Anne Gilchrist

THERE is a personality in some people which is brought out most distinctly by relations held to others. Mrs. Gilchrist, whose memorial1 has been edited by her son, was a woman of marked strength of character and self-reliance; yet her very individuality is most discoverable when one sees her with her husband, with Blake, with her children, with Whitman, and with Mary Lamb. She is always herself, but then her self was a nature which obeyed the great paradoxical law of finding life through the loss of it. Mrs. Carlyle is quoted as saying, as she watched her neighbor breaking up her Chelsea home for a retirement in the country, that Mrs. Gilchrist would “ skin and bury herself alive for the benefit of her children.” Comparisons are apt to be unjust as well as odious, and the picture of Mrs. Gilchrist keeping the integrity of her life when most completely devoted to the life of others is striking enough without the aid of any contrasting picture, even if two neighboring households readily suggest such contrasts.

Anne Burrows was twenty-three years old when she married Alexander Gilchrist. Her father died when she was eleven, and she was left to the care of her mother. The family seems to have been one which held by the tenets of the evangelical school, and Anne’s education was directed in accordance with these tenets ; but the few glimpses which her son gives of her girlhood disclose the independence of mind which was afterward so marked an attribute. Apparently, her religious education was based upon a merely superficial presentation of traditional beliefs, and her vigorous intellect, refusing such nurture, took refuge in an extreme individualism. It is no uncommon phenomenon when the dry individualism of Calvinism, detached from the deep personal experience which saves the creed, sends the dissatisfied pupil into a richer naturalism, but one which has missed the profound significance of a common Christianity.

In Alexander Gilchrist the thoughtful girl found a true companion, or, to speak more exactly, the husband found in his wife one who could give to his nervous, eager, literary activity the aid of a calm, sympathetic, and constant nature. Mrs. Gilchrist has elsewhere sketched her husband’s life, and brief as that sketch is it leaves upon the mind a tolerably sharp impression of the conscientious, thorough, and minutely curious character to which she was so happily joined. She gave him, we cannot help thinking, an element of repose, and he gave her both an intellectual stimulus and, by the legacy of his unfinished work and their little children, an occupation and purpose which carried her through hard years and deepened the forces of her nature.

Mr. Gilchrist was an enthusiast in art, and a finely constituted hero-worshiper. He is principally known to readers by his Life of William Blake, the actual composition of which was practically complete before he was cut off by sudden death, although considerable editorial labor was afterward expended on the work by his widow and by the two Rossettis. Mrs. Gilchrist does not seem to have had any special training in artistic studies before her marriage, and her chosen literary tasks after she was done with the Blake did not lead her into the field of art. Her intellectual companionship with her husband made her quickly intelligent in such matters, and she followed his lead with confident step ; but we are impressed rather by the large wisdom which saved her from a mere sympathetic pursuit of her husband’s studies. While he was with her, she thought with him and worked with him. When he was gone, she finished his task carefully, with sound judgment and excellent taste. Then she devoted herself to the next interest, and lived for years to mould and guide her children’s characters.

Her husband’s hero-worship made him naturally a biographer, and his fine perception, his quick sympathy, led him to choose subjects upon which he could expend generous labor ; he had, as Mrs. Gilchrist says, a “ strong sympathy with the unvictorious fighters in the battle of life.” With this came easily a warm admiration for persons, and a willingness to make himself of use to them. The man who would hunt with unflagging zeal for everything which threw light upon the career of the dead Blake was no less ready to lend his time and fine powers of literary scent to the living Carlyle; and thus it came about that a friendly acquaintance with the hero ripened rapidly into an affectionate relation, and Gilchrist proved a most helpful aid to the historian in searching for portraits. The two families became neighbors in Chelsea, and the son prints interesting extracts from his father’s journal and correspondence, in which the social and a little of the domestic life of the Carlyles is pleasantly outlined in a scrappy, disjointed fashion. It would not be fair to judge Mr. Gilchrist by the random notes which he made. They were plainly intended as pegs for his own memory, and some of the trivialities would doubtless have either been omitted altogether, or replaced by the fuller form which they would have suggested to the writer, if he had used this material itself.

Nevertheless, these pages relating to the Carlyles help to bring out the personality of Mrs. Gilchrist, and it is for this that we are glad to have them. They show the young couple in friendly and natural association with the older and more famous people near them ; and though Mrs. Gilchrist appears almost in the background, the reader is constantly pleased with the glimpses he catches of her, — womanly, devoted, intellectually strong, yet never obtruding herself, and always preserving that calm, cheerful self-poise which must have made her, with all her privacy of life, the one person to whom the other three restless figures turned for a sense of repose and steadfastness. It was at this time, also, that the Rossettis were added to the circle of the Gilchrists’ acquaintance, and both now and later there are pleasing expressions of Dante Rossetti’s subdued intensity of nature.

