Mary Lamb (Gilchrist 1883)/Chapter 14

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Mary Lamb  (1883)  by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter XIV.

CHAPTER XIV.

Hazlitt's Divorce.—Emma Isola.—Mrs. Cowden Clarke's Recollections of Mary.—The Visit to France.—Removal to Colebrook Cottage.—A Dialogue of Reminiscences.

1822-3.—Æt. 58-59.

For some years matters had not gone smoothly between Sarah Hazlitt and her husband. He was hard to live with, and she seems to have given up the attempt to make the best of things, and to have sunk into a kind of apathy in which even the duties of a housewife were ill-performed; but his chief complaint was that "she despised him and his abilities." In this Hazlitt was, probably, unjust to Sarah; for she was neither stupid nor unamiable. From 1819 onwards he had absented himself from home continually, living either at the Huts, a small inn on the edge of Salisbury Plain, or in London lodgings. But in this year of 1822 his unhappy passion for Sarah Walker brought about a crisis; and what had been only a negative kind of evil became unendurable. He prevailed upon Sarah to consent to a divorce. It was obtained, in Edinburgh, by Mrs. Hazlitt taking what, in Scotch law, is called "the oath of calumny" which,—the suit being undefended,—entitled her to a dissolution of the marriage tie. They then returned singly to Winterslow, he to the Huts and she to her cottage. If they married with but little love, they seem to have parted without any hate. One tie remained—the strong affection each had for their son, who was sometimes with one, sometimes with the other. Hazlitt's wholly unrequited passion for Sarah Walker soon burned itself to ashes; and in two years time he tried another experiment in marriage which was even less successful than the first; for his bride, like Milton's, declined to return home with him after the wedding tour, and he saw her face no more. But, unlike Milton, he was little discomposed at the circumstance. Sarah, grown a wiser if not a more dignified woman, did not renew the scheming ways of her youth. She continued to stand high in the esteem of Hazlitt's mother and sister, and often stayed with them. The Lambs abated none of their old cordiality; Mary wrote few letters now, but Charles sent her a friendly one sometimes. It was to her he gave the first account of absent-minded George Dyer's feat of walking straight into the New River, in broad daylight, on leaving their door in Colebrook Bow. Towards Hazlitt, also, their friendship seemed substantially unchanged let him be as splenetic and wayward as he might. "We cannot afford to cast off our friends because they are not all we could wish," said Mary Lamb once when he had written some criticisms on Wordsworth and Coleridge, in which glowing admiration was mixed with savage ridicule in such a way that, as Lamb said, it was "like saluting a man,—'Sir, you are the greatest man I ever saw,' and then pulling him by the nose." But it needed only for Hazlitt himself to be traduced and vilified, as he so often was, by the political adversaries and critics of those days, for Lamb to rally to his side and fearlessly pronounce him to be, "in his natural and healthy state, one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing."

As a set-off against the already mentioned sorrows of this time, a new element of cheerfulness was introduced into the Lamb household; for it was in the course of the summer of 1823 that, during a visit to Cambridge, they first saw Emma Isola, a little orphan child of whom they soon grew so fond that eventually she became their adopted daughter, their solace and comfort. To Mary especially was this a happy incident. "For," says Mrs. Cowden Clarke in the Recollections already alluded to, "she had a most tender sympathy with the young,"—as the readers of Mrs. Leicester's School will hardly need telling. "She was encouraging and affectionate towards them, and won them to regard her with a familiarity and fondness rarely felt by them for grown people who are not their relations. She threw herself so entirely into their way of thinking and contrived to take an estimate of things so completely from their point of view, that she made them rejoice to have her for their co-mate in affairs that interested them. While thus lending herself to their notions she, with a judiciousness peculiar to her, imbued her words with the wisdom and experience that belonged to her maturer years; so that while she seemed but the listening, concurring friend, she was also the helping, guiding friend. Her monitions never took the form of reproof, but were always dropped in with the air of agreed propositions, as if they grew out of the subject in question, and presented themselves as matters of course to both her young companions and herself." The following is a life-like picture, from the same hand, of Mary among the children she gathered round her in these Russell Street days,—Hazlitt's little son William, Victoria Novello (Mrs. Clarke herself), and Emma Isola. Victoria used "to come to her on certain mornings, when Miss Lamb promised to hear her repeat her Latin grammar, and hear her read poetry with the due musically rhythmical intonation. Even now the breathing murmur of the voice in which Mary Lamb gave low but melodious utterance to those opening lines of the Paradise Lost:—

