A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter X." 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. 147-165.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



MY sister's taste for the beauties of nature was gratified about this time, by a residence of some months in the most romantic part of Devonshire. The occasion of this visit must be mentioned, as it determined the course of her life for several succeeding years.

The brother to whose part it has fallen to prepare this memoir, had lately spent some months in the west of England, for the recovery of his health, and had returned to London in a great degree restored; but on the approach of the following winter, being advised to seek a milder climate, it was determined that his two sisters should accompany him to Devonshire. [Page 148] 

Having just before roamed over a great part of that delightful country, and become familiar with its beauties, it was to him a pleasure of the liveliest kind, to introduce his sisters to these novel scenes. To young persons whose taste for the beauties of nature is very strong, and who have been accustomed only to the uniform surface, and the simple rural amenities of the eastern countries, a first sight of the scenery of the west of England excites the most vivid delight. Jane felt these pleasures to the full; and even after a second and a lengthened residence at Ilfracombe had rendered her familiar with its scenery, the pleasure with which she rambled daily among its rocks was undiminished.

During the whole of the first winter passed at Ilfracombe, the change in my sister's mode of life was almost as great as could be; for instead of the assiduous occupation of time to which she had always been accustomed, the mornings, whenever the weather permitted, were spent in social or solitary rambles; and the evenings, most often, in agreeable society–and some highly agreeable society was indeed found at Ilfracombe. Except in maintaining correspondence with her friends, I do not know that she wrote anything during this winter: the time, however, was not lost, for she not only improved in health, but gained expansion of mind, enriched her imagination, and acquired those more free habits of thought which are scarcely compatible with unremitted application. [Page 149] 

Yet she was impatient of this long-continued inaction. "I have found," she says, "(but not now for the first time) that any great external interest, for a continuance, will not agree with my mind; it is living upon dainties, instead of plain food. Accustomed to expect my evening's entertainment from myself, in some kind of mental exertion, a complete relaxation from this, and depending wholly, for many months, on external means of gratification, is a kind of indulgence which will not do to live upon; my mind never had so long a holyday, and I feel it is time to send it home."

Referring to the same time, in a letter of a later date, she writes–

"As to my employments during the winter, it is very true I have been disappointed in my expectations of writing; but I have not neglected a favorable opportunity; for none has presented itself. I went to Ilfracombe, expecting to find there complete retirement, and much leisure. You know how mistaken we were in this calculation. The engagement of the evening with our welcome visitors, completely deprived me of the only time I can ever profitably devote to writing. I am far, however, from thinking this a lost winter, or that I have enjoyed a too expensive pleasure; for I would not but have known and seen what I have at Ilfracombe, for twice the expense of time and money. I do, however, look forward, with much satisfaction, to the prospect of resum- [Page 150]  ing my former habits, after this long relaxation; and whenever I take up the pen again, I hope to reap the advantage of the past winter."

The swell of the sea is not indeed so great at Ilfracombe, as on the northwestern coast of Cornwall; but when the pent-up tides of the Bristol channel meet a hurricane from the Atlantic, and the contention falls upon the sharp and towering precipices of this coast, the beauty and terror of a sea-storm can hardly be better displayed. Not at all intimidated by rain or wind, Jane would seldom stay within, when the breaking of the sea over the house in which we lodged, announced the coming storm.

The neighborhood of Ilfracombe has also, in several spots, the charm of rural and sequestered beauty. The deep ravines which commence upon the elevated moors, and run down to the sea-side, are, many of them, thickly wooded, and studded with stone-built, and ivy-covered cottages; and though not on the largest scale, some of these glens present the most finished combinations of picturesque objects. Scenery of this kind depends upon the decorations of summer, for its effect, much less than the wooded slopes of a merely rural country; for there it is alone the clustered evergreens that hide the desolation of the season; but here the permanent forms are equally beautiful with those that are evanescent: and indeed, many of these spots produce a more congruous effect upon the mind, in the gloom of [Page 151]  a December afternoon, than under the splendors of July.

The description with which the Fragment opens, that stands first among the Poetical Remains, will be recognized by the reader who has traversed the coast of North Devon. The peculiar scenery of Lea filled Jane's imagination; it was her favorite walk, and having heard the melancholy story of a secluded being who, with his maniac daughter, had long inhabited one of its few dwellings, she fixed upon it as the scene of a history which floated in her mind for three or four years, but of which no more than what is now published, was ever committed to paper.

The following letter to her friend, Mr. J. C., should here find a place.

Ilfracombe, November 14, 1812.

* * * Though you may consider this as a tardy performance of my promise, it is, I assure you, but the second letter I have dated from hence. I perceive that it is all in vain to run to the remotest corner of the earth for retirement and leisure; at least it is in vain to seek for them amid the rocks of Ilfracombe. * * *

I wish I could introduce you for a moment (or as much longer as you could stay) to our comfortable fireside, around which we often talk of those we have left, till we forget the distance which separates us. * * * I promise not to [Page 152]  detain you long with descriptions of the scenery around us, to which it would probably be more toil than pleasure to listen. For in such cases, where the imagination of the writer can fly, that of the reader must climb; and perhaps she is wholly indisposed to the exertion. Besides that, it is not the most agreeable thing to be told that "you can form no idea–you can't imagine–you never saw anything like it," &c. So then, to do the thing more politely, I must tell you that I had formed no idea of the kind of scenery with which we are surrounded; and that I had never before seen any thing like it, was evident from the effect it at first produced upon me.

Ilfracombe is situated in a deep valley, surrounded on one side by barren hills, and on the other by stupendous rocks, which skirt the sea. Our lodgings very pleasantly overlook the harbor, which affords us constant entertainment. The sea is close behind the house; and is so near a neighbor that, during the last high tides, the waves rose in immense sheets of foam, and fell over a high wall opposite our chamber windows: it also flowed into the house in front, and kept us close prisoners. Our walks in every direction are so interesting that, while the weather permitted, we spent a great part of the day abroad. Our rambles among the rocks I enjoy most; though at first they excited sensations of awe and terror, rather than of pleasure. But now we climb without fear amid a wilderness of rocks, where [Page 153]  nothing else can be seen, and nothing heard but the roar of the distant sea: here the only path is over the huge fragments which lie scattered in all directions, and which it requires some courage as well as dexterity to scale. Besides these, we have several cheerful walks, commanding the sea, bounded to the north by a beautiful line of the Welsh mountains. Their aspects are very various; at times appearing only like faint clouds in the horizon; but when the weather is clear, and the sun shines upon them, they exhibit an exquisite variety of light and shade, and delicate coloring, finished, by distance, like the finest miniature. From some of the highest hills we have distinctly perceived the buildings on the nearer part of the coast;–to the west the wide ocean is before us,

"Now sparkling with sunbeams, now dimpled with oars,
   Now dark with the fresh-blowing gale."
The rocky cliffs of Lundy island add beauty and interest to the scene.

Early in the spring of the year 1813, we prepared to leave Ilfracombe: in the expectation of doing so, my sister says–

"In a week or two we expect to take our leave of Ilfracombe:–thus ends another short chapter of the little history of life:–like many others, its contents have not corresponded with the title:–it has disappointed our fears, and greatly exceeded our expectations of enjoyment: may it end with a hymn of praise!" [Page 154] 

The most romantic part of the North Devon coast is about eighteen miles east of Ilfracombe: this spot we determined to visit, on our way home:–the excursion is described by Jane in a letter written at Linton, to her father and mother.

"Here we are at this celebrated part of North Devon: we arrived yesterday, about four o'clock; and I think you will pity us when I tell you that, from an hour after we left Ilfracombe to the present moment, it has rained incessantly. We calculated upon getting in time enough to ramble before evening; and to spend the whole of this day in exploring the beauties of the place; instead of all this, we have been obliged to content ourselves with sitting before a blazing fire–turning over an odd volume of the Gentleman's Magazine, Warner's Walk in the Western Counties, and The Miseries of Human Life. Nor is this all; for I awoke yesterday at Ilfracombe with every symptom of a bad cold; which is now at its height; so that I have no hope of going out, even if the weather had cleared up:–this is pleasure! Ann and Isaac have twice ventured out in the course of the day; and have taken a hasty view of the valley of Rocks, and of the village of Linmouth; and I have had the satisfaction of hearing a description of what I am within half a mile of, and came on purpose to see. However, not to make the worst of our story, I must add, that when we arrived within about two miles of Linton, a scene of grandeur and beauty [Page 155]  opened upon us which alone would repay us for coming. We had travelled several miles over a high, wild, and dreary tract of country;–giving the idea of travelling over the world as a planet, and rendered still more desolate in appearance by torrents of rain. We were obliged to continue in the chaise in ascending hills where travellers almost always alight to relieve the horses; and were even constrained to do the same in passing a frightful precipice, where there is neither fence nor hedge; and where a chaise, very lately, fell over. At this point, a fine mountain scene opened upon us; and a sudden turn of the road discovered the enchanting vale and village of Linmouth, close to the sea, and at the base of rocks of tremendous height, and most exquisitely diversified in their coloring. After a long and steep ascent, we reached the inn where, fortunately, the room we occupy overlooks a considerable part of this fine prospect. This inn stands near the edge of the precipice that overhangs the sea, and seems to be in the clouds. To-morrow morning we are to meet a chaise from Minehead, at the top of the opposite hill–the ascent being so steep that chaises rarely come across the valley."

The letter is continued from Axminster:–"On Thursday morning, finding my cold surprisingly better, and the weather being finer, I resolved, at least, to see the valley of Rocks: so at half-past five, we set off full speed; and I was gratified with a hasty sight of it. The scene gives the [Page 156]  idea of gigantic architectural ruins; and the impression left upon my mind by the novelty and silent solemnity of this magnificent scene, will not soon be effaced. We returned to breakfast at the inn, and directly afterwards set off to climb the opposite hill; attended by a horse with panniers, carrying our luggage. This walk afforded us an opportunity of seeing something of the beauties of the vale of Linmouth, which I will not attempt to describe: at the summit of the hill we found our chaise; and at the end of the day reached Taunton; where we staid a day with Mr. —, and the next, set out for Axminster; and found the kindest welcome from our dear friends."

With these kind friends, and with others in the south of Devon, and Dorsetshire, some weeks were very agreeably passed by my sisters, before their return to their father's house; where they spent the summer.

During her stay at Ongar, Jane took an active part, I believe for the first time, in a Sunday school, then lately established at some distance from the town; but of her labors in the Sunday school I shall again have occasion to speak.

On the approach of autumn it once more seemed desirable to return to Devonshire; and Jane's sisterly affection was now tried, not only by the call to banish herself from a kind and comfortable home, but by the necessity of leaving behind the companion of her former excursion; for her sister was now preparing for a final separation [Page 157]  from the paternal roof. Jane expresses her poignant feelings in this separation from the constant companion of her life, in a letter addressed to Mr. J. C. some time after her return to Devonshire:–

Ilfracombe, February 17, 1814.

Although many months have now elapsed since we parted in the Barnstaple coach, and in all that time you have received nothing from me but a postscript, I cannot plead in excuse any of the engagements with which you accuse me:–of the whole list, there is not more than one that I can plead guilty even of thinking about.. Yet your conjecture, that I have been "wondrous busy," is perfectly correct. You well know how one week after another slides away, in every day of which we intend to write to our friend "to-morrow;" and when to-morrow comes, even if some pressing occupation does not fill it, it finds us so dull and flat, that we resolve to devote the evening to some "outer court" correspondent, for whom the only requisite materials are pen, ink, and paper. Thus it was with me during the months of November and December: of January I can give a better account; for one fatal morning, early in that month, Miss M. and I set off for Barnstaple. I said, "Good-by; I shall return on Saturday;" but it was exactly a month before I saw Ilfracombe again; being imprisoned by the snow all that time. I wished to have written to you from [Page 158]  thence, but even friendship is not warm enough to keep ink and fingers from freezing during a sharp frost; except by the fireside; and that agreeable trio–fire, friendship, and solitude, did not meet me there. I have been returned but a fortnight, the last week of which has been occupied in entertaining Mr. G. who has been our guest. He left us this afternoon; and this evening I am at your service; having clearly proved it to be the first in the last five months in which I could write to you.

Much has occurred in our little circle since we last met;–so much that if you were to ask me now, I could scarcely get through the whole. The recollection of all that has taken place sometimes makes me melancholy; and sometimes it makes me glad: but oftener, it makes me neither the one nor the other: but this indifference, or rather sameness of feeling under the important changes of life, always makes me melancholy when I think about it.

After walking so far through the vale of tears, inseparable companions, Ann and Jane are at last divided:–a few short intervals is all, perhaps, we shall ever more see of each other on this side the grave. We are both still in the vale of tears, and shall continue to weep and to smile as heretofore; but not together: our way will still be chequered by cloud and sunshine; but it may often be stormy weather with one, while the other is enjoying a clear sky. But tears will not always [Page 159]  flow;–the heart-rending feelings once over, and the common temperature of happiness returns. It is but occasionally that I have leisure to ruminate upon our separation; and then it is difficult fully to realize it. It is very true that we cannot always be as miserable as we wish–cheerfulness steals upon us insensibly, and we are surprised to find ourselves tolerably happy again, in spite of our heroic resolutions to the contrary. You will think these reflections unsuitable to the occasion, and perhaps say, that I am too inexperienced in suffering, to offer remarks upon the subject: of this, however, I must be allowed to be the best judge: though I have hitherto been mercifully preserved from the severer and more sudden strokes of the rod, I am not unacquainted with sorrow; and it is in consequence of what has passed in my own mind that I am skeptical as to the existence of such a thing as incurable grief, though it is often talked of. * *

In the beginning of October, Jane and her brother were once more comfortably settled at Ilfracombe; and though the social attractions of the place, were now less than they had been in our first visit, it still contained kind friends, and the advantage of more leisure and seclusion was now wished for, enjoyed, and improved by my sister, who presently resumed her literary pursuits with eagerness.

At the close of this year, Jane addressed a let- [Page 160]  ter to her sister, on the occasion of her marriage to the Rev. Joseph Gilbert–then one of the tutors of the Independent College at Rotherham. From this letter the following passages are extracted:–

"Ilfracombe, December 18, 1813.

"My dear Ann,

"I cannot suffer this interesting morning to pass without something of a salutation from Ilfracombe; and I dare say this letter will arrive in good company; but I am sure no one will address you who can feel on this occasion either so glad, or so sorry as I do. So far as you only are concerned, I think I am entirely glad, and feel as perfectly satisfied and happy as one can do about untried circumstances. But I cannot forget that this morning which forms one indissoluble partnership, dissolves another, which we had almost considered so. From the early days of "Moll and Bett," down to these last times, we have been more inseparable companions than sisters usually are; and our pursuits and interests have been the same. My thoughts of late have often wandered back to those distant years, and passed over the varied scenes which chequered our childhood and youth:–there is scarcely a recollection, in all that long period, in which we are not mutually concerned, and equally interested. If this separation had taken place ten years ago, we might, by this time, have been in some degree estranged from each other; but having passed so [Page 161]  large and important a portion of life in such intimate union, I think we may confidently say it never will be so. For brothers and sisters to separate, is the common lot;–for their affection and interest to remain unabated is not common; but I am sure it is possible; and I think the experience we have already had proves that we may expect its continuance. Farewell, my dear Ann! and in this emphatical farewell, I would comprehend all the wishes, the prayers, the love, the joy, and the sorrow, which it would be so difficult to express in more words. If there is a dash of bitterness in the grief with which I bid you farewell, it is only from the recollection that I have not been to you the sister I might have been. My feelings have been so strongly excited to day, that I cannot bear more of it; and must leave you to imagine what more I would say on this occasion.

"I cannot–no, I cannot realize the busy scene at the Castle House, nor fancy you in your bridal appearance. I intend to place myself before the view of the house, about the time I imagine you are walking down the gravel-walk, and stand there while you are at church, and till I think you are coming back again. How strange–how sad, that I cannot be with you! What a world is this, that its brightest pleasures are, almost invariably, attended with the keenest heart-rendings."

My mother's feelings in parting with her daugh- [Page 162]  ter, though she had every reason to rejoice on the occasion, were very strongly excited; with the hope of administering comfort, Jane addressed to her a letter, of which the following is a part:–

"I hope, that even so soon as this, time has performed his kind office, and taken off the edge of your sorrow. If I did not know that he can perform wonders, even in a few days, I could not venture to say so. I was grieved indeed, but not much surprised to hear that you felt the parting so acutely; and when reading your description of it, almost congratulated myself that I was so far off. Now, however, I would gladly come, and be your comforter if I could. My dear father and mother, we have felt much for you;–believe that you have the love and the prayers of your absent children. I seldom close my eyes without thinking of you, and hoping you are comfortable. I feel the separation more this time than I did before, though in all other respects I enjoy as much comfort as I can expect to do in this world. I am rejoiced to know that you have had the solace of dear S.'s tenderness; and in this respect you have indeed been gainers by my absence; she has, I know, done all that human sympathy can do, to console and soothe you.

"I walked here (to Barnstaple) last Wednesday, with Miss M. without any fatigue, though it is ten miles of incessant up and down hill. The deepest snow remembered in Devonshire, set in the day after I came, and has so blocked up the roads, [Page 163]  that I am detained a close prisoner. I intended to have returned on Monday; but they are so unused to snow here, that no one will venture to go, though I should not be afraid. I cannot tell, therefore, how long I may be detained. Though I am very comfortable at Mr. —'s, I am now impatient to return home, as I left my brother only for a day or two."

The snow continued to render the road between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe nearly impassable for more than a month. Jane's solicitude on her brother's account, induced her to hazard the journey the first day on which it was pronounced to be practicable; and she returned to Ilfracombe on horseback, sometime before any carriage could pass the road.

Without obtruding what relates to myself, more than I wish in this memoir, I could not fully display the self-denying, indefatigable, and tender assiduity with which Jane devoted herself to her brother's comfort; to promote his restoration to health, was indeed, the business of her life, during several years. The reader of her memoir must not forget this principal feature of Jane Taylor's character–her generous devotedness to the welfare of those she loved, though the exemplification of it may appear in these pages less prominently than it might.

The seclusion and leisure of this second winter at Ilfracombe were employed by my sister in writing the greater part of the Tale, published [Page 164]  some time afterwards. She commenced it with a specific idea of the qualities she designed to exhibit, but with no definite plan for its execution. In pursuit of the same general object she followed, every day, the suggestion of the moment; and this was, perhaps, the only way in which she would ever have written. It was her custom, in a solitary ramble among the rocks, for half an hour after breakfast, to seek that pitch of excitement without which she never took up the pen. This fever of thought was usually exhausted in two or three hours of writing, after which she enjoyed a social walk, and seldom attempted a second effort in the day; for she had now adopted the salutary plan of writing in the morning only. To this plan she adhered ever after, with only occasional exceptions.

A letter to Mrs. G. exhibits the tranquil happiness she enjoyed at Ilfracombe.

April 23, 1814

* * * I doubt not but your natural vivacity and vigor of mind will enable you to retain, much longer than I shall, some of the sweetest feelings of youth. Those which are connected with its follies we wish not to retain; but there is a delicious glow of feeling which already I am conscious has lost much of its warmth. At this beautiful reviving season, I am reminded of that spring which is forever passed away. But I would not have this letter tinged with the melan- [Page 165]  choly such reflections are apt to bring with them, especially as it is very far from my usual state of feeling. I am as happy now as I can expect ever to be in this troublous world; and could I feel a little more security of the continuance of my present circumstances, I should not have a wish with respect to external things: but this would be too much like a rest to be good for me. Even the recollection of the spring of life being gone by, occasions melancholy only because our views are so much confined to this infancy of our existence–to cultivate an intimacy with the circumstances relating to its future stages is truly the only wisdom; for this alone can reconcile us to the decaying conditions of mortality. I can easily believe that those who have but lately entered into the important relations of life, feel rather as if it were but just begun, than approaching its termination; but I, who am sailing down the stream of time without any such interruption, am more conscious of progression, and have more leisure to look back upon the past, and to expect the future. But I had intended quite another strain–perhaps the scene before me has made me thus sentimental. The tide is just filling the pretty harbor, and the evening sun shines mellowly on the rich rocky banks opposite, and on the venerable hill which fronts the port. I enjoy, though not as I once should have enjoyed, this fine spring, in this charming place.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom