A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IV." by Isaac Taylor, Jr., of Stanford Rivers
Publication: Taylor, Isaac. The Writings of Jane Taylor, In Five Volumes: Volume I, Memoirs and Poetical Remains.. Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1832. pp. 50-64.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



IN the spring of the following year Jane visited London, for the first time since her childhood. It was during this visit that were commenced those [Page 51]  lasting and inestimable friendships from which she derived, through the remainder of her life, so much of the highest enjoyment; and to which she was wont to attribute the happiest influence upon her character. This visit was, in a manner, the commencement of a new era both to her heart and understanding: she was then in her nineteenth year, and was prepared by sensibilities of the liveliest kind, as well as by the long privation of social pleasures, except those found at home, to enjoy to the full, an introduction to a new circle. In this circle, I may venture to say, was found a very rare assemblage of excellence, in virtue, refinement, and intelligence. Most of the young friends with whom she had hitherto been connected were well educated, and intelligent; but among her new friends were some distinguished in their circle–and who would have been distinguished in any circle, by brilliant qualities of mind: they were, moreover, decided in their religious principles; and for the most part, influenced by a spirit of serious piety. Among them, the alternation from literary to religious conversation was not felt to be difficult, or chargeable with incongruity. Instead of seeing, as she had before too often seen, piety and intelligence disjoined, she now saw them so united as to give attractiveness to the former, and true elevation to the latter.

She did not take her place among her new friends as an aspirant to literary distinction. Her talent had not yet been so called forth as to [Page 52]  be felt by herself, or much known by others. She failed not, however, strongly to interest those to whom she was now introduced, or to make subsequent intercourse fully as much desired on the one part as on the other. Friendships, formed at the very age of romance, are very commonly broken up when the illusions on which they were founded are dissipated: but the friendships formed at this time by my sister, were dissolved only by death.

Although the timidity of her disposition rendered her peculiarly averse to competition of every kind, yet Jane could not but feel, indirectly, the stimulating influence of the friendships she now enjoyed; for they were precisely of the sort most likely to rouse her own powers, and to render the exercise of them a means of winning pleasures which she ever valued more highly than any gratification of literary vanity. I think I may affirm that a very principal incentive, or perhaps the principal incentive, to her poetical efforts–at least till the hope of doing good came in place of it, was the desire of enhancing the regard of the few friends whom she loved. A sentiment of this kind so frequently occurs in the course of her correspondence, that it cannot be doubted to have been a leading motive with her. Nor, indeed, did it seem in any degree impaired, after she had been exposed to excitements which too often injure the better feelings of the heart. To be loved, was to her a pleasure of incalculably [Page 53]  higher price than to be admired. She first wrote to cherish the affection of her friends; and when, afterwards, she felt the obligation of a more serious motive–that of making a faithful employment of the talent committed to her; still that first feeling, being most congenial to her character, continued to yield her the sweetest reward of her labors.

Rarely does it happen that a sphere of peculiar usefulness is chosen, and entered upon by the deliberate determination of the agent. For the Author of all good, in the more usual order of his procedure, not only chooses who shall serve him, but leads those whom he calls into his service in a path of which, when they enter upon it, they know not the direction. Ambitious minds, it is true, often devise schemes big with importance, which they imagine themselves destined to execute. But how seldom are such enterprises borne onward by the prosperous breath of heaven!

Certainly it was with no ambitious intention, nor even with the expectation of ever being heard of as authors beyond the circle of their friends, that Jane and her sister first wrote for the press. The circumstances which led them to do so were, in themselves, trivial; nor were they quick to attach any great importance to this new occupation. Jane wrote because she was accustomed, in every thing, to be her sister's companion and partner. She could not soon admit the idea that she was responsible for the exercise [Page 54]  of a peculiar talent. This impression did, however, at length, gain its proper influence; and throughout the latter years of her life she was under a powerful sense of duty in this respect. I know it was her constant practice, whenever she took up the pen to write for the press, to implore guidance and assistance from Him, from whom "every good and every perfect gift descends." Yet she could never receive the comfort of believing that she had done well in the charge committed to her; for both constitutional diffidence and christian humility, inclined her to renounce every assumption of merit.

The first piece of Jane's which appeared in print was a contribution to the Minor's Pocket Book, for the year 1804. It is inserted among the Poetical Remains. The pathos, simplicity, and sprightliness of "The Beggar Boy," even though the verse is fettered by the necessity of introducing a list of incongruous words, attracted much more attention than is often the lot of productions appearing in so humble a walk of literature. Her sister had contributed to the same publication for several preceding years, and had gained not less attention. The authors of these pieces became the subjects of inquiry; and it was not doubted by those who were competent to calculate the probable success of literary enterprises, that a volume of pieces, exhibiting the same vivacity, truth of description, good taste, and sound sentiment, would gain public favor. [Page 55] 

Their father viewed with pleasure the new engagements of his daughters, and yet with some anxiety, for he was strongly averse to the idea of their becoming authors by profession. He therefore favored their literary occupations so far as they might consist with the predominance of those pursuits, which he considered to be much more safe and certain, as the means of independence. Nor did their mother (who then would have thought any thing as probable as that she herself should become known as a writer) look with less watchfulness upon the effect of these new and exciting engagements. They were therefore carried on under just so much of restriction as prevented their engrossing too much of thought and of time. Almost every thing written by my sisters for some years after they had first published, was composed, either before the regular occupations of the day commenced, or after they were concluded. It was for the most part, after several hours of assiduous application, that the pieces contained in the volumes of Original Poems, Rhymes for the Nursery, &c. were written: nor was it, I believe, till a much later period, that ever an entire day was indulged to the labors of the pen.

