A happy half-century and other essays/The Correspondent


Correspondences are like small-clothes before the invention of suspenders; it is impossible to keep them up.—Sydney Smith to Mrs. Crowe.

In this lamentable admission, in this blunt and revolutionary sentiment, we hear the first clear striking of a modern note, the first gasping protest against the limitless demands of letter-writing. When Sydney Smith was a little boy, it was not impossible to keep a correspondence up; it was impossible to let it go. He was ten years old when Sir William Pepys copied out long portions of Mrs. Montagu's letters, and left them as a legacy to his heirs. He was twelve years old when Miss Anna Seward—the "Swan of Lichfield"—copied thirteen pages of description which the Rev. Thomas Sedgwick Whalley had written her from Switzerland, and sent them to her friend, Mr. William Hayley. She called this "snatching him to the Continent by Whalleyan magic." What Mr. Hayley called it we do not know; but he had his revenge, for the impartial "Swan" copied eight verses of an "impromptu" which Mr. Hayley had written upon her, and sent them in turn to Mr. Whalley;—thus making each friend a scourge to the other, and widening the network of correspondence which had enmeshed the world.

It is impossible not to feel a trifle envious of Mr. Whalley, who looms before us as the most petted and accomplished of clerical bores, of "literary and chess-playing divines." He was but twenty-six when the kind-hearted Bishop of Ely presented him with the living of Hagworthingham, stipulating that he should not take up his residence there,—the neighbourhood of the Lincolnshire fens being considered an unhealthy one. Mr. Whalley cheerfully complied with this condition; and for fifty years the duties were discharged by curates, who could not afford good health; while the rector spent his winters in Europe, and his summers at Mendip Lodge. He was of an amorous disposition,—"sentimentally pathetic," Miss Burney calls him,—and married three times, two of his wives being women of fortune. He lived in good society, and beyond his means, like a gentleman; was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (who has very delicately and maliciously accentuated his resemblance to the tiny spaniel he holds in his arms); and died of old age, in the comfortable assurance that he had lost nothing the world could give. A voluminous correspondence—afterwards published in two volumes—afforded scope for that clerical diffuseness which should have found its legitimate outlet in the Hagworthingham pulpit.

The Rev. Augustus Jessup has recorded a passionate admiration for Cicero's letters, on the ground that they never describe scenery; but Mr. Whalley's letters seldom do anything else. He wrote to Miss Sophia Weston a description of Vaucluse, which fills three closely printed pages. Miss Weston copied every word, and sent it to Miss Seward, who copied every word of her copy, and sent it to the long-suffering Mr. Hayley, with the remark that Mr. Whalley and Petrarch were "kindred spirits." Later on this kinship was made pleasantly manifest by the publication of "Edwy and Edilda," which is described as a "domestic epic," and which Mr. Whalley's friends considered to be a moral bulwark as well as an epoch-making poem. Indeed, we find Miss Seward imploring him to republish it, on the extraordinary ground that it will add to his happiness in heaven to know that the fruits of his industry "continue to inspire virtuous pleasure through passing generations." It is animating to contemplate the celestial choirs congratulating the angel Whalley at intervals on the "virtuous pleasure" inspired by "Edwy and Edilda." "This," says Mr. Kenwigs, "is an ewent at which Evin itself looks down."

There was no escape from the letter-writer who, a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five years ago, captured a coveted correspondent. It would have been as easy to shake off an octopus or a boa-constrictor. Miss Seward opened her attack upon Sir Walter Scott, whom she had never seen, with a long and passionate letter, lamenting the death of a friend whom Scott had never seen. She conjured him not to answer this letter, because she was "dead to the world." Scott gladly obeyed, content that the lady should be at least dead to him, which was the last possibility she contemplated. Before twelve months were out they were in brisk correspondence, an acquaintance was established, and when she died in earnest, some years later, he found himself one of her literary executors, and twelve quarto manuscript volumes of her letters waiting to be published. These Scott wisely refused to touch; but he edited her poems,—a task he much disliked,—wrote the epitaph on her monument in Lichfield Cathedral, and kindly maintained that, although her sentimentality appalled him, and her enthusiasm chilled his soul, she was a talented and pleasing person.

