Old Woman's Gossip
GREAT RUSSELL STREET, February 7, 1831. }
MY DEAR H——: I found your lecture waiting for me on my return from Brighton; I call it thus because if your two last were less than letters your yesterday’s one is more; but I shall not attempt at present to follow you to the misty heights whither our nature tends, or dive with you into the muddy depths whence it springs. I have heard from my brother John, and now expect almost hourly to see him. The Spanish revolution, as he now sees and as many foresaw, is a mere vision. The people are unready, unripe, unfit, and therefore unwilling; had it not been so they would have done their work themselves; it is as impossible to urge on the completion of Such a change before the time as to oppose it when the time is come. John now writes that all hope of rousing the Spaniards being over, and their party consequently dispersing, he is thinking of bending his steps homewards, and talks of once more turning his attention to the study of the law. I know not what to say or think. My cousin, Horace Twiss, was put into Parliament by Lord Clarendon, but the days of such parliamentary patronage are numbered, and I do not much deplore it, though I sometimes fancy that the House of Commons, could it by any means have been opened to him, might perhaps have been the best sphere for John. His natural abilities are brilliant, and his eloquence, energy, and activity of mind might perhaps have been made more and more quickly available for good purposes in that than in any other career.
I have just received your letter dated February 4th. The weather which you describe as so awful would, I should think, prevent the possibility of your traveling; we have full confidence in you, however. Come if you reasonably can; if you do not we will reasonably conclude that you could not. I am not familiar with all that Burns has written; I have read his letters, and know most of his songs by heart. His passions were so violent that he seems to me in that respect to have been rather a subject for poetry than a poet; for though a poet should perhaps have a strongly passionate nature, he should also have power enough over it to be able to observe, describe, and, if I may so say, experimentalize with it, as he would with the passions of others. I think it would better qualify a man to be a poet to be able to perceive rather than liable to feel violent passion or emotion. May not such things be known of without absolute experience? What is the use of the poetical imagination, that lower inspiration, which, like the higher one of faith, is the “ evidence of things not seen ” ? Troubled and billowy waters reflect nothing distinctly on their surface; it is the still, deep, placid element that gives back the images by which it is surrounded or that pass over its surface. I do not of course believe that a good man is necessarily a poet, but I think a devout man is almost always a man with a poetical imagination; he is familiar with ideas which are essentially sublime, and in the act of adoration he springs to the source of all beauty through the channel by which our spirits escape most effectually from their chain, the flesh, and their prisonhouse, the world, and rise into communion with that supreme excellence from which they originally emanated and into whose bosom they will return. I cannot now go into all I think about this, for I have so many other things to talk about. Since I began this letter I have heard a report that John is a prisoner, that he has been arrested and sent to Madrid. Luckily I do not believe a word of this; if he has rendered himself obnoxious to the British authorities in Gibraltar they may have locked him up for a week or two there, and I see no great harm in that; but that he should have been delivered to the Spaniards and sent to Madrid I do not believe, because I know that the whole revolutionary party is going to pieces and that they have neither the power nor the means to render themselves liable to such a disagreeable distinction. We expect him home every day. Only conceive, dear H——, the ill-fortune that attends us: my father, or rather the theatre, is involved in six law-suits! He and my mother are neither of them quite well, anxiety naturally has much share in their indisposition.
I learnt Beatrice this morning, and the whole of it, in an hour, which I tell you because I consider it a feat. I am delighted at the thoughts of acting it; it will be the second part which I shall have acted with real pleasure; Portia is the other, but Beatrice is not nearly so nice. I am to act it next Thursday, when pray think of me.
I have finished the sketch of the play I have had so long on my hands, and now that Lent is bringing me a few holidays, I hope to work hard at it; I do not like it though, and shall not, but I will finish it,
I do not know whether you have seen anything in the papers about a third theatre; we have had much anxiety, vexation, and expense about it, but I have no doubt that Mr. Arnold will carry the question. The great people want a plaything for this season, and have set their hearts upon that. I acted Belvidera to my father’s Jaffier at Brighton; you cannot imagine how great a difference it produced in my acting. Mrs. Siddons and Miss O’Neill had a great advantage, over me in their tragic partners. Have you heard that Mr. Hope, the author of Anastasius, is just dead? That was a wonderfully clever book, of rather questionable moral effect, I think; the same sort of cynical gloom and discontent which pervade Byron’s writings prevail in that; and I thought it a pity, because in other respects it seems a genuine book, true to life and human nature. A few days before I heard of his death, Mr. Harness was discussing with me a theory of Hope’s respecting the destiny of the human soul hereafter. His notion is that all spirit is after death to form but one whole spiritual existence, a sort of lumping which I object to. I should like always to be able to know myself from somebody else.
I do read the papers sometimes, dear H——, and, whenever I do, wonder at you and all sensible people who make a daily practice of it; the proceedings of Parliament would make one angry if they did not make one so sad, and some of the debates would seem to me laughable but that I know they are lamentable.
I have just finished Channing’s essay on Milton, which is admirable.
My cousin Harry sails for India on Thursday; his mother is making a brave fight of it, poor soul! I met them all at my aunt Siddons’s last night; she was remarkably well, and “ charming,” as she styles herself when that is the case. Ceey and I had a long talk about you; she says yon frighten her, and I tell her she should talk nonsense to you; you will never have the best of that with anybody, so that one has but to get you on the right ground to rout you and make you run. Good-by. Always affectionately yours, FANNY.
I suppose it is one of the peculiarities of the real poetical temperament to receive, as it were, a double impression of its own phenomena, — one through the senses, affections, and passions, and one through the imagination, — and to have a perpetual tendency to make intellectual capital of the experiences of its own sensuous, sentimental, and passionate nature. In the above letter, written so many years ago, I have used the term experimentalizing with his own nature as the process of a poet’s mind; but though self - consciousness and self - observation are almost inseparable from the poetical organization, Goethe is the only instance I know of what could, with any propriety, be termed self-experimentalizing,— he who wrung the heart and turned the head of the whole reading Europe of his day by his own love passages with Madame Kestner transcribed into The Sorrows of Werther.
