1764.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 9, 234–238.


November 20– [1844][1]

Yes, but my dearest friend, the difficulty is to define exactly what the uses of mesmerism are. Nobody wants to know the “wild notions of a girl of nineteen,”[2] but the extent of the agency. As to the medical properties & application of this magnetism, it appears to me (as it does to wiser persons) still a greater risk to trust to its influence in promiscuous cases of desease, than to wring prophecies from it in a spirit of objectless curiosity. Did I tell you of Henrietta having met at dinner one of the queen’s physicians & of his having said that he & Sir James Clark were equally convinced of the existence of the power, but opposed its exercise from a conviction of the very great injury which its general application to the nervous system wd occasion. They considered that the injury might be tremendous in many cases.[3] You see, enough is not known of the agency & the manner of its acting, to use it with judgement. Every application is a new leap in the dark.[4] You might as well use a new medecine which had done somebody good, (but which you cd not analyze) .. for everybody. Nothing can be more different than the mode of the reception by the patient. You told me once of a lady who never cd recollect the sensation without horror—your Jane & your pattern artist call it a “luxury”—& I have heard of strong men lying in convulsions for hours, by means of it. I confess I think it is too early to make use of this power as an accredited means of restoration from desease—& that the right philosophy wd be to accumulate more facts .. in opposition to the shams .. more undeniable facts, as facts, .. &, so, to begin to classify principles, & bring about the induction of Science, instead of Mystery.

Mr Kenyon’s young friend,[5] who had tried it for epelepsy (for which it has been considered a specific) is as ill as ever again. Miss Martineau’s is the most extraordinary case I ever heard of in this relation—& the most unequivocal in its nature & suddenness. Now, you will understand that I do not speak thus from disbelieving, .. but from believing– I believe so much, that I wish what I believe, to be understood. Mr Crosse had some slight affection of the jaw—and a magnetic oracle enunciated of him, that he was deseased in heart, lung, pleura, & what not. The mistake was to the ludicrous degree. But I believe. Moreover I believe that the evidence is altogether as strong for the most wonderful as for the least wonderful of the phenomena alledged.

Mr Kenyon is to be at home—is to see me .. on Sunday next, he says, in a note I had this morning.

Ah—yes—I understand perfectly. But ‘la prude Angleterre’ is prude by a moral advantage, .. and ‘la prude d’Angleterre’ is prude by an intellectual narrowness.[6] Surely you will admit the moral advantage? You will admit what you were quick to observe in the first instance, my dearest friend, that such a tone of literature as the current one in France, is significant of the tone of the society, & could be audible nowhere without an existent harmony between it & the local manners or morals. Both the scepticism of opinion & the license of manners of the French people are reflected in the current literature,—& what is natural & familiar to France, ‘la prude Angleterre’ recoils from,—& must recoil from, as long as she retains her views (right or wrong) of the law of marriage and the laws of God. And therefore I say that I shd be sorry to see this literature popular in England,—therefore, & for this reason. With ecclectic readers like you & me, it is different—but even with ourselves, the “acclimating,” to use your own expressive term, was found a very necessary process. Now, was it not? Do remember your own disgust! Could words stronger than you used, be used by any one? And you are not a “prude d’Angleterre,” although you form a unit in “prude Angleterre”.

Have you any recollection of Adam Blair?[7] I believe there was an outcry against the indecency of that book,—& lately, on comparing the first with a last edition of it, I find that the author has left out the few lines which were taken generally to be offensive, & which compared to the least of certain offences, were the merest lamb-innocences. Think of Don Juan .. which, with my present experience, I rank with the Lives of the saints! Think of Bulwer’s Alice, but the other day!—A clergyman saw the book on my aunt’s table (Miss Clarke—not in her first youth, as you may suppose) & said so much against it that she sent it away in a fright. There is a great deal of la prude d’Angleterre in all this, I admit,—but still “la prude Angleterre” makes the groundwork of it. There is a principle under the extravagance. If our homes were less pure and tranquil, our weaknesses of this class wd be less apparent. If we had more sins, we should have less ‘ridicules’.

I read ‘La Torpille’—but I cannot give you any information, such as you ask for. And did I not tell you that Les Rivalités de province made a beginning to La princesse Parisienne?[8] I ought to have done so—for I knew it. As to Casimir Delavigne, I dislike his poetry so much that I dont think I can try to read any more of it.[9] Well—you & I go different ways about him & Lamartine—and I am insolent enough to opine that if you cd but get over the latter’s being “too rich for a poet,” & his being too frequently called the just, that you would consent to consider him well worth twenty Delavignes. You shd read his Meditations & shorter poems.[10] The long poem he may not have strength & variety enough for—but that he is a true poet, I will not leave you at peace to doubt– Indeed my dearest friend, you are not reasonable (see how insolent I am!) about Lamartine. You are the last in the world who shd not be ready to forgive a writer for being too much loved—and it is I who tell you so!–

Madame Bodin is a mere Madame. Poor & weak. I read two of her books—Savinie—and Stenia,[11] .. which last I cd not have lived through if it had not been for the precious ridiculousnesses (as Mrs Malaprop might translate Molière) of the Englishisms.[12] But nothing can be much poorer. Yet she has a sort of name, I fancy, this Madme Bodin,—or I have heard wrong. Madme Reybaud is of different stuff altogether. Have you read Eugene Sue’s ‘Salamandre’ & ‘Le Pecheur d’Ouessant’ & ‘Les Cadets d’Hothon.’[13] I have not—but you may have access to them at Rolandi’s. Then there are two books lately come out, by different writers, called ‘La Femme honnête’ & ‘Madme de Favieres.’[14] I know nothing but the names. But I dont see why you shd not make voyages of discovery as well as myself—till the Queen’s visit shall make you quite too proud to read anything but Balzac.

By the way, .. will she visit you, I do wonder! If she does, I shall be her more devoted subject for evermore. It will do her honour (not you!) in the eyes of the whole country. I will forgive her much—oh, so much! .. if she really does go to see you.

For yourself, you made me smile by your ‘God forbid’, and I could see some reason for it, I confess!– Still, you will have courage, .. and Flush will help you in the reception. Do give my love to Flush.

May God bless you always.

I could write on & on for ever.

Your most affectionate EBB.

Tell me all about the mesmerism,—do—& how Jane continues.

Yes—certainly Miss Martineau speaks of the ‘spiritual dicta’ as of things accredited—but then her oracle having enunciated so much wisdom upon bodily mysteries, it is natural that the wisdom should not appear folly, merely because the object was shifted. An uneducated girl who speaks profoundly (by a miracle) on one subject, will reasonably be listened to when she speaks on another. A housemaid who speaks anatomy by revelation, may speak divinity, by the same—may she not?

I have sometimes seen the Phrenological Journal, .. that is, once or twice,—but merely by accident.

Publication: EBB-MRM, III, 19–23.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Dated by the references to mesmerism and French authors, both of which were current topics in EBB’s correspondence with Miss Mitford.

2. See letter 1762.

3. Similar to the account EBB gave Miss Mitford the previous November (see letter 1446).

4. The last words of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) were reportedly: “I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.”

5. We have been unable to identify this person.

6. In comparing the species to the genus, EBB is expressing her disdain for the narrow-mindedness of an individual “English prude” while she approves of the morality of “prudish England.”

7. Some Passages in the Life of Mr. Adam Blair Minister of the Gospel at Cross-Meikle (1822) by John Gibson Lockhart. Later editions appeared in 1841, 1842 and 1843 as part of Blackwood’s Standard Novels.

8. Balzac’s La Princesse Parisienne, afterwards titled Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan, was published in 1839. La Torpille was the first part of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838); Les Rivalités was part of Le Cabinet des antiques (1839).

9. Jean François Casimir Delavigne (1793–1843), dramatist and poet, was best known for his comedies.

10. Lamartine’s first published work was Méditations Poétiques (1822) and was immediately followed by Nouvelles Méditations Poétiques (1823) which contained “Ischia” and “Le Crucifix.”

11. Pascaline et Savinie (1835) and Sténia et l’abbé Maurice (1837).

12. EBB suggests how Mrs. Malaprop (a character in Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775) might mistranslate Molière’s Les Précieuses Ridicules (1659).

13. La Salamandre was published in 1832. We have been unable to identify the other two works.

14. Madame de Favières (1844) by Arsène Houssaye (1815–96). We have been unable to identify the author of La Femme honnête.


National Endowment for the Humanities - Logo

Editorial work on The Brownings’ Correspondence is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This website was last updated on 8-19-2019.

Copyright © 2019 Wedgestone Press. All rights reserved.