The most formidable thing about the letters of this period—apart from their length—is their eloquence. It bubbles and seethes over every page. Miss Seward, writing to Mrs. Knowles in 1789 upon the dawning of the French Revolution, of which she understood no more than a canary, pipes an ecstatic trill. "So France has dipped her lilies in the living stream of American freedom, and bids her sons be slaves no longer. In such a contest the vital sluices must be wastefully opened; but few English hearts I hope there are that do not wish victory may sit upon the swords that freedom has unsheathed." It sounds so exactly like the Americans in "Martin Chuzzlewit" that one doubts whether Mr. Jefferson Brick or the Honourable Elijah Pogram really uttered the sentiment; while surely to Mrs. Hominy, and not to the Lichfield Swan, must be credited this beautiful passage about a middle-aged but newly married couple: "The berries of holly, with which Hymen formed that garland, blush through the snows of time, and dispute the prize of happiness with the roses of youth;—and they are certainly less subject to the blights of expectation and palling fancy."

It is hard to conceive of a time when letters like these were sacredly treasured by the recipients (our best friend, the waste-paper basket, seems to have been then unknown); when the writers thereof bequeathed them as a legacy to the world; and when the public—being under no compulsion—bought six volumes of them as a contribution to English literature. It is hard to think of a girl of twenty-one writing to an intimate friend as Elizabeth Robinson, afterwards the "great" Mrs. Montagu, wrote to the young Duchess of Portland, who appears to have ventured upon a hope that they were having a mild winter in Kent.

"I am obliged to your Grace for your good wishes of fair weather; sunshine gilds every object, but, alas! December is but cloudy weather, how few seasons boast many days of calm! April, which is the blooming youth of the year, is as famous for hasty showers as for gentle sunshine. May, June, and July have too much heat and violence, the Autumn withers the Summer's gayety, and in the Winter the hopeful blossoms of Spring and fair fruits of Summer are decayed, and storms and clouds arise."

After these obvious truths, for which the almanac stands responsible, Miss Robinson proceeds to compare human life to the changing year, winding up at the close of a dozen pages: "Happy and worthy are those few whose youth is not impetuous, nor their age sullen; they indeed should be esteemed, and their happy influence courted."

Twenty-one, and ripe for moral platitudes! What wonder that we find the same lady, when crowned with years and honours, writing to the son of her friend, Lord Lyttelton, a remorselessly long letter of precept and good counsel, which that young gentleman (being afterwards known as the wicked Lord Lyttelton) seems never to have taken to heart.

"The morning of life, like the morning of the day, should be dedicated to business. Give it therefore, dear Mr. Lyttelton, to strenuous exertion and labour of mind, before the indolence of the meridian hour, or the unabated fervour of the exhausted day, renders you unfit for severe application."

"Unabated fervour of the exhausted day" is a phrase to be commended. We remember with awe that Mrs. Montagu was the brightest star in the chaste firmament of female intellect;—"the first woman for literary knowledge in England," wrote Mrs. Thrale; "and, if in England, I hope I may say in the world." We hope so, indeed. None but a libertine would doubt it. And no one less contumelious than Dr. Johnson ever questioned Mrs. Montagu's supremacy. She was, according to her great-grandniece, Miss Climenson, "adored by men," while "purest of the pure"; which was equally pleasant for herself and for Mr. Montagu. She wrote more letters, with fewer punctuation marks, than any Englishwoman of her day; and her nephew, the fourth Baron Rokeby, nearly blinded himself in deciphering the two volumes of undated correspondence which were printed in 1810. Two more followed in 1813, after which the gallant Baron either died at his post or was smitten with despair; for sixty-eight cases of letters lay undisturbed for the best part of a century, when they passed into Miss Climenson's hands. This intrepid lady received them—so she says—with "unbounded joy"; and has already published two fat volumes, with the promise of several others in the near future. "Les morts n'écrivent point," said Madame de Maintenon hopefully; but of what benefit is this inactivity, when we still continue to receive their letters?

Miss Elizabeth Carter, called by courtesy Mrs. Carter, was the most vigorous of Mrs. Montagu's correspondents. Although a lady of learning, who read Greek and had dipped into Hebrew, she was far too "humble and unambitious" to claim an acquaintance with the exalted mistress of Montagu House; but that patroness of literature treated her with such true condescension that they were soon on the happiest terms. When Mrs. Montagu writes to Miss Carter that she has seen the splendid coronation of George III, Miss Carter hastens to remind her that such splendour is for majesty alone.

"High rank and power require every external aid of pomp and eclat that may awe and astonish spectators by the ideas of the magnificent and sublime; while the ornaments of more equal conditions should be adapted to the quiet tenour of general life, and be content to charm and engage by the gentler graces of the beautiful and pleasing."

Mrs. Montagu was fond of display. All her friends admitted, and some deplored the fact. But surely there was no likelihood of her appropriating the coronation services as a feature for the entertainments at Portman Square.

Advice, however, was the order of the day. As the excellent Mrs. Chapone wrote to Sir William Pepys: "It is a dangerous commerce for friends to praise each other's Virtues, instead of reminding each other of duties and of failings." Yet a too robust candour carried perils of its own, for Miss Seward having written to her "beloved Sophia Weston" with "an ingenuousness which I thought necessary for her welfare, but which her high spirits would not brook," Sophia was so unaffectedly angry that twelve years of soothing silence followed.

Another wonderful thing about the letter-writers, especially the female letter-writers, of this engaging period is the wealth of hyperbole in which they rioted. Nothing is told in plain terms. Tropes, metaphors, and similes adorn every page; and the supreme elegance of the language is rivalled only by the elusiveness of the idea, which is lost in an eddy of words. Marriage is always alluded to as the "hymeneal torch," or the "hymeneal chain," or "hymeneal emancipation from parental care." Birds are "feathered muses," and a heart is a "vital urn." When Mrs. Montagu writes to Mr. Gilbert West, that "miracle of the Moral World," to condole with him on his gout, she laments that his "writing hand, first dedicated to the Muses, then with maturer judgment consecrated to the Nymphs of Solyma, should be led captive by the cruel foe." If Mr. West chanced not to know who or what the Nymphs of Solyma were, he had the intelligent pleasure of finding out. Miss Seward describes Mrs. Tighe's sprightly charms as "Aonian inspiration added to the cestus of Venus"; and speaks of the elderly "ladies of Llangollen" as, "in all but the voluptuous sense, Armidas of its bowers." Duelling is to her "the murderous punctilio of Luciferian honour." A Scotch gentleman who writes verse is "a Cambrian Orpheus"; a Lichfield gentleman who sketches is "our Lichfield Claude"; and a budding clerical writer is "our young sacerdotal Marcellus." When the "Swan" wished to apprise Scott of Dr. Darwin's death, it never occurred to her to write, as we in this dull age should do: "Dr. Darwin died last night," or, "Poor Dr. Darwin died last night." She wrote: "A bright luminary in this neighbourhood recently shot from his sphere with awful and deplorable suddenness";—thus pricking Sir Walter's imagination to the wonder point before descending to facts. Even the rain and snow were never spoken of in the plain language of the Weather Bureau; and the elements had a set of allegories all their own. Miss Carter would have scorned to take a walk by the sea. She "chased the ebbing Neptune." Mrs. Chapone was not blown by the wind. She was "buffeted by Eolus and his sons." Miss Seward does not hope that Mr. Whalley's rheumatism is better; but that he has overcome "the mal-influence of marine damps, and the monotonous murmuring of boundless waters." Perhaps the most triumphant instance on record of sustained metaphor is Madame d'Arblay's account of Mrs. Montagu's yearly dinner to the London chimney-sweeps, in which the word sweep is never once used, so that the editor was actually compelled to add a footnote to explain what the lady meant. The boys are "jetty objects," "degraded outcasts from society," and "sooty little agents of our most blessed luxury." They are "hapless artificers who perform the most abject offices of any authorized calling"; they are "active guardians of our blazing hearth"; but plain chimney-sweeps, never! Madame d'Arblay would have perished at the stake before using so vulgar and obvious a term.

