(Mrs Richmond Ritchie)
Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place
[All rights reserved]
[Reprinted from the Cornhill Magazine]
My little record would not seem to me in any way
complete without your name, dear Sibyl of our own,
and as I write it here, I am grateful to know that to
mine and me it is not only the name of a Sibyl with
deep visions, but of a friend to us all
A Book of Sibyls.
'The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with whose works I became acquainted--before those of any other author, male or female--when I was learning to spell words of one syllable in her story-books for children.' So says Hazlitt in his lectures on living poets. He goes on to call her a very pretty poetess, strewing flowers of poesy as she goes.
The writer must needs, from the same point of view as Hazlitt, look upon Mrs. Barbauld with a special interest, having also first learnt to read out of her little yellow books, of which the syllables rise up one by one again with a remembrance of the hand patiently pointing to each in /2/ turn; all this recalled and revived after a lifetime by the sight of a rusty iron gateway, behind which Mrs. Barbauld once lived, of some old letters closely covered with a wavery writing, of a wide prospect that she once delighted to look upon. Mrs. Barbauld, who loved to share her pleasures, used to bring her friends to see the great view from the Hampstead hill-top, and thus records their impressions:--
'I dragged Mrs. A. up as I did you, my dear, to our Prospect Walk, from whence we have so extensive a view.
'Yes,' said she, 'it is a very fine view indeed for a flat country.'
'While, on the other hand, Mrs. B. gave us such a dismal account of the precipices, mountains, and deserts she encountered, that you would have thought she had been on the wildest part of the Alps.'
The old Hampstead highroad, starting form the plain, winds its way resolutely up the steep, and brings you past red-brick houses and walled-in gardens to this noble outlook; to the heath, with its fresh, inspiriting breezes, its lovely distances of far-off waters and gorsy hollows. At whatever season, at whatever hour you come, you are pretty sure to find one or two votaries--poets like Mrs. Barbauld, or commonplace people such as her friends--watching before this great altar of nature; whether by early morning rays, or in the blazing sunset, or when the even- /3/ ing veils and mists with stars come falling, while the lights of London shine far away in the valley. Years after Mrs. Barbauld wrote, one man, pre-eminent among poets, used to stand upon this hill-top, and lo! as Turner gazed, a whole generation gazed with him. For him Italy gleamed from behind the crimson stems of the fir-trees; the spirit of loveliest mythology floated upon the clouds, upon the many changing tints of the plains; and, as the painter watched the lights upon the distant hills, they sank into his soul, and he painted them down for us, and poured his dreams into our awakening hearts.
He was one of that race of giants, mighty men of humble heart, who have looked from Hampstead and Highgate Hills. Here Wordsworth trod; here sang Keats's nightingale; here mused Coleridge; and here came Carlyle, only yesterday, tramping wearily, in search of some sign of his old companions. Here, too, stood kind Walter Scott, under the elms of the Judges' Walk, and perhaps Joanna Baillie was by his side, coming out from her pretty old house beyond the trees. Besides all these, were a whole company of lesser stars following and surrounding the brightest planets--muses, memoirs, critics, poets, nymphs, authoresses--coming to drink tea and to admire the pleasant suburban beauties of this modern Parnassus. A record of many of their names is still /4/ to be found, appropriately enough, in the catalogue of the little Hampstead library which still exists, which was founded at a time when the very hands that wrote the books may have placed the old volumes upon the shelves. Present readers can study them at their leisure, to the clanking of the horses' feet in the courtyard outside, and the splashing of buckets. A few newspapers lie on the table--stray sheets of to-day that have fluttered up the hill, bringing news of this bustling now into a past serenity. The librarian sits stitching quietly in a window. An old lady comes in to read the news; but she has forgotten her spectacles, and soon goes away. Here, instead of asking for 'Vice Versa,' or Ouida's last novel, you instinctively mention 'Plays of the Passions,' Miss Burney's 'Evelina,' or some such novels; and Mrs. Barbauld's works are also in their place. When I asked for them, two pretty old Quaker volumes were put into my hands, with shabby grey bindings, with fine paper and broad margins, such as Mr. Ruskin would approve. Of all the inhabitants of this bookshelf Mrs. Barbauld is one of the most appropriate. It is but a few minutes' walk from the library in Heath Street to the old corner house in Church Row where she lived for a time, near a hundred years ago, and all round about are the scenes of much of her life, of her friendships and interests. Here lived her friends and /5/ neighbours; here to Church Row came her pupils and admirers, and, later still, to the pretty old house on Rosslyn Hill. As for Church Row, as most people know, it is an avenue of Dutch red-faced houses, leading demurely to the old church tower, that stands guarding its graves in the flowery churchyard. As we came up the quiet place, the sweet windy drone of the organ swelled across the blossoms of the spring, which were lighting up every shabby corner and hillside garden. Through this pleasant confusion of past and present, of spring-time scattering blossoms upon the graves, of old ivy walks and iron bars imprisoning past memories, with fragrant fumes of lilac and of elder, one could picture to oneself, as in a waking dream, two figures advancing from the corner house with the ivy walls--distinct, sedate--passing under the old doorway. I could almost see the lady, carefully dressed in many fine muslin folds and frills with hooped silk skirts, indeed, but slight and graceful in her quick advance, with blue eyes, with delicate sharp features, and a dazzling skin. As of the gentleman, I pictured him a dapper figure, with dark eyes, dressed in black, as befitted a minister even of dissenting views. The lady came forward, looking amused by my scrutiny, somewhat shy I thought--was she going to speak? And by the same token it seemed to me the gentleman was about to interrupt her. But Margaret, my /6/ young companion, laughed and opened an umbrella, or a cock crew, or some door banged, and the fleeting visions of fancy disappeared.
