1739. EBB to Mary Russell Mitford
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 9, 187–191.
October 16. 1844.
Certainly a “monomania!” Of the “innocence” of it, we will not (cannot) agree definitively—for, not being under the charm, whatever it may be, of your friend’s social qualities, & remembering too well certain notes of his to you & others in which his power of appreciating any contemporary merit appears in melancholy abeyance, it is impossible for me to call that innocent, which runs such a poison through the blood, as a petty, corrosive jealousy. For French writers, he estimates them justly because they do not enter the lists with him. Who is it who says that “foreigners are the posterity of contemporaries”—? He is separated from them by place, as he might be by time,—& he sees no rivals in them. But here, in England, whom does he ever approach in his thoughts with honest admiration? Can you name one? If you cd hear him speak his estimate of yourself even, do you suppose there wd be anything else besides a narrow, unworthy depreciation? Remember what he says of Dickens, Bulwer, Alfred Tennyson, & every other contemporary who has risen to distinction,—not discerning their faults as you might do, but depreciating them systematically, as you never could do! Believe me,—I shd easily forgive an over-estimate of his own powers & deeds,—for I dare say I am frequently guilty of the very same mistake in regard to mine—& perhaps few writers can be quite free from the tendency—but this ungenerous refusal of sympathy & admiration to contemporary merit & genius, I find it difficult to forgive, & my heart chills to him when I think of it. Let him be “Moliere among his contemporaries” twenty times over, if he pleases,—but let there be some natural sympathy in Moliere, & some right justice!——
Oh—I never told you what happened to me once in respect to Mr Reade,—and although, I solemnly assure you, it is from no personal consideration connected with it that I have written the above, yet I am pricked by the à proposity to tell you the story. I had heard a flying word (vague enough) of how he had set me in my right place as a poet,—and, writing to Mr Horne once in my usual unreserved manner, (which requires correction) I said something by a bare brush of the pen, .. such as passes sometimes [for] a better jest, .. of how my fame & immortality suffered in that particular quarter. Not a moment more did I think of it, having written it– It was just a jest, lightly said! And he (Mr H) jestingly rejoined that he was amused at my having heard the rumours about me, as he perceived I must have done! & that, in fact, Mr Reade did ‘egg’ .. ‘agg’ ‘nag’ (how do you spell it?) at my poetry to such a degree, that he (Mr H) was sure I must end by hearing of it. Well—there, seemed an end!—& the author of Italy & the Græcian column disappeared from my thoughts!– All at once however, some weeks afterwards, to my great horror & confusion of soul, I had a letter from Mr Merry with a message from Mr Reade to the effect that he had heard that I had heard that he had spoken disrespectfully of me, while on the contrary, he had thought always so & so & so!– I was vexed past what I can tell you, at this letter– It was vexatious,—was it not!– Also I was very angry—for at the first glance, I who am apt, you know, to be ‘testa lunga’ headlong as said my Italian friend, … believed Mr Horne to have played the traitor, & to have repeated seriously what I had alluded to jestingly, .. as if I had been complaining to him of Mr Reade’s undervaluing me as a poet!! Oh—I wrote such a passionate letter to Mr Horne, .. such a passionate letter! And he was very forbearing & generous to me, .. & took the trouble of explaining exactly how the facts were,—& how he was determined as my friend to stop the “agging” or “egging” or “nagging” (save the spelling!) which he knew had been practised by the author of Italy against my poetry,—& that he had therefore simply written to advise him not to do it any more, inasmuch as it wd otherwise reach my ears, which he believed it had, in part, done already.
Well—& so in my letter to Mr Merry (who, poor man, took oath by all his saints, that his friend admired me wonderfully well!) I begged to assure him, that, .. no one in the world being more conscious than I was, of the faults of my poetry, .. I never shd think of complaining of Mr Reade or any other person finding fault with it,—& that, for the rest, I was obliged to him, .. and so and so and so! Forgive me for telling you such a long story about nothing. It vexed me at the moment, .. not because Mr Reade was reputed to depreciate me .. for if Alfred Tennyson is a “porcelain poet” I shd certainly be contented to pass for plain crockery, .. but because of the fuss in connection with it! I begged Mr Horne to say nothing more about it, .. not even to you, .. & to let it all be forgotten! You can understand the sort of vexation I felt, in one moment!—& I need not go into analysis, in order to render this letter still duller.
Read Madame la Duchesse d’Abrantés’s ‘Salons de Paris,’ .. do. They are very interesting in many ways,—and it runs in my head that Balzac & some other writers interesting to you, are mentioned in them. I had not the idea that he was very “large”—Frederick Soulié is certainly so. And thank you for telling me of Charles de Bernard’s being a woman, of which I had not the slightest imagination. It must be the fashion in France for the female writers thereof to wear men’s names,—for here is a M. Arnaud, who is a Madme Charles Reybaud in reality, & with whom I am beginning to make my acquaintance. Bernard has a wonderful power in nicety, .. in finishing to the last stroke! and that “Femme de quarante ans’[’] may take place by Balzac’s “Princesse Parisienne”. I am delighted to find you such an appreciator of Balzac—he is a great writer in truth—and master as he is of conventional life, he appears to me every now & then to rise above it, & to be capable of noble ideal apprehensions. That is his peculiarity! He is a Dutch painter, but he has an Italian inspiration. Then as you say, he has a sort of religion—he has assuredly strong religious instincts. And it is something for a French writer to believe even in the immortality of the soul.
Jules Janin is a brilliant feuilletoniste, .. and excels, I think, chiefly in those short papers which are full of fire & character & eloquence, & of many good things besides. But he is extravagant amongst the extravagant,—and besides, so mannered, as to end by being monotonous. Still, his vivacity of fancy & animal spirits wins upon one,—and I delight in the Catacombs. He has written many works which I have not read—“La femme Guillotinée,” .. “Un cœur et deux amours,” “La Confession,”— and one of his romances has for a heroine, female Siamese Twins, this with black eyes & that with blue, & both of seraphic countenances & voices, like Swift’s Lindamira & company, over again, .. only, all in earnest!—& a lover “for two,” who never was rocked in shield or warming pan. “Vive le roi.” It is a curious literature certainly: but there is an earnestness in all the extravagance, a truth in all the falsehood, which fastens on you & will be hearkened to! As to Jules Janin, whether he is personally like Mr Forster of the Examiner I cannot of course say; but, as a writer, there cannot be said by anybody to be a likeness on a single point, as far as I can discern at all—can there? I am afraid I shall not be able to get ‘Chatterton’. It is not in the library I have present access to,—but I must wait & see. I have read only two volumes of the Juif Errant, .. and now wait for that—which I hate & detest—the waiting, I mean! If I had known, I never wd have begun it. Much is admirable; and I delight in the Jesuit secretary scenes just as you do! I do like those aspects of calm power, .. do not you? They are grander to me than ten armies. The simplicity of the twins is over-done—but there is poetry & beauty in the very excess of the overdoing. By the way, did you read George Sand’s “Rose et Blanche,” her first publication? If not,—read it. I am delighted that you shd appreciate ‘Cæsar Birotteau’ up to the brim of my desire for it & Balzac—& I agree with you fully in all you say of its pathos & power. Only .. how do you mean that it ends ill? My Cæsar Birotteau ended gloriously– After his bankruptcy, his wife & daughter & the lovely daughter’s noble lover redeemed him from his difficulty; & he stood up a true Cæsar in the last page, ready to rise again on his tiptoes. Oh, that Cæsar Birotteau! How that bankrupt perfumer held me by the heart!– How he forced even me .. (me, who never can remember that, in accounts, they carry the pence to the shillings,—) to examine his books & his debts, & see that it was all right or wrong!—— It is a book of extraordinary power without a doubt—and I wd gladly (one always feels inclined to do so on such occasions) express a warm gratitude to the author.
Not a word more from Mr Kenyon! He has given me (just before he went away) a beautiful sofa table, with a rail round it to guard off Flushie, & a drawer, .. & large enough to be ‘heaped up,’ without ‘running over.’ It is mahogany, & as yellow as gold in the sun. Oh—how I wish you were sitting at that side of it, .. & that we were talking, talking, talking!– May God bless you, my dearest friend. Did I thank you for sending the note to me? I hope so—because it much amused me.
Your ever affectionate
Publication: EBB-MRM, III, 5–9.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Recalling the first time he saw Mme. de Staël, at a dinner at Lord Liverpool’s, John Wilson Croker wrote: “speaking of the relative states of England and the Continent at that period, the high notion we had formed of the danger to the world from Buonaparte’s despotism, and the high opinion the Continent had formed of the riches, strength, and spirit of England; she insisted that these opinions were both just, and added with an elegant élan, ‘Les étrangers sont la postérité contemporaine.’ This striking expression I have since found in the journal of Camille Desmoulins” (The Croker Papers, 1884, ed. Louis J. Jennings, vol. 1, p. 326).
2. See letter 1567.
3. Letter 1493.
4. Said of EBB by her Italian teacher (see letter 705, as well as letters 568, 880, and 933).
5. Letter 1495.
6. Letter 1497.
7. L’Histoire des Salons de Paris (1837–38) by Mme. D’Abrantes.
8. Charles de Bernard was male.
9. Henriette Etiennette Fanny Reybaud (née Arnaud, 1802–71).
10. Balzac’s La Princesse Parisienne, afterwards titled Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan, was published in 1840. La Femme de quarante ans by Charles de Bernard appeared in 1832.
11. The writer of a feuilleton, that part of a French newspaper printed at the bottom of a page in which literary and dramatic works appeared. Janin was a noted literary and dramatic critic and was responsible, after 1835, for the feuilleton in the Journal des Débats.
12. Janin’s novels: La Confession (1830), Les Catacombes (1839), L’Ane mort et la Femme guillotinée (1829), and Un Cœur pour Deux Amours (1837).
13. The Adventures of Lindamira, a Lady of Quality, Written by her Own Hand, to her Friend in the Country, In IV Parts. Revised and Corrected by Mr. Tho. Brown (1702) is not a work by Swift but an epistolary novel that details the amatory adventures and involvements of the title character and her close friend Valeria.
14. The Comedy of Errors, II, 2, 91.
15. Probably an oblique reference to James Stuart, the “Old Pretender,” who was said to have been introduced to his mother’s bed in a warming pan to take the place of her stillborn child.
16. i.e., of Anna and Louise, in Janin’s Un Cœur pour Deux Amours.
17. Rose et Blanche (1831).
18. See letter 1730.
19. Cf. Luke 6:38.