Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The loves of an eccentric author


Few persons will associate with the author of “Sandford and Merton” the romantic, disappointed feelings of an ardent, rejected lover, who sought, in an Utopian scheme, for consolation in a “real vexation.” Yet such was Thomas Day, to whom English boys owe that work which, next to “Robinson Crusoe,” is the best book for them in our language. “Robinson Crusoe” leads on the young to enterprise; it inculcates fortitude and ingenuity; “Sandford and Merton” impresses honour, unworldly views, proper estimates of life, and manly habits. And the author of this unequalled book was as honourable, as generous, as brave as his own hero. Seldom is so much to be said of any author. Witness his first action on coming of age. His mother had married again; her husband, a certain Mr. Phillips, had persecuted Day from his very infancy; yet Day, on obtaining his majority, and believing his mother when she said that she was pinched and wretched on her jointure of three hundred a year, augmented her income a hundred a year, and settled it on her husband, in order that that one pet misery might no longer be a grievance, as his stepfather was an inconvenience to his mother.

Whilst an unformed youth, Day fell in love. Laura was then the fashionable name of the adored; and to Laura, Day wrote verses such as this:

Thee, Laura, thee, by fount, on mazy stream,
Or thicket rude, impress’d by human feet,
I sigh, unheeded, to the moon’s pale beam;
Thee, Laura, thee, the echoing hills repeat.

But Laura, whilst accepting his addresses, loved him not. She receded—if not at the church doors, not far from it, metaphorically—and Day was left wounded; and the wound was long unhealed.

He began to rail at women, and to trace the root of all the frivolity and heartlessness with which he invested them, to their education. It was an age of transition, and Day was one of those who strove to found on the downright John Bull nature a fabric of Roman heroism. To begin, he adopted an old deistical philosophy, and engrafted on it a large philanthropy. For the sufferings of refinement he was to allow no compassion. The poor found a ready sympathy in him; but the sensitive, and those who had not actually to sustain cold and hunger, were totally disregarded; and our hero, partly from conceit, and partly from the tone of the times, avowed a contempt for all polished society. He thought it, however, a duty to the world that he should marry; but, to have such a wife as he pictured, he must, he confessed, have one made on purpose for him.

Independent, and, indeed, for those days, rich, on a clear twelve hundred a year, Mr. Day resolved to take his future bride from the lowest class; destitution was to be one of her credentials; a total reliance on him absolutely indispensable. Scarcely of age, with a powerful form, a thoughtful and somewhat melancholy face, good features, though seamed with the small-pox, he might have attracted many a young belle, or, at any rate, her mother, to view his merits in a fair light. He chose, however, to carry out an experiment, and these were its details, these its localities.

Behold him, first, consulting with a Mr. Bicknell, a barrister in London, and his intimate friend; like himself, too, a man of taintless morals. Next we see the friends travelling down to Shrewsbury, and passing through the wards of the Foundling Hospital in that town. Two little girls, each twelve years old, are selected; one is fair—an Anglo-Saxon beauty—with flaxen hair and blue eyes. The little creature is christened “Lucretia.” The other has dark auburn or, rather, chestnut tresses, a clear dark complexion, a blooming cheek. She is forthwith styled “Sabrina.”

Certain written conditions satisfied the hospital committee; they were these:—Within a twelvemonth one of the children should be given into the protection of some respectable tradeswoman, bound apprentice, with a fee of one hundred pounds; on her marriage, if she behaved well, four hundred pounds were to be added to this modest dot. The girl who should be retained, was to be carefully educated, and, if Mr. Day should not marry her himself, she was to have five hundred pounds as her marriage portion. Having arranged this, Mr. Day carried off his little wards to France. They were to receive no ideas except from him; no servant, French or English, was to approach them.

Of course they nearly drove him mad. They had the small-pox, and they cried and screamed incessantly; they quarrelled; they kept him for nights sitting by their bedside; our philosopher began to feel and to perceive the realities of life; especially when crossing the Rhine on a stormy day—the boat was upset. He rescued his wards by his expertness as a swimmer; but, perhaps, had they gone to the bottom, much trouble to all parties would have been avoided.

We next see him at Lichfield; it was spring. Those flat, dewy meadows, in which the city stands, were all besprent with flowers; the Trent meandered through fringes of the bog ranunculus; the purple hue of the trees which precedes their bursting forth into one universal green, was disappearing. There are some delicious spots near this cathedral town, and one of these is Stowe Vale; in this spot Mr. Day took up his residence. But to his mind, disdainful even of the luxuries which Nature herself proffers to us, it was not Stowe’s vernal loveliness, nor holy thoughts centering around Lichfield’s Gothic spires, nor reverence for Samuel Johnson, who still visited his native place, nor a wish to court the country families clustering around: it was the communion of minds like his own which tempted him to Stowe Vale.

Like his own! Yes; there was Richard Lovell Edgeworth—a young, gay-hearted man, yet imbued with the philosophy which Day esteemed above all others: the philosophy of Hume and Adam Smith. Day sternly carried out his principles; Edgeworth dashed into them the Epicurean tincture which accorded with his worldly, pleasant nature. There was Darwin, who, when his son was found immersed in the Derwent—dead—a suicide—had nothing more passionate on his lips than these terrible words, “Poor insane coward!”—Darwin, who, shortly before his death, when his wife, trembling at his coming doom, wept at the thought of their approaching separation, had nothing better to console her with than to bid her to remember “that she was the wife of a philosopher.” And there were canons, and prebends, and rectors, and choral vicars; some of the jovial, careless crew; others just merely touched with the putrescent philosophy of Day and Darwin, as Lovell Edgeworth was; others cherishing it. Some were holy; most were indifferent. There was also another light which scattered its beams even on the old panelled chambers of the episcopal palace itself. There, tending an aged father, sat Anna Seward, and there, by her side, growing up to loveliness and intelligence, Honora Sneyd was planted.

For successive generations the Sneyds of Staffordshire have been remarkable for personal beauty. The classic features, the fair hair, the matchless complexion, were seen in the person of a collateral descendant of this family stock in Paris, when all the Tuileries was in a blaze as one of the loveliest of faces was observed amid a crowd of less fair physiognomies in the Salle des Marechaux. The sudden empressement of a personage highly placed; the envy of surrounding mothers; the quick Spanish jealousy of one less fair, yet more interesting, than la belle; the tale of fruitless admiration; the erasure of that one name from the court list—are they not written, if not in the chronicles, in the memory of all who passed the winter of 1853 in Paris? Honora Sneyd, the beloved of the ill-fated André, had been placed by her father, a widower, with Miss Seward, not only for education, but to be introduced to society. She possessed, that loving preceptress has recorded, “all the graces.” Happily she was not too strong-minded. She was intellectual, sincere in character, and fascinating in conversation. Parental authority had dissolved an early engagement between her and Major André. He was fighting, with her image in his heart, in America, when Mr. Day arrived at Stowe Vale, and became one of the coterie around Anna Seward.

Mr. Day soon yielded to the charms which seem to have captivated all who approached Honora. He offered her his hand. She refused it,—but the refusal was softened by her assuring him that she wished she could love him. She even owned she had tried to do so, but she could not school her heart to the stern effort. Day then turned his attention towards Elizabeth, the pretty, artless, lively younger sister of Honora. “Countless degrees,” Miss Seward tells us, “inferior to the endowed and adorned Honora,” Elizabeth’s answer was more propitious than that of her sister. Had Mr. Day’s manner and address been less singular she could, she believed, have even loved him. But he was so unlike all the world; he was so eccentric, so austere, so uncompromising!

Day laid the lesson to his heart, and then set off to Paris to be modelled into a gentleman. He gave himself up to dancing and fencing masters. He stood for an hour or two a day in frames and back-boards; he screwed back his shoulders, though not inflicted with a Colonel Bentinck, to enforce the agony. He learned to point his toes, he assumed the military gait, he practised the fashionable bow, and came out in minuets and cotillons. He then hastened back to Lichfield and Elizabeth Sneyd, telling her that he was no longer Thomas Day, “blackguard,” but Thomas Day, “fine gentleman.”

But alas! the philosopher was spoiled, and the fine gentleman was a mere caricature, and Elizabeth, even Elizabeth, shrank back at his addresses. Three years afterwards, Honora married the young widower, Mr. Edgeworth, and, at her death, Elizabeth became her sister’s successor, and the third wife of that clever, desultory, garrulous man. So there closed Day’s hopes, as far as the lovely Sneyds were concerned. Meantime, Mr. Day had been carrying on his experiments on the hapless little Sabrina. She was to be formed on the model of Arria, or of Portia, or Cornelia; she was never to shrink from pain. On this principle her benefactor dropped scalding sealing-wax on her arms, and was scandalised to see her weep. He fired pistols at her petticoats, and she screamed. When he told her of invented danger to himself, and made her understand that his confidence was of the utmost moment, he found that she could not keep the secret, but let out these fictitious conspiracies to her playfellows. Then Day was in despair, but still more so when it became obvious that Sabrina could never, would never, endure study, nor attain that intellectual prowess that would become the mother of the Gracchi. And, meantime, all the faults of this benighted capacity were daily and hourly contrasted with the ready apprehension, the progressing mind, the sensibility, the companionableness of the beautiful Honora and the engaging Elizabeth Sneyd. Has not Madame Charles Reybaud, in her “Deux Marguérites,” consciously or unconsciously drawn the portraiture of Thomas Day, and illustrated by that beautiful story the error of his life? Be this, however, as it may, she has painted admirably the impossibility of raising an uneducated and common mind to the standard of one improved by training, and gifted by nature. At all events the process must begin early, almost in infancy, besides which there is something in race.

Miss Edgeworth has depicted, it is allowed, Day’s opinions and manners in her “Forester,” but she has touched her portrait with a too restraining hand. Either Day’s nature was hardened by his principles, or his nature assimilated too readily with his unnatural and impracticable convictions. There is a want of social chivalry in his conduct to Sabrina, and we peruse the unrefuted statements of Miss Seward with regret.

