure in showing his collection of casts and skulls, and in explaining the first principles of his system. His candor, modesty, and simple methods of illustration impressed me at once in his favor. How devoid of pretension, how free from all dogmatic assertion, was the Master, compared to some of his half-fledged disciples whom I have since met !
He brought me the cast of a head, having taken the precaution to cover up the features with a cloth, and asked me what character I should assign to the original. I answered readily that I should suppose him to be a wise and intelligent man. Then, with similar precaution, he produced another bust which, at a glance, I pronounced to be that of an idiot.
“You are right in both cases,” he said. “You see, then, that, without any previous research, you instinctively detect the extremes. I pretend to nothing more, after years of careful study and the examination and comparison of many thousand skulls, than to be able to detect, in detail, some of the minuter indications of human character.”
But, though his mode and manner won me ; though I perceived also that he was anything but a man of one idea; though I knew it was admitted, on all hands, not only that he was an excellent anatomist and physiologist, but that his analysis of the mind — the division of its powers and attributes into the various propensities, sentiments, perceptive and reasoning faculties— evinced a careful study of mental philosophy ; yet in that first interview I was able to assent only to a few general deductions : as that the frontal organs correspond to the intellectual powers ; the sincipital, to the moral sentiments ; the basilar, to the lower propensities. I could follow him when he went on to affirm that when the mass of brain contained in the basilar and occipital regions is less than that contained in the frontal and sincipital, the man, as a general rule, is superior to the average of his fellows ; though it is to be conceded that too great a disparity indicates a lack of animal energy, — often a serious deficiency. Nor did I dissent from his opinion, that, take the average heads of mankind, savage and civilized, in our day, the basilar and occipital masses of brain exceed the frontal and sincipital : a fact, it seemed to me, to which my good father was not wont to give sufficient heed.
The theory of craniology, however, in its details, struck me, on this first presentation, as vague and fanciful ; and when Dr. Spurzheim, as I took leave of him, said that if I would call on him again he would give me a chart of my head, I resolved, in partial satisfaction of my doubts, to try an experiment ; and since one purpose of an autobiography is to furnish to its readers materials for a thorough acquaintance with the autobiographer, I shall here chronicle the result of that experiment, at expense, it may be, of incurring the charge of egotism.
There was at that time in London a Mr. De Ville, a lecturer on phrenology, a man of limited literary and scientific knowledge as compared to Spurzheim, but an industrious and critical observer, who had made the best collection of casts and skulls in England, larger even than that of Dr. Spurzheim himself. To him I went ; and finding that he furnished to visitors, for a moderate compensation, a written statement of their cranial developments, I asked for mine. As soon as I received it, I went straight to Dr. Spurzheim to pay him my second visit; obtained the promised chart from him also, without showing him De Ville’s, and brought both home to compare them. They coincided much more nearly than I had imagined they would.
The degrees of comparison indicated were five : 1. Predominant ; 2. Large ; 3. Rather large; 4. Full; 5. Small. I have before me Spurzheim’s estimation, with De Ville’s added in parentheses whenever there was a variation of opinion, which I here copy : —
1. ORGANS PREDOMINANT.
Comparison. (D. V., 2.)
Firmness. (D. V., 2.)
Love of offspring. (D. V., 2.)
Love of approbation. (D. V., 2.)
Locality. (D. V., 2.)
Eventuality. (D. V., 4.)
2. ORGANS LARGE.
Ideality. (D. V., 1.)
Constructiveness. (D. V., 1.)
Individuality. (D. V., 1)
Form. (D. V., 1.)
Destructiveness. (D. V., 3.)
Imitation. (D. V., 3.)
Secretiveness. (D. V., 5.)
Hope. (D. V., 2.)
Veneration. (D. V., 2.)
Calculation. (D. V., 3.)
Combativeness. (D. V., 3.)
Time. (D. V., 3.)
Thus, with a range of five figures indicating size of organs, it will be observed —
That thirteen out of the thirty organs examined correspond to a single figure.
That thirteen more differ a single figure only.
Therefore that there are four organs only, out of thirty, as to which the variation is more than one degree out of five, while only one of these differs more than two figures.
Four organs were set down by both examiners as dominant ; namely, Benevolence, Conscientiousness, Adhesiveness, Causality.
Five were set down as very large by Spurzheim, but as large only by De Ville ; namely, Firmness, Love of Offspring, Love of Approbation, Comparison, Locality.
Three were set down as very large by De Ville, but as large only by Spurzheim ; namely, Ideality, Constructiveness, and Individuality.
At home, before visiting De Ville, I had questioned my conscience and set down, as honestly and accurately as I was able, my own estimate. It corresponded, in a general way, to the above, except that I had not felt justified in naming more than one organ (Adhesiveness) as predominant, and had rated the others which were esteemed predominant by Spurzheim and De Ville as large only.
