Old Woman's Gossip
I CANNOT remember any event or series of events the influence of which could, during my first stay in Edinburgh, have made a distinctly serious or religious impression on my mind, or have directed my thoughts especially towards the more solemn concerns and aspects of life. But from some cause or other my mind became much affected at this time by religious considerations, and a strong devotional element began to predominate among my emotions and cogitations. In my childhood in my father’s house we had no special religious training; our habits were those of average English Protestants of decent respectability. My mother read the Bible to us in the morning before breakfast; Mrs. Trimmer’s and Mrs. Barbauld’s Scripture histories and paraphrases were taught to us; we learnt our catechism and collects, and went to church on Sunday, duly and decorously, as a matter of course. Grace was always said before and after meals by the youngest member of the family present, and I remember a quaint, oldfashioned benediction which, when my father happened to be at home at our bedtime, we used to kneel down by his chair to receive, and with which he used to dismiss us for the night: “ God bless you! make you good, happy, healthy, and wise! ” These, with our own daily morning and evening prayers, were our devotional habits and pious practices. In Mrs. Harry Siddons’s house religion was never, I think, directly made a subject of inculcation or discussion; the usual observances of Church of England people were regularly fulfilled by all her family, the spirit of true religion governed her life and all her home relations, but special, direct reference to religious subjects was infrequent among us. God’s service in that house took the daily and hourly form of the conscientious discharge of duty, unselfish, tender affection towards each other, and kindly Christian charity towards all. At various times in my life, when hearing discussions on the peculiar (technical, I should be disposed to call it) profession and character supposed by some very good people of a certain way of thinking to be the only indication of what they considered real religion, I have remembered the serene, courageous self-devotion of my dear friend, when, during a dangerous (as it was at one time apprehended, fatal) illness of her youngest daughter, she would leave her child’s bedside to go to the theatre and discharge duties never very attractive to her, and rendered distasteful then by cruel anxiety, but her neglect of which would have injured the interests of her brother, her fellow - actors, and all the poor people employed in the theatre, and been a direct infringement of her obligations to them. I have wondered what amount of religion a certain class of “ professing Christians” would have allowed entered into that great effort. We attended habitually a small chapel served by the Rev. William Shannon, an excellent but not exciting preacher, who was a devoted friend of Mrs. Harry Siddons; and occasionally we went to Dr. Allison’s church and heard him — then an old man — preach, and sometimes his young assistant, Mr. Sinclair, whose eloquent and striking sermons, which impressed me much, were the only powerful direct appeals made to my religious sentiments at that time. I rather incline to think that I had what a most unclerical young clergyman of my acquaintance once assured me I had (and which he certainly had not), a natural turn for religion. I think it not unlikely that a great deal of the direct religious teaching and influences of my Paris school-days was, as it were, coming up again to the surface of my mind, and occupying my thoughts with serious reflections upon the most important subjects. The freedom I enjoyed gave scope and leisure to my character to develop and strengthen itself; and to the combined healthful repose and activity of all my faculties, the absence of all excitement and irritation from external influences, the pure moral atmosphere and kindly affection by which I lived surrounded during this happy year, I attribute whatever perception of, desire for, or endeavor after goodness I was first consciously actuated by. In the rest and liberty of my life at this time, I think, whatever was best in me had the most favorable chance of growth, and I have remained ever grateful to the wise forbearance of the gentle authority under which I lived, for the benefit as well as the enjoyment I derived from the time I passed in Edinburgh. I think that more harm is frequently done by over than by under culture in the moral training of youth. Judicious letting alone is a precious element in real education, and there are certain chords which, often touched and made to vibrate too early, are apt to lose instead of gaining power; to grow first weakly and morbidly sensitive, and then hard and dull; and finally, when the full harmony of the character depends upon their truth and depth of tone, to have lost some measure of both under repeated premature handling.
I sometimes think that instead of beginning, as we do, with a whole heaven and earth embracing theory of duty to God and man, it might be better to adopt with our children the method of dealing only with each particular instance of moral obligation empirically as it occurs; with each particular incident of life, detached, as it were, from the notion of a formal system, code, or theory of religious belief, until the recurrence of the same rules of morality under the same governing principle, invoked only in immediate application to some instance of conduct or incident of personal experience, built up by degrees a body of precedent which would have the force and efficacy of law before it was theoretically inculcated as such. Whoever said that principles were moral habits spoke, it seems to me, a valuable truth, not generally sufficiently recognized or acted upon in the task of education.
The only immediate result, that I can remember, of my graver turn of thought at this time upon my conduct was a determination to give up reading Byron’s poetry. It was a great effort and a very great sacrifice, for the delight I found in it was intense; but I was quite convinced of its injurious effect upon me, and I came to the conclusion that I would forego it. Cain and Manfred were more especially the poems that stirred my whole being with a tempest of excitement that left me in a state of mental perturbation impossible to describe, for a long time after reading them. I suppose the great genius touched in me the spirit of our time, which, chit as I was, was common to us both; and the mere fact of my being un enfant du siècle rendered me liable to the infection of the potent, proud, desponding bitterness of his writing.
