[Boston—Monday, 27 June 1870]

Monday came in the afternoon to Canton. Mrs Bell drove into the avenue just as we did—a little woman in a dead white dress driven by a coal-black man. The place is very beautiful, as beautiful as England with a perfect lawn and perfect trees. It is sufficiently old to have lost all the American features of progression except as Nature will forever progress after her own restful way. We found the drawing room redolent of exotics. Mrs Ward, the mother of Mrs Dorr, now a very old lady and excessively fond of flowers lives in the adjoining estate & occupies herself with raising rare flowers and fruits—surely a rare and beautiful occupation for an old lady. It delights her evidently to see her daughters enjoyment in these marvelous things. She took her gardener when a mere lad and has educated him to the care and cultivation of these plants. Fortunately he is wise enough himself to be grateful and appears to find delight in doing what he can for her. His Glockzineas [sic, for Gloxinias], Calceolarias, Stephanotis, and freckled leaves and lilies and roses are wonderfully perfect. The lilium auratum was in full glory.

Mrs Bell talked much and to hear her talk is to have a character unfolded full of èlan, full of feeling, daring to truth, excitable, effervescent, humor. Appleton calls her the first of voluptuaries and he is not far wrong. Cape Jessamine in its intensest [sic] variety. “Fortuni Cape” the Japanese plant is her favorite flower. She says she has no love for Nature. She would like an apothecary’s shop where the tree stands on the lawn beyond and when a friend says “what a perfect tree!” she wants to say “Tree, what do I care for you! Where is the man who stood beside you six years ago!”

She says too much of her enjoyment has sprung from mere animal spirits and she feels it going. Minnie and I have long talks about it with closed doors, she said. The old quiver, the being utterly beside myself with excitement for nothing at all, just for a new person or the mere every day incidents of a party or concert has gone—and I would give all the occasional enjoyment of rare persons to have it back again.

In the evening in a room heavy with odors of jessamine and lilies, she sang. Her beautiful auburn hair with its tiny black fellet [sic, for fillet], her soft white dress with the jessamine tied with a black knot at her throat, all accorded with the deep pathos of her voice, a low sad tone of small variety, but vibrant with a woman’s passion. She sang, after prelude, which decoyed your thought into her mood and left you doubtful if she were to sing otherwise than through the voice of the instrument, a few sad lines by Matthew Arnold, then something by Rossetti with touches from Beethoven by the way, and at last “Douglas” once more.

Her story is a strange one; indeed she is one of the very few women we have had among us all ready for a book. She is an exotic—cape jessamine, with its stifling odors is her favorite flower. Nature has no attractions for her when unassociated with humanity. A creature incapable it would seem of being subdued to Love; yet forever attracting lovers to her side. What is poison to them is life to her. Sensuous, pale, shifting, sweet, forever driving to the edge of dangers which she forever eludes, her symbol should be the opal with its misty veil and heart of fire.

Her intellectual life is a very rare one. She is cognizant of books, & uses them; not as most women do as bricks and mortar, but as food; they become part of her very being and are reproduced in a new form from her enriched life. Her parentage was strange enough. Her father a man of undoubted genius, strange intensity, fitful character; her mother a bigoted Calvinist, totally incapable of comprehending her husband, gloomy and ascetic but unequal to more than a fretful conformity of existence.

Helen Bell’s truest happiness is in music. Mrs Dorr gave us a striking account of inviting her for the first time to pass a week at her house & introducing to her all the men of note and the interesting society of the town. Her enjoyment was extreme and unflagging, but at the end of the week her sister came in with a roll of music to get Helen to play it over with her as it was intended for four hands. They proceeded for a few moments when Helen stopped perfectly pale and turning to her sister said, “Stop Minnie, do you hear that note. Now you know I have had a beautiful time here. I have never seen so many interesting people before all my life together, I have been filled with excitement, but when I strike that note (striking it again) the whole thing vanishes and I know I care more for my music than for anything else in the world and all these people and everything also put together. I can’t explain it, but it is so. This makes me happy.” It is a real delight to hear her play—little snatches of exquisite harmony & melody given with her own peculiar feeling; it is a most rare enjoyment.

Kate Field was also at Mrs Dorr’s and alas! also sang—but such singing! It was in good time & taste perhaps too, but I never saw more curiously exemplified the difference between talent and genius than in these two women. Kate Field can make money, is full of popular talents but—the difference remains.

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 6-15-2024.

Copyright © 2024 Wedgestone Press. All rights reserved.

Back To Top