I incline to the opinion that Spurzheim was right in giving me somewhat more Firmness and Comparison, and somewhat less Ideality and Constructiveness than De Ville ; and that, on the other hand, De Ville was right in giving me somewhat more Hope, Veneration, and Form (especially Hope), and somewhat less Imitation and Locality, than Spurzheim. As to Eventuality (the only organ in which there was a variation of three figures), I think the truth lies between the two.
The substantial accordance between these two charts of character gave me somewhat increased confidence in the phrenological mapping of the skull. The fact that the character thus ascribed to me was a good one may very likely have tended to influence my judgment in the same direction. The readers of this Autobiography, if I live to complete it, will have the means of judging, to a certain extent, how far the two best phrenologists then in England succeeded, or failed, in deciding correctly in my case.
I am afraid that if the above should fall into the hands of some good people with conservative tendencies, who know me by report only, it will weaken their faith in Spurzheim and De Ville’s sagacity as phrenologists. I speak of those who may have thought of Robert Dale Owen as a visionary dreamer, led away by fancy into the region of the marvellous, there to become an advocate of the wild belief that occasional intervention from another world in this is not a superstitious delusion, but a grand reality. To such persons the assertion in which both these observers unite — namely, that Causality, or the reasoning power, is a predominating faculty in my brain, while Marvellousness is one of its smallest organs — will appear incredible.
When I come to relate, as I propose to do, the origin and progress of my connection, many years later in life, with the Spiritual movement, there will be means of judging whether my opinion touching intercommunion between two phases of human existence is based on logical premises, or is due to a love of the marvellous, outrunning practical experience and sound discretion.
Here I am reminded that, some thirty years before I myself held this opinion, I came in contact with a noted person who suffered severely, a few years after I saw him, for entertaining somewhat similar views. I am not sure whether it was during the visit to London of which I am now writing or during a previous visit in 1823, that I accompanied my father to hear a remarkable sermon from a very remarkable man.
Few of the present generation think of the Rev. Edward Irving except perhaps as a superstitious enthusiast ; yet, with all his eccentricities, he was a man eminently worth knowing and listening to. Educated to the Scottish Church, his powers as a public teacher, brilliant at once and logical, were first discovered by Dr. Chalmers, whose assistant he was for three years. Within a few months after he was called to the Caledonian Church, Hatton Garden, London, he became the most popular preacher of his day. Tickets of admission, by which alone outsiders could have a chance to hear him, were eagerly sought after ; and the two which admitted my father and myself were obtained as a special favor. The highest nobility, the most eminent men of science, literary and fashionable celebrities, famous beauties, judges, distinguished barristers, noted members of Parliament, all pressed in crowds to his weekly services. We found every street that led to his church literally encumbered with stylish equipages ; and though we had gone early, it was with great exertions that we penetrated the excited throng, barely in time to get seats.
But we were rewarded. The personal appearance of the speaker at once arrested my attention. Over six feet high, limbs and body finely proportioned, the ample forehead surmounted by a mass of jet-black hair, parted in the centre and dropping in curls on his shoulders; the features regular and expressive, especially the piercing dark eyes (their effect somewhat marred, however, by a squint) ; a stately bearing, and a majestic style of eloquence, such as might befit an apostle, conscious of a mission from on high ; gestures sometimes, indeed, outré, even fantastic, yet often startlingly emphatic,1 — everything about him was strange, strong, telling. The man himself and his wierd aspect at first engrossed one’s thoughts ; yet when he fairly warmed to his subject, and the stirring tones of a voice at once persuasive and commanding gradually asserted their magnetic power, one forgot the speaker and all his peculiarities, listening, not to the words, but to the thoughts, fiery and earnest, — thoughts, one instinctively felt, that had their origin down in the depths of conscientious conviction.
Wedlock was the theme ; and it was treated by comparing with the true marriage of soul and spirit the fashionable espousals, based on mercenary motive and worldly calculation.
First he portrayed, in terms which lost none of their force by quaint old turns of expression, the self-forgetting devotion of two faithful hearts. “ They see through a sweet glamour,” he said, “yet what they see is more real than all other sublunary things. How fair and pleasant are they to each other, yea, altogether lovely ! All that is blithe and beautiful upon earth is the interpreter of their love. The voice of birds echoes it. The flowers, fresh with heaven’s dew, are its expounders. ‘ I am my beloved’s ’ (the virgin saith), ‘and my beloved is mine.’ Her desire is unto him by day and night; in dream her soul waketh to his image. He counts his life as nothing for her sake : the world of happiness is where she is ; he has none other. Everything about her has an unutterable charm. Her eyes are dove’s eyes and they overcome him ; her breath is like the zephyr that has swept the spices of Araby. Yet there is between them a mutual enchantment far deeper, more holy, than any idolatry of person. When they stand up at God’s altar, invoking on their young affection ecclesiastical blessing, the inner cry is, ‘ O thou whom my soul loveth ! ’ It is a mating of the spiritual and the eternal. The Church but records vows long since plighted in the heart of hearts ; and there is a transcript of the record in Heaven’s chancery. God looks down, well pleased ; for his children have fulfilled his law.”
Much more in the same strain he said, and then he paused. I awoke from the spell which his words had cast over me, to a consciousness of the breathless silence that had settled down on that vast, dense audience. Every eye was strained on the speaker, and for the moment I realized, what I had heard said, that Irving’s face, in some of his moods of benignant majesty, recalled certain ideals of Christ, as rendered by the old masters. But the moment after the likeness had vanished. The benignity was gone, replaced by a glance of scorn and reprobation. When he first resumed, his tones were passionless and stern, kindling, however, as he went on : —
“ Sometimes God has to look down on feelings and doings far other than these. I see two men, hard-eyed, parchment-faced, seated over a table, in a large, dingy office, amid dusty tomes and time-stained documents. They are doctors of the law. I hear them debating of moneys, stocks, securities, estates in tail, messuages, settlements. Each is driving a hard bargain with the other. They dispute, they wrangle, they recriminate. Of a surety their clients must be adversaries, disposed to sue each other at the law and take coat and cloak and whatever else they can clutch. Nay, I am deceived ! They seem to be gambling agents, adventuring heavy stakes ; for I hear the advocate of one party casting birth and station into the scale as weighty considerations ; while the counsel for the other offsets these with cash in bank and great expectations contingent on a life that has already stretched out to threescore years and ten.
“ What is it all about ? Ah ! it is a terrible desecration of sacred things. It is a laying of sacreligious hands on that which is holy as the ark of the covenant, even upon human love, — love, brighter than hope, greater than faith ; love that is more precious than rubies, fairer, in its purity, than the rose of Sharon or the lily of the valley. Two immortal souls are waiting, ere they decide the greatest of all life questions, the issue of that miserable squabble over earthly hoards. If the hagglers who represent them can only agree, two young hearts may be allowed to set about trying whether they can manage to take a fancy for each other ; or whether, dispensing with fancy as a vain thing, they will suffer to be uttered the solemn declaration that God himself has joined them together until death. Have they forgotten that He hears and sees them ?
“ Let rank and fashion take thought, ere it is too late ! Is not the heart of every creature God has made a little temple dedicate to him, consecrate to his worship? But what shall be done unto those who profane the dwelling of the Most High,— moneychangers in the Holy of Holies? When God’s Son walked the earth, what was the fate of such, at his hands ? They were cast out,—cast out! Christ drove forth, as malefactors, those who bought and sold in the Temple, saying: ‘ It is written, My house shall be made the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.’ ”
Some of the words, as they linger in my memory, I have given ; but the voice, the gesture, the ardent, fearless bearing, as of one having authority, cannot be transferred to paper. I heard, through the death-like stillness with which the closing denunciation was received, the rustle of rich silks, as if their owners stirred uneasily on their seats.
Irving’s hold on the public mind was afterwards lost almost as suddenly as it had been won. Certain remarkable phenomena, purporting to be words spoken under supernatural influence, sometimes in English, sometimes in forms of language unknown, appeared in his congregation, were accepted as real and reported by Irving himself to Fraser’s Magazine. They were, doubtless, similar in character to what are now termed spiritual manifestations.
Thereupon this ‘once celebrated preacher not only forfeited his popularity, but was deposed, on a charge of heresy, by the Presbytery of Annan, his native place. Yet so sound a thinker as Baden Powell expresses, in his paper among the Oxford Essays, his conviction that the phenomena in question, though not miraculous, were genuine. 2
I met, in London, several members of a very remarkable family, possessing, I think, more practical ability, administrative and deliberative, than I have ever since found united in any one household ; a family deserving well of their country, and every member of which has since made his mark, in one department or other ; the Hills, formerly of Hazelwood, Birmingham.
At that time Rowland Hill, afterwards to become one of the benefactors of his race, had removed from Birmingham and was engaged, with one or two of his brothers, in an educational enterprise at Bruce Castle, a handsome country-seat six miles from London, with extensive pleasuregrounds, There I visited them, and found some seventy students. The institution was admirably conducted, as indeed everything was which they undertook ; and I remember wishing that more of England’s aristocratic mansions might be similarly transformed. A few days afterwards I met the barrister of the family (Matthew) at the Strand Club, a debating society to which he belonged ; and listened to an admirable and thoroughly practical speech by him in favor of “ The Co-operative System of Political Economy,” that being the subject of the evening’s debate. No allusion was made to my father, nor to any of his peculiar opinions on theology or ethics ; and, young as I was, I saw how wisely Mr. Hill managed his case ; refraining from mixing up a great industrial question with any extraneous matter; thus evading prejudices and evoking a decision on the simple issue he presented.
It was ten years later that Rowland Hill brought before the public that scheme of cheap postage with which his name is indissolubly connected, and for his services in connection with which he was created a knight, — a distinction often bestowed for trivial merit, or no merit at all, but never more worthily conferred than on him : a paltry reward it was for eminent desert.
Some great inventions have two aspects ; they speedily influence moral and social, as well as physical advancement: others, for the time, affect only the material progress of the world. Of this latter class was Arkwright’s (spoken of in a former paper), which revolutionized the mode of producing all the textile fabrics in the world. Of the former class is the steam-engine. While it drives the vast cotton-mill, or drains the deep mine, it is a physical agent only ; but as locomotive on the railway track, it becomes a civilizing agency of wonderful power, bringing human hearts and minds nearer to each other. So of Morse’s invention, which tends to knit and unite the social fabric. Steam and the electric wires probably saved to us our Pacific possessions as an integral part of the Union, at a time when there was serious risk of disruption, not between North and South only, but between East and distant West.
But, aside from local effects, the influence of rapid intercommunication, is ever wholesome and beneficent. It has been said, and I incline to believe, that, in the next world, our wishes will correspond to locomotion ; we shall be where we desire to be. While the earth-clog of the body clings to us, it must always be an element of isolation, but an element that weighs upon us less and less, as the ages pass. In modes of transit we have outgone the race-horse at his utmost speed; we may be approaching the fleetness of the carrier-pigeon. In the transmission of thought, bird and racer are already left behind at illimitable distance.
Similar in character was the reform brought about by the clear brain and untiring persistence of Rowland Hill. Whether, when I met him at Bruce Castle, he had conceived the idea of postal reform, I cannot say ; so far as I remember, he did not broach it to me; but I know he communicated the details of his plan to Robert Owen, before the public had an inkling of it, and that my father gave him, not only encouragement in words, but essential aid.
It created an entire revolution in the English post-office system, relieving letter-writers, on the average, from more than nine tenths of the cost of correspondence. Its success was marvellous, far exceeding the sanguine expectations of its author ; and that success was even greater in its social than in its economical aspect. Sir Rowland told me, I think in 1860, that the number of letters then yearly posted in the twelve miles square which then constituted the London postal district, and addressed to persons living within that district, was equal to the entire number of letters that had been posted and delivered annually, only twenty years earlier, throughout the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. The practical result, in a social aspect, was that friends and acquaintances had been induced to converse by letter at least ten times as often as before.
One can say of Hill’s postal system — what cannot be said of a hundred other advances — that it resulted in even greater benefit to the poor than to the rich. A shilling, formerly the common postage for a single letter, was the sacrifice of nearly a day’s wages for a common laborer; but Hill enabled him to send twelve letters for the same amount. And in this case the gain was secured without any attendant injury or risk. Railroads and telegraphs fall into the hands of gigantic corporations, with much power, indeed, for good, but with possibilities for grave evil, both financial and political. Then, too, a factory system, which brings hundreds of young children together, in one vast, overheated building, offers us, it is true, cottons and woollens at a low rate ; but, in the Old World especially,holds childhood’s health and wellbeing at rate as cheap. The children, in many manufacturing districts, like the young nomadic swarms in the courts and alleys of our great cities, have no child’s life ; neither fresh air, nor bright sun, nor joyous game, nor any of the gay fancies or exuberant spirits or vaguely blissful life-dreams that haunt happy youngsters who can roam field or forest at free will. I remember well how my father mourned the change which, after forty years' absence, he found in his native place, Newtown. It lived in his recollection humble and homely in its ways, but cheerful and care-free also. No factory bell calling little children from their beds at daybreak; village ways and village freedom. In those days they had taken all things easily. Saturday was, by common usage, a holiday, when half the population, young and old, had been wont to gather on the public green, to watch the good old game of fives (now crowded out by more ambitious novelties), played against the high and wide blank wall of some public building hard by. But with the lapse of years there had come a shadow over the place. He found it a busy, bustling, manufacturing town, producing beautifully figured Welsh flannels ; but no holidays, no village games, no childhood life of glee ; wealthier, no doubt, by statistical returns ; for census-takers do not register content, nor freedom, nor rural mirth.
Goldsmith’s lines have a wider range of truth in England to-day than when he wrote them : —
Those calm desires that asked but little room,
Those healthful sports that graced the peaceful scence,—
Lived in each look, and brightened all the green, —
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.”
Thus, if Rowland Hill’s postal reform has done less extended good throughout the world than the agencies of steam and electricity, it has, at least, been good unmixed with evil ; no drawback of overgrown wealth or power, often abused ; no oppression of children ; no gain for the rich at expense of the poor : and all that goes for much in a world where evil hangs on the skirts of good, and where we have ever to ask ourselves, each time that the tree of knowledge, shaken, drops its fruit, whether mankind, for the time being, have been the gainers or the losers thereby.