Many well-authenticated ghost stories describe the apparition of bygone persons, and lo! when the figure vanishes, a letter is left behind! Some such experience seemed to be mine when, on my return, I found a packet of letters on the hall table--letters not addressed to me, but to some unknown Miss Belsham, and signed and sealed by Mrs. Barbauld's hand. They had been sent to me to read by the kindness of some ladies now living at Hampstead, who afterwards showed me the portrait of the lady, who began the world as Miss Betsy Belsham and who ended her career as Mrs. Kenrick. It is an oval miniature, belonging to the times of powder and of puff, representing not a handsome, but an animated countenance, with laughter and spirit in the expression; the mouth is large, the eyes are dark, the nose is short. This was the confidante of Mrs. Barbauld's early days, the faithful friend of her latter sorrows. The letters, kept by 'Betsy' with faithful conscientious care for many years, give the story of a whole lifetime with unconscious fidelity. The gaiety of youth, its impatience, its exuberance, and sometimes bad taste; the wider, quieter feelings of later life; the courage of sorrowful times; long friendship deepening the /7/ tender and faithful memories of age, when there is so little left to say, so much to feel--all these things are there.
Mrs. Barbauld was a schoolmistress, and a schoolmaster's wife and daughter. Her father was Dr. John Aikin, D.D.; her mother was Miss Jane Jennings, of a good Northamptonshire family-- scholastic also. Dr. Aikin brought his wife home to Knibworth, in Leicestershire, where he opened a school which became very successful in time. Mrs. Barbauld, their eldest child, was born here in 1743, and was christened Anna Laetitia, after some lady of high degree belonging to her mother's family. Two or three years later came a son. It was a quiet home, deep hidden in the secluded rural place; and the little household lived its own tranquil life far away from the storms and battles and great events that were stirring the world. Dr. Aikin kept school; Mrs. Aikin ruled her household with capacity, and not without some sternness, according to the custom of the time. It appears that late in life the good lady was distressed by the backwardness of her grandchildren at four or five years old. 'I once, indeed, knew a little girl,' so wrote Mrs. Aikin of her daughter, 'who was as eager to learn as her instructor could be to teach her, and who at /8/ two years old could read sentences and little stories, in her wise book, roundly and without spelling, and in half a year or more could read as well as most women; but I never knew such another, and I believe I never shall.' It was fortunate that no great harm came of this premature forcing, although it is difficult to say what its absence might not have done for Mrs. Barbauld. One can fancy the little assiduous girl, industrious, impulsive, interested in everything--in all life and all nature--drinking in, on every side, learning, eagerly wondering, listening to all around with bright and ready wit. There is a pretty little story told by Mrs. Ellis in her book about Mrs. Barbauld, how one day, when Dr. Aikin and a friend, 'were conversing on the passions,' the Doctor observes that joy cannot have place in a state of perfect felicity, since it supposes an accession of happiness.
'I think you are mistaken, papa,' says a little voice from the opposite side of the table.
'Why so, my child?' says the Doctor.
'Because in the chapter I read to you this morning, in the Testament, it is said that "there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance."'
Besides her English Testament and her early reading, the little girl was taught by her mother to do as little /9/ daughters did in those days, to obey a somewhat austere rule, to drop curtsies in the right place, to make beds, to preserve fruits. The father, after demur, but surely not without some paternal pride in her proficiency, taught the child Latin and French and Italian, and something of Greek, and gave her an acquaintance with English literature. One can imagine little Nancy with her fair head bending over her lessons, or, when playing time had come, perhaps a little lonely and listening to the distant voices of the schoolboys at their games. The mother, fearing she might acquire rough and boisterous manners, strictly forbade any communication with the schoolboys. Sometimes in after days, speaking of these early times and of the constraint of many bygone rules and regulations. Mrs. Barbauld used to attribute to this early formal training something of the hesitation and shyness which troubled her and never entirely wore off. She does not seem to have been in any great harmony with her mother. One could imagine a fanciful and high-spirited child, timid and dutiful, and yet strong-willed, secretly rebelling against the rigid order of her homes, and feeling lonely for want of liberty and companionship. It was true she had birds and beasts and plants for her playfellows, but she was of a gregarious and sociable nature, and she was unconsciously longing for something more, and perhaps feeling a /10/ want in her early life which no silent company can supply.
She was about fifteen when a great event look place. Her father was appointed classical tutor to the Warrington Academy, and thither the little family removed. We read that the Warrington Academy was a Dissenting college started by very eminent and periwigged personages, whose silhouettes Mrs. Barbauld herself afterwards cut out in sticking-plaster, and whose names are to this day remembered and held in just esteem. They were people of simple living and high thinking, they belonged to a class holding then a higher place than now in the world's esteem, that of Dissenting ministers. The Dissenting ministers were fairly well paid and faithfully followed by their congregations. The college was started under the auspices of distinguished members of the community, Lord Willoughby of Parham, the last Presbyterian lord, being patron. Among the masters were to be found the well-known names of Dr. Doddridge; of Gilbert Wakefield, the reformer and uncompromising martyr; of Dr. Taylor, of Norwich, the Hebrew scholar; of Dr. Priestley, the chemical analyst and patriot, and enterprising theologian, who left England and settled in America for conscience and liberty's sake.
Many other people, neither students nor professors, /11/ used to come to Warrington, and chief among them in later years good John Howard with MSS. for his friend Dr. Aikin to correct for the press. Now for the first time Mrs. Barbauld (Miss Aikin she was then) saw something of real life, of men and manners. It was not likely that she looked back with any lingering regret to Knibworth, or would have willingly returned thither. A story in one of her memoirs gives an amusing picture of the manners of a young country lady of that day. Mr. Haines, a rich farmer from Knibworth, who had been greatly struck by Miss Aikin, followed her to Warrington, and 'obtained a private audience of her father and begged his consent to be allowed to make her his wife.' The father answered 'that his daughter was there walking in the garden, and he might go and ask her himself.' 'With what grace the farmer pleaded his cause I know not,' says her biographer and niece. 'Out of all patience at his unwelcome importunities, my aunt ran nimbly up a tree which grew by the garden wall, and let herself down into the lane beyond.'
The next few years must have been perhaps the happiest of Mrs. Barbauld's life. Once when it was nearly over she said to her niece, Mrs. Le Breton, from whose interesting account I have been quoting, that she had never been placed in a situation which really suited her. As one reads her sketches and poems, one is struck /12/ by some of this detracting influence of which she complains: there is a certain incompleteness and slightness which speaks of intermittent work, of interrupted trains of thought. At the same time there is a natural buoyant quality in much of her writing which seems like a pleasant landscape view seen through the bars of a window. There may be wider prospects, but her eyes are bright, and this peep of nature if undoubtedly delightful.
