A happy half-century and other essays/The Perils of Immortality


Peu de génie, point de grâce.

There is no harder fate than to be immortalized as a fool; to have one's name—which merits nothing sterner than obliteration—handed down to generations as an example of silliness, or stupidity, or presumption; to be enshrined pitilessly in the amber of the "Dunciad"; to be laughed at forever because of Charles Lamb's impatient and inextinguishable raillery. When an industrious young authoress named Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger—a model of painstaking insignificance—invited Charles and Mary Lamb to drink tea with her one cold December night, she little dreamed she was achieving a deathless and unenviable fame; and that, when her half dozen books should have lapsed into comfortable oblivion, she herself should never be fortunate enough to be forgotten. It is a cruel chance which crystallizes the folly of an hour, and makes it outlive our most serious endeavours. Perhaps we should do well to consider this painful possibility before hazarding an acquaintance with the Immortals.

Miss Benger did more than hazard. She pursued the Immortals with insensate zeal. She bribed Mrs. Inchbald's servant-maid into lending her cap, and apron, and tea-tray; and, so equipped, penetrated into the inmost sanctuary of that literary lady, who seems to have taken the intrusion in good part. She was equally adroit in seducing Mary Lamb—as the Serpent seduced Eve—when Charles Lamb was the ultimate object of her designs. Coming home to dinner one day, "hungry as a hunter," he found to his dismay the two women closeted together, and trusted he was in time to prevent their exchanging vows of eternal friendship, though not—as he discovered later—in time to save himself from an engagement to drink tea with the stranger ("I had never seen her before, and could not tell who the devil it was that was so familiar"), the following night.

What happened is told in a letter to Coleridge; one of the best-known and one of the longest letters Lamb ever wrote,—he is so brimful of his grievance. Miss Benger's lodgings were up two flights of stairs in East Street. She entertained her guests with tea, coffee, macaroons, and "much love." She talked to them, or rather at them, upon purely literary topics,—as, for example, Miss Hannah More's "Strictures on Female Education," which they had never read. She addressed Mary Lamb in French,—"possibly having heard that neither Mary nor I understood French,"—and she favoured them with Miss Seward's opinion of Pope. She asked Lamb, who was growing more miserable every minute, if he agreed with D'Israeli as to the influence of organism upon intellect; and when he tried to parry the question with a pun upon organ—"which went off very flat"—she despised him for his feeble flippancy. She advised Mary to carry home two translations of "Pizarro," so that she might compare them verbatim (an offer hastily declined), and she made them both promise to return the following week—which they never did—to meet Miss Jane Porter and her sister, "who, it seems, have heard much of Mr. Coleridge, and wish to meet us because we are his friends." It is a comédie larmoyante. We sympathize hotly with Lamb when we read his letter; but there is something piteous in the thought of the poor little hostess going complacently to bed that night, and never realizing that she had made her one unhappy flight to fame.

There were people, strange as it may seem, who liked Miss Benger's evenings. Miss Aikin assures us that "her circle of acquaintances extended with her reputation, and with the knowledge of her excellent qualities, and she was often enabled to assemble as guests at her humble tea-table names whose celebrity would have insured attention in the proudest salons of the metropolis." Crabb Robinson, who was a frequent visitor, used to encounter large parties of sentimental ladies; among them, Miss Porter, Miss Landon, and the "eccentric but amiable" Miss Wesley,—John Wesley's niece,—who prided herself upon being broad-minded enough to have friends of varying religions, and who, having written two unread novels, remarked complacently to Miss Edgeworth: "We sisters of the quill ought to know one another."

The formidable Lady de Crespigny of Campion Lodge was also Miss Benger's condescending friend and patroness, and this august matron—of insipid mind and imperious temper—was held to sanctify in some mysterious manner all whom she honoured with her notice. The praises lavished upon Lady de Crespigny by her contemporaries would have made Hypatia blush, and Sappho hang her head. Like Mrs. Jarley, she was the delight of the nobility and gentry. She corresponded, so we are told, with the literati of England; she published, like a British Cornelia, her letters of counsel to her son; she was "courted by the gay and admired by the clever"; and she mingled at Campion Lodge "the festivity of fashionable parties with the pleasures of intellectual society, and the comforts of domestic peace."

To this array of feminine virtue and feminine authorship, Lamb was singularly unresponsive. He was not one of the literati honoured by Lady de Crespigny's correspondence. He eluded the society of Miss Porter, though she was held to be handsome,—for a novelist. ("The only literary lady I ever knew," writes Miss Mitford, "who didn't look like a scarecrow to keep birds from cherries.") He said unkindly of Miss Landon that, if she belonged to him, he would lock her up and feed her on bread and water until she left off writing poetry. And for Miss Wesley he entertained a cordial animosity, only one degree less lively than his sentiments towards Miss Benger. Miss Wesley had a lamentable habit of sending her effusions to be read by reluctant men of letters. She asked Lamb for Coleridge's address, which he, to divert the evil from his own head, cheerfully gave. Coleridge, very angry, reproached his friend for this disloyal baseness; but Lamb, with the desperate instinct of self-preservation, refused all promise of amendment. "You encouraged that mopsey, Miss Wesley, to dance after you," he wrote tartly, "in the hope of having her nonsense put into a nonsensical Anthology. We have pretty well shaken her off by that simple expedient of referring her to you; but there are more burs in the wind." … "Of all God's creatures," he cries again, in an excess of ill-humour, "I detest letters-affecting, authors-hunting ladies." Alas for Miss Benger when she hunted hard, and the quarry turned at bay!

An atmosphere of inexpressible dreariness hangs over the little coterie of respectable, unilluminated writers, who, to use Lamb's priceless phrase, encouraged one another in mediocrity. A vapid propriety, a mawkish sensibility were their substitutes for real distinction of character or mind. They read Mary Wollstonecraft's books, but would not know the author; and when, years later, Mrs. Gaskell presented the widowed Mrs. Shelley to Miss Lucy Aikin, that outraged spinster turned her back upon the erring one, to the profound embarrassment of her hostess. Of Mrs. Inchbald, we read in "Public Characters" for 1811: "Her moral qualities constitute her principal excellence; and though useful talents and personal accomplishments, of themselves, form materials for an agreeable picture, moral character gives the polish which fascinates the heart." The conception of goodness then in vogue is pleasingly illustrated by a passage from one of Miss Elizabeth Hamilton's books, which Miss Benger in her biography of that lady (now lost to fame) quotes appreciatively:—

"It was past twelve o'clock. Already had the active and judicious Harriet performed every domestic task; and, having completely regulated the family economy for the day, was quietly seated at work with her aunt and sister, listening to Hume's 'History of England,' as it was read to her by some orphan girl whom she had herself instructed."

So truly ladylike had the feminine mind grown by this time, that the very language it used was refined to the point of ambiguity. Mrs. Barbauld writes genteelly of the behaviour of young girls "to the other half of their species," as though she could not bear to say, simply and coarsely, men. So full of content were the little circles who listened to the "elegant lyric poetess," Mrs. Hemans, or to "the female Shakespeare of her age," Miss Joanna Baillie (we owe both these phrases to the poet Campbell), that when Crabb Robinson was asked by Miss Wakefield whether he would like to know Mrs. Barbauld, he cried enthusiastically: "You might as well ask me whether I should like to know the Angel Gabriel!"

In the midst of these sentimentalities and raptures, we catch now and then forlorn glimpses of the Immortals,—of Wordsworth at a literary entertainment in the house of Mr. Hoare of Hampstead, sitting mute and miserable all evening in a corner,—which, as Miss Aikin truly remarked, was "disappointing and provoking"; of Lamb carried by the indefatigable Crabb Robinson to call on Mrs. Barbauld. This visit appears to have been a distinct failure. Lamb's one recorded observation was that Gilbert Wakefield had a peevish face,—an awkward remark, as Wakefield's daughter sat close at hand and listening. "Lamb," writes Mr. Robinson, "was vexed, but got out of the scrape tolerably well,"—having had, indeed, plenty of former experiences to help him on the way.

There is a delightful passage in Miss Jane Porter's diary which describes at length an evening spent at the house of Mrs. Fenwick, "the amiable authoress of 'Secrecy.'" (Everybody was the amiable authoress of something. It was a day, like our own, given over to the worship of ink.) The company consisted of Miss Porter and her sister Maria, Miss Benger and her brother, the poet Campbell, and his nephew, a young man barely twenty years of age. The lion of the little party was of course the poet, who endeared himself to Mrs. Fenwick's heart by his attentions to her son, "a beautiful boy of six."

"This child's innocence and caresses," writes Miss Porter gushingly, "seemed to unbend the lovely feelings of Campbell's heart. Every restraint but those which the guardian angels of tender infancy acknowledge was thrown aside. I never saw Man in a more interesting point of view. I felt how much I esteemed the author of the 'Pleasures of Hope.' When we returned home, we walked. It was a charming summer night. The moon shone brightly. Maria leaned on Campbell's arm. I did the same by Benger's. Campbell made some observations on pedantic women. I did not like it, being anxious for the respect of this man. I was jealous about how nearly he might think we resembled that character. When the Bengers parted from us, Campbell observed my abstraction, and with sincerity I confessed the cause. I know not what were his replies; but they were so gratifying, so endearing, so marked with truth, that when we arrived at the door, and he shook us by the hand, as a sign of adieu immediately prior to his next day's journey to Scotland, we parted with evident marks of being all in tears."

It is rather disappointing, after this outburst of emotion, to find Campbell, in a letter to his sister, describing Miss Porter in language of chilling moderation: "Among the company was Miss Jane Porter, whose talents my nephew adores. She is a pleasing woman, and made quite a conquest of him."

Miss Benger was only one of the many aspirants to literary honours whose futile endeavours vexed and affronted Charles Lamb. In reality she burdened him far less than others who, like Miss Betham and Miss Stoddart, succeeded in sending him their verses for criticism, or who begged him to forward the effusions to Southey,—an office he gladly fulfilled. Perhaps Miss Benger's vivacity jarred upon his taste. He was fastidious about the gayety of women. Madame de Staël considered her one of the most interesting persons she had met in England; but the approval of this "impudent clever" Frenchwoman would have been the least possible recommendation to Lamb. If he had known how hard had been Miss Benger's struggles, and how scanty her rewards, he might have forgiven her that sad perversity which kept her toiling in the field of letters. She had had the misfortune to be a precocious child, and had written at the age of thirteen a poem called "The Female Geniad," which was dedicated to Lady de Crespigny, and published under the patronage of that honoured dame. Youthful prodigies were then much in favour. Miss Mitford comments very sensibly upon them, being filled with pity for one Mary Anne Browne, "a fine tall girl of fourteen, and a full-fledged authoress," who was extravagantly courted and caressed one season, and cruelly ignored the next. The "Female Geniad" sealed Miss Benger's fate. When one has written a poem at thirteen, and that poem has been printed and praised, there is nothing for it but to keep on writing until Death mercifully removes the obligation.

It is needless to say that the drama—which then, as now, was the goal of every author's ambition—first fired Miss Benger's zeal. When we think of Miss Hannah More as a successful playwright, it is hard to understand how any one could fail; yet fail Miss Benger did, although we are assured by her biographer that "her genius appeared in many ways well adapted to the stage." She next wrote a mercilessly long poem upon the abolition of the slave trade (which was read only by anti-slavery agitators), and two novels,—"Marian," and "Valsinore: or, the Heart and the Fancy." Of these we are told that "their excellences were such as genius only can reach"; and if they also missed their mark, it must have been because—as Miss Aikin delicately insinuates—"no judicious reader could fail to perceive that the artist was superior to the work." This is always unfortunate. It is the work, and not the artist, which is offered for sale in the marketplace. Miss Benger's work is not much worse than a great deal which did sell, and she possessed at least the grace of an unflinching and courageous perseverance. Deliberately, and without aptitude or training, she began to write history, and in this most difficult of all fields won for herself a hearing. Her "Life of Anne Boleyn," and her "Memoirs of Mary, Queen of Scots," were read in many an English schoolroom; their propriety and Protestantism making them acceptable to the anxious parental mind. A single sentence from "Anne Boleyn" will suffice to show the ease of Miss Benger's mental attitude, and the comfortable nature of her views:—

"It would be ungrateful to forget that the mother of Queen Elizabeth was the early and zealous advocate of the Reformation, and that, by her efforts to dispel the gloom of ignorance and superstition, she conferred on the English people a benefit of which, in the present advanced state of knowledge and civilization, it would be difficult to conceive or to appreciate the real value and importance."

The "active and judicious Harriet" would have listened to this with as much complacence as to Hume.

In "La Belle Assemblée" for April, 1823, there is an engraving of Miss Smirke's portrait of Miss Benger. She is painted in an imposing turban, with tight little curls, and an air of formidable sprightliness. It was this sprightliness which was so much admired. "Wound up by a cup of coffee," she would talk for hours, and her friends really seem to have liked it. "Her lively imagination," writes Miss Aikin, "and the flow of eloquence it inspired, aided by one of the most melodious of voices, lent an inexpressible charm to her conversation, which was heightened by an intuitive discernment of character, rare in itself, and still more so in combination with such fertility of fancy and ardency of feeling."

This leaves little to be desired. It is not at all like the Miss Benger of Lamb's letter, with her vapid pretensions and her stupid insolence. Unhappily, we see through Lamb's eyes, and we cannot see through Miss Aikin's. Of one thing only I feel sure. Had Miss Benger, instead of airing her trivial acquirements, told Lamb that when she was a little girl, bookless and penniless, at Chatham, she used to read the open volumes in the booksellers' windows, and go back again and again, hoping that the leaves might be turned, she would have touched a responsive chord in his heart. Who does not remember his exquisite sympathy for "street-readers," and his unlikely story of Martin B——, who "got through two volumes of 'Clarissa,'" in this desultory fashion. Had he but known of the shabby, eager child, staring wistfully at the coveted books, he would never have written the most amusing of his letters, and Miss Benger's name would be to-day unknown.