How was this mass of correspondence preserved? How did it happen that the letters were never torn up, or made into spills,—the common fate of all such missives when I was a little girl. Granted that Miss Carter treasured Mrs. Montagu's letters (she declared fervidly she could never be so barbarous as to destroy one), and that Mrs. Montagu treasured Miss Carter's. Granted that Miss Weston treasured Mr. Whalley's, and that Mr. Whalley treasured Miss Weston's. Granted that Miss Seward provided against all contingencies by copying her own letters into fat blank books before they were mailed, elaborating her spineless sentences, and omitting everything she deemed too trivial or too domestic for the public ear. But is it likely that young Lyttelton at Oxford laid sacredly away Mrs. Montagu's pages of good counsel, or that young Franks at Cambridge preserved the ponderous dissertations of Sir William Pepys? Sir William was a Baronet, a Master in Chancery, and—unlike his famous ancestor—a most respectable and exemplary gentleman. His innocent ambition was to be on terms of intimacy with the literary lights of his day. He knew and ardently admired Dr. Johnson, who in return detested him cordially. He knew and revered, "in unison with the rest of the world," Miss Hannah More. He corresponded at great length with lesser lights,—with Mrs. Chapone, and Mrs. Hartley, and Sir Nathaniel Wraxall. He wrote endless commentaries on Homer and Virgil to young Franks, and reams of good advice to his little son at Eton. There is something pathetic in his regret that the limitations of life will not permit him to be as verbose as he would like. "I could write for an hour," he assures poor Franks, "upon that most delightful of all passages, the Lion deprived of its Young; but the few minutes one can catch amidst the Noise, hurry and confusion of an Assize town will not admit of any Classical discussions. But was I in the calm retirement of your Study at Acton, I have much to say to you, to which I can only allude."

The publication of scores and scores of such letters, all written to one unresponsive young man at Cambridge (who is repeatedly reproached for not answering them), makes us wonder afresh who kept the correspondence; and the problem is deepened by the appearance of Sir William's letters to his son. This is the way the first one begins:—

"My dear Boy,—I cannot let a Post escape me without giving you the Pleasure of knowing how much you have gladdened the Hearts of two as affectionate Parents as ever lived; when you tell us that the Principles of Religion begin already to exert their efficacy in making you look down with contempt on the wretched grovelling Vices with which you are surrounded, you make the most delightful Return you can ever make for our Parental Care and Affection; you make Us at Peace with Ourselves; and enable us to hope that our dear Boy will Persevere in that Path which will ensure the greatest Share of Comfort here, and a certainty of everlasting Happiness hereafter."

I am disposed to think that Sir William made a fair copy of this letter and of others like it, and laid them aside as models of parental exhortation. Whether young Pepys was a little prig, or a particularly accomplished little scamp (and both possibilities are open to consideration), it seems equally unlikely that an Eton boy's desk would have proved a safe repository for such ample and admirable discourses.

The publication of Cowper's letters in 1803 and 1804 struck a chill into the hearts of accomplished and erudite correspondents. Poor Miss Seward never rallied from the shock of their "commonness," and of their popularity. Here was a man who wrote about beggars and postmen, about cats and kittens, about buttered toast and the kitchen table. Here was a man who actually looked at things before he described them (which was a startling innovation); who called the wind the wind, and buttercups buttercups, and a hedgehog a hedgehog. Miss Seward honestly despised Cowper's letters. She said they were without "imagination or eloquence," without "discriminative criticism," without "characteristic investigation." Investigating the relations between the family cat and an intrusive viper was, from her point of view, unworthy the dignity of an author. Cowper's love of detail, his terrestrial turn of mind, his humour, and his veracity were disconcerting in an artificial age. When Miss Carter took a country walk, she did not stoop to observe the trivial things she saw. Apparently she never saw anything. What she described were the sentiments and emotions awakened in her by a featureless principle called Nature. Even the ocean—which is too big to be overlooked—started her on a train of moral reflections, in which she passed easily from the grandeur of the elements to the brevity of life, and the paltriness of earthly ambitions. "How vast are the capacities of the soul, and how little and contemptible its aims and pursuits." With this original remark, the editor of the letters (a nephew and a clergyman) was so delighted that he added a pious comment of his own.

"If such be the case, how strong and conclusive is the argument deduced from it, that the soul must be destined to another state more suitable to its views and powers. It is much to be lamented that Mrs. Carter did not pursue this line of thought any further."

People who bought nine volumes of a correspondence like this were expected, as the editor warns them, to derive from it "moral, literary, and religious improvement." It was in every way worthy of a lady who had translated Epictetus, and who had the "great" Mrs. Montagu for a friend. But, as Miss Seward pathetically remarked, "any well-educated person, with talents not above the common level, produces every day letters as well worth attention as most of Cowper's, especially as to diction." The perverseness of the public in buying, in reading, in praising these letters, filled her with pained bewilderment. Not even the writer's sincere and sad piety, his tendency to moralize, and the transparent innocence of his life could reconcile her to plain transcripts from nature, or to such an unaffecting incident as this:—

"A neighbour of mine in Silver End keeps an ass; the ass lives on the other side of the garden wall, and I am writing in the greenhouse. It happens that he is this morning most musically disposed; either cheered by the fine weather, or by some new tune which he has just acquired, or by finding his voice more harmonious than usual. It would be cruel to mortify so fine a singer, therefore I do not tell him that he interrupts and hinders me; but I venture to tell you so, and to plead his performance in excuse of my abrupt conclusion."

Here is not only the "common" diction which Miss Seward condemned, but a very common casualty, which she would have naturally deemed beneath notice. Cowper wrote a great deal about animals, and always with fine and humorous appreciation. He sought relief from the hidden torment of his soul in the contemplation of creatures who fill their place in life without morals, and without misgivings. We know what safe companions they were for him when we read his account of his hares, of his kitten dancing on her hind legs,—"an exercise which she performs with all the grace imaginable,"—and of his goldfinches amorously kissing each other between the cage wires. When Miss Seward bent her mind to "the lower orders of creation," she did not describe them at all; she gave them the benefit of that "discriminative criticism" which she felt that Cowper lacked. Here, for example, is her thoughtful analysis of man's loyal servitor, the dog:—

"That a dog is a noble, grateful, faithful animal we must all be conscious, and deserves a portion of man's tenderness and care;—yet, from its utter incapacity of more than glimpses of rationality, there is a degree of insanity, as well as of impoliteness to his acquaintance, and of unkindness to his friends, in lavishing so much more of his attention in the first instance, and of affection in the latter, upon it than upon them."

It sounds like a parody on a great living master of complex prose. By its side, Cowper's description of Beau is certainly open to the reproach of plainness.

"My dog is a spaniel. Till Miss Gunning begged him, he was the property of a farmer, and had been accustomed to lie in the chimney corner among the embers till the hair was singed from his back, and nothing was left of his tail but the gristle. Allowing for these disadvantages, he is really handsome; and when nature shall have furnished him with a new coat, a gift which, in consideration of the ragged condition of his old one, it is hoped she will not long delay, he will then be unrivalled in personal endowments by any dog in this country."

No wonder the Lichfield Swan was daunted by the inconceivable popularity of such letters. No wonder Miss Hannah More preferred Akenside to Cowper. What had these eloquent ladies to do with quiet observation, with sober felicity of phrase, with "the style of honest men"!