It was through her husband and his literary occupation that Mrs. Gilchrist came into association with these and other notable persons, but her husband was rather the occasion than the cause of her friendships. When he was taken from her, and she buried herself in the country with her children, her former friends showed in many ways that they valued her for her own sake ; and though she secluded herself, she kept on, as she had done before, quietly and with delicate discrimination, receiving into her life the best that presented itself. She does not seem to have read widely, but she was indifferent to ignoble literature. She did not make a crowd of friends, but, while open and receptive to all, she gravitated toward those best worth knowing and most worth holding. Thus to Brookbank came the Tennysons, and their coming is so pleasantly told by Mrs. Gilchrist in a letter that we give it here :

“ I was sitting under the yew-tree yesterday, when Fanny came to me and put a card into my hand. And whose name do you think was on that card ? If I were talking instead of writing, I should make you guess, and keep you in suspense a long while; hut that is no use in a letter, because you can peep forward. It was ‘ Mr. Alfred Tennyson.’ He looks older than I expected, because, of course, the portraits one was early familiar with have stood still in one’s mind as the image to be associated with that great name. But he is, to my thinking, far nobler looking now, every inch a king : features are massive; eyes very grave and penetrating; hair long, still very dark, and, though getting thin, falls in such a way as to give a peculiar beauty to the mystic head. Mrs. Tennyson, a sweet, graceful woman, with singularly winning, gentle manners, but she looks painfully fragile and wan. . . .

“ But what you will be most anxious to hear is all that he said. Mrs. Tennyson having mentioned that they had just come over from Petersfield, and that they had been there to see a clergyman who takes pupils, with an idea of placing their boys with him, when Giddy [a child of seven] came into the room, Tennyson called her to him, asked her her name, kissed her, stroked her sturdy legs, made Mrs. Tennyson feel them, and then set her on his knee, and talked to her all the while I was over at the Simmons’ arranging matters. Afterwards, when we were walking up a hill together, he said, ‘ I admire that little girl of yours. It is n’t every one that admires that kind of very solid development of flesh and blood, but I do. Old Tom Campbell used to say that children should be like bulbs, — plenty of substance in them for the flower to grow out of by and by.’ Tennyson asked me how many children I had ; and when I said ‘ four,’ answered hastily, ‘ Quite enough ! quite enough! ’ at which I was not a little amused.”

So began a pleasant friendship, which was confirmed when the Tennysons came to stay in the neighborhood, and Mrs. Gilchrist made herself a most hospitable and helpful neighbor. Her letters at this time give most agreeable bits from Tennyson’s talk, and unwittingly show how much the poet respected this cheerful, serene, hard-working mother. Hard-working indeed she was. A strict economy was needful, and everything was to be done for the children. It was for them that she had sought this country seclusion, and she was giving them not only the physical training which the pure air and sweet country permitted, but the careful training in mental power which her strong nature made possible. All else was subordinate ; and while she used her pen from time to time, to add to her slender income, she resolutely measured her strength with regard to the one crowning purpose of this part of her life. She writes to her sister-inlaw : —

“ Masson has accepted the article I wrote last spring [The Indestructibility of Force, in Macmillan’s Magazine]. And that will be the last thing I shall attempt for many a long day, as I have fully made up my mind to give myself up wholly to educating the children. I find it such a harassing strain to attempt two things. Bad for me, because to be hard at work from the time you step out of bed in the morning till you step into it at night is not good for any one ; it leaves no time, either, for general culture, for drinking at the refreshing fountain of standard literature and of music. Bad for the children, because it made me grudge them my time of an evening, when so much indirect good may be done to them by reading aloud and showing them prints. And after all, they will not always be children ; and if I have it in me to do anything worth doing with my pen, why, I can do it ten years hence, if I live, when I shall have completed my task so far as direct instruction of the children goes. I shall only be forty-six then, not in my dotage. Do you think I am right ? A divided aim is not only most harassing to a conscientious disposition, but quite fatal to success, — to doing one’s very best in either.” And later she writes of teaching “ as real hard work, and I spend five hours a day at it; and then the amount of industry that goes to making two hundred a year do the work of four or five is not small. However, my prime rest, pleasure, society, all in one, — what keeps me going in a tolerably unflagging way, — are the glorious walks. Hind Head is as fresh to me as the day I first set eyes on it. And if I go out feeling ever so jaded, irritable, dispirited, when I find myself up there alone (for unless I have perfect stillness and quietness, and my thoughts are as free as a bird, the walk does not seem to do me a bit of good) care and fatigue are all shaken off, and life seems as grand and sweet and noble a thing as the scene my bodily eyes rest on ; and if sad thoughts come, they have hope and sweetness so blended with them that I hardly know them to be sad, and I return to my little chicks quite bright and rested, and fully alive to the fact that they are the sweetest, loveliest chicks in the whole world; and Giddy says, ‘ Mamma has shut up her box of sighs.’ ”

