"Chapter VIII." by the Hon. Emily Lawless (1845-1913)
WE now pass to quite another phase of our author's literary activity. Hitherto we have been considering her–as a writer of children's books; as her father's collaborator, enlivening with her nimble pen his somewhat arid and turgid disquisitions; next, as the producer of a picture of the past, unique in literature, one which may be said to have created a genre of its own, a genre in which no other writer has even attempted to rival her. We now find ourselves called upon to consider her from an entirely new aspect, as the painter of polite manners,–of "fashionable life," so called–as the delineator of a whole host of belles, beaux, prudes, quizzes, "catch-match-makers," and the like–beings who have either wholly disappeared from existence, or have been rechristened since her time with new names.
As a matter of preference I will not pretend to follow her in this new departure with the same interest as in the preceding one. That is scarcely a reason, however, for failing to recognise her great superiority in it over most of her predecessors, especially over such predecessors as confined themselves within the bounds of the decorous. The first of her "Fashionable Tales" is not included in the two sets of volumes published under that title. Miss Belinda Portman, who gives [Page 99] her name to the book, has been condemned by various critical persons as cold, artificial, prudish, and so on. She seems for some reason to have been no favourite with her creator; indeed, if we wish to find really damaging criticisms of Miss Edgeworth's books, the best place to look for them is in her own comments! When, a good many years afterwards, she was revising the book for republication, she berates its unfortunate heroine as follows: "I really was so provoked with the cold tameness of that stick or stone, Belinda, that I could have torn the pages in pieces! As the hackney coachman said, 'Mend you! Better make a new one ! '"
For another bit of self-criticism as lively and as scathing as this, we should have, I think, to look far ! My personal acquaintance with the young lady in question happens to be of quite recent origin, although the rest of her sisters in fiction have been intimate acquaintances since childhood. In spite of this unendearing circumstance, I am bound to say that I fail to perceive any very marked difference between them. Belinda–like Helen, like Miss Annaly, Miss Nugent, and the rest of her sisterhood–is at once a remarkably sprightly, and a remarkably discreet young woman. Life is for her a tolerably simple affair, chiefly complicated by the anxiety of her relations to see her suitably married, by her own sense of propriety, and by some slight doubts as to the seriousness of the attentions which she receives from her various suitors. One lamentable affliction the book certainly suffered from. Whereas we have seen that Castle Rackrent wholly escaped the parental emendations, upon none of Miss Edgeworth's books did her father's editorial hand fall so heavily, or with such destructive effect, as upon this [Page 100] unfortunate Belinda. Intended to be a lively picture of life, as found in the gayest of gay London drawing-rooms, it was his happy inspiration to decorate it with all the provincial solemnities of Lichfield, and with all the educational aberrations of the late lamented Mr. Day. Because Mr. Day had adopted a "young person," had kept her for years–apparently with the utmost decorum–under his own roof, and had proposed in due time to make her his wife, therefore the hero of Belinda, the brilliant Clarence Harvey–a wit, a man of clubs, and of the world–had to be twisted out of all consistency, and forced to do the same! The natural result follows. The whole movement of the book becomes mechanical; the machinery rattles; the wits prose and preach; and a work which had begun as a light and Sheridan-like comedy of manners, sinks into a morass of dull moralising and ponderous, soul-wearying propriety.