Under restrictions such as these many of the most useful, and some, even of the most admired literary works have been produced. It is true that to those who are thus at once urged and impeded on the course of intellectual labor, such circum- [Page 56]  stances seem altogether unfavorable; and they are fain to imagine that, if freed from the fetter, and exempted from the goad, genius would make a wider circuit, and bring home richer treasures. But this supposition is not often well founded: for so great is the vis inertiæ of mind, so vague its spontaneous efforts, and so much higher and more painful is the effort necessary for useful production, than that of which most minds are at all capable, when free from urgent motives, that, perhaps, these seemingly unfavorable circumstances ought to be welcomed as the stimulus necessary to put the mind in full activity. It must, however, be granted that there are regions of thought into which those minds can only rise which neither require the stimulus of secondary motives, nor can submit to be so embarrassed.

The little volume of "Original Poems for Infant Minds, by several Young Persons," was found to be highly agreeable to children, and so useful in the business of early education, that, in a very short time, it obtained an extensive circulation: it was quickly reprinted in America; and translated into the German and Dutch languages. What share of this success belongs to each of the contributors to the volume, could not be ascertained, even if to make the inquiry were of any importance. Jane, for her part, was ever forward to surrender all praise to others.

The success of this volume presently suggested the production of a second, of a similar kind; [Page 57]  and the young writers, gratified by the unexpected favor they had won, readily listened to the wishes of parents and children. Although children will not be long entertained, or effectively instructed by mere dulness; yet it is true that, even the more intelligent of them, may be entertained, and to a certain extent, instructed, by what is very trivial, or very much deformed by faults of style. But it is happy when the power of pleasing children, and of strongly engaging their attention, is so united with good taste and delicate tact in the choice of embellishments, and correct judgment, and sound principle in all that bears upon morals, as to give to such productions those negative merits that, in the work of education, are of higher importance than, perhaps, any other excellences. For, to furnish reading, without vulgarising the taste, or contaminating the imagination, or enfeebling the judgment, or perverting the feelings, is high praise in those who write for youth.

A part of my sister's contributions to some of these little works, was composed under rather peculiar circumstances, which must here be briefly narrated; because they served to mature her character, and to exhibit its solid excellences in a somewhat new and difficult situation.

During the autumn and winter of the year 1803, the alarm of a French invasion (and it has since appeared to have been a well-founded alarm) prevailed through the country, and espe- [Page 58]  cially along the eastern and southern coasts. Colchester was at that time a principal military station: the active movements therefore of a large body of troops, always in a state of readiness to meet the expected enemy, tended of itself to keep alive a constant impression of the impending danger: besides this, the military persons high in command on the station, were not backward in exciting the popular fears. Every day, some whispered intimation of immediate danger from "the best authority," was circulated through the town, till a strong and general persuasion prevailed that it might, very probably, become the scene of the first conflict with the invaders. In this state of public feeling, not a few of the inhabitants whose means allowed them to do so, either left the town for a time; or made such arrangements as should enable them to leave it at an hour's notice.

At this time the house which, as has been mentioned, Mr. Taylor owned at Lavenham, was without a tenant: this circumstance seemed to invite the step which the fears of the time suggested–that of removing a part of the family thither, where a home would be always in readiness for those who remained, should it be needed. No material difficulty prevented the execution of this plan, and it was determined that Jane, with two of her brothers, and an infant sister, should remove to the vacant house. This separation of the family took place in the middle of October. [Page 59] 

So great was the confidence placed by her parents in Jane's discretion and ability, that they committed this divided portion of their family to her care without anxiety; nor do I think that, in any instance, their confidence was abused of disappointed. Jane, though gifted with uncommon vivacity of spirit, was thoughtful and provident in a degree rarely found at her age. I can perfectly remember her active, laborious, and well-concerted management of our little affairs. Such was her industry, that the new cares of a family were suffered but in a small degree to infringe upon the customary hours devoted to engraving; nor these upon her literary engagements; for her winter evenings were assiduously occupied in composing her share of some little works which soon after appeared.

The house stood in one of the least frequented parts of the town–the garden abutting upon a common: and being only in part occupied, and scantily furnished, the aspect of things within, as well as without, was very much in harmony with the feelings of terror under which we had sought this asylum. Jane exhibited, on this occasion, the strength of her mind: she was peculiarly subject to impressions of fear, both from real and imaginary dangers; but such was her resolution, and so great was the strength of her principle, that, without wishing to retreat from her situation, she endured (what those who have more physical courage never endure) the terrors of a suscepti- [Page 60]  ble, and strongly excited imagination. This is indeed the courage of woman: and it may be questioned whether, in the possession and exercise of this high quality, the weaker sex does not often surpass the stronger.

Yet our banishment was not without its enjoyments; for Jane, who had a genuine domestic taste, soon gave an air of comfort to the part of the house we occupied; and we received, during our stay, the kindest attentions from several families with which ours had been on terms of intimacy while resident at Lavenham. I may here insert a few extracts from letters written by my sister at this time. To her friend Jane W. she writes–"I believe Mrs. W. has received from Ann a full account of our late flight to Lavenham, where, after the first alarm had subsided, we found a very pleasant and comfortable asylum, for some months. Though we felt it a little mortifying, that our neighbor Bonaparte should have it in his power to give us such a thorough panic, and so completely to derange all our affairs, yet, I own, I enjoyed my residence in the old spot exceedingly. Being in our own house, and for so long a time, I began to fancy myself once more an inhabitant; and it was not without pain that I took leave of a place that will ever be dear to me. During our stay at Lavenham, I took some delightful walks:–perhaps you have by this time forgotten most of them. I found it highly interesting once more to tread the oft-trod path; [Page 61]  and to recognise many a spot that had been the scene of former enjoyments. I know not whether to you it is so; but with me, no local attachments are so strong as those formed in childhood." * * *

"Lavenham, Oct. 18, 1803.

"My Dear Mother,

"We have safely received your parcels and letters; which were very acceptable to us. I am now quite comfortably settled in my new house; and feel as if I had taken up my station here for a constancy. I manage capitally, as you may suppose; and 'give satisfaction.' I rise (I am sorry I cannot use the plural number) between six and seven, and get every thing in order before breakfast; but with all my endeavors I cannot begin engraving before eleven; to which I sit down again half an hour after dinner. We keep school very regularly; and Jemima comes on, both in reading and work. As to economy, I study it as much as possible; and for our employments–they are certainly broken in upon at present; but will be less and less so, as we get more settled. We have not indulged in one walk yet; though the country and weather have been beautifully inviting: but we sit at the bow window next the garden; and quite enjoy ourselves."

From a letter of a later date, a few sentences may be extracted:–"I write this in hopes of your having it in time for the carrier, that you may know what things I most want. Of news I have [Page 62]  none; and should not have written now, but for the reason above mentioned. Thank you for the carpet; it is quite a luxury to us. Although we brought every thing absolutely necessary, we have few conveniences; and though, if we were all huddled together in a barn, expecting the French to overtake us every instant, we might be very well contented with–

'An open broken elbow chair;
A caudle cup without an ear;' &c.
Yet, living quietly, like our neighbors, we rather miss the conveniences we have been used to. I must confess we did not fast on the fast day; we went however in the morning to the prayer-meeting, where we heard an excellent prayer from Mr. — of three-quarters of an hour:–its length spoiled it; for we were all ready to faint. In the afternoon we walked with the children. I thank you and father for what you say about walking; but really we seem very little to need more exercise than we have in the house and garden, where the children play continually. If we take a walk once or twice a week, just to look at the old places, and show the children the new ones, it is quite sufficient."

Towards the close of her stay at Lavenham, Jane writes to her mother–"Could you see us just now, I cannot tell whether you would most laugh at, or pity us. I am sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded with beds, chairs, tables, boxes, &c. &c.; and every room is the same. [Page 63]  But our brains are in still greater confusion–not knowing now what to do. Have you heard this new alarm? It is said the French are actually embarking. Mr. — strongly advises us not to move till we hear something more; so we are quite perplexed. We have at length resolved to wait, at all events, till Saturday, and if you write by return of post, we shall be able to act then according to your wishes; but in the meantime, we shall be in a most delightful plight, for most of the things are packed up, ready to go to-morrow; and then, if after all, we must stay, it will be vexatious enough. If you find there is no foundation for the alarm, you will of course, order us home directly. But do not fail to write, for we are quite deplorable.

"And now, having despatched all my business, let me thank my dear mother for her wholesome reprimand, which I hope will be a lesson for the future. I feel no inclination to apologize for myself; but acknowledge, upon reflection, I was wrong–when I wrote I did not reflect. Yet this I can say, that whatever opinion I may have formed of Mr. —, I have never been otherwise than polite to him. What I said to L. was unpremeditated; and believe, if I had thought it probable that she would ever have met him, I should not have said what I did; further I declare, I do not despise the gentleman, and I wrote only for my amusement, though it should not have been at another person's expense." [Page 64] 

The alarm of invasion scarcely subsided till the spring of the following year. But at the earliest appearance of returning security, Mr. Taylor gladly recalled his family to their home; and in the month of February we were once more united under his roof.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom