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In the Autumn of 1878, the desire to comfort and amuse one of my kindest friends during hours of wearing pain and sickness induced me to begin writing down some of the reminiscences of my life. As almost all those who shared my earlier interests and affections had passed away, I fancied at first that it would be impossible to rescue anything like a connected story from “the great shipwreck of Time.” But solitude helps remembrance; and as I went on opening old letters and journals with the view of retracing my past life, it seemed to unfold itself to memory, and I found a wonderful interest in following once more the old track, with its almost forgotten pleasures and sorrows, though often reminded of the story of the old man who, when he heard for the first time the well-known adage, “Hell is paved with good intentions,” added promptly, “Yes, and roofed with lost opportunities.”

Many will think mine has been a sad life. But, as A. H. Mackonochie said, “No doubt our walk through this little world is through much fog and darkness and many alarms, but it is wonderful, when one looks back, to see how little the evils of life have been allowed to leave real marks upon our course, or upon our present state.”

And besides this, Time is always apt to paint the long-ago in fresh colours, making what was nothing less than anguish at the time quite light and trivial in the retrospect; sweeping over and effacing the greater number of griefs, joys, and friendships; though ever and anon picking out some unexpected point as a fixed and lasting landmark. “Le Temps, vieillard divin, honore et blanchit tout.”

Many, doubtless who read these pages, may themselves recollect, or may remember having heard others give, a very different impression of the persons described. But, as the old Italian proverb says, “Every bird sings its own note,” and I only give my own opinion. Pope reminds us that—

“’Tis with our judgements as our watches—none
Go just alike—yet each believes his own.”

And after all, “De mortuis omnia” is perhaps a wholesomer motto than “Nil nisi bonum,” and if people believed it would be acted upon, their lives would often be different. While one is just, however, one ought to remember that nothing can be more touching or pathetic than the helplessness of the dead. “Speak of me as I am,” says Othello, “nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.”

Since I have latterly seen more of what is usually called “the world”—the little world which considers the great world its satellite—and of the different people who compose it, the later years I have described will probably be the most interesting to such as care to read what I have written. I have myself, I think, gradually learnt what an “immense folio life is, requiring the utmost attention to be read and understood as it ought to be.”[1] But to me, my earlier years will always seem far the most important, the years throughout which my dearest mother had a share in every thought and was the object of every act. To many, my up-bringing will probably appear very odd, and I often feel myself how unsuited it was to my character or my own tastes and possible powers were consulted in considerations of my future. Still, when from middle life one overlooks one’s youth as one would a plain divided into different fields from a hill-top, when “la vérité s’est fait jour,” one can discern the faulty lines and trace the mistakes which lead to them, but one cannot even then see the difficulties and perplexities which caused inevitable errors of judgment in those who could not see the end when they were thinking about the beginning. Therefore, though there is much in the earlier part of my life which I should wish to rearrange if I could plan it over again, I am sure that the little that may be good in me is due to the loving influence which watched over my childhood, whilst my faults are only my own. In the latter years of her life, my dear adopted mother and I became constantly more closely united. The long period of sickness and suffering, which others may have fancied to be trying, only endeared her to me a thousandfold, and since the sweet eyes closed and the gentle voice was hushed for ever in November 1870, each solitary year has only seemed like another page in an unfinished appendix.

I once heard a lady say that “biographies are either lives or stuffed animals,” and there is always a danger of their being only the latter. But, as Carlyle tells us, “a true delineation of the smallest man and the scene of his pilgrimage through life is capable of interesting the greatest man, and human portraits, faithfully drawn, are of all pictures the welcomest on human walls.” It is certainly in proportion as a biography is human or individual that it can have any lasting interest. Also, “Those relations are commonly of the most value in which the writer tells his own story.”[2]

I have allowed this story to tell itself when it was possible by means of contemporary letters and journals, convinced that they at least express the feeling of the moment to which they narrate, and that they cannot possibly be biassed by the after-thoughts under the influence of which most autobiographies are written, and in which “la mémoire se plie aux fantasies de l’amour propre.”

My story is a very long one, and though only, as Sir C. Bowen would have called it, “a ponderous biography on nobody,” is told in great—most people will say in far too much—detail. But to me it seems as if it were in the petty details, not in the great results, that the real interest of every existence lies. I think, also, though it may be considered a strange thing to say, that the true picture of a whole life—at least an English life—has never yet been painted, and certainly all the truth of such a picture must come from its delicate touches. Then, though most readers of this story will only read parts of it, they are sure to be different parts.

The book doubtless contains a great deal of esprit des autres, for I have a helpless memory for sentences read or heard long ago, and put away somewhere in my senses, but not of when or where they were read or heard.

Many of the persons described were very important to those of their own time who might have had a serrement de cœur in reading about them. Therefore, if their contemporaries had been living, much must have remained unwritten; but, as Sydney Smith said, “We are all dead now.”

Still, in looking over my MS., I have always carefully cut out everything which could hurt the feelings of living persons: and I believe very little remains which can even ruffle their sensibilities.

Original footnotesEdit

  1. See Lord Chesterfield’s Letters.
  2. Dr. Johnson, “The Idler,” No. 84.