The brilliancy and attractiveness of the Sheridans has already been commented upon; but of the whole literary portion of the race — commencing with and excepting the witty Richard Brinsley — not one has been so distinguished as Caroline Elizabeth Sarah, the second daughter of Thomas Sheridan, and the granddaughter of the great dramatist.
She was brought up, like her sisters, Lady Dufferin and the Duchess of Somerset, in comparative retirement at Hampton Court. Their mother, who was the daughter of Colonel and Lady Elizabeth Callander, was a wise and good woman, and carefully educated her three beautiful daughters. The eldest made a happy marriage; the youngest, one equally happy and brilliant; and the second sister, and the subject of this memoir, became the wife of a man who ill-treated her and held her fair fame up to public scorn.
When Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was about sixteen, she attracted the attention of the Hon. George Chapple Norton, brother of Lord Grantley. He proposed to her mother for her, who refused the offer on the plea of her daughter's youth. Three years later he again proposed, and in her nineteenth year Miss Caroline Sheridan became the Hon. Mrs. Norton, the name by which she is best known in literature. In the meantime, however, she had become acquainted with and deeply attached to a gentleman, whose early death alone hindered their union.
Her marriage was not a happy one; and she and her husband were permanently separated in 1840. The world is quite aware of the slanders to which this unhappy woman was exposed, and also knows that she was triumphantly acquitted of the base charges preferred against her. Her unsullied reputation was established; and her memory deserves to be held in veneration and admiration for the courageous manner in which she overcame the malignity of unmerited persecution, pursued and persevered in for interested and sordid motives.
Never was there a woman whose actions were more wantonly and cruelly misrepresented than those of Lady Stirling-Maxwell when Mrs. Norton. She was married to a man whose barbarity and vindictiveness of disposition bordered on insanity; who used physical violence to her; whom she supported by her literary labours; and who squandered her earnings upon his own pleasures. He took her children from her and gave them into the custody of a woman with whom he was intimate. Finally he dragged her great name through the mire, and, in a public common police-court, charged her with the grossest crimes.
"Mr. Norton," says a recent writer in the Athenaeum, "was a younger son, with a small fortune, a barrister without capacity or business, and a sensualist who was not particular how his enjoyments were paid for. He coaxed his wife into asking the Home Secretary to make him a police magistrate; and he bullied her into earning more than his salary by her pen. Writing against time in periodicals of all kinds, from week to week, and month to month, without leisure for study or revision, it could not be expected that her compositions should display the highest degree of excellence. But from 1830 to 1836 her name was up, and half the publishers of London were competing for fragments, sketches, tales, verses, or anything else she chose to give them. In one year she reminded her ungrateful husband that she had made £1400 in this way; and as she was then in the zenith of female loveliness, she was universally sought after in society, and became the centre of a circle to which every one of wit or celebrity longed to be admitted. The once gay and still fascinating Melbourne came with the rest, and, having been her father's contemporary and friend, soon grew familiar. Mr. Norton tried hard to turn his acquaintance to account, alternately begging for a more lucrative office or a loan of money. The Minister was disgusted, and, with Leycester Stanhope and Edward Ellice, tried to make him treat his wife more worthily."
The world knows what was the result of all this. Mr. Norton finally sought £10,000 damages from Lord Melbourne, as compensation for alleged familiarity with his wife. The trial was the great event of 1836, and the jury, after conferring together for a few seconds, acquitted both Mrs. Norton and Lord Melbourne of the charges against them. Previous to the trial, her husband had so worked upon her feelings with apparently remorseful letters, that she had returned to him. In her eloquent tract entitled "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century," she shows that this was part of a deeply-laid plot: — "After the trial was over, I consulted whether a divorce, 'by reason of cruelty,' might not be pleaded for me; and I laid before my lawyers the many instances of violence, injustice, and ill-usage, of which the trial was but the crowning example. I was then told that no divorce I could obtain would break my marriage; that I could not plead cruelty 'which I had forgiven'; that by returning to Mr. Norton I had condoned all I complained of."
