Besides the rich collection of State Papers and Historical Dispatches which have been discovered in the different public offices, and the still more curious bundles of family epistles (such as the Paxton correspondence) which are every now and then disinterred from the forgotten repositories of old mansions, there is no branch of literature in which England is more eminent than the letters of celebrated men.
From the moment in which Mason, by a happy inspiration, made Gray tell his own story, and by dint of his charming letters contrived to produce, from the uneventful life of a retired scholar, one of the most attractive books ever printed, almost every biographer of note has followed his example. The lives of Cowper, of Byron, of Scott, of Southey, of Charles Lamb, of Dr. Arnold, works full of interest and of vitality, owe their principal charm to this source. Nay, such is the reality and identity belonging to letters written at the moment, and intended only for the eye of a favorite friend, that it is probable that any genuine series of epistles, were the writer ever so little distinguished, would, provided they were truthful and spontaneous, possess the invaluable quality of individuality which so often causes us to linger before an old portrait of which we know no more than that it is a Burgomaster by Rembrandt, or a Venetian Senator by Titian. The least skillful pen, when flowing from the fullness of the heart, and untroubled by any misgivings of after publication, shall often paint with as faithful and life-like a touch as either of those great masters.
Of letter-writers by profession we have indeed few, although Horace Walpole, bright, fresh, quaint, and glittering as one of his own most precious figures of Dresden china, is a host in himself. But every here and there, scattered in various and unlikely volumes, we meet with detached letters of eminent persons which lead us to wish for more. I remember two or three of David Hume's which form a case in point: one to Adam Smith, who had asked of him the success of his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," in which he dallies with a charming playfulness with an author's anxiety, withholding, delaying, interrupting himself twenty times, and at last pouring out without stint or measure. the favorable reception of the work; and another to Dr. Robertson, who appears to have requested his opinion of his style, bantering him on certain Scottish provincialisms and small pedantries — "a historian, indeed! Have you an ear?" — mixcd with praise so graceful and kindness so genuine, that the most susceptible of vanities could not have taken offense.
Every now and then, too, we fall upon a long correspondence which the writer's name has caused to be published, but which, from a thousand causes, is certain to fall into oblivion, although containing much that is curious. Such is "The Life and Letters of Samuel Richardson."
I suspect that the works from whence that great name is derived are in this generation little more than a tradition; and that the "Clarissa" and the "Sir Charles Grandison," which, together with the "Spectators," formed the staple of our greatgrandmothers' libraries, find almost as few readers among their descendants as the "Grand Cyrus" or "The Princess of Cleves."
As far as "Clarissa" is concerned, great tragedy as the book unquestionably is, I do not wonder at this. Considering the story and plan of the work, the marvel is rather that mothers should have placed it in their daughters' hands as a sort of manual of virtue, and that at Ranelagh, ladies of the highest character should have held up the new volumes as they came out, to show to their friends that they possessed the book of which all the world were talking, 'than that it should now be banished from the boudoir and the drawing-room. But as my friend, Sir Charles Grandison, has no other sin to answer for than that of being very long, very tedious, very old-fashioned, and a prig, I can not help confessing that, in spite of these faults, and perhaps because of them, I think there are worse books printed now-a-days, and hailed with delight among critics feminine, than the seven volumes that gave such infinite delight to the beauties of the court of George the Second.
As pictures of manners I suspect them to be worthless. Richardson was a citizen in an age in which the distinctions of caste were far more strictly observed than now-a-days; and the printer of Salisbury Court, even when retired to his villa at North End, had seen but little of the brilliant circles which he attempted to describe, and was altogether deficient in the airy grace and bright and glowing fancy which might have supplied the place of experience. Compared with the comic dramatists, Congreve and Farquhar, who have left us such vivid pictures of the Mirabels and Millamants, the Archers, and Mrs. Sullens of that day, Richardson's portraits are, like himself, stiff, prim, hard, ungainly, awkward. In manners he utterly fails; but in character, in sentiment, and above all in the power of bringing his personages into actual everyday life, he leaves every writer of his time far behind him. Somebody has said of him very happily — so happily that I suppose it must have been Hazlitt, — "that the effect of reading his hooks is to acquire a vast accession of near relations." And it is true. Grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, aunts, and cousins multiply upon us; we not only become acquainted with the people but with their habitations; Selby House and Shirley Manor are as familiar to us as our own dwellings; and we could find our way to the cedar-parlor blindfold.
It was a cause or a consequence of Richardson's popularity that he lived among a perfect flower-garden of young ladies, feeding upon their praises, always a dangerous diet for authors, and talking and writing of little else than his different works. His own family consisted of three daughters, of whom (although his domestic character stands very high) we hear little, while of Miss Highmore, Miss Mulso, Miss Westcomb, the Miss Fieldings, and the Miss Colliers, and their several lovers, we hear a great deal. There is even a colored engraving, curiously inartistic, representing Richardson a smug and comely little old man sitting in the summerhouse which he called his grotto, reading his manuscript to a party of three fair damsels and their future husbands.
The lady who seems to have interested him most, whose letters with his rejoinders do actually fill a volume and a half of the six of which the collection consists, and might easily, the editor says, have been extended to six more, is a certain Lady Bradshaigh, the wife of Sir Roger Bradshaigh of the Haigh, Lancashire, who wrote to him first under the feigned name of Balfour, and continued to address him under that appellation for a considerable time.
The occasion of her first letter was the suspense in which the admirers of "Clarissa" were left as to her fate by the publication of the work in separate portions and at lengthened intervals. The story of the book may be told in very few words. It consists of the betrayal of the heroine by her lover, a libertine, drawn with admirable spirit and skill, and endowed with so many fine qualities of person and intellect, that many of the author's friends implored as if they had been real persons, for the reformation of Lovelace and the happiness of his fair mistress.
Upon this hint spoke Lady Bradshaigh; and her earnestness and pertinacity is really a thing to wonder at. She sank upon her knees, she begged, she reasoned, she threatened, she stormed. There was not a weapon in the female armory that she did not force into her service, and her ardor and fervency give so much eloquence to her pleadings that she has considerably the best of the dispute; chiefly because Richardson had not honesty enough to tell her the real cause of his resolution to bring the story to a tragic end, which was of course its artistic effect; but intrenched himself in all sorts of pitiful evasions and false moralities, instead of saying frankly that a happy conclusion would have spoilt the book. The author was obdurate and the lady disappointed; nevertheless the correspondence continued, and one of the most amusing and characteristic episodes in these six volumes is the story of a journey which Lady Bradshaigh took to London, and of her introduction to her unknown correspondent.
The great novelist was at this time in his sixtieth year, and the fair lady, a buxom country dame, might be some ten or fifteen years his junior (N.B. I have remarked it as a singular circumstance that we never can ascertain a lady's age, even if, as in this case, she have been dead these hundred years, with the same absolute accuracy with which we can verify a gentleman's baptismal registry) and whether from shyness or from pure coquetry she (still as Mrs. Balfour) makes an appointment to meet him in the Park, requesting from him a description by which he may be recognized. He sends her the following:
"Short, rather plump, about five feet five inches, fair wig, one hand generally in his bosom, the other a cane in it, which he leans upon under the skirts of his coat, that it may imperceptibly serve him as a support when attacked by sudden tremors or dizziness, of a light brown complexion, teeth not yet failing him."
What follows is very characteristic:
"Looking directly foreright as passengers would imagine, but observing all that stirs on either hand of him, without moving his short neck; a regular even pace stealing away ground rather than seeming to rid it; a gray eye too often overclouded by mistiness from the head; by chance lively, very lively if he sees any he loves; if he approaches a lady his eye is never fixed first on her face, but on her feet, and rears it up by degrees, seeming to set her down as so-and-so."
She actually did know him by this portrait; but had the cruelty to keep him parading up and down while she surveyed him at her leisure, and went away without declaring herself. This is her own account of the matter:
"Well, Sir, my curiosity is satisfied as to the distant view. I passed you four times last Saturday in the Park; knew you by your own description at least three hundred yards off, walking between the trees and the Mall; and had an opportunity of surveying you unobserved, your eyes being engaged among the multitude looking as I knew for a certain will-o'-the-wisp, who I have a notion escaped being known to you, though not your notice, for you looked at me every time I passed! but I put on so unconcerned a countenance that I am almost sure I deceived you. * * * O that this first meeting was over!
"Shall I tell you, Sir, what it puts me in mind of? When I was very young I had a mind to bathe in a cold bath. When I came to the edge, I tried it first with one hand then with the other. In the same manner my feet; drew them back again; ventured to my ankles, then drew back. But having a strong inclination to go farther (being very sure I should like it were the first shock over), I at last took a resolution and plunged at once over head and ears; and as I imagined was delighted; so that I only repented I had not before found courage to execute what gave me so much pleasure."
Still however the lady coquets and the gentleman becomes a little angry; after some repetition of his grievances, he continues:
"Yet I resolved to try my fortune on Saturday in the Park in my way to North End. The day indeed, thought I, is not promising; but where so great an earnestness is professed, and the lady possibly by this time made acquainted with the disappointment she has given me, who knows but she will be carried in a chair to the Park, to make me amends, and there reveal herself. Three different chairs at different times saw I. My hope therefore not so very much out of the way; but in none of them the lady I wished to see. Up the Mall walked I, down the Mall and up again in my way to North End. O this dear will-o'-the-wisp, thought I! When nearest farthest off! Why should I at this time of life! And all the spiteful things I could think of I muttered to myself. And how, Madam, am I to banish them from my memory when I see you so very careful to conceal yourself; when I see you so very apprehensive of my curiosity, and so little confiding in my generosity? O Madam! you know me not! You will not know me!"
And so they go on, the gentleman remonstrating, the lady holding back through fifty pages of letter-press — more or less; and when their cross-purposes would have ended there is no divining, had not Lady Bradshaigh gone to Mr. Highmore's to view a portrait of her unknown friend, where enough transpired to suggest to the painter, who knew of the correspondence, that he was talking to the person who had so mystified the unlucky author. He discovered that the gentleman who escorted her was of Lancashire, and called Sir Roger; his servant heard the surname from the coachman, and was positive that it began with a B; and after so much had been done in the way of detection the fair delinquent avowed herself, and the game of hide-and-seek was fairly over. Let it be added, that in spite of all this nonsense, Lady Bradshaigh was a warm-hearted and well-conducted woman, and that her devotion to the writer of her idolatry ended only with his life.
I have said that Richardson's correspondents were almost exclusively feminine, although there are a few letters from Dr. Young, Colley Cibber, Aaron Hill, and others of that class, and one note from Dr. Johnson, whom our printer, familiar with kind and generous actions, had had the honor to bail. These female correspondents all, with one exception, bear out an opinion which I have long ventured to entertain of the general inferiority of women's letters. For the truth of which I would only appeal to the collections of such as are most celebrated in that line from the over-rated Lady Mary Wortley Montagu down to Anna Seward, Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Delany, Mrs. Vesey, Miss Talbot, Miss Bowdler, Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, Mrs. Hannah More — what are they? There is to be sure one great exception in general literature — for Madame de Sevigne is, perhaps, the most delightful letter-writer who ever put pen to paper. And there is another exception, also a foreigner, in this collection — an exception all the more charming because foreign, for the German idiom undoubtedly adds grace and freshness to the sweet simplicity of Mrs. Klopstock's communications. I need not apologize for transcribing them all. Would that she had been spared to write more:
"Hamburg, November 29th, 1750.
Will you permit me to take this opportunity, in sending a letter to Dr. Young, to address myself to you? It is very long ago that I wished to do it. Having finished your 'Clarissa' (oh, the heavenly book!) I could have prayed you to write the history of a manly Clarissa, but I had not courage enough at that time. I should have it no more to-day, as this is only my first English letter — but I have it! It may be because I am now Klopstock's wife (I believe you know my husband by Mr. Hohorst), and then I was only the single young girl. You have since written the manly Clarissa without my prayer. Oh, you have done it to the great joy and thanks of all your happy readers! Now you can write no more, you must write the history of an angel.
"Poor Hohorst! he is gone. Not killed in the battle (he was present at two), but by the fever. The Hungarian hussars have taken your works with our letters, and all what he was worth, a little time before his death. But the King of Prussia recompensed him with a company of cavalry. Poor friend! he did not long enjoy it.
"He has made me acquainted with all your lovely daughters. I kiss them all with my best sisterly kiss; but especially Mrs. Martha, of whom he says that she writes as her father. Tell her in my name, dear Sir, if this be true that it is an affair of conscience not to let print her writings. Though I am otherwise of that sentiment, that a woman who writes not thus, or as Mrs. Rowe, should never let print her works. Will you pardon me this first long letter, Sir? Will you tell me if I shall write a second? I am, honored Sir, your most humble servant,
"Hamburg, March 14th, 1758.
You are very kind, Sir, to wish to know every thing of your Hamburg kindred. Then I will obey, and speak of nothing but myself in this letter.
"You will know all what concerns me. Love, dear Sir, is all what me concerns. And love shall be all what I will tell you in this letter.
"In one happy night I read my husband's poem, 'The Messiah.' I was extremely touched with it. The next day I asked one of his friends who was the author of this poem? and this was the first time I heard Klopstock's name. I believe I fell immediately in love with him. At the least my thoughts were ever with him filled, especially because his friend told me very much of his character. But I had no hopes ever to see him, when quite unexpectedly I heard that he should pass through Hamburg. I wrote immediately to the same friend, for procuring by his means that I might see the author of 'The Messiah' when in Hamburg. He told him that a certain girl at Hamburg wished to see him, and for all recommendation showed him some letters in which I made bold to criticize Klopstock's verses. Klopstock came, and came to me. I must confess that though greatly prepossessed of his qualities, I never thought him the amiable youth whom I found him. This made its effect. After having seen him two hours, I was obliged to pass the evening in a company which never had been so wearisome to me. I could not speak; I could not play; I thought, I saw nothing but Klopstock. I saw him the next day and the following, and we were very seriously friends. But the fourth day he departed. It was a strong hour the hour of his departure. He wrote soon after; and from that time our correspondence began to be a very diligent one. I sincerely believed my love to be friendship. I spoke with my friends of nothing but Klopstock, and showed his letters. They rallied at me, and said I was in love. I rallied them again, and said that they must have a very friendshipless heart, if they had no idea of friendship to a man as well as to a woman. Thus it continued for eight months, in which time my friends found as much love in Klopstock's letters as in me. I perceived it likewise, but I would not believe it. At the last Klopstock said plainly that he loved; and I startled as for a wrong thing. I answered that it was no love but friendship, as it was, what I felt for him; we had not seen one another enough to love (as if love must have more time than friendship)! This was sincerely my meaning, and I had this meaning till Klopstock came again to Hamburg. This he did a year after we had seen one another the first time. We saw we were friends; we loved, and we believed that we loved; and a short time after I could even tell Klopstock that I loved. But we were obliged to part again and wait two years for our wedding. My mother would not let marry me a stranger. I could marry then without her consentment, as by the death of my father my fortune depended not on her. But this was a horrible idea for me, and thank Heaven that I have prevailed by prayers! At this time, knowing Klopstock, she loves him as her lifely son, and thanks God that she has not persisted. We married, and I am the happiest wife in the world. In some few months it will be four years that I am so happy, and still I dote upon Klopstock as if he was my bridegroom.
"If you knew my husband, you would not wonder. If you knew his poem I could describe him very briefly, by saying he is in all respects what he is as a poet. This I can say with all wifely modesty. But I dare not speak of my husband; I am all raptures when I do it. And as happy as I am in love, so happy am I in friendship in my mother, two elder sisters, and five other women. How rich I am!
"Sir, you have willed that I should speak of myself, but I fear I have done it too much. Yet you see how it interests me.
I am, Sir, &c. &c. &c."
"Hamburg, May 6th, 1758.
It is not possible, Sir, to tell you what a joy your letters give me. My heart is very able to esteem the favor that you in your venerable age are so condescending good to answer so soon the letters of an unknown young woman, who has no other merit
than a heart full of friendship, though at so many miles of distance.
"It will be a delightful occupation for me, my dear Mr. Richardson, to make you more acquainted with my husband's poem. Nobody can do it better than I, being the person who knows the most of that which is not yet published; being always present at the birth of the young verses, which begin always by fragments here and there of a subject of which his soul is just then filled. He has many great fragments of the whole work ready. You may think that two people, who love as we do, have no need of two chambers. We are always in the same. I, with my little work, still, still, only regarding my husband's sweet face, which is so venerable at that time! with tears of devotion and all the sublimity of the subject. My husband reading me his young verses, and suffering my criticisms. Ten books are published, which I think probably the middle of the whole. I will as soon as I can, translate you the arguments of these ten books, and what besides I think of them. The verses of the poem are without rhymes, and are hexameters, which sort of verses my husband has been the first to introduce in our language; we being still closely attached to the rhymes and iambics.
"And our dear Dr. Young has been so ill? But he is better, I thank God along with you. And you, my dear, dear friend, have not hope of cure of a severe nervous malady? How I trembled as I read it! I pray God to give to you at the least patience and alleviation. Though I can read very well your handwriting, you shall write no more if it is incommodious to you. Be so good to dictate only to Mrs. Patty; it will be very agreeable to me to have so amiable a correspondent. And then I will still more than now preserve the two of your own handwriting as treasures.
"I am very glad, Sir, that you will take my English as it is. I knew very well that it may not always be English, but I thought for you it was intelligible. My husband asked me, as I was writing my first letter, if I would not write in French? 'No,' said I, 'I will not write in this pretty but 'fade' language to Mr. Richardson' (though so polite, so cultivated and no longer 'fade' in the mouth of a Bossuet). As far as I know, neither we nor you nor the Italians have the word 'fade.' How have the French found this characteristic word for their nation? Our German tongue, which only begins to be cultivated, has much more conformity with the English than the French.
"I wish, Sir, I could fulfill your request of bringing you acquainted with so many good people as you think of. Though I love my friends dearly, and though they are good, I have however much to pardon, except in the single Klopstock alone. He is good, really good, good at the bottom — in all the foldings of his heart. I know him; and sometimes I think if we knew others in the same manner, the better we should find them. For it may be that an action displeases us which would please us, if we knew its true aim and whole extent. No one of my friends is so happy as I am; but no one has had courage to marry as I did. They have married as people marry; and they are happy as people are happy. Only one, as I may say my dearest friend, is unhappy, though she had as good a purpose as I myself. She has married in my absence; but had I been present, I might, it may be, have been mistaken in her husband as well as she.
How long a letter is this again! But I can write no short ones to you. Compliments from my husband, &c. &c."
"Hamburg, August 27th, 1758.
Why think you, dear Sir, that I answer so late? I will tell you my reasons. — But before all, how does Miss Patty, and how do yourself? Have not you guessed that I, summing up all my happinesses, and not speaking of children, had none? Yes, Sir, this has been my only wish ungratified for these four years. I have been more than once unhappy with disappointments: but yet thanks, thanks to God, I am in full hope to be mother in the month of November. The little preparations for my child and child-bed (and they are so dear to me) have taken so much time that I could not answer your letter, nor give the promised scenes of 'The Messiah.' This is likewise the reason why I am still here, for properly we dwell in Copenhagen. Our staying here is only a visit (but a long one) which we pay my family. I not being able to travel yet, my husband has been obliged to make a little voyage alone to Copenhagen! He is absent — a cloud over my happiness! He will soon return. — But what does that help? He is yet equally absent! — We write to each other every post — but what are letters to presence? — But I will speak no more of this little cloud; I will only tell my happiness! But I can not tell how I rejoice! A son of my dear Klopstock! Oh, when shall I have him? It is long since I have made the remark, that geniuses do not engender geniuses. No children at all, bad sons, or at the most lovely daughters like you and Milton. But a daughter or a son only, with a good heart without genius, I will nevertheless love dearly.
"I think that about this time a nephew of mine will wait on you. His name is Winlhem, a young rich merchant, who has no bad qualities, and several good, which he has still to cultivate. His mother was, I think, twenty years older than I, but we other children loved her dearly like a mother. She had an excellent character, but is long since dead.
"This is no letter but only a newspaper of your Hamburg daughter. When I have my husband and my child I will write you more (if God gives me health and life). You will think that I shall be not a mother only but a nurse also; though the latter (thank God that the former is not so too) is quite against fashion and good breeding, and though nobody can think it possible to be always with the child at home!
This was the last letter from this sweet creature. The next in the series is from a different hand.
"Hanover, December 21st, 1758.
As perhaps you do not know that one of your fair correspondents, Mrs. Klopstock, died in a very dreadful manner, in childbed, I think myself obliged to acquaint you with this most melancholy accident.
"Mr. Klopstock, in the first motion of his affliction, composed an ode to God Almighty, which I have not yet seen, but I hope to get by-and-by.
"I shall esteem myself highly favored by a line or two from any of your family, for I presume you sometimes kindly remember
Your most humble servant,
And great admirer,
L. L. G. MAJOR."
A subsequent letter contradicts the fact of the ode's being composed at this time. But a comparison of the dates of Mr. Major's communication and of Mrs. Klopstock's last interesting letter, still brings this poetizing a great calamity far too near the time of its occurrence to be satisfactory to those who have read and sympathized with the quick feelings of the devoted wife. It is pleasanter to remember that Klopstock never married again, till, in his old age, a few years before his death, he had the ceremony performed between himself and a kinswoman, who lived with him, in order to entitle her, as his widow, to the pensions he enjoyed from different Courts.