The spirit of an age creates the spirit that utters it, and though Byron’s genius stamped its impress powerfully upon the thought and feeling of his contemporaries, he was himself, after all, but a sort of quintessence of them, and gave them back only an intensified, individual extract of themselves. The selfish vanity and profligate vice which he combined with his extraordinary intellectual gifts were as peculiar to himself as his great mental endowments; and though fools may have followed the fashion of his follies, the heart of all Europe was not stirred by a fashion of which he set the example, but by a passion for which he found the voice, indeed, but of which the key - note lay in the very temper of the time and the souls of the men of his day. Goethe, Alfieri, Châteaubriand, each in his own language and with his peculiar national and individual accent uttered the same mind; they stamped their own image and superscription upon the coin to which, by so doing, they gave currency, but the mine from whence they drew their metal was the civilized humanity of the nineteenth century. It is true that some of Solomon’s Coining rings not unlike Goethe’s and Byron’s, but Solomon forestalled his day in being blasé before the nineteenth century. Doubtless the recipe for that result has been the same for individuals ever since the world rolled, but only here and there a great king, who was also a great genius, possessed it in the earlier times; it took all the ages that preceded it to make the blasé age, and Byron, preëminently, to speak its mind in English, — which he had no sooner done than every nineteenth - century shop - boy in England quoted Byron, wore his shirtcollar open, and execrated his destiny. Doubtless, by grace of his free will, a man may wring every drop of sap out of his own soul and help his fellows likeminded with himself to do the same: but the everlasting spirit of truth renews the vitality of the world, and while Byron was growling and howling, and Shelley was denying and defying, Scott was telling, and Wordsworth singing things beautiful and good, and new and true. Certain it is, however, that the noble poet’s glorious chanting of much inglorious matter did me no good, and so I resolved to read that grand poetry no more. It was a severe struggle, but I persevered in it for more than two years, and had my reward; I broke through the thralldom of that powerful spell, and all the noble beauty of those poems remained to me thenceforth divested of the power of wild excitement they had exercised over me. A great many years after this girlish effort and sacrifice, Lady Byron, who was a highly esteemed friend of mine, spoke to me upon the subject of a new and cheap edition of her husband’s works about to be published, and likely to be widely disseminated among the young clerk and shopkeeper class of readers, for whom she deprecated extremely the pernicious influence it was calculated to produce. She consulted me on the expediency of appending to it some notice of Lord Byron written by herself, which she thought might modify or lessen the injurious effect of his poetry upon young minds. “Nobody,” she said, “knew him as I did” (this certainly was not the general impression upon the subject) ; “ nobody knew as well as I the causes that had made him what he was; nobody, I think, is so capable of doing justice to him, and therefore of counteracting the injustice he does to himself and the injury he might do to others in some of his writings.” I was strongly impressed by the earnestness of her expression, which seemed to me one of affectionate compassion for Byron and profound solicitude lest even in his grave he should incur the responsibility of yet further evil influence, especially on the minds of the young. I could not help wondering also whether she did not shrink from being again, to a new generation and a wider class of readers, held up to cruel ridicule and condemnation as the cold-hearted, hard, pedantic prude, without sympathy for suffering or relenting towards repentance. I had always admired the reticent dignity of her silence with reference to her short and disastrous union with Lord Byron, and I felt sorry, therefore, that she contemplated departing from the course she had thus far steadfastly pursued, though I appreciated the motive by which she was actuated. I could not but think, however, that she overestimated the mischief Byron’s poetry was likely to do the young men of 1850, highly prejudicial as it undoubtedly was to those of his day, illustrated, so to speak, by the bad notoriety of his own character and career. But the generation of English youth who had grown up with Thackeray, Dickens, and Tennyson as their intellectual nourishment seemed to me little likely to be infected with Byronism, and might read his poetry with a degree of impunity which the young people of his own time did not enjoy. I urged this as my conviction upon her, as rendering less necessary than she imagined the antidote she was anxious to append to the poison of the new edition of her husband’s works. But to this she replied that she had derived her impression of the probable mischief to a class peculiarly interesting to him, from Frederick Robertson, and of course his opinion was more than an overweight for mine.
Lady Byron did not, however, fulfill her purpose of prefacing the contemplated edition of Byron’s poems with a notice of him by herself, which I think very likely to have been a suggestion of Mr. Robertson’s to her; it is matter of deep regret that the silence she so sacredly kept for so many years, upon the subject of her relations with her husband, should with or without her sanction have been broken by the revival of a hideous scandal dragged up from the oblivion into which it had sunk, to disgust and shock the moral sense of Europe and America.
My happy year in Edinburgh ended, I returned to London, to our house in James Street, Buckingham Gate, where I found my parents much burdened with care and anxiety about the affairs of the theatre, which were rapidly falling into irretrievable embarrassment. My father toiled incessantly, but the tide of illsuccess and losing fortune had set steadily against him, and the attempt to stem it became daily harder and more hopeless. I used sometimes to hear some of the sorrowful details of this dreary struggle, and I well remember the indignation and terror I experienced when one day my father said at dinner, “ I have had a new experience to-day: I have been arrested for the first time in my life.” I believe my father was never personally in debt during all his life; he said he never had been up to that day, and I am very sure he never was afterwards. Through all the severe labor of his professional life, and his strenuous exertions to maintain his family and educate my brothers like gentlemen and my sister and myself with every advantage, he never incurred the misery of falling into debt, but paid his way as he went along, with difficulty, no doubt, but still steadily and successfully, “ owing no man anything.” But the suit in question was brought against him as one of the proprietors of the theatre, for a debt which the theatre owed; and, moreover, was that of a person whom he had befriended and helped forward, and who had always professed the most sincere gratitude and attachment to him.
This was Mr. B―, then a poor and obscure young author, of whose very Considerable abilities my father always spoke warmly while defending him from my mother’s impatient charge of personal vulgarity. I think my mother was too intolerant of what she considered vulgarity and under-breeding in people’s manners; I have sometimes fancied that a vision like St. Peter’s (“ what God hath cleansed,” etc.) might have been serviceable to her and some of her descendants. My poor mother had certainly a bitter triumph she could well have dispensed with, when she heard that this distressing affront had been put upon my father by this — to her — distasteful friend of his. For my own part, great as was my horror then at Mr. B―’s proceeding, I now perfectly understand how a poor literary man (as he then was), working for money and sorely needing the money he had earned, and which the theatre did not pay him, was induced to take the not ill-considered measure of arresting my father, the only one of the partners, or proprietors, whose personal freedom was indispensable to carrying on the concern, who had to act that very evening and was necessarily liberated, I presume by the satisfaction of Mr. B―’s claim against Covent Garden. The constantly darkening prospects of that unlucky theatre threw a gloom over us all; sometimes my father used to speak of selling his share in it for anything he could get for it (and Heaven knows it was not likely to be much!), and going to live abroad; or sending my mother, with us, to live cheaply in the south of France, while he continued to work in London. Neither alternative was cheerful for him or my poor mother, and I felt very sorrowful for them, though I thought I should like living in the south of France better than in London. I was working with a good deal of enthusiasm at a tragedy on the subject of Fiesco, the Genoese noble’s conspiracy against the Dorias, — a subject which had made a great impression upon me when I first read Schiller’s noble play upon it. My own former fancy about going on the stage, and passionate desire for a lonely, independent life in which it had originated, had died away with the sort of moral and mental effervescence which had subsided during my year’s residence in Edinburgh. Although all my sympathy with the anxieties of my parents tended to make the theatre an object of painful interest to me, and though my own attempts at poetical composition were constantly cast in a dramatic form, in spite of my enthusiastic admiration of Goethe’s and Schiller’s plays — which, however, I could only read in French or English translations, for I then knew no German — and my earnest desire to write a good play myself, the idea of making the stage my profession had entirely passed from my mind, which was absorbed with the wish and endeavor to produce a good dramatic composition. The turn I had exhibited for acting at school appeared to have evaporated, and Covent Garden itself never occurred to me as a great institution for purposes of art or enlightened public recreation, but only as my father’s disastrous property, to which his life was being sacrificed; and every thought connected with it gradually became more and more distasteful to me. It appears to me curious that up to this time I literally knew nothing of Shakespeare, beyond having seen one or two of his plays acted; I had certainly never read one of them through, nor did I do so until some time later, when I began to have to learn parts in them by heart. Besides working at my version of Fiesco’s Conspiracy, I wrote great quantities of verses, some of which were rather pretty, but the greater part mere school-girl unconscious imitations of Moore and Byron.