The letters to Miss Belsham begin somewhere about 1768. The young lady had been paying a visit to Miss Aikin at Warrington, and is interested in everyone and everything belonging to the place. Miss Aikin is no less eager to describe than Miss Belsham to listen, and accordingly a whole stream of characters and details of gossip and descriptions in faded ink come flowing across their pages, together with many expression of affection and interest. 'My dear Betsy, I love you for discarding the word Miss from your vocabulary,' so the packet begins, and it continues in the same strain of pleasant girlish chatter, alternating with the history of many bygone festivities, and stories of friends, neighbours, of beaux and partners; of the latter genus, and of Miss Aikin's efforts /13/ to make herself agreeable, here is a sample:--'I talked to him, smiled upon him, gave him my fan to play with,' says the lively young lady. 'Nothing would do; he was grave as a philosopher. I tried to raise a conversation: "'Twas fine weather for dancing." He agreed to my observation. "We had a tolerable set this time." Neither did he contradict that. Then we were both silent--stupid mortal thought I! but unreasonable as he appeared to the advances that I made him, there was one object in the room, a sparkling object which seemed to attract all his attention, on which indeed he hardly took his eyes off the whole time . . . . The object that I mean was his shoebuckle.'
One could imagine Miss Elizabeth Bennett writing in some such strain to her friend Miss Charlotte Lucas after one of the evenings at Bingley's hospitable mansion. And yet Miss Aikin is more impulsive, more romantic than Elizabeth. 'Wherever you are, fly letter on the wings of the wind,' she cries, 'and tell my dear Betsy what?--only that I love her dearly,'
Miss Nancy Aikin (she seems to have been Nancy in these letters, and to have assumed the more dignified Laetitia upon her marriage) pours out her lively heart, laughs, jokes, interests herself in the sentimental affairs /14/ of the whole neighbourhood as well as in her own. Perhaps few young ladies now-a-days would write to their confidantes with the announcement that for some time past a young sprig had been teasing them to have him. This, however, is among Miss Nancy's confidences. She also writes poems and jeux d'esprit, and received poetry in return from Betsy, who calls herself Camilla, and pays her friend many compliments, for Miss Aikin in her reply quotes the well-known lines:--
'When you come among us,' continues the warm-hearted friend, 'we shall set the bells a-ringing, bid adieu to care and gravity, and sing "O be joyful."' And finally, /15/ after some apologies for her remiss correspondence, 'I left my brother writing to you instead of Patty, poor soul. Well, it is a clever thing too, to have a husband to write one's letters for one. If I had one I would be a much better correspondent to you. I would order him, to write every week.'
And, indeed, Mrs. Barbauld was as good as her word, and did not forget the resolutions made by Miss Aikin in 1773. In 1774 comes some eventful news: 'I should have written to you sooner had it not been for the uncertainty and suspense in which for a long time I have been involved; and since my lot has been fixed for many busy engagements which have left me few moments of leisure. They hurry me out of my life. It is hardly a month that I have certainly known I should fix on Norfolk, and now next Thursday they say I am to be finally, irrevocably married. Pity me, dear Betsy; for on the day I fancy when you will read this letter, will the event take place which is to make so great an era in my life. I feel depressed, and my courage almost fails me. Yet upon the whole I have the greatest reason to think I shall be happy. I shall possess the entire affection of a worthy man, whom my father and mother now entirely and heartily approve. The people where we are going, though strangers, have behaved with the greatest zeal and affection; and I think /16/ we have a fair prospect of being useful and living comfortably in that state of middling life to which I have been accustomed, and which I love.'
And then comes a word which must interest all whom have ever cared and felt grateful admiration for the works of one devoted human being and true Christian hero. Speaking of her father's friend, John Howard, she says with an almost audible sigh: 'It was too late, as you say, or I believe I should have been in love with Mr. Howard. Seriously, I looked upon him with that sort of reverence and love which one should have for a guardian angel. God bless him and preserve his health for the health's sake of thousands. And now farewell,' she writes in conclusion: 'I shall write to you no more under this name; but under any name, in every situation, at any distance of time or place, I shall love you equally and be always affectionately yours, tho' not always, A. Aikin.'
Poor lady! The future held, indeed, many a sad and unsuspected hours for her, many a cruel pang, many a dark and heavy season, that must have seemed intolerably weary to one of her sprightly and yet somewhat indolent nature, more easily accepting evil than devising escape from it. But it also held many blessings of constancy, friendship, kindly deeds, and useful doings. She had not /17/ devotion to give such as that of the good Howard whom she revered, but the equable help and sympathy for others of an open-minded and kindly woman was hers. Her marriage would seem to have been brought about by a romantic fancy rather than by a tender affection. Mr. Barbauld's mind had been once unhinged; his protestations were passionate and somewhat dramatic. We are told that when she was warned by a friend, she only said, 'But surely, if I throw him over, he will become crazy again;' and from a high-minded sense of pity, she was faithful, and married him against the wish of her brother and parents, and not without some misgivings herself. He was a man perfectly sincere and honourable; but, from his nervous want of equilibrium, subject all his life to frantic outbursts of ill-temper. Nobody ever knew what his wife had to endure in secret; her calm and restrained manner must have effectually hidden the constant anxiety of her life; nor had she children to warm her heart, and brighten up her monotonous existence. Little Charles, of the Reading-book, who is bid to come hither, who counted so nicely, who stroked the pussy cat, and who deserved to listen to the delightful stories he was told, was not her own son but her brother's child. When he was born, she wrote to entreat that he might be given over to her for her own, imploring her brother to spare him /18/ to her, in a pretty and pathetic letter. This was a mother yearning for a child, not a schoolmistress asking for a pupil, though perhaps in after times the two were somewhat combined in her. There is a pretty little description of Charles making great progress in 'climbing trees and talking nonsense:' 'I have the honour to tell you that our Charles is the sweetest boy in the world. He is perfectly naturalised in his new situation; and if I should make any blunders in my letter, I must beg you to impute it to his standing by me and chattering all the time.' And how pleasant a record exists of Charles's chatter in that most charming little book written for him and for the babies of babies to come! There is a sweet instructive grace in it and appreciation of childhood which cannot fail to strike those who have to do with children and with Mrs. Barbauld's books for them: children themselves, those best critics of all, delight in it.
