Intimate Literature


No theory is more useful and comforting to critics than the theory of literature as an art. It breaks a road through much difficult country, and keeps the line open between the reconnoiterer and his base. Yet there are moments when he doubts its reliability. He sees here and there bits of pure literature which appear to have been born, not made ; they are offhand and impulsive and altogether lacking in artifice. They offer a most convenient handle to such active uncritical minds as that of Mr. Kipling, who is able to dispose of the whole business of art and criticism in the jaunty announcement, —

“ There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right.”

Of course Mr. Kipling’s clever phrase is brought to bear directly upon poetry, but it is equally true, or untrue, of a good deal of prose. Literature is really produced now and then by a kind of inadvertency ; and it is easy to see why. Men who have a taste for that form of expression are likely to get a training in it which they know nothing about. We use paint or clay because we choose, and words because we must. We may, therefore, by the grace of Heaven, stumble upon forms of speech or of colloquial writing so individual and sincere as to be better than anything we could bring forth by a more conscious impulse. A process like this cannot yield sustained flights of prose or verse, but it does yield such masterpieces of their kind as the immortal Diary of the unliterary Pepys, and the still famous letters of that author of once famous novels, Frances Burney.


Madame D’Arblay died in 1840 at the age of eighty-eight. Very soon afterward her Diary and Letters 1 were published, to be reviewed at once by Macaulay, who, absorbed as usual in the development of a paradox, did them scant justice. His “ review ” devotes a half-dozen sentences to the Diary and Letters and a good many pages to the novels. He is at great pains to show how much better Evelina is than Camilla, but evidently does not understand that the real classic of his author lies, fresh from the press, in his hands. In order to deepen the ignominy of Madame D’Arblay’s later Johnsonian manner, he speaks of the “ simple English ” of the first novels. The truth is, Evelina’s epistolary manner was less stilted than it might have been, without incurring ridicule, in that day. But simple, in the sense in which Miss Burney’s letters are simple, it is not. Perhaps Macaulay was not far enough in practice from the formality which he scorned in theory, to keep from thinking the letters a little too simple, not to enjoy, but to praise as literature. After saying that they are written “ in true woman’s English, clear, natural, and lively,” he finds nothing else to say. Possibly nothing else needs to be said, unless that the world which takes delight in this artless record of Johnson’s clever and amiable “little Burney ” ought to take pride in it, too. The early letters and entries are the best: those which were written before the death of “ Daddy Crisp ” and Johnson. With the loss of Mrs. Thrale by her second marriage, and the fatal court appointment, Frances Burney ceased to be a demure, independent, engaging little woman of genius, and became a royal appurtenance and a fine lady.

According to her own account, Miss Burney’s conversation was not at all brilliant. She records her own trivialities and other people’s cleverness with the same candor, and was doubtless consoled by the consciousness that the colloquial flow and humor of her letters in some degree made up for the primness and parsimony of her speech. It was just the other way with Johnson. His style cannot be said to have been his undoing, though it was the undoing of many others. But it did not express him ; he wore it like a tragic mask, and it remained for Boswell and Miss Burney, by the record of his speech, to let us know what a good fellow the great man was. Miss Burney gives us the more favorable picture of him as a member of society ; indeed, the total impression gained from Boswell is not agreeable. After the familiar accounts of him as a glutton, a sloven, and a boor, it is a pleasure to find him, in the presence of his dear Burney, always considerate, delicate, and chivalrous. In his physical habit she did at first find a good deal that was amusing, and a little that was offensive, but before long the impression of his essential goodness and greatness made her forget all that. There is something very touching in their fondness for each other. Here is a bit from the description of their first interview: “ Dr. Johnson, in the middle of dinner, asked Mrs. Thrale what was in some little pies that were near him. ' Mutton,’answered she, ' so I don’t ask you to eat any, because I know you despise it.’ ‘No, madam, no,’ cried he, ‘ I despise nothing that is good of its sort; but I am too proud now to eat of it. Sitting by Miss Burney makes me very proud to-day.’ ” The meeting took place not long after the appearance of Evelina, which Johnson greatly admired, but except for an apparently accidental allusion to one of the persons in the story, he was careful not to bring it into the talk. " How grateful do I feel to this dear Dr. Johnson,” the shy girl writes in her diary, “ for never naming me and the book as belonging one to the other, and yet making an allusion that showed his thoughts led to it, and, at the same time, that seemed to justify the character as being natural.” They were soon on terms which made such restraint unnecessary, but in spite of his love of banter he never relaxed for an instant the tender courtesy with which she seems to have inspired him from the first. “ The dear Doctor received me with open arms,” she writes years later of a visit to Johnson, then not far from death, and sorely oppressed in body and spirits. " ‘ Ah, dearest of all dear ladies ! ’ he cried, and made me sit in his best chair. He had not breakfasted. ‘ Do you forgive my coming so soon ? ’ said I. ‘ I cannot forgive your not coming sooner,’ he answered. I asked if I should make his breakfast, which I have not done since we left Streatham ; he readily consented.