I think the rather serious bias which my mind had developed while I was still in Scotland tended probably to my greater contentment in my home, and to the total disinclination which I should certainly now have felt for a life of public exhibition. My dramatic reading and writing was curiously blended with a very considerable interest in literature of a very different sort, and with the perusal of such works as Mason on SelfKnowledge, Newton’s Cardiphonia, and a great variety of sermons and religious essays. My mother, observing my tendency to reading on religious subjects, proposed to me to take my first communion. She was a member of the Swiss Protestant church, the excellent pastor of which, the Rev. Mr. S―, was our near neighbor, and we were upon terms of the friendliest intimacy with him and his family. In his church I received the sacrament for the first time, but I do not think with the most desirable effect. The only immediate result that I can remember of this increase of my Christian profession and privileges was, I am sorry to say, a rigid, Pharisaical formalism, which I carried so far as to decline accompanying my father and mother to our worthy clergyman’s house, one Sunday, when we were invited to spend the evening with him and his family. This sort of acrid fruit is no uncommon first harvest of youthful religious zeal; and I suppose my parents and my worthy pastor thought it a piece of unripe, childish, impertinent conscientiousness hardly deserving a serious rebuke. The circumstance has been fixed in my memory by the manner in which I passed the evening which I was too godly to spend with my family and Dr. S―. I was reading a book of devotion, when I was suddenly rushed in upon by the housemaid, desiring that I would come and see the cook, who, she said, had had a fit; a doctor had been sent for, upon her and the footman’s responsibility, and when I went to the woman’s room I found her about to be bled, and the housemaid steadily refusing to turn her eyes in the direction of the operation. Anxious to afford whatever assistance I could, I undertook to hold the basin under the arm during the process; but it was the first time I had ever seen living blood flow, and, though I contrived to stand at my post, the dreadful faint sickness that almost overcame me made me remember long after that employment of my peculiarly religious Sunday evening.
The eldest daughter of Dr. S―, Mrs. G―, was a beautiful widow of little more than twenty when I first knew her. She was one of the finest amateur musicians I have ever known; her playing on the piano was admirable. She sang too, and, though her voice was rather thin in quality, her musical knowledge made her a valuable member of our small singing-club; her brother had a good bass voice and musical ear; and with my mother, myself, and my sister, who was gradually developing her fine musical gifts, we and our friendly neighbors used to get up very agreeable family concerts. A pleasant result of which for all parties was the marriage of Mrs. G― to my cousin Horace Twiss, whose first wife had died some years before.
My brother Henry was now a duly enrolled Westminster Blackguard. Of his attendance at that seminary of polite learning I have one droll recollection, which belongs to an “ educational institution,”to speak the American English of the present day, not likely to survive very long the reprobation now generally expressed against it. My sister and myself were sitting at our lessons one morning, when a modest tap at the door was followed by the entrance of an exceedingly delicate, gentleman-like little lad, with my brother’s school-books in his hand, who said, “ If you please, I am Fitz Maurice: and Master Kemble bade me bring his books home and give them to you, if you are his sister.” “ But,” said I to this young sprig of nobility, the son of my afterwards very kind friend, Lord Lansdowne, “ how comes Master Kemble to send you home with his books, instead of carrying them himself?” “Because, if you please, I am his fag,” said the gentle little boy, making us a farewell bow, and vanishing. Henry was a kind-hearted, goodnatured fellow, and I hoped he did not treat his small slave very inhumanly.
Another of my recollections which belong to this time is seeing several times at our house that exceedingly coarse, disagreeable, clever, and witty man, Theodore Hook. I always had a dread of his loud voice, and blazing red face, and staring black eyes; especially as on more than one occasion his after-dinner wit seemed to me fitter for the table he had left than the more refined atmosphere of the drawing-room. One day he dined with us to meet my cousin Horace Twiss and his handsome new wife. Horace had in a lesser degree some of Hook’s wonderful sense of humor and quickness of repartee, and the two men brought each other out with great effect. Of course I had heard of Mr. Hook’s famous reply when, after having returned from the colonies, where he was in an official position, under suspicion of peculation, a friend meeting him said, “ Why, hallo, Hook! I did not know you were in England ! What has brought you back again?” “ Something wrong about the chest,” replied the imperturbable wit. He was at this time the editor of the John Bull, a paper of considerable ability, and only less scurrility than the Age; and in spite of his chest difficulty he was much sought in society for his extraordinary quickness and happiness in conversation. His outrageous hoax of the poor London citizen from whom he extorted an agonized invitation to dinner by making him believe that he and Charles Mathews were public surveyors, sent to make observations for a new road, which was to go straight through the poor shopkeeper’s lawn, flower-garden, and bedroom, he has, I believe, introduced into his novel of Gilbert Gurney. But not, of course, with the audacious extemporaneous song with which he wound up the joke, when, having eaten and drank the poor citizen’s dinner, prepared for a small party of citizen friends (all the time assuring him that he and his friend would use their very best endeavors to avert, the threatened invasion of his property by the new line of road), he proposed singing a song, to the great delight of the unsophisticated society, the concluding verse of which was, —
That your wine is as good as your cook,
And that this is Charles Mathews, the player,
And I, sir, am Theodore Hook.”
He always demanded, when asked for a specimen of his extemporizing power, that a subject should be given to him. I do not remember, on one occasion, what was suggested in the first instance, but after some discussion Horace Twiss cried out, “ The Jews.” It was the time of the first mooting of the question of the Jews being admitted to stand for Parliament and having seats in the House, and party spirit ran extremely high upon the subject. Theodore Hook shrugged his shoulders and made a discontented grimace, as if baffled by his theme, the Jews. however, he went to the piano, threw back his head, and began strumming a galloping countrydance tune, to which he presently poured forth the most inconceivable string of witty, comical, humorous, absurd allusions to everybody present as well as to the subject imposed upon him. Horace Twiss was at that time under-secretary either for foreign affairs or the colonies, and Hook took occasion to say, or rather sing, that the foreign department could have little charms for a man who had so many more in the home, with an indication to Annie Twiss; the final verse of this real firework of wit was this: —
In this, but you’ve all forgot
That instead of being a jeu d’esprit,
’T is only a jeu de mot,”
pronouncing the French words as broadly as possible, " a Jew d’espritt, and ’t is only a Jew de motte,” for the sake of the rhyme, and his subject, the Jews. It certainly was all through a capital specimen of ready humor. I remember on another occasion hearing him exercise his singular gift in a manner that seemed to me as unjustifiable as it was disagreeable. I met him at dinner at Sir John McDonald’s, then adjutant - general, a very kind and excellent friend of mine. Mrs. Norton and Lord C―, who were among the guests, both came late and after we had gone into the dining-room, where they were received with a discreet quantity of mild chaff, Mrs. Norton being much too formidable an adversary to be challenged lightly. After dinner, however, when the men came up into the drawing-room, Theodore Hook was requested to extemporize, and, having sung one song, was about to leave the piano in the midst of the general entreaty that he would not do so, when Mrs. Norton, seating herself close to the instrument so that he could not leave it, said in her most peculiar, deep, soft, contralto voice, which was like her beautiful, dark face set to music, “ I am going to sit down here, and you shall not come away, for I will keep you in like an iron crow.” There was nothing about her manner or look that could suggest anything but a flattering desire to enjoy Hook’s remarkable talent in some further specimen of his power of extemporizing, and therefore I suppose there must have been some previous illwill or heart-burning on his part towards her; she was reckless enough in her use of her wonderful wit and power of saying the most intolerably stinging things, to have left a smart on some occasion in Hook’s memory, for which he certainly did his best to pay her then. Every verse of the song he now sang ended with his turning with a bow to her, and the words, “ my charming iron crow;” but it was from beginning to end a covert satire of her and her social triumphs; even the late arrival at dinner and its supposed causes were duly brought in, still with the same mockrespectful inclination to his “charming iron crow.” Everybody was glad when the song was over, and applauded it quite as much from a sense of relief as from admiration of its extraordinary cleverness; and Mrs. Norton smilingly thanked Hook, and this time made way for him to leave the piano.
We lived near each other at this time, we in James Street, Buckingham Gate, and the Nortons at Storey’s Gate, at the opposite end of the Birdcage Walk. We both of us frequented the same place of worship, a tiny chapel wedged in among the buildings at the back of Downing Street, the entrance to which was from the park; it has been improved away by the new government, offices. Our dinner at the McDonalds’ was on a Saturday, and the next day, as we were walking part of the way home together from church, Mrs. Norton broke out about Theodore Hook, and his odious ill - nature and abominable coarseness, saying that it was a disgrace and a shame that for the sake of his paper, The John Bull, and its influence, the tories should receive such a man in society. I, who but for her outburst upon the subject should have carefully avoided mentioning Hook’s name, presuming that after his previous evening’s performance it could not be very agreeable to Mrs. Norton, now, not knowing very well what to say, but thinking the Sheridan blood (especially in her veins) might have some sympathy with and find some excuse for him, suggested the temptation that the possession of such wit must always be more or less to the abuse of it. " Witty! ” exclaimed the indignant beauty, with her lip and nostril quivering, “witty! One may well be witty when one fears neither God nor devil! ” I was heartily glad Hook was not there; he was not particular about the truth, and would infallibly, in some shape or other, have translated for her benefit, “ Je crains Dieu, cher Abner, et n’ai point d’autre crainte. ” The Nortons’ house was close to the issue from St. James Park into Great George Street. I remember passing an evening with them there, when a host of distinguished public and literary men were crowded into their small drawing-room, which was literally resplendent with the light of Sheridan beauty, male and female: Mrs. Sheridan (Miss Callender, of whom, when she published a novel, the hero of which commits forgery, that wicked wit, Sydney Smith, said he knew she was a Callender, but did not know till then that she was a Newgate calendar), the mother of the graces, more beautiful than anybody but her daughters; Lady Grahame, their beautiful aunt; Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Blackwood (Lady Dufferin), Georgiana Sheridan (Duchess of Somerset and queen of beauty by universal consent), and Charles Sheridan, their younger brother, a sort of younger brother of the Apollo Belvedere. Certainly I never saw such a bunch of beautiful creatures all growing on one stem. I remarked it to Mrs. Norton, who looked complacently round her tiny drawingroom and said, “ Yes, we are rather goodlooking people.” I remember this evening because of the impression made on me by the sight of these wonderfully “ good-looking people ” all together, and also because of my having had to sing with Moore, an honor and glory hardly compensating the distress of semi-strangulation, in order to avoid drowning his feeble thread of a voice with the heavy, robust contralto which I found it very difficult to swallow half of, while singing second to him, in his own melodies, with the other half. My acquaintance with Mrs. Norton lasted through a period of many years, and, though never very intimate, was renewed with cordiality each time I returned to England. It began just after I came out on the stage, when I was about twenty, and she a few years older. My father and mother had known her parents and grandparents, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Miss Lindley, from whom their descendants derived the remarkable beauty and brilliant wit which distinguished them.
My mother was at Drury Lane when Mr. Sheridan was at the head of its administration, and has often described to me the extraordinary proceedings of that famous first night of Pizarro, when, at last keeping the faith he had so often broken with the public, Mr. Sheridan produced that most effective of melodramas, with my aunt’s and uncle’s parts still unfinished, and, depending upon their extraordinary rapidity of study, kept them learning the last scenes of the last act, which he was still writing, while the beginning of the piece was being performed. By the bye, I do not know what became of the theories about the dramatic art, and the careful and elaborate study necessary for its perfection. In this particular instance, John Kemble’s Rolla and Mrs. Siddons’s Elvira must have been what may be called extemporaneous acting. Not impossibly, however, these performances may have gained in vivid power and effect what they lost in smoothness and finish, from the very nervous strain and excitement of such a mental effort as the actors were thus called upon to make. My mother remembered well, too, the dismal Saturdays when, after prolonged periods of non-payment of their salaries, the poorer members of the company, and all the unfortunate work-people, carpenters, painters, scene-shifters, understrappers of all sorts, and plebs in general of the great dramatic concern, thronging the passages and staircases, would assail Sheridan on his way to the treasury with pitiful invocations: “ For God s sake, Mr. Sheridan, pay us our salaries!” “ For Heaven’s sake, Mr. Sheridan, let us have something this week! ” and his plausible reply of “ Certainly, certainly, my good people, you shall be attended to directly.” Then he would go into the treasury, sweep it clean of the whole week’s receipts (the salaries of the principal actors, whom he dared not offend and could not dispense with, being, if not wholly, partially paid), and, going out of the building another way, leave the poor people who had cried to him for their arrears of wages baffled and cheated of the price of their labor for another week. The picture was not a pleasant one. When I first knew Caroline Sheridan, she had not long been married to the Hon. George Norton. She was splendidly handsome, of an un-English character of beauty, her rather large and heavy head and features recalling the grandest Grecian and Italian models, to the latter of whom her rich coloring and blue - black braids of hair gave her an additional resemblance. Though neither as perfectly lovely as the Duchess of Somerset nor as perfectly charming as Lady Dufferin, she produced a far more striking impression than either of them, by the combination of the poetical genius with which she alone, of the three, was gifted, with the brilliant wit and power of repartee which they (especially Lady Dufferin) possessed in common with her, united to the exceptional beauty with which they were all three endowed. Mrs. Norton was extremely epigrammatic in her talk, and comically dramatic in her manner of narrating things. I do not know whether she had any theatrical talent, though she sang pathetic and humorous songs admirably, and I remember shaking in my shoes when, soon after I came out, she told me she envied me, and would give anything to try the stage herself. thought, as I looked at her wonderful, beautiful face, “ Oh, if you should, what would become of me! ” She was no musician, but had a deep, sweet contralto voice, precisely the same in which she always spoke, and which, combined with her always lowered eyelids (“ downy eyelids ” with sweeping silken fringes), gave such incomparably comic effect to her sharp retorts and ludicrous stories; and she sang with great effect her own and Lady Dufferin’s social satires, Fanny Grey, and Miss Myrtle, etc., and sentimental songs like Would I were with Thee,I dreamt’t was but a Dream, etc., of which the words were her own, and the music, which only amounted to a few chords with the simplest modulations, her own also. I remember she used occasionally to convulse her friends en petit comité with a certain absurd song called The Widow, to all intents and purposes a piece of broad comedy, the whole story of which (the wooing of a disconsolate widow by a rich lover, whom she first rejects and then accepts) was comprised in a few words, rather spoken than sung, eked out by a ludicrous burthen of “ rum-ti-iddy-iddy-iddy-ido,” which, by dint of her countenance and voice, conveyed all the alternations of the widow’s first despair, her lover’s fiery declaration, her virtuous indignation and wrathful rejection of him, his cool acquiescence and intimation that his full purse assured him an easy acceptance in various other quarters, her rage and disappointment at his departure, and final relenting and consent on his return; all of which with her iddyiddy-ido she sang, or rather acted, with incomparable humor and effect. I admired her extremely.
In 1841 I began a visit of two years and a half in England. During this time I constantly met Mrs. Norton in society. She was living with her uncle, Charles Sheridan, and still maintained her glorious supremacy of beauty and wit in the great London world. She came often to parties at our house, and I remember her asking us to dine at her uncle’s, when among the people we met were Lord Lansdowne and Lord Normanby, both then in the ministry, whose good will and influence she was exerting herself to captivate in behalf of a certain shy, silent, rather rustic gentleman from the far - away province of New Brunswick, Mr. Samuel Cunard, afterwards Sir Samuel Cunard of the great mail packet line of steamers between England and America. He had come to London an obscure and humble individual, endeavoring to procure from the government the sole privilege of carrying the transatlantic mails for his line of steamers. Fortunately for him he had some acquaintance with Mrs. Norton, and the powerful beauty, who was kindhearted and good-natured to all but her natural enemies, i. e., the members of her own London society, exerted all her interest with her admirers in high place in favor of Cunard, and had made this very dinner for the express purpose of bringing her provincial protégé into pleasant personal relations with Lord Lansdowne and Lord Normanby, who were likely to be of great service to him in the special object which had brought him to England. The only other individual I remember at the dinner was that most beautiful person, Lady Harriet d’Orsay. Years after, when the Halifax projector had become Sir Samuel Cunard, a man of fame in the worlds of commerce and business of New York and London, a baronet of large fortune, and a sort of proprietor of the Atlantic Ocean between England and the United States, he reminded me of this charming dinner in which Mrs. Norton had so successfully found the means of forwarding his interests, and spoke with enthusiasm of her kind-heartedness as well as her beauty and talents; he, of course, passed under the Caudine Forks, beneath which all men encountering her had to bow and throw down their arms. She was very fond of inventing devices for seals and other such ingenious exercises of her brains, and she gave ― a star with the motto, “ Procul sed non extincta,” which she civilly said bore reference to me in my transatlantic home. She also told me, when we were talking of mottoes for seals and rings, that she had had engraved on a ring she always wore the name of that miserable bayou of the Mississippi — Atchafalaya — where Gabriel passes near one side of an island, while Evangeline, in her woe - begone search, is lying asleep on the other; and that to her surprise she found that the King of the Belgians wore a ring on which he had had the same word engraved, as an expression of the bitterest and most hopeless disappointment.
In 1845 I passed through London, and spent a few days there with my father, on my way to Italy. Mrs. Norton, hearing of my being in town, came to see me and urged me extremely to go and dine with her before I left London, which I did. The event of the day in her society was the death of Lady Holland, about which there were a good many lamentations, of which Lady T ― gave the real significance, with considerable naïvéte: “ Ah, poore deare Ladi Ollande! It is a grate pittie; it was suche a pleasante ouse!” As I had always avoided Lady Holland’s acquaintance, I could merely say that the regrets I heard expressed about her seemed to me only to prove a well-known fact — how soon the dead were forgotten. The real sorrow was indeed for the loss of her house, that pleasantest of all London rendezvous, and not for its mistress, though those whom I then heard speak were probably among the few who did regret her. Lady Holland had one good quality (perhaps more than one, which I might have found out if I had known her) : she was a constant and exceedingly warm friend, and extended her regard and remembrance to all whom Lord Holland or herself had ever received with kindness or on a cordial footing. My brother John had always been treated with great friendliness by Lord Holland, and in her will Lady Holland, who had not seen him for years, left him as a memento a copy, in thirty-two volumes, of the English essayists, which had belonged to her husband.
Almost immediately after this transient renewal of my intercourse with Mrs. Norton, I left England for Italy, and did not see her again for several years. The next time I did so was at an evening party at my sister’s house, where her appearance struck me more than it had ever done. Her dress had something to do with this effect, no doubt. She had a rich gold-colored silk on, shaded and softened all over with black lace draperies, and her splendid head, neck, and arms were adorned with magnificently simple Etruscan gold ornaments, which she had brought from Rome, whence she had just returned, and where the fashion of that famous antique jewelry had lately been revived. She was still “ une beauté triomphante à faire voir aux ambassadeurs. ”
In 1852 I went to Italy. I spent a summer at Sorrento, and thence went to Capri for a week. Mrs. Norton had been there, but had left the island, her two sons remaining there, with a queer, clever slip of an old Yorkshire root, G ― C ―, who had a firm persuasion that he could construct a flying machine with which he should be able to guide himself through the air. His father and grandfather had had precisely the same aerial hobby, and had spent much time, thought, and money in divers experiments in flying machines. C ― had had one constructed at Capri, and, having had it conveyed up to the top of the rocky precipice of the Salto di Tiberio, was with extreme difficulty dissuaded by the Nortons from casting himself into the air upon it; at length, yielding to their persuasions, he sent his bird flying without himself on its back, when, after fluttering for a few seconds above the abyss, it turned over and went falling from point to point of the rocks, and finally was stopped by the arms of a tree that had anchored itself half-way between heaven and the Mediterranean, whence it was never recovered.
During one of my last sojourns in London I met Mrs. Norton at Lansdowne House. There was a great assembly there, and she was wandering through the rooms leaning on the arm of her youngest son, her glorious head still crowned with its splendid braids of hair, and wreathed with grapes and ivy leaves, and this was my last vision of her; but in the autumn of 1870, Lady C ― told me of meeting her in London society, now indeed quite old, but indomitably handsome and witty.
I think it only humane to state, for the benefit of all mothers anxious for their daughters’, and all daughters anxious for their own future welfare in this world, that in the matter of what the lady’s-maid in the play calls “ the first of earthly blessings — personal appearance,” Caroline Sheridan as a girl was so little distinguished by the exceptional beauty she subsequently developed, that her lovely mother, who had a right to be exacting in the matter, entertained occasionally desponding misgivings as to the future comeliness of one of the most celebrated beauties of her day.
At the time of my earliest acquaintance with the Nortons, our friends, the Basil Montagues, had left their house in Bedford Square, and were also living at Storey’s Gate. Among the remarkable people I met at their house was the Indian rajah, Ramohun Roy, philosopher, scholar, reformer, Quaker, theist, I know not what and what not, who was introduced to me, and was kind enough to take some notice of me. He talked to me of the literature of his own country, especially its drama, and, finding that I was already acquainted with the Hindoo theatre through the medium of my friend Mr. Horace Wilson’s translation of its finest compositions, but that I had never read Sakuntalà, the most remarkable of them all, which Mr. Wilson had not included in his collection (I suppose because of its translation by Sir William Jones), Ramohun Roy sent me a copy of it, which I value extremely as a memento of so remarkable a man, but in which I confess I am utterly unable to find the extraordinary beauty and sublimity which he attributed to it, and of which I remember Goethe also speaks enthusiastically (if I am not mistaken, in his conversations with Eckermann), calling it the most wonderful production of human genius. Goethe had not, any more than myself, the advantage of reading Sakuntalà in Sanskrit, and I am quite at a loss to account for the extreme and almost exaggerated admiration he expresses for it.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE,} August 23,―.
MY DEAREST H―: I received your last on my return from the country, where I had been staying a fortnight, and I assure you that after an uncomfortable and rainy drive into town I found it of more service in warming me than even the blazing fire with which we are obliged to shame the month of August. I think it particularly kind of you to have written to me, for in the midst of your anxieties [about her brother’s health] I do not expect you to bestow either much thought or time upon me; and though the sight of your handwriting is one of my chief pleasures, my own affection for you and my reliance on your interest in me do not depend on a regular exchange of letters. I often think of the time we spent together at Heath Farm, of our long, delightful walks and talks, and my mind constantly recurs to your earnest endeavors then to make me happier and better. In one of your letters, which I was looking over the other day, you express an opinion of the uselessness of indiscriminate preservation of correspondence, and I remember thinking that you wished me to destroy yours; but indeed I cannot do this, nor do I think that what you said to me on the subject holds good with respect to your letters to me. For there is not one of them which does not contain expressions of affection which I value dearly, and advice likely perhaps to be appreciated even more as time goes on than when first I received them.
