A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XI." 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. 166-180.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 166] 



MY sister's literary engagements were suspended during the following summer, by our leaving Ilfracombe. Having determined to spend the next winter in Cornwall, we held ourselves ready to take the first opportunity that should offer of going thither by sea. It was on a fine evening in June that we left Ilfracombe in a small fishing vessel, intending to pass round the Land's End, to Mount's Bay; but Jane suffered so much from sickness, that in the evening of the next day we landed at St. Ives; and after spending a few days there, proceeded to Marazion, where we had already engaged lodgings.

If she had not found agreeable society at Marazion, and formed there some friendships which she highly valued, my sister would have continued to regret the rocks and solitudes of North Devon; its gloomy and romantic scenery suited peculiarly her tastes, and the temper of her mind, which were little pleased by the business, and bustle, and open bareness of Cornwall. Yet nothing hardly can be more agreeable than the aspect of Mount's Bay; and Penzance is, perhaps, one of the most pleasantly situated towns in the kingdom. The country in its immediate neighborhood is [Page 167]  more wooded than other parts of the county; and the Bay, the villages on its margin, the Mount, with its castle, and the distant rocky hills, form a most complete and pleasing picture.

At Marazion she staid long enough to form a strong local attachment; our mode of life was suited to her tastes; her occupations filled her thoughts, and were relieved by frequent intercourse with two or three individuals whom she was happy to call her friends. Speaking of her feelings at this time, she says–

"The ease, tranquillity, and comfort of my present lot, so perfectly congenial to my temper and feelings, demand my constant thankfulness. It is no business of mine to inquire how long it will last. Long, I know, it will not last; and this I feel so sensibly, that my anxiety for myself, and my dear family, lessens as it respects our prosperity in this world, and increases for better things–that it may be well with us all in the next."

And again, in a letter to her mother–

"Notwithstanding the toil of writing, it has its pleasures; and often, both this winter and last, when I have sat down at ten o'clock, all alone, in our snug parlor, with a cheerful fire, and with nothing to interrupt me for four hours, I have really felt very happy. As to my writing 'under disadvantageous circumstances,' it is so far from being the case, that I am sure I can never expect to be more favored. All domestic cares, except just giving orders, and settling my accounts, are [Page 168]  completely taken off my hands by Mrs. Thomas. The afternoon suffices for the needle-work I have to do; and we are little interrupted by visiters; besides the rare privilege of having a room and fire quite to myself during the morning. I cannot therefore plead my present circumstances in excuse, either for the poverty, or slowness of my writing; for I do actually, what you describe as so desirable–'sit down composed and unembarrassed in my study.' Indeed, I cannot be sufficiently thankful for the large share of comfort I have enjoyed the last three years; with nothing to try my temper, and exempt from most of those unpleasant realities which you mention as inseparable from the charge of a household. But I do not wish to fly from family cares; and one of the satisfactions of returning to you, for a time, would be, that I might share them with you."

From the friendships above alluded to, and from intercourse of a more general kind enjoyed at Marazion, Miss Taylor derived new and important advantages. For, hitherto, her connexions had been almost exclusively within the pale of one religious community; but her Marazion friends were, most of them, members of the established church, and moreover, very zealously attached to its constitution and its forms. She had also full opportunity of observing the state and spirit of another religious body–the Wesleyan Methodists, who, in the western part of Cornwall are the predominant sect. She ever [Page 169]  after looked back upon the expansion of her views and feelings, which took place at this time, with great satisfaction. Yet her attachment to the principles in which she had been educated did not become at all less firm, but on the contrary, it was made more decided by the comparison she had now the means of forming, between different practices and opinions.

