1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hester Mulso Chapone

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Mrs. Chapone" Censura Literaria 5 (1807) 308-20.



Mrs. CHAPONE was descended from the ancient family of Mulso of Twywell in Northamptonshire. Hester, daughter of Thomas Mulso, of Twywell, Esq. by a sister of John Thomas, D.D. Bishop of Winchester, was born October 27, 1727. She had four brothers, of whom Thomas, the eldest, was a barrister, and author of Callistus, or the Man of Fashion, and Sophronius; or The Country Gentleman, in three Dialogues, 1768, 8vo. and died Feb. 7, 1799, aged 78; and John, the second, having been educated at Winchester, from which seminary he came off third upon the roll, when Collins, the poet, was first, and Joseph Warton, the second, was afterwards Prebendary of Winton and Salisbury, and died 1791.

Miss Mulso's education was somewhat neglected, for which she made amends by her own exertions. She was not handsome; but she was full of sensibility, and energy; of quick apprehension, and attractive manners. At an early age she lost her mother, who had been too much of a beauty, and too much of an invalid, to attend to her instruction. From this period she dedicated her time to self-improvement, and made herself mistress of the French and Italian languages, and even attained some knowledge of the Latin. But she displayed not merely the talent of memory; she discovered a very strong power of discrimination and judgment. Her fancy and warm feelings made her delight in poetry; her sound sense gave her a love of philosophy.

Her admiration of genius made her an early worshipper of Sam. Richardson, to whom she yet could not surrender up her opinions; and with whom she entered into an able correspondence on the subject of filial obedience. When this correspondence, which is now published, took place, she had not completed her twenty-third year. Her Letters display much ability, and strength and clearness of mind. At this period she passed part of her time in Mr. Richardson's society; and here she met, and conceived a mutual affection for, Mr. Chapone, a young gentleman of the law, her future husband: though some years elapsed before the marriage took place. In the interval she lived with her father; while her society was widely sought, and her accomplishments were generally acknowledged. Her maternal uncle was then Bishop of Peterborough; and her aunt the wife of Dr. Donne, a Prebendary of Canterbury, residing much at that Cathedral, she paid frequent visits to those places, and at the latter, became acquainted with the celebrated Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, who was a frequent guest in the house of Dr. Lynch, the Dean.

Her correspondence with Mrs. Carter appears to have commenced in Sept. 1749. An Ode, which she wrote at this time, appears to have procured Mrs. Carter's high praise. It seems that thus early these friends had a good-natured controversy regarding the merits of Richardson, whom Mrs. Carter blamed for his prolixity and minuteness. A specimen of one of these letters deserves insertion,

Miss Mulso to Miss Carter.

And so, my dear Miss Carter, you would have me give you an account of the new work in which Mr. Richardson is engaged; this poor, puzzling, storytelling Mr. Richardson! But notwithstanding your naughty raillery, I will not punish you so severely as to forestal, and thereby lessen the pleasure you will receive when this new work is finished, though, perhaps, you may think it tedious. For my own part, I cannot give it a higher commendation than to say I think it will be, if possible, superior to Clarissa; yet I must own to you I don't believe it will be short. Indeed I am a little surprised that you, who are impatient with Mr. Richardson's prolixity, should ever descend to the most tedious as well as unedifying kind of reading in the world; I mean a romance. I make no scruple to call romances the worst of all species of writing; unnatural representations of the passions, false sentiments, false precepts, false wit, false honour, and false modesty, with a strange heap of improbable, unnatural incidents mixed up with true history, and fastened upon some of the great names of antiquity, make up the composition of a romance; at least of such as I have read, which have been mostly French ones. Then the prolixity and poverty of the style is insupportable. I have, (and yet I am still alive) drudged through Le Grand Cyrus, in 12 huge volumes; Cleopatra, in 8 or 10; Polexander; Ibrahim; Clelie; and some others, whose names, as well as all the rest of them, I have forgotten; but this was in the days, when I did not chuse my own books, for there was no part of my life in which I loved romances. Perhaps those of Cervantes may be out of the common way; I should hardly think it possible for him to write a book which had not in it something admirable; and yet I think there are one or two very paltry novels in his Don Quixote."

Extract from another Letter, Sept. 9, 1750.