Self-illustration is perhaps a better term for the result of that passionate egotism which is so strong an element in the nature of most poets, and the secret of so much of their power. Ils s'interessent tellement à ce qui les regards, that they interest us profoundly in it too, and by the law of our common nature, and the sympathy that pervades it, their great difference from their kind serves but to enforce their greater likeness to it.
Goethe’s nature, however, was not at all a predominantly passionate one; so much the contrary, indeed, that one hardly escapes the impression all through his own record of his life that he felt through his overmastering intellect rather than his heart; and that he analyzed too well the processes of his own feelings ever to have been carried by them beyond the permission of his will, or out of sight of that aesthetic self-culture, that development, which really seems to have been his prevailing passion. A strong histrionic vein mixes, too, with his more imaginative mental qualities, and perpetually reveals itself in his assumption of fictitious characters, in his desire for producing “ situations ” in his daily life, and in his conscious " effects " upon those whom he sought to impress.
His genius sometimes reminds me of Ariel, — the subtle spirit who, observing from aloof, as it were (that is, from the infinite distance of his own unmoral, demoniacal nature), the follies and sins and sorrows of humanity, understands them all and sympathizes with none of them; and describes, with equal indifference, the drunken, brutish delight in his music expressed by the coarse Neapolitan buffoons and the savage gorilla, Caliban, and the abject self-reproach and bitter, poignant remorse exhibited by Antonio and his fellow conspirators; telling Prospero that if he saw them he would pity them, and adding, in his passionless perception of their anguish, “I should, sir, were I human. ”
There is a species of remote impartiality in Goethe’s mode of delineating the sins and sorrows of his fellows, that seems hardly human and still less divine ; " Das ist dämonisch,” to use his own expression about Shakespeare, who, however, had nothing whatever in common with that quality of moral neutrality of the great German genius.
Perhaps nothing indicates what I should call Goethe’s intellectual unhumanity so much as his absolute want of sympathy with the progress of the race. He was but mortal man, however, though he had the head of Jove, and Pallas Athena might have sprung all armed from it. Once, and once only, if I remember rightly, in his conversations with Eekermann, the cause of mankind elicits an expression of faith and hope from him, in some reference to the future of America. I recollect on reading the second part of Faust with my friend Abeken (assuredly the most competent of all expounders of that extraordinary composition), when I asked him what was the signification of that final cultivation of the barren sea sand, in Faust’s blind old age, and cried, “Is it possible that be wishes to indicate the hopelessness of all attempt at progress?” his replying, “ I am afraid he was no believer in it.” And so it comes that his letters to Madame von Stein leave one only amazed with the more sorrowful admiration that the unrivaled genius of the civilized world in its most civilized age found perfect satisfaction in the inane routine of the life of a court dignitary in a petty German principality.
It is worthy of note how, in the two instances of his great masterpieces, Faust and ’Wilhelm Meister, Goethe has worked up in a sequel all the superabundant material he had gathered for his subject; and in each case how the life-blood of the poet pulses through the first part, while the second is, as it were, a mere storehouse of splendid intellectual supply which he has wrought into elaborate phantasmagoria, dazzling in their brilliancy and wonderful in their variety, but all alike difficult to comprehend and sympathize with, — the rare mental fragments, precious like diamond dust, left after the cutting of those two perfect gems.
I remember once dining at the house of the great French painter, Ary Scheffer, when a discussion took place upon the subject of the nature of poetic genius. Madame Scheffer undertook to define it, in which difficult attempt she was not altogether successful; but Scheffer himself closed —— perhaps I should say shut up — the argument by peremptorily referring the highest poetic inspiration to moral sources, and was compelled for consistency’s sake to maintain that Longfellow was a greater poet than Byron.
I do not know whether he or circumstances were guilty of inconsistency in the marriage of his daughter, but there is something curiously anomalous in the idea of the child of the painter of the Holy Women, St. Augustine and St. Monica, the Christus Consolator, and the Christus Jndicator, becoming the wife of Renan the anti-Christian writer.
Free-trade had hardly uttered a whisper yet upon any subject of national importance when the monopoly of theatrical property was attacked by Mr. Arnold, of the English Opera House, who assailed the patents of the two great theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and demanded that the right to act the legitimate drama (till then their especial privilege) should be extended to all British subjects desirous to open playhouses and perform plays. A lawsuit ensued, and the proprietors of the great houses — “his majesty’s servants,” by his majesty’s royal patent since the days of the merry monarch — defended their monopoly to the best of their ability. My father, questioned before a committee of the House of Commons upon the subject, showed forth the evils likely, in his opinion, to result to the dramatic art and the public taste by throwing open to unlimited speculation the right to establish theatres and give theatrical representations. The great companies of good sterling actors would be broken up and dispersed, and there would no longer exist establishments sufficiently important to maintain any large body of them; the best plays would no longer find adequate representatives in any but a few of the principal parts, the character of theatrical pieces produced would be lowered, the school of fine and careful acting would be lost, no play of Shakespeare’s could be decorously put on the stage, and the profession and the public would alike fare the worse for the change. But he was one of the patented proprietors, one of the monopolists, a party most deeply interested in the issue, and therefore, perhaps, an incompetent judge in the matter. The cause went against us, and every item of his prophecy concerning the stage has undoubtedly come to pass. The fine companies of the great theatres were dissolved, and each member of the body that together formed so bright a constellation went off to be the solitary star or planet of some minor sphere. The best plays no longer found decent representatives for any but one or two of their first parts; the pieces of more serious character and higher pretension as dramatic works were supplanted by burlesques and parodies of themselves; the school of acting of the Kembles, Young, the Keans, Macready, and their contemporaries, gave place to no school at all of very clever ladies and gentlemen, who certainly had no pretension to act tragedy or declaim blank verse, but who played low comedy better than high, and lowest farce best of all; and who for the most part wore the clothes of the sex to which they did not belong. Shakespeare’s plays all became historical, and the profession was decidedly the worse for the change; I am not aware, however, that the public has suffered much by it.