' But sir,’ quoth I, ’I am in the wrong chair.’ For I was away from the table. ' It is so difficult,’ said he, ' for anything to be wrong that belongs to you, that it can only be I am in the wrong chair, to keep you from the right one.’ ” This may not be in the subtlest manner of gallantry, but it was at least not spoken " like a whale.”


There is very little difference between Miss Burney’s diary and her letters. The great diarists, in fact, have merely written letters to themselves; so, in a sense, have many essayists and not a few novelists. The habitual tone of Sterne and Thackeray hardly differs in kind from that of Pepys and Montaigne ; though the diarist and the letter-writer are in the nature of things less subject to suspicion of " playing to the gallery.” Not a few great writers have kept journals which are of comparatively little interest. Hawthorne’s notebooks are surprisingly commonplace ; probably because his art was massive and deliberate, and he had no faculty for spinning delight out of next to nothing. His personality, too, was of a subtlety and remoteness which could not be interpreted colloquially; perhaps it was only in his rarest creative moments that the man was intimate with himself.

Whether the familiar essayist has been born to his medium or has simply seized upon it can be determined pretty easily by appeal to his letters. Lamb and Holmes stand the test perfectly; they were not more literary, not more colloquial, in writing to a thousand persons than in writing to one. With Montaigne the case is a little less clear; we have not a great many of his letters, and it cannot be denied that most of what we have are reasonably dull. He lived in a formal age, however, and was simply finding his own when, in his essays, he escaped from the trammels of polite letter-writing. The apologist for Robert Louis Stevenson cannot make out quite so good a case. His letters are not in the least like his essays, and, though both have a certain quality of intimacy, neither mode seems to express the man’s personality quite satisfactorily. The Vailima letters, with all their cleverness, do not increase one’s regard for the writer. They lack the dignity and restraint which belong to all worthy forms of self-expression. One does not need to be always throwing a chest, but then, one cannot afford to doff his manners with his frock coat. Stevenson thought it rather fun to be — in point of literary taste, let us say — a little underbred with his familiars. Such was the fate of one to whom art was a heaven-blessed “ stunt” What perfect literary breeding there is in all the letters of Cowper or Gray or FitzGerald ; here is true intimacy without familiarity, the “ ease with dignity ” which is the sign of classics in this kind.


The new series of Mrs. Carlyle’s letters 2 must interest first of all those who are familiar with the earlier series, and who remember the discussion which followed their publication by Froude. Yet few sensations can hold their own for a quarter of a century ; and it would hardly be possible, even among such readers, to galvanize that old enthusiasm of concern into life. They may even peruse with a sort of wonder the vigorous and thoroughgoing denunciation of Froude in which the introduction to the present volumes mainly consists. Perhaps this was the best way of attacking the subject, since, if Froude had done his duty, these Letters and Memorials would have been printed with the others long ago. It is certain that, unlike most introductions, this essay in the course of its ninety pages or so is never dull; it has the frank British animus which may betray criticism into special pleading, but guards it, at least, from degeneration into mere benevolent twaddle. Froude, we learn, could produce a book about Carlyle3 “ packed full of misquotations, garbled extracts from letters, and fallacious statements of fact, with a running accompaniment of calumny, detraction, and malicious insinuation.” The history of the Letters and Memorials is simple, from this point of view. Some time after his wife’s death, Carlyle set himself the task of reading over all of her letters, journals, and other pieces of writing. “ The revisal and annotation of them had been a labor of love, a pathetic pilgrimage through the land that he and she had traversed hand-in-hand. . . . Every step he took was poignant with grief, but soothed with dulcet memories ; and as he neared the end he grieved that his grief was over : ‘ Ah ! me, we are getting done with this sacred task, and now there is at times a sharp pang as if this were a second parting with her ; sad, sad this too.’ ” The whole product of this labor was turned over to Froude, with instructions to make what use of it he saw fit. Froude saw fit to publish less than half of the letters, and, according to the present complainant, to publish them in garbled form. The new series contains the material which he omitted. Froude’s choice was not made at random. “ It was deeply rooted in his mind that Carlyle had, throughout their whole union, behaved badly to his wife, and had deputed him, as a sort of literary undertaker, to superintend a posthumous penance in the publication of his confessions.”

