Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home/Place VI

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My dear C.,

Thursday, 13th. The luxury of an English inn, after a day exhausting as our last on the Isle of Wight, has never been exaggerated and cannot be overpraised. We have not been ten days in England, without having certain painful comparisons between our own inns and those of this country, forced upon us. But I intend, after I have had more experience, to give you my observations on this subject in one plentiful shower, instead of annoying you with sprinkling them over all my letters.

Our intention was to have proceeded directly to London. Instead of this we have loitered here two days, and why, I will tell you.

Caption Hall's good taste was shocked at oar leaving Southampton without seeing Netley Abbey; and surely to leave this out, in seeing England, would be much like the omission of the Midsummer's Night's Dream in reading Shakspeare. So yesterday morning, with a sky as clear, and almost as deep as our own summer-sky, we set off, accompanied by the Halls, for these beautiful ruins. They are much more entire than those of Carisbrooke. The walls are standing, and how long they have been so is touchingly impressed upon you by the tall trees that have grown up in the unroofed apartments. Shrubs four or five feet high fringe the tops of the walls, and flowers are rooted in the crevices. It seemed as if Nature, with a feeling of kindred for a beautiful work of art, would fain hide the wounds she could not heal—wounds of violence as well as time.

I shall spare you any description, for I should waste your time and mine. No description can convey as definite an idea as any of the hundred engravings you have seen of Netley Abbey; and I am sorry to say to you, that even a Daguerreotype picture would give you no adequate impression of its beauty. There is nothing for you but to come and see these places; their soul, their history, their associations are untransfuseable. I have no extraordinary sensibility to such things, and I saw —— smiling at my tears; and glad I should have been to have passed a day alone there, to have trodden the ground with undisturbed recollections is of those who reared the beautiful temple, who were, in their time, the teachers of religion, the preservers of learning, the fountains of charity. It would not be easy to indulge this fancy, for, besides the guides that infested us, and a succession of hunters after the picturesque, R. detected some fellows stealing jackdaws' nests; and Captain H. not only threatened them with the strong arm of the law, but, to secure these holy precincts from such marauders, be was at the pains to lodge information against them with the proper authority.

On our return from Netley we ascertained that the —— family are at their place, a short drive from Southampton. You know how much reason we have to wish to avail ourselves of our letters to them, or, rather, you do not know how much, nor did we till we had seen them. So we sent off oar letters, and went to Winchester with the Halls by the railroad. It was but the second day since this section of the road was opened, and it was lined with staring people, hurraing and clapping hands. The chief object of the excursion to us was the Cathedral, which is the larger in England. A part of it is of the Saxon order, and dates from the seventh century. What think you of our New-World eyes seeing the sarcophagi containing the bones of the old Saxon kings? the Ethelreds and Ethelwolfs, and of Canute the Dane; the tombs of William Rufus, and of William of Wickham; the chair in which bloody Mary sat at her nuptial ceremony, besides unnumbered monuments and chapels built by kings and bishops, to say nothing of some of the best art of our own time; sculpture by Flaxman and Chantrey. Their details were lost upon us in the effect of the great whole; the long-drawn aisles, the windows with their exquisite colouring, the lofty vault, the carved stones, the pillars and arches—those beautiful Gothic arches. We had some compensation for the unconsciousness of a lifetime, of the power of architecture, in our overwhelming emotions. They cannot be repeated. We cannot see a cathedral twice for the first time, that is very clear!

I was not prepared for the sensations to be excited by visiting these old places of the Old World. There is nothing in our land to aid the imperfect lights of history. Here it seems suddenly verified. Its long-buried dead, or, rather, its dim spectres, appear with all the freshness of actual fife. A miracle is wrought on poetry and painting. While they represented what we had never seen, they were but shadows to us; a kind of magic mirrors, showing false images; now they seem a Divine form, for the perpetual preservation of the beautiful creations of Nature and art

It happened that while We were in Winchester Cathedral service was performed there. I cannot tell how I might have been affected if it had been a more hearty service. There were the officials, the clergyman and clerk, a choir of boys, and, for the audience, half a dozen men, three or four women, octogenarians, or verging on the extreme of human life, and ourselves. I confess that the temple, and not He who sanctifies it, filled my mind. My eyes were wandering over the arches, the earrings, the Saxon caskets, &c, &c.[1]

When we arrived at the depôt at Southampton we found Mrs. ——, with her daughter, awaiting us with a welcome that made us forget we were strangers to them and strangers in a strange land—blessed forgetfulness! They transferred K. and myself to their carnage, and we drove home with them to B—— Lodge; and, as the days here are eked out with a generous twilight till nearly ten o'clock, we had time to see their beautiful place, and today the pleasure has been repeated.

I cannot follow the rule I would fain have adopted, and compare what I see here to what is familiar to you at home. There is, for instance, in this place of Mrs. ——, a neatness, completeness, and perfection, of which we have but the beginning and faint shadowing. Our grounds are like our society, where you meet every degree of civilization. Here, every tree, shrub, and little flower is in its right place, and nothing present that should not be here. On one side of the house the garden is laid out in the fantastical French style, in the form of hearts and whimsical figures, but elsewhere it is completely English, with noble trees, that grow as Nature bids them; hothouses, with grapes and pines; and a lawn that for hundreds of years, probably, has had its grass cropped every week through the growing months.

The house is, I fancy, rather a favourable specimen of the residences of the English gentry, spacious, and arranged with comfort and elegance; but not surpassing, in these respects, the first class of gentlemen's country-houses in America. But there are luxuries here that we have not, and shall not have for many a day. The walls are painted by the master of the house with views on the Rhine, from sketches of his own, and very beautiful they are. This is, to be sure, attainable to us; for a taste, and a certain facility in painting, is common enough among us; but when shall we see on our wals an unquestionable Titian, or a Carlo Dolce, or. when, in a gentleman's country-house, an apartment filled with casts from the best antiques? Certainly not till our people cease to demand drapery for the chanting cherubs, and such like innocents!

Mrs. —— was a friend of Mrs. Siddons. She has a full-length picture of her by Lawrence, which represents a perfect woman in the maturity of her powers and charms, somewhat idealized, perhaps, as if the painter were infected by Mrs. ——'s enthusiasm, and to the fondness of a friend added the devotion of a worshipper. It is Mrs. Siddons; not a muse, queen, or goddess, though fit to be any or all of them. She is dressed in a very un-goddesslike short waist. Strange, that a woman who had her classic eye, and her passion for moulding forms after antique models, should submit to the tyranny of a French milliner's levelling fashion! Her beautiful arms are classically manifest—bare as Juno's. Lawrence employed thirty hours on each of them!

We all lunched with Mrs. ——. An English lunch is our country dinner, served at our country hour, and of much the same material. Different in the respect, that whatever is to be eaten is placed on the table at the same time, and very different, inasmuch as you are served by three or four men in livery, instead of a girl in a dress unquestionably of her own choosing. Mrs. ——'s vegetable-dishes are a precious relic of Mrs. Siddons. They are silver, and bear her initials and an inscription from the lawyers of Edinburgh, by whom they were presented to her.

After lunch, Miss —— took us in her carriage, stowing the girls in the rumble, through Lord Ashdown's and Mr. Fleming's parks. We drove a mile through the latter, with thick borderings and plantations of shrubbery on each side of us, so matted, and with such a profusion of rhododendron as to remind me of passages in the wilds of western Virginia. This, you know, is a plant not native to this country, but brought with much pains and expense from ours. We have not English wealth to lavish on parks and gardens, but with taste and industry we might bring to our homes, and gratefully cherish, the beautiful plants that God has sown at broadcast in our forests. I declare to you, when I remember how seldom I have seen our azalias, calmias, &c., in cultivated grounds, while I meet them here in such abundance, it seems like finding a neglected child housed and gently entertained by strangers. Some of us returned to dine and pass the evening with Mrs. —— and her daughter; and we left B—— Lodge warmed to the heart's core with this realization of our old poetic ideas of English hospitality.[2]

Friday, June 13.—We left Southampton this morning, feeling much, when we parted from Captain Hall and his family, as if we were launching alone on the wide world. He told us at the last, if we got into any difficulty, if we were at Johnny Groat's, to send for him. As far as the most thoughtful kindness and foresight can provide against difficulties, he has done so for us. Both he and Mrs. Hall have given us letters of introduction (unasked), and a score, at least, to their friends in London and Scotland, people of rank and distinction. To these they have added addresses to trade people of all descriptions, and all manner of instructions as to our goings on; a kind of mapping and charting inestimable to raw travellers like us. He has even had lodging provided for us in London by his man of business, so that we shall find a home in that great, and, to us, unknown sea.

You will smile at all our letters running upon this theme of Captain H., and you may perchance fancy that our preconceived opinion of this gentleman is rather bribed by personal kindness than rectified. But remember that we had no claim upon his kindness. It is not our personal benefits (though Heaven knows we are most grateful for them) that I am anxious to impress upon you, but to give you the, advantage of our point of sight of a character that some of our people have misunderstood, and some misrepresented. I have no such crusading notions, as that I could set a whole nation's opinion right, but I should hope to affect yours, and perhaps half a dozen others. Captain H. has a mind wide awake, ever curious and active. These qualities have been of infinite service to him as a traveller, and to his charmed readers as well; but it is easy to see how, among strangers, they might betray him into some little extravagances. Then he is a seaman and a Briton, and liable on both scores to unphilosophic judgments. With the faults that proceed from an excess of activity, we, of all people, should be most patient; and certainly we might have forgiven some mistaken opinions in conformity to preconceived patterns, instead of imputing them to political prostitution. We might, indeed, had we been wise, have found many of his criticisms just and salutary, and thanked him for them, and have delighted in his frankness, his sagacity, and his vein of very pleasant humour; but, alas! our Saxon blood is always uppermost, and we go on cherishing our infallibility, and, like a snappish cook, had much rather spoil our own pie than have a foreign finger in it. It is an old trick of the English bull-dog to bark at his neighbour's door, but let him do so if he will caress you at bis own.

I feel, my dear C., a disposition to self-glorification from one circumstance of our journey from Southampton. My girls and I took our seats on the top of the coach, paying for two inside seats in case of rain, of which, I take it in England, there are always nine chances out of ten. You may well ask why I boast of this, when we gained the obvious advantage of using our eyes in this rich and new scene; and when they are nearly as useless inside the coach as were Jonah's to him in his "extra exclusive." You know I am a coward on instinct, and to a novice a seat on the top of an English coach is startling; and it is somewhat perilous, the coach being topheavy with the number of passengers and mass of baggage, and we were not yet accustomed to the security of these smooth roads. And, besides, you cannot expect us to he exempt from the general weakness of wishing to impress the grooms, porter, coachmen, innkeepers, &c., with our potentiality! Many Americans give up the delight of travelling in England on account of its expensiveness, or come borne with loud outcries against it, when, if they would forego the distinction of posting, and condescend to the humility of an outside seat (infinitely the pleasantest), they might travel here quite as cheaply as they can by coach at home.[3]

Did the sacrifices that a traveller makes to appearances never strike you as one of the ludicrous fatuities of human conduct, when you consider that his observers do not know whether he be "Giles Jolt" or any other member of the human family?

We had good reason to be satisfied with our position. The coachman had driven twenty years on this same road, and was familiar with every inch of ground; he exchanged salutations with the people by the way, had many professional jokes, and pointed out to us the wayside lions, a seat of Lord Wellington, a hunting-box of George IV., &c. We came through Winchester and Basingstoke, passed many a field covered with the crimson blush of the cinquefoil, and bounded by hedges thick set with flowering shrubs. I trust your grandchildren may see such in our Berkshire. I had written to Miss Mitford my intention of passing the evening with her, and as we approached her residence, which is in a small village near Reading, I began to feel a little tremulous about meeting my "unknown friend." Captain Hall had made us all merry with anticipating the usual denouement of a mere epistolary acquaintance.

Our coachman (who, after our telling him we were Americans, had complimented us on our speaking English, and "very good English too"[4]) professed an acquaintance of some twenty years' standing with Miss M., and assured us that she was one of the "cleverest woman in England," and "the doctor" (her father) an '"earty old boy." And when he reined his horses up to her door, and she appeared to receive us, he said, " Now you would not take that little body there for the great author, would you?" and certainly we should have taken her for nothing but a kindly gentlewoman, who had never gone beyond the narrow sphere of the most refined social life. My foolish misgivings (H. must answer for them) were forgotten in her cordial welcome. K. and I descended from our airy seat; and when Miss M. became aware who M. was, she said, "What! the sister of —— pass my door? that must never be;" so M., nothing loath, joined us. Miss M. is truly "a little body," and dressed a little quaintly, and as unlike as possible to the faces we have seen of her in the magazines, which all have a broad humour bordering on coarseness. She has a pale gray, soul-lit eye, and hair as white as snow: a wintry sign that has come prematurely upon her, as like signs come upon us, while the year is yet free and undecayed. Her voice has a sweet, low tone, and her manner a naturalness, frankness, and affectionateness that we have been so long familiar with in their other modes of manifestation, that it would have been indeed a disappointment not to have found them.

She led us directly through her house into her garden, a perfect bouquet of flowers. "I must show you my geraniums while it is light," she said, "for I love them next to my father," And they were indeed treated like petted children, guarded by a very ingenious contrivance from the rough visitation of the elements. They are all, I believe, seedlings. She raises two crops in a year, and may well pride herself on the variety and beauty of her collection. Geraniums are her favourites; but she does not love others less that she loves these more. The garden is filled, matted with flowering shrubs and vines; the trees are wreathed with honeysuckles and roses; and the girls have brought away the most splendid specimens of heart's-ease to press in their journals. Oh, that I could give some of my countrywomen a vision of this little paradise of flowers, that they might learn how taste and industry, and an earnest love and study of the art of garden-culture, might triumph over small space and small

Miss Mitford's house is, with the exception of certainly not more than two or three, as small and humble as the smallest and humblest in our village of S——; and such is the difference, in some respects, in the modes of expense in this country from ours; she beeps two men-servants (one a gardener), two or three maid-serants, and two horses. In this very humble home, which she illustrates as much by her unsparing filial devotion as by her genius, she receives on equal terms the best in the land. Her literary reputation might have gained for her this elevation, but she started on vantage ground, being allied by blood to the Duke of Bedford's family. We passed a delightful evening, parting with the hope of meeting again, and with a most comfortable feeling that the ideal was converted into the real. So much for our misgvings. Faith is a safer principle than some people hold it to be.[5]

We finished our journey by the great western railway. It is little short of desecration to cut up this garden country, where all rough ways were already made smooth, all crooked ones straight, with railroads. They seem to have been devised for our uncultivated lands and gigantic distances.

  1. The prudence of not attempting a description of Winchester Cathedral, or an enumeration of its treasures, will be appreciated by those who know that a volume of 200 pages is devoted to this subject alone.
  2. I have abstained from transferring my journal whatever was personal to my kind entertainers, certainly the paramount charm of their place. We owed the warmth of our reception to letters from their and our friend, Mrs. Butler. To her, too, we owed our admiration to some of the best society in London, where her genius and character are held in the high estimation they deserve.
  3. I should have said, as they could have done at home. The rates of travelling expenses are diminishing at such a rate, that you cannot predicate of this year what was true of the last. What is fixed in United States? A guide-book, written one season, would be in good part useless to the text.
  4. We had a compliment of the same stamp the next day from a Londoner who was in the car with us. He assured us, with praiseworthy condescension, that we spoke English "uncommon correct."
  5. I have not dared to draw aside the curtains of domestic life, and give the particulars of Miss M.'s touching devotion to her father. "He is all to me, and I am all to him," she said. God help them in this parting world!