Notable Irishwomen/Mrs. S. C. Hall


X.

Mrs. S. C. Hall.

1800-1881.


IT is a popular idea that a marriage between two literary people is almost sure to turn out a disastrous failure. The proverb, "two of a trade never agree," is constantly quoted, and instances are brought forward about certain literary wives, who neglect their husband's shirt buttons, and leave his dinners to be looked after by an incompetent cook. When he is exhausted by the burden and heat of the day, he comes in to find his wife, "her eye in a fine frenzy rolling," far too much absorbed to attend to his comforts. A cat and dog life is generally the result. So much has been said on this subject, that many literary men avoid authoresses, and look out for a bride who has " no ink on her thumb when they kiss her hand."

Any writing, except the entry of items in a tradesman's book, is considered undesirable; yet facts—stubborn facts—prove that marriages between literary people do occasionally turn out extremely well. What could be more ideally happy than the marriage of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, both poets, and both devoted to their art? Then we have Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke, the popular writers on Shakespeare, who lived and worked harmoniously together; and William and Mary Howitt; but the most remarkable instance of a united literary life is that of the Irish writers, Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall. Not a cloud ever seems to have marred their complete harmony. They celebrated their golden wedding day amidst the congratulations of crowds of friends, and their many books, written in collaboration, prove how well they worked together.

Writing of his wife, Mr. S. C. Hall says in his "Retrospect of a Long Life," "We were so thoroughly one in all our pursuits, occupations, pleasures and labours, never having been separated for more than a month at a time, visiting places either for enjoyment or business, to write about them, producing our books, not in the same room, but always under the same roof, communicating one with the other, as to what should, or should not be done, our friends the same, our habits the same: that it is no wonder I find it difficult to separate her from me, or me from her."

Such was the testimony of her husband, himself a distinguished writer, editor and founder of the "Art Journal," and at one time editor of the "New Monthly Magazine."

During the 81 years of her busy and useful life, Mrs. Hall wrote no less than 250 books, counting those she edited and her numerous temperance tracts. Lady Morgan once said, "Why should I not be vain? Have I not written forty books?" But her forty sink into insignificance compared to Mrs. S. C. Hall's record. Writing to her husband, Carlyle, the sage of Chelsea, said, "her little pieces seem to me particularly excellent, and have a kind of gem-like brightness."

Such praise from such a critic was something to be proud of.

Anna Maria Fielding was born on the 6th January, 1800, in Anne Street, Dublin. When but a few weeks old, her mother brought her down to Graige, in the County Wexford, a place which belonged to her mother's stepfather, George Carr, Esq., and here she remained until her fifteenth year. Many descendants of a brother of George Carr may still be found in the neighbourhood of New Ross, Mrs. Fielding is described by her sonin-law, as "one of the best women God ever made," and he ought to know, for she lived under his roof for more than thirty years. She was very proud of her French descent, her grandfather having been one of the refugees from France, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He established a silk manufactory at Spitalfields, and was killed in the Lord George Gordon riots. Mrs. Fielding used to describe her feelings of horror when his body was brought home.

Little Anna Maria seems to have had a free and happy childhood. Though she was petted, she was not spoilt, she loved all beautiful things, and made pets of all living creatures from a spider to a dog. Graige is by the seaside near Bannow, Co. Wexford, opposite to

"Bag and Bun,
Where Ireland was lost and won;"

in other words, where the Norman barons landed in 1169. Bannow, a peninsula that runs out into the sea, was the scene of nearly all Mrs. Hall's early sketches. She loved the district intensely, and, to the last, was an ardent worshipper of the sea. In a story called "Grandmamma's Pockets," she is assuredly giving a page of autobiography when she says:

"She was a light-hearted, merry, little maid, as ever lived, and had learned the happy art of manufacturing her own pleasures, and doing much to contribute to the pleasures of the few around her.

"In summer she walked, and ran, and bathed, and gathered shells and samphire, and sang with the birds, and galloped old Sorrel, and on Sundays always went in the old carriage, driven by the old coachman, drawn by the old horses, and escorted by the old footman, to the very old church."

There is another charming glimpse of her childhood in the introduction to the "Sketches of Irish Character"—

"In the early morning, returning from my sea bath up the long walk, lingering amid the old trees, or reading beside the stream in the demesne, which encircled an ornamental cottage that was covered with ivy, and formed a very city of refuge for small birds, from the golden-crested wren to the over-bearing starling. That cottage, with its gable, its low dark windows, its mossy seats and grassy banks, and pure limpid stream creeping over the smooth pebbles after escaping from a cascade, which for years was my ideal of a waterfall; that cottage was my paradise! I could hear the ocean rolling in the distance; the refreshing sea breeze, passing over fields of clover and banks of roses, was freighted with perfume. The parent birds would fearlessly pick up crumbs at my feet."

She was fond of taking off her shoes and stockings and dabbling in the fairy pools which the receding waves left in the hollow clefts of the rocks, and fonder still of chasing the waves as they rolled along the sloping beach.

This free and happy country life came to an end when she was in her fifteenth year. The little party of three, her mother, herself, and Mr. Carr, who looked upon her as his adopted daughter and prospective heiress, left their Wexford home and settled in London. The heiress-ship came to nothing, for Mr. Carr died without a will, and his nephew came in for the property, which he soon squandered away.

It was in 1823 that Mr. S. C. Hall, then Parliamentary reporter in the House of Lords, made the acquaintance of the Fieldings. He was Irish by birth, for his father. Colonel Hall, had been stationed at Geneva Barracks, six miles from Waterford, when his third son, Samuel Carter, was born, just six months after the birth of Anna Maria Fielding.

Colonel Hall embarked in mining speculations, and opened thirteen copper mines in Ireland, the largest being on Ross Island, Killarney. Ore to the value of £100,000 was taken out of this mine. After giving employment to hundreds of men, women and children, the mine was flooded by the waters of the lake, complete ruin followed, and Mrs. Hall was left with twelve children to battle with the world. Her son, Samuel Carter, was most industrious and capable. His wooing of Miss Fielding was not long in the doing; the year after they met, the marriage took place.

"Beautiful, accomplished and good," says Mr. Hall, "was the wife that on the 20th September, 1825, God gave me to be my life's chief est blessing and most perfect boon."

From a portrait by Maclise we get a good idea of what Mrs. Hall was as a young woman. Long ringlets hang about a round, broad face of a very pronounced Irish type, with large dark eyes and a short nose. The brightness of her eyes was celebrated in a couplet —

Mrs. Hall, so fair and fine,
Makes her brilliant eyes to shine.

The expression of her face is charming, full of fun, humour, and sweetness. Three days after the marriage, came an unexpected windfall in the shape of a cheque for £40, which was sent to Mr. Hall in payment of a book on Brazil, which he had compiled for a series called "The Modern Traveller." This pleasant surprise not only paid for the church fees, but also for the honeymoon trip, which was spent at Petersham, near Richmond. In 1825, the year after her marriage, Mrs Hall had written nothing, and did not even know that she could write. How she first began is related by her husband. She was telling him some anecdotes of her old Irish schoolmaster, and he said, "I wish you would write about that just as you tell it." She did so, and Mr. Hall printed the story, "Master Ben," in a monthly periodical he was then editing, "The Spirit and Manners of the Age." From this time all was plain sailing. Mrs. Hall never had any harrowing tales to tell of the cruelty of publishers, or of the mortification of rejected manuscripts. Other tales followed in quick succession, and these were afterwards collected into the first volume of "Sketches of Irish Character."

There was now a brisk demand for her Irish tales, both in England and America, they were so fresh, so natural, so human. Her husband's influence as an editor, no doubt, helped to push her on. He was associated with Theodore Hook, from 1837,as sub-editor of "The New Monthly Magazine," before he became sole editor. This brought him and his wife into the society of many of the contributors—the Hon. Mrs. Norton, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Disraeli, Bulwer Lytton and others.

Mrs. Hall's mode of working may be best illustrated by the following words of her own: "I remember having a conversation with my friend, Maria Edgeworth. She did not see so clearly as I saw the value of imagination in literature for the young, and was almost angry when she discovered that a sketch I had written of a scene at Killarney was pure invention. She told me, indeed, that she had been so much deceived by one of my pictures as to have actually inquired for, and tried to find out, the hero of it, and argued strongly for truth in fiction. I ventured to ask her if her portrait of Sir Condy, in Castle Rackrent, was a veritable likeness, and endeavoured to convince her that to call imagination to the aid of reason, to mingle the ideal with the real, was not only permissible but laudable, as a means of impressing truth."

Mrs. Hall was a very rapid writer. One of her Irish sketches, "We'll See About It," was written between the morning and evening of a summer day. Mr. S. C. Hall tells one story which almost seems incredible. He and his wife were travelling from Liverpool to London, and to beguile the journey he had bought a number of magazines and papers. Mrs. Hall began to read one of them with great attention, then put it into her husband's hand saying, "Read that, it's a capital Irish story." He glanced at it and said, "Well, that's modest, for it's your own!" She had read it through without the slightest idea that she had written it. Mr. Hall accounts for this extraordinary forgetfulness by adding that whatever she wrote, she rarely read after it was written, leaving it entirely to him to prepare it for press, revise the proofs, etc., and never questioned his judgment as to any erasures or omissions he might consider necessary to make.

An Irish cook who lived with the Halls in London was remarkably silent, seldom saying more than "yes" or "no." At length, she gave warning, and obstinately refused to say what was the cause of her leaving. She had no fault to find with the place, but she wished to go. On being pressed for the reason, she suddenly turned round and said: "Arrah, ma'am, can't you lave me alone? Sure, ye know ye're goin' to put me into a book!" Of the sketches contributed to the "New Monthly Magazine" the principal one is "The Groves of Blarney," which was dramatised to supply a character for the Irish actor, Tyrone Power. It was produced at the Adelphi in 1838, and ran for a whole season. Another play was "The Irish Refugee," which was brought out at the St. James's Theatre, and had a run of ninety nights. Of Mrs. Hall's nine novels, "The Buccaneer," a story of the protectorate of Cromwell, was the first, but "Marian, or a Young Maid's Fortunes," is decidedly the best, the warm hearted Irish nurse, Katty Macan, being specially life-like and original. There are many dramatic scenes in "The Whiteboy," a book well worthy of the attention of all who study the Ireland of sixty years age. On the whole, however, Mrs. Hall is seen at her best in her short tales, for she had not much power of designing and working out a good plot.

She and her husband may be said to have originated the fashion of chatty illustrated accounts of interesting places. Everyone is familiar with their delightful book, "Ireland—its Scenery and Character," but, besides this, they wrote another on "Baronial Halls," and another, still more attractive, "Pilgrimages to English Shrines." This was followed by "The Book of the Thames," which first came out in the "Art Journal," of which Mr. S. C. Hall was the founder and first editor. His salary was £600 a year, and he afterwards had a pension of £150 from the Civil List. Mrs. Hall also enjoyed a pension of £300 a year from the same source. Some idea of her activity as a philanthropist may be formed when we hear of all the charities she promoted, the Hospital for Consumption at Brompton, the Governesses' Institute, the Home for decayed Gentlewomen, and the Nightingale Fund. At a bazaar for the Chelsea Hospital she had a stall which added £450 to the Hospital funds. A raffle was got up for a handsome papier mache chair, which had been presented to Mrs. Hall by the manufacturers. She put in for it, and a few minutes afterwards, loud cheers were heard and a procession was formed headed by Charles and Henry Kingsley, who advanced and presented her with the chair. She kept it for many years, and then gave it to the Hospital, where it now is.

Both the Hails were enthusiastic on the subject of temperance. One of Mrs. Hall's temperance tracts' bears the curious title, "Digging his Grave with a Wine Glass." In her girlish days she had, no doubt, seen something of the two and three bottlemen, who were so common in the country at the beginning of the century.

Years of useful work glided peacefully by. On Mrs. Hall's eighty-first birthday her husband wrote the following letter to her, a most touching tribute to her influence both as a woman and as writer. It seems almost too sacred to print, but after her death it was thought well to give it to the public to show what she was:—

"This is the 6th January, 1881. Surely, surely, I may thank God for the blessing he gave to me, and to hundreds of thousands, eighty- one years ago. … Gratitude from me to Him has been increasing year by year, and day by day, since the ever memorable day I saw you first. You have been to me a guide, a counsellor, a companion, a friend, a wife, from that day to this, ever true, faithful, fond, devoted, my helper in many ways, my encourager and stimulator in all that was right, the same consoler in storm and sunshine, lessening every trouble, augmenting every pleasure. Wisely upright yourself, you have been mainly instrumental in making me wisely upright. … God bless you, my soul's darling, the love of my youth, the love of my age, more beautiful in my sight than you were fifty-six years ago. Such adoration as I may rightly tender to a fellow mortal who will be immortal, I render to you, praying God to bless us both, blessing me in blessing you, and blessing you in blessing me.'

Twenty-four days after this touching letter was written, Mrs. Hall died on Sunday, 30th January, at Devon Lodge, East Moulsey. Her husband was leaning over her pillow when she breathed her last word—only audible to him—"darling," and so she passed away. They are buried together at Addlestone churchyard.

There have been many more powerful writers than Mrs. S. C. Hall, more eloquent, more witty, more learned, but none that breathed such a gentle, loving spirit of sympathy. Everything Irish was specially dear to her, in fact she did not write so well about anything else. Her thoughts were continually going back to the glades, the glens, the seashore of her beloved Wexford. When her foot was on her native heath—then, and then only, was she really at home Her heart was with her own people, with Burnt Aigle, with Jack the Shrimp, with the samphire gatherers, with the fisher-folk, listening to their racy talk, and sharing in their joys and sorrows.

Mrs. Hall has something in common with her successor, Miss Jane Barlow, as a delineator of Irish peasant life. As a poet, as a literary artist. Miss Barlow is immeasurably superior, but as a teacher of moral truths in fiction, Mrs. Hall takes a higher place. She knew how to "point a moral," as well as to "adorn a tale."