I made the acquaintance, during this visit to London, of one of those celebrities, appearing from time to time, who are a riddle even to their best friends, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, author of the Improvisatrice, the Troubadour, and many minor pieces which appeared occasionally (under the signature L. E. L.) in the (London) Literary Gazette, then edited by Jerdan. Her poetry was usually characterized by deep feeling, sad and romantic ; and it had won her for the time a brilliant reputation, albeit it has scarcely outlasted the age in which she wrote. She and Thomas Moore were, in my early youth, my favorite poets ; and I had read, I think, almost every line she ever published. Great was my amazement when I met the writer ! Pretty, careless, it seemed, lively, with just a touch of flippancy in her manner, she took pains to disclaim all tender or profound emotion ; speaking jestingly of everything that savored of enthusiasm, and declaring that whatever of sentimental appeared in her poetry was but a dressed-up copy of what others had felt and expressed, and had never actually come from her own heart. The real things, she was wont to say, were good dinners, nice suppers, handsome apartments in busy London (far preferable to the dull country !), an equipage, and all the appointments of distinguished society. I was reminded of her many years after, by a stylish young lady to whom I was introduced one evening during supper, at the La Pierre House in Philadelphia (famed for its larder), who said little until she had tasted a smoking dish which the waiter had just set before her ; but then she thawed out, exclaiming enthusiastically, “ Well, this world is worth living in after all, as long as such tenderloin steak as this is to be had in it.”
But though Miss Landon thus sought to make herself out a mere worldly character, I do not think that she really was so. She remained to the last the cherished favorite of a circle of warm and devoted friends ; but selfishness does not win and retain for itself the love and devotion of those who see it and feel it for years in daily life. She gave me the impression of a dejected woman,whose heart had been wronged, and who thought to face it out, by deriding the dreams she had failed to realize. I do not believe that she was devoid of the devoted affection she had so often and so charmingly portrayed. As Maria Edgeworth has somewhere said, genuine feeling is seldom successfully counterfeited ; the tone of simulated emotion is pitched either too high or too low, as deaf persons bawl or speak in a whisper.
I think Miss Landon’s mocking spirit was the result of some bitter, unacknowledged disappointment in early life. Here and there, in her writings, the same spirit crops out, as in some lines the concluding stanzas of which, as I remember them, read:—
The iris’s dyes,
The light in the opal,
The April day skies,—
Would they be lovely,
As all of them are,
But for the chance
And the change that are there?
I will give none of mine:
Love should light in an instant,
As quickly decline.
His blushes, his sighs
Are bewildering things;
Then away with his fetters,
And give me his wings !
Miss Landon was but twenty-five when I met her. Her after story was a sad one. At the age of thirty-six she married a Mr. Maclean, who had been appointed governor of a British settlement on the coast of Africa. Bulwer (not then Lord Lytton) gave her away. At the wedding breakfast a large number of literary celebrities were present, and more than one of these took occasion to express, in flattering terms, their high appreciation of the amiable and talented lady from whom they were now, alas ! about to part, perhaps for long years. In reply the bridegroom rose and, in the coolest tone, said “he hoped Mrs. Maclean would deserve these encomiums,” Years afterwards, Bulwer, relating the circumstances to an intimate friend,* added : “ Imagine what a shock it must have been to us ! The poor bride turned pale as a sheet ; and not a guest at the table but deplored her fate.”
It is inconceivable how any man, with the slightest pretension, one need not say to conjugal affection, but to the common amenities of social life, could have uttered the coarse, unfeeling words. When one reads that, after the lapse of a single year, the wife died at Cape Coast Castle and was buried on a rude African shore, one need not credit a vague rumor which had a certain currency at the time, that she hastened her escape from a wedded lot too hard to bear. Grief, isolation, and an unhealthy climate, acting on a frail body and a sensitive nature, sufficiently account for premature death.
A shudder went through the literary circles of London when her fate was announced, — a shudder, and probably a sigh of relief and an application (one word changed) of a well-known line,
I spent some very pleasant weeks in London, making the acquaintance of George Combe, whose work on the Constitution of Man had recently been published, and with whom I remember I had a long argument on what I deemed his unqualified optimism, as there set forth. I should agree with him now better than I did then. I had previously made the acquaintance of his elder brother, Abram, a man not inferior in talent to the rest of that remarkable family, and whose early death was a loss to the world. Pickersgill, the artist, then at the height of his reputation, I met several times ; and his daughters, at that time from fifteen to twenty years of age and equally intelligent and amiable, interested me exceedingly. Pickersgill expressed to me his intention to paint a full-length portrait of my father ; but this intention was never, I believe, carried out. James Mill, the political economist, I saw once or twice ; he seemed to me equally cold and logical. I regretted much not to be able further to cultivate the acquaintance of these and of many others whose names have escaped me.
Despite their shortcomings, I like the English. Theirs is not the highest character, but it has noble elements, — energy, earnestness, hardihood, directness, great power intellectual and practical.
It is not the highest. It falls sadly short of Christ’s standard, as set forth, in a moment of inspiration, by converted Paul. We cannot say of the typical Englishman, that he suffereth long and is kind ; that he vaunteth not himself, is not puffed up, seeketh not his own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil ; nor yet that he beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Like us, their legitimate descendants, the English exhibit a self-sufficiency somewhat of the Pharisaical stamp, which thanks God that it is not as other men, or even as these French, Spaniards, Italians. They overlook the fact that less sturdy races have their compensating qualities, and that they themselves would have been vastly improved if a portion of the geniality and light-heartedness of the Southern temperament had fallen to their lot. As it is, they are estimable rather than amiable, and their perceptions of justice are quicker than their emotions of mercy.
Yet, withal, there is a ring in the metal of the English character, like that in some verses of Charles Kingsley, — verses which indicate one of the influences that may have tended to make the writer’s countrymen the plucky race they are : —
Breathe in lovers’ sighs,
While the lazy gallants
Bask in ladies’ eyes.
What does he but soften
Heart alike and pen ?
’T is the hard gray weather
Breeds hard English men.
Heralded by thee,
Conquering from the eastward,
Lords by land and sea.
Come ! and strong within us
Stir the Viking’s blood,
Bracing bone and sinew ;
Blow, thou wind of God ! ”
There is a bluff good-humor about them, too ; and even an English mob, if the Viking blood be not too savagely stirred, has a rude sense of fair play. It is to be admitted, also, that though the aristocratic classes, with traditional haughtiness, deem the world and its chief seats their own by divine right, — or, as a witty Frenchman3 has phrased it, because they had taken the trouble of being born, — yet a certain nobility of character often shines through the exclusive cloud. The noblesse oblige — elsewhere too often a dead letter — shows as a reality among the better portion of them. George III. introduced General Arnold to Lord Balcarras. “ What, Sire, the traitor Arnold ?" exclaimed the indignant noble, turning away and rejecting, even at the bidding of royalty, the fellowship of dishonor.
The English have not the dash, the élan, of the French. They do not rush impetuously to reform, as did the French revolutionists of 1789. But when they do make a step in advance, they have the solid habit of belaying, as sailors say, — of holding on to all they have got. They would have made more rapid progress in practical reforms than they have but for their stiff persistence, especially as regards the training of the influential classes, in the old ruts. It is Dugald Stewart, I think, who says (I quote from memory) : “ The learned foundations of Europe are not without their use to the historian of the human mind. Immovably moored to the same station, by the strength of their cables and the weight of their anchors, they serve to indicate the velocity with which the rest of the world is borne past them.”
Oxford and Cambridge turn out thorough classical scholars, excellent mathematicians ; yet that goes but a little way toward qualifying a man for public service, legislative or executive. Still, for all, we would ourselves be obliged, perhaps, to go back a generation or two to find, save in exceptional cases, statesmen to match the best among England’s leaders, in sound judgment, breadth of view, and yet more in probity above suspicion. The well-known pamphlet put forth by Alexander Hamilton, in which that statesman frankly confesses a grave transgression, to rebut the false imputation of dishonest meanness in his public capacity, has its bright as well as its dark side. Without extenuating his fault, we may admire his high sense of pecuniary integrity, — a sense that is lacking — alas ! in how many — among our politicians of the present day.
In alluding to the English universities, I am reminded of a story that was related to me in London, at the time of which I am writing, by a gentleman who assured me that the incident happened, substantially as I give it, a few years before. I hope it may amuse some of my readers as much as it did me.
A TALE OF ENGLISH MAIL-COACH DAYS.
AN English gentleman of true John Bull proportions — weighing some eighteen or twenty stone — had occasion to travel in summer by stage-coach from Oxford to London. The stage carried six inside ; and our hero engaged two places (as, in consideration of his size, he usually did) for himself. The other four seats were taken by Oxlord students.
These youths, being lighter than our modern Lambert, reached the stage before he did, and each snugly possessed himself of a corner seat, leaving a centre seat on each side vacant. The round, good-tempered face of John bull soon after appeared at the carriage door; and, peering into the vehicle and observing the local arrangements, its owner said, with a smile, “ You see I am of a pretty comfortable size, gentlemen ; so I have taken two seats. It will greatly oblige me if one of you will kindly move into the opposite seat, so that I may be able to enter.”