Her lot was certainly a hard one; and we shall pass over these unhappy episodes as quickly as possible. Her husband continued to annoy her: reduced her annual allowance, and again publicly assailed her character. One more extract from her own eloquent appeal to the English public, will best tell her tale:—
"My husband being desirous to raise money settled on me and my sons, to employ on his separate estate, and requiring my consent in writing before that could be done, gave me exchange for such consent a written contract drawn up by a lawyer, and signed by that lawyer and himself. When he had obtained and employed the money he was desirous to raise, like Mr. Patton, of Virginia, he resolved to 'rescind the contract.' When I, like the slave Norris, endeavoured to struggle against this gross breach of faith, I was informed that by the law of England, 'a married woman could not make a contract or have moneys of her own.' When I complained of it, I was punished by a flood of libelous accusations, published in all the English newspapers; libels for which, though proved falsehoods, I could obtain no redress, because they were published by my husband. The circumstance that Mr. Norton, like Mr. Patton, had obtained all the advantage he sought when he went through the formality and pretence of making a contract with me, made no difference; and as to money, even that which I earned by literature was subject to the claim of my husband, as the manual labour of the slave was subject to the claim of his master — because a married woman is, by the code of England (as Sam Norris by the code of Kentucky), non-existent in law. It is fit that I should add, in behalf of English hearts and English love of justice, that when I stood, with that vain contract in my hand, in the Westminster County Court (I, an intelligent, educated woman, granddaughter of a man sufficiently distinguished to have obtained sepulture in Westminster Abbey, hard by), and when the law was shown to be for me, what it is for the slave in Kentucky, there was, in the courtroom of the Westminster County Court, as there was in the court-room of the Covington Circuit Court, evidence of strong sympathy. My case, which opened up a history of wrong, treachery, libel and injustice, endured for years without redress, was evidently considered like that of Norris, to be 'one of great hardship and cruelty;' and the concluding words with which Mr. Norton vehemently attempted to address the Court were drowned in the groans and hooting of an excited crowd. But sympathy could do no more for me than for Mr. Patton's slave. It could not force open for me the iron gates of the LAW which barred out justice. It could not prevent libel and torment and fraud; the ripping up of old wounds, or the infliction of new."
At intervals Lady Stirling-Maxwell renewed the controversy; pathos and sarcasm being skilfully combined by her brilliant pen. At length it ceased, and it is gratifying to know that this beautiful and bitterly-wronged woman, in her latter years, met with the affectionate appreciation which had been denied to her in the bloom of her youth and beauty.
Lady Stirling-Maxwell early commenced her career as a writer, when — as has been stated in the previous notice of Lady Dufferin — she was one of the authors of The Dandie's Rout, being then but thirteen years of age. Then followed, when she was about seventeen, The Sorrows of Rosalie, written with a depth of power and a warmth of colouring that drew extravagant praise from James Hogg. Lady Stirling-Maxwell, even in her more matured literary career, never produced anything fuller of the blended fire and pathos with which all her poetry is characterised, than this her first important poem. The Undying One followed shortly after, in 1830, and was well received. It was a version of "The Wandering Jew," and the poetess treated the subject in an entirely new and original manner. "If one or two poems," says the reviewer of the New Monthly Magazine, "of equal grace and originality with this were produced, we think that it would go far to recover the public from the apathy into which it has fallen with regard to poetry. In the conception of the plot, and in general treatment, the metrical romance before us is an honour to the modern literature of the country, and is the more interesting as being the work of a woman."
In all her writings, whether in prose or in verse, Lady Stirling-Maxwell eloquently pleaded for the poor and for the oppressed. Perhaps a fellow-feeling with the latter class urged her to do so. Whatever was weak and helpless and in the right, claimed her ready sympathy. In her Voice from the Factories, published in 1836, and her letters to the Times, in 1841, and in the stirring eloquence of immortal verse at various times and seasons, she had pleaded on behalf of the poor and the desolate, the criminal and the outcast, the miserable and the forsaken.
The Child of the Islands is an impassioned, eloquent poem upon the condition of the poor in England. The subject was not an easy one to treat in the manner proposed, and carried out by Lady Stirling-Maxwell. All previous writers had presented an ideal picture, and had recommended ideal modes of redress; but in this grand poem we have a picture of the social condition of the English poor told with pathos, fervour, and truth, hitherto unattempted. "The Child of the Islands" is the then baby Prince of Wales, to whom the poem is dedicated; and was written with the ambition of eventually impressing the future "Ruler of the Islands" with a due sense of the wants, trials, and temptations of his humbler fellow-creatures.
In the Quarterly for June, 1845, appeared a masterly review of this poem from the pen of J. G. Lockhart. He thinks Lady Stirling-Maxwell exaggerated the condition of the poor, and considers its poetical power, and not its object, is its chief claim to consideration. This poem is divided into four sections, called respectively "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn," "Winter," and closes with the couplet:—
BROTHERS! be gentle to this one appeal,
WANT is the only woe God gives you power to heal!
One extract from this exquisite poem we cannot forbear giving. It is from "Summer"—
Wild Nomades of our civilised calm land!
Whose Eastern origin is still betrayed
By the swart beauty of the slender hand,—
Eyes flashing forth from over-arching shade,—
And supple limbs, for active movement made;
How oft, beguiled by you, the maiden looks
For love her fancy ne'er before portrayed,
And, slighting village swains and shepherd-crooks,
Dreams of proud youths, dark spells, and wondrous magic books!
