1063. EBB to Mary Russell Mitford
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 6, 179–182.
Novr 27. 1842
You delighted me, my beloved friend, by your sympathy in my naughtiness; for if you had held up your finger (as seemed to me just possible) & said ‘fie’, that wd have been a ‘fee fo fum’ to me & frightened me tête à tête with my conscience. You are right & wise, I believe, besides being lenient—& what you properly call ‘a chapter’ in the philosophy & literature of our times, shd not be skipped by thoughtful persons for the sake of the apparent want of a moral; when there is in fact a moral to all evil as to all good if we send out strong souls to the search. And now I do yearn to make you an accomplice in act as in desire. Oh that I dared to send Saunders & Otley’s books to you! only I dont dare—I cant dare—I must’nt try to dare. I must look to other means—& consider them .. & prepare in the meanwhile, my list, my ‘map of the country’ to meet your opportunities.
Yes! Victor Hugo stands first of all in genius, I think! & I shd say so distinctly if I cd make up my mind to call George Sand second to any genius living. He is wonderful—she is wonderful! he, dramatically, & in action & effect—she, in eloquence & passion. Why Rousseau is cold lifeless loveless, deaf & dumb to her! and (here is the miserable misfortune!) the worst which is offensive in him, is innocent to what is bad in her. It does really strike me to be so—altho’ perhaps my impression may have exaggerated itself in my recoil from the occasional position of her womanhood. Still there are books of hers, as your Duke of Devonshire said, pure & taintless. ‘Les maitres Mosaistes’, for instance, may be read aloud by the most proper of governesses to her pupils,—but for the damning name, on the titlepage, of George Sand– ‘Leila’ again, made me blush in my solitude to the ends of my fingers—blush three blushes in one .. for Her who cd be so shameless—for her sex, whose purity she so disgraced—& for myself in particular, who cd hold such a book for five minutes in one hand while a coal-fire burnt within reach of the other.
To be sure ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ is very great!—but I who am not all drama as you are, .. do consider Nôtre Dame to be the greatness, par excellence, of its .. poet. Now answer me as if you were in the confessional .. Is not Nôtre Dame a more wonderful work, a more sublime poem, than anything which our Scott ever performed or imagined, or saw in a dream when he rested from his Ivanhoe? Can you hesitate—can you not say Yes?
And have you observed what I have observed (I am sorry to keep you on your knees so long, but you must answer one more question) that Charles Dickens has meditated deeply & not without advantage upon Victor Hugo,—and that some of his very finest things, .. (all for instance of the Jew’s condemnation-hours in Oliver Twist) .. are taken from Victor Hugo, .. ‘Les derniers jours d’un condamnè’ & ‘passim’? I admire Boz very absolutely & gratefully .. more than you do I suspect, .. but my sense of his power & genius grew grey & weak ‘in a single night’ with reading Hugo.
Your inference upon the condition of French society, is scarcely too melancholy I must fear, for the obvious fact.
Beranger is admirable—but then he scarcely takes rank (does he?) with ‘young France’! He sang, you know, to the distraction of Louis le desirè who did his best to gag him—& the fierce, wild, passionate, & ghastly character of the present literature finds no room for its description on his songs. I have just done reading a romance of Frederick Souliè’s which begins with a violation & a murder, & ends consistently with a murder & a violation,—the hero who is the agent of this ‘just proportion’ being shut up at last & starved in a premature coffin, after having his eyelids neatly sowed up by the fair fingers of his lady-love. The smell of all this sulpher has scarcely passed out of my nostrils! The devils smell so—be sure!
My dearest friend, Mr Kenyon “is to come to see me” every moment—and I hope to be able to tell you of Mrs Dupuy, if not today yet tomorrow. He goes away again tomorrow to Torquay—“just” he says “to prove to Bezzi that I am in earnest about looking for a house for my brother”: and yet he does not mean to take or even decide for any house, but to leave Mr Edward Kenyon to look around & judge freely for himself. After all London may be decided for—& I hope it will!
Mr Kenyon (our dear Mr Kenyon) thinks of you much, & is full of affectionate wishes ready to spend themselves on your happiness.