I have a great deal to tell you about our affairs, and the effect that their unhappy posture seems likely to produce upon my future plans and prospects. Do you remember a letter I wrote to you a long time ago about going on the stage? and another, some time before that, about my becoming a governess? The urgent necessity which I think now exists for exertion, in all those who are capable of it amongst us, has again turned my thoughts to these two considerations. My father’s property, and all that we might ever have hoped to have derived from it, being utterly destroyed in the unfortunate issue of our affairs, his personal exertions are all that remain to him and us to look to. There are circumstances in which reflections that our minds would not admit at other times of necessity force themselves upon our consideration. Those talents and qualifications, both mental and physical, which have been so mercifully preserved to my dear father hitherto, cannot, in the natural course of things, all remain unimpaired for many more years. It is right, then, that those of us who have the power to do so should at once lighten his arms of all unnecessary burthen, and acquire the habit of independent exertion before the moment comes when utter inexperience would add to the difficulty of adopting any settled mode of proceeding; it is right and wise to prepare for the evil day before it is upon us. These reflections have led me to the resolution of entering upon some occupation or profession which may enable me to turn the advantages my father has so liberally bestowed upon me to some account, so as not to be a useless encumbrance to him at present, or a helpless one in future time. My brother John, you know, has now determined to go into the church. Henry we have good although remote hopes of providing well for, and, were I to make use of my own capabilities, dear little A ― would be the only one about whom there need be any anxiety. I propose writing to my father before he returns home (he is at present acting in the provinces) on this subject. Some step I am determined to take; the nature of it will of course remain with him and my mother. I trust that whatever course they resolve upon I shall be enabled to pursue steadily, and I am sure that, be it what it may, I shall find it comparatively easy, as the motive is neither my own profit nor reputation, but the desire of bringing into their right use whatever talents I may possess, which have not been given for useless purposes. I hope and trust that I am better fitted for either of the occupations I have mentioned than I was when I before entertained an idea of them. You asked me what inclined John’s thoughts to the church. It would be hard to say; or rather, I ought to say, that Providence which in its own good time makes choice of its instruments, and which I ever firmly trusted would not suffer my brother’s fine powers to be wasted on unworthy aims. I am not able to say how the change which has taken place in his opinions and sentiments was effected; but you know one has not done all one’s thinking at twoand - twenty. I have been by circumstances much separated from my brother, and when with him have had but little communication upon such subjects, as he was always, while at home, extremely engrossed with his own studies. It was at a time when, I think, his religious principles were somewhat unsettled, that his mind was so passionately absorbed by politics. The nobler instincts of his nature, diverted for a while from due direct intercourse with their divine source, turned themselves with enthusiastic, earnest hope to the desire of benefiting his fellow-creatures; and to these aims — the reformation of abuses, the establishment of a better system of government, the gradual elevation and improvement of the people, and the general progress of the country towards enlightened liberty and consequent prosperity — he devoted all his thoughts. This was the period of his fanatical admiration for Jeremy Bentham and Mill, who, you know, are our near neighbors here, and whose houses we never pass without John being inclined to salute them, I think, as the shrines of some beneficent powers of renovation. And here comes the break in our intercourse and in my knowledge of his mental and moral progress. I went to Scotland, and was amazed, after I had been there some time, to hear from my mother that John had not got his scholarship, and had renounced his intention of going to the bar and determined to study for the church. I returned home, and found him much changed. His high sense of the duties attending it makes me rejoice most sincerely that he has chosen that career, which may not be the surest path to wordly advancement, but if conscientiously followed must lead, I should think, to the purest happiness this life can offer. I think much of this change may be attributed to the example and influence of some deservedly dear Mends of his; probably something to the sobering effect of the disappointment and mortification of his failure at college, where such sanguine hopes and expectations of his success had been entertained. Above all, I refer his present purpose to that higher influence which has followed him through all his mental wanderings, suggesting the eager inquiries of his restless and dissatisfied spirit, and finally leading it to this, its appointed goal. He writes to us in high spirits from Germany, and his letters are very delightful, full of detailed descriptions of the enchanting country —the Rhine land — he is traveling through, which, I confess, sometimes make me sin in envy of his good fortune; when last I heard from him he was at Heidelberg, with which he seems delighted.
Mrs. Siddons and Cecy are with Mrs. Kemble at Leamington, Mrs. Harry Siddons is, I fear, but little better; she has had another attack of erysipelas, and I am very anxious to get to her, but the distance, and the dependence of all interesting young females in London on the legs and leisure of chaperons, prevents me from seeing her as often as I wish. German is an arduous undertaking, and I have once more abandoned it, not only on account of its difficulty, but because I do not at present wish to enter upon the study of a foreign language, when I am but just awakened to my radical ignorance of my own. God bless you, dear H―.
Yours ever, FANNY.
As long as I retained a home of my own, I resisted my friend’s half-expressed wish that I should destroy her letters; but when I ceased to have any settled place of habitation, it became impossible to provide for the safe-keeping of a mass of papers the accumulation of which received additions every few days, and by degrees, for my courage failed me very often in the task, my friend’s letters were destroyed. Few things that I have had to relinquish have cost me a greater pang or sense of loss, and few of the conditions of my wandering life have seemed to me more grievous than the necessity it imposed upon me of destroying these letters. My friend did not act upon her own theory with regard to my correspondence, and indeed it seems to me that no general rule can be given with regard to the preservation or destruction of correspondence. What revelations of misery and guilt may lie in the forgotten folds of hoarded letters, that have been preserved only to blast the memory of the dead! What precious words, again, have been destroyed, that might have lightened for a whole heavy life-time the doubt and anguish of the living! In this, as in all we do, we grope about in darkness, and the one and the other course must often enough have been bitterly lamented by those who “did for the best ” in keeping or destroying these chronicles of human existence. The letters generally exchanged between intimate friends are certainly no more intended to be collected and kept than the words which friends utter in confidential conversation; yet how often would one have preserved, if one could, the very words, tone, look, accent, and gesture of certain conversations, while at the same time, could the speaker anticipate such a stereotyping of his utterance, he would probably be struck dumb with the consciousness, and there would be nothing to retain. The most intimate revelations of greatly gifted minds are not unnaturally the most eagerly sought after by the world. The clay feet of these golden-headed images seem to attract rather than repel their worshipers, whose enthusiastic curiosity is apt to be puerile, not to say irreverent. Is it for the sake of the comfortable sense of kindred to greatness — all our feet being clay, though all our heads are not gold — that we inquire into the number of toes of our idols ? But while the public revels in the domestic details of this or that illustrious individual’s private life and manners, his family and kindred, those to whom such portions of his history peculiarly belong, may be pardoned if they feel that his fame has no right to desecrate instead of consecrating his home. They are justified in desiring that something special of his personal intercourse should be left to them, to whom he was father, husband, son, or dearest friend; and if his boots are in a glass case in the museum, his slippers may remain by his bedside at home. His genius may shine like a great light at his gate, on the highway of life, but because it does so, and cheers and guides the wayfarers as they come and go, it hardly warrants their peeping through the key-hole, still less their pressing in to where he sits with his own, at his hearth or board. Very true, no doubt, they eagerly desire to know “ all about him,” and would fain thrust themselves into the closet where he shuts himself to pray, to discover whether he kneels or stands, or moves his lips and utters an audible voice of supplication or prays in silence with his soul alone. Genius pays its penalty like royalty. Small privacy is allowed to either; but it seems hard to grudge it to our benefactors in their graves, their share having been of the smallest till they came thither.