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,—

sounding full and rounded and harmonious, though so subdued in tone, rings clear and distinct in the memory of her who heard the reader. The echo of that gentle voice vibrates, through the lapse of many a revolving year, true and unbroken in the heart where the low-breathed sound first awoke response, teaching together with the fine appreciation of verse music the finer love of intellect conjoined with goodness and kindness.... "One morning, just as Victoria was about to repeat her allotted task, in rushed a young boy who, like herself, enjoyed the privilege of Miss Lamb's instruction in the Latin language. His mode of entrance—hasty and abrupt—sufficiently denoted his eagerness to have his lesson heard at once and done with, that he might be gone again; accordingly Miss Lamb, asking Victoria to give up her turn, desired the youth—Hazlitt's son—to repeat his pages of grammar first. Off he set, rattled through the first conjugation post-haste; darted through the second without drawing breath; and so on right through in no time. The rapidity, the volubility, the triumphant slap-dash of the feat perfectly dazzled the imagination of poor Victoria, who stood admiring by, an amazed witness of the boy's proficiency. She herself, a quiet plodding little girl, had only by dint of diligent study and patient, persevering poring been able to achieve a slow learning and as slow a repetition of her lessons. This brilliant, off-hand method of despatching the Latin grammar was a glory she had never dreamed of. Her ambition was fired, and the next time she presented herself book in hand before Miss Lamb, she had no sooner delivered it into her hearer's than she attempted to scour through her verb at the same rattling pace which had so excited her admiration. Scarce a moment and her stumbling scamper was checked. 'Stay, stay! how's this? What are you about, little Vicky?' asked the laughing voice of Mary Lamb. 'Oh, I see. Well, go on; but gently, gently; no need of hurry.' She heard to an end and then said, 'I see what we have been doing—trying to be as quick and clever as William, fancying it vastly grand to get on at a great rate as he does. But there's this difference: it's natural in him while it's imitation in you. Now, far better go on in your old staid way—which is a your own way—than try to take up a way that may become him, but can never become you, even were you to succeed in acquiring it. We'll each of us keep to our own natural ways, and then we shall be sure to do our best.'" And when Victoria and Emma Isola met there, Mary entered into their girlish friendship, let them have their gossip out in her own room if tired of the restraint of grown-up company and once, before Emma's return to school, took them to Dulwich and gave them a charming little dinner of roast fowl and custard pudding." . . . "Pleasant above all," says the surviving guest and narrator, "is the memory of the cordial voice which said in a way to put the little party at its fullest ease, 'Now, remember, we all pick our bones. It isn't considered vulgar here to pick bones.'

"Once, when some visitors chanced to drop in unexpectedly upon her and her brother," continues Mrs. Clarke, "just as they were sitting down to their plain dinner of a bit of roast mutton, with her usual frank hospitality she pressed them to stay and partake, cutting up the small joint into five equal portions, and saying in her simple, easy way, so truly her own, 'There's a chop apiece for us, and we can make up with bread and cheese if we want more.'"

The more serious demands upon her sympathy and judgment made, after childhood was left behind, by the young, whether man or woman, she met with no less tenderness, tact, and wisdom. Once, for instance, when she thought she perceived symptoms of an unexplained dejection in her young friend Victoria, "how gentle was her sedate mode of reasoning the matter, after delicately touching upon the subject and endeavouring to draw forth its avowal! More as if mutually discussing and consulting than as if questioning, she endeavoured to ascertain whether uncertainties or scruples of faith had arisen in the young girl's mind and had caused her preoccupied abstracted manner. If it were any such source of disturbance, how wisely and feelingly she suggested reading, reflecting, weighing; if but a less deeply-seated depression, how sensibly she advised adopting some object to rouse energy and interest! She pointed out the efficacy of studying a language (she herself at upwards of fifty years of age began the acquirement of French and Italian) as a remedial measure, and advised Victoria to devote herself to a younger brother she had, in the same way that she had attended to her own brother Charles in his infancy, as the wholesomest and surest means of all for cure."

