1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Brownell Jameson

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 706-07.



ANNA JAMESON is one of the most gifted and accomplished of the living female writers of Great Britain. Her father, Mr. Murphy, was an Irish gentleman of high repute as an artist, and held the office of Painter in Ordinary to her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte. By her order he undertook to paint the "Windsor Beauties," so called; but before these were completed, the sudden death of the princess put a stop to the plan. Mr. Murphy lost his plate; and his pictures, from which he had anticipated both fame and fortune, were left on his hands, without any remuneration. It was to aid the sale of these portraits, when engraved and published, that his daughter, then Mrs. Jameson, wrote the illustrative memoirs which form her work, entitled "The Beauties of the Court of King Charles II.," published in London, in 1833. Prior to this, however, Mrs. .Jameson had become known as a graceful writer and accomplished critic on the Beautiful in Art, as well as a spirited delineator of Life. Her first work was the "Diary of an Ennuyee," published in London, in 1825, about two years after her marriage with Captain Jameson, an officer in the British army. Of this marriage — union it has never been — we will only say here, that it seems to have exercised an unfortunate influence over the mind of Mrs. Jameson, which is greatly to be regretted, because it mars, in a degree, all her works; — but especially her latter ones, by fettering the noblest aspirations of her genius, instinctively feminine, and therefore only capable of feeling the full compass of its powers when devoted to the True and the Good. We shall advert to this again. The "Diary of an Ennuyee" was published anonymously; it depicted an enthusiastic, poetic, broken-hearted young lady, on her travels abroad; much space being given to descriptions of works of art at Rome, and other Italian cities. This, on the whole, is Mrs. Jameson's most popular and captivating work; it appeals warmly to the sensibilities of the young of her own sex: its sketches of adventures, characters and pictures, are racy and fresh; and the sympathy with the secret sorrows of the writer is ingeniously kept alive to the end. Her second work was "Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns," in two volumes, published in London, in 1831. To this she gave her name. With much to commend, these "Memoirs" are unsatisfactory, because the writer bases her plan on a wrong principle, namely, the inferiority of the female sex to the male. Mrs. Jameson adopts the philosophy of men, which places reason as the highest human attribute; the Word of God gives us another standard; there we are taught that moral goodness is the highest perfection of human nature.

In other portions of our work, we have explained our views on these questions, and only remark here, that Mrs. Jameson seems, while writing these "Memoirs of Queens," to have attempted, by her deep humility as a woman to propitiate her male critics on behalf of the author.

In 1832, appeared "Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical;" in many respects this is the best and most finished production of Mrs. Jameson's genius. "Visits and Sketches at Home and abroad; with Tales and Miscellanies," was published in 1834; and soon afterwards, "Memoirs of the Levee of the Poets," &c., appeared. In the autumn of 1839, Mrs. Jameson visited America; going directly from New York to Toronto, Upper Canada, where she passed the winter. Her husband had been stationed for many years in Canada; she had net seen him since her marriage; it has been said that they parted at the altar; but the painful circumstance that they only met as acquaintances, not even as friends, was too well known to require an apology for stating it here. Yet we would not allude to this but for the sake of correcting the false impressions which some of her late works leave on the mind to mislead the judgment of young readers. "Winter Studies and Summer Rambles," is the title of the work published in 1842, in which Mrs. Jameson records her observations on Canada and the United States, as far as she travelled. The shadow over these original and spirited pictures is — unhappiness in wedded life! Everywhere she finds marriage a slavery, a sin, or a sorrow. The shaft in her own bosom she plants in that of every other married pair; like a person afflicted with a painful disease, she hears only of the afflicted, and fancies the world to be a hospital of incurables. As we observed in the beginning, the cloud over her early life has darkened her spirit. She has, naturally, a love for the innocent and the pure, — is a true woman in her warm sympathies with her sex, and had she been fortunate (like Mrs. Howitt) in the connexion which possessed for her, as it does for the noblest and purest of both sexes, the holiest elements of happiness and the best opportunities of self-improvement, she would have been a shining light in the onward movement of Christian civilization; she would have devoted her heart and her genius to the True and the Good, instead of bowing her woman's soul to man's philosophy, and deifying the worship of the Beautiful in Art. In this work — "Winter Studies," &c., Mrs. Jameson, commenting on the gratitude due these great and pure men, who work out the intellectual and spiritual good of mankind, closes thus: — "Such was the example left by Jesus Christ — such a man was Shakspeare — such a man was Goethe!" To understand the depth of this moral bewilderment, which could class Goethe with the Saviour, we will insert from the volume which contains the shocking comparison, her own account of the last mental effort of her German idol.

"The second part of the Faust occupied Goethe during the last years of his life; he finished it at the age of eighty-two. On completing it, he says, 'Now I may consider the remainder of my existence as a free gift, and it is indifferent whether I do any thing or not;' as if he had considered his whole former life as held conditionally, binding him to execute certain objects to which he believed himself called. He survived the completion of the Faust only one year.

"The purport of the second part of Faust has puzzled many German and English scholars, and in Germany there are already treatises and commentaries on it, as on the Divina Commedia. I never read it, and if I had, would not certainly venture an opinion 'where doctors disagree;' but I recollect that Von Hammer once gave me, in his clear, animated manner, a comprehensive analysis of this wonderful production — that is, according to his own interpretation of it. 'I regard it,' said he, 'as being from beginning to end a grand poetical piece of irony on the whole universe, which is turned, as it were, wrong side out. In this point of view I understand it; in any other point of view it appears to me incomprehensible.'"

The next work of Mrs. Jameson was "Sacred and Legendary Art," two volumes, published in London in 1848, in which the peculiar tastes and talents of the authoress had a fine scope, and deserve what has been freely awarded her, high praise. The sequel, "Legends of the Monastic Orders," one volume, published in 1850, is tinctured with the same false views noticed in some of her previous works. She seems quite inclined to forgive, if not to justify, all the profligacy, ignorance, and errors which monkery engendered and entailed on the Christian world — because these institutions preserved and ennobled works of art! As an author there is a false air of eloquence thrown over some of her writings, even where simplicity would be more suitable. Generally, in her descriptive passages, there is something pantomimic, theatric, unreal; everything figures in a scenic manner. She is, no doubt, a sincere lover of pictures, probably understands them better than most connoisseurs, but readers tire of "Raphaels and Correggios," when too often thrown in their faces, and call them "stuff."

Now that we have honestly stated what we do not like in Mrs. Jameson's books, we are happy to dwell on their merits, and the many commendable qualities of the authoress, which these suggest. She has an earnest and loving admiration for genius, a discriminating sense of the benefits it confers upon the world, and an unselfish eagerness to point cut its merits and services. All this is seen in her very pleasing descriptions of the many celebrated men and women she had encountered. She has a deep sense of the dignity of her own sex; she seeks to elevate woman, and many of her reflections on this subject are wise and salutary. We differ from her views in some material points, but we believe her sincerely devoted to what she considers the way of improvement. Of her extraordinary talents there can be no doubt.