“ My good sir,” said a pert young law-student, “ possession is nine tenths of the law. You engaged two seats. There they are, one on each side. We engaged one each, came first, entered regularly into possession, and our titles to the seats we occupy are indisputable.”
“ I do not dispute your titles,” said the other, “but I trust to your politeness, seeing how the case stands, to enable me to pursue my journey.”
“ O, hang politeness ! ” said a hopeful young scion of some noble house, “ I have a horror of a middle seat, and would not take one to oblige my grandmother ; it’s ungraceful as well as uncomfortable ; and, besides, one has no chance of looking at the pretty girls along the road. Good old gentleman, arrange your concerns as you please ; I stick to my corner.” And he leaned back, yawned, and settled himself with hopeless composure in his place.
Our corpulent friend, though a man not easily discomposed, was somewhat put out by this unmannerly obstinacy. He turned to a smart-looking youth with a simper on his face, — a clerical student who had hitherto sat in a revery, possibly thinking over his chances of a rich benefice in the future. “ Will you accommodate me ? ” he asked ; “this is the last stage that starts for London to-day, and business of urgent importance calls me to town.”
“ Some temporal affair, no doubt,” said the graceless youth, with mock gravity ; “some speculation with filthy lucre for its object. Good father, at your age your thoughts should turn heavenward, instead of being confined to the dull, heavy tabernacle of clay that chains us to earth.” And his companions roared with laughter at the “ d—d clever joke.”
A glow of indignation just colored the stranger’s cheek ; but he mastered the feeling in a moment, and said, with much composure, to the fourth, “ Are you also determined that I shall lose my place; or will you oblige me by taking a centre seat ? ”
“ Ay, do, Tom,” said his lordship to the person addressed ; “ he ’s something in the way of your profession, quite a physiological curiosity. You ought to accommodate him.”
“ May I be poisoned if I do ! ” replied the student of medicine. “ In a dissecting-room, he’d make an excellent subject; but in a coach, and this warm weather, too ! Old gentleman, it you 'll put yourself under my care, I ’ll engage in the course of six weeks, by a judicious course of depletives, to save you hereafter the expense of a double seat. But, really, to take a middle seat in the month of July is contrary to all the rules of hygeine, and a practice to which I have a professional objection.”
And the laugh was renewed at the old gentleman’s expense.
By this time the patience of coachee, who had listened to the latter part of the dialogue, was exhausted. “ Harkee, gemmen,” said he, “ settle the business as you like ; but it wants just three quarters of a minute of twelve, and with the first stroke of the University clock my horses must be off. I would not wait three seconds longer for the king, God bless him. ’T would be as much as my place is worth.” And with that he mounted his box, took up the reins, bid the hostler shut the door, and sat with upraised whip, listening for the expected stroke.
As it sounded from the venerable belfry the horses, as if they recognized the signal, shot off at a gallop with the four young rogues, to whom their own rudeness and our fat friend’s dilemma afforded a polific theme for merriment during the whole stage.
Meanwhile the subject of their mirth hired a postchaise, followed and overtook them at the second change of horses, where the passengers got out ten minutes for lunch. As the postchaise drove up to the inn door, two young chimney-sweeps passed with their bags and brooms and their wellknown cry.
“ Come hither, my lads,” said the corpulent gentleman, “what say you to a ride ? ”
The whites of their eyes enlarged into still more striking contrast with the dark shades of the sooty cheeks. “ Will you have a ride, my boys, in the stage-coach ?”
“ Ees. zur,” said the elder, scarcely daring to trust the evidence of his ears.
“ Well, then, hostler, open the stagedoor. In with yon ! And. d’ ye hear? be sure to take the two middle seats; so, one on each side.”
The guard’s horn sounded, and conchee’s voice was heard : “ Only one minute and a half more, gen’lemen ; come on ! ”
They came, bowed laughingly to our friend of the corporation, and passed on to the coach. The young lord was the first to put his foot on the steps. “Why, how now, coachee ? What confounded joke is this ! Get out, you rascals, or I ’ll teach you how to play gentlemen such a trick again.”
“Sit still, my lads; you’re entitled to your places. My lord, the two middle seats, through your action and that of your young friends, are mine ; they were regularly taken and duly paid for. I choose that two protégés of mine shall occupy them. An English stage-coach is free to every one who behaves quietly, and I am answerable for their good conduct; so mind you behave, boys! Your lordship has a horror of a middle seat ; pray take the corner one.”
“ Overreached us, by Jove ! ” said the law student. “ We give up the cause, and cry you mercy, Mr. Bull.”
“ Blythe is my name.”
“ We cry quits, worthy Mr. Blythe ”
“ You forget that possession is nine tenths of the law, my good sir, and that the title of these lads to their seats is indisputable. I have installed them as my locum tenentes, if that he good law Latin. It would be highly unjust to dislodge the poor youths, and I cannot permit it. You have your corner.”