There being at Marazion no society of congregational dissenters, Miss Taylor attended alternately the service of the Established Church, and that of the Wesleyan Methodists; and she gave her assistance regularly, at the Sunday school connected with the former–making only this exception,–that she should not be required to teach the church catechism. The concession was amicably yielded; and in this school she continued to labor with great pleasure, during the two years of her residence at Marazion. Her exertions on the Sunday were however so much beyond her strength, that they evidently impaired her general health. To those whose six days are occupied with general business, or manual labor, Sunday school teaching may, by the agreeable excitement it affords to the mind, and to the feelings, be in the very best sense of the word, a real and beneficial holyday. But so great is the exhaustion consequent upon continued intellectual effort, that those who are called to undergo this peculiar species of toil may perhaps in most instances, lawfully use the day of rest for them- [Page 170]  selves. But Jane, far from yielding, on her own behalf, to a plea of this kind, adhered so resolutely to the principle of "doing what she could," that she continued her labors in the Sunday school during years of declining health; and indeed, till the very last day of her attending public worship, a few weeks before her death.

Soon after our removal to Marazion, my sister resumed writing the Tale she had commenced at Ilfracombe; and late in the same year it was sent to press, under the title of "Display." The favor with which this little work was received, and more especially the high praise bestowed upon it by a few individuals, whose judgment and sincerity could not be questioned, produced a very desirable effect upon her mind; for it gave her, in some degree, that confidence in her own powers which she so much needed. Hitherto, she had persisted in attributing almost the whole success of the works in which she had had part to her sister; but this was all her own; and she was constrained to believe that she could write well, and that too in a higher line than she had before attempted;–for Display was admired on account of excellencies of a higher kind than such as belong merely to an entertaining or pathetic fiction. The advice which had been long and often urged upon her, of undertaking to write for mature readers, was now greatly corroborated. Yet, perhaps, had she attempted a fiction upon a more extended scale, she might have found herself out [Page 171]  of her proper sphere. For the beauties of her style accord best with a brief, inartificial, and condensed narrative. Breadth of design, amplification, and digression, seemed not to be within her range–her simple story is merely a thread, supporting a series of exquisite ornaments, and sparkling graces. That knowledge of the human heart which is evinced in Display, might merit to be called profound; but it is exhibited in touches so delicate, that they might escape the notice of the reader whose eye was less quick and piercing than that of the author. But probably it has been these fine and half-hidden beauties that have procured for this Tale the praise (not often won by mere fictions,) of being read again and again, with new pleasure.

The volume did not however escape without some strong animadversions–chiefly on the ground of the opinions professed in it. In reply to some observations on one point, the author says–

"As to the dancing, I certainly did not think I had erred on the strict side; and I think I have observed the distinction you mention, of not objecting to dancing in itself. The children at Stokely, you may remember, were all dancing very merrily one evening. But, in fact, except with mere children, there is no such thing as 'select christian dances.'–Go where you will, it is the world who dance; and the serious who do not. [Page 172]  E— is an instance of what is said about Emily; her newly acquired religion is so far from having made her dull or precise, that there are many whom I have seen shake their heads at her youthful sprightliness. Yet since she has been a Christian, she says she does not wish to dance, especially as it could not be without associating with those who think only about this world. As to what Mr. Leddenhurst says about 'dancing through the world,' it is a remark I have heard made by those who are very far from being puritanical in their manners, or narrow in their views; and I merely understand by it, that a person of a contemplative and serious turn of mind, impressed with the grand realities of religion, and intent upon remedying, as far as possible, the sin and misery of the world, will not be much disposed to go 'dancing through it.'"

The suggestions of her friends were so far admitted, as to induce Miss Taylor to look wider abroad than hitherto, for the topics of her next undertaking. But to express her opinions on grave subjects, in naked prose, was more than she could dare. In verse, she felt as if sheltered. She therefore determined to write what she thought and felt, with less reserve than hitherto, but under the cover of poetry. Such were the views with which (soon after the publication of Display) she began writing her "Essays in Rhyme." With an exception presently to be [Page 173]  mentioned, the composition of this volume occupied her time during the remainder of her stay at Marazion.

Throughout the winter of the year 1814–15, my sister read much more than she had ever before done, in a like extent of time. The works she selected were of the kind best adapted to invigorate the understanding–her taste in reading was for history, which always excited in her mind a much deeper interest than even the most fascinating fictions;–fictions she did indeed occasionally read; but it was only in those seasons when the exhaustion of long-continued excitement in writing had rendered her incapable of close attention. The interests of reality were fast prevailing over those of the ideal world; her mind, every day more and more, needed the stimulus of an object, such as she could deem important; and it became indisposed to exertion, at the impulse of mere fancy, or personal feeling.