After firing at her petticoats and dropping sealing-wax on her arms for a year, our philosopher found that his experiments were failures. Sabrina began to fear him exceedingly. Did the poor helpless foundling sometimes conjecture why she was thus adopted, flurried, maintained, and persecuted by her self-appointed guardian? Did her girlish heart yearn in wistful fancy to the dim image of her lost, her unknown parents, with a yearning for something less philosophical and more tender than the training process of Thomas Day? Did it ever occur to her that the peasant’s hovel, where, on the very threshold, the affections blossom, might be more congenial to her than all the beauties and comforts of Stowe Vale? How she came there she knew not; and she did not love her protector sufficiently to conform to his strange veto from affection for one so dreaded.

Humbled, rather than convinced, Mr. Day abandoned his attempt: and lo! Stowe Vale is deserted. The clear pond before it (now, we learn, filled up) no longer reflects Sabrina’s girlish image. No longer is she seen fleeing for her life into yon wood from the pistol’s aim. No longer vainly trying to compass a Latin declension, or to solve the pepperbox in Euclid. She is away to school—a common-place school in a common-place town, Sutton Coldfield, in Warwickshire—and is en train to become a useful, sensible, and even elegant young woman, upon the old-world principles of education. After remaining three years at school, she resided in various families, paying a board, for Day then allowed her fifty pounds a year. He corresponded with her, “paternally,” as Miss Seward expresses it, and resigned her when she had attained the age of twenty-five to a better protection than his own.

Mr. Bicknell, the barrister who, with Mr. Day, had become a surety to the governors of the Foundling Hospital at Shrewsbury for the young Sabrina, offered her his hand. She accepted it, without love. Though she did not exactly adopt Mrs. Malapert’s advice—“to begin with a little aversion”—she performed her part well. Mr. Day gave her a dot of five hundred pounds, with these ungracious words:—

“I do not refuse my consent to your marrying Mr. Bicknell; but remember, you have not asked my advice.”

She married, and was happy. After six years, however, Mr. Bicknell was carried off by a paralytic stroke, leaving Sabrina destitute, with two sons. Mr. Day then said he would allow her thirty pounds a year, to assist her in the efforts she would, he expected, make for her own maintenance. To this was added the sum of eight hundred pounds, raised among the profession to which Mr. Bicknell had belonged. Having done this, Mr. Day dismissed the child whom he had brought out of obscurity from his remembrance—just as a chemist throws away the dross of any substance in which he has made a fruitless experiment.

Sabrina, however, rose above fortune. She became the housekeeper, assistant, and friend of Dr. Charles Burney, whose large school at Greenwich formed so many youths for an honourable career. Her kindliness, her fresh though matronly beauty, her sympathy of character, endeared her to the boys, who loved her all the better that she was not at all Spartan. Her name did not appear in Mr. Day’s will, but she continued during her whole life to receive from his widow the annuity he had so sparingly allowed her.

The philosopher eventually married an infatuated young lady, named Mills. Young, elegant, handsome, rich, and well-born, Esther Mills accepted proposals to which were affixed the following conditions:—All that the world calls pleasure, luxury, ostentation, were to be given up once and for ever; even society was to be limited to a chosen few, and after the absolute wants of existence were satisfied, the rest of their ample fortunes was to be devoted to the poor. Esther gladly, we are told, complied, and Thomas Day found at last a wife shaped on his own plan. They retired into the country. Self-sacrifice began at the church door: no carriage, no lady’s-maid, no luxury, were allowed. The harpsichord—which Esther played excellently well—was to be silent: it was trivial to love music. Constant experiments were made on Esther’s temper. Her attachment was put to a severe test—she wept, but murmured not. Yet, as her fortune was wholly settled on herself, she had the power, as her husband reminded her, of withdrawing and living alone.

Ten years did this childless union subsist. It was dissolved, not in the Consistorial Court, as one might have expected, but by one of Mr. Day’s unfruitful experiments. Though hard upon women and children, he was indulgent to animals. He thought highly, for instance, of the native qualities of horses, and believed that, when they were absent, ill usage was the cause. He reared, he fed, he tamed a favourite foal. He attempted to accustom it to the bit himself; he rejected the aid of a horse-breaker, and attempted to break it himself. The animal, less patient than Sabrina, less devoted than Esther, threw him, and kicked him in the head. Death instantly ensued.

Peculiar, and mistaken, and hard as he was, Thomas Day had one heart at all events devoted to him. His friends, it is said, at once loved, and somewhat disapproved of, him. His wife refused after his death to see the light of day; during those hours when the sun gladdens our fair earth she remained in bed, no gleam allowed to penetrate through her curtains. At night she arose, and wandered through her gardens in the gloom in spectral sorrow. At length these unnatural and unwholesome regrets ended, as might be expected, in her death. She survived her husband only two years.