The familiar intercourse which Mrs. Gilchrist maintained with the Rossettis, by interchange of visits and correspondence, gave occasion for an acquaintance which largely colors the latter half of this interesting book. Mr. William Rossetti introduced Walt Whitman to the English public by a volume of judicious selections, and one of its earliest readers was Mrs. Gilchrist, who writes : “ Since I have had it, I can read no other book ; it holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again, with deepening delight and wonder.” Mr. Rossetti at once placed the entire body of Whitman’s verse in Mrs. Gilchrist’s hands ; and there followed a series of letters from her, which were a little later run into a consecutive article, printed in America, and reprinted in this volume as An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman. Mr. Rossetti introduced the letters by a brief note of his own, in which he characterized them as “ about the fullest, farthest-reaching, and most eloquent appreciation of Whitman yet put into writing, whether or not I or other readers find cause for critical dissent at an item here and there. The most valuable, I say, because this is the expression of what a woman sees in Whitman’s poems, — a woman who has read and thought much, and whom to know is to respect and esteem in every relation, whether of character, intellect, or culture.” Fifteen years later Mrs. Gilchrist again summed her judgment of Whitman and his apostleship in a paper printed in this volume, entitled A Confession of Faith.

There is, or rather was fifteen or twenty years ago, in England, a disposition among literary and artistic people of a distinct type to construct an American phantom. The men and women who were at odds with the England of their day, impatient at smug respectability, chafing not so much at the petty restrictions of conventionality as at the limitations imposed by institutional religion and politics, wishing to escape from the commercial conception of the universe, and met everywhere by the self-complacency of Philistinism, took refuge in two widely separate realities, mediaeval romanticism and American freedom. The one inspired their art and much of their poetry, the other enkindled their thought. Both offered them an opportunity to protest against English lawful dullness. In America these spirits saw the cheerful largeness of hope, the confident step, the freedom from tradition, the frank appropriation of the world as belonging to Americans, and a general habit of mind which proclaimed law as made for man, and not man for law. With the ardor of worshipers, the more outre their idol the more they admired it. An exaggeratecl type of frontier lawlessness, some sombrero-shadowed, cowhide-booted being, filled them with special ecstasy. It was not that they cared to go and live with him on the prairie, but he served as a sort of symbol to them of an expansive life which was gone from England, but was possible to humanity. They knew he was exaggerated, that there were cityfuls of people in America who regarded him as a side-show ; but he brought the freshness of contrast with him, and so served the end of their thought in his way as effectively as a Cimabue did in his. Cimabue and the latest wild man of the West met in the London studio and drawing-room, and though they did not know each other had a “ mutual friend.”

Thus these dissatisfied Englishmen sought in American literature for something new, something that could not have been written in London, and they were impatient of those fine shades of difference which make American literature as distinct as Americans themselves, and just as defiant of analysis ; they wished to see their conceptions of America materialized in bold, unmistakable shape. They did not ask for form, — they had abundance of that in England; they asked for spirit, and it might take any shape it chose. So, persons whose artistic perception was delicately developed accepted as a fact, which transcended all ordinary laws of art, poetry as huge, as floundering, as inorganic, as Blake’s wandering visions, and like those visions shot through with superb lines, touched with gleams of heavenly beauty, suggesting waves of profound thought. Poetry broken loose was what they saw and admired.

There is much in the point of view, in admiration. From a London studio an American wonder will have a different aspect than from the interior life of America itself, and the explanation of the apparent indifference which his own age and country may show to a poet received with acclaim in a foreign land may be found in the very community which his contemporary countrymen enjoy with him. They see the thoughts which they think, and all the while unconsciously translate into the forms of their activity, rendered in a poetic form, which has little value for them precisely because it comes too close to their nature. They are accustomed to tall talk, and they treat it good-humoredly, as a weakness of their own. But because they are living freely, generously, and, if one may say so, splurgily, they instinctively seek form in their ideals of art, and demand that the spiritual forces which they admire shall have a completeness and precision complementary to their own somewhat vague and unrestrained life. It was no unmeaning accident, but a clear demonstration of this conscious want, which made sculpture the first effort of any consequence in American art. It was this perfection of form which endeared Longfellow to his countrymen, and it is the delicacy of art in Hawthorne which has made him so representative an American writer.

