1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hester Mulso Chapone

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:152-64.



HESTER CHAPONE, the daughter of Thomas Mulso, Esq. of Twywell, in the county of Northampton, was born on the 27th of October, 1727. Her parents had a large family of children, but she and four brothers were all that attained an age of maturity.

Miss Mulso was, at an early period, remarkable for quickness of intellect and warmth of imagination; and as romances were, at that time, the fashionable reading of females, she attached herself with so much ardour to their perusal, as to be tempted to enter the lists with her eccentric authors, and to compose, at nine years of age, a romance under the title of The Loves of Amoret and Melissa. This production, though necessarily defective in style, is said to have exhibited proofs of a rich and exuberant fancy.

She was in a few years, however, perfectly convinced of the frivolity and danger of this species of reading; and, in a letter to Miss Carter, of the date of July, 1750, she has thus given her matured opinion on the subject. It is to be recollected, however, that the cast of romance thus reprobated is no longer an existing evil, and, indeed, would require more time, patience, and literary ardour, than can be expected from the present race of novel readers.

"I make no scruple to call romances the worst of all the 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 are insupportable. I have (and yet I am still alive) drudged through Le Grand Cyrus, in twelve huge volumes, (folio,) Cleopatra in eight or ten, 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."

Though Miss Mulso lost her mother early in life, the deprivation was rather beneficial than injurious to her; for, owing to continual indisposition, Mrs. Mulso was unable to superintend the education of her daughter. Upon her death, therefore, she not only undertook the management of her father's house, but endeavoured, by intense application, to recover the prior loss of time; and this she carried into execution so effectually, that she soon became mistress of the French and Italian languages, and acquired some knowledge of the classic tongues. To these acquisitions was added, by her own unassisted efforts, an extraordinary acquaintance with music; and "her voice," says the author of her life prefixed to her works, "was so sweet and powerful, her natural taste so exquisite, and her ear so accurate, that without any scientific knowledge, she could give a force of expression to Handel's compositions, that long practice ant professional skill often failed to produce."

Nor was she only diligent in acquiring the accomplishments of elegance and taste; the studies of philosophy and theology occupied a large portion of her time; for her devotion was ardent, and her reasoning powers of uncommon strength. Her enthusiastic love of genius, and her scepticism with regard to dogmatic assertion, led her, while very young, into a warm admiration of Richardson, the author of Clarissa, and into a masterly refutation of his arbitrary opinions on parental authority and filial obedience; a correspondence which has been lately published, and forms a most respectable proof of early proficiency in argumentative discussion.

It was at the house of this celebrated novelist that she became acquainted with Mr. Chapone, a young man of amiable manners, and at that time a resident in the Temple, and practicing the law. A mutual attachment was the result; but, as no property existed on either side, Mr. Mulso, though unwilling peremptorily to prohibit their union, thought it necessary to caution his daughter against the imprudence of the connection, and to request that she would not form a final engagement without his consent.

In the mean time Miss Mulso lived either under the roof of her father, or with her friends and relations, in a manner most pleasing and useful to herself; she was not debarred the occasional visits of Mr. Chapone, and literature and music divided her hours. Her winters were, for the most part, spent in London, where she was particularly distinguished by the Rev. Mr. Burrows and his sisters, a family to whose friendship and consolatory kindness she was ultimately highly indebted; and part of her summers was usually divided between the vicarage of her second brother, at Sunbury in Middlesex, the episcopal palace of her uncle the bishop of Peterborough, and the house of her eldest aunt, Mrs. Donne, of Canterbury. In this city she had the happiness of forming an intimacy with Miss Carter; a connection of infinite advantage to both, and which continued unbroken for more than half a century.

It was during this period also, and while Miss Mulso had not exceeded the age of five and twenty, that her contributions were written for the Rambler and Adventurer; these, together with an Ode to Peace, and another to Miss Carter on the philosophy of Epictetus, were among her earliest productions which she thought worthy of the press.

With Dr. Johnson, about this time she had an opportunity of occasionally conversing at the house of Mr. Richardson; and in her letters to Miss Carter there is one, dated July 10th, 1752, which records a meeting with this extraordinary character, and the result of an argument maintained by her against him.

"We had a visit whilst at Northend from your friend Mr. Johnson, and poor Mrs. Williams. I was charmed with his behaviour to her, which was like that of a fond father to his daughter. She seemed much pleased with her visit; shewed very good sense, with a great deal of modesty and humility; and so much patience and cheerfulness under her misfortune, that it doubled my concern for her. Mr. Johnson was very communicative and entertaining, and did me the honour to address most of his discourse to me. I had the assurance to dispute with him on the subject of human malignity, and wondered to hear a man who by his actions shews so much benevolence, maintain that the human heart is naturally malevolent, and that all the benevolence we see in the few who are good is acquired by reason and religion. You may believe I entirely disagreed with him, being, as you know, fully persuaded that benevolence, or the love of our fellow-creatures, is as much a part of our nature as self-love; and that it cannot be suppressed, or extinguished, without great violence from the force of other passions. I told him, I suspected him of these bad notions from some of his Ramblers, and had accused him to you; but that you persuaded me I had mistaken his sense. To which he answered, that if he had betrayed such sentiments in the Ramblers, it was not with design; for that he believed the doctrine of human malevolence, though a true one, is not an useful one, and ought not to be published to the world. Is there any truth that would not be useful, or that should not be known?"

At length, toward the close of the year 1760, Miss Mulso was united to the man of her choice, on the same day on which her eldest brother was married to a Miss Prescott. Mr. Chapone immediately took lodgings in Carey-street, that he might be, on account of his wife, as near as possible to his chambers, where he was under the necessity of carrying on his business. He took, however, soon afterwards, a small house in Arundel-street, which he fitted up and furnished with much neatness.

Mrs. Chapone now enjoyed as much happiness as human imperfection will admit. Her esteem and affection for her husband were unbounded; and he returned it with a warmth and kindness which rendered their connection productive of mutual and uninterrupted pleasure.

The duration, however, which Providence had assigned to their connubial felicity was, alas! but very short; the hand of death deprived Mrs. Chapone of her beloved husband within ten months after their union! The severity of this blow was so keenly felt, that her life was for some time in considerable danger; but, at length, the assiduities of her friends, and the consolations arising from religion, had their due weight, and she gradually recovered her spirits and her peace of mind.

As her circumstances would not admit of her keeping house, she retired into lodgings, where she lived with great respectability and comfort, and happy in her numerous friends. She had, however, in about two years after the death of Mr. Chapone, another heavy loss to deplore in the decease of her father, who had ever treated her with the utmost confidence, and with the tenderest parental love.

In the year 1766 Mrs. Chapone made an excursion into Yorkshire, and spent several months with her second brother, who then held the living of Thornhill, near Wakefield; and in 1770 she accompanied her friend Mrs. Montagu into Scotland. With the tour which she took with this accomplished lady she was highly delighted: writing to Mrs. Carter from a country so romantic, she has given the following picture of one of its most striking scenes. "The rude magnificence of nature, in the degree it is displayed in Scotland, was quite new to me, and furnished me with ideas I never before was in possession of. At Taymouth, indeed, every conceivable beauty of landscape is united with the sublime. Such a lake! such variegated hills rising from its banks! such mountains, and such cloud-cap'd rocks rising behind them! such a delicious green valley to receive the 'sweet winding Tay!' such woods! such cascades! in short, I am wild that you and all my romantic friends should see it; for even Milton's pen, or a Salvator Rosa's pencil, would fail to give you a complete idea of it. Several more sweet places we saw, which would have made capital figures, had they not been eclipsed by Lord Bredalbane's. My intellectual pleasures were as great in their kind, from the conversations of Mrs. Montagu and Dr. Gregory, who accompanied us in all our journeys, and is one of the most agreeable men I ever met with."

In the year 1773 Mrs. Chapone's first work, with her name prefixed, appeared before the public; it was intituled "Letters on the Improvement of the Mind," and being addressed to her favourite niece, the eldest daughter of the Rev. John Mulso, was originally intended for private use. Through the persuasions of Mrs. Montagu, however, she was induced to commit it to the press, dedicated to that lady, and divided into ten letters. The first three are on the subject of Religion; the fourth and fifth on the Regulation of the Heart and Affections; the sixth on the Government of the Temper; the seventh on Economy; the eighth on Politeness and Accomplishments; and the ninth and tenth on Geography, Chronology, and History.

The reception of this work was such as Mrs. Montagu had predicted; it was the object of general approbation, and soon became extensively circulated. It is, indeed, one of the best books that can be put into the hands of female youth. The style is easy and pure, the advice practical and sound, and the whole uniformly tends to promote the noblest principles of morality and religion. The reputation which Mrs. Chapone obtained by this publication induced many persons anxiously to seek her acquaintance; and, as she was known not to be affluent, there were several also who would willingly have engaged her, upon any terms, to superintend the education of their daughters. Averse, however, to such a charge, she constantly, though politely, rejected all offers of the kind.

Stimulated by the well-founded partiality of her friends, Mrs. Chapone ventured on another appeal to the public, in the year 1775, by the production of a volume of Miscellanies. This elegant little work consists of Essays and Poems; the first part including, beside the Story of Fidelia, observations on Affectation and Simplicity, on Conversation, on Enthusiasm and Indifference in Religion, and a Letter to a new-married Lady. The Poems, which are for the most part the effusions of very early life, possess a strain of pleasing and pensive morality, and particularly the Ode to Solitude, which is, in my opinion, greatly superior to the rest.

Few persons have ever more bitterly experienced one of the consequences of advanced life, the loss of friends and relations, than Mrs. Chapone; from 1778 to within a short period of her own death, almost every year brought with it a deprivation of this melancholy kind. Her aunt, her uncle, her beloved companions the Burrows's, with the exception of Mrs. Amy Burrows, her three brothers, and her favourite niece, beside many friends, were all taken from her; she stood, in fact, comparatively alone, insulated as it were amid society; and though ever patient, and struggling against affliction with a smile she bent before the throne of woe — A face of smiles, a heart of tears!

The loss of her last brother and of her eldest niece, in 1799, completed the sum of her distress; her mind yielded to the shock, and her intellects became visibly impaired. That nothing was omitted by her remaining friends and relations, to soothe and mitigate her sorrows, we have the testimony of her latest biographer. Mrs. Burrows in particular scarcely ever left Mrs. Chapone, when with her youngest niece she retired to Hadley in the autumn of 1800, but was, with Miss Burrows, her constant visitor. At this place, on the evening of Christmas day, 1801, and in the seventy-fourth year of her age, Mrs. Chapone expired, without a struggle, in the arms of her niece.

It is scarcely necessary to say, even after the brief account which we have given of Mrs. Chapone, that with abilities of a superior kind, both natural and acquired, she was humble, benevolent, and religious; that she was warmly beloved by her friends, and admired by all who knew her.

The contributions to the Rambler and Adventurer, which have given her a place in these volumes, are four billets in No. 10 of the former work, and the story of Fidelia in Nos. 77, 78, and 79, of the latter. The billets form one of the very few real correspondences with which Johnson was favoured, though, at the commencement of the paper in which they are inserted, he has, with the customary licence of periodical writers, boasted of the number of his correspondents, and of their increase from day to day.

The history of Fidelia represents, in a very interesting and pathetic manner, the total inefficacy of Deism as a source of rectitude and consolation, and exposes, through the mean of a striking example, the dreadful mischiefs which are often the result of infidelity. The incidents of this tale are contrived with much ingenuity, and they form one of the most instructive lessons in the Adventurer.