While our own small corner of sky was darkened by these clouds, the low mutterings of the disturbed political atmosphere were making themselves heard from end to end of the country; and the pressure of change and the passion for withstanding it were culminating in the national struggle of the Reform Bill, the first momentous parliamentary reform, which has drawn in its train, as its legitimate consequences, Catholic emancipation, the repeal of the corn-laws, freetrade, the extension of the, franchise, and all the great measures of enlightened progress which, God guiding, have led the country onward, in unshaken security and increasing prosperity, to the present day. No one’s private interests at that time could possibly absorb them to the degree of insensibility to the march of public events; but we were all bigoted anti-reformers; we had been the special servants of royalty, my father and mother were decided aristocrats, and we thought it good taste to be tories. The hand of change, radical reform in matters dramatic, had been laid upon our property; our patent had been annulled, our privilege abolished, our pride humbled; we had no doubt at all that the House of Peers was going to perdition, and the country to the dogs, —for had not the great play-houses gone thither! We were very sure “ the sky was falling; ” so I wrote imaginary speeches, for imaginary peers, against the obnoxious bill, pasquinades against Lord Brougham and Lord Grey and the reformed House of Commons, in which sat Mr. Gully the boxer, and turned up my nose at the course of public events. A comical instance of the partisan frenzy of the day, at any rate in young ladies political, was the close of a vehement discussion between my sister and myself, when she exclaimed, “ Very well, if the bill is thrown out, I should like to head a reform mob through the streets of London; ” and I retorted, “ Very well, and if you did, I should like to head the streets of London with cannon and sweep you and your mob out of them with grape-shot.” My sister, a damsel of fifteen, was the only reformer in the family.
GREAT RUSSELL STREET, } March 5, 1831. }
MY DEAREST H——: I am extremely obliged to you for your long account of Mrs. John Kemble, and all the details respecting her with which, as you knew how intensely interesting they were likely to be to me, yon have so kindly filled your letter. Another time, if you can afford to give a page or two to her interesting dog, Pincher, I shall be still more grateful; you know it is but omitting the superfluous word or two you squeeze in about yourself. As for the journal I keep, it is—as what is not?—a matter of mingled good and bad influences and results. I am so much alone that I find this pouring out of my thoughts and feelings a certain satisfaction; but unfortunately one’s book is only a recipient, and not a commentary, and I miss the sifting, examining, scrutinizing, discussing intercourse that compels one to the analysis of one’s own ideas and sentiments, and makes the society of any one with whom one communicates unreservedly so much more profitable, as well as pleasurable, than this everlasting self-communion. I miss my wholesome bitters, my daily dose of contradiction; and you need not be jealous of my book, for it is a miserable pis alter for our interminable talks.
I had a visit from J—— F——, the other day, and she stayed an hour, talking very pleasantly, and a little after your fashion; for she propounded the influence of matter over mind and the impossibility of preserving a sound and vigorous spirit in a weak and suffering body. I am blessed with such robust health that my moral short-comings, however anxious I may be to refer them to sideache, tooth-ache, or any other ache, I am afraid deserve small mercy on the score of physical infirmity; but she, poor thing, I am sorry to say, suffers much and often from ill health, and complained, with evident experience, of the difficulty of preserving a cheerful spirit and an even temper in the dreary atmosphere of a sick room.
When she was gone I set to work with Francis I., and corrected all the errors in the metre which Mr. Milman had had the kindness to point out to me. I then went over Beatrice with my mother, who takes infinite pains with me and seems to think I profit. She went to the play with Mrs. Fitzgerald and Mrs. Edward Romilly, who is a daughter of Mrs. Marcet, and, owing to A——’s detestation of that learned lady’s elementary book on natural philosophy, I was very desirous they should not meet one another, though certainly, if any of Mrs. Marcet’s works are dry and dull, it is not this charming daughter of hers.
But A——was rabid against “Nat. Phil.,” as she ignominiously nick-named Mrs. Marcet’s work on natural philosophy, and so I brought her to the theatre with me; and she stayed in my dressingroom when I was thorp, and in my aunt Siddons’s little box when I was acting, as you used to do ; but she sang all the while she was with me, and though I made no sign, it gave me the nervous fidgets to such a degree that I almost forgot my part. In spite of which I acted better, for my mother said so; and there is some hope that by the time the play is withdrawn I shall not play Beatrice “like the chief mourner at a funeral,” which is what she benignly compares my performance of the part to.
The alteration in my gowns met with her entire approbation, I mean the taking away of the plaits from round the waist, and my aunt Dall pronounced it an immense improvement and wished you could see it.
Lady Dacre and her daughter, Mrs. Sullivan, and Mr. James Wortley were in the orchestra, and came after the play to supper with us, as did Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Edward Romilly, and Mr. Harness; a very pleasant party, for the ladies are all clever and charming, and got on admirably together.
It is right, as you are a shareholder in that valuable property of ours, Covent Garden, that you should know that there was a very fine house, though I cannot exactly tell you the amount of the receipts.
I miss you dreadfully, my dear H——, and I do wish you could come back to us when Dorothy has left you; but I know that cannot be, and so I look forward to hie summer time, the sunny time, the rosy time, when I shall be with you again at Ardgillan.
Yesterday, I read for the first time Joanna Baillie’s Count Basil. I am not sure that the love she describes does not affect me more even than .Shakespeare’s delineation of the passion in Romeo and Juliet. There is a nerveless despondency about it that seems to me more intolerable than all the vivid palpitating anguish of the tragedy of Verona; it is like dying of slow poison, or malarial fever, compared with being shot or stabbed or even bleeding to death, which is life pouring out from one, instead of drying up in one’s brains. I think the lines beginning, —
some of the most poignantly pathetic I know. I afterwards read over again Mr. Procter’s play; it is extremely well written, but I am afraid it would not act as well as it reads. I believe I told you that Inez de Castro was finally given up.
Sally and Lizzy Siddons came and sat with me for some time; they seem well and cheerful. Their mother, they said, was not very well; how should she be! though indeed regret would be selfish. Her son is gone to fulfill his own wishes in pursuing the career for which he was most fit; he will find in his uncle George Siddons’s house in Calcutta almost a second home. Sally, whom you know I respect almost as much as love, said it was surprising how soon they had learnt to accept and become reconciled to their brother’s departure. Besides all our self-invoked aids of reason and religion, nature’s own provision for the need of our sorrows is more bountiful and beneficent than we always perceive or acknowledge. No one can go on living upon agony; we cannpt grieve forever if we would, and our most strenuous efforts of self-control derive help from the inevitable law of change, against which we sometimes murmur and struggle as if it wronged our consistency in sorrow and constancy in love. The tendency to heal is as universal as the liability to smart. You always speak of change with a sort of vague horror that surprises me. Though all things round us are forever shifting and altering, and though we ourselves vary and change, there is a supreme spirit of steadfastness in the midst of this huge unrest, and an abiding, unshaken, immovable principle of good guiding this vanishing world of fluctuating atoms, in whose eternal permanence of nature we largely participate, and our tendency towards and aspiration for whose perfect stability is one of the very causes of the progress, and therefore mutability, of our existence. Perhaps the most painful of all the forms in which change confronts us is in the increased infirmities and diminished graces which after long absence we observe in those we love; the failure of power and vitality in the outward frame, the lessened vividness of the intellect we have admired, strike us with a sharp surprise of distress, and it is startling to have revealed suddenly to us, in the conditions of others, how rapidly, powerfully, and unobservedly time has been dealing with ourselves. But those who believe in eternity should be able to accept time, and the ruin of the altar from which the flame leaps up to heaven signifies little.
My father and I went to visit Macdonald’s collection of sculpture to-day. I was very much pleased with some of the things; there are some good colossal figures, and an exquisite statue of a kneeling girl, that charmed me greatly; there are some excellent busts, too. How wonderfully that irrevocable substance assumes the soft, round forms of life! The color in its passionless purity (absence of color, I suppose I should say) is really harder than the substance itself of marble. I could not fall in love with a statue, as the poor girl in Procter’s poem did with the Apollo Belvedere, though I think I could with a fine portrait; how could one fall in love with what had no eyes ! Was it not Thorwaldsen who said that the three materials in which sculptors worked — clay, plaster, and marble — were like life, death, and immortality? I thought my own bust (the one Macdonald executed in Edinburgh, you know) very good; the marble is beautiful, and I really think my friend did wonders with his impracticable subject; the shape of the head and shoulders is very pretty. I wonder what Sappho was like! An ugly woman, it is said; I do not know upon what authority, unless her own; but I wonder what kind of ugliness she enjoyed! Among other heads, we saw one of Brougham’s mother, a venerable and striking countenance, very becoming the mother of the Chancellor of England. There was a bust, too, of poor Mr. Huskisson, taken after death. I heard a curious thing of him to-day: it seems that on the night before the opening of the railroad, as he was sitting with some friends, he said, “ I cannot tell what ails me; I have a strange weight on my spirits; I am sure something dreadful will happen tomorrow; I wish it were over; ” and that, when they recapitulated all the precautions, and all the means that had been taken for security, comfort, and pleasure, all he replied was, “ I wish to God it were over! ” There is something awful in these stories of presentiments, that always impresses me deeply, — this warning shadow, projected by no perceptible object, falling darkly and chilly over one; this indistinct whisper of destiny, of which one hears the sound, without distinguishing the sense; this muffled tread of Fate approaching us!
Did you read Horace Twiss’s speech on the Reform Bill? Every one seems to think it was excellent, whether they agree with his opinions and sentiments or not. I saw by the paper, to-day, that an earthquake had been felt along the coast near Dover. A——says the world is coming to an end. We certainly live in strange times, but for that matter so has everybody that ever lived.
[In the admirable letter of Lord Macaulay to Mr. Ellis, describing the division of the house on the second reading of the Reform Bill, given in Mr. Trevelyan’s life of his uncle, the great historian says Horace Twiss’s countenance at the liberal victory looked like that of a “damned soul.” If, instead of a lost soul, he had said poor Horace looked like a lost seat, he would have been more accurate, if not as picturesque. Mr. Twiss sat for one of Lord Clarendon’s boroughs, and the passage of the Reform Bill was sure to dismiss him from Parliament; a serious thing in his future career, fortunes, and position.]
I must now tell you what I do next week, that you may know where to find me. Monday, the king goes to hear Cinderella, and I have a holiday and go with my mother to a party at Dr. Granville’s. Tuesday, I act Belvidera, and afterwards go to Lady Dacre’s; I do this because, as I fixed the day myself for her party, not expecting to act that night, I cannot decently get off. Lady Macdonald’s dinner party is put off; so until Saturday, when I play Beatrice, I shall spend my time in practicing, reading, writing (not arithmetic), walking, working cross-stitch, and similar younglady isms.
Good-by, my dear H——. Give my love to Dorothy, if she will take it; if not, put it to your own share. I think this letter deserves a long answer. It treats chiefly of myself, ’t is true, but what else have I to treat you to? and what else do you care so much to hear about? I heard yesterday of a lady who from the age of seven to that of sixty kept a daily journal. I should like to have seen such a history of any mind, — I take it for granted she wrote her mind; in the record of all those years she must have done so, consciously or unconsciously. I never read a syllable of Rousseau, in my life, and just before I got your letter speaking of his writings was wishing I had done so; I suppose I shall, some day. Mrs. Norton, Chantrey, and Barry Cornwall have come in while I have been finishing this letter; does not that sound pretty and pleasant? and don’t you envy us some of our privileges ? My mother has been seeing P——’s picture of my father in
Macbeth this morning, and you never heard anything funnier than her rage at ii: " A fat, red, round, staring, pudsy thing! the eyes no more like his than mine are! (certainly, no human eyes could be more dissimilar); and then, his jaw! bless my soul, how could he miss it! the Kemble jaw-bone! Why it was as notorious as Samson’s! ” Good-by. Your affectionate FANNY.
Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, the famous friends of Llangollen, kept during the whole life they spent together under such peculiar circumstances a daily diary, so minute as to include the mention not only of every one they saw (and it must be remembered that their hermitage was a place of fashionable pilgrimage, as well as a hospitable refuge), but also what they had for dinner every day, — so I have been told.
The little box on the stage I have alluded to in this letter as Mrs. Siddons’s was a small recess opposite the prompter’s box, and of much the same proportions, that my father had fitted up for the especial convenience of my aunt Siddons whenever she chose to honor my performances with her presence. She came to it several times, but the draughts in crossing the stage were bad, and the exertion and excitement too much for her, and her life was not prolonged much after my coming upon the stage.
Lord and Lady Dacre were among my kindest friends. With Lady Dacre I corresponded from the beginning of our acquaintance until her death, which took place at a very advanced age. She was strikingly handsome, with a magnificent figure and great vivacity and charm of manner and conversation. Her accomplishments were various, and all of so masterly an excellence that her performances would have borne comparison with the best works of professional artists. She drew admirably, especially animals, of which she was extremely fond. I have seen drawings of groups of cattle by her that without the advantage of color recall the life and spirit of Rosa Bonheur’s pictures. She was a perfect Italian scholar, having studied enthusiastically that divine tongue with the enthusiast, Ugo Foscolo, whose patriotic exile and misfortunes were cheered and soothed by the admiring friendship and cordial kindness of Lord and Lady Dacre. Among all the specimens of translation with which I am acquainted, her English version of Petrarch’s sonnets is one of the most ren arkable for fidelity, beauty, and the grace and sweetness with which she has achieved the difficult feat of following in English the precise form of the complicated and peculiar Italian prosody. These translations seem to me as nearly perfect as that species of literature can be. But the most striking demonstrations of her genius were the groups of horses which Lady Dacre modeled from nature, and which, copied and multiplied in plaster casts, have been long familiar to the public, without many of those who know and admire them being aware who was their author. It is hardly possible to see anything more graceful and spirited, truer at once to nature and the finest art, than these compositions, faithful in the minutest details of execution, and highly poetical in their entire conception Lady Dacre was the finest female rider and driver in England; that is saying in the world. Had she lived in Italy in the sixteenth century her name would be among the noted names of that great artistie era; but as she was an Englishwoman of the nineteenth. in spite of her intellectual culture and accomplishments she was only an exceedingly clever, amiable, kind lady of fashionable London society.
Of Lord Dacre it is not easy to speak with all the praise which he deserved. He inherited his title from his mother, who had married Mr. Brand of the Hoo, Hertfordshire, and at the moment of his becoming heir to that estate was on the point of leaving England with Colonel Talbot, son of Lord Talbot de Malahide, to found with him a colony in British Canada, where Arcadia was to revive again, at a distance from all the depraved and degraded social systems of Europe, under the auspices of these two enthusiastic young reformers. Mr. Brand had completed las studies in Germany, and acquired, by assiduous reading and intimate personal acquaintance with the most enlightened and profound thinkers of the philosophical school of which Kant was the apostle, a mental cultivation very unlike, in its depth and direction, the usual intellectual culture of young Englishmen of his class.
He was an enthusiast of the most generous description, in love with liberty and ardent for progress; the political as well as the social and intellectual systems of Europe appeared to him, in his youthful zeal for the improvement of his fellow-beings, belated if not benighted on the road to it, and he had embraced with the most ardent hopes and purposes the scheme of emigration of Colonel Talbot, for forming in the New World a colony where all the errors of the Old were to be avoided. But his mother died, and the young emigrant withdrew his foot from the deck of the Canadian ship to take his place in the British peerage, to bear an ancient English title and become master of an old English estate, to marry a brilliant woman of English fashionable society, and be thenceforth the ideal of an English country gentleman, that most enviable of mortals, as far as outward circumstance and position can make a man so.
His serious early German studies had elevated and enlarged his mind far beyond the usual level and scope of the English country gentleman’s brain, and freed him from the peculiarly narrow class prejudices which it. harbors. He was an enlightened liberal, not only in politics but in every domain of human thought; he was a great reader, with a wide range of foreign as well as English literary knowledge. He had exquisite taste, was a fine connoisseur and critic in matters of art, and was the kindliest natural and mannered man alive.
At his house in Hertfordshire, the Hoo, I used to meet Earl Grey; his son, the present earl (then Lord Howick); Lord Melbourne; the Duke of Bedford; Earl Russell (then Lord John), and Sidney and Bobus Smith, — all of them distinguished men, but few of them, I think, Lord Dacre’s superiors in mental power. Altogether the society that he and Lady Dacre gathered round them was as delightful as it was intellectually remarkable; it was composed of persons eminent for ability, and influential members of a great world in which extraordinary capacity was never an excuse for want of urbanity or the absence of the desire to please; their intercourse was charming as well as profoundly interesting to me.
During a conversation I once had with Lady Dacre about her husband, she gave me the following extract from the writings of Madame Huber, the celebrated Therëse Heyne, whose first husband, Johann Georg Forster, was one of the delegates which sympathizing Mentz sent to Paris in 1793, to solicit from the revolutionary government the favor of annexation to the French republic.
