20000 Free eBooks
Library for Free Download eBooks and Read Online

Your last book:

You dont read books at this site.

Total books at library:
about 20000

You can read online and download ebooks for free!

Ebooks by authors: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 
Ritchie, Anne Thackeray / A Book of Sibyls Miss Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs Opie, Miss Austen
Rogers comes to dinner 'at half
after three.' They have another poet for a neighbour, Miss Joanna
Baillie; they are made welcome by all, and in their turn make others
welcome; they do acts of social charity and kindness wherever they see
the occasion. They have a young Spanish gentleman to board who conceals
a taste for 'seguars.' They also go up to town from time to time. On
one occasion Mr. Barbauld repairs to London to choose a wedding present
for Miss Belsham, who is about to be married to Mr. Kenrick, a widower
with daughters. He chose two slim Wedgwood pots of some late classic
model, which still stand, after many dangers, safely on either side of
Mrs. Kenrick's portrait in Miss Reid's drawing-room at Hampstead.
Wedgwood must have been a personal friend: he has modelled a lovely head
of Mrs. Barbauld, simple and nymph-like.

Hampstead was no further from London in those days than it is now, and
they seem to have kept up a constant communication with their friends
and relations in the great city. They go to the play occasionally. 'I
have not indeed seen Mrs. Siddons often, but I think I never saw her to
more advantage,' she writes. 'It is not, however, seeing a play, it is
only seeing one character, for they have nobody to act with her.'

Another expedition is to Westminster Hall, where Warren Hastings was
then being tried for his life.

'The trial has attracted the notice of most people who are within reach
of it. I have been, and was very much struck with all the apparatus and
pomp of justice, with the splendour of the assembly which contained
everything distinguished in the nation, with the grand idea that the
equity of the English was to pursue crimes committed at the other side
of the globe, and oppressions exercised towards the poor Indians who had
come to plead their cause; but all these fine ideas vanish and fade away
as one observes the progress of the cause, and sees it fall into the
summer amusements, and take the place of a rehearsal of music or an
evening at Vauxhall.'

Mrs. Barbauld was a Liberal in feeling and conviction; she was never
afraid to speak her mind, and when the French Revolution first began,
she, in common with many others, hoped that it was but the dawning of
happier times. She was always keen about public events; she wrote an
address on the opposition to the repeal of the Test Act in 1791, and she
published her poem to Wilberforce on the rejection of his great bill for
abolishing slavery:--

Friends of the friendless, hail, ye generous band!

she cries, in warm enthusiasm for the devoted cause.

Horace Walpole nicknamed her Deborah, called her the Virago Barbauld,
and speaks of her with utter rudeness and intolerant spite. But whether
or not Horace Walpole approved, it is certain that Mrs. Barbauld
possessed to a full and generous degree a quality which is now less
common than it was in her day.

Not very many years ago I was struck on one occasion when a noble old
lady, now gone to her rest, exclaimed in my hearing that people of this
generation had all sorts of merits and charitable intentions, but that
there was one thing she missed which had certainly existed in her youth,
and which no longer seemed to be of the same account: that public spirit
which used to animate the young as well as the old.

It is possible that philanthropy, and the love of the beautiful, and the
gratuitous diffusion of wall-papers may be the modern rendering of the
good old-fashioned sentiment. Mrs. Barbauld lived in very stirring days,
when private people shared in the excitements and catastrophes of public
affairs. To her the fortunes of England, its loyalty, its success, were
a part of her daily bread. By her early associations she belonged to a
party representing opposition, and for that very reason she was the more
keenly struck by the differences of the conduct of affairs and the
opinions of those she trusted. Her friend Dr. Priestley had emigrated to
America for his convictions' sake; Howard was giving his noble life for
his work; Wakefield had gone to prison. Now the very questions are
forgotten for which they struggled and suffered, or the answers have
come while the questions are forgotten, in this their future which is
our present, and to which some unborn historian may point back with a
moral finger.

Dr. Aikin, whose estimate of his sister was very different from Horace
Walpole's, occasionally reproached her for not writing more constantly.
He wrote a copy of verses on this theme:--

Thus speaks the Muse, and bends her brows severe:
Did I, Lętitia, lend my choicest lays,
And crown thy youthful head with freshest bays,
That all the expectance of thy full-grown year,
Should lie inert and fruitless? O revere
Those sacred gifts whose meed is deathless praise,
Whose potent charm the enraptured soul can raise
Far from the vapours of this earthly sphere,
Seize, seize the lyre, resume the lofty strain.