"I am reading Dr. Young's Right Thoughts; I must own, with great labour both of mind and tongue. Every word you say against my Mr. Richardson, I will revenge myself for upon your Dr, Young. Yet I admire his thoughts, and revere him as a philosopher and a man; only I cannot help lamenting that he should have blundered so egregiously as to fancy himself a poet. Sure never was sense so entangled in briers as his! Instead of the flowers of language, his thoughts are wrapt up I thorns and thistles. I am sure it has cost me much toil and pain to untwist them; and to say the truth. I like them as I do gooseberries, well enough when they are picked for me, but not well enough to gather them. Yet, upon the strength of your recommendation, I think I am resolved to go through with them though my, tongue is already sore; for you must know I always read aloud here. If ever you read one of his Nights aloud, pity my tongue! But in good earnest don't you think he should have left off with the Fourth Night? which I own is very fine. Don't you think the fifth and sixth sink terribly after it? I am afraid you will despise me for speaking thus of your favourite author, and, to appease you, I will own that I think he has many extreme fine thoughts, and some few fine lines; but his numbers are in general so much the reverse of tuneful, and his language so affectedly obscure, nay, in some places so absolutely unintelligible to me, that I think upon the whole of what I have read (that is of the first Six Nights) I cannot admire the work; but have been oftener disgusted and tired with it than pleased."

In the next letter, she adds "In justice to myself, that you may not think me absolutely tasteless, I think I should tell you that I have lately read Dr. Young's Universal Passion, and am ready to retract all I said against him as a poet, and confine my saucy censures entirely to that single performance of his, which I cannot reconcile myself to, the Night Thoughts. I think the four first satires equal to any of Pope's. Those upon Women, are, in my opinion, much inferior to the others, which I hope may be accounted for to the credit of the sex. I am grieved to take notice of that servile flattery, which you so justly condemn in Doctor Young, and which is so unworthy of his character. It could never have appeared in a more shocking light than as it is introduced in a work, in which the author seems to be got above the world, and almost above humanity."

In the letter which follows, she condemns Fielding's Amelia with considerable force; and supports her observations ably against Mrs. Carter's defence of that work. Her criticism appears to me so just, and so powerfully stated, that I think it a duty to transcribe it.

Letter X.

"I am extremely obliged to you for gratifying my curiosity with your reasons for speaking so favourably of Arnelia, though, at the same time, I am not a little mortified to find that cannot assent to all you say. I am afraid I have less mercy in my disposition than you, for I cannot think with so much lenity of the character of Booth; which, though plainly designed as an amiable one by the author, is, in my opinion, contemptible and wicked. 'Rather frail than wicked!' Dear Miss Carter! that is what I complain of, that Fielding contrives to gloss over gross and monstrous faults in such a manner, that even his virtuous readers shall call them frailties. How bad may be the consequence of such representations, to those who are interested in the deception, and glad to find that their favourite vices are kept in countenance by a character, which is designed to engage the esteem and good wishes of the reader. Had I not reason to accuse the author of 'softening or hiding the deformity of vice,' when infidelity, adultery, gaming, and extravagance, (the three last accompanied with all the aggravation that the excellence of a wife and the distress of a young family could give them) are so gently reproved even by Miss Carter? 'His amour with Miss Mathews,' you say, 'however blameable, was attended with some alleviating circumstances:' what these were, I am unable to discover. I think none but an abandoned heart, incapable of the least delicacy, and lost to the love of virtue and abhorrence of vice, could have entertained any thoughts but of horror and detestation for that fiend of a woman, after hearing her story. Consider too the circumstances they both were in; Miss Mathews uncertain whether her life was not to atone for her crime; Booth in the deepest distress; his Amelia and her children left helpless and miserable; a gaol the scene of their amour! What a mind must that be, which in such circumstances could find itself under any temptation from the person of a woman whose crimes were so shocking, whose disposition was so hateful, and whose shameless advances were so disgusting! How mean was his submitting to owe obligations to her! Indeed I do think him a very wretched fellow, and I should not have cared sixpence, had the book ended with his being hanged. In poetical justice I almost think he should have been so. Poor Amelia would have been rid of a good-for-nothing husband, whose folly and wickedness gave her continual distress. Dr. Harrison would have taken her and her children home with him, where I will suppose she spent her life in great tranquillity, after having recovered her fortune. Have I not made a fine catastrophe? Now are you quite angry with me? I think I hear you call me, 'cruel, bloody-minded wretch!' Well then, in complaisance to your tenderness, I will suffer him to live, but indeed I cannot suffer him to be a favoured character; I can't help despising him, and wondering that Amelia did not do so too. I agree with you entirely in what you say of the mixture of virtues and faults, which make up the generality of characters, and I am also apt to believe, that the virtues have most commonly the predominant share; but if this is the case in real life, Mr. Fielding's representation of it is not just; for in most of his characters the vices predominate. Dr. Harrison, Amelia, and the honest Serjeant are, indeed, exceptions; Booth himself I cannot allow to be one, for I do not find that he had any virtues equivalent to his faults. Good nature, when it is merely constitutional, and has no principle to support it, can hardly be reckoned a virtue, and you see that in him it was not strong enough to keep him from injuring and distressing those he loved best, when temptation came in his way. His regard to his wife's honour may be attributed to his love; at best it is but a negative goodness, and only proves him not a monster. I cannot help believing that Fielding has a very low opinion of human nature, and that his writings tend to enforce it on his readers; and I own I am always offended with writers of that cast. What end can it serve to persuade men they are Yahoos, but to make them act agreeably to that character, and despair of attaining a better! Is it not the common plea of wicked men that they follow nature? Whereas they have taken pains to debauch and corrupt their nature, and have by degrees reconciled it to crimes, that simple, uncorrupted nature would start at."