Think what I have seen since friday—three more pictures—portraits—& not by Haydon. Writing to Mr Horne, I said something of this portrait of Wordsworth which stands still in my room—and in reply he said “Haydon is a man of genius but so opposed in nature to Wordsworth that I cant believe in any portrait of Wordsworth produced by him”– He then asked me if I shd care to see another miniature portrait of the same subject by Miss Gillies .. “the only living artist, I do believe, who can paint a head with a soul”. My answer need not be told—& as a consequence, three most exquisite miniatures, of Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt & Mr Horne, were trusted to me by the kindness of the artist,—sent on saturday & left with me to this morning—& indeed they quite charmed me for the intermediate time. All three heads had souls, there was no doubting—and my dear friend Mr Horne’s had a moustache besides!– In relation to Wordsworth’s, it did not bewitch me out of my liking for Mr Haydon’s picture,—but it certainly has a sweetness, a serenity, a look of the setting sun, a pathos of genius in old age, which we cd not consider seasonable for a poet on Helvellyn. Do you know Miss Gillies’s pictures? And do you know that Mr Browning has published another gathering of poems? ‘Dramatic lyrics’ he calls them—but I have not read enough to speak out my mind of them. And did you ever hear of a French authoress yclepped Madme Amable Tastu—or of two little volumes of her’s called Prose? There is a good deal of beauty & sweetness & not a bit of naughtiness in this miscellany, which contains sundry translations from the English, .. one Irish story professed to be translated from Miss Hall, & one from Poor Miss Landon & one (with no profession or acknowledgment at all) taken word for word from you—the very idyll which Tennyson built a poem on .. the idyll of Dora Creswell & the cornfield .. adopted not adapted, & called ‘La guirlande’ & dropped gently into French as Mdme Amable Tastu’s own production!
My dearest dearest friend, the green grapes go to you today. It always seems to me that they take time to grow in on the road, & I am puzzled to hear of your receiving them on the second & third day instead of hour. But I have begged Crow to enquire into the cause of this delay, & avert it.
Tell me how these green grapes approve themselves—or whether you wd prefer some other sort which is in season & of which you can tell me the name. How is he? how are you? & how hard to have to wait till tomorrow without hearing!
Ah—you are too too kind to me (I must say it again) in writing such words! And do, do believe my beloved friend, that as I recognize all your kindness, I love best & most thankfully & tenderly that part of it which permits me to be of some little use & comfort to you–
I thank you my beloved friend, & receive that permission as the chief proof of your affectionateness
Mr Kenyon has not come.
Publication: EBB-MRM, II, 92–95.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Cf. King Lear, III, 4, 183.
2. Published in 1837.
3. Published in 1833.
4. Hugo’s play, Le Roi S’Amuse, was printed in 1832; his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, in 1831.
5. Chapter LII describes Fagin’s last night alive.
6. Published in 1829. Dickens produced Oliver Twist in 1837–38.
7. Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon (1816), line 3.
8. Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), poet, satirist and song-writer, was imprisoned for three months after the publication of his second collection of songs in 1821 offended the authorities; he was again imprisoned after publication of his fourth collection in 1828.
9. Louis XVIII, known as “le désiré,” was king at the time of Béranger’s first trial and imprisonment.
10. We have not positively identified the work to which EBB refers; it was probably Mémoires du Diable (1838), described as the portrayal of a society pervaded by all that was shocking and atrocious, by incest, adultery, guile, duplicity and all the worst human passions (see Frédéric Soulié, sa Vie et ses Ouvrages, by Maurice Champion, 1847, p. 26).
11. II Henry IV, IV, 1, 23.
12. Margaret Gillies (1803–87), miniaturist, studied under Frederick Cruickshank and, before she was 24, was commissioned to paint a miniature of Wordsworth; she also painted Dickens. Her sister Mary collaborated with Horne in the production of his History of Napoleon (1840).
13. The works of Sabine Casimire Amable Tastu (née Voïart, 1798?–1885) included Les Oiseaux du Sacre (1825), Poésies (1826) and Le Bon Petit Garçon (1841). “La Guirlande, Conte du Village” appeared in Prose, par Mme. Amable Tastu (1837).
14. Anna Maria Hall (née Fielding, 1800–81).
15. See letter 963, note 5.
16. Mail from London to Reading was normally delivered the next day.