Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L./1835-1837
1835 to 1837.
It was with the name of a being who was thus bent on seizing every occasion of cheerfulness, and every means of generosity, that slander was still occasionally busy in secret. Into the particular circumstances that led to an inquiry, at this period, and after the lapse of years, relative to the origin and diffusion of the scandal of which she had been the object, it is hardly necessary to enter at any length. Enough if it be here stated, that between herself and a gentleman with whom it had been for some time a pleasure to her to correspond and to converse, a literary intimacy and interchange of intellectual sentiment had ripened (as it was conjectured among their friends) into a closer and tenderer sympathy. Rumour connected their names as names that were never again to be sundered; and a confirmation of the report that "L. E. L." would soon cease to be the designation of the literary favourite of the public, was anticipated by many. Perhaps it was this rumour of her intended marriage that revived in some quarters the recollection of the old slander, and reanimated prejudice against her. It is, at all events certain, that a resolution was, at this time, formed by two or three of her friends, to force the false speakers to speak out—to trace the report, if possible, to its foul beginning—and compel an acknowledgment of its infamy from those who had idly or maliciously contributed to give circulation to it. The correspondence ended, in the satisfaction of all who were parties to it (men of opposite tempers and characters), that the falsehood was as vile as its fabrication was obscure. That even then, after years had elapsed, there was some show of reason for instituting an inquiry respecting the authorship, will, perhaps, be admitted, when the following letter, addressed by L. E. L., some time after the result of this inquiry, to Mrs. Thomson, has furnished incontestable, and surely most affecting evidence, that the sufferer was still suffering, and that her character was still exposed to the active assaults of error or of malice. Moreover, it was at her own demand that the correspondence was entered upon; although the shock occasioned by the bare thought of being made an object of inquiry consigned her to a bed of sickness. The subjoined, it will be seen, enters more fully than the last letter on the same painful subject, into the details of her life;—it is without date, but it was written in June, 1837.
"Mr dear Mrs. Thomson,
"You will, perhaps, wonder why I write when I am to see you so soon. I do it, because words are forgotten, and a letter remains; and what I am about to say, is for reference as long as any interest about me remains with my friends;—an interest, I may be permitted to say, fully merited on my part.
"Dr. Thomson tells me of your kindly resenting the invidious remarks of which I was made the object.
"I will not thank you for what was only justice, but I do thank you for the spirit in which it was done. For such calumnies my own feeling is, the most utter disdain and disgust. My only answer is an appeal to every one who knows anything about me. Pardon me if there appear anything like self-ostentation, when I say I believe there are very few left to themselves, pressed by many difficulties on the one hand, and surrounded by every sort of flattery on the other, that would have acted, as I can fearlessly say I have done. What has my life been? one, quiet, very laborious, and inoffensive. I never have had a friend but what I made for myself, and I am not aware that I ever lost one through anything they ever saw reprehensible in my conduct. Who are my most intimate friends? those who have been such for years, and who have had the most constant opportunities of knowing me. I ask no one to take anything for granted. or only on my own assertion. I have lived all my life since childhood with the same people. The Misses Lance were strict, scrupulous, and particular; moreover, from having kept a school so long, with habits of even minute observation. The affection they feel for me could scarcely be undeserved. I would desire nothing more than to refer to their opinion. Since then I have resided with Mrs. Sheldon, a lady prejudiced against me in the first instance; but what is her feeling now that I have lived with her for two years? That of affection almost as if I were a child of her own. What is also my actual position at this moment? Every day my acquaintance is courted; scarce a post but brings me a letter of admiration and kindness. My very correspondence during the late election* is, perhaps, the most gratifying collection of cordial testimonials of respect to myself that was ever addressed to an individual. That I am the object often of malicious misrepresentation, or rather invention, is true; but it is not the public, it is not the general feeling. I can understand that success must bear the penalty of envy, but it is those who know nothing about me, or my habits, who are bitter against me.
"Take the very gentleman who permitted himself to ask a question the other night; what did he know about me? His sole authority rested on a hearsay, and that it might originate with a friend of my own, who, the moment she is asked, indignantly denies it. Miss R——could not have said it, without the utmost injustice and falsehood, and 1 believe her to be incapable of either. Indeed I know that she has often expressed herself in the kindest manner about me. But she is not the first friend whose name has been taken in vain—the moment it reached their ears to meet with complete disavowal.
"To those who to indulge in a small envy, or a miserable love of gossip, talk away my life and happiness, I only say, if you think my conduct worth attacking, it is also worth examining. Such examination would be my best defence. From my friends, I ask brief and indignant denial, based only on their conviction of falsehood. As regards myself, I have no answer beyond contemptuous silence, an appeal to all who know my past life, and a very bitter sense of innocence and of injury.
"I have now, my dear Mrs. Thomson, nothing more to say, beyond an earnest acknowledgment of all your kindness. I would not mix this with what is only a statement above; I have carefully shunned anything like an attempt to interest either your friendship or your feelings, but I may now be allowed to say how keenly they are felt. For years how much I have owed to Dr. Thomson's kindness! my pleasantest hours have been passed at your house, and the best encouragement of my literary labours has been derived from yourselves. God knows my path has been a very hard one! What constant labour, what unceasing anxiety! yet I never felt dejected till lately. But now I feel every day my mind and my spirits giving way; a deeper shade of despondency gathers upon me. I enter upon my usual employments with such disrelish; I feel so weary—so depressed; half my time so incapable of composition; my imagination is filled with painful and present images. But why should I say all this? perhaps my recent illness leaves behind it weakness both mentally and bodily; but I cannot help shrinking from either exertion or annoyance—I do not feel in myself power to bear either. I will not apologize for this intrusion upon you; I am sure you will not grudge the trouble of reading it, to
"Your grateful and affectionate
"L. E. Landon."