“ In the year 1790 Forster had attached to himself and introduced in his establishment a young Englishman, who came to Germany with the view of studying the German philosophy [Kant’s system] in its original language. He was nearly connected with some of the leaders of the then opposition. He was so noble, so simple, that each virtue seemed in him an instinct, and so stoical in his views that he considered every noble action as the victory of self-control, and never felt himself good enough. The friends [Huber and Forster] who loved him with parental tenderness sometimes repeated with reference to him the words of Shakespeare, —
But, thanks to fate, he has falsified that prophecy; the youth is grown into manhood; he lives, unclaimed by any mere political party, with the more valuable portion of his people, and satisfies himself with being a good man so long as circumstances prevent him from acting in his sense as a good citizen. Our daily intercourse with this youth enabled us to combine a knowledge of English events with our participation in the proceedings on the Continent. His patriotism moderated many of our extreme views with regard to his country; his estimate of many individuals, of whom from his position he possessed accurate knowledge, decided many a disputed point amongst us; and the tenderness which we all felt for this beloved and valued friend tended to produce justice and moderation in all our conflicts of opinion.” 1
Lady Dacre had had by her first marriage, to Mr. Wilmot, an only child, the Mrs. Sullivan I have mentioned in this letter, wife of the Reverend Frederick Sullivan, Vicar of Kimpton. She was an excellent and most agreeable person, who inherited her mother’s literary and artistic genius in a remarkable degree, though her different position and less leisurely circumstances as wife of a country clergyman and mother of a large family, devoted to the important duties of both callings, probably prevented the full development and manifestation of her fine intellectual gifts. She was a singularly modest and diffident person, and this as well as her more serious avocations may have stood in the way of her doing justice to her uncommon abilities, of which, however, there is abundant evidence in her drawings and groups of modeled figures, and in the five volumes of charming stories called Tales of a Chaperon, and Tales of the Peerage and the Peasantry, which were not published with her name but simply as edited by Lady Dacre, to whom their authorship was, I think, generally attributed. The mental gifts of Lady Dacre appear to be heirlooms, for they have been inherited for three generations, and in each case by her female descendants.
The gentleman who accompanied her to our house, on the evening I referred to in my letter, was the Honorable James Stuart Wortley, youngest son of the Earl of Wharncliffe, who was prevented by failure of health alone from reaching the very highest honors of the legal profession, in which he had already attained the rank of solicitor-general, when his career was prematurely closed by disastrous illness. At the time of my first acquaintance with him he was a very clever and attractive young man, and though intended for a future Lord Chancellor he condescended to sing sentimental songs very charmingly.
Of my excellent and amiable friend, the Reverend William Harness, a biography has been published which tells all there is to be told of his uneventful life and career. Endowed with a hand some face and sweet countenance anti very fine voice, he was at one time, a fashionable London preacher, a vocation not incompatible, when he exercised it, with a great admiration for the drama. He was an enthusiastic frequenter of the theatre, published a valuable edition of Shakespeare, and wrote two plays in blank verse which had considerable merit; but his preëminent gift, was goodness, in which I have known few people who surpassed him. Objecting from conscientious motives to hold more than one living, he received from his friend, Lord Lansdowne, an appointment in the Home Office, the duties of which did not interfere with those of his clerical profession. He was of a delightfully sunny, cheerful temper, and very fond of society, mixing in the best that London afforded, and frequently receiving with cordial hospitality some of its most distinguished members in his small, modest residence. He was a devoted friend of my family, had an ardent admiration for my aunt Siddons, and honored me with a kind and constant regard.
Miss Joanna Baillie was a great friend of Mrs. Siddons’s, and wrote expressly for her the part of Jane de Montfort, in her play of De Montfort. My father and mother had the honor of her acquaintance, and I went more than once to pay my respects to her at the cottage in Hampstead where she passed the last years of her life.
The peculiar plan upon which she wrote her fine plays, making each of them illustrate a single passion, was in great measure the cause of their unfitness for the stage. De Montfort, which has always been considered the most dramatic of them, had only a very partial success, in spite of its very great poetical merit and considerable power of passion, and the favorable circumstance that the two principal characters in it were represented by the eminent actors for whom the authoress originally designed them. In fact, though Joanna Baillie selected and preferred the dramatic form for her poetical compositions, they are wanting in the real dramatic element, resemblance to life and human nature, and are infinitely finer as poems than plays.
But the desire and ambition of her life had been to write for the stage, and the reputation she achieved as a poet did not reconcile her to her failure as a dramatist. I remember old Mr. Sotheby, the poet (I add his title to his name, though Ins title to it was by some esteemed but slender), telling me of a visit he had once paid her, when, calling him into her little kitchen (she was not rich, kept few servants, and did not disdain sometimes to make her own pies and puddings), she bade him, as she was up to the elbows in flour and paste, draw from her pocket a paper; it was a play-bill, sent to her by some friend in the country, setting forth that some obscure provincial company was about to perform Miss Joanna Baillie’s celebrated tragedy of De Montfort. “ There,” exclaimed the culinary Melpomene, “ there, Sotheby, I am so happy! You see my plays can be acted somewhere! ” Well, too, do I remember the tone of half-regretful congratulation in which she said to me: “ Oh, you lucky girl — you lucky girl; you are going to have your play acted! ” Tins was Francis I., the production of which on the stage was a bitter annoyance to me, to prevent which I would have given anything I possessed, but which made me (vexed and unhappy though I was at the circumstance on which I was being congratulated) an object of positive envy to the distinguished authoress and kind old lady.
In order to steer clear of the passion of revenge, which is in fact hatred proceeding from a sense of injury, Miss Joanna Baillie in her fine tragedy of De Montfort has inevitably made the subject of it an antipathy, that is, an instinctive, unreasoning, partly physical antagonism, producing abhorrence and detestation the most intense, without any adequate motive; and the secret of the failure of her noble play on the stage is precisely that this is not (fortunately) a natural passion common to the majority of human beings (which hatred that has a motive undoubtedly is, in a greater or less degree), but an abnormal element in exceptionally morbid natures, and therefore a sentiment (or sensation) with which no great number of people or large proportion of a public audience can sympathize or even understand. Intense and causeless hatred is one of the commonest indications of insanity, and, alas! one that too often exhibits itself towards those who have been objects of the tenderest love; but De Montfort is not insane, and his loathing is utiaccountable to healthy minds upon any other plea, and can find no comprehension in audiences quite prepared to understand, it not to sympathize with, the vindictive malignity of Shyloek and the savage ferocity of Zanga. Goethe, in his grand play of Tasso, gives the poet this morbid detestation of the accomplished courtier and man of the world, Antonio; but then, Tasso is represented as on the very verge of that madness into the dark abyss of which he subsequently sinks.