'Where's Charles?' says a little scholar every morning to the writer of these few notes.
Soon after the marriage, there had been some thought of a college for young ladies, of which Mrs. Barbauld was to be the principal; but she shrank from the idea, and in a /19/ letter to Mrs. Montagu she objects to the scheme of higher education for women away from their natural homes. 'I should have little hope of cultivating a love of knowledge in a young lady of fifteen who came to me ignorant and uncultivated. It is too late then to begin to learn. The empire of the passions is coming on. Those attachments begin to be formed which influence the happiness of future life. The care of a mother alone can give suitable attention to this important period.' It is true that the rigidness of her own home had not prevented her from making a hasty and unsuitable marriage. But it is not this which is weighing on her mind. 'Perhaps you may think,' she says, 'that having myself stepped out of the bounds of female reserve in becoming an author, it is with an ill grace that I offer these statements.'
Her arguments seem to have been thought conclusive in those days, and the young ladies' college was finally transmuted into a school for little boys at Palgrave, in Norfolk, and thither the worthy couple transported themselves.
One of the letters to Miss Belsham is thus dated:--'The 14th of July, in the village of Palgrave (the pleasantest village in all England), at ten o'clock, all alone in my great parlour, Mr. Barbauld being studying a sermon, do I begin a letter to my dear Betsy.'
When she first married, and travelled into Norfolk to /20/ keep school at Palgrave, nothing could have seemed more tranquil, more contented, more matter-of-fact than her life as it appears from her letters. Dreams, and fancies, and gay illusions and excitements have made way for the somewhat disappointing realisation of Mr. Barbauld with his neatly turned and friendly postscripts-- a husband, polite, devoted, it is true, but somewhat disappointing all the same. the next few years seem like years in a hive--storing honey for the future, and putting sway--industrious, punctual, monotonous. There are children's lessons to be heard, and school-treats to be devised. She sets them to act plays and cuts out paper collars for Henry IV.; she always takes a class of babies entirely her own. (One of these babies, who always loved her, became Lord Chancellor Denman; most of the others took less brilliant, but equally respectable places, in after life.) She has also household matters and correspondence not to be neglected. In the holidays, they make excursions to Norwich, to London, and revisit their old haunts at Warrington. In one of her early letters, soon after her marriage, she describes her return to Warrington.
'Dr. Enfield's face,' she declares, 'is grown half a foot longer since I saw him, with studying mathematics, and for want of a game of romps; for there are positively none now at Warrington but grave matrons. I who /21/ have but half assumed the character, was ashamed of the levity of my behaviour.'
It says well indeed for the natural brightness of the lady's disposition that with sixteen boarders and a satisfactory usher to look after, she should be prepared for a game of romps with Dr. Enfield.
On another occasion, in 1777, she takes little Charles away with her. 'He has indeed been an excellent traveller,' she says; 'and though, like his great ancestor, some natural tears he shed, like him, too, he wiped them soon. He had a long sound sleep last night, and has been very busy to-day hunting the puss and the chickens. And now, my dear brother and sister, let me again thank you for this precious gift, the value of which we are both more and more sensible of as we become better acquainted with his sweet disposition and winning manners.'
She winds up this letter with a postscript:--
'Everybody here asks, "Pray, is Dr. Dodd really to be executed?" as if we knew the more for having been at Warrington.'
Dr. Aikin, Mrs. Barbauld's brother, the father of little Charles and of Lucy Aikin, whose name is well known in literature, was himself a man of great parts, industry, and ability, working hard to support his family. He alternated between medicine and literature all his life. /22/ When his health failed he gave up medicine, and settled at Stoke Newington, and busied himself with periodic literature; meanwhile, whatever his own pursuits may have been, he never ceased to take an interest in his sister's work and to encourage her in every way.
It is noteworthy that few of Mrs. Barbauld's earlier productions equalled what she wrote at the very end of her life. She seems to have been one of those who ripen with age, growing wider in spirit with increasing years. Perhaps, too, she may have been influenced by the change of manners, the reaction against formalism, which was growing up as her own days were ending. Prim she may have been in manner, but she was not a formalist by nature; and even at eighty was ready to learn to submit to accept the new gospel that Wordsworth and his disciples had given to the world, and to shake off the stiffness of early training.
It is idle to speculate on what might have been if things had happened otherwise; if the daily stress of anxiety and perplexity which haunted her home had been removed--difficulties and anxieties which may well have absorbed all the spare energy and interest that under happier circumstances might have added to the treasury of English literature. But if it were only for one ode written when the distracting cares of over seventy years /23/ were ending, when nothing remained to her but the essence of a long past, and the inspirations of a still glowing, still hopeful, and most tender spirit, if it were only for the ode called 'Life,' which has brought a sense of ease and comfort to so many, Mrs. Barbauld has indeed deserved well of her country-people and should be held in remembrance by them.
Her literary works are, after all, not very voluminous. She is best known by her hymns for children and her early lessons, than which nothing more childlike has ever been devised; and we can agree with her brother, Dr. Aikin, when he says that it requires true genius to enter so completely into a child's mind.
After their first volume of verse, the brother and sister had published a second in prose, called 'Miscellaneous Pieces,' about which there is an amusing little anecdote in Rogers's 'Memoirs.' Fox met Dr. Aikin at dinner.
'"I am greatly pleased with your 'Miscellaneous Pieces,'" said Fox. Aikin bowed. "I particularly admire," continued Fox, "your essay 'Against Inconsistency in our Expectations.'"
'"That," replied Aikin, "is my sister's."
'"I like much," returned Fox, "your essay 'On Monastic Institutions.'"
'"That," answered Aikin, "is also my sister's." /24/
'Fox thought it best to say no more about the book.'