In 1753 Miss Mulso, encouraged by the importunity of her friends, sent the story of Fidelia to the Adventurer, which forms No. 77, 78, and 79, of that work. On the publication of Mrs. Carter's Epictetus, 1758, an Ode by Miss Mulso was prefixed to it.

In 1760 she married Mr. Chapone: but this union was of short duration, by the death of her husband, who, in about ten months, was seized by a violent fever, which soon terminated fatally, Sept. 1761. This was at once the grave of her affection, and the ruin of her fortune, for her sorrow was aggravated by being left in narrow circumstances, which filled the remainder of her life with difficulties. This deep stroke upon her happiness was followed by an alarming illness, which for a short time seemed to threaten her own life.

In 1762 she became acquainted with Mrs. Montagu, by means of Mrs. Carter; and cultivated an intimacy which continued till the death of the former, whom she did not long survive. Of this lady's Essay on Shakespeare Mrs. Chapone thus speaks. "I am struck with beauties in every line, but do not recollect being struck with any faults, except those of the printer. I do most sincerely think it as elegant and brilliant as composition as I ever read; and what particularly charms me is the fund of good sense and sound judgment it shews, in the midst of that profusion of wit, which in other works so often serves to cover a deficiency of good sense. I am told the world has been much distrest to find out the author, and has given it to some of the first wits of the other sex, little inclined to attribute the honour of it to ours. But I flatter myself it begin to be whispered all around the town; for I can't bear the thought of its being kept a secret."

Letter LI. Sept. 21, 1770, (or 1771.) "I have read Mrs. Scott's Life of D'Aubigne with much pleasure, and think the style much superior to an thing else I have seen of hers. I fancy she had some assistance in that article. How surprising it is that Sully should mention so great a man as D'Aubigne so seldom, and with such contempt! Never taking notice of any of his exploits, and speaking of him as a man remarkable only for sedition and slander! How constantly is great vanity accompanied by envy! I always thought Sully abounded in the former, but did not know before that he was so strongly tinctured by the latter. I do not condemn Henry for not loving D'Aubigne; for certainly with all his great qualities, he was inexcusably insolent to the King, and shewed no personal regard for him, nor good will to monarchy. His zeal was confined to the Huguenot party; for I cannot place it all to the account of religion. Had the free exercise of that been all they aimed at, the edict of Nantz would have quieted them, and we should not have seen D'Aubigne concurring in an attempt to rekindle the war which had so nearly destroyed his country, as soon as the weakness of administration afforded an opportunity for it. I think him therefore no true patriot, though a zealous religionist. His history is however entertaining, and characters interesting. I hope the work meets with applause in the world."

