1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Barbara Hofland

Anonymous, "Mrs. Holford" La Belle Assemblee NS 28 (October 1823) 145-46.



Mrs. HOFLAND is a native of Sheffield, in Yorkshire, where her father, Mr. Wreaks, was a partner in an eminent mercantile house, at this time carried on by a nephew of the same name. She had the misfortune to lose her father in early infancy, which cast a cloud on her prospects in youth; but this was redeemed by her marriage with Mr. Hoole, a young gentleman of great personal merit, and whose situation in life promised every comfort.

The happiness realized by this union was of very short duration, as, in little more than two years, Mrs. H. had buried her first-born child, and laid her excellent husband (at the age of 26) in the same grave. She was left with an infant son of a few weeks old. The loss of fortune followed; the political changes, which affected all merchants at the close of the last century, falling very heavily upon those who had property in Holland and Spain, where the house in which her late husband had been a partner principally dealt. She was therefore called upon to experience trials of every description, save one, which she would have felt the most severely — that of being unable to do justice to others. From this she was happily exempted, having also the hope that better times might restore a portion at least of the fortune she had lost. Advancing time would have realized this hope, ii private fraud had not assisted public misfortune in stripping the widow and her child. It was in consequence of a loss, from the bankruptcy of one of her trustees, that Mrs. H. first appeared before the world as an author, by the publication of a volume of poems, subscribed for with avidity in her own neighbourhood; but which, not having reached a subsequent edition, are unknown to the public. With the profits of this volume she opened a boarding-school at Harrowgate; an undertaking for which she was generally considered qualified, from her affectionate and ceaseless endeavours to benefit the objects of her care, and from her anxiety in directing their minds to study; thus rendering the lessons of others efficient as well as her own.

After a widowhood of eleven years, the subject of this memoir, in 1810, married Mr. Hofland, whose name as a landscape painter is well known, and in the following year removed to London.

Having much leisure, she began to write tales for children; and as those attempts were eminently approved by the public, especially one entitled "The Son of a Genius," she was soon afterwards induced to venture on a larger field, and she produced a novel called "Says she to her Neighbour, What?" — a silly title suggested by the success of "Thinks I to My self."

During the last twelve years, Mrs. H. has written pretty constantly, when health allowed, works of both descriptions, too numerous and too well known to be mentioned here. Several of these have been translated into the continental languages; "The Son of a Genius" receiving this honour from the celebrated Madame la Baronne de Montolieu, author of Caroline of Litchfield, &c.; and others by Miss Monool, daughter of the Lutheran Minister in Paris. To her first novel she was indebted for the friendly attentions of the late Mr. Edgeworth and his celebrated daughter; and her story entitled "The Daughter-in-Law" was so much approved by the late Queen Charlotte, that her Majesty graciously signified her permission, that any work from the same author might be dedicated to her. Of this honour Mrs. Hofland afterwards availed herself.

The most striking characteristic of this lady's works (collectively considered) is the power of invention they display. In extent and variety her writings exceed, perhaps, those of any other female living, yet they betray little repetition. In her earlier productions she appears to have doubted her ability to render the development of a single character, or the details of a few incidents, sufficiently interesting; and to have sought, therefore, by number of characters, and variety of incidents, to rivet attention. The consequence is, that almost all her characters are too unfinished to interest deeply, and the events follow too rapidly to produce a very strong impression. Her sketches, indeed, attest the painter's power; but they only make us wish for a more finished picture. This probably is the reason why her smaller works are more popular than her novels. In the latter, a crowd of agreeable or striking images are presented; but the interest is too much divided to be strong; and we rise from the perusal, pleased but fatigued, unable to recollect what we were indebted to for our pleasure, and unwilling to seek for its repetition.

Still, it is no slight merit to invent; and few have borrowed less than this lady. With no ordinary poetical powers, in her later productions she has almost entirely discarded them, and has ceased to throw over the novel of real life the charms of romance. Her works make no display of extensive reading, evince no affectation of profound thinking, no pretension to superior intellect. She has made little use of strong contrast, pointed sarcasm, or caricature, and is altogether free from the cant of satire, of sensibility, or of religion. Her materials are generally common-place, and would have little interest were it not for the skill with which she combines, and the freshness and reality with which she invests them. Acute and extensive observation of society has no doubt principally contributed to this; but she is not a little indebted to her easy and flowing style — a style so admirably adapted to her narratives, that we forget the author, and fancy we are reading a simple statement of actual events.

The great source of her power lies in depth of pathos. This pathos is so devoid of all pretension, so unsupported by extraneous aid, and comes upon us so unexpectedly, that it at once disarms and conquers the most fastidious critic. Her most touching passages are so unforced, and unaffected, that, in acknowledging their power, we seem only to submit to nature. They arise rarely from a climax of misery, to which we are conducted step by step; their sentiment is often more implied than expressed; and they generally spring from some slight incident, developing passions to which we all are subject, or principles to which we all ought to bow.

The writings of Mrs. H. are altogether feminine: they exhibit great power of imagination, deep feeling, and a lively sensibility to the beautiful in nature and in art; but she shrinks from anatomizing the human heart, and, sickening, turns from the contemplation of depravity and guilt.

As the inculcator of the vital importance of fixed principles of justice, honour, and integrity, of Christian virtues founded upon Christian faith, of all that is truly noble in man and lovely in woman, Mrs. Hofland, from the nature of her compositions, and the extent of their circulation, has perhaps done more than any other writer of the day. The religion which she makes the ground work of all this, and which she has the art of making her readers teach themselves, is religion in its best form; unobtrusive and yet unfailing; gentle yet active; modest yet firm; moderate, kind, and consistent, without sourness, bigotry, or enthusiasm. This religion she has not only inculcated but practised, under trials greater than any she has described.