737. EBB to Mary Russell Mitford
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 4, 246–251.
6th March 1840–
My beloved friend,
I was hesitating whether or not to write when your letter came telling me to do so. I wanted to write very much—to assure you of my gladness about ‘the plan’: and then again what you said in regard to the pressure upon your time seemed to say ‘Tais toi Jean Jaques’ to me. All your affectionateness cd not prevent my letters taking up time in reading as well as answering. Pray my ever dearest Miss Mitford, dont let them teaze you. Now dont write to me again for .. how many weeks? No– The time shant be measured or it will look too sadly long—but dont write until you have time to throw away by handfuls– It will be kind to me if you dont.
And I am the more remorseful for my in-the-way-ingness (I recommend that word to your authorship) because I do feel about to be useless in your new undertaking. People have different manners of reading, & I know that very many from the Laureate downwards, are in the habit of filling voluminous commonplace books. I put ashes upon my head in the confession that I am not one of them. ‘Every woman to her humour!’ That commonplacing always seemed to me wearying work, & scarcely calculated, in my own particular experience, to make amends for the expenditure of time which it exacts. I have a legal sort of memory, & when my associations imply the existence of a passage, I know tolerably well where to find it out. Poor Sir Uvedale Price used to call me “a good ferret.” Books of mere reasoning & philosophy, I have often fixed in my memory by an analysis—and pages of such analyzing are somewhere nailed up in old boxes of papers, in Wimpole Street—but such, even if I cd reach them, wd be of no manner of use to you or anybody in the world– Extracts from books I have scarcely any even there. I never did care to make them—except in the case of books which I was not likely to have access to again. Yes!—and a little MS book beside me now, has extracts from the Greek Fathers &c arranged so as to show their views of certain doctrinal points. And here is a long arch-angelical passage from Swedenborg whom I intended to part from eternally at the time I clipped that lock of hair!– Oh how can I be of use to you?–– You know Fuller, old Fuller, I dare say– Otherwise, two pages of dislocated oddities from him, shd go to you, in my handwriting, & might prove usable as quotations applicable or inapplicable. Shall I send them?
How can I be of use to you? I am a ferret in a cage here—lying in bed as weak as a baby, & out of reach of books such as might profit you most–
The plan is delightful—I mean for us, the readers, the world,—your letters being always very attractive parts of you, & your early letters essentially & relatively interesting, of necessity. Do they refer to any particular subject—I mean, are they what are called ‘literary letters’ or scenic letters—or do they gossip “at their own sweet will” (think of Miss Roberts attributing those words to Miss Landon!) on all sorts of subjects? There!—I meant to ask no questions. But it will do as well,—if you dont answer any!–
Surely it is a book for selling—& living besides—whatever name you put to it. And it seems to me that nothing can be better than Mr Sjt Talfourd’s suggestion, which I wd modify by your own in some such manner as this
Letters before Authorship
by an Author.
Surely that arrangement cannot be objectionable on the ground of length,—while it is perfectly applicable & expressive, & catches the ear. I shall be so very glad to hear of triumphant success & profit & praise together. And I shall be sure to hear of it,—if I live out a few months longer. May your undertaking prosper my beloved friend—may it!–
In the meantime I am very sorry that you shd be so hummed about by the great swarms of your admirers .. altho’ I really could’nt help laughing at the diffident request of the lady unknown, praying for the transcription of her three volumes. Such shadow falls from such laurels!—but people are pardonable for fancying that the Miss Mitford of our village sits in a perpetual sunshine of her own which all their Alexandering cant disturb,—& that moreover she has an omnipresent smile, to smile the whole world round at once!– Oh I can well believe that you are more pestered than others even of equal notoriety—& the reason of it is a crown above the crown!—& not because you are taken for “a good-natured fool”. What a reason to suggest!—— That made me laugh too!–
As for me, you have spoilt me to be sure—but the new pinnacle you forsee for me “above the notoriety,” made me laugh again. [‘]‘Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed”. No—no—dearest Miss Mitford! I shall always be safe, below the danger of notoriety,—were I to live more years than I am likely to do months.