The occasion that elicited this letter occurred, as we have said, subsequently to the correspondence just adverted to. It proves that the inquiry was not entered upon altogether on light grounds; it shows, moreover, that the slander survived the correspondence, and appeared incapable of being effectually silenced. Yet the refutation which the evil report met, in the course of that investigation, was as effectual and complete as in the nature of such charges—charges so brought and circulated—it was possible to be. The refutation consisted in the utter disbelief in the charge, and the honourable zeal to detect the source of the calumny, that were everywhere evinced. It should be particularly marked, that the correspondence on this subject was not intended to be an inquiry into the truth of the accusation; that, so far from being deemed necessary by the parties to it, by any of her friends—more especially by that friend to whom she was then matrimonially contracted—would have been deemed by them all degrading to the last degree. There was never for an instant a shadow of suspicion upon their minds. Nothing they did in doubt, but all in honour. The sole object was to trace the false accuser, and drag him forward. This failing, the sense of the falsehood remained as strong as before—stronger it could not be, or it would have been strengthened by the result of the steps that had been taken for the detection of the calumniator.
What should follow, then, but the fulfilment of the marriage contract? As there was not the slightest scruple previously, on his own account, in the mind of the other party to that contract, so not the slightest scruple remained now as an impediment. The bare existence of such a scruple would, of course, have been fatal to her peace and happiness. There was none affecting her honour in the remotest degree. Yet the contract was broken off by her. However strong and deep the sentiment with which she had entered into it, she had the unflinching resolution to resist its promptings; and in the spirit of the communication at this period, between her and the gentleman to whom she was engaged, it is not difficult to perceive, that the same highminded feeling on both sides, the same nice sense of honour, and the same stubborn yet delicate pride (neither, perhaps, discerning in the other the exact qualities that governed the conduct of both) so operated as to dictate a present sacrifice of affection, and the avoidance of a contract under the circumstances which had so controlled the parties to it.
The severity of the shock she underwent, and the extent of the self-sacrifice she deemed herself called upon by duty to make, may be inferred from the following letter addressed to him, with whom the contemplated union had now, she felt, become impossible. The handwriting gives painful evidence of the agitation of mind and weakness of body amidst which it was composed. Its insertion is permitted here, at the request of her surviving relative, and of the writer to whom she confided the trust of doing justice to her memory. It must be received as the only explanation that can be offered of the feelings by which she was animated, and of the grounds on which she decided.
"I have already written to you two notes which I fear you could scarcely read or understand. I am to-day sitting up for an hour, and though strictly forbidden to write, it will be the least evil. I wish I could send you my inmost soul to read, for I feel at this moment the utter powerlessness of words. I have suffered for the last three days a degree of torture that made Dr. Thomson say, 'you have an idea of what the rack is now.' It was nothing to what I suffered from my own feelings. I look back on my whole life—I can find nothing to justify my being the object of such pain—but this is not what I meant to say. Again I repeat, that I will not allow you to consider yourself bound to me by any possible tie. To any friend to whom you may have stated our engagement, I cannot object to your stating the truth. Do every justice to your own kind and generous conduct. I am placed in a most cruel and difficult position. Give me the satisfaction of, as far as rests with myself, having nothing to reproach myself with. The more I think, the more I feel I ought not—I cannot—allow you—to unite yourself with one accused of—I cannot write it. The mere suspicion is dreadful as death. Were it stated as a fact, that might be disproved; were it a difficulty of any other kind; I might say, look back at every action of my life—ask every friend I have—but what answer can I give, or what security have I against the assertion of a man's vanity, or the slander of a vulgar woman's tongue? I feel that to give up all idea of a near and dear connection, is as much my duty to myself as to you. Why should you be exposed to the annoyance—the mortification of having the name of the woman you honour with your regard, coupled with insolent insinuation?—you never would bear it.
" I have just received your notes. God bless you—but—
" After Monday I shall, I hope, be visible; at present it is impossible. My complaint is inflammation of the liver, and I am ordered complete repose, as if it were possible! Can you read this? Under any circumstances, the
"Most grateful and affectionate
of your friends,
"L. E. Landon."
The conduct of the gentleman to whom this letter was addressed, was throughout, and in every respect, worthy of the honourable appreciation it obtained, and of her who could thus feel and act towards him.
While forming this resolution upon principle, L. E. L. did not foresee that the impossibility of explaining her conduct to all who might hear of the dissolution of an engagement generally presumed to exist, was likely to expose her to the most mortifying and fatal misconception. The knowledge of the effect could carry with it no possible revelation of the cause. All that could be known beyond the small circle of her confidential friends was, that a correspondence had taken place with a view to the discovery of her traducer, and that it had terminated in the sudden breaking off of a connection of which the permanence seemed assured, and to which the marriage-seal was about to be affixed. The inference was much too fair for spite and ill-nature to miss. The highmindedness of her decision, and the dignity of her whole conduct at this most trying and painful crisis of her life, could be judged of but by a few, while her seemingly unvindicated name might be a subject of scorn or of pity in every circle of gossips. That "very bitter sense of innocence and injury" which we have seen her entertaining, could avail her nothing against the presumption of the cold-hearted or the malicious, that "there might possibly be something in it after all," as the inquiry had ended in a broken contract, a doubly embittered spirit, and a situation more lonely than before.
