1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Ryves

Isaac D'Israeli, in Calamities of Authors (1812; 1881) 106-10.



Of all the sorrows in which the female character may participate, there are few more affecting than those of an authoress; — often insulated and unprotected in society — with all the sensibility of the sex, encountering miseries which break the spirits of men; with the repugnance arising from that delicacy which trembles when it quits its retirement.

My acquaintance with an unfortunate lady of the name or ELIZA RYVES, was casual and interrupted; yet I witnessed the bitterness of "hope deferred, which maketh the heart sick." She sunk, by the slow wastings of grief, into a grave which probably does not record the name of its martyr of literature.

She was descended from a family of distinction in Ireland; but as she expressed it, "she had been deprived of her birthright by the chicanery of law." In her former hours of tranquillity she had published some elegant odes, had written a tragedy and comedies — all which remained in MS. In her distress she looked up to her pen as a source of existence; and an elegant genius and a woman of polished manners commenced the life of a female trader in literature.

Conceive the repulses of a modest and delicate woman in her attempts to appreciate the value of a manuscript with its purchaser. She has frequently returned from the booksellers to her dreadful solitude to hasten to her bed — in all the bodily pains of misery, she has sought in uneasy slumbers a temporary forgetfulness of griefs which were to recur on the morrow. Elegant literature is always of doubtful acceptance with the public, and Eliza Ryves came at length to try the most masculine exertions of the pen. She wrote for one newspaper much political matter; but the proprietor was too great a politician for the writer of politics, for he only praised the labour he never paid; much poetry for another, in which, being one of the correspondents of Della Crusca, in payment of her verses she got nothing but verses; the most astonishing exertion for a female pen was the entire composition of the historical and political portion of some Annual Register. So little profitable were all these laborious and original efforts, that every day did not bring its "daily bread." Yet even in her poverty her native benevolence could make her generous; for she has deprived herself of her meal to provide with one an unhappy family dwelling under the same roof.

Advised to adopt the mode of translation, and being ignorant of the French language, she retired to an obscure lodging at Islington, which she never quitted till she had produced a good version of Rousseau's Social Compact, Raynal's Letter to the National Assembly, and finally translated De la Croix's Review of the Constitutions or the principal States in Europe, in two large volumes with intelligent notes. All these works, so much at variance with her taste, left her with her health much broken, and a mind which might be said to have nearly survived the body.

Yet even at a moment so unfavourable, her ardent spirit engaged in a translation of Froissart. At the British Museum I have seen her conning over the magnificent and voluminous MS. of the old chronicler, and by its side Lord Berners' version, printed in the reign of Henry VIII. It was evident that his lordship was employed as a spy on Froissart, to inform her of what was going forward in the French camp; and she soon perceived, for her taste was delicate, that it required an ancient lord and knight, with all his antiquity of phrase, to break a lance with the still more ancient chivalric Frenchman. The familiar elegance of modern style failed to preserve the picturesque touches and the naive graces of the chronicler, who wrote as the mailed knight combated — roughly or gracefully, as suited the tilt or the field. She veiled to Lord Berners; while she felt it was here necessary to understand old French, and then to write it in old English. During these profitless labours hope seemed to be whispering in her lonely study. Her comedies had been in possession of the managers of the theatres during several years. They had too much merit to be rejected, perhaps too little to be acted. Year passed over year, and the last still repeated the treacherous promise of its brother. The mysterious arts of procrastination are by no one so well systematised as by the theatrical manager, nor its secret sorrows so deeply felt as by the dramatist. One of her comedies, The Debt of Honour, had been warmly approved at both theatres — where probably a copy of it may still be found. To the honour of one of the managers, he presented her with a hundred pounds on his acceptance of it. Could she avoid then flattering herself with an annual harvest?

But even this generous gift, which involved in it such golden promises, could not for ten years preserve its delusion. "I feel," said Eliza Ryves, "the necessity of some powerful patronage, to bring my comedies forward to the world with eclat, and secure them an admiration which, should it even be deserved, is seldom bestowed, unless some leading judge of literary merit gives the sanction of his applause and then the world will chime in with his opinion, without taking the trouble to inform, themselves whether it be founded injustice or partiality." She never suspected that her comedies were not comic! — but who dare hold an argument with an ingenious mind, when it reasons from a right principle, with it wrong application to itself? It is true that a writer's connexions have often done a great deal for a small author, and enabled some favourites of literary fashion to enjoy a usurped reputation; but it is not so evident that Eliza Ryves was a comic writer, although, doubtless, she appeared another Menander to herself. And thus an author dies in a delusion of self-flattery!

The character of Eliza Ryves was rather tender and melancholy, than brilliant and gay; and like the bruised perfume — breathing sweetness when broken into pieces. She traced her sorrows in a work of fancy, where her feelings were at least as active as her imagination. It is a small volume, entitled The Hermit of Snowden. Albert, opulent and fashionable, feels a passion for Lavinia, and meets the kindest return; but, having imbibed an ill opinion of women from his licentious connexions, he conceived they were slaves of passion, or of avarice. He wrongs the generous nature of Lavinia, by suspecting her of mercenary views; hence arise the perplexities of the hearts of both. Albert affects to be ruined, and spreads the report of an advantageous match. Lavinia feels all the delicacy of her situation; she loves, but "she never told her love." She seeks for her existence in her literary labours, and perishes in want.

In the character of Lavinia, our authoress, with all the melancholy sagacity of genius, foresaw and has described her own death! — the dreadful solitude to which she was latterly condemned, when in the last stage of her poverty; her frugal mode of life; her acute sensibility; her defrauded hopes; and her exalted fortitude. She has here formed a register of all that occurred in her solitary existence. I will give one scene — to me it is pathetic — for it is like a scene at which I was present:—

"Lavinia's lodgings were about two miles from town, in an obscure situation. I was showed up to a mean apartment, where Lavinia was sitting at work, and in a dress which indicated the greatest economy. I inquired what success she had met with in her dramatic pursuits. She waved her head and, with a melancholy smile, replied, 'that her hopes of ever bringing any piece on the stage were now entirely over; for she found that more interest was necessary for the purpose than she could command, and that she had for that reason laid aside her comedy for ever!' While she was talking, came in a favourite dog of Lavinia's, which I had used to caress. The creature sprang to my arms, and I received him with my usual fondness. Lavinia endeavoured to conceal a tear which trickled down her cheek. Afterwards she said, 'Now that I live entirely alone, I show Juno more attention than I had used to do formerly. The heart wants something to be kind to; and it consoles us for the loss of society, to see even an animal derive happiness from the endearments we bestow upon it.'"

Such was Eliza Ryves! not beautiful nor interesting in her person, but with a mind of fortitude, susceptible of all the delicacy of feminine softness, and virtuous amid her despair.