And yet I do believe that I can match your modest lady with another—an absolute stranger to me & mine, who wrote to me several years ago to beg me to lend her a thousand pounds! She wanted the money, she said, to enable two young men to go to the university: and understanding that I was an only child & an heiress & very eager about literature besides, she thought me just the person to apply to!– After my first astonishment, I really did rather admire her for making such an effort, in despite of all conventionalities, in behalf of literature & two aspiring lovers of it. I really admired her benevolence & her boldness. Something of the sort too, I said in my reply—explaining the truth that I had ten brothers & sisters, was no heiress; & observing—which at that time was literally true—that if she had asked me for a thousand half-pence I cd not have given them to her. Can you believe in the fact of her writing again, to desire me to collect forty pounds among my friends—I a stranger to her, among them strangers to her, for others strangers to both parties?—and in the worst fact of all (discovered by me long afterwards) that the two aspiring geniuses were related to her benevolence very closely—the one being her son & the other about to be her son in law?—!– And she a lady—in family—education—& position in society! This does beat the three volumes!—— Yield the palm to me!——
People who are not “ladies” say sometimes .. “I am afraid you are not agreeable”. Well!—in that sense of the word (& also, perhaps in worse senses) I cant be agreeable to you today—no, not at all, dearest dearest Miss Mitford!– Dear Dr Mitford is a magistrate & a country gentleman, & my own dear Papa was both all his life until the last very few years—but still a country gentleman & a magistrate per se I cannot say much eloquent praise of– I have known a good many—& … I leave the species to you. You shall be laureate to them—and I will hide myself somewhere behind Madme de Staels’ petticoats at the other side of the room–
Blessings be on them & eternal praise
How can you write such blasphemies!– Dont you see the advertisement of a new edition of the Tales of the Genii with alterations & additions—& is’nt it by me?– And isn’t a “needle” used for mending stockings, and a “pen” for making demigods?– Are spirits finely touched but to fine uses? And if Wordsworth had no divinity, shd we talk & sigh, any of us, over his humanity?–
And, what is the cockney school? I never cd make out. Hazzlitt Leigh Hunt Keats Charles Lamb, Barry Cornwall—. What is common to these gifted writers, that we shd make a school with it? Is it not their locality which gave the name—& still less resonably than the Lakes gave another? And are any of us the worse for living in London, if we dont roll in the dust of the streets? And altho’ there have been & are among these writers, sins of coarseness & affectation & latitudinarianism, did any one of them all ever perpetrate such an enormity as Mr Ainsworth’s Jack Shepherd, he, who for aught I know, may keep sheep in the wilderness—with a crook on one side & Burns’s Justice on the other?
And then .. to crown my not being agreeable .. I cant agree about the Legend. I read the whole of it—& although your remark upon the versification seems to me not without its verity—I do think it a beautiful & most touching play. Ginevra is Griselda with a “touch of nature”; & tho bursting of natural emotion thro’ the meshes of her sweet patience, quite overcame me. Surely there must be pathos & power in whatever makes our tears flow & pulses beat! I think there must.
The “ill humour” if unheroical & unpoetical in itself as a tragic power, proves the faculty of the author who cd turn it to such tragic uses. Do read the whole play when you have an opportunity. I struggle, you see, to be agreeable.
Did you ever read Leigh Hunt[’]s stanzas to his sick child—
“Sleep breathes at last from out thee
My little patient boy–”?–
And will you ever forgive all my disagreeableness—my impertinen[c]es, my contrariousness?– Here are contradictions enough for a lifetime—even a woman’s!– But I am always sincere in writing to you—& none the less in assuring you, dearest dearest Miss Mitford of my true & grateful & uplooking affection of
E B Barrett–
My thankful love to dear Dr Mitford– May you be better still– I fear tho’ improvement has not been regularly progressive.
What can the Findens mean? Are the three months expired yet?– I have asked a thousand & one questions in this letter. It is a catechism of a letter—but dont, if you are busy (& you must be) say M or N to it.
Publication: EBB-MRM, I, 184–189.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. In a letter of 19 February 1840 (L’Estrange (2), III, 106–107), Miss Mitford speaks of being encouraged to publish her letters, written years before, to Sir William Elford (1749–1837), the banker and politician. However, EBB’s apologies for being unable to help with notes of her reading suggest that Miss Mitford was contemplating something of broader scope. Whatever her plan, nothing came of it.
2. See letter 709, note 3.
3. Currently Robert Southey (1774–1843).
4. A play on the title of Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598).
5. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the Swedish theologian, philosopher and mystic, in whose teachings EBB maintained a life-long interest. Of the several notebooks listed in Reconstruction, D1415 refers to Swedenborg.
6. Thomas Fuller (1608–61), divine, whose book, The Historie of the Holy Warre (3rd edn., 1647) is listed in Reconstruction (A1006). He is also known for his Good Thoughts in Bad Times (1645). The notebook mentioned in note 5 also includes EBB’s comments on Fuller’s work.
7. Wordsworth’s verses “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” (1807), line 12.
8. In the memoir included in The Zenana and Minor Poems of L.E.L. (1839), Emma Roberts said that Miss Landon “rushed fearlessly into print, not dreaming for a moment, that verses which were poured forth like the waters from a fountain, gushing, as she has beautifully expressed it, of their own sweet will, could ever provoke stern or harsh criticism” (p. 9).
9. Dryden, “The Cock and the Fox” (Fables Ancient and Modern, 1700), lines 659–670: “Ye Princes rais’d by Poets to the Gods, / And Alexander’d up in lying Odes.” “Perpetual sunshine” refers back to EBB’s earlier comment about Alexander and Diogenes (see letter 360, note 1).
10. Macbeth, IV, 1, 1.
11. Mrs. Mushet; see letters 362 and 364.
12. As far as is known, Edward Moulton-Barrett only served as a magistrate during his years at Hope End.
13. Anne Louise Germaine de Staël (née Necker, 1766–1817), whose Corinne was thought by EBB to be “an immortal book” (letter 453).
14. Cf. Wordsworth, “Personal Talk” (1807), 51–53.
15. The Athenæum of 18 January 1840 (no. 638, p. 58) had advertised a new edition “revised, and in part rewritten, by a Lover of the Marvellous and the True.” For details of the original edition, see letter 733, note 11.
16. This foreshadows a recurrent theme: the relative merits of “needle and thread” (i.e., domestic) and “pen and ink” (i.e., professional) writers.
17. Cf. Measure for Measure, I, 1, 35–36.
18. An article “On the Cockney School of Poetry” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, October 1817 (pp. 38–41), described Leigh Hunt as its “chief Doctor and Professor.” The appellation was pejorative, denoting, in the words of the writer, absolute ignorance of Greek literature, and no more than a smattering of Latin, Italian and French writers, coupled with “extreme moral depravity.”
19. The Lake poets included Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, from their residing in the Lake District of England. This label was also used pejoratively at first, but soon lost all hint of disparagement.
20. Latitudinarians favoured latitude in thought, action, or conduct, especially in religious matters (OED).
21. See letter 730, notes 2 and 4.
22. As Justice figures in several of Burns’s poems, it is not possible to interpret EBB’s reference with certainty. She may have had in mind the lines: “Dame Justice fu’ brawly has sped: / She’s gotten the heart of a Bushby, / But Lord! what’s become o’ the head?” (“Ballads on Mr. Heron’s Election, 1795,” no. 2, verse 3, lines 2–4).
23. Leigh Hunt’s just-published A Legend of Florence, mentioned in letter 733.
24. In Hunt’s play, Ginevra is the wife of a Florentine noble. Griselda was the patient heroine in the final story in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, tested and tested again by her husband. She was also depicted by Chaucer in “The Clerk’s Tale.”
25. Troilus and Cressida, III, 3, 175.
26. “To T.L.H., Six Years Old, During a Sickness” (1816), 1–2. Thornton Leigh Hunt (1810–73) was Leigh Hunt’s eldest son.
27. See letter 727, note 17.