Shakespeare’s treatment of the passion of hatred, in The Merchant of Venice, is worthy of all admiration for the profound insight with which he has discriminated between that form of it which all men comprehend, and can sympathize with, and that which, being really nothing but diseased idiosyncrasy, appears to the majority of healthy minds a mere form of madness.
In his first introduction to us the Jew accounts for his detestation of Antonio upon three very comprehensible grounds: national race hatred, in feeling and exciting which the Jews have been quite a “peculiar people” from the earliest records of history; personal injury in the defeat of his usurious prospects of gain; and personal insult in the unmanly treatment to which Antonio had subjected him. However excessive in degree, his hatred is undoubtedly shown to have a perfectly comprehensible, if not adequate cause and nature, and is a reasonable hatred, except from such a moral point of view as allows of none.
An audience can therefore tolerate him with mitigated disgust through the opening portions of the play. When, however, in the grand climax of the trial scene Shakespeare intends that he shall be no longer tolerated or tolerable, but condemned alike by his Venetian judges and his English audience, he carefully avoids putting into his mouth anyone of the reasons with which in the opening of the play he explains and justifies his hatred, He does not make him quote the centuries - old Hebrew scorn of and aversion to the Gentiles, .nor the merchant’s interference with his commercial speculations, nor the man’s unprovoked spitting at, spurning, and abuse of him; but he will and can give no reason for his abhorrence of Antonio, whom he says he loathes with the inexplicable revulsion of nature that certain men feel towards certain animals; and the mastery of the poet shows itself in thus making Shylock’s cruelty monstrous and accounting for it as an abnormal monstrosity.
Hatred that has a reasonable cause may cease with its removal. Supposing Antonio to have become a converted Jew, or to have withdrawn all opposition to Shylock’s usury and compensated him largely for the losses he had caused him by it, and to have expressed publicly, with the utmost humility, contrition for his former insults and sincere promises of future honor, respect, and reverence, it is possible to imagine Shylock relenting in a hatred of which the reasons he assigned for it no longer existed. But from the moment he says he has no reason for his hatred other than the insuperable disgust and innate enmity of an antagonistic nature, — the deadly, sickening, physical loathing that in rare instances affects certain human beings towards others of their species, and towards certain animals, — then there are no calculable bounds to the ferocity of such a blind instinct, no possibility of mitigating, by considerations of reflection or feeling, an inherent, integral element of a morbid organization. And Shakespeare, in giving this aspect to the last exhibition of Shylock’s vindictiveness, cancels the original appeal to possible sympathy for his previous wrongs, and presents him as a dangerous maniac or wild beast, from whose fury no one is safe, and whom it is every one’s interest to strike down; so that at the miserable Jew’s final defeat the, whole audience gasps with a sense of unspeakable relief, Perhaps, too, the master meant to show — at any rate he has shown — that the deadly sin of hatred, indulged even with a cause, ends in the dire disease of causeless hate and the rabid frenzy of a maniac.
It has sometimes been objected to this wonderful scene that Portia’s reticence and delay in relieving Antonio and her husband from their suspense is unnatural. But Portia is a very superior woman, able to control not only her own palpitating sympathy with their anguish, but her impatient yearning to put an end to it, till she has made every effort to redeem the wretch whose hardness of heart fills her with incredulous amazement, — a heavenly instinct akin to the divine love that desires not that a sinner should perish, which enables her to postpone her own relief and that of those precious to her till she has exhausted endeavor to soften Shylock; and Shakespeare thus not only justifies the stern severity of her ultimate sentence on him, but shows her endowed with the highest powers of self-command, and patient, long-suffering with evil; her teasing her husband half to death afterward restores the balance of her humanity, which was sinking heavily towards perfection.
Bryan Waller Procter, dear Barry Cornwall, — beloved by all who knew him, even his fellow-poets, for his sweet, gentle disposition,—had married (as I have said elsewhere) Anne Stepper, the daughter of our friend, Mrs. Basil Montague. They were among our most intimate and friendly-acquaintance. Their house was the resort of all the choice spirits of the London society of their day, her pungent epigrams and brilliant sallies making the most delightful contrast imaginable to the cordial kindliness of his conversation and the affectionate tenderness of his manner; she was like a fresh lemon, — golden, fragrant, firm, and wholesome,—and he was like the honey of Hymettus; they were an incomparable compound.
The play which I speak of as his, in my last letter, was Ford’s White Devil, of which the notorious Victoria Corrombona, Duchess of Bracciano, is the heroine. The powerful but coarse treatment of the Italian story by the Elizabethan playwright had been chastened into something more adapted to modern taste by Barry Cornwall; but, even with his kindred power and skillful handling, the work of the early master retained too rough a flavor for the public palate of our day, and very reluctantly the project of bringing it out was abandoned.
The tragical story of Victoria Corrombona, eminently tragical in that age of dramatic lives and deaths, has furnished not only the subject of this fine play of Ford’s, but that of a magnificent historical novel, by the great German writer, Tieck, in which it is difficult to say which predominates, the intense interest of the heroine’s individual career, or that created by the splendid delineation of the whole state of Italy at that period, — the days of the grand old Sixtus the Fifth in Rome, and of the contemporary Medici in Florence; it is altogether a masterpiece by a great master. Superior in tragic horror, because unrelieved by the general picture of contemporaneous events, but quite inferior as a work of imagination, is the comparatively short sketch of Vittoria Corrombona’s life and death contained in a collection of Italian stories called Crimes Celebres, by Stendahl, where it keeps company with other tragedies of private life, which during the same century occupied with their atrocious details the tribunals of justice in Rome. Among the collection is the story from which Mr. Fechter’s melodrama of Bel Demonio was taken, the story of the Cenci, and the story of a certain Duchess of Pagliano, all of them inconceivably horrible and revolting.