All this was what her experience told her, on reflection, she had too much reason to fear, and her judgment warned her at the same time of her utter helplessness, and the impossibility of guarding herself against such terrible misconceptions. She undoubtedly imagined the evil to be greater than it really was. But it must be owned that her own injudiciousness still exposed her to attacks; and that to persons of an irritable or over-credulous temper, she might easily become an object of suspicion and aversion, especially to her own sex. Her warmth of heart, her exuberance of gratitude, even on trivial occasions of service, her buoyant spirits, her recklessness as to consequences, and her stubborn indifference to opinion, were still, as before, her great enemies that created enemies; and when writing to authors, whom she had known and confided in for years, and in whom differences of age and the long-worn honours of the married lot, might have sufficed to guard her from all misapprehension, she was sometimes apt to lay aside the formalities of respect due to middle-aged husbands, and the reverence that belongs to the father of a numerous family.
She soon benefitted by the most kind and skilful medical treatment, and the affectionate attention of her friends, so as to enjoy society again, and indulge to some extent in what she designated "the superfelicity of talking."
It was before the feeling alluded to, and before the dread of being misapprehended where her conduct could only be partially known or guessed at, had quite worn away, that she met Mr. George Maclean at the house of a mutual acquaintance at Hampstead. This was about October, 1836. Mr. Maclean was the eldest son of the Rev. James Maclean, of Urquhart, Elgin, and nephew to Lieut.-Gen. Sir John Maclean. He had early in life performed that exploit which, as we have seen, was the subject of L. E. L.'s childish speculations, a voyage to Africa; and had held, for a considerable time, the responsible appointment of Governor of Cape Coast Castle.
Of this gentleman, the following account has been given by a writer in a public journal, who professes to have known him since he was a boy of twelve or thirteen years of age, and who evidently retains a warm respect for him. When about the age mentioned, says the statement, "he was placed at the Elgin Academy, and boarded with the Rev. Mr. Duguid, the Latin teacher at that institution. As we resided at that time within a few houses of the academy, betwixt it and Mr. Duguid's , we had excellent opportunities of witnessing the conduct of the boys, who were boarders, in their moments of relaxation as they passed to and from the school. On these occasions we noticed that Master Maclean was a very quiet boy, seldom entering into the sports of his companions with the same vivacity that they did. He was, what is emphatically named in the Scotch language, 'a douce laddie.' Some persons would have been apt to imagine that this arose from a sullen disposition or bad temper; but, on the contrary, it appeared to us to arise from 'deep thinking,' if we may be allowed to use the expression when alluding to a boy; for when the subject of conversation was congenial to his mind, he was in every respect as lively, as spirited, and as pleasant a companion as any person could wish, and possessed of much more intelligence than could have been expected from one of his age.
"When very young, we do not think he was eighteen years of age, he was appointed secretary to the Governor of Sierra Leone, and had not been long there when he was made governor himself. As a proof of his good disposition and kindness of heart, when he returned to his native country after being appointed governor, he selected and fitted out as his secretary, a young man, Mr. Wm. Topp, who had no claim whatever to his patronage; he was merely an assistant or superintendent of Mr. Duguid's boarders when Mr. Maclean was at school.
"Mr. Maclean recently returned to England a second time, and after visiting his friends in the north, resided for a short period in London. We have seen him several times at the Craven Hotel, in the Strand, where he lodged, and he has called two or three times upon us, but in no instance have we found cause to alter the opinion we first formed of him. His elevation to be governor, when, from his personal appearance, he could not be looked upon in any other view than as a boy approaching to manhood, did not in the least alter his disposition." Other friends of Mr. Maclean speak of him in similar terms of respect and attachment; some even with enthusiasm; and all concur in acknowledging his conscientious attention to the duties devolving upon him.
In point of years there was no great disparity between the new acquaintances; and, although in general tastes they were little assimilated, and in manners still less so, as everybody must at once have noticed, there was at least one subject of deep interest to both, one ready topic of delightful conversation—African habits, African horrors, and African wonders—the sea, the coast, the desert, the climate, and the people. Even as a child such themes had attractions for her, and where they were descanted on she was a child still. We can imagine L. E. L. as "seriously inclining" to listen to whatever might be said on such subjects, as the "gentle Lady," afterwards "married to the Moor," might hearken to the travel's history that charmed her, and to tales of antres vast and deserts idle. They met frequently; and as her respect for Mr. Maclean increased with the discovery of the zeal with which he had devoted himself to the interests of the colony he presided over, and the estimation in which he was held by the South African Company, so his admiration of her grew daily under the spell of her artless manners and brilliant conversation. The result was, after an intimacy of no long duration, the offer of his hand—and its acceptance!
Her friends heard with surprise the determination she had come to; indeed her consenting to take such a step seemed inexplicable, when it appeared that Mr. Maclean meditated resuming his official appointment at Cape Coast Castle, and that her marriage would be speedily followed by her departure from the shores of England. On what shores to find a home! To the husband such a change must be a magical one. What transition from gloom to gaiety, from cold and darkness to sunshine, could, equal the possession of such a companion in the eyes of one accustomed to a total deprivation of the society of European women. But to the wife—what a contrast!
It must here be observed, however, that, at the moment when, after a brief deliberation, L. E. L. accepted the offer of Mr. Maclean's hand, she had no reason to contemplate the surrender of a home in this country as the condition of her becoming a wife. The necessity of a voyage to Cape Coast, and a stay of some continuance, was mentioned no great while subsequent to her engagement to Mr. Maclean, and after much serious discussion it was courageously assented to. To a resolution once formed, she, for the most part, unwaveringly held—as she did to this.
