Imágenes de páginas




Besides the rich collection of State Papers and Historical Dispatches which have been discovered in the different public offices, and the still more curious bundles of family epistles (such as the Paxton correspondence) which are every now and then disinterred from the forgotten repositories of old mansions, there is no branch of literature in which England is more eminent than the letters of celebrated men.

From the moment in which Mason, by a happy inspiration, made Gray tell his own story, and by dint of his charming letters contrived to produce, from the uneventful life of a retired scholar, one of the most attractive books ever printed, almost every biographer of note has followed his example. The lives of Cowper, of Byron, of Scott, of Southey, of Charles Lamb, of Dr. Arnold, works full of interest and of vitality, owe their principal charm to this source. Nay, such is the reality and identity belonging to letters written at the moment, and intended only for the eye of a favorite friend, that it is probable that any genuine series of epistles, were the writer ever so little distinguished, would, provided they were truthful and spontaneous, possess the invaluable quality of individuality which so often causes us to linger before an old portrait of which we know no more than that it is a Burgomaster by Rembrandt, or a Venetian Senator by Titian. The least skillful pen, when flowing from the fullness of the heart, and untroubled by any misgivings of after publication, shall often paint with as faithful and life-like a touch as either of those great masters.

Of letter-writers by profession we have indeed few, although Horace Walpole, bright, fresh, quaint, and glittering as one of hip own most precious figures of Dresden china, is a host in himself. But every here and there, scattered in various and unlikely volumes, we meet with detached letters of eminent persons which lead us to wish for more. I remember two or three of David Hume's which form a case in point: one to Adam Smith, who haC asked of him the success of his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," in which he dallies with a charming playfulness with an author's anxiety, withholding, delaying, interrupting himself twenty times, and at last pouring out without stint or measure the favorable reception of the work; and another to Dr. Robertsou who appears to have requested his opinion of his style, bantering him on certain Scottish provincialisms and small pedantritfl—"a historian, indeed! Have you an ear?"—mixed with praise so graceful and kindness so genuine; that the most susceptible of vanities could not have taken offense.

Every now and then, too, we fall upon a long correspondence which the writer's name has caused to be published, but which, from a thousand causes, is certain to fall into oblivion, although containing much that is curious. Such is "The Life and Letters of Samuel Richardson."

I suspect that the works from whence that great name is derived are in this generation little more than a tradition; and that the "Clarissa" and the "Sir Charles Grandison," which, together with the "Spectators," formed the staple of our greatgr^admothers' libraries, find almost as few readers among their descendants as the "Grand Cyrus" or "The Princess of Cleves."

As far as "Clarissa" is concerned, great tragedy as the book unquestionably is, I do not wonder at this. Considering the story and plan of the work, the marvel is rather that mothers should have placed it in their daughters' hands as a sort of manual of virtue, and that at Ranelagh, ladies of the highest character should have held up the new volumes as they came out, to show to their friends that they possessed the book of which all the world were talking, than that it should now be banished from the boudoir and the drawing-room. But as my friend, Sir Charles Grandison, has no other sin to answer for than that of being very long, very tedious, very old-fashioned, and a prig, I can not help confessing that, in spite of these faults, and perhaps because of th^-m, I think there are worse books printed now-a-days, and hailed with delight among critics feminine, than the seven volumes that gave such infinite delight to the beauties of the court of George the Second.

As pictures of manners I suspect them to be worthless. R'chardson was a citizen in an age in which the distinctions of caste were far more strictly observed than now-a-days; and the printer of Salisbury Court, even when retired to his villa at North tad. had seen but little of the brilliant circles which he attempted to describe, and was altogether deficient in the airy grace and br» jht and glowing fancy which might have supplied the place of experience. Compared with the comic dramatists, Congreve and Farquhar, who have left us such vivid pictures of the MiraDels and Millamants, the Archers, and Mrs. Sullens of that day, Richardson's portraits are, like himself, stiff, prim, hard, unga* >ly, awkward. In manners he utterly fails; but in character, in sentiment, and above all in the power of bringing his person tges into actual every-day life, he leaves every writer of his time far behind him. Somebody has said of him very happily—so happily that I suppose it must have been Hazlitt,—" that the effect of reading his books is to acquire a vast accession of near relations." And it is true. Grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, au..ts, and cousins multiply upon us; we not only become acquainted with the people but with their habitations; Selby House -uid Shirley Manor are as familiar to us as our own dwellings; and we could find our way to the cedar-parlor blindfold.

It was a cause or a consequence of Richardson's popularity that he lived among a perfect flower-garden of young ladies, feeding upon their praises, always a dangerous diet for authors, and talking and writing of little else than his different works. His own family consisted of three daughters, of whom (although his domestic character stands very high) we hear little, whilb of Miss Highmore, Miss Mulso, Miss Westcomb, the Miss Fieldings, and the Miss Colliers, and their several lovers, we hear a g. eat deal. There is even a colored engraving, curiously inartistic, representing Richardson a smug and comely little old man siting in the summer-house which he called his grotto, reading his manuscript to a party of three fair damsels and their future husbands.

The lady who seems to have interested him most, whose letters with his rejoinders do actually fill a volume and a half of the six of which the collection consists, and might easily, the editor says, have been extended to six more, is a certain Lady Bradshaigh, the wife of Sir Roger Bradshaigh of the Haigh, Lancashire, who wrote to him first under the feigned name of Balfour, and continued to address him under that appellation for a considerable time.

The occasion of her first letter was the suspense in which the admirers of " Clarissa" were left as to her fate by the publication of the work in separate portions and at lengthened intervals. The story of the book may be told in very few words. It consists of the betrayal of the heroine by her lover, a libertine, drawn with admirable spirit and skill, and endowed with so many fine qualities of person and intellect, that many of the author's friends implored as if they had been real persons, for the reformation of Lovelace and the happiness of his fair mistress.

Upon this hint spoke Lady Bradshaigh; and her earnestness and pertinacity is really a thing to wonder at. She sank upon her knees, she begged, she reasoned, she threatened, she stormed. There was not a weapon in the female armory that she did not force into her service, and her ardor and fervency give so much eloquence to her pleadings that she has considerably the best of the dispute; chiefly because Richardson had not honesty enough to tell her the real cause of his resolution to bring the story to a tragic end, which was of course its artistic effect; but intrenched himself in all sorts of pitiful evasions and false moralities, instead of saying frankly that a happy conclusion would have spoilt the book. The author was obdurate and the lady disappointed; nevertheless the correspondence continued, and one of the most amusing and characteristic episodes in these six volumes is the story of a journey which Lady Bradshaigh took to London, and of her introduction to her unknown correspondent.

The great novelist was at this time in his sixtieth year, and the fair lady, a buxom country dame, might be some ten or fifteen years his junior (N.B. I have remarked it as a singular circumstance that we never can ascertain a lady's age, even if, as in this case, she have been dead these hundred years, with the same absolute accuracy with which we can verify a gentleman's baptismal registry) : and whether from shyness or from pure coquetry she (still as Mrs. Balfour) makes an appointment to meet him in the Park, requesting from him a description by which he may be recognized. He sends her the following:

"Short, rather plump, about five feet five inches, fair wig, one hand generally in his bosom, the other a cane in it, which he leans upon under the skirts of his coat, that it may imperceptibly serve him as a support when attacked by sudden tremors or dizziness, of a light brown complexion, teeth not yet failing him." What follows is very characteristic:

"Looking directly foreright as passengers would imagine, but observing all that stirs on either hand of him, without moving his short neck; a regular even pace stealing away ground rather than seeming to rid it; a gray eye too often overclouded by mistiness from the head; by chance lively, very lively if he sees any he loves; if he approaches a lady his eye is never fixed first on her face, but on her feet, and rears it up by degrees, seeming to set her down as so-and-so."

She actually did know him by this portrait; but had the cruelty to keep him parading up and down while she surveyed him at her leisure, and went away without declaring herself. This is her own account of the matter:

"Well, Sir, my curiosity is satisfied as to thedistant view. I passed you four times last Saturday in the Park; knew you by your own description at least three hundred yards off, walking between the trees and the Mall; and had an opportunity of surveying you unobserved, your eyes being engaged among the multitude looking as I knew for a certain will-o'-the-wisp, who I have a notion escaped being known to you, though not your notice, for you looked at me every time I passed! but I put on so unconcerned a countenance that I am almost sure I deceived you. * * * 0 that this first meeting was over!

"Shall I tell you, Sir, what it puts me in mind of? When I was very young I had a mind to bathe in a cold bath. When I came to the edge, I tried it first with one hand then with the other. In the same manner my feet; drew them back again; ventured to my ankles, then drew back. But having a strong inclination to go farther (being very sure I should like it were the first shock over), I at last took a resolution and plunged at once over head and ears; and as I imagined was delighted; so that I only repented I had not before found courage to execute what gave me so much pleasure."

Still however the lady coquets and the gentleman becomes a

« AnteriorContinuar »