Letters From Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple

WHEN Macaulay made the fragments of this correspondence 1 which were accessible to him the text for his philippic against the dignity of history, and expressed so earnest a desire for more such letters, in preference even to state documents, as a means of obtaining that information for the sake of which alone it is useful to examine the past, he little thought what a treasure he had missed. In this volume we obtain a sight of the way social life went on in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, quite the equal of that afforded in any other book, and much more interesting. It is the life of a young Englishwoman in a dull old country-house, but by no means secluded from the world. One sees how she thought and acted, what her principles were and how she applied them, the things she observed about her in human nature ; in fact, she lives before our eyes, and, to crown all, she was in love. Sir William Temple is a grave figure in our literature. It is a singular freak of fortune that he should now be known to us in the ways he followed when he was young, and be more entertaining for his mistress’s sake than for his own. The letters he wrote have perished ; but something of their character may be inferred from the letters which he received in answer, and of these there is a good supply. He was only a youth of twenty when he first met Dorothy, herself but twenty-one. He fell in with her party while traveling, and a slight incident made them better acquainted. No one, however, would have been likely to prophesy a love-match from the encounter. It was the time of the civil wars, and their houses were hotly engaged on opposite sides of the great struggle. The balance had already declared for the fortunes of the Parliament. It was not long before Dorothy was living with her father at the family estate at Chicksands, taking care of him in his evil days, when the cause he fought for was lost, the master he had served ungrateful, and his peace made with the new order, which allowed him this quiet and lonely seat of his ancestors in Bedfordshire to end his broken life in undisturbed. Meanwhile, William had been traveling and studying, perfecting his French and his Spanish, leading the life of a young man of expectations yet to be provided for out of the exchequer of state-offices. It is four years since the first meeting in the island of Guernsey when this correspondence begins, but in what way the two young people came to so sure a footing with each other is matter of conjecture. Dorothy ascribes Temple’s attraction to his good-nature, which is not the first quality one thinks of in connection with him. She mentions the matter in one of her ingenuous passages upon human nature: “ No, in earnest, nor I could not love any person that I thought had it not to a good degree. ’T was the first thing I liked in you, and without it I should never have liked anything. I know ’t is counted simple, but I cannot imagine why. ’T is true some people have it that have not wit, but there are at least as many foolish people I have ever observed to be fullest of tricks, little ugly plots and designs, unnecessary disguises, and mean cunnings, which are the basest qualities in the world, and makes one the most contemptible, I think ; when I once discover them, they lose their credit with me forever.” It had been urged upon her that her own good-nature made her apt to be deceived, and from a worldly point of view was a questionable quality ; but with all its faults, she avers, she “ would not be without it.” There was something more, however, than this mutual amiability to unite the lovers, and it would seem that the beginning of the courtship was not different from the usual course of truelove. “ Can I remember,” she writes, in a time of despondency, “ how ignorantly and innocently I suffered it to steal upon me by degrees ; how under a mask of friendship I cozened myself into that which, had it appeared to me at first in its true shape, I had feared and shunned ? ” So the coil of their long lovers’ troubles began ; and in 1652 we come upon their history in medias res.

The difficulty arose from the worldly theory natural to the aristocracy, which insisted on the young of both sexes being “ well married.” Temple’s father wished an heiress for his son, and Dorothy’s kindred, and particularly the brother, who figures as the mischief-maker of the piece, desired that she should be mated with a fortune. It is the old story: the two lovers were poor. Their contests to prevent the alliance of their hands with wealth instead of with each other, and Dorothy’s constant feminine survey of the matrimonial world about her, throw the strongest light on the marriage contract of the period in the great world, and illustrate one of the most unchanging characteristics of high society. Dorothy’s task was incomparably harder than Temple’s. He set aside at most one or two “ good motions ” of his father in his behalf. But Dorothy was a magnet ; her very first letter confides to her unacknowledged “ servant ” the character and advances of five suitors, and before the end the list of the refused counts an incredible number. She writes very freely of them, and gives them a short shrift in her letters. A certain skill she had in striking off individual peculiarities, and especially foibles and ridiculous incidents, makes the portraits in this gallery of rejected lovers very lifelike ; and the exhibition of her own feelings is delightfully natural. Perhaps more than one would have been discouraged, had he been able to read her description of what she did not wish for in a husband.It is an inventory of contemporary character.

“ There are a great many ingredients must go to the making me happy in a husband. First, as my cousin Franklin says, our humors must agree ; and to do that, he must have that kind of breeding that I have had, and used that kind of company. Then he must not be so much a country gentleman as to understand nothing but hawks and dogs, and be fonder of either than his wife; nor of the next sort of them, whose aim reaches no further than to be justice of the peace, and once in his life high sheriff, who reads no books but statutes, and studies nothing but how to make a speech interlarded with Latin, that may amaze his disagreeing poor neighbors, and fright them rather than persuade them into quietness. He must not be a thing that began the world in a free school, was sent from thence to the university, and is at his furthest when he reaches the Inns of Court; has no acquaintance but those of his form in these places, speaks the French he has picked out of old laws, and admires nothing but the stories he has heard of the revels that were kept there before his time. He must not be a town gallant, neither, that lives in a tavern and an ordinary, that cannot imagine how an hour should be spent without company unless it be in sleeping, that makes court to all the women he sees, thinks they believe him, and laughs and is laughed at equally; nor a traveled monsieur, whose head is all feather inside and outside, that can talk of nothing but dances and duets, and has courage enough to wear sashes when every one else dies with cold to see him. He must not be a fool of no sort, nor peevish, nor ill-natured, nor proud, nor covetous; and to all this must be added that he must love me and I him as much as we are capable of loving. Without all this, his fortune, though never so great, would not satisfy me; and with it, a very moderate one would keep me from ever repenting my disposal.”

When Temple replied to this that she seemed to know better what she did not want than what she did, she answered, readily enough, that she supposed he knew that by his own exact pattern.

The suitors who presented themselves, in ignorance alike of her tastes and of the fact that so far as her own will and heart went she had already disposed of herself privately, were of all sorts, from the country squire and the rich Londoner’s son up almost to the highest in the land. It was the time of Cromwell’s height of power, and no less a person than the Protector’s son, Henry, “the debauched, ungodly cavalier” of Mrs. Hutchinson, would have wedded her. She did not repress the reflection, later, when Parliament was dissolved, how great she might have been had she accepted him ; but she also says that she prizes a letter of Temple’s more than all Henry Cromwell. Another aspirant was her cousin, that Earl of Danby who afterward figured in politics as a great minister of the realm. The Londoner was the son of an alderman who had bought a great estate. " Well, the best on’t is I have a squire now that is as good as a knight. He was coming as fast as a coach and six horses could carry him, but I desired him to stay till my ague Was gone, and give me a little time to recover my good looks; for I protest, if he saw me now, he would never deign to see me again. Oh, me ! I can but think how I shall sit like the lady of the lobster and give audience at Babram. You have been there, I am sure. Nobody that is at Cambridge ’scapes it.” But the parvenu was not for her, either. There was a learned widower, Sir Justinian, who wrote Latin letters about her to his Oxford friends, and condescended to her own intellects. Thrice he made the attempt and was worsted, with a more laughing comment upon him each time in these private confidences; he is the butt among the lovers. There were numerous others, including one who had to have his letter thrown into the fire before his eyes, unread; and as they come and go they are successfully got rid of, though not without leaving tribulation behind them. The brother, who was by and observing all, and taking a more or less active part, remembered them, and would bring them up in the quarrels with his sister, — all the lovers she had ever had, “ like Richard the III.’s ghosts,” — to reproach her with. He was Temple’s enemy in the fortress, and did not scruple to tell her once, in a heat, that her lover was without honor or religion, and would serve anywhere for advantage. But he had gone too far, and the brother and sister, who were esteemed as affectionate as any in England, did more than part with the “ usual ceremony of a leg and a courtesy,” which seems to have marked the worst of their disagreements ; on this occasion he “ renounced ” her and she “ defied ” him. The reconciliation scene after this incident is a characteristic passage : “ The next day, I, not being at dinner, saw him not till night; then he came into my chamber, where I supped, but he did not. Afterwards Mr. Gibson and he and I talked of indifferent things till all but we two went to bed. Then he sat half an hour and said not one word, nor I to him. At last, in a pitiful tone, ‘ Sister,’ says he, 'I have heard you say that when anything troubles you, of all things you apprehend going to bed, because then it increases upon you, and you lie at the mercy of all your sad thought, which the silence and darkness of the night adds a horror to. I am at that pass now. I vow to God I would not endure another night like the last to gain a crown.’ I, who resolved to take no notice what ailed him, said’t was a knowledge I had raised from my spleen only, and so fell into a discourse of melancholy and the causes, and from that (I know not how) into religion ; and we talked so long of it and so devoutly that it laid all our anger; we grew to a calm and peace with all the world. Two hermits conversing in a cell they equally inhabit ne’er expressed more humble, charitable kindness one toward another than we. He asked my pardon and I his, and he has promised me never to speak of it to me while he lives, but leave the event to God Almighty.” It seems, however, that he still found room for his opposition to the match, notwithstanding this edifying scene.