Madame Pasta’s daughter once said to Charles Young, who enthusiastically admired her great genius, “ Vous trouvez qu’elle chante et, joue bien, n’est-ce pas? ” “ Je crois bien,” replied he, puzzled to understand her drift. “ Well,” replied the daughter of the great lyrical artist, “ to us, to whom she belongs and who know and love her, her great talent is the least admirable thing about her; but no one but us knows that.”
Doubtless if letters of Shakespeare’s could be found, letters devoloping the mystery of those sorrowful sonnets, or even letters describing his daily dealings with his children, and Mistress Anne Hathaway, his wife; nay, even the fashion, color, and texture of the hangings of the second best bed, her special inheritance, a frenzy of curiosity would be aroused by them. All his glorious plays would not be worth (bookseller’s value) some scraps of thought and feeling, or mere personal detail, or even commonplace (he must have been sovereignly commonplace) impartment of theatrical business news and gossip to his fellow-players, or Scotch Drummond, or my Lord Southampton, or the Dark Woman of the sonnets. But we know little about him, thank Heaven! and I am glad that little is not more.
I know he must have sinned and suffered, mortal man since he was, but I do not wish to know how. From his plays, in spite of the necessarily impersonal character of dramatic composition, we gather a vivid and distinct impression of serene sweetness, wisdom, and power. In the fragment of personal history which he gives us in his sonnets, the reverse is the case; we have a painful impression of mournful struggling with adverse circumstances and moral evil elements, and of the labor and the love of his life alike bestowed on objects deemed by himself unworthy; and in spite of his triumphant promise of immortality to the false mistress or friend, or both, to whom (as far as he has revealed them to us) he has kept his promise, we fall to pitying Shakespeare, the bestower of immortality. In the great temple raised by his genius to his own undying glory, one narrow door opens into a secret, silent crypt, where his image, blurred and indistinct, is hardly discernible through the gloomy atmosphere, heavy and dim as if with sighs and tears. Here is no clew, no issue, and we return to the shrine filled with light and life and warmth and melody; with knowledge and love of man, and worship of God and nature. There is our benefactor and friend, simplest and most, lovable, though most wonderful of his kind; other image of him than that bright one may the world never know. The extraordinary development of the taste for petty details of personal gossip which our present literature bears witness to makes it almost a duty to destroy all letters not written for publication; and yet there is no denying that life is essentially interesting — every life, any life, all lives, if their detailed history could be given with truth and simplicity. For my own part, I confess that the family correspondence, even of people utterly unknown to me, always seems to me full of interest. The vivid interest the writers took in themselves makes their letters better worth reading than many books we read; they are life as compared with imitations of it—life, that mystery and beauty surpassing every other; they are morsels of that profoundest of all secrets, which baffles alike the man of science, the metaphysician, artist, and poet. And yet it would be hard if A, B, and C’s letters should therefore be published, especially as, had they contemplated my reading them, they would doubtless never have written them or written them quite other than they did.
To resume my chronicle. My brother John was at this time traveling in Germany; the close of his career at Cambridge had proved a bitter disappointment to my father, and had certainly not fulfilled the expectations of any of his friends or the promise of his own very considerable abilities. He left the university without taking his degree, and went to Heidelberg, where he laid the foundation of his subsequent thorough knowledge of German, and developed the taste for the especial philological studies to which he eventually devoted himself, but his eminence in which brought him little emolument and but tardy fame, and never in the least consoled my father for the failure of all the brilliant hopes he had formed of the future distinction and fortune of his eldest son. When a man has made up his mind that his son is to be Lord Chancellor of England, he finds it hardly an equivalent that he should be one of the first Anglo-Saxon scholars in Europe.
In my last letter to Miss S ― I have referred to some of my brother’s friends and their possible influence in determining his choice of the clerical profession in preference to that of the law, which my father had wished him to adopt, and for which, indeed, he had so far shown his own inclination as to have himself entered at the Inner Temple. Perhaps the names of the young men who were his chief companions, and among my own friends at this time, will furnish some excuse for the rather fastidious tendency of my social taste in after life, and my very decided preference for a good deal of solitude to much society.
Among my brother’s contemporaries, his school and college mates who frequented my father’s house at this time, were Arthur Hallam, Alfred Tennyson and his brothers, Frederick Maurice, John Sterling, Richard Trench, William Donne, the Romillys, the Malkins, Edward Fitzgerald, James Spedding, William Thackeray, and Richard Monckton Milnes.
These names were those of “ promising young men,” our friends and companions, whose various remarkable abilities we learnt to estimate through my brother’s enthusiastic appreciation of them. How bright has been in many instances the full performance of that early promise, England has gratefully acknowledged; they have been among the jewels of their time, and some of their names will be famous and blessed for generations to come. It is not for me to praise those whom all Englishspeaking folk delight to honor; but in thinking of that bright band of very noble young spirits, of my brother’s love and admiration for them, of their affection for him, of our pleasant intercourse in those far-off early days,—in spite of the faithful, life-long regard which still subsists between myself and the few survivors of that goodly company, my heart sinks with a heavy sense of loss, and the world from which so much light has departed seems dark and dismal enough.
Frances Anne Kemble.