We have strayed away a little from our immediate theme. Mr. Rossetti rightly congratulated himself that so strong a woman as Mrs. Gilchrist should welcome Whitman, and no one can read her own analysis of this new nature which had been presented to her without respecting her lofty courage and broad sympathy. " Perhaps Walt Whitman has forgotten, or, through some theory in his head, has overridden,” she writes, “ the truth that our instincts are beautiful facts of nature, as well as our bodies, and that we have a strong instinct of silence about some things.” Having said that, she dismisses the matter, or rather proceeds to take up into a general philosophical coup d’œil all that in the poet which individually or in detail might offend her.

Our business is not with the poet, but with the woman, and our interest is in seeing how boldly she uses the poet as a whole to carry forward her thought, to enlarge her conceptions of human life, and to solidify and define floating notions of science and religion which had long been forming in her mind. She is right, from her point of view, in disregarding special criticism. It was not whether Whitman, in this or that poem, had given her pleasure or offended her sense of propriety; he was to her, in the sweep of his prose and verse, a democratic prophet, and as such a most welcome guide into those larger regions of thought whither her mind was tending. She belonged to the larger England of her day, and with a woman’s wit and fidelity she recognized at once and accepted without reserve the Greatheart who should point the way to the city of her desire. Few phenomena in Mrs. Gilchrist’s life impress us as more indicative of her womanliness than this strongpassion for a book which in its ordinary acceptation would seem to repel rather than attract a woman’s nature. In a large way she was disclosing the same noble nature which we have noted under other conditions. She was losing her life to find it; she was suppressing the individual in her to rise into the nobler conception of the humane life ; and in giving herself so abundantly to a great idea — for it was a great idea which she caught through the medium of this new nature — she was enlarging and enriching her own personality. All this we can say, looking at the matter from her point of view, but we think she was wrong, fundamentally, in her philosophy; for naturalism, however far it may be developed, never has accounted, and never can account, for the sons of God.

We have dwelt so long on the more striking periods of Mrs. Gilchrist’s development that we can only refer briefly to the circumstances that followed. In 1876 she came to America for two or three years, enlarging her circle of acquaintance, and as before quietly possessing herself of the best that came in her way ; not restlessly seeking the unusual or the conspicuous, hut looking with interest and a fine discrimination upon the life with which fortune brought her into contact. Naturally she sought out Walt Whitman, and established pleasant friendly relations with him. She found him fully realizing the ideal she had formed from his poems ; for Mrs. Gilchrist had a sane mind, and was abundantly able to take care of her conceptions. We are not always impressed by the notes of Whitman’s conversations which have been preserved by the editor of the volume, but we recognize the difficulty that is very apt to arise in undertaking to give impressions of a personality through such meagre and fragmentary memoranda as the recollections of a conversation afford. There are not many who have the genius to record from memory a really interpretative talk, and give it anything of the value which the living tongue and eye conveyed.

The years which succeeded Mrs. Gilchrist’s return to England, from 1879 to 1885, were filled with occupation. She wrote a sympathetic life of Mary Lamb for the series of Eminent Women, and some minor articles, and brought out a second and revised edition of the Blake ; and she moved in a circle of friends who called out her cheerful help, and gave her in return the homage of respect and affection. She passed through a strong grief in the loss of a daughter, and her own strength, which had been undermined by years of devotion, gave way at last. In the somewhat fragmentary treatment of the volume these last years are not very fully treated, but one is incurious of petty detail. He is satisfied with the sketch which is left on his mind of a woman notable not so much for any mark which she has left on the literature of the day, though under other conditions she might well have been eminent thus, as for the fine portrait which she presents of an English gentlewoman of the new yet ever old school, brave, honest, hospitable to the largest thought, devoted, and genuine, with a serene cheerfulness under circumstances which strain the character. Two etchings in the volume help the reader to a pleasing view of Mrs. Gilchrist’s face and bearing, and there are other interesting illustrations, including a photogravure from a lovely Romney.

  1. Anne Gilchrist: her Life and Writings. Edited by HERBERT HARLAKENDEN GILCHRIST. With a Prefatory Notice by WILLIAM MICHAEL ROSSETTI. New York: Scribner and Welford. 1887.