Dorothy, in the midst of all this seeking in marriage, was still living quietly in the old house, so far out of the world that one would think of her as forgotten by it. She gives in one letter the history of her day, — and every day at Chicksands was the same : early rising ; the house and the garden; the “ making me ready ” about ten ; attending upon her father till dinner; the meal with “ cousin Molle ” (a bachelor who spent his life in visiting his relations) in a great room; reading or working in the heat of the day; at six or seven the walk out on to the “ common that lies hard by the house, where a great many wenches keep sheep and cows, and sit in the shade singing of ballads ; ” some talk with them ; then supper, — this is the course of each day’s events ; and at the end, in the evening, comes this touch of sentiment, which is too pretty and natural to be missed: “ When I have supped I go into the garden, and so to the side of a small river that runs by it, where I sit down and wish you with me (you had best say this is not kind, neither). In earnest, ’t is a pleasant place, and would be more so to me if I had your company. I sit there sometimes till I am lost with thinking; and were it not for some cruel thoughts of the crossness of our fortunes that will not let me sleep there, I should forget that there were such a thing to be done as going to bed.” It must have been a rather lonely life ; but there were neighbors, who called, and occasionally Dorothy herself went to some near country house for a dinner, at which she made shrewd observations upon human nature and the whims of fortune. There were visitors at Chicksands occasionally, but these were few. With such society and her books — the French romances, Lady Newcastle’s poems, “ ten times more extravagant than her dress,” Pinto’s travels, and the like — she passed her time ; but writing and receiving letters were evidently the most vital matters. If we may give one more trifling scene, here is a lively account of the coming of the mail in the days before novels. The expected letter had not come, and with this the extract begins : “ The loss put me hugely out of order, and you would have both pitied and laughed at me if you could have seen how woodenly I entertained the widow, who came hither the day before, and surprised me very much. Not being able to say anything, I got her to cards, and then, with a great deal of patience, lost my money to her, — or rather, I gave it as my ransom. In the midst of our play, in comes my blessed boy with your letter; and in earnest, I was not able to disguise the joy it gave me, though one was by who is not much your friend, and took notice of a blush that for my life I could not keep back. I put up the letter in my pocket, and made what haste I could to lose the money I had left that I might take occasion to go fetch some more,” — in which purpose she succeeded, of course, and made, she says, no such haste back. These letters were her life, and they show boldly and frankly her heart, with the love that thinks not of concealment. Yet Temple seems to have been an exacting lover ; or was it the fashion of the day to complain of “unkindness,” and turn every trifle and torture phrases into lover’s doubts ? This may pass with the remark that he was either very jealous or very ardent. There came a period of real trouble, however, when " in earnest,” to use her pet phrase, Dorothy was melancholy. Their trials had been many, no doubt, and their union seemed as far distant as ever. She was not one to let romance run away with her, but would have their match seem prudent and made with the consent of the families ; and one Christmastide, something, we know not what, occurred which brought out all the difficulty of their situation, . and made the hopelessness of it bear more heavily upon her. Temple seems to have been in some way to blame. At all events, her courage breaks down, and she urges on him the worldly view of their position with all its force, and advises that they submit to circumstances ; but in all this she seems to be pleading rather for his good than for herself. She makes the most devoted professions of her love and fidelity, but would not indulge a hope to the ruin of their lives. “ Ah, if you love yourself or me, you must confess that I have reason to condemn this senseless passion, that wheresoe’er it comes destroys all that entertain it. Nothing of judgment or discretion can live with it, and it puts everything else out of order before it can find a place for itself. What has it brought my poor Lady Anne Blunt to ? She is the talk of all the footmen and boys in the street, and will be company for them shortly, and yet is so blinded by her passion as not at all to perceive the misery she has brought herself to ; and this fond love of hers has so rooted all sense of nature out of her heart that they Say she is no more moved than a statue with the affliction of a father and mother that doted upon her, and had placed the comfort of their lives in her preferment.” She reminds her lover that a thousand accidents might have taken her from him, and that then he would have done well, perhaps, to have placed his affections elsewhere. “ There is a gentlewoman in this country that loved so passionately for six or seven years that her friends, who kept her from marrying, fearing her death, consented to it; and within half a year her husband died, which afflicted her so strongly nobody thought she would have lived. She saw no light but candles in three years, nor came abroad in five ; and now that ’t is some nine years past, she is passionately taken again with another.” But these are old arguments of lovers’ quarrels, and they had their usual effect. The month passed away, and left the two more securely bound.