It may be supposed that her thoughts upon this great change, and the separation from her family and friends, her voluntary exile to what every one called the grave of Europeans, were enough to occasion her many anxious days, and nights of unrefreshing sleep. But these were far from being all she had to endure. The attachment between the affianced parties had one characteristic of true love—its course did not run smooth. Doubts as to the prudence of the marriage, in a worldly, or in a pecuniary point of view, arose among some of Mr. Maclean's friends. His family always expressed, the highest possible sense of Miss Landon's worth, and took a just pride in her literary reputation. Respect for her virtues might, and no doubt did, suggest dissuasives; for any alliance, with a conditional residence at Cape Coast, must have been deemed, to the last degree, unpropitious. It is certain that during Mr. Maclean's absence, in Scotland, in the summer of 1837, it appeared doubtful whether the marriage would take place, nor did her health promise well, at that season, for her capability to undertake a long voyage, and settle, with the smallest chance of safety, in so horrible a climate.
At this time as well as afterwards—indeed, from the commencement of his acquaintance with her to the hour of her death, Mr. Maclean entertained but one feeling in relation to reports circulated to her prejudice. That feeling was contempt—contempt that never once wavered. However the report might be varied, or wherever it might be whispered, or whatever name might be associated with hers to her injury, he equally despised the tale. Not only had everything been related to him, but all had been put to him in the worst light; again and again he was reminded, only to feel the more sympathy for the object of the calumny, and the more confidence in that innocence, of which, indeed, society—if that word must be used—felt equally assured by its unquestioning reception of her. From first to last, he desired nothing more than an opportunity of vindicating her; and took every occasion to show how impossible it was to shake his steady faith in her truth and honour. This just confidence could not but be attended with some effects upon her feelings towards him in return. It could not but move her to look favourably upon his proposals, and to feel reconciled to the sacrifices she would be called upon to make.
On Mr. Maclean's return from Scotland in the autumn of 1837, it became apparent that the engagement had not been broken off; and, for some time, nothing occurred to at all, that had not been terminated some considerable time before in a manner the most unequivocal and final. This statement was received in the spirit in which it was made; and there seemed to be no foolish and mistaken reserve on either side respecting the affair. Still the fact was supposed to remain—that circumstances occurring during Mr. Maclean's former residence at Cape Coast, although involving nothing whatever of the nature of a matrimonial bond, might, according to the views of that country, be seen in a very different light, and thus become a source of danger to the future mistress of the Castle. Mr. Maclean's explanation reduced the matter to this; but the apprehension of grave consequences could not be at once dismissed. Here was an obstacle which she could not possibly have anticipated when, in the preceding autumn, he had returned from Scotland, and their union was determined on. Now, the rumour of her intended marriage was widely spread. Preparations for it were not only in progress, but were actually far advanced; and, if destined to take place at all, it must take place within a very short time. The matter, notwithstanding, did not long remain with any exciting effect upon her mind. The subject was dismissed as soon as might be from recollection, as one scarcely worthy to be ranked among the many serious considerations which the meditated change so constantly presented.the feelings with which the parties looked forward to its fulfilment. But now, though Mr. Maclean had never felt a moment's doubt, or a moment's difficulty, about reports prejudicial to L. E. L., a rumour arose respecting himself, that seemed calculated to create some doubt and difficulty on her side. The rumour, as it reached the ears of some of her friends, was nothing less than the confident assertion that Mr. Maclean was already married—and that he had a native wife living at Cape Coast, who was then, or at least had been, the occupant of the Castle. Such was the statement confidently put forth, and in these terms it was made known to L. E. L. The shock and the alarm it occasioned her may be readily imagined; but the feeling with which she heard it partially subsided, on communicating with Mr. Maclean, and receiving the explanation which he immediately and voluntarily gave on this serious point. She then learned (though on this subject her family never heard a word until after marriage) that no such matrimonial connection had ever existed; and no connection
To all other anxieties and sufferings must be superadded a dread lest the breaking off of this marriage-contract on the eve of its ratification, should have the cruel effect which she had anticipated from a similar event previously—that of appearing, in the false judgment of strangers who could not possibly know the real circumstances of the case, throw some momentary colour of credit upon the tales of slanderers. This old familiar thought occasioned her far more pain than any, fear of consequences likely to ensue from the bygone domestic arrangements of her intended husband.
Her health in spite of all improved; and every rumour, new and old, soon gave way to one of a more definite and authorized nature—that L. E. L. was to be married "almost" immediately to the Governor of Cape Coast Castle; and this rumour happened to be "almost" the only one that was not utterly without foundation.
It is now necessary to turn back, to trace the literary progress of L. E. L. during the period to which the events referred to belong. It was not less active and regular than in seasons more free from perturbation and ill-health. Gay or sorrowful, she wrote still, and her imagination shaped for itself about the same tasks, and expressed itself in the same tone, in both conditions.
The interest and admiration awakened in the spring of 1835 by the exhibition of Mr. Maclise's picture of the Vow of the Peacock, attracted L. E. L.'s attention to the subject as one on which her pen might be poetically employed. The brilliancy and power of the painting captivated her fancy, and kindled it to the production of an appropriate narrative, embodying something of the history as well as the romance of chivalry. "Vows on the heron," she observes, "on the pheasant, and the peacock, to do some deed of arms, were common in the olden time. My story, founded on this picturesque custom, is entirely fanciful, though its scenes and manners are strictly historical." This story was named after the picture it celebrated, and, "with other poems," formed an elegant volume, which was published in the autumn of 1835, by Messrs. Saunders and Ottley. It is worthy of being associated in recollection with the painter's genius. Independent of the tenderness, the passion, and deep interest of the leading subject, the volume was recommended by its shorter pieces, consisting of a few classical sketches, a short series of tales, and some fugitive poems, of which the "Factory," the "Three Brothers," the "First Grave," the "Middle Temple Gardens," &c., are marked with great and various beauty. To this volume was prefixed an engraved portrait (the first ever published, we believe) of L. E. L., from a picture by the distinguished painter of the subject that had given birth to the poem. Though imperfect as a likeness from its minuteness, it conveyed much of the character of her face, her general air and style, the simple and pretty turn of the head, and the easy fashion of her dress, as she might be seen some summer morning walking in the little garden of the house in Hans-place.