Yet, admitting all this, and despite these very serious drawbacks, there is a great deal of excellent writing in Belinda. Sir Philip Baddeley's report of the fêtes at Frogmore is a gem of the purest water. Excellent also is the scene in which Clarence Harvey borrows Lady Delacour's hoop upon her return from Court, and is introduced to the company as the "Countesse de Pomenare," but loses the bet he has made of being competent to manage it, by stooping too suddenly, thereby overturning the music-stand, and sending the contents of it flying across the room. Lady Delacour herself is not only a fine lady, but a witty one; indeed, Miss Edgeworth's fine ladies almost always seem to carry conviction. It is rather curious, by the way, to note the total failure in this small particular [Page 101] of a much greater writer, and more perfect artist–the incomparable Jane Austen. Lady Susan is not the tale of Miss Austen's which any adorer of hers would assuredly take down by preference. It is a belated story, and a story which ought perhaps never to have been resuscitated. It happens, however, to be the only one in which the habits and customs of this particular species have been minutely portrayed, and it only needs to be opened in order to see how absolutely remote the presentment is from anything that could by any possibility have existed in reality. To Miss Edgeworth, on the other hand, the type was fairly well known, with all its ingratiating little ways; its airs and its graces; its spleens and its vapours; its daintinesses, impertinences, flirtations, indiscretions, and the rest. Her fops, again, are admirable, and are presented in so natural a fashion as almost to make us believe in the creature's reality. A contemporary's opinion is no doubt in such matters of most value, and the truth of her delineations has been vouched for by a contemporary of hers, by no means prone to indulgent judgments–by the redoubtable Lord Jeffrey. We find him speaking of her "faithful representations of the spoken language of persons of wit and politeness"; and again of "that gift of sportive, but cutting médisance, which is sure of success in those circles where success is supposed to be the most difficult and desirable."
No doubt Miss Edgeworth's advantages in this respect had been above the average, and she was destined a little later to have further, and yet more enlarged opportunities of studying this desirable art of "sportive, but cutting médisance." The Peace of Amiens–that [Page 102] brief breathing-space for a generation fated to grow up in an atmosphere of continuous fighting–was about to set every one wild with the desire to visit or re-visit Paris, and amongst such curious and intelligent investigators it was only natural that Mr. Edgeworth was to be found.
Before accompanying her thither, it will be necessary to first note down a few more or less important family details, which have been overlooked in larger preoccupations. Some of these belong as far back as the period of the first visit to Clifton, and ought to have been recorded then, but will have to come in here out of their due order. The first in point of time was the visit to his family of "poor Richard," Mr. Edgeworth's seemingly quite unimportant eldest son, who, after a brief appearance, disappears into space, and is heard of no more; primogeniture was apparently not one of the institutions held in high regard by that theorist ! Two other events belonging to about the same period were the marriages of Maria's "own" sisters, Anna and Emmeline. The first of these married Dr. Beddoes, and became the mother of the poet of that name; the second shortly afterwards married a Mr. King, a surgeon. These two marriages, and Richard's departure, left Miss Edgeworth herself the only child of the first marriage who still lived at home. Another event belonging to these last years of the century was the brief appearance and disappearance of her father in the character of an Irish legislator. He was returned at the close of 1798 for one of the Longford boroughs, and sat in the last Irish Parliament, the separate existence of which came to an end a few months later. It is characteristic of what is perhaps [Page 103] the most disreputable of all recorded political jobs that the newly elected member was offered three thousand guineas for the use of his seat during the remaining weeks of the session, but very properly refused, not wishing, in his own words–"to quarrel with myself, and lose my own good opinion at my time of life." We are further informed that, while approving upon the whole of the Union, he voted against it, a proceeding the propriety of which is less immediately obvious. Yet another event of some importance was the death of Dr. Darwin, who was seized with his last illness while in the very act of writing a letter to his friend, Mr. Edgeworth. This was a loss felt in different degrees of intensity by all the various members of the Edgeworth family.
Meantime the production alike of books and of infants seems to have gone on uninterruptedly in that family. In the same year, 1798, Practical Education was published, and "was praised and abused enough"–so Mrs. Edgeworth tells us in her Memoir –"to make the authors immediately famous." Possibly it was for the sake of sipping this fame in its freshness that Mr. Edgeworth decided to take his daughter and wife to England in the spring of 1799. At Clifton in the same year the first of the children of the fourth and last Mrs. Edgeworth was born–the seventeenth child, by the way, calling Mr. Edgeworth father ! In connection with its arrival a quaint little anecdote may be found recorded in the family annals.–"Maria took her little sister to bring down to her father, but when she had descended a few steps a panic seized her, and she was afraid to go either backwards or forwards. She sat down on the stairs, afraid she should drop the child, [Page 104] afraid that its head would come off, and afraid that her father would find her sitting there and laugh at her; till, seeing the footman passing, she called 'Samuel' in a terrified voice, and made him walk before her backwards down the stairs till she safely reached the sitting-room."