About the same time that this play of Barry Cornwall’s was given up, a long negotiation between Miss Mitford and the management, of Covent Garden came to a conclusion by her withdrawal of her play of Iñez de Castro, a tragedy founded upon one of the most romantic and picturesque incidents in the Spanish chronicle. After much uncertainty and many difficulties, the project of bringing it out was abandoned. I remember thinking I could do nothing with the part of the heroine, whose corpse is produced in the last act., seated on the throne and receiving the homage of the subjects of her husband, Pedro the Cruel, — a very ghastly incident in the story, which I think would in itself have endangered the success of the play. My despondency about the part of Iñez had nothing to do with the possible effect of this situation, however, but was my invariable impression with regard to every new part that was assigned to me on first reading it. But I am sure Miss Mitford had no cause to regret that I had not undertaken this; the success of her play in my hands ran a risk such as her fine play of Rienzi, in those of Mr. Young or Mr. Macready, could never have incurred; and it was well for her that to their delineation of her Roman tribune, and not mine of her Aragonese lady, her reputation with the public as a dramatic writer was confided.
I have mentioned in this last letter a morning visit from Chantrey, the eminent sculptor, who was among our frequenters. His appearance and manners were simple and almost rustic, and he was shy and silent in society, all which may have been results of his obscure birth and early want of education. He was apprenticed in his youth to a carpenter, and dining with Rogers one day after his fame as an artist had long been recognized by the world, he said, pointing to a sideboard in the dining-room, “ I once mended that piece of furniture for you,” and pointed out some trifling repairs which in his days of joining and cabinet-making he had been sent by his master-carpenter to execute. It was to Sir Francis Chantrey that my father’s friends applied for the design of the beautiful silver vase which they presented to him at the end of his professional career. The sculptor’s idea seemed to me a very happy and appropriate one, and the design was admirably executed ; it consisted of a simple and elegant figure of Hamlet on the cover of the vase, and round it, in fine relief, the Seven Ages of Man, from Jaques’s speech in As You Like It; the whole work was very beautiful, and has a double interest for me, as that not only of an eminent artist, but a kind friend of my father’s.
GREAT RUSSELL STREET, March 7, 1831. }
My DEAKEST H——: With regard to change as we contemplate it when parting from those we love, I confess I should shrink from the idea of years intervening before you and I met again; not that I apprehend any diminution of our affection, but it would be painful to be no longer young, or to have grown suddenly old to each other. But I hope this will not be so; I hope we may goon meeting often enough for that change which is inevitable to be long imperceptible; I hope we may be allowed to go on wondering together, till we meet where you will certainly be happy, if wonder is for once joined to knowledge. I remember my aunt Whitelock saying that when she went to America she left my father a toddling thing that she used to dandle and carry about; and the first time she saw him after her return, he had a baby of his own in his arms. That sort of thing makes one’s heart jump into one’s mouth with dismay; it seems as if all the time one had been living away, unconsciously, was thrown in a lump at one’s head.
J——F——told me on Thursday that her sister, whose wedding-day seemed to me about yesterday, was the mother of four children; she has lost no time, it is true, but my “ yesterday ” must be five years old. After dinner, yesterday, wrote a new last scene to Francis I. I mean to send it to Murray.
A——says you seem younger to her than I do; which considering your fourteen years’ seniority over me is curious; but the truth is, though she does not know it, I am still too young; I have not lived, experienced, and suffered enough to have acquired the self-forgetfulness and gentle forbearance that make us good and pleasant companions to our youngers.
Henry got into a scrape, yesterday, about the college report, which states him to have been “absent and late” several times. I believe there was really some mistake in the statement ; nevertheless, a conviction is irresistibly borne in upon all our minds that it is hardly possible to be dancing till four in the morning and in college at eight with a clear head and one’s studying wits about one.
Henry and I are going together to the Zoölogical Gardens one of these days; that lovely tigress hangs about my heart and I must go and see her again. Ever your affectionate F. A. KEMBLE.
GREAT RUSSELL, STREET, March 9, 1831. }
MY DEAR H——: Why are you not here to kiss and congratulate me? I am so proud and happy! Mr. Murray has given me four hundred and fifty pounds for my play alone! the other things he does not wish to publish with it. Only think of it — was there ever such publishing munificence! My father has the face to say it is not enough! but looks so proud and pleased that his face alone shows it is too much by a great deal; my mother is enchanted, and I am so happy, so thankful for this prosperous result of my work, so delighted at earning so much, so surprised and charmed to think that what gave me nothing but pleasure in the doing has brought me such an after-harvest of profit; it is too good almost to be true, and yet it is true.
But I am happy and have been much excited from another reason, to-day. Richard Trench, John’s dear friend and companion, is just returned from Spain, and came here this morning to see us. I sat with him a long while. John is well and in good spirits. Mr. Trench before leaving Gibraltar had used every persuasion to induce my brother to return with him, and had even got him on board the vessel in which they were to sail, but John’s heart failed him at the thought of forsaking Torrijos, and he went back. The account Air. Trench gives of their proceedings is much as I imagined them to have been. They hired a house which they denominated Constitution Hall, where they passed their time smoking, and drinking ale, John holding forth upon German metaphysics, which grew dense in proportion as the tobacco fumes grew thick and his glass grew empty. You know we had an alarm about their being taken prisoners, which story originated thus: they had agreed with the constitutionalists in Algeciras that on a certain day the latter were to get rid of their officers (murder them civilly, I suppose), and then light beacons on the heights, at which signal Torrijos and his companions, among them our party who were lying armed on hoard a schooner in the bay, were to make good their landing. The English authorities at Gibraltar, however, had note of this, and whilst they lay watching for the signal they were boarded by one of the government ships and taken prisoners. The number of English soldiers in whose custody they found themselves being, however, inferior to their own, they agreed that if the beacons made their appearance they would turn upon their guards and either imprison or kill them. But the beacons were never lighted; their Spanish fellow-revolutionists broke faith with them, and they remained ingloriously on board until next day, when they were ignominiously suffered to go quietly on shore again.
Frances Anne Kemble.
- Sketch of Lord Dacre’s character by Madame Huber.↩