The publication of a lady's portrait must, in gallantry, be regarded as an "event" in her life; and to L. E. L.'s face, thus rendered visible to her readers for the first time, hundreds of curious eyes must have been turned in eagerness for the solution of the mystery that so long lay under the popular initials, now almost as well known as L. S. D. A string of "light fantastic" verses, expressive of this supposed feeling of interest and surprise at finding the literary enigma solved at last in the appearance of an elegant young lady, had the good fortune to please in an especial degree her who was the subject of them; and it is not, of course, be cause the writer presumes such a trifle to be worth reprinting, but solely because she used to quote a verse or two as the "most fanciful of all the compliments" paid to her, that he indulges himself with copying them here:—
ON FIRST SEEING THE PORTRAIT OF L. E. L.
"Is this the face that fired a thousand ships,
And burned the topless towers of Ilium!
"Ah, no! not Helen, Hel—e—n
Of old—but L. E. L.,
Those letters which the spellbound pen
Have vainly sought to spell.
"Not Helen, who so long ago
Set Paris in a blaze;
But one who laid proud London low,
And lit up later days.
"Is this your meaning, mystic Three!
Hand-writing on Fame's wall!
Ye thrice fair letters, can ye be
A lady, after all?
"How have I wonder'd what ye meant,
Ye alphabetic Graces!
And so you really represent
One of dear Nature's faces!
"How, how I've guessed! your meaning rare,
No guessing seemed to touch;
Ye riddles! the weird sisters ne'er
Bewitch'd me half so much.
"One knows the power of D. C. L.,
The grandeur of K. G.;
And F. R. S. will science spell,
And valour G. C. B.
"The sage, the schoolboy, both can tell
The worth of L. S. D.;
But, then, the worth of L. E. L.!
All letters told in three!
"In vain I've sought to illustrate
Each letter with a word;
'Twas only trying to translate
The language of a bird.
"I've read ye, L. E. L., quite bare;
Thus—Logic, Ethics, Lays:
Lives, Episodes, and Lyrics fair—
I've guess'd away my days.
"One wild young fancy was the sire
Of fifty following after;
Like these—Love, Eden, and the Lyre,
Light, Elegance, and Laughter.
"I've drawn from all the stars that shine
From flowers—the Lily, Eglantine,
And, then, another Lily.
"Now fancy's dead; no thought can strike,
No guess, solution, stricture;
And L. E. L. is—simply like
This dainty little picture.
"Life to her lays! However Fame
'Mongst brightest names may set hers,
These three initials—nameless name—
Shall never be dead letters!"
L. E. L. had, previous to the publication of these poems, illustrated poetically a volume of the "Flowers of Loveliness" for Mr. Ackermarm, and had, moreover, edited and enriched a "Book of Beauty" for Mr. Charles Heath. Besides her share in the origin of these annuals, she continued to contribute largely to others. The "Literary Gazette" still derived occasional advantage from her pen, and in the "Court Journal" she wrote uninterruptedly verse or prose, for about three years. The "New Monthly Magazine," however, of all periodicals, obtained by far the most finished of her poetical efforts; the subjects being her own, and not her publisher's. To these compositions reference will be made hereafter. Nor would it be right to omit the various graceful tributes to great names with which, from the year 1836, she annually added to the beauty of Mr. Schloss's "Fairy Almanac;" or her "Birth-day Tribute to the Princess Victoria," which appeared in May, 1837. Princesses have rarely been hailed in such hearty and passionate strains.
The spirit of her poetry during these later years, while retaining some of the early weaknesses that miscoloured and misdirected it, exhibited a progressive alteration that fully justified the impression stamped on the mind of one of her critics, some time before; relative to her capacity (of which she was then giving some evidence) to escape from false shackles, and to discover, at last, the real exercise of her highest powers. This she may be said to have described in one of the many fine and lofty poems to be found in the "Drawing-room Scrap-book:"
"'Tis in the lofty hope, the daily toil,
'Tis in the gifted line,
In each far thought divine,
That brings down heaven to light our common soil.
'Tis in the great, the lovely, and the true,
'Tis in the generous thought
Of all that man has wrought,
Of all that yet remains for man to do."
"Miss Landon," says her critic, "seems to have discovered, at last, that genius can have some nobler aim than to plant along the road of life an avenue of yews and cypresses. It may be that she has exhausted her varieties of melancholy phrase, and, in sheer necessity, begins to think, that there are other things to be adorned besides the sepulchre. There are, indeed. The purposes of life remain while life remains to us—the memory of what has been already done by man, and the thought of 'all that yet remains for man to do,' towards the realization of the happiness of the world. It is surely better to inspire us with the hope and the gladness of these things, than to teach us how to realize a 'vale of tears,' by shedding them."
The reviewer proceeds, with great truth and justice, to say, "In the verses of Miss Landon, moreover, there is always something, cover it as she may with her sombre veil, more nearly akin to cheerfulness than to sorrow. She would seem to have taken to mourning, as the only relief from too great a capacity for enjoyment, and the melancholy that is born of this, perhaps contains 'a joy beyond joy.' It is quite certain, at all events, that the grief which pours itself forth, like the melodious melancholy of this young lady, in one rapt and perpetual note, has more in it of the imaginative than the real, of the luxuriating than the suffering. And after all, this is only teaching us how best to grieve, when we want to know what most to enjoy. We are grateful to her, therefore, for reconsidering that matter, and we would promise her a much loftier place in poetry than she occupies now, if we thought her courage equal to her genius; a far better name in the aftertime, if we thought she could teach herself to care less about the present. Fear, and doubt, and dependence, and carelessness, and (we must add) too great a passion for effect, still hang about her."
Even these latter failings diminished, however, as she proceeded; she became every year less doubting, more independent, far more careful and studious; the "passion for effect" was not the least weakened, but it slowly gave way.
And here, while stating our impressions of the development of her own poetical powers, a few brief notes, glancing at the qualities of some of her great contemporaries, may not be inappropriately introduced. Worthy, from their expressiveness, of preservation in themselves, they serve to illustrate her own intellectual qualities by showing what, at this time, when she was, perhaps, most capable of forming a calm and sound judgment, her feeling really was, respecting the poets she has thus characterized in writing to a friend.
Southey. There is something in Southey's genius that always gives me the idea of the Alhambra—there is the great proportion, and the fantastic ornament. The setting of his verses is like a rich arabesque. It is fretted gold; the oriental magnificence of his longer poems—such as Thalaba—is singularly contrasted with the quaint simplicity of his minor poems; they give the idea of innocent, yet intelligent children—yet almost startling you with the depth of knowledge that a simple truth may convey.
Wordsworth is a poet that even Plato might have admitted into his republic. He is the most passionless of writers. Like the noblest creations of Grecian sculpture, the divinity is shown by divine repose. But if his sympathy with humanity be still, it is also deep; the 'heaven that lies about us in our infancy,' he would fain extend even to the tomb. He brings 'Faith, the solemn comforter,' and the belief that even in things evil exists the soul of good.
Of all poets Shelley is the most poetical:
'Love was born with him, in him, so intense,
It was his very being, not a sense.'—
The defect of his imagination was a want of being sufficiently balanced with the real; everything appeared to him through an exaggerated medium. He reasoned with his feelings; now feelings are the worst possible reasoners—they excite, and they mislead. He saw evil and sorrow, and believed too easily in redress: he was too young to make allowance—that first step in true philosophy—and fancied that to defy a system was to destroy it. It was a boy's error, who believes he is judging when he is only learning. Shelley's versification has a melody peculiarly its own. It can only be described by similitudes. It suggests the notes of some old favourite song—the sound of falling waters, or the murmurs of the wind among the branches. There is a nameless fascination in some sweet human voices, and there is the same in many of the shorter poems of Shelley.
Scott is the epic poet of chivalry. His verses, read aloud, have the same effect as that splendid composition in the Puritani, 'Sona la Tromba.' They awaken all that is active and martial in your nature. His narrative never flags; it is like a horse at full gallo—you have all the excitement of exercise. Take the combat between Roderick Dhu and Fitzjames—you do not read it, you see it—you watch the warriors, and hold your breath—you are yourself inclined
'To falter thanks to Heaven for life,
Redeem'd unhoped from desperate strife.'
Under the title of "Traits and Trials of Early Life," Mr. Colburn published, in 1836, a small volume of prose stories for children. To those who direct the new class of readers she here sought to gratify and inform, rather than the youthful readers themselves, she stated her object to be, "to interest, rather than to amuse, to excite the imagination through the softening medium of the feelings." Sympathy, she remarks, is the surest destroyer of selfishness. There is a wide field indeed opened for the exercise of this virtue in the first and longest of her narratives, the history of two little wingless angels, called "The Twin Sisters;" but though a tale of singular beauty, and abounding in exquisite traits of character and examples of purest virtue, it is saddening even to pain. The author justifies this by saying, "I endeavour to soften the heart by a kindly regret for unmerited sorrow. The very youngest ought to know how much there is to endure in existence; it will teach them thankfulness in their own more fortunate lot, and meekness in bearing their own lighter burthens." The other tales are not less charmingly written, and they have the advantage of being more cheerful, showing, for the most part, how exertion, under difficulties, is rewarded by success. The maxim which was remembered when they were composed seems to have been, that early lessons of cheerful endurance cannot be better taught than by example; and that patience, fortitude, and affection, are ever strong in obtaining a mastery over the troubles that beset us, at what ever age or in whatever condition.
From the Reminiscences of her own Childhood, and the interesting romance she had built upon them, as contained in the fanciful history which closes the volume just mentioned, we turn to some reminiscences far more real and true, though recorded in verse; to a little poem, written in the spring of this year, and expressive of the fond and gentle feelings with which she ever turned to the scene whose loveliness it pictures in such simple colours. If it merited publication for no other reason, it might claim it for the sweetness of the reflections suggested to her by revisiting a spot endeared to her by friendships retained to the last hour of her life, and comforting her always from the first moment of their commencement. The poem refers to a visit to some valued friends, under whose roof the last months of her stay in England were passed. They were now residing chiefly in a beautiful spot at a short distance from the metropolis. To them, even at this time, L. E. L. was indebted for many of "those happy hours" which she in these verses alludes to; to the kind and sympathizing mistress of that house, she was even then under obligations for advice and for affection, to her of inestimable value; and from the family by whom that lady was surrounded, she received attentions and kindnesses that sprang not simply from admiration, but from real regard—not from delight in her talents merely, but from a confidence in her worth. The advantages she, at this, and at an earlier season, derived from her intimacy with this family increased month by month, and they were repaid with a true and steady attachment. This will be presently found recorded in a "farewell," a poem written upon resigning their generous protection, and quitting a country which she loved better for their sakes.
Where are they—those happy hours,
Link'd with everything I see,
With the colour of the flowers,
With the shadow of the tree!
Still the golden light is falling.
As when first I saw the place;
I can hear the sweet birds calling
To their young and callow race.
Still the graceful trees are bending,
Heavy with the weight of bloom,
Lilac and laburnum blending
With the still more golden broom;
Still the rosy May hath bowers
With her paler sister made;
Where, where are the happy hours
I have pass'd beneath their shade?
Ah! those hours are turn'd to treasures
Hidden deep the heart within;
That heart has no dearer pleasures
Than the thought of what has been.
Every pleasure in remembrance,
Is like coined gold, whose claim
Rises from the stamp'd resemblance
Which bestows a worth and name.
Still doth memory inherit
All that once was sweet and fair,
Like a soft and viewless spirit
Bearing perfume through the air;
Not a green leaf, doom'd to wither,
But has link'd some chain of thought—
Not a flower by spring brought hither,
But has some emotion brought.
Let the lovely ones then perish,
They have left enough behind,
In the feelings that we cherish,
Thoughts that link'd them with the mind.
Summer haunts of summer weather,
Almost is it sweet to part;
For ye leave the friends together,
To whom first ye link'd my heart.
May 31, 1836.
L. E. L.'s next prose publication was "Ethel Churchill," the work, unquestionably, in which her powers, as a novelist, are seen to the greatest advantage. This appeared in the same year. The principal portion of it was written in wretched health, but it needs no apology. "To show the necessity of a strong and guiding principle; to put in the strongest light, that no vanity, no pleasure, can ever supply the place of affection—to soften and to elevate,"—this was the object of her story. In detailing it, she acknowledges her inability to work out her own ideal, but feels that it is the beautiful and the true. Thus explaining it, L. E. L. makes a short confession, which is interesting, as indicative of her literary anxiety, and a deepened sense of moral responsibility. "I cannot," she says, "understand a writer growing indifferent from custom or success. Every new work must be the record of much change in the mind which produces it, and there is always the anxiety to know how such change will be received. It is impossible, also, that the feeling of your own moral responsibility should not increase. At first you write eagerly; composition is rather a passion than a power; but, as you go on, you cannot but find that, to write a book, is a far more serious charge than it at first appeared. Faults have been pointed out, and you are desirous of avoiding their recurrence; praise has been bestowed, and you cannot but wish to show that it has not been given in vain. Encouragement is the deepest and dearest debt that a writer can incur. Moreover, you have learnt that opinions are not to be lightly put forth, when there is even a chance of such opinions being matériel, wherewith others will form their own. I never saw any one reading a volume of mine without almost a sensation of fear. I write every day more earnestly and more seriously."
It would be absurd to say that there are not interwoven with the beauties that compose this story of the "Two Brides," some of those mistaken views of life to which allusion has already been made; some of those perversities that so frequently marred the effect she aimed at producing. We discover the random-shafts and the two-edged swords of argument that so often administer a heedless wound just as the willing soul has been "lapped in Elysium." There are a few sarcasms and sentiments delivered by the author in person that would have fallen better from one or two of the characters of her story. They would have told admirably in dialogue, but they have "no business there," as forming a portion of the author's feelings and reflections. By this error a beauty here and there is converted into a blemish. It must also be owned that though there is no perceptible effort or straining at effect, either in the conversational or the narrative parts of the story, there is observable in both, occasionally, a fondness for saying fine things and for epigrammatic point of expression—to the sacrifice of propriety and truth. But even in these minor respects the work is most advantageously contrasted with all else she has written in prose. The whole course and character of it shows that she had written it with matured powers, and an increased "feeling of moral responsibility."
The story is a love story—a phrase that means much or little; in the present instance is included in it much that belongs to its sweetest and loftiest signification. We think of it, after we have read, and seem to have grown older, more observant, and more experienced, in a few hours. This is the natural effect of the truth with which the author has treated some of the greatest of human passions—exposed the most fearful of our responsibilities, the most sacred of our duties, the most humiliating of our infirmities. And beyond a doubt this truth was the natural result of mature experience on the writer's side, a more perfect mastery of the will, and additional power of taming the "wild heart" of her imagination to the "loving hand" of sympathy. The era of Pope, of Lady Mary, of Kneller, Wharton, Walpole, Peterborough—the era of the Curlls and Lintots—is here revived and restored. The most varied powers are requisite to the painting of such portraitures, to the keeping of such a picture, to the flinging so many opposing minds into dramatic and characteristic action, giving them thought, passion, language, motion. How excellent is the Twickenham scene! Lady Mary lives again, and we feel that we have loitered with Pope in his own garden. Walpole's character had been scanned with a close and critical eye, that saw not merely the manners and action, but much of the policy and philosophy of the time: there is scarcely one portrait that does not exhibit marks of studious painting and insight into humanity. On the character and career of Maynard, she lavished her pains freely, and the result rewarded her. Old Sir Jasper is a creature made up of life's light and shadow. Marchmont, Norbourne, Courtenay—the several groups of authors, actors, booksellers and loungers, are full of life, spirit, and ease. Still more deep and beautiful is the work in the delineation of female character. We feel this whether we glance at the mingled colours that compose the "web of life" in which the dazzling Henrietta moves, or at the lovely gentleness and affecting devotion of Constance: at the blended calmness and fervour, the subdued heart and sustained pride of the injured Ethel, or at the wit and selfishness of Lady Mary; at the hidden consciousness of Mrs. Courtenaye, or not least, the true affection, elevating and giving winningness to a coarse nature, that renders Lavinia Fenton one of the reader's chief favourites. All these characters, heads or full lengths, are portrayed with a hand bold to execute what the eye sees in life or in life's visions, and what the heart feels to belong to the mysteries of our nature.