“Heaven preserve us!” exclaimed the clerical student.
“ You are surely not afraid of a black coat,” retorted the other. “ Besides, we ought not to suffer our thoughts to dwell on petty earthly concerns, but to turn them heavenward.”
“ I 'd rather go through my examination a second time than to sit by these dirty devils,” groaned the medical student.
“ Soot is perfectly wholesome, my young friend ; and you will not be compelled to violate a single hygienic rule. The corner you selected is vacant. Pray get in.”
At these words, coachee, who had stood grinning behind,actually cheated into forgetfulness of time by the excellence of the joke, came forward. “ Gentlemen, you have lost me a minute and a quarter already. I must drive on without ye, if so be ye don’t like your company.”
The students cast rueful glances at each other, and then crept warily into their respective corners. As the hostler shut the door he found it impossible to control his features. “ I ’ll give you something to change your cheer, you grinning rascal !” said the disciple of Æsculapius, stretching out of the window ; but the hostler nimbly evaded the blow.
“My white pantaloons!” cried the lord.
“ My beautiful drab surtout ! ” exclaimed the lawyer expectant. “The filthy rascals ! ”
The noise of the carriage-wheels and the unrestrained laughter of the spectators drowned the sequel of their lamentations.
At the next stage a bargain was struck. The sweeps were liberated and dismissed with a gratuity ; the seats shaken and brushed ; the worthy sons of the university made up, among themselves, the expenses of the postchaise ; the young doctor violated, for once, the rules of hygiene, by taking a middle seat ; and all journeyed on together, without further quarrel or grumbling, except from coachee, who declared that “ to be kept over time a minute and a quarter at one stage and only three seconds less than three minutes at the next was enough to try the patience of a saint ; that it was ! ”
I left England in November, 1S27, to take up my permanent residence in the United States, accompanying my father, who sailed for New Orleans. Ascending the Mississippi, I spent several weeks at Nashoba ; satisfied myself that Frances Wright’s experiment there was a pecuniary failure ; received a letter from my father, urging me to come to his aid in settling matters at New Harmony; obeyed the summons, and succeeded in enabling him to get rid of certain swindlers to whom he had given unmerited confidence ; spent the summer of 1828 chiefly in editing the New Harmony Gazette, and toward the close of that year engaged in an enterprise which many may deem Quixotic,— reasonably enough too, perhaps.
In those days I had not before my eyes the fear of that French poet who, looking to comfort and an easy life, and thinking these to be best assured by letting other people alone, declared,
I saw what seemed to me grievous errors and abuses, and must needs intermeddle, hoping to set things right. Up to what point I succeeded, and how far, for lack of experience, I failed, or fell short of my views, some of those who have followed me thus far may wish to know.
But here ends the first portion of my life, during which my home was in the Old World and in my native land. These were the tentative years, the years throughout which I was proving all things and seeking for that which is good. Up to that time 1 seem to myself to have been but threading my way ; and I thought I had found it. I had energy, moral courage, eagerness to render service in the cause of truth, and a most overweening opinion of the good which I imagined that I could do, in the way of enlightening my fellow-creatures. It needed quarter of a century more to teach me how much that intimately regards man’s welfare and advancement, moral and spiritual, had till then been to me a sealed book ; to bring home the conviction that I stood but on the very threshold of the most important knowledge that underlies the civilization of our race.
Dating from the period which this Autobiography has reached, guided by such experience as I then had, my life was to be in the main a public one, active and stirring. Hereafter I may be able, life and health permitting, to relate the more interesting of its varied experiences ; the scene being chiefly in our own country, but sometimes on the continent of Europe.
If these shall be received with the same kindness with which I gratefully acknowledge that the press —and let me hope the readers of this magazine — have accepted the preceding chapters, I shall not regret having undertaken what is a somewhat perilous task. —the writing of a book chiefly filled with talk about one’s self.
Robert Dale Owen.
- The story ran that, ere he left Edinburgh, he was wont to rise in the night, pluck the blanket from his bed, cast it around his person after the fashion of a Spanish mantle, and study gestures and declamation by the hour before a large mirror. Who knows what ambitious visions of future distinction may then have been passing through the young Scotchman’s mind?↩
- “The master,” he says “was closely scrutinized and inquired into at the time, and unprejudiced and even sceptical persons were fully convinced that certain extraordinary manifestations did occur.'' (Italics in original.) He thinks “ they were, in some way, to be ascribed to natural causes as yet, perhaps, little understood.” —Recent Inquiries in Theology, p. 122.↩
- From whom I had this anecdote.↩
- “ Noblesse, fortune, un rang, des places: tout cela rend si fier ! Qu’avez vous fait pour tant de biens? Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus.” — BEAUMARCHAIS, Le Mariage de Figaro, Acte V., Scène 3.↩