This private matter, however, though it is the plot of the story, does not monopolize it. These are by no means conventional love-letters. Dorothy had a strong mind, and took a lively interest in the affairs of society. She complains, indeed, that since she came out of France she had lost her gay spirits ; she had the spleen, and occasionally drank the waters for it, and at home that infusion of steel which was a bitter draught of the old medicine. She refers many times to the criticism made upon her by her friends that she was grave in demeanor, with a certain stateliness of manner which was thought unamiable, but of the fault she says she is unconscious. It plainly belonged to her strong nature, and the blending of this strength with her frankness and good sense, together with the sprightliness of her pen, constitutes the charm of the correspondence. She was well born, and the gossip of society is frequently to be met with on the page, but so presented as not to be tedious or frivolous. There is a great deal of the comedy of manners and of the pettiness of mankind in both sexes, of the humors of country life and the folly of the fashionable world, throughout the volume; this gives it great interest as a picture of the life of the times. London, even, sometimes appears, with its Presbyterian dinners, its masks at the gardens, the great duels, old Lilly the astrologist, whom she interviewed and found a fool, and many little incidents which show how daily life went on. Stephen Marshall, for example, was a great preacher; and this is how she saw him : “ God forgive me, I was so near laughing yesterday when I should not. Would you believe I had the grace to go hear a sermon upon a weekday ? In earnest, ’t is true. A Mr. Marshall is the man that preached, but never anybody was so defeated. He is so famed that I expected rare things of him, and, seriously, I listened to him as if he had been St. Paul; and what do you think he told us ? Why, that if there were no queens, no lords, no ladies, nor gentlemen, nor gentlewomen, in the world, ’t would be no loss to God Almighty at all. This we had over some forty times, which made me remember it, whether I would or not. The rest was much at this rate, interlarded with the prettiest odd phrases that I had the most ado to look soberly enough for the place I was in that ever I had in my life. . . . Yet I ’ll say that for him, he stood stoutly for tithes.” An observation that ranges from the Presbyterian meeting-house to Spring Gardens, from the maidens “ singing of ballads ” to Lady Isabella Rich, from the foolish squires, and booby husbands, and ridiculous widows of the country to the Sidneys and Cromwells, affords wide glimpses of seventeenth-century life ; and to have all this mirrored in the letters of a young lady of a strong and vivacious mind, remarkable for womanly sense, and herself one of the acknowledged ornaments of her society, is great literary good-fortune. The charm, however, is nine tenths personal. Dorothy Osborne will be the favorite of later times than her own. The soundness of the English nature was in her, and her letters remind us how much of this survived through all the eccentricities of the sects and the corruption of the courtiers, which together have monopolized the formal history of the time, and given a warped impression of the nation. It is a pleasure to find the story of her maiden life ending, after all, in a marriage of the long-waiting lovers, even the jealous brother joining in the business of the contract. With the short notes preliminary to the wedding the correspondence ends. The life of the pair was happily and honorably lived, and in the single last letter, written late in life on a sad occasion, one finds the same qualities of mind and heart that have become familiar in the body of the volume. Extracts which, removed from their context and deprived of the full sense of Dorothy’s personality, may seem trivial give an inadequate impression ; but those who know and enjoy a human book will seek it out for themselves.

  1. Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1652-54. Edited by EDWARD ABBOTT PARRY. New York : Dodd, Mead & Co. 1888.