Lo! in the confines of a dungeon cell,
(Sore weary of its silence and its gloom!)
One of this race who yet deserveth well
The close imprisonment which is her doom:
Lawless she was, ere infancy's first bloom
Left the round outline of her sunny cheek;
Vagrant, and prowling Thief; — no chance, no room
To bring that wild heart to obedience meek;
Therefore th' avenging law its punishment must wreak.
She lies, crouched up upon her pallet bed,
Her slight limbs starting in unquiet sleep;
And oft she turns her feverish, restless head,
Mourns, frets, and murmurs, or begins to weep:
Anon, a calmer hour of slumber deep
Sinks on her lids, some happier thought hath come;
Some jubilee unknown she thinks to keep,
With liberated steps, that wander home
Once more with gipsy tribes a gipsy life to roam.
But no, her pale lips quiver as they moan:
What whisper they? A name, and nothing more;
But with such passionate tenderness of tone,
As shows how much those lips that name adore.
She dreams of one who shall her loss deplore
With the unbridled anguish of despair!
Whose forest-wanderings by her side are o'er,
But to whose heart one braid of her black hair
Were worth the world's best throne, and all its treasures rare.
The shadow of his eyes is on her soul—
His passionate eyes, that held her in such love!
Which love she answered, scorning all control
Of reasoning thoughts, which tranquil bosoms move.
No lengthened courtship it was his to prove,
(Gleaning capricious smiles by fits and starts)
Nor feared her simple faith lest he should rove:
Rapid and subtle as the flame that darts
To meet its fellow flame, shot passion through their hearts.
And though no holy priest that union blessed,
By gipsy laws and customs made his bride;
The love her looks avowed, in words confessed,
She shared his tent, she wandered by his side,
His glance her morning star, his will her guide.
Animal beauty and intelligence
Were her sole gifts, — his heart they satisfied,—
Himself could claim no higher, better sense,
So loved her with a love, wild, passionate, intense!
And oft, where flowers lay spangled round about,
And to the dying twilight incense shed,
They sat to watch heaven's glittering stars come out,
Her check down-leaning on his cherished head—
That head upon her heart's soft pillow laid
In fulness of content; and such deep spell
Of loving silence, that the word first said
With startling sweetness on their senses fell,
Like silver coins dropped down a many-fathomed well
Look! her brows darken with a sudden frown—
She dreams of Rescue by his angry aid—
She dreams he strikes the Law's vile minions down,
And bears her swiftly to the wild-wood shade!
There, where their bower of bliss at first was made,
Safe in his sheltering arms once more she sleeps:
Ah, happy dream! She wakes; amazed, afraid,
Like a young panther from her couch she leaps,
Gazes bewildered round, then madly shrieks and weeps!
For, far above her head, the prison-bars
Mock her with narrow sections of that sky
She knew so wide, and blue, and full of stars,
When gazing upward through the branches high
Of the free forest! Is she, then, to die?
Where is he — where — the strong-armed and the brave,
Who in that vision answered her wild cry?
Where is he — where — the lover who could save
And snatch her from her fate — an ignominious grave?
Oh, pity her, all sinful though she be,
While thus the transient dreams of freedom rise,
Contrasted with her waking destiny!
Scorn is for devils; soft compassion lies
In angel-hearts, and beams from angel-eyes.
Pity her! Never more, with wild embrace,
Those flexile arms shall clasp him ere she dies;
Never the fierce sad beauty of her face
Be lit with gentler hope, or love's triumphant grace!
Lonely she perishes; like some wild bird
That strains its wing against opposing wires;
Her heart's tumultuous panting may be heard,
While to the thought of rescue she aspires;
Then, of its own deep strength, it faints and tires:
The frenzy of her mood begins to cease;
Her varying pulse with fluttering stroke expires,
And the sick weariness that is not peace
Creeps slowly through her blood, and promises release.
Alas, dark shadows, press not on her so!
Stand off, and let her hear the linnet sing!
Crumble, ye walls, that sunshine may come through
Each crevice of your ruins! Rise, clear spring,
Bubbling from hidden fountain-depths, and bring
Water, the death-thirst of her pain to slake!
Come from the forest, breeze with wandering wing!
There dwelt a heart would perish for her sake,—
Oh, save her! No! Death stands prepared his prey to take.
But, because youth and health are very strong,
And all her veins were full of freshest life,
The deadly struggle must continue long
Ere the freed heart lie still, that was so rife
With passion's mad excess. The gaoler's wife
Bends, with revolted pity on her brow,
To watch the working of that fearful strife,
Till the last quivering spark is out. And now
All's dark, all's cold, all's lost, that loved and mourned below.