She seems to have willingly left the lyre for Dr. Aikin's use. A few
hymns, some graceful odes, and stanzas, and _jeux d'esprit_, a certain
number of well-written and original essays, and several political
pamphlets, represent the best of her work. Her more ambitious poems
are those by which she is the least remembered. It was at Hampstead
that Mrs. Barbauld wrote her contributions to her brother's volume of
'Evenings at Home,' among which the transmigrations of Indur may be
quoted as a model of style and delightful matter. One of the best of her
_jeux d'esprit_ is the 'Groans of the Tankard,' which was written in
early days, with much spirit and real humour. It begins with a classic
incantation, and then goes on:--

'Twas at the solemn silent noontide hour
When hunger rages with despotic power,
When the lean student quits his Hebrew roots
For the gross nourishment of English fruits,
And throws unfinished airy systems by
For solid pudding and substantial pie.

The tankard now,

Replenished to the brink,
With the cool beverage blue-eyed maidens drink,

but, accustomed to very different libations, is endowed with voice and
utters its bitter reproaches:--

Unblest the day, and luckless was the hour
Which doomed me to a Presbyterian's power,
Fated to serve a Puritanic race,
Whose slender meal is shorter than their grace.


Thumbkin, of fairy celebrity, used to mark his way by flinging crumbs of
bread and scattering stones as he went along; and in like manner authors
trace the course of their life's peregrinations by the pamphlets and
articles they cast down as they go. Sometimes they throw stones,
sometimes they throw bread. In '92 and '93 Mrs. Barbauld must have been
occupied with party polemics and with the political miseries of the
time. A pamphlet on Gilbert Wakefield's views, and another on 'Sins
of the Government and Sins of the People,' show in what direction her
thoughts were bent. Then came a period of comparative calm again and of
literary work and interest. She seems to have turned to Akenside and
Collins, and each had an essay to himself. These were followed by
certain selections from the _Spectator_, _Tatler_, &c., preceded by one
of those admirable essays for which she is really remarkable. She also
published a memoir of Richardson prefixed to his correspondence. Sir
James Mackintosh, writing at a later and sadder time of her life, says
of her observations on the moral of Clarissa that they are as fine a
piece of mitigated and rational stoicism as our language can boast of.

In 1802 another congregation seems to have made signs from Stoke
Newington, and Mrs. Barbauld persuaded her husband to leave his flock at
Hampstead and to buy a house near her brother's at Stoke Newington. This
was her last migration, and here she remained until her death in 1825.
One of her letters to Mrs. Kenrick gives a description of what might
have been a happy home:--'We have a pretty little back parlour that
looks into our little spot of a garden,' she says, 'and catches every
gleam of sunshine. We have pulled down the ivy, except what covers the
coach-house We have planted a vine and a passion-flower, with abundance
of jessamine against the window, and we have scattered roses and
honeysuckle all over the garden. You may smile at me for parading so
over my house and domains.' In May she writes a pleasant letter, in good
spirits, comparing her correspondence with her friend to the flower of
an aloe, which sleeps for a hundred years, and on a sudden pushes out
when least expected. 'But take notice, the life is in the aloe all the
while, and sorry should I be if the life were not in our friendship all
the while, though it so rarely diffuses itself over a sheet of paper.'

She seems to have been no less sociable and friendly at Stoke Newington
than at Hampstead. People used to come up to see her from London. Her
letters, quiet and intimate as they are, give glimpses of most of the
literary people of the day, not in memoirs then, but alive and drinking
tea at one another's houses, or walking all the way to Stoke Newington
to pay their respects to the old lady.

Charles Lamb used to talk of his two _bald_ authoresses, Mrs. Barbauld
being one and Mrs. Inchbald being the other. Crabb Robinson and Rogers
were two faithful links with the outer world. 'Crabb Robinson corresponds
with Madame de Staėl, is quite intimate,' she writes, 'has received
I don't know how many letters,' she adds, not without some slight
amusement. Miss Lucy Aikin tells a pretty story of Scott meeting Mrs.
Barbauld at dinner, and telling her that it was to her that he owed his
poetic gift. Some translations of Bürger by Mr. Taylor, of Norwich,
which she had read out at Edinburgh, had struck him so much that they
had determined him to try his own powers in that line.

She often had inmates under her roof. One of them was a beautiful and
charming young girl, the daughter of Mrs. Fletcher, of Edinburgh, whose
early death is recorded in her mother's life. Besides company at home,
Mrs. Barbauld went to visit her friends from time to time--the Estlins
at Bristol, the Edgeworths, whose acquaintance Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld
made about this time, and who seem to have been invaluable friends,
bringing as they did a bright new element of interest and cheerful
friendship into her sad and dimming life. A man must have extraordinarily
good spirits to embark upon four matrimonial ventures as Mr. Edgeworth
did; and as for Miss Edgeworth, appreciative, effusive, and warm-hearted,
she seems to have more than returned Mrs. Barbauld's sympathy.

Miss Lucy Aikin, Dr. Aikin's daughter, was now also making her own mark
in the literary world, and had inherited the bright intelligence and
interest for which her family was so remarkable. Much of Miss Aikin's
work is more sustained than her aunt's desultory productions, but it
lacks that touch of nature which has preserved Mrs. Barbauld's memory
where more important people are forgotten.

Our authoress seems to have had a natural affection for sister
authoresses. Hannah More and Mrs. Montague were both her friends, so
were Madame d'Arblay and Mrs. Chapone in a different degree; she must
have known Mrs. Opie; she loved Joanna Baillie. The latter is described
by her as the young lady at Hampstead who came to Mr. Barbauld's meeting
with as demure a face as if she had never written a line. And Miss Aikin,
in her memoirs, describes in Johnsonian language how the two Miss
Baillies came to call one morning upon Mrs. Barbauld:--'My aunt
immediately introduced the topic of the anonymous tragedies, and
gave utterance to her admiration with the generous delight in the
manifestation of kindred genius which distinguished her.' But it seems
that Miss Baillie sat, nothing moved, and did not betray herself. Mrs.
Barbauld herself gives a pretty description of the sisters in their
home, in that old house on Windmill Hill, which stands untouched, with
its green windows looking out upon so much of sky and heath and sun,
with the wainscoted parlours where Walter Scott used to come, and the
low wooden staircase leading to the old rooms above. It is in one of her
letters to Mrs. Kenrick that Mrs. Barbauld gives a pleasant glimpse of
the poetess Walter Scott admired. 'I have not been abroad since I was at
Norwich, except a day or two at Hampstead with the Miss Baillies. One
should be, as I was, beneath their roof to know all their merit. Their
house is one of the best ordered I know. They have all manner of
attentions for their friends, and not only Miss B., but Joanna, is as
clever in furnishing a room or in arranging a party as in writing plays,
of which, by the way, she has a volume ready for the press, but she will
not give it to the public till next winter. The subject is to be the
passion of fear. I do not know what sort of a hero that passion can
afford!' Fear was, indeed, a passion alien to her nature, and she did
not know the meaning of the word.

Mrs. Barbauld's description of Hannah More and her sisters living on
their special hill-top was written after Mr. Barbauld's death, and
thirty years after Miss More's verses which are quoted by Mrs. Ellis in
her excellent memoir of Mrs. Barbauld:--

Nor, Barbauld, shall my glowing heart refuse
A tribute to thy virtues or thy muse;
This humble merit shall at least be mine,
The poet's chaplet for thy brows to twine;
My verse thy talents to the world shall teach,
And praise the graces it despairs to reach.

Then, after philosophically questioning the power of genius to confer
true happiness, she concludes:--

Can all the boasted powers of wit and song
Of life one pang remove, one hour prolong?
Fallacious hope which daily truths deride--
For you, alas! have wept and Garrick died.

Meanwhile, whatever genius might not be able to achieve, the five Miss
Mores had been living on peacefully together in the very comfortable
cottage which had been raised and thatched by the poetess's earnings.

'Barley Wood is equally the seat of taste and hospitality,' says Mrs.
Barbauld to a friend.

'Nothing could be more friendly than their reception,' she writes to her
brother, 'and nothing more charming than their situation. An extensive
view over the Mendip Hills is in front of their house, with a pretty
view of Wrington. Their home--cottage, because it is thatched--stands on
the declivity of a rising ground, which they have planted and made quite
a little paradise. The five sisters, all good old maids, have lived
together these fifty years. Hannah More is a good deal broken, but
possesses fully her powers of conversation, and her vivacity. We
exchanged riddles like the wise men of old; I was given to understand
she was writing something.'

There is another allusion to Mrs. Hannah More in a sensible letter from
Mrs. Barbauld, written to Miss Edgeworth about this time, declining to
join in an alarming enterprise suggested by the vivacious Mr. Edgeworth,
'a _Feminiad_, a literary paper to be entirely contributed to by ladies,
and where all articles are to be accepted.' 'There is no bond of union,'
Mrs. Barbauld says, 'among literary women any more than among literary
men; different sentiments and connections separate them much more than
the joint interest of their sex would unite them. Mrs. Hannah More would
not write along with you or me, and we should possibly hesitate at
joining Miss Hays or--if she were living--Mrs. Godwin.' Then she
suggests the names of Miss Baillie, Mrs. Opie, her own niece Miss Lucy
Aikin, and Mr. S. Rogers, who would not, she thinks, be averse to
joining the scheme.


How strangely unnatural it seems when Fate's heavy hand falls upon quiet
and common-place lives, changing the tranquil routine of every day into
the solemnities and excitements of terror and tragedy! It was after
their removal to Stoke Newington that the saddest of all blows fell
upon this true-hearted woman. Her husband's hypochondria deepened and
changed, and the attacks became so serious that her brother and his
family urged her anxiously to leave him to other care than her own. It
was no longer safe for poor Mr. Barbauld to remain alone with his wife,
and her life, says Mrs. Le Breton, was more than once in peril. But, at
first, she would not hear of leaving him; although on more than one
occasion she had to fly for protection to her brother close by.

There is something very touching in the patient fidelity with which Mrs.
Barbauld tried to soothe the later sad disastrous years of her husband's
life. She must have been a woman of singular nerve and courage to endure
as she did the excitement and cruel aberrations of her once gentle and
devoted companion. She only gave in after long resistance.

'An alienation from me has taken possession of his mind,' she says, in a
letter to Mrs. Kenrick; 'my presence seems to irritate him, and I must
resign myself to a separation from him who has been for thirty years the
partner of my heart, my faithful friend, my inseparable companion.' With
her habitual reticence, she dwells no more on that painful topic, but
goes on to make plans for them both, asks her old friend to come and
cheer her in her loneliness; and the faithful Betsy, now a widow with
grown-up step-children, ill herself, troubled by deafness and other
infirmities, responds with a warm heart, and promises to come, bringing
the comfort with her of old companionship and familiar sympathy. There
is something very affecting in the loyalty of the two aged women
stretching out their hands to each other across a whole lifetime. After
her visit Mrs. Barbauld writes again:--

'He is now at Norwich, and I hear very favourable accounts of his health
and spirits; he seems to enjoy himself very much amongst his old friends
there, and converses among them with his usual animation. There are no
symptoms of violence or of depression; so far is favourable; but this
cruel alienation from me, in which my brother is included, still remains
deep-rooted, and whether he will ever change in this point Heaven only
knows. The medical men fear he will not: if so, my dear friend, what
remains for me but to resign myself to the will of Heaven, and to think
with pleasure that every day brings me nearer a period which naturally
cannot be very far off, and at which this as well as every temporal
affliction must terminate?

'"Anything but this!" is the cry of weak mortals when afflicted; and
sometimes I own I am inclined to make it mine; but I will check myself.'

But while she was hoping still, a fresh outbreak of the malady occurred.
He, poor soul, weary of his existence, put an end to his sufferings: he
was found lifeless in the New River. Lucy Aikin quotes a Dirge found
among her aunt's papers after her death:--

Pure Spirit, O where art thou now?
O whisper to my soul,
O let some soothening thought of thee
This bitter grief control.

'Tis not for thee the tears I shed,
Thy sufferings now are o'er.
The sea is calm, the tempest past,
On that eternal shore.

No more the storms that wrecked thy peace
Shall tear that gentle breast,
Nor summer's rage, nor winter's cold
That poor, poor frame molest.

* * * * *

Farewell! With honour, peace, and love,
Be that dear memory blest,
Thou hast no tears for me to shed,
When I too am at rest.

But her time of rest was not yet come, and she lived for seventeen years
after her husband. She was very brave, she did not turn from the
sympathy of her friends, she endured her loneliness with courage, she
worked to distract her mind. Here is a touching letter addressed to Mrs.
Taylor, of Norwich, in which she says:--'A thousand thanks for your kind
letter, still more for the very short visit that preceded it. Though
short--too short--it has left indelible impressions on my mind. My
heart has truly had communion with yours; your sympathy has been balm to
it; and I feel that there is _now_ no one on earth to whom I could pour
out that heart more readily.... I am now sitting alone again, and feel
like a person who has been sitting by a cheerful fire, not sensible at
the time of the temperature of the air; but the fire removed, he finds
the season is still winter. Day after day passes, and I do not know what
to do with my time; my mind has no energy nor power of application.'

How much she felt her loneliness appears again and again from one
passage and another. Then she struggled against discouragement; she
took to her pen again. To Mrs. Kenrick she writes:--'I intend to pay my
letter debts; not much troubling my head whether I have anything to say
or not; yet to you my heart has always something to say: it always
recognises you as among the dearest of its friends; and while it feels
that new impressions are made with difficulty and early effaced,
retains, and ever will retain, I trust beyond this world, those of our
early and long-tried affection.'

She set to work again, trying to forget her heavy trials. It was during
the first years of her widowhood that she published her edition of the
British novelists in some fifty volumes. There is an opening chapter to
this edition upon novels and novel-writing, which is an admirable and
most interesting essay upon fiction, beginning from the very earliest

In 1811 she wrote her poem on the King's illness, and also the longer
poem which provoked such indignant comments at the time. It describes
Britain's rise and luxury, warns her of the dangers of her unbounded
ambition and unjustifiable wars:--

Arts, arms, and wealth destroy the fruits they bring;
Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.

Her ingenuous youth from Ontario's shore who visits the ruins of London
is one of the many claimants to the honour of having suggested Lord
Macaulay's celebrated New Zealander:--

Pensive and thoughtful shall the wanderers greet
Each splendid square and still untrodden street,
Or of some crumbling turret, mined by time,
The broken stairs with perilous step shall climb,
Thence stretch their view the wide horizon round,
By scattered hamlets trace its ancient bound,
And, choked no more with fleets, fair Thames survey
Through reeds and sedge pursue his idle way.

It is impossible not to admire the poem, though it is stilted and not to
the present taste. The description of Britain as it now is and as it
once was is very ingenious:--

Where once Bonduca whirled the scythčd car,
And the fierce matrons raised the shriek of war,
Light forms beneath transparent muslin float,
And tutor'd voices swell the artful note;
Light-leaved acacias, and the shady plane,
And spreading cedars grace the woodland reign.

The poem is forgotten now, though it was scouted at the time and
violently attacked, Southey himself falling upon the poor old lady, and
devouring her, spectacles and all. She felt these attacks very much, and
could not be consoled, though Miss Edgeworth wrote a warm-hearted letter
of indignant sympathy. But Mrs. Barbauld had something in her too genuine
to be crushed, even by sarcastic criticism. She published no more, but
it was after her poem of '1811' that she wrote the beautiful ode by
which she is best known and best remembered,--the ode that Wordsworth
used to repeat and say he envied, that Tennyson has called 'sweet
verses,' of which the lines ring their tender hopeful chime like sweet
church bells on a summer evening.

Madame d'Arblay, in her old age, told Crabb Robinson that every night
she said the verses over to herself as she went to her rest. To the
writer they are almost sacred. The hand that patiently pointed out to
her, one by one, the syllables of Mrs. Barbauld's hymns for children,
that tended our childhood, as it had tended our father's, marked these
verses one night, when it blessed us for the last time.

Life, we've been long together,
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather;
'Tis hard to part when friends are dear;
Perhaps 'twill cost a sigh or tear,
Then steal away, give little warning,
Choose thine own time.
Say not good-night, but in some brighter clime,
Bid me 'Good morning.'

Mrs. Barbauld was over seventy when she wrote this ode. A poem, called
'Octogenary Reflections,' is also very touching:--

Say ye, who through this round of eighty years
Have proved its joys and sorrows, hopes and fears;
Say what is life, ye veterans who have trod,
Step following steps, its flowery thorny road?
Enough of good to kindle strong desire;
Enough of ill to damp the rising fire;
Enough of love and fancy, joy and hope,
To fan desire and give the passions scope;
Enough of disappointment, sorrow, pain,
To seal the wise man's sentence--'All is vain.'

There is another fragment of hers in which she likens herself to a
schoolboy left of all the train, who hears no sound of wheels to bear
him to his father's bosom home. 'Thus I look to the hour when I shall
follow those that are at rest before me.' And then at last the time came
for which she longed. Her brother died, her faithful Mrs. Kenrick died,
and Mrs. Taylor, whom she loved most of all. She had consented to give
up her solitary home to spend the remaining years of her life in the
home of her adopted son Charles, now married, and a father; but it was
while she was on a little visit to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Aikin, that
the summons came, very swiftly and peacefully, as she sat in her chair
one day. Her nephew transcribed these, the last lines she ever wrote:--

'Who are you?'

'Do you not know me? have you not expected me?'

'Whither do you carry me?'

'Come with me and you shall know.'

'The way is dark.'

'It is well trodden.'

'Yes, in the forward track.'

'Come along.'

'Oh! shall I there see my beloved ones? Will they welcome me, and will
they know me? Oh, tell me, tell me; thou canst tell me.'

'Yes, but thou must come first.'

'Stop a little; keep thy hand off till thou hast told me.'

'I never wait.'

'Oh! shall I see the warm sun again in my cold grave?'

'Nothing is there that can feel the sun.'

'Oh, where then?'

'Come, I say.'

One may acknowledge the great progress which people have made since Mrs.
Barbauld's day in the practice of writing prose and poetry, in the art
of expressing upon paper the thoughts which are in most people's minds.
It is (to use a friend's simile) like playing upon the piano--everybody
now learns to play upon the piano, and it is certain that the modest
performances of the ladies of Mrs. Barbauld's time would scarcely meet
with the attention now, which they then received. But all the same, the
stock of true feeling, of real poetry, is not increased by the increased
volubility of our pens; and so when something comes to us that is real,
that is complete in pathos or in wisdom, we still acknowledge the gift,
and are grateful for it.



'Exceeding wise, fairspoken, and persuading.'--_Hen. VIII._



Few authoresses in these days can have enjoyed the ovations and
attentions which seem to have been considered the due of many of the
ladies distinguished at the end of the last century and the beginning of
this one. To read the accounts of the receptions and compliments which
fell to their lot may well fill later and lesser luminaries with envy.
Crowds opened to admit them, banquets spread themselves out before them,
lights were lighted up and flowers were scattered at their feet. Dukes,
editors, prime ministers, waited their convenience on their staircases;
whole theatres rose up _en masse_ to greet the gifted creatures of this
and that immortal tragedy. The authoresses themselves, to do them justice,
seem to have been very little dazzled by all this excitement. Hannah
More contentedly retires with her maiden sisters to the Parnassus on
the Mendip Hills, where they sew and chat and make tea, and teach the
village children. Dear Joanna Baillie, modest and beloved, lives on to
peaceful age in her pretty old house at Hampstead, looking through
tree-tops and sunshine and clouds towards distant London. 'Out there
where all the storms are,' I heard the children saying yesterday as
they watched the overhanging gloom of smoke which, veils the city of
metropolitan thunders and lightning. Maria Edgeworth's apparitions as
a literary lioness in the rush of London and of Paris society were but
interludes in her existence, and her real life was one of constant
exertion and industry spent far away in an Irish home among her own
kindred and occupations and interests. We may realise what these were
when we read that Mr. Edgeworth had no less than four wives, who all
left children, and that Maria was the eldest daughter of the whole
family. Besides this, we must also remember that the father whom she
idolised was himself a man of extraordinary powers, brilliant in
conversation (so I have been told), full of animation, of interest, of
plans for his country, his family, for education and literature, for
mechanics and scientific discoveries; that he was a gentleman widely
connected, hospitably inclined, with a large estate and many tenants to
overlook, with correspondence and acquaintances all over the world; and
besides all this, with various schemes in his brain, to be eventually
realised by others of which velocipedes, tramways, and telegraphs were
but a few of the items.

One could imagine that under these circumstances the hurry and
excitement of London life must have sometimes seemed tranquillity itself
compared with the many and absorbing interests of such a family. What
these interests were may be gathered from the pages of a very interesting
memoir from which the writer of this essay has been allowed to quote. It
is a book privately printed and written for the use of her children by
the widow of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and is a record, among other
things, of a faithful and most touching friendship between Maria and her
father's wife--'a friendship lasting for over fifty years, and unbroken
by a single cloud of difference or mistrust.' Mrs. Edgeworth, who was
Miss Beaufort before her marriage, and about the same age as Miss
Edgeworth, unconsciously reveals her own most charming and unselfish
nature as she tells her stepdaughter's story.

When the writer looks back upon her own childhood, it seems to her that
she lived in company with a delightful host of little playmates, bright,
busy, clever children, whose cheerful presence remains more vividly in
her mind than that of many of the real little boys and girls who used to
appear and disappear disconnectedly as children do in childhood, when
friendship and companionship depend almost entirely upon the convenience
of grown-up people. Now and again came little cousins or friends to
share our games, but day by day, constant and unchanging, ever to be
relied upon, smiled our most lovable and friendly companions--simple
Susan, lame Jervas, Talbot, the dear Little Merchants, Jem the widow's
son with his arms round old Lightfoot's neck, the generous Ben, with his
whipcord and his useful proverb of 'waste not, want not'--all of these
were there in the window corner waiting our pleasure. After Parents'
Assistant, to which familiar words we attached no meaning whatever, came
Popular Tales in big brown volumes off a shelf in the lumber-room of an
apartment in an old house in Paris, and as we opened the books, lo!
creation widened to our view. England, Ireland, America, Turkey,
the mines of Golconda, the streets of Bagdad, thieves, travellers,
governesses, natural philosophy, and fashionable life, were all laid
under contribution, and brought interest and adventure to our humdrum
nursery corner. All Mr. Edgeworth's varied teaching and experience, all
his daughter's genius of observation, came to interest and delight our
play-time, and that of a thousand other little children in different
parts of the world. People justly praise Miss Edgeworth's admirable
stories and novels, but from prejudice and early association these
beloved childish histories seem unequalled still, and it is chiefly as
a writer for children that we venture to consider her here. Some of the
stories are indeed little idylls in their way. Walter Scott, who best
knew how to write for the young so as to charm grandfathers as well as
Hugh Littlejohn, Esq., and all the grandchildren, is said to have wiped
his kind eyes as he put down 'Simple Susan.' A child's book, says a
reviewer of those days defining in the 'Quarterly Review,' should be
'not merely less dry, less difficult, than a book for grown-up people;
but more rich in interest, more true to nature, more exquisite in art,
more abundant in every quality that replies to childhood's keener
and fresher perception.' Children like facts, they like short vivid
sentences that tell the story: as they listen intently, so they read;
every word has its value for them. It has been a real surprise to the
writer to find, on re-reading some of these descriptions of scenery and
adventure which she had not looked at since her childhood, that the
details which she had imagined spread over much space are contained in a
few sentences at the beginning of a page. These sentences, however, show
the true art of the writer.

It would be difficult to imagine anything better suited to the mind
of a very young person than these pleasant stories, so complete in
themselves, so interesting, so varied. The description of Jervas's
escape from the mine where the miners had plotted his destruction,
almost rises to poetry in its simple diction. Lame Jervas has warned his
master of the miners' plot, and showed him the vein of ore which they
have concealed. The miners have sworn vengeance against him, and his
life is in danger. His master helps him to get away, and comes into the
room before daybreak, bidding him rise and put on the clothes which he
has brought. 'I followed him out of the house before anybody else was
awake, and he took me across the fields towards the high road. At this
place we waited till we heard the tinkling of the bells of a team of
horses. "Here comes the waggon," said he, "in which you are to go. So
fare you well, Jervas. I shall hear how you go on; and I only hope you
will serve your next master, whoever he may be, as faithfully as you
have served me." "I shall never find so good a master," was all I could
say for the soul of me; I was quite overcome by his goodness and sorrow
at parting with him, as I then thought, for ever.' The description of
the journey is very pretty. 'The morning clouds began to clear away; I
could see my master at some distance, and I kept looking after him as
the waggon went on slowly, and he walked fast away over the fields.'
Then the sun begins to rise. The waggoner goes on whistling, but lame
Jervas, to whom the rising sun was a spectacle wholly surprising,
starts up, exclaiming in wonder and admiration. The waggoner bursts into
a loud laugh. 'Lud a marcy,' says he, 'to hear un' and look at un' a
body would think the oaf had never seen the sun rise afore;' upon which
Jervas remembers that he is still in Cornwall, and must not betray
himself, and prudently hides behind some parcels, only just in time, for
they meet a party of miners, and he hears his enemies' voice hailing the
waggoner. All the rest of the day he sits within, and amuses himself by
listening to the bells of the team, which jingle continually. 'On our
second day's journey, however, I ventured out of my hiding-place. I
walked with the waggoner up and down the hills, enjoying the fresh air,
the singing of the birds, and the delightful smell of the honeysuckles
and the dog-roses in the hedges. All the wild flowers and even the weeds
on the banks by the wayside were to me matters of wonder and admiration.
At almost every step I paused to observe something that was new to me,
and I could not help feeling surprised at the insensibility of my
fellow-traveller, who plodded along, and seldom interrupted his
whistling except to cry 'Gee, Blackbird, aw woa,' or 'How now, Smiler?'
Then Jervas is lost in admiration before a plant 'whose stem was about
two feet high, and which had a round shining purple beautiful flower,'
and the waggoner with a look of scorn exclaims, 'Help thee, lad, dost
not thou know 'tis a common thistle?' After this he looks upon Jervas as
very nearly an idiot. 'In truth I believe I was a droll figure, for my
hat was stuck full of weeds and of all sorts of wild flowers, and both
my coat and waistcoat pockets were stuffed out with pebbles and
funguses.' Then comes Plymouth Harbour: Jervas ventures to ask some
questions about the vessels, to which the waggoner answers 'They be
nothing in life but the boats and ships, man;' so he turned away and
went on chewing a straw, and seemed not a whit more moved to admiration
than he had been at the sight of the thistle. 'I conceived a high
admiration of a man who had seen so much that he could admire nothing,'
says Jervas, with a touch of real humour.

Another most charming little idyll is that of Simple Susan, who was a
real maiden living in the neighbourhood of Edgeworthstown. The story
seems to have been mislaid for a time in the stirring events of the
first Irish rebellion, and overlooked, like some little daisy by a
battlefield. Few among us will not have shared Mr. Edgeworth's partiality
for the charming little tale. The children fling their garlands and tie
up their violets. Susan bakes her cottage loaves and gathers marigolds
for broth, and tends her mother to the distant tune of Philip's pipe
coming across the fields. As we read the story again it seems as if
we could almost scent the fragrance of the primroses and the double
violets, and hear the music sounding above the children's voices, and
the bleatings of the lamb, so simply and delightfully is the whole story
constructed. Among all Miss Edgeworth's characters few are more familiar
to the world than that of Susan's pretty pet lamb.


No sketch of Maria Edgeworth's life, however slight, would be complete
without a few words about certain persons coming a generation before her
(and belonging still to the age of periwigs), who were her father's
associates and her own earliest friends. Notwithstanding all that has
been said of Mr. Edgeworth's bewildering versatility of nature, he seems
to have been singularly faithful in his friendships. He might take up
new ties, but he clung pertinaciously to those which had once existed.
His daughter inherited that same steadiness of affection. In his life of
Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, Mr. Charles Darwin, writing of these
very people, has said, 'There is, perhaps, no safer test of a man's real
character than that of his long-continued friendship with good and
able men.' He then goes on to quote an instance of a long-continued
affection and intimacy only broken by death between a certain set of
distinguished friends, giving the names of Keir, Day, Small, Boulton,
Watt, Wedgwood, and Darwin, and adding to them the names of Edgeworth
himself and of the Galtons.

Mr. Edgeworth first came to Lichfield to make Dr. Darwin's acquaintance.
His second visit was to his friend Mr. Day, the author of 'Sandford and
Merton,' who had taken a house in the valley of Stow, and who invited
him one Christmas on a visit. 'About the year 1765,' says Miss Seward,
'came to Lichfield, from the neighbourhood of Reading, the young and gay
philosopher, Mr. Edgeworth; a man of fortune, and recently married to a
Miss Elers, of Oxfordshire. The fame of Dr. Darwin's various talents
allured Mr. E. to the city they graced.' And the lady goes on to describe
Mr. Edgeworth himself:--'Scarcely two-and-twenty, with an exterior yet
more juvenile, having mathematic science, mechanic ingenuity, and a
competent portion of classical learning, with the possession of the
modern languages.... He danced, he fenced, he winged his arrows with
more than philosophic skill,' continues the lady, herself a person of no
little celebrity in her time and place. Mr. Edgeworth, in his Memoirs,
pays a respectful tribute to Miss Seward's charms, to her agreeable
conversation, her beauty, her flowing tresses, her sprightliness and
address. Such moderate expressions fail, however, to do justice to this
lady's powers, to her enthusiasm, her poetry, her partisanship.

Pages: | Prev | | 1 | | 2 | | 3 | | 4 | | 5 | | 6 | | 7 | | 8 | | Next |

Library mainpage -> Ritchie, Anne Thackeray -> A Book of Sibyls Miss Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs Opie, Miss Austen