In 1770 Mrs. Chapone accompanied Mrs. Montagu on a tour into Scotland. In 1772 she wrote her Letters on the Improvement of the Mind; and published them the following year. She thus speaks of them in a letter, dated July 20, 1773. "I am much obliged by the kind interest you take in the success of my publication, which has indeed been far beyond my expectation. The bookseller is preparing a second edition with all haste, the whole of the first being gone out of his hands, which considering that he printed off 1500 at first, is an extraordinary quick sale," &c.

Dec. 14, 1773. "Poor Dr. Hawksworth! His death happened at an ill time for his fame, and one cannot but wish it had pleased God to take him out of the world before he had cast a shade upon a reputation so very respectable as a moral and religious writer. Many suppose that the censures of the world occasioned his death, but I am not very ready to believe in such kind of causes, which are always assigned upon the remotest probability."

In 1775 Mrs. Chapone published her Miscellanies in prose and verse, in one vol. sm. 8vo. and in 1777 her Letter to a new married Lady. The following extract from a letter, June 16, 1777, alludes to these: "Many thanks to you, my dear Mrs. Carter, for your most kind letter. I have been very little at home since I received it, or should have been quicker in my acknowledgments; for indeed the great pleasure it conveyed to me, demanded them immediately. I hope there is no harm in being exquisitely gratified by the approbation you are so good as to express on a second reading of my little publications; the hope which you confirm of their being capable of doing some good, has indeed afforded me an inexpressible satisfaction, which, as far as I know my own heart, is not founded in vanity. It appeases, in some measure, that uneasy sense of helplessness and insignificancy in society, which has often depressed and afflicted me; and gives me some comfort with respect to the poor account I can give of 'That one talent, which is death to hide.'"

At the end of the year 1778, Mrs. Chapone lost her aunt, Mrs. Thomas; and in May 1781, she lost her uncle, the venerable bishop, at the age of 86; but she continued a frequent visitor at the houses of his three daughters, Mrs. Ogle, Mrs. Buller, and Lady Ogle. Death however began now to make great havoc among her relations and friends, particularly the families of Smith and Burrows of Hadley. In 1791 she was deprived of her brother John, at whose residences in Hampshire she was in the habit of spending part of every summer. Severe as were these deprivations in various ways, she sustained them with admirable fortitude.

The autumns of 1797 and 1798 she spent at the deanery of Winchester, where she had the delight of seeing some of her nearest and dearest relations around her. But the clouds of night were now gathering to break no more before her in this world. In 1799 she lost her eldest and only surviving brother; and she had to wear out her few sorrowful days, in narrow circumstances, opprest by age, and separated by the grave from all her fondest connections. Her faculties began to decay, and she sunk into a state of alarming debility. She retired to a small residence at Hadley, where she died on Christmas day, 1801, aet. 74.

Mrs. Chapone was of a lively and sanguine temperament, possessed of humour and sagacity, and knowledge of the world, which made her an entertaining companion, and a sound advisor. Her disposition was kind and amiable, and her principles were excellent.

Mrs. Barbauld observes [author's note: Memoirs of Mrs. Chapone, in Orridge's Annual Register, 1801, p. 390], that "her poems, which have the merit of many beautiful thoughts and some original images, seem not to have been sufficiently appreciated by the public; for they were not greatly noticed, owing perhaps to the mode of their publication." It is probable that had Mrs. Chapone exercised he mind more in poetical production, she would not have proved herself deficient in talents for it. But it must be admitted, that what has hitherto appeared, is neither sufficiently striking, nor of sufficient size. The best is perhaps An Irregular Ode to Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, who had recommended to me the Stoic philosophy as productive of fortitude; and who was about to publish a Translation of Epictetus. The last stanza is forcibly exprest:

Nor thou, Eliza, who from early youth,
By Genius led, by Virtue train'd,
Hast sought the fountain of eternal truth,
And each fair spring of knowledge drain'd,
Nor thou, with fond chimeras vain,
With Stoic pride, and fancied scorn
Of human feelings, human pain,
My feeble soul sustain!
Far nobler precepts should thy page adorn,
O, rather guide me to the sacred source
Of real wisdom, real force,
Thy life's fair Truth her radiant form unshrouds,
Thro' wrapp'd in thick impenetrable clouds,
She mark'd the labours of the Grecian school.