The present letters refresh rather than alter our conception of Mrs. Carlyle’s intellectual character, but do, on the whole, in spite of their harping upon sickroom details, increase our impression of her womanly charm. It is impossible to lay aside these volumes, as one could Froude’s, without feeling that the Carlyles loved each other devotedly, and were, like other people, in a human way, content with each other. This is plainly indicated by the following letter which was written after seventeen years of married life : —


CHELSEA, 14th July, 1843.
DEAREST, — Even if I had not received your pathetic little packet [Carlyle had sent her a birthday gift, and, presently dissatisfied with it, had taken pains to send a second] for which I send you a dozen kisses. I meant to have written a long letter to-day ; but there is one from Geraldine Jewsbury requiring answer by return of post; and it has taken so much writing to answer it, that I am not only a little weary, but have little time left. . . .
Yesterday evening I received a most unexpected visit from — Kitty Kirkpatrick ! A lady sent in her card and asked if I would see her, “ Mrs. James Phillips; ” I supposed it must be some connection of Kitty’s, and sent word, “ Surely, if the lady can stand the smell of paint; ” and in walked Kitty, looking as tho’ it were the naturallest thing in the world. . . . Oh, my Dear, she is anything but good-looking ! Very sweet, however, and says such flattering things. She told me that two friends of hers, a Mrs. Hermitage and a Mrs. Daniel (“ wife of the great East India merchant ”) were dying to know me (?) ; they had seen, I think she said, some of my letters! (Ach Gott!) and had heard of me from so many people. . . . “ But,” said Kitty, “ what can I say to them ? They will take no refusal, and I promised they should make your acquaintance — in fact they are now in the carriage at the door! ” A shudder ran through my veins : the fine ladies, the dismantled house, the wet paint; good heavens, what should I do ? A sudden thought struck me ; my courage rose superior to the horrors of my situation. “ Well,” I said, “ I will go if you wish, and make their acquaintance in the carriage ! ” “ Oh, how obliging of you ! If you would be so good ! ” I jumped up hastily, lest my enthusiasm of desperation should evaporate, walked along the passage under fire of all the enemies’ eyes ; peremptorily signalled to a blue-and-silver footman to let down the steps, and, to the astonishment of the four fine ladies inside, and my own, mounted into their coach and told them here I was, to be made acquaintance with in such manner as the sad circumstances would admit of! Kitty stood outside, meanwhile, throwing in gentle words; and the whole thing went off well enough. I should not know any of these women again ; I saw nothing but a profusion of blond and flowers and feathers. It was an action equal to jumping singlehanded into a hostile citadel; I had no leisure to notice the details. Mercifully (as it happened) I had dressed myself just half an hour before, and rather elegantly, from a feeling of reaction against the untidy state in which I had been Cinderella-ing all the day ; it was as Grace M’Donald said when she broke her arm and did not break the glass of her watch, “ There has been some mercy shown, for a wonder! ” . . . See what a deal I have written, after all. Again bless you for your thought of me. The umbrella was no failure, however — do not think that.
Ever your affectionate

The letters are full of little personal touches, trivial items of domestic routine, family jests, deliberately retained by Carlyle, and tenderly annotated for publication ; his pride in the woman he loved having overcome his Scottish reticence. It was not, perhaps, a thing which a man of less genius and more formal breeding would have done, but the effect justifies the motive — his confidence that the method would, from its very freedom, produce the best monument of a genius which had never found public expression. The notes in themselves constitute a document of parallel importance, and afford a proof, possibly the best that we have, of the spontaneity and consistency which, with all his oddity, belonged to the prophet’s style.


In the recently published English version of Taine’s life and letters,4 one is a little disappointed by the absence of the purely personal element. It was his express wish that only the impersonal portions of his correspondence should be published. “One of the principal traits of his character,” reads the Preface, “ was his horror of publicity and of indiscreet revelations concerning his private life, which — noble and dignified as it was — he kept from the outside world with jealous care. . . . And, by his will, any reproduction of intimate or private letters is absolutely forbidden.” Most of the letters included in this volume have to do, consequently, with the intellectual interests, rather than with the social or family life, of M. Taine. Fortunately, a few letters are included which, while they make no “ indiscreet revelations,” do possess the intimate and personal quality. Here is a glimpse at the life of a French philosopher and professor of twenty-three. He is writing to his sister: —

“ You ask me for details, my dear girl; they are not very amusing, but here they are: I get up at 5.30, prepare my class till 7.30, give it from 8 to 10, practice the piano till 11, and have lunch from 11 to 12. From 12 to 4, and from 7 P. M. to 10, I work for myself. I give a lecture in College from 4.15 to 5.15, and have some music from 5.15 to 6, when I dine. On Thursdays and Sundays I am free. ... I am very comfortable ; my room is nice, my bed soft; when my head aches with work, I have my piano and cigarettes. I have begun two long papers; ideas run in my head and chatter away all day. I have not a minute to be bored. ... I could frequent a few drawing-rooms if I liked, but I hardly wish to do so, I revel too much in my solitude and freedom. My books and music recall so many things, happy talks and conversations by the fireside in the evening! How difficult it is to converse ! Stiff commonplaces with my colleagues, jokes at dinner with my fellow boarders, that is all. Every day the human level seems to me lower. But I bury myself in my philosophy, and (forgive my fatuity) I think myself good enough company not to be bored when alone.