This sister of a newborn had already reached the tolerably mature age of thirty-three, yet to her biographer it is of some interest to reflect that it was not till nearly three years later that occurred the first sentimental adventure which seems ever to have befallen her in her own person. From Clifton the party went to London, and thence home to Edgeworthstown. Eighteen months later they are again in England, visiting Chester, Newcastle, and various other places. At Leicester they made inquiries of a polite bookseller with regard to the sale of Belinda, and other recent works of some interest to themselves. By him they were informed that, whereas the others were in good repute, Castle Rackrent was in better, the others often borrowed, but Castle Rackrent often bought. It was apparently upon the same polite bookseller's invitation that they visited a Miss Watts, a local celebrity, whose absolute inability to pick out the illustrious authoress throws an amusing light upon the relative standing and appearance of the ladies of the party.
Escorted, as we gather, by the polite bookseller in person, they were "shown by the light of a lanthorn along a very narrow passage between high walls, to the door of a decent-looking house, where a maid-servant, candle in hand, received us. 'Be pleased, ladies, to walk upstairs.' A neatish room, nothing extraordinary [Page 105] in it, except the inhabitants. Mrs. Watts, a black-eyed, prim, dragon-looking woman, in the background. Miss Watts, a tall young lady in white, fresh colour, fair, thin oval face, rather pretty. The moment Mrs. Edgeworth entered, Miss Watts, mistaking her for the authoress, darted forward with arms, long thin arms, outstretched to their utmost swing, 'Oh, what an honour this is!' Each word and syllable rising in tone till the last reached a scream. Instead of embracing my mother, as her first action threatened, she started back to the furthest end of the room, which was not light enough to show her attitude distinctly, but it seemed to be intended to express the receding of awe-struck admiration–stopped by the wall ! Charlotte and I passed by unnoticed, and seated ourselves by the old lady's desire. Miss Watts was all ecstasy, and lifting up of hands and eyes, speaking always in that loud, shrill, theatrical tone with which a puppet-master supplies his puppets. I, all the time, sat like a mouse. My father asked: 'Which of those ladies, Madam, do you think is your authoress ?' 'I am no physiognomist'–in a screech–'but I do imagine that to be the lady,' bowing almost to the ground, and pointing to Mrs. Edgeworth. 'No; guess again.' 'Then that must be she,' bowing to Charlotte. 'No!' 'Then this lady,' looking forward to see what sort of an animal I was, for she had never seen me till this instant. To make me some amends, she now drew her chair close to me, and began to pour forth praises: 'Lady Delacour, O!' 'Letters for Literary Ladies, O!'"
From this zealous but undiscriminating admirer the party withdrew as rapidly as politeness permitted; [Page 106] even Mr. Edgeworth apparently finding fame on such terms to be in the succinct words of one of his own ancestors–"more onerous than honourable!" A "roomy coach" had already been secured in London, and a few days later Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth, Maria, and Charlotte made their final start for Paris, and upon the fifth of October 1802, found themselves duly landed at Calais.
From Calais the line of route they had selected lay through Grâvelines and Brussels. They travelled of course in their own coach, to which were fastened by long rope-traces "six Flemish horses of different heights, but each large and clumsy enough to draw an English waggon." "The nose of the foremost horse," says Miss Edgeworth, "was thirty-five feet from the body of the coach, their hoofs all shaggy, their tails long enough to please Sir Charles Grandison." In this fashion they rumbled slowly on through the various towns and villages, seeing most of the things that were worth seeing on the way, all of which are duly reflected in Maria's lively, home-bound letters. At Dunkirk the people struck her as looking like so many "wooden toys set in motion by strings." Between there and Bruges the roads impressed the whole party by their precision, "as if laid out by some inflexible mathematician." The post-houses, on the other hand, seem to have scared the travellers by their filth and their air of desolation, suggestive of the sort of places where respectable English people might expect to be murdered in. Bruges and Ghent were passed, and at both places pictures and churches were seen, but Miss Edgeworth is fortunately merciful to her correspondents in such matters–"Do not be afraid, my [Page 107] dear Sophy," she writes in one of her letters, "that I am going to overwhelm you with pictures." "It is extremely agreeable to me," she adds in the same letter, "to see paintings with those who have excellent taste, and no affectation. " It is to be feared that a good deal of our latter-day discourse about the arts would have left so practical and sensible a traveller distinctly cold!
At Brussels a small experience befell them which gives us an entertaining glimpse of Mr. Edgeworth's educationary methods, which seem to have been still in full force. "My father thought that it would be advantageous to us," writes Miss Edgeworth, "to see inferior pictures before seeing those of the best masters, that we might have some points of comparison; and upon the same principle we went to two provincial theatres at Dunkirk and Brussels. But unluckily–I mean unluckily for our principles –we saw at Brussels two of the best Paris actors, M. and Madame Talma." The play was Racine's Andromache, and the whole party were greatly impressed, as they well might be! At Cambray they were taken to see the preserved head of Fénélon, in honour of whom that town had been recently elevated by Buonaparte into an archbishopric. At Chantilly the stables only were to be seen, the palace having been pulled down during the Revolution, its "white arches covered with crumbling stones and mortar, rising sadly above the ground." Finally they reached Paris, where rooms had been taken for them in "a fine square, formerly Place Louis Quinze, afterwards Place de la Revolution, and now Place de la Concorde." Here the guillotine, barely ten years before, had been at work night and day. Here, as they thrilled to realise, [Page 108] the King had died, also Marie Antoinette, also Mme. Roland. Opposite their windows was the Seine, and La Lanterne–in short, Paris–full, historic Paris–lay around them.
Nor were their experiences, as is too often the case, limited to such merely inanimate objects of interest. From the first hour of their arrival they seem to have found themselves eagerly welcomed, and before long were in the full swing of meeting, seeing, and being talked to, by every one of note or distinction who was to be found there at the moment.
The letters descriptive of their Parisian experiences have, however, been already given to the world by Mr. Hare in the Life and Letters, so that, beyond a few extracts, necessary to preserve continuity, there is no occasion to repeat them here. A mere catalogue of the celebrities met with would alone fill a considerable space. Indeed, with a rather unlooked-for touch of humour, Mrs. Edgeworth herself protests in one of her letters against "Mr. Edgeworth's plan to knock you down with names !" Although all the members of the party wrote home in a more or less lively strain, Maria's letters are, as was to be expected, at once the fullest and the best. Amongst a number of other eminent people we hear of Madame Delessert, and of her daughter, Madame Gautier, who is described as having "fine, large, black eyes, well-dressed, not at all naked." "People," Miss Edgeworth adds for the relief of the aunt to whom she is writing, "need not be naked here unless they choose it." It was for Madame Gautier that Rousseau's Letters on Botany were written, so that we may presume so respectable a taste may have preserved her from following the extremities [Page 109] of the fashion. Of their various new acquaintances the person evidently who came first in Miss Edgeworth's estimation was the Abbé Morellet–"Oh, my dear Aunt Mary, how you would love that man !" she cries. "And we need not be afraid of loving him," she adds, as a judicious afterthought, "for he is near eighty !" M. and Madame Pastoret, Madame Suard, and various others, are passed in review, also Camille Jourdain–"not," it is explained, "the assassin." Madame Récamier, at whose house "beauty, riches, fashion, luxury, and numbers" were to be met with. "Who comes next ?" Miss Edgeworth exclaims in her breathless category.–"Kosciusko, cured of his wounds, simple in his manners, like all truly great men. We met him at the house of a Polish countess whose name I cannot spell."
It was while she was in the middle of this letter that the following flattering, if somewhat startling, interruption occurred. "Here, my dear Aunt"–she is writing, as usual, to Mrs. Ruxton–"I was interrupted in a manner that will surprise you, as it surprised me, by the coming in of M. Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman, whom we have mentioned to you, of superior understanding and mild manners. He came to offer me his Hand and Heart! My heart, you may suppose, cannot return the attachment, for I have seen very little of him, and have not had time to have formed any judgment, except that I think nothing would tempt me to leave my own dear friends, and my own country, to live in Sweden."
In her Memoir of her stepdaughter, Mrs. Edgeworth insists that in thus refusing M. Edelcrantz, Maria was "mistaken in her feelings," and even goes so far as [Page 110] to assert that she was "exceedingly in love with him." Unquestionably Mrs. Edgeworth was in a position to know the actual facts, yet I find a certain amount of difficulty in accepting that assertion. To suppose that an interview which began and ended in the manner above described was compatible with any very deep-seated affection upon the part of the recorder of it, would be to credit our impulsive letter-writer with a good deal more reticence and secretiveness than even the most discreet of her own heroines ! That she looked a trifle pensive when the word "Sweden" was mentioned, can hardly be called a conclusive proof. In any case there is not even a hint on the part of herself, or any of her relations, that she ever repented her refusal, or for a moment regretted the decision she had so unhesitatingly come to. In the eminently practical language of her stepmother–"she was well aware that she would not have suited his position at the Court of Stockholm"–M. Edelcrantz seems to have held the post of scientific secretary to the King of Sweden–"and that her want of beauty might have diminished his attachment." The affair at all events came to a summary conclusion. M. Edelcrantz departed–to Sweden or elsewhere–and the only effect which seems to have followed from it was that a subsequent story, Leonora, was written by its author in the style held to be particularly pleasing to her recent suitor. Since it is far from being one of Miss Edgeworth's happiest efforts, it is impossible, in the interests of literature, to feel any particular regret that his influence was not destined to be a more enduring one.
Next to M. Edelcrantz–or possibly before him in importance–came the personage still spoken of, even [Page 112] in Paris, as "Buonaparte." The relations between this personage and the Edgeworths were not without touches of humour, although, in the end, they came remarkably near to having a serious, not to say a tragic, effect upon the latter's destinies. The first mention of him is in a letter which records their having been taken to the theatre by Madame Récamier. "We were seen," says Mrs. Edgeworth, with an evident flutter of satisfaction, "by Buonaparte himself, who sat opposite to us in a railed box, through which he could see, but not be seen." We are next informed that Mr. Edgeworth was about to be presented to him, but the presentation, for some reason, seems never to have come off. Then follows a letter from Charlotte Edgeworth, in which her correspondent is told that they went to a review, and that at the review "we saw a man on a white horse ride down the ranks. We saw that he was a little man with a pale face, who seemed very attentive to what he was about, and this was all we saw of 'Buonaparte.'" A report that Mr. Edgeworth was the brother of the Abbé Edgeworth had been circulated, which nearly had the effect of causing their expulsion from Paris in the January of 1803. They were able, however, to remain there a few months longer, and to make the acquaintance of La Harpe, of Madame Oudinot (Rousseau's Julie), and of other notabilities; also to call upon Madame de Genlis–a visit which is afterwards described at great length by Maria in a letter to her aunt, Miss Sneyd. Finally the rumours of renewed war grew more and more menacing. A friendly acquaintance, M. le Breton, who happened to call at their hotel, arranged with Mr. Edgeworth that if, when they met the same [Page 112] evening at a friend's house, he found war to be imminent, he would put on his hat. They met; M. le Breton suddenly put on his hat; the hint was taken; Mr. Edgeworth hurried back to his hotel; the boxes were packed, and they were off.
They were only just in time ! How narrow their escape was is clear from the fact that Lovell Edgeworth, who was on his way from Geneva to join his family in Paris, never received the warning which they sent telling him not to do so. He was arrested, and from that time forward for the next twelve years he remained a prisoner in France, in spite of all the efforts of his friends, and of all the interest which the Edgeworth family could command. Happily the members of that family who are our own more immediate concern escaped, and upon March the 6th, 1803, Maria Edgeworth, with her father, stepmother, and sister, landed safely at Dover.