'The Ladies!' a Shining Constellation of Wit and Beauty
SUPPOSE Mrs. Samuel Pepys to have learned shorthand and to have read her husband’s diary: what would have been her feelings as she scanned the racier passages and perhaps succeeded in making out certain entries that no editor has yet ventured to print? Or suppose the madly eccentric Edward Wort ley Montagu the younger and his arrant hussy of a wife to have completely outwitted Lady Mary and then stolen her jewels, including the ‘Turkish clasp with emeralds’: might not chagrin explain her mysterious departure from England in 1739? Suppose Stella and Vanessa to have met: what would have happened? Then consider the beautiful Gunnings, especially Elizabeth, who became Duchess of Hamilton: is Horace Walpole to be believed, or can some version of the marriage be imagined that will permit the fair Elizabeth to seem not unworthy of her rank and beauty? Or turn to ’little Burney,’ author of Evelina and favorite of Dr. Johnson: owing — Macaulay says — to her father’s inordinate respect for royalty, she is condemned to a period of attendance upon Queen Charlotte which amounts to degradation and imprisonment. Is this really the whole story? Is Macaulay right about Madame Schwellenberg and Colonel Digby and all the rest of it, or did eye-witnesses see events in another light?
These are hard nuts to crack, — impossible, in a way. That is, they can’t be smashed by proof and footnotes and the heavy artillery of the antiquarian. They are puzzles about which one man’s guess is almost as good as another’s — though not so good as a clever woman’s.
E. Barrington, fortunately, has been wondering about these and kindred matters, and the result is a charming and admirably made book which, although it neither proves anything nor tries to prove anything, does offer us in each case a perfectly satisfactory substitute for the truth. There are doubtless other possibilities — here is E. Barrington’s, always in character with time, place, and person, always vivid and sympathetic.
This is saying far more than that these chapters succeed in getting back into the eighteenth century and clothing their characters in something near enough to the speech, manners, and dress of the period to be entirely effective across the footlights. E. Barrington does better than merely to produce a successful ‘period’ book: her scene between Stella and Vanessa, for example, is no more a mere ‘period stunt’ than is the momentous interview in The Egoist between Clara Middleton and Laetitia Dale. And although these chapters usually centre in some crucial and intensely dramatic moment, the lighter side is by no means lacking. There is capital Irish fun, for a single instance, on the page where Elizabeth Gunning finds it necessary to communicate by signals with the future Countess of Coventry.
If we may attach a pedagogic moral to this delightful book, we beg to urge that this kind of thing, which is really a very severe test of knowledge, be oftener tried in college and in school. Many a young person whose imagination sleeps through the usual ‘theme’ might become excited and informed over problems such as these. But of course it must always be remembered that E. Barringtons do not grow on huckleberry bushes.
CHESTER NOYES GREENOUGH.