The Dream, published in 1840, is one of the longer of Lady Stirling-Maxwell's poems, and certainly one of the most beautiful. It is the one, we think, of all this poetess's productions in which personal feeling is most betrayed. It bears the impress of the fiery ordeal which she had undergone for some years previously. The Dream is dedicated to the Duchess of Sutherland, the staunch friend of the writer. The following dedicatory verses, simple in their cruel truth, sensuous in their vivid colouring, and impassioned in their fervour and grateful tenderness, have never been surpassed in their own peculiar style:—
Once more, my harp, once more, although I thought
Never to wake thy silent strings again,
A wandering dream thy gentle chords have wrought,
And my sad heart, which long hath dwelt in pain,
Soars like a wild bird from a cypress bough,
Into the poet's Heaven, and leaves dull grief below!
And unto Thee — the beautiful and pure—
Whose lot is cast amid that busy world
Where only sluggish dulness dwells secure,
And Fancy's generous wing is faintly furled;
To Thee — whose friendship kept its equal truth
Through the most dreary hour of my embittered youth—
I dedicate the lay. Ah! never bard,
In days when poverty was twin with song;
Nor wandering harper, lonely and ill-starred,
Cheered by some castle's chief, and harboured long;
Not Scott's Last Minstrel, in his trembling lays,
Woke with a warmer heart the earnest meed of praise.
For easy are the alms the rich man spares
To sons of Genius, by misfortune bent,
But thou gayest me, what woman seldom dares,
Belief — in spite of many a cold dissent—
When, slandered and maligned, I stood apart
From those whose bounded power had wrung, not crushed, my heart.
Thou, then, when cowards lied away my name,
And scoffed to see me feebly stem the tide;
When some were kind on whom I had no claim,
And some forsook on whom my love relied,
And some, who might have battled for my sake,
Stood off in doubt to see what turn the world would take.
Thou gav'st me that the poor do give the poor,
Kind words and holy wishes, and true tears—
The loved, the near of kin, could do no more,
Who changed not with the gloom of varying years,
But clung the closer when I stood forlorn,
And blunted slander's dart with their indignant scorn.
For they who credit crime are they who feel
Their own hearts weak to unresisted sin;
Memory, not judgment, prompts the thoughts which steal
O'er minds like these, an easy faith to win;
And tales of broken truth are still believed
Most readily by those who have themselves deceived.
But like a white swan down a troubled stream,
Whose ruffling pinion hath the power to fling
Aside the turbid drops which darkly gleam,
And mar the freshness of her snowy wing,—
So Thou, with queenly grace and gentle pride
Along the world's dark waves in purity dost glide;
Thy pale and pearly cheek was never made
To crimson with a faint false-hearted shame;
Thou didst not shrink — of bitter tongues afraid,
Who hunt in packs the object of their blame;
To thee the sad denial still held true,
For from thine own good thoughts thy heart its mercy drew.
And though my faint and tributary rhymes
Add nothing to the glory of thy day,
Yet every poet hopes that aftertimes
Shall set some value on his votive lay;
And I would fain one gentle deed record
Among the many such with which thy life is stored.
So when these lines, made in a mournful hour,
Are idly opened to the stranger's eye,
A dream of Thee, aroused my fancy's power,
Shall be the first to wander floating by;
And they who never saw thy lovely face
Shall pause, to conjure up a vision of its grace!
The framework of The Dream is simply that of a lovely mother watching over a lovely daughter asleep: "which daughter," says Lockhart, "dreams, and when awaked tells her dream; which dream depicts the bliss of a first love and an early union, and is followed by the mother's admonitory comment, importing the many accidents to which wedded happiness is liable, and exhorting to moderation of hope, and preparation for severer duties." It is in the latter portion of the poem that the passion and interest assume a personal hue; some passages occur which sound like javelins hurled by an Amazon. For example:—
Heaven give thee poverty, disease, or death,
Each varied ill that waits on human breath,
Rather than bid thee linger out thy life
In the long toil of such unnatural strife.
To wander through the world unreconciled,
Heart-weary as a spirit-broken child,
And think it were an hour of bliss like Heaven
If thou couldst die-forgiving and forgiven,—
Or with a feverish hope, of anguish born,
(Nerving thy mind to feel indignant scorn
Of all the cruel foes that twixt ye stand,
Holding thy heartstrings with a reckless hand,)
Steal to his presence, now unseen so long,
And claim his mercy who hath dealt the wrong!
Into the aching depths of thy poor heart
Dive, as it were, even to the roots of pain,
And wrench up thoughts that tear thy soul apart,
And burn like fire through thy bewildered brain.
Clothe them in passionate words of wild appeal
To teach thy fellow-creature how to feel,—
Fray, weep, exhaust thyself in maddening tears,—
Recall the hopes, the influences of years,—
Kneel, dash thyself upon the senseless ground,
Writhe as the worm writhes with dividing wound,—
Invoke the Heaven that knows thy sorrows' truth,
By all the softening memories of youth—
By every hope that cheered thine earlier day—
By every tear that washes wrath away—
By every old remembrance long gone by—
By every pang that makes thee yearn to die;
And learn at length how deep and stern a blow
Man's hands can strike, and yet no pity show.
Lady Stirling-Maxwell has been called the Byron of her sex. Lockhart says: "She has much of that intense personal passion by which Byron's poetry is distinguished from the larger grasp and deeper communion with man and Nature of Wordsworth. She has also Byron's beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression" [Quarterly Review, July 1840]. At the same time, although she resembles Byron in her intensity and in her mournfulness, it would be erroneous to confound her sorrowful craving for sympathy, womanly endurance, resignation, and religious trust, with the refined misanthropy of Childe Harold. "She feels intensely, and utters her thoughts with an impassioned energy; but they are not the vapourings of a sickly fancy, nor the morbid workings of undue self-love; they are the strong and healthful action of a noble nature abounding in the wealth of its affections, outraged and trampled upon, and turning from its idols to God when the altar at which it worshipped has been taken away" [R. W. Griswold].
The Lady of La Garaye is the most polished and classic of all Lady Stirling-Maxwell's longer poems. It is one of the later efforts of her genius, and is a good example of the finish and polish which have characterised the works of her more mature years. The poem is founded upon a true story, concerning which the poetess says in her preface: — "I have added nothing to the beautiful and striking simplicity of the event it details. I have respected that mournful 'romance of real life' too much to spoil its lessons by any poetical licence. Nothing is mine in this story but the language in which it is told."
And very choice that language is. The tale is as a beautiful gem, skilfully and exquisitely set by a true and appreciative artist.
But we must not forget her shorter poetical pieces. Like the majority of the shorter poems of her gifted contemporary, Mrs. Hemans, the fugitive pieces of Lady Stirling-Maxwell have gained world-wide popularity. The Arab's Farewell to his Horse, the well-known song We have been Friends together, and many others too numerous to mention, divide the palm for popularity with The Graves of a Household, and other proved favourites by Mrs. Hemans. Unlike her sister, Lady Dufferin, there is seldom a humorous strain in Lady Stirling-Maxwell's poetry. Irony and sarcasm are there in perfection; but humour, in the common acceptation of the word — the broad humour of the Celtic race from which she sprung — is totally absent, save in one or two of her earlier and least meritorious poems. One couplet from The Recollections of a Faded Beauty is a good specimen — and one of the best — of the whole. Speaking of one of her discarded lovers, she says—
Squint it was not! — but one eye sought the other
With tenderness, as 'twere a young twin brother.
All her poems have a spirit of yearning melancholy.
How my heart yearns for joys for ever flown—
My mother's hand, my sister's gentle tone!
And wishes wild within my bosom swell,
In sorrow's broken tones to bid farewell!
The date of the volume whence the foregoing is taken is 1833, just the time when the unhappy wife was beginning to realise how much happier her maiden days had been. The Mother's Heart could only have been written by a loving mother:—
And thine was many an art to win and bless,
The cold and stern to joy and fondness warming;
The coaxing smile — the frequent soft caress—
The earnest tearful prayer all wrath disarming!
Again my heart a new affection found,
But thought that love with thee had reached its bound!
At length THOU camest; thou, the last and least;
Nicknamed "The Emperor" by thy laughing brothers,
Because a haughty spirit swelled thy breast,
And thou didst seek to rule and sway the others;
Mingling with every playful infant wile
A mimic majesty that made us smile:
And oh! most like a regal child wert thou!
An eye of resolute and successful scheming!
Fair shoulders — curling lip — and dauntless brow—
Fit for the world's strife, not for poet's dreaming:
And proud the lifting of thy stately head,
And the firm bearing of thy conscious tread.
Different from both! Yet each succeeding claim,
I, that all other love had been forswearing,
Forthwith admitted, equal and the same;
Nor injured either, by this love's comparing;
Nor stole a fraction for the newer call—
But in the mother's heart, found room for all!
Amongst the most pathetic of Lady StirlingMaxwell's poems may be particularised The Blind Man to his Bride, The Widow to her Son's Betrothed, and The Child of Earth. The latter is one of the most touching of those mentioned, and is a good example of Lady Stirling-Maxwell's tenderly passionate style of writing:—
Fainter her slow step falls from day to day,
Death's hand is heavy on her darkening brow;
Yet doth she fondly cling to earth and say:
"I am content to die, but oh! not now!