These essays were followed by various of the visions and Eastern pieces then so much in vogue; also by political verses and pamphlets, which seemed to have made a great sensation at the time. But Mrs. Barbauld's turn was on the whole more for domestic than for literary life, although literary people always seem to have had a great interest for her.
During one Christmas which they spent in London, the worthy couple go to see Mrs. Siddons; and Mrs. Chapone introduces Mrs. Barbauld to Miss Burney. 'A very unaffected, modest, sweet, and pleasing young lady,' says Mrs. Barbauld, who is always kind in her descriptions. Mrs. Barbauld's one complaint in London is of the fatigue from hairdressers, and the bewildering hurry of the great city, where she had, notwithstanding her quiet country life, many ties, and friendships, and acquaintances. Her poem on 'Corsica' had brought her into some relations with Boswell; she also knew Goldsmith and Dr. Johnson. Here is her description of the 'Great Bear:'--
'I do not mean that one which shines in the sky over your head; but the Bear that shines in London--a great rough, surly animal. His Christian name is Dr. Johnson. 'Tis a singular creature; but if you stroke him he will /25/ not bite, and though he growls sometimes he is not ill-humoured.'
Johnson describes Mrs. Barbauld as suckling fools and chronicling small beer. There was not much sympathy between the two. Characters such as Johnson's harmonise best with the enthusiastic and easily influenced. Mrs. Barbauld did not belong to this class; she trusted to her own judgment, rarely tried to influence others, and took a matter-of-fact rather than a passionate view of life. She is as severe to him in her criticism as he was in his judgment of her: they neither of them did the other justice. 'A Christian and a man-about-town, a philosopher, and a bigot acknowledging life to be miserable, and making it more miserable through fear of death.' So she writes of him, and all this was true; but how much more was also true of the great and hypochondriacal old man! Some years afterwards, when she had been reading Boswell's long-expected 'Life of Johnson,' she wrote of the book:--'It is like going to Ranelagh; you meet all your acquaintances; but it is a base and mean thing to bring thus every idle work into judgment.' In our own day we too have our Boswell and our Johnson to arouse discussion and indignation.
'Have you seen Boswell's "Life of Johnson?" He calls it a Flemish portrait, and so it is--two quartos of a man's /26/ conversation and petty habits. Then the treachery and meanness of watching a man for years in order to set down every unguarded and idle word he uttered, is inconceivable. Yet will all this one cannot help reading a good deal of it.' This is addressed to the faithful Betsy, who was also keeping school by that time, and assuming brevet rank in consequence.
Mrs. Barbauld might well complain of the fatigue from hairdressers in London. In one of her letters to her friend she thus describes a lady's dress of the period:--
'Do you know how to dress yourself in Dublin? If you do not, I will tell you. Your waist much be the circumference of two oranges, no more. You must erect a structure on your head gradually ascending to a foot high, exclusive of feathers, and stretching to a penthouse of most horrible projection behind, the breadth from wing to wing considerably broader than your shoulder, and as many different things in your cap as Noah's ark. Verily, I never did see such monsters as the heads now in vogues. I am a monster, too, but a moderate one.'
She must have been glad to get back to her home, to her daily work, to Charles, climbing his trees and talking his nonsense.
In the winter of 1784 her mother died at Palgrave. It was Christmas week; the old lady had come travelling /27/ four days through the snow in a postchaise with her maid and her little grandchildren, while her son rode on horseback. But the cold and the fatigue of the journey, and the discomfort of the inns, proved too much for Mrs. Aikin, who reached her daughter's house only to die. Just that time three years before Mrs. Barbauld had lost her father, whom she dearly loved. There is a striking letter from the widowed mother to her daughter recording the event. It is almost Spartan in its calmness, but nevertheless deeply touching. Now she, too, was at rest, and after Mrs. Aikin's death a cloud of sadness and depression seems to have fallen upon the household. Mr. Barbauld was ailing; he was suffering form a nervous irritability which occasionally quite unfitted him for his work as a schoolmaster. Already his wife must have had many things to bear, and very much to try her courage and cheerfulness; and now her health was also failing. It was in 1775 that they gave up the academy, which, on the whole, had greatly flourished. It had been established eleven years; they were both of them in need of rest and change. Nevertheless, it was not without reluctance that they brought themselves to leave their home at Palgrave. A successor was found only too quickly for Mrs. Barbauld's wishes; they handed over their pupils to his care, and went abroad for a year's sunshine and distraction. /28/
What a contrast to prim, starched scholastic life at Palgrave must have been the smiling world, and the land flowing with oil and wine, in which they found themselves basking! The vintage was so abundant that year that the country people could not find vessels to contain it. 'The roads covered with teams of casks, empty or full according as they were going out or returning, and drawn by oxen whose strong necks seems to be bowed unwillingly under the yoke. Men, women, and children were abroad; some cutting with a short sickle the bunches of grapes, some breaking them with a wooden instrument, some carrying them on their backs from the gatherers to those who pressed the juice; and, as in our harvest, the gleaners followed.'
From the vintage they travel to the Alps, 'a sight so majestic, so totally different from anything I had seen before, that I am ready to sing nunc dimittis,' she writes. They travel back by the south of France and reach Paris in June, where the case of the Diamond Necklace is being tried. Then they return to England, waiting a day at Boulogne for a vessel, but crossing from thence in less than four hours. How pretty is her description of England as it strikes them after their absence! 'And not without /29/ pleasing emotion did we view again the green swelling hills covered with large sheep, and the winding road bordered with the hawthorn hedge, and the English vine twirled round the tall poles, and the broad Medway covered with vessels, and at last the gentle yet majestic Thames.'
There were Dissenters at Hampstead in those days, as there are still, and it was a call from the little Unitarian congregation on the hillside who invited Mrs. [sic] Barbauld to become their minister, which decided the worthy couple to retire to this pleasant suburb. The place seems promising enough; they were within reach of Mrs. Barbauld's brother, Dr. Aikin, now settled in London, and to whom she was tenderly attached. There were congenial people settled all about. On the high hill-top were pleasant old houses to live in. There was occupation for him and literary interest for her.
They are a sociable and friendly pair, hospitable, glad to welcome their friends, and the acquaintance, and critics, and the former pupils who come toiling up the hill to visit them. Rogers comes to dinner 'at half after three.' They have another poet for a neighbour, Miss Joanna Baillie; they are made welcome by all, and in their turn make others welcome; they do acts of social charity and kindness wherever they see the occasion. They have a young Spanish gentleman to board who conceals a taste for /30/ 'seguars.' They also go up to town from time to time. On one occasion Mr. Barbauld repairs to London to choose a wedding present for Miss Belsham, who is about to be married to Mr. Kenrick, a widower with daughters. He chose two slim Wedgwood pots of some late classic model, which still stand, after many dangers, safely on either side of Mrs. Kenrick's portrait in Miss Reid's drawing-room at Hampstead. Wedgwood must have been a personal friend: he has modelled a lovely head of Mrs. Barbauld, simple and nymph-like.
Hampstead was no further from London in those days than it is now, and they seem to have kept up a constant communication with their friends and relations in the great city. They go to the play occasionally. 'I have not indeed seen Mrs. Siddons often, but I think I never saw her to more advantage.' she writes. 'It is not, however, seeing a play, it is only seeing one character, for they have nobody to act with her.'
Another expedition is to Westminster Hall, where Warren Hastings was then being tried for his life.
'The trial has attracted the notice of most people who are within reach of it. I have been, and was very much struck with all the apparatus and pomp of justice, with the splendour of the assembly which contained everything distinguished in the nation, with the grand idea that the /31/ equity of the English was to pursue crimes committed at the other side of the globe, and oppressions exercised towards the poor Indians who had come to plead their cause; but all these fine ideas vanish and fade away as one observes the progress of the cause, and sees it fall into the summer amusements, and take the place of a rehearsal of music or an evening at Vauxhall.'
Mrs. Barbauld was a Liberal in feeling and conviction; she was never afraid to speak her mind, and when the French Revolution first began, she, in common with many others, hoped that it was but the dawning of happier times. She was always keen about public events; she wrote an address on the opposition to the repeal of the Test Act in 1791, and she published her poem to Wilberforce on the rejection of his great bill for abolishing slavery:--
Friends of the friendless, hail, ye generous band! she cries, in warm enthusiasm for the devoted cause.
Horace Walpole nicknamed her Deborah, called her the Virago Barbauld, and speaks of her with utter rudeness and intolerant spite. But whether or not Horace Walpole approved, it is certain that Mrs. Barbauld possessed to a full and generous degree a quality which is now less common than it was in her day. /32/
Not very many years ago I was struck on one occasion when a noble old lady, now gone to her rest, exclaimed in my hearing that people of this generation had all sorts of merits and charitable intentions, but that there was one thing she missed which had certainly existed in her youth, and which no longer seemed to be of the same account: that public spirit which used to animate the young as well as the old.
It is possible that philanthropy, and the love of the beautiful, and the gratuitous diffusion of wall-papers may be the modern rendering of the good old-fashioned sentiment. Mrs. Barbauld lived in very stirring days, when private people shared in the excitements and catastrophes of public affairs. To her the fortunes of England, its loyalty, its success, were a part of her daily bread. By her early associations she belonged to a party representing opposition, and for that very reason she was the more keenly struck by the differences of the conduct of affairs and the opinions of those she trusted. Her friend Dr. Priestley had emigrated to America for his convictions' sake; Howard was giving his noble life for his work; Wakefield had gone to prison. Now the very questions are forgotten for which they struggled and suffered, or the answers have come while the questions are forgotten, in this their future which is our present, and to which /33/ some unborn historian may point back with a moral finger.
Dr. Aikin, whose estimate of his sister was very different from Horace Walpole's, occasionally reproached her for not writing more constantly. He wrote a copy of verses on this theme:--
She seems to have willingly left the lyre for Dr. Aikin's use. A few hymns, some graceful odes, and stanzas, and jeux d'esprit, a certain number of well-written and original essays, and several political pamphlets, represent the best of her work. Her more ambitious poems are those by which she is the least remembered. It was at Hampstead that Mrs. Barbauld wrote her contributions to her brother's volume of 'Evenings at Home,' among which the transmigrations of Indur may be quoted as a model of style and delightful matter. One of the best of her jeux d'esprit in the 'Groans of the Tankard,' which was written in early days, /34/ with much spirit and real humour. It begins with a classic incantation, and then goes on:--
Thumbkin, of fairy celebrity, used to mark his way by flinging crumbs of bread and scattering stones as he went along; and in like manner authors trace the course of their life's peregrinations by the pamphlets and articles they cast down as they go. Sometimes they throw stones, sometimes they throw bread. In '92 and '93 Mrs. Barbauld must /35/ have been occupied with party polemics and with the political miseries of the time. A pamphlet on Gilbert Wakefield's views, and another on 'Sins of the Government and Sins of the People,' show in what direction her thoughts were bent. Then came a period of comparative calm again and of literary work and interest. She seems to have turned to Akenside and Collins, and each had an essay to himself. These were followed by certain selections from the Spectator, Tatler, & c., preceded by one of those admirable essays for which she is really remarkable. She also published a memoir of Richardson prefixed to his correspondence. Sir James Mackintosh, writing at a later and sadder time of her life, says of her observations on the moral of Clarissa that they are as fine a piece of mitigated and rational stoicism as our language can boast of.
In 1802 another congregation seems to have made signs from Stoke Newington, and Mrs. Barbauld persuaded her husband to leave his flock at Hampstead and to buy a house near her brother's at Stoke Newington. This was her last migration, and here she remained until her death in 1825. One of her letters to Mrs. Kenrick gives a description of what might have been a happy home:--'We have a pretty little back parlour that looks into our little spot of a garden,' she says, 'and catches every gleam of sunshine. We have pulled down the ivy, except what covers the coach-house /36/ We have planted a vine and a passion-flower, with abundance of jessamine against the window, and we have scattered roses and honeysuckle all over the garden. You may smile at me for parading so over my house and domains.' In May she writes a pleasant letter, in good spirits, comparing her correspondence with her friend to the flower of an aloe, which sleeps for a hundred years, and on a sudden pushes out when least expected. 'But take notice, the life is in the aloe all the while, and sorry should I be if the life were not in our friendship all the while, though it so rarely diffuses itself over a sheet of paper.
She seems to have been no less sociable and friendly at Stoke Newington than at Hampstead. People used to come up to see her from London. Her letters, quiet and intimate as they are, give glimpses of most of the literary people of the day, not in memoirs then, but alive and drinking tea at one another's houses, or walking all the way to Stoke Newington to pay their respects to the old lady.
Charles Lamb used to talk of his two bald authoresses, Mrs Barbauld being one and Mrs. Inchbald being the other. Crabb Robinson and Rogers were two faithful links with the outer world. 'Crabb Robinson corresponds with Madame de Stael, is quite intimate,' she writes, 'has received I don't know who many letters,' she adds, not without some slight amusement. Miss Lucy Aikin tells a pretty story /37/ of Scott meeting Mrs. Barbauld at dinner, and telling her that it was to her that he owed his poetic gift. Some translations of Burger by Mr. Taylor, of Norwich, which she had read out at Edinburgh, had struck him so much that they had determined him to try his own powers in that line.
She often had inmates under her roof. One of them was a beautiful and charming young girl, the daughter of Mrs. Fletcher, of Edinburgh, whose early death is recorded in her mother's life. Besides company at home, Mrs. Barbauld went to visit her friends from time to time--the Estlins at Bristol, the Edgeworths, whose acquaintance Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld made about this time, and who seem to have been invaluable friends, brings as they did a bright new element of interest and cheerful friendship into her sad and dimming life. A man must have extraordinarily good spirits to embark upon four matrimonial ventures as Mr. Edgeworth did; and as for Miss Edgeworth, appreciative, effusive, and warm-hearted, she seems to have more than returned Mrs. Barbauld's sympathy.
Miss Lucy Aikin, Dr. Aikin's daughter, was now also making her own mark in the literary world, and had inherited the bright intelligence and interest for which her family was so remarkable. Much of Miss Aikin's work is more sustained than her aunt's desultory pro- /38/ duction, but it lacks that touch of nature which has preserved Mrs. Barbauld's memory where more important people are forgotten.
Our authoress seems to have had a natural affection for sister authoresses. Hannah More and Mrs. Montague were both her friends, so were Madame d'Arblay and Mrs. Chapone in a different degree; she must have known Mrs. Opie; she loved Joanna Baillie. The latter is described by her as the young lady at Hampstead who came to Mr. Barbauld's meeting with as demure a face as if she had never written a line. And Miss Aikin, in her memoirs, describes in Johnsonian language how the two Miss Baillies came to call one morning upon Mrs. Barbauld:--'My aunt immediately introduced the topic of the anonymous tragedies, and gave utterance to her admiration with the generous delight in the manifestation of kindred genius which distinguished her.' But it seems that Miss Baillie sat, nothing moved, and did not betray herself. Mrs. Barbauld herself gives a pretty description of the sisters in their home, in that old house on Windmill Hill, which stands untouched, with its green windows looking upon so much of sky and heath and sun, with the wainscoted parlours where Walter Scott used to come, and the low wooden staircase leading to the old rooms above. It is in one of her letters to Mrs. Kenrick that Mrs. Barbauld gives /39/ a pleasant glimpse of the poetess Walter Scott admired. 'I have not been abroad since I was at Norwich, except a day or two at Hampstead with the Miss Baillies. One should be, as I was, beneath their roof to know all their merit. Their house is one of the best ordered I know. They have all manner of attentions for their friends, and not only Miss B., but Joanna, is as clever in furnishing a room or in arranging a party as in writing plays, of which, by the way, she has a volume ready for the press, but she will not give it to the public till next winter. The subject is to be the passion of fear. I do not know what sort of a hero that passion can afford!' Fear was, indeed, a passion alien to her nature, and she did not know the meaning of the word.
Mrs. Barbauld's description of Hannah More and her sisters living on their special hill-top was written after Mr. Barbauld's death, and thirty years after Miss More's verses which are quoted by Mrs. Ellis in her excellent memoir of Mrs. Barbauld:--
Meanwhile, whatever genius might not be able to achieve, the five Miss Mores had been living on peacefully together in the very comfortable cottage which had been raised and thatched by the poetess's earnings.
'Barley Wood is equally the seat of taste and hospitality,' says Mrs. Barbauld to a friend.
'Nothing could be more friendly than their reception.' she writes to her brother, 'and nothing more charming than their situation. An extensive view over the Mendip Hills is in front of their house, with a pretty view of Wrington. Their home--cottage, because it is thatched--stands on the declivity of a rising ground, which they have planted and made quite a little paradise. The five sisters, all good old maids, have lived together these fifty years. Hannah More is a good deal broken, but possesses fully her powers of conversation, and her vivacity. We exchanged riddles like the wise men of old; I was given to understand she was writing something.'
There is another allusion to Mrs. Hannah More in a /41/ sensible letter from Mrs. Barbauld, written to Miss Edgeworth about this time, declining to join in an alarming enterprise suggested by the vivacious Mr. Edgeworth, 'a Feminiad, a literary paper to be entirely contributed to by ladies, and where all articles are to be accepted.' 'There is no bond of union,' Mrs. Barbauld says, 'among literary women any more than among literary men; different sentiments and connections separate them much more than the joint interest of their sex would unite them. Mrs. Hannah More would not write along with you or me, and we should possibly hesitate at joining Miss Hays or--if she were living--Mrs. Godwin.' Then she suggests the names of Miss Baillie, Mrs. Opie, her own niece Miss Lucy Aikin, and Mr. S. Rogers, who would not, she thinks, be averse to joining the scheme.
How strangely unnatural it seems when Fate's heavy hand falls upon quiet and common-place lives, changing the tranquil routine of every day into the solemnities and excitements of terror and tragedy! It was after their removal to Stoke Newington that the saddest of all blows fell upon this true-hearted woman. Her husband's hypochondria deepened and changed, and the attacks became /42/ so serious that her brother and his family urged her anxiously to leave him to other care than her own. It was no longer safe for poor Mr. Barbauld to remain along with his wife, and her life, says Mrs. Le Breton, was more than once in peril. But, at first, she would not hear of leaving him; although on more than one occasion she had to fly for protection to her brother close by.
There is something very touching in the patient fidelity with which Mrs. Barbauld tried to soothe the later sad disastrous years of her husband's life. She must have been a woman of singular nerve and courage to endure as she did the excitement and cruel aberrations of her once gentle and devoted companion. She only gave in after long resistance.
'An alienation from me has taken possession of his mind,' she says, in a letter to Mrs. Kenrick; 'my presence seems to irritate him, and I must resign myself to a separation from him who has been for thirty years the partner of my heart, my faithful friend, my inseparable companion.' With her habitual reticence, she dwells no more on that painful topic, but goes on to make plans for them both, asks her old friend to come and cheer her in her loneliness; and the faithful Betsy, now a widow with grown-up step-children, ill herself, troubled by deafness and other infirmities, responds with a warm heart, and /43/ promises to come, bringing the comfort with her of old companionship and familiar sympathy. There is something very affecting in the loyalty of the two aged women stretching out their hands to each other across a whole lifetime. After her visit Mrs. Barbauld writes again:--
'He is now at Norwich, and I hear very favourable accounts of his health and spirits; he seems to enjoy himself very much amongst his old friends there, and converses among them with his usual animation. There are no symptoms of violence or of depression; so far is favourable; but this cruel alienation from me, in which my brother is included, still remains deep-rooted, and whether he will ever change in this point Heaven only knows. The medical men fear he will not: if so, my dear friend, what remains for me but to resign myself to the will of Heaven, and to think with pleasure that every day brings me nearer a period which naturally cannot be very far off, and at which this as well as every temporal affliction must terminate?
'"Anything but this!" is the cry of weak mortals when afflicted; and sometimes I own I am inclined to make it mine; but I will check myself.'
But while she was hoping still, a fresh outbreak of the malady occurred. He, poor soul, weary of his existence, put an end to his sufferings: he was found lifeless in the /44/New River. Lucy Aikin quotes a Dirge found among her aunt's papers after her death:--
How much she felt her loneliness appears again and again from one passage and another. Then she struggled against discouragement; she took to her pen again. To Mrs. Kenrick she writes:-- 'I intend to pay my letter debts; not much troubling my head whether I have anything to say or not; yet to you my heart has always something to say: it always recognises you as among the dearest of its friends; and while it feels that new impressions are made with difficulty and early effaced, retains, and ever will retain, I trust beyond this world, those of our early and long-tried affection.'
She set to work again, trying to forget her heavy trials. It was during the first years of her widowhood that she published her edition of the British novelists in some fifty volumes. There is an opening chapter to this /46/ edition upon novels and novel-writing, which is an admirable and most interesting essay upon fiction, beginning from the very earliest times.
In 1811 she wrote her poem on the King's illness, and also the longer poem which provoked such indignant comments at the time. It describes Britain's rise and luxury, warns her of the dangers of her unbounded ambition and unjustifiable wars:--
It is impossible not to admire the poem, though it is stilted and not to the present taste. The description /47/ of Britain as it now is and as it once was is very ingenious:--
The poem is forgotten now, though it was scouted at the time and violently attacked, Southey himself falling upon the poor old lady, and devouring her, spectacles and all. She felt these attacks very much, and could not be consoled, though Miss Edgeworth wrote a warm-hearted letter of indignant sympathy. But Mrs. Barbauld had something in her too genuine to be crushed, even by sarcastic criticism. She published no more, but it was after her poem of '1811' that she wrote the beautiful ode by which she is best known and best remembered,--the ode that Wordsworth used to repeat and say he envied, that Tennyson has called 'sweet verses,' of which the lines ring their tender hopeful chime like sweet church bells on a summer evening.
Madame d'Arblay, in her old age, told Crabb Robinson that every night she said the verses over to herself as she went to her rest. To the writer they are almost sacred./48/ The hand that patiently pointed out to her, one by one, they syllables of Mrs. Barbauld's hymns for children, that tended our childhood, as it had tended our father's, marked these verses one night, when it blessed us for the last time.
Mrs. Barbauld was over seventy when she wrote this ode. A poem, called 'Octogenary Reflections,' is also very touching:--
There is another fragment of hers in which she likens herself to a schoolboy left of all the train, who hears no /49/ sound of wheels to bear him to his father's bosom home. 'Thus I look to the hour when I shall follow those that are at rest before me.' And then at last the time came for which she longed. Her brother died, her faithful Mrs. Kenrick died, and Mrs. Taylor, whom she loved most of all. She had consented to give up her solitary home to spend the remaining years of her life in the home of her adopted son Charles, now married, and a father; but it was while she was on a little visit to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Aikin, that the summons came, very swiftly and peacefully, as she sat in her chair one day. Her nephew transcribed these, the last lines she ever wrote:--
'Who are you?'
'Do you not know me? have you not expected me?'
'Whither do you carry me?'
'Come with me and you shall know.'
'The way is dark.'
'It is well trodden.'
'Yes, in the forward track.'
'Oh! shall I there see my beloved ones? Will they welcome me, and will they know me? Oh, tell me, tell me; thou canst tell me.'
'Yes, but thou must come first.'
'Stop a little; keep thy hand off till thou hast told me.'
'I never wait.'
'Oh! shall I see the warm sun again in my cold grave?'
'Nothing is there that can feel the sun.' /50/
'Oh, where then?'
'Come, I say.'
One may acknowledge the great progress which people have made since Mrs. Barbauld's day in the practice of writing prose and poetry, in the art of expressing upon paper the thoughts which are in most people's minds. It is (to use a friend's simile) like playing upon the piano--everybody know learns to play upon the piano, and it is certain that the modest performances of the ladies of Mrs. Barbauld's time would scarcely meet with the attention now, which they then received. But all the same, the stock of true feeling, of real poetry, is not increased by the increased volubility of our pens; and so when something comes to us that is real, that is complete in pathos or in wisdom, we still acknowledge the gift, and are grateful for it.