“Uncle Alexandre came on Monday. I took him to the table d’hôte, and we chattered in my room all the evening, before my fire, and sipping my coffee. I laugh to think of myself as a housekeeper, a host! I assure you, I manage very well. I do not see that any expenses are required ; it is pleasure that costs men so much, and I take mine very economically, seated at my writing-table.”

An amiable, human young prig, we exclaim. It is a pity that only his boyish letters are here published; it would be a pleasure to know whether in later years the jokes of his fellow boarders continued to make the human level seem lower every day.

The personality of Darwin was, by race and training, less emotional, but more steadfast and simple than that of M. Taine. It altogether lacks the selfconsciousness and egotism of the literary philosopher. Darwin could never have thought of stipulating that the data of his personal experience should be kept dark. Naturally the great majority of his newly published letters 5 have to do with details of scientific research; yet the final impression which they leave is of a man with a cool observing mind, but of a really simple and affectionate nature. The great scientist appears to have had a very modest estimation of his own value as a man, and to have been touchingly conscious of his professional preoccupation. In the lyrical moment which precedes the marriage of any healthyminded man, he writes to his betrothed the day after his betrothal, and ten days before his marriage : —

“ I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed my Maer visit. I felt in anticipation my future tranquil life: how I do hope you may be as happy as I know I shall be. ... I think you will humanize me, and soon teach me there is greater happiness than building theories and accumulating facts in silence and solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray you may never regret the great, and I will add very good, deed you are to perform on the Tuesday; my own dear future wife, God bless you.” Many years later he wrote in his autobiography, “ I marvel at my good fortune, that she, so infinitely my superior in every moral quality, consented to be my wife.”

In middle life Darwin suffered much from ill health, and had at one time recourse to a water cure. “ One most singular effect of the treatment,” he wrote, “ is that it induces in most people, and eminently in my case, the most complete stagnation of mind. I have ceased to think even of barnacles ! . . . I happened to be thinking the other day over the Gamlingay trip to the Lilies of the Valley : ah, those were delightful days, when one had no such organ as a stomach, only a mouth and the masticating appurtenances.”


Besides letters, diaries, and essays, there are other “ human documents ” which have the effect of even more direct communication, though, as in reported conversation, the service of a third person may have been required. Our impression of a great personality which has expressed itself primarily in action is likely to be either rigid or dim. The chances are that with the advance of time, it will have become petrified into a historical relic, or translated into a poetic figure. We are not disturbed by this fact, and may, indeed, recoil from any newly discovered piece of evidence which bids fair to modify an accepted impression. Something of the romantic glamour attaching to the name of the great Jeanne may perhaps be sacrificed by a careful examination of the latest important book about her.6 Neither in the reported words of the Maid herself, nor in the testimony of her contemporaries, is there anything to encourage a sentimental view of her person or manner. The supposed portrait here given as frontispiece does not suggest the beauty with which painters and sculptors have frequently clothed her. But the book gives plenty of evidence as to her femininity ; she regarded her service to France as a temporary sacrifice, and looked forward to marriage as her natural portion when she should be released. “From the first time I heard my Voices,” she says in one of the private examinations before the Bishop of Beauvais, “ I dedicated my virginity for so long as it should please God; and I was then about thirteen years of age.” Even more moving and human is the story of her recantation in the face of death, followed by an immediate resumption of faith and courage which bore her through to the end. In a very remarkable way, this series of legal depositions, with their dryness of tone and form, their inevitable repetitions, their triviality and ingenuousness, gives one the sense of contact with a real and living personality.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame D’Arblay. Revised and edited by SARAH CHAUNCEY WOOLSEY. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1902.
  2. New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Annotated by THOMAS CARLYLE and edited by ALEXANDER CARLYLE, with an Introduction by Sir JAMES CRICHTON BROWNE. 2 vols. New York: John Lane. 1903.
  3. Thomas Carlyle. A History of the First Forty Years of his Life. 1882.
  4. Life and Letters of H. Taine. Translated from the French by Mrs. R. L. DEVONSHIRE, New York : E. P. Dutton & Co. 1902.
  5. More Letters of Charles Darwin. Edited by FRANCIS DARWIN and A. C. SEWARD. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1903.
  6. Jeanne d’ Arc: Being the Story of her Life, her Achievements, and her Death, as attested on Oath, and set forth in the Original Documents. Edited by T. DOUGLAS MURRAY. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. 1902.