The approach to the end is too painful; the fearful poisoning scene, the madness worse than death, the poetical aim and the moral hope struck down in the midst of a blighting and squalid poverty—these have the stunning effect of a blow. But the general effect is not painful—the person ages of the story are not "sad as night only for wantonness"—our most sacred feelings are not sported with—tears are not set flowing out of an ostentatious sense of the pathetic, nor is humanity fastened on the rack merely to show us what it can endure, and how high the torture can be screwed up. The book will keep its readers "heart-whole" with the world, while it unsparingly exhibits its follies and its vices.
"Ethel Churchill," moreover, contains a little volume of verses, beautifully scattered through the work as mottos to the chapters; a liberality denoting, perhaps, that L. E. L.'s activity of thought and keenness of feeling could create, where other minds reposed on a quotation; and could produce a sweet song, while another novelist was turning over her own poetical pages for an appropriate extract. It has been deemed right to collect some of these mottos in the present work, and the series will not be lightly regarded by the reader who takes the subjoined as a specimen. Allowing, perhaps, for a superfluous dash of bitterness, Coleridge might have written it, smiling complacently on his work:—
"Not with the world to teach us, may we learn
The spirit's noblest lessons. Hope and Faith
Are stars that shine amid the far-off heaven,
Dimm'd and obscured by vapours from below.
Impatient selfishness, and shrewd distrust,
Are taught us in the common ways of life.
Dust is beneath our feet, and at our side
The coarse and mean, the false and the unjust:
And constant contact makes us grow too like
The things we daily struggle with, and scorn.
Only by looking up can we see heaven!"
Upon the completion of "Ethel Churchill" L. E. L. devoted herself to another work in prose, one which she had long meditated, and for which she had great requisites; that series of descriptive and critical essays on the female characters of Scott, which appears in these volumes. Two or three of them were printed separately, as they were written, in the "New Monthly Magazine" (they have since been revised), and an arrangement was then made with Mr. Charles Heath to publish these sketches in a volume, to be illustrated according to the fashion of the time. This design, in which she took so deep an interest, pursuing it steadily to the last, she did not live to complete; but what the work would have been may be judged of from the analyses of passion, truth, and beauty, now submitted to the public.
But there was one object which had, from a still earlier period, engaged her serious thoughts occasionally, and made her sigh for a fair opportunity of accomplishing it; an object to which, it must be confessed, the bent of her genius, and the habits of her life, did not appear eminently favourable, and which her ambition, perhaps, perceived but a weak hope of achieving with the highest degree of success. Yet, in the order of writing to which her aspirations now pointed, she knew that not the second ground merely, but the third or the fourth, was yet a high one: and that, with such a sense of greatness as then possessed her, her failure could not be inglorious. She wished most passionately, in short, to write a tragedy. The circumstances of the time concurred to favour her desire. She required some bold change in the character of her literary tasks to excite her at that period to their adequate fulfilment; and the agents and action of a tragedy seemed best of all calculated to arouse her from a state of painful self-consciousness, and transport her from the fretfulness and the littleness of actual life into the "calm pleasures and majestic pains," the interest and vastness, of the past. Above all, Mr. Macready had then, in the autumn of 1837, just commenced the working of his great practical experiment for the reformation of the stage. His devotion to a fine cause, while all could not appreciate it, demanded from those who could, proofs of sympathy and co-operation. With feelings such as these she resolved to commence; doubtful of her own powers, but sure of her advantages—conscious that she appealed, not to the great actor merely, but to the accomplished critic, and to the generous and accessible manager.
She chose a subject, new doubtless to the stage, but not strikingly fitted for it in such hands as her own—the fortunes of "Castruccio Castrucani." It was commenced and carried through, as almost all her writings were, too inconsiderately; though the few days, perhaps, which she devoted to deliberation and forethought, seemed to her an eternity, because they were days instead of hours. Impatient to begin, she was at least as impatient to end; and she proceeded, apart from mistakes of a higher though hardly more important kind, with far too little regard to the necessities that govern scenic representation. She committed the error of supposing that her audience, with one accord, would jump as intuitively to conclusions as she did, and that the truth, which was palpable to her own eyes, would be equally visible to the eyes of an unseeing pit. Before it was quite finished, she discovered the unfitness of its plan for the stage of such a theatre as Covent-garden, not to say for such an audience as would assemble anywhere; and she instantly and earnestly set about the toilsome work of reconstruction and improvement, making many essential additions, and then altering again. She thus alludes to the subject in a letter addressed to us at the close of the year: "I have not sent you my tragedy so soon as I said, because I would not hurry a single line, or neglect the least of your hints. I have lengthened it, given the heroine more speeches, remodelled the character of Arizzi, and brought out that of Leoni, together with the addition of two or three scenes. I am ashamed to tell you how nervous and how anxious I am." But further revision was necessary, and by this time the arrangements for the season were complete, even had the chance of the play's success upon the stage been strong enough to justify its production. Its publication now, enables the dramatic critic to pass sentence upon the attempt; and to that judgment it is committed, in the confident hope that where high aims are visible, and fine powers energetically, though unavailingly, exercised for their accomplishment, there can be no hasty or indiscriminate condemnation.
The completion of her "Drawing-room Scrapbook," and the fulfilment of other minor engagements, occupied all her literary time until the period of her marriage, and her consequent departure for the African shores.
- * This reference is to the election of her brother, in 1836, to an office which he resigned immediately after her death. It was Sir Robert Peel's observation, on giving his vote, that "he was happy to mark his sense of Miss Landon's character and talents by voting for her brother;" while Mr. Hope, the son of the author of "Anastasius," said on the same occasion, "It is gratifying to have the means occasionally of showing both the reverence we feel for genius, and the gratitude to those who exercise it in our behalf." The election more than justified the proud feeling with which it is above referred to.