Not while the blossoms of the joyous spring
Make the warm air such luxury to breathe;
Not while the birds such lays of gladness sing;
Not while bright flowers around my footsteps wreathe.
Spare me, great God, lift up my drooping brow!
I am content to die — but, oh! not now!"
The spring hath ripened into summer-time,
The season's viewless boundary is past;
The glorious sun hath reached his burning prime—
Oh! must this glimpse of beauty be the last?
"Let me not perish while o'er land and lea,
With silent steps the lord of light moves on;
Nor while the murmur of the mountain bee
Greets my dull ear, with music in its tone!
Pale sickness dims my eye, and clouds my brow;
I am content to die — but, oh! not now!"
Summer is gone, and autumn's soberer hues
Tint the ripe fruits, and gild the waving corn;
The huntsman swift the flying game pursues,
Shouts the halloo, and winds his eager horn.
"Spare me awhile to wander forth and gaze
On the broad meadows and the quiet stream,
To watch in silence while the evening rays
Slant through the fading trees with ruddy gleam!
Cooler the breezes play around my brow;
I am content to die — but, oh! not now!"
The bleak wind whistles, snow showers, far and near,
Drift without echo to the whitening ground;
Autumn hath passed away, and cold and drear
Winter stalks on, with frozen mantle bound.
Yet still that prayer ascends: — "Oh! laughingly
My little brothers round the warm hearth crowd,
Our home-fire blazes broad, and bright, and high,
And the roof rings with voices glad and loud;
Spare me awhile, lift up my drooping brow!
I am content to die — but, oh! not now!"
The spring is come again — the joyful spring!
Again the banks with clustering flowers are spread;
The wild bird dips upon its wanton wing—
The child of earth is numbered with the dead!
"Thee never more the sunshine shall awake,
Beaming all readily through the lattice-pane;
The steps of friends thy slumbers may not break,
Nor fond familiar voice arouse again!
Death's silent shadow veils thy darkened brow;
Why didst thou linger? — thou art happier now!"
Truly, as of Mrs. Hemans, it may be said of Lady Stirling-Maxwell, that "she learned in sorrow what she taught in song." In R. D. Horne's New Spirit of the Age, he thus compares her with Mrs. Browning:—
"The prominent characteristics of these two poetesses may be designated as the struggles of woman towards happiness, and the struggles of a soul towards heaven. The one is oppressed with a sense of injustice, and feels the need of human love; the other is troubled with a sense of mortality, and aspires to identify herself with ethereal existences. The one has a certain tinge of morbid despondency, taking the tone of complaint and the amplification of private griefs; the other too often displays an energetic morbidity on the subject of death, together with a certain predilection for 'terrors.' The imagination of Mrs. Norton is chiefly occupied with domestic feelings and images, and breathes melodious plaints or indignations over the desecrations of her sex's loveliness; that of Miss Barrett often wanders amidst the supernatural darkness of Calvary, sometimes with anguish and tears of blood, sometimes like one who echoes the songs of triumphal quires. Both possess not only great mental energies, but that description of strength which springs from a fine nature, and manifests itself in productions which evidently originated in genuine impulses of feeling. The subjects they both choose appear spontaneous, and not resulting from study or imitation, though cast into careful moulds of art. The one records and laments the actual; the other creates and exults in the ideal. Both are excellent artists: the one dealing with subjects of domestic interest, the other in designs from sacred subjects, poems of religious tendency, or of the supernatural world. Mrs Norton is beautifully clear and intelligible in her narrative and course of thought and feeling; Miss Barrett has great inventiveness, but not an equal power in construction. The one is all womanhood, the other all wings" [New Spirit of the Age, vol. ii. pp. 139, 140].
It is upon her poetry that Lady Stirling-Maxwell's literary fame chiefly rests, the general public being less accustomed to regard her as a prose writer; yet in the latter department of literature she also excelled. "Like all her family," says one of her anonymous critics, "she had the gift of good English." She wrote well, and she wrote fearlessly, no matter what the subjects were. The first of Lady Stirling-Maxwell's prose works of fiction which attracted attention was her novel of Stuart of Dunleath, concerning which there were many conflicting opinions. She had previously edited a work called A Residence in Sierra Leone: described from a Journal kept on the Spot, and from Letters written to Friends at Home. "A most animated and sprightly picture of the state of society at Sierra Leone," says John Bull, "the point and cleverness of which is, we apprehend, to be placed to the credit of the talented editor fully as much as to that of the original writer of the letters."
When Stuart of Dunleath appeared, in 1851, the Athenaeum criticised it in no very measured terms. It professed to be overcome by the complicated horrors of the plot.
"Can fable be imagined more dismal than this?" asks the reviewer in the Athenaeum. "We may further ask, whether such a remorseless persecution of the truthful, the gifted, and the loving by destiny, is either veritable or wholesome as the argument of a fiction? To ourselves the answer comes readily. We do not shrink from the discipline of pain in imaginative creation any more than in daily life; but we revolt against the conviction that the brightest and best are marked out for such discipline exclusively, which must be received were we to accept Stuart of Dunleath as a work of Art which is a copy from Nature. Ours, however, is an objection more likely to attract than to distance readers. The young who 'love the luxury of woe,' are here treated to a sorrow which is Oriental in the amount of its extravagance, and may take to the book accordingly" [The Athenaeum, May 3rd, 1851].
Very different was the verdict of the Examiner. "Like the crystal fountain among the fountains of the Crystal Palace, this novel shines among the new novels of the year, pre-eminent and peerless. No prose work of equal power has yet come from the pen of Mrs. Norton, and we are glad to announce her return to a field of composition which she has already so successfully cultivated, by a notice of the present contribution of her genius to the vast wilderness of novelty, instruction, and delight which May has opened to our metropolis" [The Examiner, May 3rd, 1851].
The Critic did not take the same view of the subject:—
"We cannot quite share the enthusiasm of some of our contemporaries so as to term this novel 'pre-eminent and peerless.' It is a very clever novel, but it is not what the Examiner calls it. MRS. NORTON possesses a great deal of descriptive power and much pathos; her writings are always pleasant to read; she appeals strongly to our sympathies, and her composition is remarkable for a certain glow of eloquence, felt, though it cannot be described. She has many superiors: she is defective in the two most important features of the great novelist-she cannot create characters, nor can she construct an ingenious plot" [The Critic, May 15th, 1851].
A paragraph of "faint praise" follows; but notwithstanding these criticisms, the book met with a deservedly popular reception from the reading public. It was a good novel, written in a clear and forcible style, perhaps too diffuse occasionally, but it had many merits to make amends for so trifling a fault.
Lady Stirling-Maxwell's next novel was Lost and Saved, which appeared in 1863. It was written with a purpose. "Its purpose," says the Saturday Review, "is to show how very harshly and wrongly society treats women, and how leniently and wrongly it treats men. It is an old grievance, and Mrs. Norton evidently feels it keenly. There is no affectation of warmth or depth in her indignation. She writes from the fulness of her heart, and is moved to genuine anger and pity by observing how lightly bad men are censured, and how cruelly good women are treated. But, as in most novels with a purpose, the story in Lost and Saved is sacrificed to the elucidation of the writer's views, and the purpose is only very imperfectly attained through the medium of a story" [The Saturday Review, May 30th, 1863].
Certainly we do not care so much for this novel as for Stuart of Dunleath. The latter had passion and pathos; Lost and Saved has not much passion, and is quite wanting in pathos. Lady Stirling-Maxwell always wrote eloquently when injured woman was the theme, and the remembrance of her own bitter wrongs gave a zest to her pen. But she had almost exhausted the subject, which accounts for much that is colourless in her pictures, and a great deal that is mechanical in the action of the story. The Times praised it, and the Athenaeum considered it superior to Stuart of Dunleath; but we cannot agree with the latter. Lady Stirling-Maxwell could not have written anything that did not hear the impress of genius, but in Lost and Saved she has not done justice to that genius.
It may have been that Lady Stirling-Maxwell recognised this herself, for in her next and last novel, published in 1867, we find a marked improvement. Old Sir Douglas is one of the most original novels that this age has produced. In common with all her novels, it possesses a keen insight into character and clever pictures of society. Lady Stirling-Maxwell pursued a most unhackneyed course in selecting an elderly gentleman for her hero, and she carried out her conception with much skill. With hereditary eloquence, she denounces the sham propriety which strains at gnats and swallows camels; and "the social Pharisee," says the Saturday Review, "is typified in the Dowager Countess of Clocknaben, a gaunt and grim Presbyterian lady, with two pet 'dictums' for ever in her mouth — 'Temptations are just simply the sauce the devil serves up fools with,' and 'God's mercy is a great encouragement to obstinate offenders.'"
Notwithstanding defects, Lady Stirling-Maxwell's novels met with very great and deserved success; for the public knew that from the writer was to be expected subtle satire, delicate analysis of character, pathos, and passion. Taken on the whole, her prose works have not disappointed these expectations; but there was one quality the public did not expect, and that was a rare strain of ironical humour which characterises many of her scenes.
Her novels are good, but her poetry is better; and it is as a poetess that Lady Stirling-Maxwell will be remembered when her fame as a novelist will be forgotten. During her latter years she wrote much anonymously, "and took as much pains with a critique of pictures or the review of a new book as if her name had been prefixed at the beginning, or her well-known initials had been appended at the close. She had survived the zest for popularity, and sometimes seemed almost as if she had learned to enjoy, or at all events to provoke, its opposite. One fine quality she evinced in all her ways of thinking, acting, and writing — an unaffected disdain of affectation. Nothing could be simpler or more direct, nothing more tender or noble, than her ordinary conversation; but the iron had entered her soul, and every now and then there was a spice of mockery or scorn bitter as wormwood" [The Athenaeum, June 23d, 1877].
Caroline Elizabeth Sarah, Lady Stirling-Maxwell, has been celebrated alike for her genius, her beauty, and her misfortunes, all so exceptional that any one of them would have been sufficient to have kept her name from sinking into oblivion. A certain section of the world was inclined to think harshly of her; but she had a staunch clique of true friends who knew and appreciated her, and who always stood by her. Amongst these was Rogers, the poet. In his gossiping "Diary" — which, by the way, is not as popularly known as it deserves to be — Henry Crabb Robinson thus describes a dinner at Rogers's:—
"30, Russell Square, 31st January, 1845.
I dined this day with Rogers, the Dean of the poets. We had an interesting party of eight: Moxon, the publisher; Kenny, the dramatic poet (who married Mrs. Holcroft, now become an old woman), himself decrepit without being very old; Spedding, Lushington, and Alfred Tennyson, three young men of eminent talent belonging to literary young England; the latter, Tennyson, being by far the most eminent of the young poets. His poems are full of genius, but he is fond of the enigmatical, and many of his most celebrated pieces are really poetic riddles. He is an admirer of Goethe, and I had a long tete-a-tete with him about the great poet. We waited for the eighth — a lady who, Rogers said, was coming on purpose to see Tennyson, whose works she admired. He made a mystery of this fair devotee, and would give no name.
It was not till dinner was half over that he was called out of the room, and returned with a lady under his arm. A lady, neither splendidly dressed nor strikingly beautiful, as it seemed to me, was placed at the table. A whisper ran along the company, which I could not make out. She instantly joined our conversation, with an ease and spirit that showed her quite used to society. She stepped a little too near my prejudices by a harsh sentence about Goethe, which I resented. And we had exchanged a few sentences when she named herself, and I then recognised the much eulogised and calumniated Honourable Mrs. Norton, who, you may recollect, was purged by a jury finding for the defendant in a crim. con. action by her husband against Lord Melbourne. When I knew who she was, I felt that I ought to have distinguished her beauty and grace by my own discernment, and not waited for a formal announcement. You are aware that her position in society was, to a great degree, imperilled" [Diary of H. C. Robinson, vol. iii. p. 261].
Lady Stirling-Maxwell was always one of the most courted and esteemed of Rogers's guests and she gives the following tribute to her host's proverbial taste and refinement:—
Who can forget, who at thy social board
Hath sat, and seen the pictures richly stored,
In all their tints of glory and of gloom,
Brightening the precincts of thy quiet room,
With busts and statues full of that deep grace
Which modern hands have lost the skill to trace,
Fragments of beauty, perfect as thy song
On that sweet land to which they did belong,—
Th' exact and classic taste by thee displayed,
Not with a rich man's idle, fond parade,
Not with the pomp of some vain connoisseur,
Proud of his bargains, of his judgment sure;
But with the feelings, kind and sad, of one
Who thro' far countries wandering hath gone,
And brought away dear keepsakes, to remind
His heart and home of all he left behind?
[From The Dream.]
Like her sister, Lady Dufferin, Lady Stirling-Maxwell married again late in life. The former married a man when he was on his deathbed, the latter married when she was almost on hers. Early in the spring of the present year, Mrs. Norton was married in her own drawing-room, Queen Street, Mayfair, to Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a man distinguished in letters and politics. Their friendship had been long and affectionate, and the wrongs and bitter griefs of her early womanhood found a balm in the respect and love which was shown to her in her old age. Lady Stirling-Maxwell did not long enjoy her new dignity: she died a few weeks after her marriage, at the age of sixty-nine. The fitful fever of her life is over, but the story of this misjudged and gifted daughter of a gifted race must ever provoke the tear of sympathy, whilst her brilliant genius must compel the admiration of all. It is much to be regretted there is no collected and popular edition of Lady Stirling-Maxwell's poems. The majority of them are not as well known as they deserve to be, and for that reason we have quoted largely from them. We trust that at no distant day we shall see the announcement of this valuable addition to our modern poets.