Essays in idleness/Letters


It is one of the current complaints of to-day that the art of letter-writing, as our great-grandfathers and our great-great-grandfathers knew it, has been utterly and irrevocably lost. Railways, which bring together easily and often people who used to spend the greater portion of their lives apart; cheap postage, which relieves a man from any serious responsibility for what he writes,—the most insignificant scrawl seems worth the stamp he puts on it; the hurried, restless pace at which we live, each day filled to the brim with things which are hardly so important as we think them, and which have cost us the old rich hours of leisurely thought and inaction,—these are the forces which have conspired to destroy the letter, and to crowd into its place that usurping and unprofitable little upstart called the note. "The art of note-writing," says Mr. Bagehot, "may become classical; it is for the present age to provide models for that sort of composition; but letters have perished. In the last century, cultivated people who sat down to write took pains to have something to say, and took pains to say it. The correspondence of to-day is like a series of telegrams with amplified headings. There is not more than one idea, and that idea soon comes and is soon over. The best correspondence of the past is rather like a good light article, in which the points are studiously made; in which the effort to make them is studiously concealed; in which a series of selected circumstances is set forth; in which you feel, but are not told, that the principle of the writer's selection was to make his composition pleasant."

It is difficult not to agree with Mr. Bagehot and other critics who have uttered similar lamentations. The letter which resembled a good light article has indeed disappeared from our midst, and I am not sure that many dry eyes have not witnessed its departure. Light articles are now provided for us in such generous measure by our magazines that we have scant need to exact them from our friends. In fact, we should have no time to read them, if they were written. A more serious loss is the total absence of any minute information or gossip upon current topics in the mass of modern correspondence. The letter which is so useful to historians, which shows us, and shows us as nothing else can ever do, the ordinary, every-day life of prominent men and women, this letter has also disappeared, and there is nothing to take its place. We can reconstruct the England, or at least the London of George II. and George III. from the pages of Horace Walpole. Who is there likely to hand down in this fashion to a coming generation the England of Queen Victoria? Neither does the fact of Walpole's being by no means a bigot in the matter of truth-telling interfere with his real value. He lies consciously and with a set purpose here and there; he is unconsciously and even inevitably veracious in the main. There are some points, observes Mr. Bagehot, on which almost everybody's letters are true. "The delineation of a recurring and familiar life is beyond the reach of a fraudulent fancy. Horace Walpole was not a very scrupulous narrator, yet it was too much trouble, even for him, to tell lies on many, things. His stories and conspicuous scandals are no doubt often unfounded; but there is a gentle undercurrent of daily unremarkable life and manners which he evidently assumed as a datum for his historical imagination."

We may be quite sure, for example, on his testimony, that people of fashion went to Ranelagh two hours after the music was over, because it was thought vulgar to go earlier; that Lord Derby's cook gave him warning, rather than dress suppers at three o'clock in the morning; that when a masked ball was given by eighteen young noblemen at Soho, the mob in the street stopped the fine coaches, held up torches to the windows, and demanded to have the masks pulled off and put on at their pleasure, "but all with extreme good-humor and civility;" that he, Horace Walpole, one night at Vauxhall, helped Lady Caroline Petersham to mince seven chickens in a china dish, which chickens "Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp, with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and rattling and laughing, and we every minute expecting to have the dish fly about our ears;" that at the funeral of George II., the Duke of Newcastle—that curious burlesque of an English nobleman—stood on the train of the butcher Duke of Cumberland to avoid the chill of the marble. If we think these things are not worth knowing, we had better not read Walpole's letters, for these are the things which he delights in telling us. Macaulay thought these things were not worth knowing, and he has accordingly branded Walpole as a superficial observer, a vain and shallow worldling. How, he wonders, can we listen seriously to a man who haunted auctions; who collected bricabrac; who sat up all night playing cards with fine, frivolous ladies; who liked being a fashionable gentleman, and had no proper pride in belonging to the august assemblage of authors; and who, most deadly crime of all, lived face to face with the great Whig leaders of the day, and was not in the least impressed by the magnitude of the distinction thus conferred on him. But, after all, we cannot, every one of us, be built upon the same solemn and righteous lines. It is not even granted to every one to be a fervent and consistent Whig. Horace Walpole, you see, was Horace Walpole, and not Thomas Babington Macaulay: therefore Macaulay despised him, and called on all his readers to despise him too. We can only have recourse to Mr. Lang's philosophy: "'Tis a wide world, my masters; there is room for both." Walpole is the prince of letter-writers, because writing letters was the inspiration, the ruling passion of his life, and he was preëminently qualified for the task. It has been well said that had some evil chance wrecked him, like Robinson Crusoe, upon a desert island, he would have gone on writing letters just the same, and waited for a ship to carry them away. This is a pleasant conceit, because the spectacle of Horace Walpole on a desert island is one which captivates the idle fancy. Think of his little airs and graces, his courtly affectations, his fine clothes and frippery, his dainty epicureanism, his sense of good comradeship, all thrown away upon a desert island, and upon the society of a parrot and a goat. What malicious tales he would have been forced to invent about the parrot! It is best not to believe evil of any one upon Walpole's word, especially not of any one who had ever attacked Sir Robert's ministry; for Horace's filial piety took the very exclusive form of undying enmity to all his father's political opponents. But when we have passed over and tried to forget all that is spiteful and caustic and coarse in these celebrated letters, there is a great deal left, a great deal that is not even the current gossip of the day. He goes to Paris in 1765, and finds that laughing is out of fashion in that once gay capital. "Good folks!" he cries, "they have no time to laugh. There are God and the king to be pulled down first, and men and women, one and all, are devoutly employed in the demolition. They think me quite profane for having my belief left." A few years later, Walpole sees clearly that French politics must end in "despotism, a civil war, or assassination." The age is not, he says, as he once thought, an age of abortion; but rather "an age of seeds which are to produce strange crops hereafter." Surely, even Macaulay might allow that these are the words of a thinker, of a prophet, perhaps, standing unheeded in the market-place.

Granted, then, that the light-article letter, and the letter which gives us material with which to fill up the gaps and crannies of history, which holds the life of the past embalmed in its faded pages, have disappeared, perhaps forever. There is another letter which has not disappeared, which never can disappear as long as man stays man and woman, woman,—the letter which reveals to us the personality of the writer; which is dear and valuable to us because in it his hand stretches out frankly from the past, and draws us to his side. It may be long or short, carefully or carelessly written, full of useful information or full of idle nonsense. We do not stop to ask. It is enough for us to know from whom it came. And the finest type of such a letter may surely be found in the well-loved correspondence of Charles Lamb. If we eliminated from his pages all critical matter, all those shrewd and admirable verdicts upon prose and verse; if we cut out ruthlessly such scraps of news as they occasionally convey; if we banished all references to celebrated people, from the "obnoxious squeak" of Shelley's voice to the generous sympathy expressed for Napoleon, we should still have left—the writer himself, which is all that we desire. We should still have the record of that harmless and patient, that brave and sorely tried life. We should still see infinite mirth and infinite pathos interwoven upon every page. We should catch the echo of that clear, kind laughter which never hardens into scorn. Lamb laughs at so many people, and never once wrongs any one. We should see the flashes of a wit which carries no venom in its sting. We should feel that atmosphere of wonderful, whimsical humor illuminating all the trivial details of existence. We should recognize in the turning of every sentence, the conscious choice of every word, the fine and distinctive qualities of a genius that has no parallel.

It matters little at what page we read. Here is the sad story of Henry Robinson's waistcoat, which Mary Lamb tried to bring over from France, but which was seized at the Custom House, "for the use of the king," says Charles dryly. "He will probably appear in it at the next levee." Here is the never-to-be-forgotten tea-party at Miss Benjay's, where that tenth-rate little upstart of a woman—type of a genus that survives to-day—alternately patronized and snubbed her guest; flinging at him her pitiful scraps of information, marveling that he did not understand French, insulting him when he ventured an opinion upon poetry,—"seeing that it was my own trade in a manner,"—imparting to him Hannah More's valuable dogmas on education, feeding him scantily with macaroons, and sending him home,—not angry as he had a right to be, as any other man would have been in his place, only infinitely amused. And then some people say that a keen sense of the ridiculous is not a kindly sentiment! It is, we know it is, when we read the letter to Coleridge in which Lamb tells how he went to condole with poor Joseph Cottle on the death of his brother Amos, and how, as the readiest comfort he could offer, he swiftly introduced into his conversation Joseph's epic poem, "Alfred," luring the mourner gently from his grief by arousing his poetic vanity. The dear, good, stupid Cottle, brightening visibly under such soothing treatment, fixed upon his visitor a benevolent gaze, and prepared himself for melancholy enjoyment. After a while the name of Alswitha, Alfred's queen, was slipped adroitly into the discourse. "At that moment," says Lamb, "I could perceive that Cottle had forgot his brother was so lately become a blessed spirit. In the language of mathematicians, the author was as nine, the brother as one. I felt my cue, and strong pity stirring at the root, I went to work." So the little comedy proceeds, until it reaches its climax when George Dyer, to whom all poems were good poems, remarks that the dead Amos was estimable both for his head and heart, and would have made a fine poet if he had lived. "To this," says Lamb, "Joseph fully assented, but could not help adding that he always thought the qualities of his brother's heart exceeded those of his head. I believe his brother, when living, had formed precisely the same idea of him; and I apprehend the world will assent to both judgments." Now if we will but try to picture to ourselves how Carlyle would have behaved to poor Miss Benjay, how Walpole would have sneered at Joseph Cottle, we will understand better the harmless, the almost loving nature of Charles Lamb's raillery, which we can enjoy so frankly because it gave no pain.

As for the well-known fact that Lamb's letters reflect nothing of the political tumult, the stirring warfare, amid which he lived, it is interesting to place by their side the contemporary letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, the first Earl of Minto, a correspondence the principal charm of which is the revelation it makes of a nature so fine and brave, so upright and honorable, so wise and strong and good, that we can best understand the secret of England's greatness when we know she has given birth to such sons. To study the life of a man who played so prominent a part in home and foreign politics is to study the history of Europe during those troubled years. In Lord Minto's letters we follow breathlessly the desperate struggle with Napoleon, the ceaseless wrangling of the Allies, the dangerous rebellions in Ireland, the grave perplexities of the Indian empire; and besides these all-important topics, we have side-lights thrown upon social life. We learn, for instance, that Mrs. Crewe, the celebrated beauty and toast of the Whigs, liked good conversation, and took an interest and even a part, writes Sir Gilbert naïvely to his wife, "in all subjects which men would naturally talk of when not in woman's company, as politics and literature." We learn also—what we half suspected before—that Madame de Stäel was so greedy of admiration that she was capable of purchasing "any quantity of anybody at any price, and among other prices by a traffic of mutual flattery;" and that she was never satisfied unless she could have the whole conversation to herself, and be the centre of every company.

Now, it is hardly to be expected that the letters of a great statesman and the letters of an obscure clerk in the India House should reveal precisely the same interests and information, any more than it is to be expected that the letters of the statesman—who was, after all, a statesman and no more—should equal in literary charm and merit the letters of the clerk who was in addition an immortal genius. But when we think how profoundly England was shaken and disturbed by the discords and apprehensions of those troubled times, how wars and the rumors of wars darkened the air, and stirred the blood of country bumpkins and placid rural squires, it seems a little strange that Lamb, who lived long years in the heart of London, and must have heard so much of these things, should have written about them so little. He does learn when there is a change of ministry, because he hears a butcher say something about it in the market-place. He cultivates a frank admiration for Napoleon, whom all his countrymen hated and feared so madly. He would be glad, he says, to stand bareheaded at his table, doing honor to him in his fall. And, after the battle of Trafalgar, he writes to Hazlitt: "Lord Nelson is quiet at last. His ghost only keeps a slight fluttering in odes and elegies in newspapers, and impromptus which could not be got ready before the funeral."

These characteristic passages and others like them are all we hear of public matters from Charles Lamb, and few of us would ask for more. It is the continual sounding of the personal note that makes his pages so dear to us; it is the peculiarly restful character of his beloved chit-chat that keeps them so fresh and delightful. And while there is but one Lamb, there are many letters which have in them something of this same personal quality, something of this restful charm. The supply can never be exhausted, because letter-writings—not light articles now, nor brilliant semi-historic narratives, but real letter-writing—is founded on a need as old and as young as humanity itself, the need that one human being has of another. The craving for sympathy; the natural and healthy egotism which prompts us to open our minds to absent friends; the desire we all feel to make known to others that which is happening to ourselves; the certainty we all feel that others will be profoundly interested in this revelation; the inextinguishable impulse to "pass on" experiences either of soul or body, to share with some one else that which we are hearing, or seeing, or feeling, or suffering, or enjoying,—these are the motives which make letter-writing essential and inevitable, crowd it into the busiest lives, assimilate it with the dullest understandings, and fit it into some crevice of every one's daily experience. Thus it happens that there is a strong family resemblance between letters of every age and every country; they really change less than we are pleased to think. The Rev. Augustus Jessopp, in one of his delightful essays, quotes from a long and chatty letter written, about the time that Moses was a little lad, by an Egyptian gentleman named Pambesa to a friend named Amenemapt, and giving a very lively and minute account of the city of Rameses, which Pambesa was then happily visiting for the first time. We have all of us had just such letters from our absent friends, and have read them with mingled pleasure, and envy, and irritation. Pambesa the traveler is not disposed to spare Amenemapt the stay-at-home any detail of what he is missing. Never was there such a city of the gods as this particular town of Rameses which Amenemapt was not destined to see. There might be found the best of good living; vines, and fig-trees, and onion beds, and nursery gardens. Stout drinkers too were its jovial inhabitants, with a variety of strong liquors, sweet syrups richer than honey, red wine, and very excellent imported beer. Its women were all well dressed, and curled their hair enticingly, smoothing it with sweet oil. They stood at their doors, holding nosegays in their hands, and presenting a very alluring appearance to this gay and shameless Pambesa, who could hardly make up his mind to pass them coldly by. Altogether, Rameses was an exceedingly pleasant town to visit, and the Egyptian gentleman was having a very jolly time of it, and we, reading his correspondence, fall to thinking that human nature before the Exodus was uncommonly like human nature to-day. This is one of the delights of letter-reading, that it reveals to us, not only the life of the past, but, better still, the people of the past, our brothers and sisters who, being dead, still live in their written pages. For the scholar the interest lies in what Pambesa has to tell; for the rest of us the interest lies in Pambesa himself, who, so many thousand years ago, drank the bitter beer, and stared at the pretty girls standing curled and flower-bedecked, with those demure, faint smiles which centuries cannot alter or impair.

So it continues, as we run swiftly down the years, the bulk of correspondence increasing enormously at every stage, until we reach such monuments of industry as the famous Cecil letters, preserved at Hatfield, and comprising over thirty thousand documents. It is pleasant to feel we need read none of these, and that, if we search for character, we may find it in thirty words as well as in thirty thousand rolls of musty parchment. We may find it surely in that historic note dispatched by Ann, Countess of Dorset, to Sir Joseph Williamson, Secretary of State under Charles II., who wanted her to appoint a courtier as member from Appleby. Nothing could well be shorter; nothing could possibly be more significant. This is all:—

Sir,—I have been bullied by an usurper, I have been ill-treated by a court, but I won't be dictated to by a subject. Your man shall not stand.

Ann Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery.

Now if you don't feel you know Ann Dorset pretty well after reading those four lines, you wouldn't know her if she left a diary as long as Samuel Pepys's; and if you don't feel, after reading them, that she is worth the knowing, it is hopeless for her to try and win your regard. Another and still more amusing instance of self-revelation may be found in a manuscript familiar to many who have visited the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There, among other precious treasures, is a collection of notes scribbled by Charles II. to Clarendon, and by Clarendon to Charles II., to beguile the tedium of Council. They look, for all the world, like the notes which school-girls are wont to scribble to one another, to beguile the tedium of study. On one page, Charles in a little careless hand, not unlike a school-girl's, writes that he wants to go to Tunbridge, to see his sister. Clarendon in larger, firmer characters writes back that there is no reason why he should not, if he can return in a few days, and adds tentatively, "I suppose you will go with a light train." Charles, as though glowing with conscious rectitude, responds, "I intend to take nothing but my night-bag." Clarendon, who knows his master's luxurious habits, is startled out of all propriety. "Gods!" he writes: "you will not go without forty or fifty horse." Then Charles, who seems to have been waiting for this point in the dialogue, tranquilly replies in one straggling line at the bottom of the page. "I count that part of my night-bag." How plainly we can hear the royal chuckle which accompanied this gracious explanation! How really valuable is this scrap of correspondence which shows us for a moment Charles Stuart; not the Charles of Sir Walter's loyal stories, nor the Charles of Macaulay's eloquent invectives; but Charles himself, our fellow mortal, and a very human character indeed.

If, as Mr. Bagehot affirms, it is for the present day to provide models which shall make the art of note-writing classical, we can begin no better than by studying the specimens already in our keeping. If we want humor, pathos, a whole tale told in half a dozen words, we have these things already in every sentence of Steele's hasty scrawls to his wife: "Prue, Prue, look a little dressed, and be beautiful."—And again: "'Tis the glory of a Woman, Prue, to be her husband's Friend and Companion, and not his Sovereign Director."—Or "Good-nature, added to that beautiful form God has given you, would make an happinesse too great for Humane life."—And finally, "I am, dear Prue, a little in Drink, but at all times, Your Faithful Husband, Richard Steele."

These bare scraps of letters, briefer, many of them, than the "scandalous half-sheets" which Prue was wont to send in return, give us a tolerably clear insight into the precise nature of Steele's domestic happiness. We understand, not only the writer, but the recipient of such missives, poor petulant Prue, who has had scant mercy shown her in Thackeray's brilliant pages, but whose own life was not passed upon a bed of roses. We are eager to catch these swift glimpses of real people through a few careless lines which have miraculously escaped destruction; or perhaps through a brief aside in an important, but, to us, very uninteresting communication; as, for example, when Marlborough reopens a dispatch to say that he has just received word of the surprise and defeat of the Dutch general, Opdam. "Since I sealed my letter," he writes with characteristic dryness, "we have a report from Breda that Opdam is beaten. I pray God it be not so, for he is very capable of having it happen to him." It is difficult not to enjoy this, because, if we sat within the shadow of Marlborough's tent, we could not hear him more distinctly; and the desire we feel to get nearer to the people who interest us, to know them as they really were, is, in the main, natural and wholesome. Yet there must be some limit set to the gratification of this desire, if we are to check the unwarranted publishing of private letters which has become the recognized disgrace of literature. It is hard for us to understand just when our curiosity ceases to be permissible; it is harder still for editors to understand just when their privileges cease to be beneficial. Not many years ago it was possible for Mr. Bagehot to say that he took comfort in thinking of Shelley as a poet about whom our information was mercifully incomplete. Thanks to Professor Dowden, it is incomplete no longer; but we have scant cause to congratulate ourselves on what we have gained by his disclosures. Mr. Froude, acting up to an heroic theory of friendship, has pilloried Carlyle for the pleasure and the pain of gaping generations; but there are some who turn away with averted eyes from the sordid, shameful spectacle. Within the last decade the reading world welcomed with acclamations a volume of letters from the pen of one who had made it his especial request that no such correspondence should ever be published. How many of those who laughed over the witty, whimsical, intimate, affectionate outpourings of Thackeray paused to consider that they would one and all have remained unwritten, could their author have foreseen their fate. They were not meant for us, they never would have reached us, had his known desires and prejudices been respected. Many of them are delightful, as when he tells with sedate humor of his absurd proposal to Macaulay that they should change identities at Sir George Napier's dinner, so as to confuse and baffle a young American woman, the desire of whose heart was to meet these two great lions, and of Macaulay's disgust at the bare notion of jesting with anything so serious as his literary reputation. Yet when the recipient of these letters yielded to the temptation of publishing them, she would have done well to suppress those trivial, colorless, and private communications which can have no possible value or interest to others. An invitation to dinner is of some importance the day that it arrives, but it loses its vitality when reprinted forty years after the dinner is eaten. There is horror in the thought that a man of genius can never promise himself that grateful privacy which is the lot of his happier and less distinguished brothers; but that after he has died in the least ostentatious manner he knows how, the whole wide world is made acquainted with his diversions and his digestion, with his feeblest jokes and his most tender confidences. The problem of what to give and what to withhold must be solved by editors who, having laboriously collected their material, feel a natural disposition to use it. When, as occasionally happens, the editor regards the author simply as his prey, he never conceives the desirability of withholding anything. He is as unreserved as a savage, and probably defends himself, as did Montaigne when reproached for the impropriety of his essays, by saying that if people do not like details of that description they certainly take great pains to read them.

Among the letters too charming to be lost, yet too personal and frankly confiding to be read without some twinges of conscience, are those of Edward Fitzgerald, the last man in all England to have coveted such posthumous publicity. They reveal truthfully that kind, shy, proud, indolent, indifferent, and intensely conservative nature; a scholar without the prick of ambition, a critic with no desire to be judicial, an unwearied mind turned aside from healthy and normal currents of activity. Yet the indiscreet publishing of a private opinion, a harmless bit of criticism such as any man has a right to express to a friend, drew down upon this least aggressive of authors abuse too coarse to be quoted. It is easy to say that Browning dishonored himself rather than Fitzgerald by the brutality of his language. This is true; but, nevertheless, it is not pleasant to go down to posterity branded with Billingsgate by a great poet; and it is doubly hard to bear such a weight of vituperation because a word said in a letter has been ruthlessly given to the world.

The unhesitating fashion in which women reveal themselves to their correspondents makes it seem treachery to read their printed pages. Those girlish confidences of Jane Austen to Cassandra, so frank and gay, so full of jokes and laughter, and country gossip, and sisterly affection, what a contrast they afford to the attitude of unbroken reserve which Miss Austen always presented to the world! Yet now the world is free to follow each foolish little jest, and to pass judgment on the wit it holds. Those affectionate and not over-wise outpourings of Miss Mitford, with their effusive terms of endearment; those dignified and solemn reflections of Sara Coleridge, humanized occasionally by a chance remark about the baby, or an inadvertent admission that she has gone down twice to supper at an evening party; those keen, combative, brilliant letters of Mrs. Carlyle that are so bitter-sweet; those unreserved and purely personal communications of Geraldine Jewsbury which have no message whatever for the public;—how much has been given us to which we show scant claim! It is true that in the days when the Polite Letter-Writer ruled the land, and his baleful influence was felt on every side, a great many women wrote elaborate missives which nobody now wants to read, but which were then more highly prized than the gossiping pages we have learned to love so well. These sedate blue-stockings told neither their own affairs nor their neighbors'; but confined themselves to dignified generalities, expressed with Johnsonian elegance. There was Miss Seward, for example, who at times was too ridiculous for even Scott's genial forbearance; yet whose letters won her such a reputation that we find them diligently sought for, years after they were penned. Fancy admiring groups of men and women listening to Miss Seward's celebrated epistles to Miss Rogers and Miss Weston, one of which begins:—

"Soothing and welcome to me, dear Sophia, is the regret you express for our separation! Pleasant were the weeks we have recently passed together in this ancient and embowered mansion. I had strongly felt the silence and vacancy of the depriving day on which you vanished. How prone are our hearts perversely to quarrel with the friendly coercion of employment, at the very instant in which it is clearing the torpid and injurious mists of unavailing melancholy."

The letter which opens in this promising manner closes, as might be expected, with a fervent and glowing apostrophe to the absent one:—

"Virtuous friendship, how pure, how sacred are thy delights! Sophia, thy mind is capable of tasting them in all their poignancy. Against how many of life's incidents may that capacity be considered as a counterpoise."

Now, in the last century, when people received letters of this kind, they did not, as we might suppose, laugh and tear them up. They treasured them sacredly in their desks, and read them to their young nieces and nephews, and made fair copies of them for less favored friends. Yet the same mail-bags which groaned under these ponderous compositions were laden now and then with Sir Walter's delightful pages, all aglow with that diffused spirit of healthy enjoyment, that sane and happy knowledge of life, that dauntless and incomparable courage. Perhaps they carried some of Cowper's letters, rich mines of pleasure and profit for us all, full to the brim of homely pleasant details which only leisure can find time to note. A man who was even ordinarily busy would never have stopped to observe the things which Cowper tells us about so charmingly,—the bustling candidate kissing all the maids; the hungry beggar who declines to eat vermicelli soup; the young thief who is whipped for stealing the butcher's iron-work; the kitchen table which is scrubbed into paralysis; the retinue of kittens in the barn; the foolish old cat who must needs pursue a viper crawling in the sun; and the favorite tabby who ungratefully ran away into a ditch, and cost the family four shillings before she was recovered. Cowper had time to see all these things, had time to hear the soft click of Mrs. Unwin's knitting-needles, and the hum of the boiling tea-kettle; and he had moreover the faculty of bringing all that he saw and heard very vividly before our eyes, of interesting us, almost against our will, in the petty annals of an uneventful life. It is no more possible for important city men, heads of banking-houses and hard-working members of Parliament, to write letters of this kind, than it is possible for them to hold the attention of generations, as Gray so easily holds it, with a few playful lines of condolence on the death of a friend's cat, a few polished verses set like jewels in the delicate filigree of a sportive and caressing letter. "It would be a sensible satisfaction to me," he writes to Walpole, "before I testify my sorrow, and the sincere part I take in your misfortune, to know for certain who it is I lament. I knew Zara and Selima (Selima, was it? or Fatima?), or rather I knew them both together; for I cannot justly say which was which. Then as to your 'handsome Cat,' the name you distinguish her by, I am no less at a loss, as well knowing one's handsome cat is always the cat one loves best; or if one be alive and one dead, it is usually the latter which is the handsomer. Besides, if the point were never so clear, I hope you do not think me so ill-bred or so imprudent as to forfeit all my interest in the survivor. Oh, no! I would rather seem to mistake, and imagine to be sure it must be the tabby one that has met with this sad accident."

Labor accomplishes many things in this busy, tired world, and receives her full share of applause for every nail she drives. But leisure writes the letters; leisure aided by observation, and sometimes—as in the case of Mme. de Sévigné—by that rare faculty of receiving and imparting impressions without judicial reasoning, by that winning, uncontentious amenity which accepts life as it is, and men as they chance to be. There is no rancor in the light laugh with which this charming Frenchwoman greets the follies and frivolities of her day. There is no moral protest in her amused survey of that attractive invalid, Mme. de Brissac, who lies in bed so "curled and beautiful" that she turns everybody's head. "I wish you could have seen," writes Mme. de Sévigné to her daughter, "the use she made of her sufferings; of her eyes, of her sighs, of her arms, of her hands languishing on the counterpane, of the situation, and the compassion she excited. I was overcome with tenderness and admiration as I gazed on the performance, which seemed to me so fine. My riveted attention must surely have given satisfaction; and bear in mind that it was for the Abbé Bayard, for Saint Herens, for Montjeu and Plancy, that the scene was rehearsed. When I remember with what simplicity you are ill, you seem to me a mere bungler in comparison."

This is good-natured ridicule, keen but not condemnatory, without mercy, yet without upbraiding. Sainte-Beuve, who dearly loves Mme. de Sévigné, complains with reason that she is not even angry at things which ought to anger her, and that this gentle tolerance lacks humanity when cruelty and wrong-doing call for denunciation. Yet who can remember so long and tenderly a friend fallen and disgraced? Who can extend a helping hand so frankly to a fellow mortal? Who can love so devotedly, or sacrifice herself with such cheerful serenity at the shrine of her deep affections? Her memory comes down to us through two centuries, enriched with graceful fancies. We know her as one good and gay, gentle and witty and wise, who, by virtue of her supreme and narrowed genius, wrote letters unsurpassed in literature. "Keep my correspondence," said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the heyday of her youth and pride. "It will be as good as Mme. de Sévigné's, forty years hence." But four times forty years have only served to widen the gulf between these two writers, and to place them in parted spheres. Their work springs from different sources, and is as unlike in inspiration as in form. "It is impossible," says Sainte-Beuve, "to speak of women without first putting one's self in a good humor by the thought of Mme. de Sévigné. With us moderns, this process takes the place of one of those invocations or libations which the ancients were used to offer up to the pure source of grace." In the same devout spirit I am glad to close my volume with a few words about this incomparable letter-writer, with a little libation poured at her shadowy feet, that my last page may leave me and—Heaven permitting—my readers in a good humor, cheered by the pleasant memories which gild a passing hour.