Allsop, Coleridge's friend, speaks in the same strain of how when a young man overwhelmed with what then seemed the hopeless ruin of his prospects, he found Charles and Mary Lamb not wanting in the hour of need. "I have a clear recollection," says he, "of Miss Lamb's addressing me in a tone which acted at once as a solace and support, and after as a stimulus, to which I owe more perhaps than to the more extended arguments of all others."

On the whole Mary was a silent woman. It was her forte rather to enable others to talk their best by the charm of an earnest, speaking countenance and a responsive manner; and there are but few instances in which any of her words have been preserved. In that memorable conversation at Lamb's table on "Persons one would like to have seen," reported by Hazlitt, when it was a question of women, "I should like vastly to have seen Ninon de L'Enclos," said Mary. When Queen Caroline's trial was pending and her character and conduct the topic in every mouth, Mary said she did not see that it made much difference whether the Queen was what they called guilty or not—meaning, probably, that the stream was so plainly muddy at the fountain-head it was idle to enquire what ill places it had passed through in its course. Or else, perhaps, that, either way, the King's conduct was equally odious.

The last observation of hers I can find recorded, is at first sight, unlike herself:—"How stupid old people are!" It was that unimaginative incapacity to sympathise with the young, so alien to her own nature, no doubt, which provoked the remark. Of her readiness to help all that came within her reach there is a side-glimpse in some letters of Lamb's,—the latest to see the light,—which come, as other interesting contributions to the knowledge of Lamb's writings have done (notably those of the late Mr. Babson), from over the Atlantic. In The Century Magazine for September 1882 are seven letters to John Howard Payne, an American playwright, whom Lamb was endeavouring to help in his but partially successful struggle to earn a livelihood by means of adaptations for the stage in London and Paris. Mrs. Cowden-Clarke speaks of this Mr. Payne as the acquaintance whom Mary Lamb, "ever thoughtful to procure a pleasure for young people," had asked to call and see the little Victoria, then at school at Boulogne, on his way to Paris. He proved a good friend to Mary herself during that trip to France which, with a courage amounting to rashness, she and Charles undertook in the summer of 1822.

"I went to call on the Lambs to take leave, they setting out for France next morning," writes Crabb Robinson in his diary, June 17th. "I gave Miss Lamb a letter for Miss Williams, to whom I sent a copy of Mrs. Leicester's School. The Lambs have a Frenchman as their companion and Miss Lamb's nurse, in case she should be ill. Lamb was in high spirits; his sister rather nervous."

The privation of sleep entailed in such a journey combined with the excitement, produced its inevitable result and Mary was taken with one of her severest attacks in the diligence on the way to Amiens. There, happily, they seem to have found Mr. Payne, who assisted Charles to make the necessary arrangements for her remaining under proper care till the return of reason, and then he went on to Paris, where he stayed with the Kennys, who thought him dull and out of sorts, as well he might be. Two months afterwards we hear of Mary as being in Paris. Charles, his holiday over, had been obliged to return to England.

"Mary Lamb has begged me to give her a day or two," says Crabb Robinson. "She comes to Paris this evening, and stays here a week. Her only male friend is a Mr. Payne, whom she praises exceedingly for his kindness and attentions to Charles. He is the author of Brutus, and has a good face."

It was in the following year that most of the letters to Mr. Payne, published in the Century, were written. They disclose Mary and her brother zealous to repay one good turn with another by watching the success of his dramatic efforts and endeavouring to negociate favourably for him with actors and managers. "Ali Pacha will do. I sent my sister the first night, not having been able to go myself, and her report of its effect was most favourable.... My love to my little wife at Versailles, and to her dear mother.... I have no mornings (my day begins at 5 p.m.) to transact business in, or talents for it, so I employ Mary, who has seen Robertson, who says that the piece which is to be operafied was sent to you six weeks since, &c. &c. Mary says you must write more showable letters about these matters, for with all our trouble of crossing out this word, and giving a cleaner turn to th' other, and folding down at this part, and squeezing an obnoxious epithet into a corner, she can hardly communicate their contents without offence. What, man, put less gall in your ink, or write me a biting tragedy!"...

The piece which was sent to Mr. Payne in Paris to be "operafied" was probably Clari, the Maid of Milan. Bishop wrote or adapted the music: it still keeps possession of the stage and contains "Home sweet Home," which plaintive, well-worn ditty earned for its writer among his friends the title of the "Homeless Poet of Home." He ended his days as American Consul at Tunis.

This year's holiday (1823), spent at Hastings, was one of unalloyed pleasure and refreshment. "I have given up my soul to walking," Lamb writes. "There are spots, inland bays, &c., which realise the notions of Juan Fernandez. The best thing I lit upon, by accident, was a small country church (by whom or when built unknown), standing bare and single in the midst of a grove, with no house or appearance of habitation within a quarter of a mile, only passages diverging from it through beautiful woods to so many farm-houses. There it stands, like the first idea of a church, before parishioners were thought of, nothing but birds for its congregation; or, like a hermit's oratory (the hermit dead), or a mausoleum; its effect singularly impressive, like a church found in a desert isle to startle Crusoe with a home image. . . . I am a long time reconciling to town after one of these excursions. Home is become strange, and will remain so yet awhile; home is the most unforgiving of friends, and always resents absence; I know its cordial looks will return, but they are slow in clearing up."

The "cordial looks," however, of the Russell Street home never did return. The plan of the double lodgings, there and at Dalston, was a device of double discomforts; the more so as "at my town lodgings," he afterwards confesses to Bernard Barton, "the mistress was always quarrelling with our maid; and at my place of rustication the whole family were always beating one another, brothers beating sisters (one, a most beautiful girl, lamed for life), father beating sons and daughters, and son again beating his father, knocking him fairly down, a scene I never before witnessed, but was called out of bed—by the unnatural blows, the parricidal colour of which, though my morals could not but condemn, yet my reason did heartily approve, and in the issue the house was quieter for a day or so than I had ever known." It was time, indeed, for brother and sister to have a house of their own over their heads, means now amply sufficing.

A few weeks after their return Lamb took Colebrook Cottage, at Islington. It was detached, faced the New River, had six good rooms, and a spacious garden behind. "You enter without passage," he writes, "into a cheerful dining-room, all studded over and rough with old books, and above is a lightsome drawing-room, full of choice prints. I feel like a great lord, never having had a house before."

A new acquaintance, a man much after Lamb's heart, at whose table he and Mary were, in the closing years of his life, more frequent guests than at any other—"Mr. Carey, the Dante man"—was added to their list this year. "He is a model of a country parson, lean (as a curate ought to be), modest, sensible, no obtruder of Church dogmas, quite a different man from Southey," says Lamb of him. "Quite a different man from Southey." had a peculiar sting in it at this moment, for Southey had just struck a blow at Elia in the Quarterly, as unjust in purport as it was odious in manner,—detraction in the guise of praise. Lamb answered him this very autumn in the London Magazine: a noble answer it is, which seems to have awakened something like compunction in Southey's exemplary but pharisaic soul. At all events he made overtures for a reconciliation, which so touched Lamb's generous heart, he was instantly ready to take blame upon himself for having written the letter. "I shall be ashamed to see you, and my sister, though innocent, still more so," he says, "for the folly was done without her knowledge, and has made her uneasy ever since. My guardian angel was absent at that time." By which token we know that Mary did not escape the usual sad effects of change and fatigue in the removal to Colebrook Cottage.

Means were easy, home comfortable now; but many a wistful backward glance did brother and sister cast to the days of early struggle, with their fuller life, keener pleasures, and better health. It was not long after they were settled in Colebrook Cottage that they opened their hearts on this theme in that beautiful essay by Elia called Old China—Wordsworth's favourite,—in which Charles, for once, made himself Mary's—or as he calls her Cousin Bridget's—mouthpiece. Whilst sipping tea out of "a set of extraordinary blue china, a recent purchase," . . . writes Elia, "I could not help remarking how favourable circumstances had been to us of late years that we could afford to please the eye, sometimes, with trifles of this sort; when a passing sentiment seemed to overshade the brow of my companion;—I am quick at detecting these summer clouds in Bridget.

"'I wish the good old times would come again,' she said, 'when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean that I want to be poor; but there was a middle state' —so she was pleased to ramble on—'in which I am sure we were a great deal happier. A purchase is but a purchase now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph. When we coveted a cheap luxury (and O how much ado I had to get you to consent in those times!), we were used to have a debate two or three days before, and to weigh the for and against, and think what we might spare it out of, and what saving we could hit upon that should be an equivalent. A thing was worth buying then, when we felt the money that we paid for it.

"'Do you remember the brown suit which you made to hang upon you till all your friends cried shame upon you, it grew so threadbare—and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker's in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o'clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late,—and when the old bookseller with some grumbling opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures,—and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome,—and when you presented it to me,—and when we were exploring the perfectness of it (collating, you called it),—and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till daybreak,—was there no pleasure in being a poor man? or can those neat black clothes which you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed since we have become rich and finical, give you half the honest vanity with which you flaunted it about in that over-worn suit, your old corbeau, for four or five weeks longer than you should have done to pacify your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen—or sixteen shillings, was it?—a great affair we thought it then—which you had lavished on the old folio? Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you, but I do not see that you ever bring me home any nice old purchases now.

"'When you came home with twenty apologies for laying out a less number of shillings upon that print after Lionardo which we christened the "Lady Blanch," when you looked at the purchase and thought of the money, and thought of the money and looked again at the picture—was there no pleasure in being a poor man? Now you have nothing to do but to walk into Colnaghi's and buy a wilderness of Lionardos. Yet, do you?

"'Then do you remember our pleasant walks to Enfield, and Potter's Bar, and Waltham when we had a holiday—holidays and all other fun are gone now we are rich—and the little hand-basket in which I used to deposit our day's fare of savory cold lamb and salad,—and how you would pry about at noontide for some decent house where we might go in and produce our store—only paying for the ale that you must call for—and speculated upon the looks of the landlady, and whether she was likely to allow us a table-cloth, and wish for such another honest hostess as Izaak Walton has described many a one on the pleasant banks of the Lea when he went a-fishing—and sometimes they would prove obliging enough and sometimes they would look grudgingly upon us—but we had cheerful looks still for one another, and would eat our plain food savorily, scarcely grudging Piscator his Trout Hall? Now, when we go out a day's pleasuring, which is seldom moreover, we ride part of the way, and go into a fine inn and order the best of dinners, never debating the expense—which after all never has half the relish of those chance country snaps, when we were at the mercy of uncertain usage and a precarious welcome.

"'You are too proud to see a play anywhere now but in the pit. Do you remember where it was we used to sit when we saw the Battle of Hexham, and the Surrender of Calais, and Bannister and Mrs. Bland in the Children in the Wood,—when we squeezed out our shillings a-piece to sit three or four times in a season in the one-shilling gallery, where you felt all the time that you ought not to have brought me, and more strongly I felt obligation to you for having brought me—and the pleasure was the better for a little shame—and when the curtain drew up what cared we for our place in the house, or what mattered it where we were sitting, when our thoughts were with Rosalind in Arden or with Viola at the Court of Illyria? You used to say that the gallery was the best place of all for enjoying a play socially,—that the relish of such exhibitions must be in proportion to the infrequency of going,—that the company we met there, not being in general readers of plays, were obliged to attend the more, and did attend, to what was going on on the stage, because a word lost would have been a chasm which it was impossible for them to fill up. With such reflections we consoled our pride then—and I appeal to you whether as a woman I met generally with less attention and accommodation than I have done since in more expensive situations in the house? The getting in, indeed, and the crowding up those inconvenient stair-cases was bad enough—but there was still a law of civility to woman recognized to quite as great an extent as we ever found in the other passages—and how a little difficulty overcome heightened the snug seat and the play afterwards! Now we can only pay our money and walk in. You cannot see, you say, in the galleries now. I am sure we saw, and heard too, well enough then—but sight and all I think is gone with our poverty.

"'There was pleasure in eating strawberries before they became quite common—in the first dish of peas while they were yet dear—to have them for a nice supper, a treat. What treat can we have now? If we were to treat ourselves now—that is to have dainties a little above our means—it would be selfish and wicked. It is the very little more that we allow ourselves beyond what the actual poor can get at, that makes what I call a treat—when two people living together as we have done, now and then indulge themselves in a cheap luxury which both like, while each apologises and is willing to take both halves of the blame to his single share. I see no harm in people making much of themselves in that sense of the word. It may give them a hint how to make much of others. But now—what I mean by the word—we never do make much of ourselves. None but the poor can do it. I do not mean the veriest poor of all, but persons, as we were, just above poverty.

"'I know what you were going to say—that it is mighty pleasant at the end of the year to make all meet,—and much ado we used to have every thirty-first night of December to account for our exceedings—many a long face did you make over your puzzled accounts, and in contriving to make it out how we had spent so much—or that we had not spent so much—or that it was impossible we should spend so much next year—and still we found our slender capital decreasing; but then, betwixt ways and projects and compromises of one sort or another, and talk of curtailing this charge and doing without that for the future—and the hope that youth brings and laughing spirits (in which you were never poor till now), we pocketed up our loss, and in conclusion, with "lusty brimmers" (as you used to quote it out of hearty, cheerful Mr. Cotton, as you called him) we used to "welcome in the coming guest. " Now we have no reckonings at all at the end of the old year—no flattering promises about the new year doing better for us.'

"Bridget is so sparing of her speech on most occasions, that when she gets into a rhetorical vein, I am careful how I interrupt it. I could not help, however, smiling at the phantom of wealth which her dear imagination had conjured up out of a clear income of poor—hundred pounds a year. 'It is true we were happier when we were poorer, but we were also younger, my cousin. I am afraid we must put up with the excess, for if we were to shake the superflux into the sea, we should not much mend ourselves. That we had much to struggle with as we grew up together, we have reason to be most thankful. It strengthened and knit our compact closer. We could never have been what we have been to each other, if we had always had the sufficiency which you now complain of. The resisting power, those natural dilations of the youthful spirit, which circumstances cannot straiten—with us are long since passed away. Competence to age is supplementary youth, a sorry supplement indeed, but I fear the best that is to be had. We must ride where we formerly walked; live better and lie softer—and we shall be wise to do so—than we had means to do in those good old days you speak of. Yet could those days return—could you and I once more walk our thirty miles a day,—could Bannister and Mrs. Bland again be young, and you and I be young again to see them,—could the good old one-shilling gallery days return—they are dreams, my cousin, now—but could you and I at this moment, instead of this quiet argument, by our well-carpeted fireside, sitting on this luxurious sofa, be once more struggling up those inconvenient stair-cases, pushed about and squeezed and elbowed by the poorest rabble of poor gallery scramblers,—could I once more hear those anxious shrieks of yours, and the delicious 'Thank God we are safe,' which always followed when the topmost stair conquered let in the first light of the whole cheerful theatre down beneath us—I know not the fathom-line that ever touched a descent so deep as I would be willing to bury more wealth in than Croesus had, or the great Jew R. is supposed to have, to purchase it." . . .

These fire-side confidences between brother and sister bring back, in all the warmth and fulness of life, that past mid which the biographer has been groping and listening to echoes.