1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Brownell Jameson

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1860); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 113-20.



Mrs. Jameson's name and works have been so long before the world that there is a prevalent impression that she was one of the marked generation who could describe to us the early operation of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, the first days of the Regency, and the panics on account of the French Invasion. It was not exactly so; nor, on the other hand, did Anna Murphy rush into print, or into fame, while yet in her teens. She was born in the last century; but it must have been very near the end of it; for there is a strong character of youth and inexperience about her first work, though it was known by her married name as soon as any name at all was affixed to it. Her father, the artist Murphy, Painter in Ordinary to the Princess Charlotte, was in the habit of taking up his abode for a few months at a time in some provincial town where the inhabitants were disposed to sit for their portraits. In one of those cities (Norwich) he was living temporarily, when the Diary of an Ennuyee came out, and was immediately in all the book-clubs. At a party made for Mr. Murphy, the half-hour before dinner was beguiled by lively criticism on the book, in which more or fewer faults were found by every person present At length, Mr. Murphy was asked whether he could give any information about the author. Had he ever met her? Was he acquainted with her? How well acquainted? — for some uneasiness began to prevail. "She is my daughter," was the reply, which plunged the whole company in dismay. Mrs. Jameson was not a little troubled at the consequences of her mistake in that case, of mixing up a real journal with a sentimental fiction, in order to disguise the authorship. This mistake of mere inexperience exposed her to charges of bad faith in regard to her travelling companions, and to ridicule on account of the pathos of her own fictitious death. She was anxious to have it understood that there had been a want of co-operation between herself and her publishers; and she wisely withdrew the book in its first form, revised the best parts of it, and republished it with various welcome additions, as Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad. In its first form the work appeared in 1826: in the second, in 1834. One incident of the case ought, perhaps, to be considered; that her object in putting this journal to press was understood to be to afford immediate pecuniary aid to Mr. Jameson under some difficulty of the moment. And here it is best to say the little that should be said about the marriage of the parties. Mr. Jameson was a man of considerable ability and legal accomplishment, filling with honor the posts of Speaker of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada, and the Attorney-General of the Colony; and he is spoken of with respect by his personal friends in England; but the marriage was a mistake on both sides. The husband and wife separated almost immediately, and for many years. In 1836, Mrs. Jameson joined her husband at Toronto; but it was for a very short time; and they never met again. This is all that the world has any business with; and the chief interest to the world, even that far, arises from the effect produced on Mrs. Jameson's views of life and love, of persons and their experience, by her irksome and unfortunate position during a desolate wedded life of nearly thirty years. Mr. Jameson died in 1854.

The energy of Mrs. Jameson's mind became immediately manifest by the courage with which she returned to the press after the disheartening first failure; and she had, we believe, no more failures to bear. She became a very popular writer; and to the end of her life she proved that her power was genuine by the effect of appreciation upon the exercise of it. She did not deteriorate as a writer, but improved as far as the quality of her mind permitted. She had the great merit of diligence, as well as activity in intellectual labor. She worked much and well, putting her talents to their full use — and all the more strenuously the more favor they found. Another great merit, shown from first to last, was that she never mistook her function; never overrated the kind of work she applied herself to; never undervalued the philosophy to which she could not pretend, nor supposed that she had written immortal works in pouring out her emotions and fancies for her personal solace and enjoyment. Perhaps her own account of her own authorship may be cited as the fairest that could be given.

In the introduction to her Characteristics of Shakspere's Women, she says: "Not now nor ever have I written to flatter any prevailing fashion of the day, for the sake of profit, though this is done by many who have less excuse for coining their brains. This little book was undertaken without a thought of fame or money. Out of the fulness of my own heart and soul have I written it. In the pleasure it gave me — in the new and varied forms of human nature it has opened to me — in the beautiful and soothing images it has placed before me — in the exercise and improvement of my own faculties — I have already been repaid." She could honestly have said this of each work in its turn, we doubt not.

This book, the Characteristics of Women, was apparently the most popular of her works; and it is perhaps the one which best illustrates her quality of mind. It appeared in 1832, having been preceded by The Loves of the Poets, and Lives of Celebrated Female Sovereigns. The Characteristics appeared a great advance on the three earlier works; and it was, at first sight, a very winning book. Wherever the reader opened, the picture was charming; and the analysis seemed to be acute, delicate, and almost philosophical. After a second portrait the impression was somewhat less enthusiastic; and when, at the end of four or five, it was found difficult to bring away any clear conception of any, and to tell one from another, it was evident that there was no philosophy in all this, but only fancy and feeling. The notorious mistake in regard to Lady Macbeth, to whom Mrs. Jameson attributes an intellect loftier than that of her husband, indicates the true level of a work which is yet full of charm from its suggestiveness, and frequent truth of sentiment. Mrs. Jameson's world-wide reputation dates from the publication of this book.

It secured her an enthusiastic reception in the United States, when she went there on her way to Canada, in 1836. There could hardily be a more "beautiful fit" than that of Mrs. Jameson and the literary society of the great American cities, where the characteristics of women are perpetually in all people's thoughts and on all people's tongues; where chivalric honor to woman is a matter of national pride; and sentiment flourishes as it does in all youthful societies. Mrs. Jameson — pouring out, with her Irish vehemence, a great accumulation of emotions and imaginations, about Ireland and O'Connell, about Shakspere and the Kembles, about German sentiment and Art, Italian paintings, the London stage, and all the ill-usage that women with hearts had received from men who had none — must have been in a state of high enjoyment, and the cause of high enjoyment to others.

From the genial welcomes of New York and New England she rushed into a wild Indian life, which she has presented admirably in the work which followed her return — Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. In that book appeared with painful distinctness the blemishes which marred much of her writing and her conversation, as well as her views of life, from the date of that trip to Canada — a tendency to confide her trouble to the public, or all from whom she could hope to win sympathy — and a morbid construction of the facts and evidences of social life in England. The courage with which she has frequently spoken for benevolent purposes on topics of great difficulty and disgust is honorable to her; and she has said much that is awakening, and stimulating on subjects of deep practical concern; but her influences would have been of a higher order if she had not been prepossessed by personal griefs, and rendered liable to dwell on the scenery of human passions in one direction till it became magnified beyond all reason. But for this drawback, and that of her unsettled life, which was a perpetual flitting from place to place, for purposes of Art-study chiefly, perhaps, but in no small degree from restlessness, and craving for society and its luxuries, she might have done more for the security and elevation of her sex than perhaps any other person of her generation. She did a great deal by the pen, by discourse, and by the warm sympathy she gave to the actively great women of the age. She spread the fame of the chief Sisters of Charity of our day; she worked hard to get Schools of Design opened to women; and she published in 1855 an excellent Lecture on Sisters of Charity Abroad and at Home. The drawback was in the incessant recurrence to considerations of sex, whatever the topic, and the constant conclusion that the same point of view was taken by everybody else.

In three very different departments Mrs. Jameson was an active worker: in literature, as we have seen in ameliorating the condition of women in England, by exposing the disabilities and injuries in the field of industry and the chance medley of education; and, again, in the diffusion of the knowledge of Art. Time will probably decide that in this last department her labors have been most effective. Her early readiness to assume the function of Art-critic gave way in time, in some measure, to the more fitting pretention of making Handbooks of Art Collections, and some valuable keys to Art-types, supplied in an historical form. In regard to pictures, as to life and men, her point of view was at first intensely subjective; and her interpretations were liable to error in proportion; so that her knowledge of Art, was denied by the highest authorities. But she studied long, and familiarized herself with so extensive a range of Art, that her metaphysical tendencies were to a considerable extent corrected, and she popularized a great deal of knowledge which would not otherwise have been brought within reach of the very large class of readers of her later works. Her Handbook to our public galleries, her Companion to our private galleries (in and near London), are works of real utility; and there is much that is instructive as well as charming in her Legends of the Monastic Orders, and of the Madonna. After issuing these works between 1848 and 1852, she returned to her favorite habit of authorship — collecting Thoughts, Memoirs, and Fancies from her Common-place Book, and shedding them into the world, under the two divisions which describe the contemplations of her life — "Ethics and Character," and "Literature and Art." The impression left is uniform with that of all her works, — that of a warm-hearted and courageous woman, of indomitable sociability of nature, large liberalities, and deep prejudices.

Her works have been received as happy accidents; and, long after they have ceased to be sought and regularly read, some touch of nature in them, some trait of insight, or ingenuity of solution will come up in fireside conversation, or in literary intercourse, and remind a future generation that in ours there was a restless, expatiating, fervent, unreasoning, generous, accomplished Mrs. Jameson among the lights of the time, by no means hiding her lustre under a bushel, or being too closely shut up at home; a great benefit to her time from her zeal for her sex and for Art; but likely to have been a greater if she could have carried less of herself and her experiences into her pictures and her interpretations of life.

There is not much to say of the mode of living of one who lived in pictures and in speech — whose existence was a pilgrimage in search, or in honor, of the Arts of Expression. Her circumstances were made easy, after Mr. Jameson's death, by a tribute from her friends and admirers, invested for that purpose. She enjoyed life, whatever had been its troubles and mortifications; and the pleasures of the imagination, and the stimulus of society, were as animating to her as they were necessary, as disease advanced and strength wasted away.