This marked change in her mind and habits of feeling, was evidently much promoted by the new scenes she witnessed, and the new friendships she formed in Cornwall. Before the time of her visit to Marazion, she had had too little opportunity of becoming acquainted with the sufferings and the wants of the poor. She knew by report the miseries and the vices of the real world; but her experience had scarcely presented to her any other evils than those sorrows of the heart, and of the imagination, which are either wholly creat- [Page 174]  ed, or greatly aggravated by vacant and morbid sensibilities; and which, however interesting and amiable they may seem, are all more or less seclusive, if not selfish in their influence. Friendships–and literary friendships–and polished tastes, and the delights of fancy, and wit and criticism, are fine things; and where they exclude either frivolity or grossness, they are good things. But in a sound understanding, and a rightly disposed heart, they will sink in estimation, when we are called daily to administer relief to the common and real sufferings of human life. And perhaps the instances are very rare (if indeed such instances are at all to be found) in which an abounding and laborious zeal in works of mercy, exists in union with a strong relish for the pleasures of the imagination. Be this as it may, it was observable with my sister, that, in proportion as her mind admitted the paramount claims which the sufferings of those around us have upon our sympathy and our activities, she became less regardful of the gratifications of taste, and of the luxuries and sensibilities of the imagination, and more solicitous in all her engagements to pursue utility.

The two or three excellent persons at Marazion, whom my sister ever after thought it her happiness to have known, were distinguished by their christian zeal in every good work; and she at once admitted and cherished, in her own character, the influence of those solid qualities. [Page 175] 

The tendency of her acquaintance with Methodism was also of the same kind. And while, as will be apparent from her letters, she was very far from being blind to the defects of that religious system, or converted to its peculiar opinions, she confessed herself to owe to it a new impression of some branches of christian feeling and duty.

Early in the year 1816, while still at Marazion, Miss Taylor commenced her contributions to the Youth's Magazine; which she continued, with few exceptions, to supply during the succeeding seven years. It was with the most extreme reluctance, and not without the urgent persuasion of those to whose advice she was accustomed to listen, that she yielded to the repeated request of the conductors of that publication, to write statedly for it. She dreaded the bondage which she felt such an engagement would bring her under; she dreaded, especially, lest the necessity of writing at stated times, whether or not she felt a spontaneous impulse and excitement, should induce the habit of prosing; or should impair that feeling of sincerity, simplicity, and genuine interest, with which, hitherto, she had always written; and without which, to write at all, she would have thought an abuse of her talent, and a presumption upon that degree of favor she had won. Happily, these objections were overruled; and soon finding herself successful, she felt a pleasure in the employment; and was incited to use her best exertions to improve, for the highest purposes, this [Page 176]  opportunity of addressing constantly so large a number of young persons.

To a person whose invention is fertile, whose judgment and taste is matured, and who, above all, has too much self-respect to allow him to sink into inanity or frivolity, the necessity of writing at stated times, may be advantageous; for it is likely to produce, at once, freedom, and simplicity of style. Under such circumstances, that fastidiousness which would substitute lifeless proprieties for faulty beauties, must be laid aside:–a subject having once presented itself to the thoughts, must not be dismissed, merely because it seems unpromising; and the mind, by the very feeling of being tied to an unpromising subject, is roused to make an extraordinary effort. Thus, I well know, it often was with my sister:–and the result has been, that this collection of papers contains perhaps, her happiest and her most useful compositions.

The Essays in Rhyme on Morals and Manners, were finished in the spring of the year 1816. Miss Taylor never wrote any thing with so much zest and excitement, as the pieces composing this volume. While employed upon them, she was almost lost to other interests:–even her prevailing domestic tastes seemed forgotten; and in our daily walks, she was often quite abstracted from the scene around her.

In truth she had stepped upon ground new to herself; and felt an impulse which gave unwonted [Page 177]  vigor to her mind. Her impatience of pretension and perversity in matters of religion; and her piercing discernment of the deceptions of the heart, gave a peculiar force and pungency to many passages in the Essays in Rhyme; while others are distinguished by the same interchanging pathos and playfulness, which had been displayed in her earlier writings. A few lines, perhaps, in this volume may have seemed too pungent to some readers. This she fully anticipated; but would not shrink from the hazard. Her feelings, and her judgment, were averse to compromise, or to the timid concealment of opinions. Some such concealment had been recommended to her by a friend, to whom the manuscript had been submitted, previous to publication: in reply to these suggestions she says–

"It is now time to refer to a former letter of yours, respecting certain passages in the Essays in Rhyme. It is scarcely necessary to say, after having written them, that I do not agree with you, as to the propriety of total silence, on all disputed subjects. Had that plan been always pursued, what would now have been the state of the world! I am very far from blaming Mr. Cunningham for writing the Velvet Cushion (his doing it unfairly is another thing); and with regard to introducing particular sentiments in works of a general nature, it appears to me one of the best ways of doing it. Who ever blamed Mrs. More for poking the steeple into almost every page of her writings? [Page 178]  What happened to Miss Hamilton for making the hero of her novel a dissenter? or, which is more to my purpose, what has been the consequence of the severe sarcasms of Cowper upon the church and its ministers? The consequence is, indeed, that he is hated by the high-church party; but that does neither him nor his works any harm. What harm did he suffer from the review of his poems when they first appeared, by our old friend the Critical Review, when they said–'This is an attempt to be witty in very lame verse?' I grant it is probable that no proselytes have been gained to any party by what he wrote; but who will deny that the diffusion of the liberal sentiments that abound in his writings, has been of great service to the cause of truth and moderation? Do not suppose I am here placing myself by the side of Cowper;–I am only pleading against the system of observing a profound silence on all controversial subjects, in works of a general nature."

To some criticisms of a different kind she thus replies.–

"You will not be surprised, and I am sure you will not be offended, to see in how few instances I have availed myself of your criticisms, if you reconsider the nature of them;–that is, how very few were merely literary. To that few I paid every attention;–most of them had already been marked for correction, either by myself, or other critical friends; but I was disappointed to find so few of that description; and still more, to find so [Page 179]  many relating to matters of opinion, which you would hardly expect I should give up. I cannot guess why the very same opinions–or creed, if you please (for I know that is a word you are particularly fond of), which were, I believe, expressed with quite as much plainness in 'Display,' should offend you so much less there. You say, indeed, that you have only remarked upon that style of language which refers to a party; not to a principle; but on the contrary I found not a single note upon those few passages in which I write as a dissenter. If you mean to call religious sentiment party, I shall not dispute the term with you. Christianity has had a great many ill names from its commencement to this day; but they have never done it the least harm, nor ever will. Do you think I would condemn you for using a prayer-book, or kneeling at an altar–for going under water; or even for wearing a broad brim? No. But as I would not make my creed narrower than that of the Bible, so I dare not make it wider. 'There is no other name under Heaven, whereby we must be saved:'–'He that believes shall be saved; he that believes not shall be damned.' This is all I would contend for, and all, I think, that I have contended for, as essential; and if it is to this you object, I fear not boldly to say that you are wrong. And my heart's desire and prayer is, that you may be led, as many a confident opposer has been, to what I must still maintain to be 'the only place–the feet of Jesus.' [Page 180] 

"I think your prejudice–may I say your party spirit (for never does party spirit show itself so openly, or speak so narrowly as when it embraces the skeptical creed) has got the better of your good taste, in the present instance: your taste is good, when left to its free exercise; but in several of your criticisms I scruple not to say you have, under the influence of other feelings, betrayed a very bad one. Where, for instance, you object to passages that are simple quotations from the Bible. Here I can speak quite confidently, in a literary view, that the effect of such quotations is good; and that they confer a dignity on the verse. Where, for instance, I have introduced, almost literally, those passages–'In thy presence is fulness of joy,'–'In my father's house are many mansions'–I am sure that I am more classical than you, in your very ill-chosen remark upon them. That these expressions have been quoted a thousand times by 'Lady Huntingdon;' or 'Mr. Huntingdon,' cannot render them at all less affecting or sublime; and to call such language 'religious cant,' is in my opinion, irreligious cant."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom