editions, all of which are confirmed as Public Domain in the US unless a copyright notice is included. Thus, we usually do not keep etexts in compliance with any particular paper edition.
The “legal small print” and other information about this book may now be found at the end of this file. Please read this important information, as it gives you specific rights and tells you about restrictions in how the file may be used.
FAMOUS AFFINITIES OF HISTORY
THE ROMANCE OF DEVOTION
BY LYNDON ORR
VOLUME IV OF IV.
DEAN SWIFT AND THE TWO ESTHERS
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY AND MARY GODWIN THE STORY OF THE CARLYLES
THE STORY OF THE HUGOS
THE STORY OF GEORGE SAND
THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS
HONORE DE BALZAC AND EVELINA HANSKA CHARLES READE AND LAURA SEYMOUR
DEAN SWIFT AND THE TWO ESTHERS
The story of Jonathan Swift and of the two women who gave their lives for love of him is familiar to every student of English literature. Swift himself, both in letters and in politics, stands out a conspicuous figure in the reigns of King William III and Queen Anne. By writing Gulliver’s Travels he made himself immortal. The external facts of his singular relations with two charming women are sufficiently well known; but a definite explanation of these facts has never yet been given. Swift held his tongue with a repellent taciturnity. No one ever dared to question him. Whether the true solution belongs to the sphere of psychology or of physiology is a question that remains unanswered.
But, as the case is one of the most puzzling in the annals of love, it may be well to set forth the circumstances very briefly, to weigh the theories that have already been advanced, and to suggest another.
Jonathan Swift was of Yorkshire stock, though he happened to be born in Dublin, and thus is often spoken of as “the great Irish satirist,” or “the Irish dean.” It was, in truth, his fate to spend much of his life in Ireland, and to die there, near the cathedral where his remains now rest; but in truth he hated Ireland and everything connected with it, just as he hated Scotland and everything that was Scottish. He was an Englishman to the core.
High-stomached, proud, obstinate, and over-mastering, independence was the dream of his life. He would accept no favors, lest he should put himself under obligation; and although he could give generously, and even lavishly, he lived for the most part a miser’s life, hoarding every penny and halfpenny that he could. Whatever one may think of him, there is no doubt that he was a very manly man. Too many of his portraits give the impression of a sour, supercilious pedant; but the finest of them all–that by Jervas–shows him as he must have been at his very prime, with a face that was almost handsome, and a look of attractive humor which strengthens rather than lessens the power of his brows and of the large, lambent eyes beneath them.
At fifteen he entered Trinity College, in Dublin, where he read widely but studied little, so that his degree was finally granted him only as a special favor. At twenty-one he first visited England, and became secretary to Sir William Temple, at Moor Park. Temple, after a distinguished career in diplomacy, had retired to his fine country estate in Surrey. He is remembered now for several things–for having entertained Peter the Great of Russia; for having, while young, won the affections of Dorothy Osborne, whose letters to him are charming in their grace and archness; for having been the patron of Jonathan Swift; and for fathering the young girl named Esther Johnson, a waif, born out of wedlock, to whom Temple gave a place in his household.
When Swift first met her, Esther Johnson was only eight years old; and part of his duties at Moor Park consisted in giving her what was then an unusual education for a girl. She was, however, still a child, and nothing serious could have passed between the raw youth and this little girl who learned the lessons that he imposed upon her.
Such acquaintance as they had was rudely broken off. Temple, a man of high position, treated Swift with an urbane condescension which drove the young man’s independent soul into a frenzy. He returned to Ireland, where he was ordained a clergyman, and received a small parish at Kilroot, near Belfast.
It was here that the love-note was first seriously heard in the discordant music of Swift’s career. A college friend of his named Waring had a sister who was about the age of Swift, and whom he met quite frequently at Kilroot. Not very much is known of this episode, but there is evidence that Swift fell in love with the girl, whom he rather romantically called “Varina.”
This cannot be called a serious love-affair. Swift was lonely, and Jane Waring was probably the only girl of refinement who lived near Kilroot. Furthermore, she had inherited a small fortune, while Swift was miserably poor, and had nothing to offer except the shadowy prospect of future advancement in England. He was definitely refused by her; and it was this, perhaps, that led him to resolve on going back to England and making his peace with Sir William Temple.
On leaving, Swift wrote a passionate letter to Miss Waring–the only true love-letter that remains to us of their correspondence. He protests that he does not want Varina’s fortune, and that he will wait until he is in a position to marry her on equal terms. There is a smoldering flame of jealousy running through the letter. Swift charges her with being cold, affected, and willing to flirt with persons who are quite beneath her.
Varina played no important part in Swift’s larger life thereafter; but something must be said of this affair in order to show, first of all, that Swift’s love for her was due only to proximity, and that when he ceased to feel it he could be not only hard, but harsh. His fiery spirit must have made a deep impression on Miss Waring; for though she at the time refused him, she afterward remembered him, and tried to renew their old relations. Indeed, no sooner had Swift been made rector of a larger parish, than Varina let him know that she had changed her mind, and was ready to marry him; but by this time Swift had lost all interest in her. He wrote an answer which even his truest admirers have called brutal.
“Yes,” he said in substance, “I will marry you, though you have treated me vilely, and though you are living in a sort of social sink. I am still poor, though you probably think otherwise. However, I will marry you on certain conditions. First, you must be educated, so that you can entertain me. Next, you must put up with all my whims and likes and dislikes. Then you must live wherever I please. On these terms I will take you, without reference to your looks or to your income. As to the first, cleanliness is all that I require; as to the second, I only ask that it be enough.”
Such a letter as this was like a blow from a bludgeon. The insolence, the contempt, and the hardness of it were such as no self-respecting woman could endure. It put an end to their acquaintance, as Swift undoubtedly intended it should do. He would have been less censurable had he struck Varina with his fist or kicked her.
The true reason for Swift’s utter change of heart is found, no doubt, in the beginning of what was destined to be his long intimacy with Esther Johnson. When Swift left Sir William Temple’s in a huff, Esther had been a mere schoolgirl. Now, on his return, she was fifteen years of age, and seemed older. She had blossomed out into a very comely girl, vivacious, clever, and physically well developed, with dark hair, sparkling eyes, and features that were unusually regular and lovely.
For three years the two were close friends and intimate associates, though it cannot he said that Swift ever made open love to her. To the outward eye they were no more than fellow workers. Yet love does not need the spoken word and the formal declaration to give it life and make it deep and strong. Esther Johnson, to whom Swift gave the pet name of “Stella,” grew into the existence of this fiery, hold, and independent genius. All that he did she knew. She was his confidante. As to his writings, his hopes, and his enmities, she was the mistress of all his secrets. For her, at last, no other man existed.
On Sir William Temple’s death, Esther John son came into a small fortune, though she now lost her home at Moor Park. Swift returned to Ireland, and soon afterward he invited Stella to join him there.
Swift was now thirty-four years of age, and Stella a very attractive girl of twenty. One might have expected that the two would marry, and yet they did not do so. Every precaution was taken to avoid anything like scandal. Stella was accompanied by a friend–a widow named Mrs. Dingley–without whose presence, or that of some third person, Swift never saw Esther Johnson. When Swift was absent, how ever, the two ladies occupied his apartments; and Stella became more than ever essential to his happiness.
When they were separated for any length of time Swift wrote to Stella in a sort of baby-talk, which they called “the little language.” It was made up of curious abbreviations and childish words, growing more and more complicated as the years went on. It is interesting to think of this stern and often savage genius, who loved to hate, and whose hate was almost less terrible than his love, babbling and prattling in little half caressing sentences, as a mother might babble over her first child. Pedantic writers have professed to find in Swift’s use of this “little language” the coming shadow of that insanity which struck him down in his old age.
As it is, these letters are among the curiosities of amatory correspondence. When Swift writes “oo” for “you,” and “deelest” for “dearest,” and “vely” for “very,” there is no need of an interpreter; but “rettle” for “let ter,” “dallars” for “girls,” and “givar” for “devil,” are at first rather difficult to guess. Then there is a system of abbreviating. “Md” means “my dear,” “Ppt” means “poppet,” and “Pdfr,” with which Swift sometimes signed his epistles, “poor, dear, foolish rogue.”
The letters reveal how very closely the two were bound together, yet still there was no talk of marriage. On one occasion, after they had been together for three years in Ireland, Stella might have married another man. This was a friend of Swift’s, one Dr. Tisdall, who made energetic love to the sweet-faced English girl. Tisdall accused Swift of poisoning Stella’s mind against him. Swift replied that such was not the case. He said that no feelings of his own would ever lead him to influence the girl if she preferred another.
It is quite sure, then, that Stella clung wholly to Swift, and cared nothing for the proffered love of any other man. Thus through the years the relations of the two remained unchanged, until in 1710 Swift left Ireland and appeared as a very brilliant figure in the London drawing-rooms of the great Tory leaders of the day.
He was now a man of mark, because of his ability as a controversialist. He had learned the manners of the world, and he carried him self with an air of power which impressed all those who met him. Among these persons was a Miss Hester–or Esther– Vanhomrigh, the daughter of a rather wealthy widow who was living in London at that time. Miss Vanhomrigh–a name which she and her mother pronounced “Vanmeury”–was then seventeen years of age, or twelve years younger than the patient Stella.
Esther Johnson, through her long acquaintance with Swift, and from his confidence in her, had come to treat him almost as an intellectual equal. She knew all his moods, some of which were very difficult, and she bore them all; though when he was most tyrannous she became only passive, waiting, with a woman’s wisdom, for the tempest to blow over.
Miss Vanhomrigh, on the other hand, was one of those girls who, though they have high spirit, take an almost voluptuous delight in yielding to a spirit that is stronger still. This beautiful creature felt a positive fascination in Swift’s presence and his imperious manner. When his eyes flashed, and his voice thundered out words of anger, she looked at him with adoration, and bowed in a sort of ecstasy before him. If he chose to accost a great lady with “Well, madam, are you as ill-natured and disagreeable as when I met you last?” Esther Vanhomrigh thrilled at the insolent audacity of the man. Her evident fondness for him exercised a seductive influence over Swift.
As the two were thrown more and more together, the girl lost all her self-control. Swift did not in any sense make love to her, though he gave her the somewhat fanciful name of “Vanessa”; but she, driven on by a high-strung, unbridled temperament, made open love to him. When he was about to return to Ireland, there came one startling moment when Vanessa flung herself into the arms of Swift, and amazed him by pouring out a torrent of passionate endearments.
Swift seems to have been surprised. He did what he could to quiet her. He told her that they were too unequal in years and fortune for anything but friendship, and he offered to give her as much friendship as she desired.
Doubtless he thought that, after returning to Ireland, he would not see Vanessa any more. In this, however, he was mistaken. An ardent girl, with a fortune of her own, was not to be kept from the man whom absence only made her love the more. In addition, Swift carried on his correspondence with her, which served to fan the flame and to increase the sway that Swift had already acquired.
Vanessa wrote, and with every letter she burned and pined. Swift replied, and each reply enhanced her yearning for him. Ere long, Vanessa’s mother died, and Vanessa herself hastened to Ireland and took up her residence near Dublin. There, for years, was enacted this tragic comedy–Esther Johnson was near Swift, and had all his confidence; Esther Vanhomrigh was kept apart from him, while still receiving missives from him, and, later, even visits.
It was at this time, after he had become dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Dublin, that Swift was married to Esther Johnson– for it seems probable that the ceremony took place, though it was nothing more than a form. They still saw each other only in the presence of a third person. Nevertheless, some knowledge of their close relationship leaked out. Stella had been jealous of her rival during the years that Swift spent in London. Vanessa was now told that Swift was married to the other woman, or that she was his mistress. Writhing with jealousy, she wrote directly to Stella, and asked whether she was Dean Swift’s wife. In answer Stella replied that she was, and then she sent Vanessa’s letter to Swift himself.
All the fury of his nature was roused in him; and he was a man who could be very terrible when angry. He might have remembered the intense love which Vanessa bore for him, the humility with which she had accepted his conditions, and, finally, the loneliness of this girl.
But Swift was utterly unsparing. No gleam of pity entered his heart as he leaped upon a horse and galloped out to Marley Abbey, where she was living–“his prominent eyes arched by jet-black brows and glaring with the green fury of a cat’s.” Reaching the house, he dashed into it, with something awful in his looks, made his way to Vanessa, threw her letter down upon the table and, after giving her one frightful glare, turned on his heel, and in a moment more was galloping back to Dublin.
The girl fell to the floor in an agony of terror and remorse. She was taken to her room, and only three weeks afterward was carried forth, having died literally of a broken heart.
Five years later, Stella also died, withering away a sacrifice to what the world has called Swift’s cruel heartlessness and egotism. His greatest public triumphs came to him in his final years of melancholy isolation; but in spite of the applause that greeted The Drapier Letters and Gulliver’s Travels, he brooded morbidly over his past life. At last his powerful mind gave way, so that he died a victim to senile dementia. By his directions his body was interred in the same coffin with Stella’s, in the cathedral of which he had been dean.
Such is the story of Dean Swift, and it has always suggested several curious questions. Why, if he loved Stella, did he not marry her long before? Why, when he married her, did he treat her still as if she were not his wife? Why did he allow Vanessa’s love to run like a scarlet thread across the fabric of the other affection, which must have been so strong?
Many answers have been given to these questions. That which was formulated by Sir Walter Scott is a simple one, and has been generally accepted. Scott believed that Swift was physically incapacitated for marriage, and that he needed feminine sympathy, which he took where he could get it, without feeling bound to give anything in return.
If Scott’s explanation be the true one, it still leaves Swift exposed to ignominy as a monster of ingratitude. Therefore, many of his biographers have sought other explanations. No one can palliate his conduct toward Vanessa; but Sir Leslie Stephen makes a plea for him with reference to Stella. Sir Leslie points out that until Swift became dean of St. Patrick’s his income was far too small to marry on, and that after his brilliant but disappointing three years in London, when his prospects of advancement were ruined, he felt himself a broken man.
Furthermore, his health was always precarious, since he suffered from a distressing illness which attacked him at intervals, rendering him both deaf and giddy. The disease is now known as Meniere’s disease, from its classification by the French physician, Meniere, in 1861. Swift felt that he lived in constant danger of some sudden stroke that would deprive him either of life or reason; and his ultimate insanity makes it appear that his forebodings were not wholly futile. Therefore, though he married Stella, he kept the marriage secret, thus leaving her free, in case of his demise, to marry as a maiden, and not to be regarded as a widow.
Sir Leslie offers the further plea that, after all, Stella’s life was what she chose to make it. She enjoyed Swift’s friendship, which she preferred to the love of any other man.
Another view is that of Dr. Richard Garnett, who has discussed the question with some subtlety. “Swift,” says Dr. Garnett, “was by nature devoid of passion. He was fully capable of friendship, but not of love. The spiritual realm, whether of divine or earthly things, was a region closed to him, where he never set foot.” On the side of friendship he must greatly have preferred Stella to Vanessa, and yet the latter assailed him on his weakest side–on the side of his love of imperious domination.
Vanessa hugged the fetters to which Stella merely submitted. Flattered to excess by her surrender, yet conscious of his obligations and his real preference, he could neither discard the one beauty nor desert the other.
Therefore, he temporized with both of them, and when the choice was forced upon him he madly struck down the woman for whom he cared the less.
One may accept Dr. Garnett’s theory with a somewhat altered conclusion. It is not true, as a matter of recorded fact, that Swift was incapable of passion, for when a boy at college he was sought out by various young women, and he sought them out in turn. His fiery letter to Miss Waring points to the same conclusion. When Esther Johnson began to love him he was heart-free, yet unable, because of his straitened means, to marry. But Esther Johnson always appealed more to his reason, his friendship, and his comfort, than to his love, using the word in its material, physical sense. This love was stirred in him by Vanessa. Yet when he met Vanessa he had already gone too far with Esther Johnson to break the bond which had so long united them, nor could he think of a life without her, for she was to him his other self.
At the same time, his more romantic association with Vanessa roused those instincts which he had scarcely known himself to be possessed of. His position was, therefore, most embarrassing. He hoped to end it when he left London and returned to Ireland; but fate was unkind to him in this, because Vanessa followed him. He lacked the will to be frank with her, and thus he stood a wretched, halting victim of his own dual nature.
He was a clergyman, and at heart religious. He had also a sense of honor, and both of these traits compelled him to remain true to Esther Johnson. The terrible outbreak which brought about Vanessa’s death was probably the wild frenzy of a tortured soul. It recalls the picture of some fierce animal brought at last to bay, and venting its own anguish upon any object that is within reach of its fangs and claws.
No matter how the story may be told, it makes one shiver, for it is a tragedy in which the three participants all meet their doom– one crushed by a lightning-bolt of unreasoning anger, the other wasting away through hope deferred; while the man whom the world will always hold responsible was himself destined to end his years blind and sleepless, bequeathing his fortune to a madhouse, and saying, with his last muttered breath:
“I am a fool!”
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY AND MARY GODWIN
A great deal has been said and written in favor of early marriage; and, in a general way, early marriage may be an admirable thing. Young men and young women who have no special gift of imagination, and who have practically reached their full mental development at twenty-one or twenty-two–or earlier, even in their teens–may marry safely; because they are already what they will be. They are not going to experience any growth upward and outward. Passing years simply bring them more closely together, until they have settled down into a sort of domestic unity, by which they think alike, act alike, and even gradually come to look alike.
But early wedlock spells tragedy to the man or the woman of genius. In their teens they have only begun to grow. What they will be ten years hence, no one can prophesy. Therefore, to mate so early in life is to insure almost certain storm and stress, and, in the end, domestic wreckage.
As a rule, it is the man, and not the woman, who makes the false step; because it is the man who elects to marry when he is still very young. If he choose some ill-fitting, commonplace, and unresponsive nature to match his own, it is he who is bound in the course of time to learn his great mistake. When the splendid eagle shall have got his growth, and shall begin to soar up into the vault of heaven, the poor little barn-yard fowl that he once believed to be his equal seems very far away in everything. He discovers that she is quite unable to follow him in his towering flights.
The story of Percy Bysshe Shelley is a singular one. The circumstances of his early marriage were strange. The breaking of his marriage-bond was also strange. Shelley himself was an extraordinary creature. He was blamed a great deal in his lifetime for what he did, and since then some have echoed the reproach. Yet it would seem as if, at the very beginning of his life, he was put into a false position against his will. Because of this he was misunderstood until the end of his brief and brilliant and erratic career.
SHELLEY AND MARY GODWIN
In 1792 the French Revolution burst into flame, the mob of Paris stormed the Tuileries, the King of France was cast into a dungeon to await his execution, and the wild sons of anarchy flung their gauntlet of defiance into the face of Europe. In this tremendous year was born young Shelley; and perhaps his nature represented the spirit of the time.
Certainly, neither from his father nor from his mother did he derive that perpetual unrest and that frantic fondness for revolt which blazed out in the poet when he was still a boy. His father, Mr. Timothy Shelley, was a very usual, thick-headed, unromantic English squire. His mother–a woman of much beauty, but of no exceptional traits–was the daughter of another squire, and at the time of her marriage was simply one of ten thousand fresh-faced, pleasant-spoken English country girls. If we look for a strain of the romantic in Shelley’s ancestry, we shall have to find it in the person of his grandfather, who was a very remarkable and powerful character.
This person, Bysshe Shelley by name, had in his youth been associated with some mystery. He was not born in England, but in America–and in those days the name “America” meant almost anything indefinite and peculiar. However this might be, Bysshe Shelley, though a scion of a good old English family, had wandered in strange lands, and it was whispered that he had seen strange sights and done strange things. According to one legend, he had been married in America, though no one knew whether his wife was white or black, or how he had got rid of her.
He might have remained in America all his life, had not a small inheritance fallen to his share. This brought him back to England, and he soon found that England was in reality the place to make his fortune. He was a man of magnificent physique. His rovings had given him ease and grace, and the power which comes from a wide experience of life. He could be extremely pleasing when he chose; and he soon won his way into the good graces of a rich heiress, whom he married.
With her wealth he became an important personage, and consorted with gentlemen and statesmen of influence, attaching himself particularly to the Duke of Northumberland, by whose influence he was made a baronet. When his rich wife died, Shelley married a still richer bride; and so this man, who started out as a mere adventurer without a shilling to his name, died in 1813, leaving more than a million dollars in cash, with lands whose rent-roll yielded a hundred thousand dollars every year.
If any touch of the romantic which we find in Shelley is a matter of heredity, we must trace it to this able, daring, restless, and magnificent old grandfather, who was the beau ideal of an English squire–the sort of squire who had added foreign graces to native sturdiness. But young Shelley, the future poet, seemed scarcely to be English at all. As a young boy he cared nothing for athletic sports. He was given to much reading. He thought a good deal about abstractions with which most schoolboys never concern themselves at all.
Consequently, both in private schools and afterward at Eton, he became a sort of rebel against authority. He resisted the fagging- system. He spoke contemptuously of physical prowess. He disliked anything that he was obliged to do, and he rushed eagerly into whatever was forbidden.
Finally, when he was sent to University College, Oxford, he broke all bounds. At a time when Tory England was aghast over the French Revolution and its results, Shelley talked of liberty and equality on all occasions. He made friends with an uncouth but able fellow student, who bore the remarkable name of Thomas Jefferson Hogg–a name that seems rampant with republicanism–and very soon he got himself expelled from the university for publishing a little tract of an infidel character called “A Defense of Atheism.”
His expulsion for such a cause naturally shocked his father. It probably disturbed Shelley himself; but, after all, it gave him some satisfaction to be a martyr for the cause of free speech. He went to London with his friend Hogg, and took lodgings there. He read omnivorously–Hogg says as much as sixteen hours a day. He would walk through the most crowded streets poring over a volume, while holding another under one arm.
His mind was full of fancies. He had begun what was afterward called “his passion for reforming everything.” He despised most of the laws of England. He thought its Parliament ridiculous. He hated its religion. He was particularly opposed to marriage. This last fact gives some point to the circumstances which almost immediately confronted him.
Shelley was now about nineteen years old–an age at which most English boys are emerging from the public schools, and are still in the hobbledehoy stage of their formation. In a way, he was quite far from boyish; yet in his knowledge of life he was little more than a mere child. He knew nothing thoroughly–much less the ways of men and women. He had no visible means of existence except a small allowance from his father. His four sisters, who were at a boarding-school on Clapham Common, used to save their pin-money and send it to their gifted brother so that he might not actually starve. These sisters he used to call upon from time to time, and through them he made the acquaintance of a sixteen-year-old girl named Harriet Westbrook.
Harriet Westbrook was the daughter of a black-visaged keeper of a coffee-house in Mount Street, called “Jew Westbrook,” partly because of his complexion, and partly because of his ability to retain what he had made. He was, indeed, fairly well off, and had sent his younger daughter, Harriet, to the school where Shelley’s sisters studied.
Harriet Westbrook seems to have been a most precocious person. Any girl of sixteen is, of course, a great deal older and more mature than a youth of nineteen. In the present instance Harriet might have been Shelley’s senior by five years. There is no doubt that she fell in love with him; but, having done so, she by no means acted in the shy and timid way that would have been most natural to a very young girl in her first love-affair. Having decided that she wanted him, she made up her mind to get Mm at any cost, and her audacity was equaled only by his simplicity. She was rather attractive in appearance, with abundant hair, a plump figure, and a pink-and-white complexion. This description makes of her a rather doll-like girl; but doll-like girls are just the sort to attract an inexperienced young man who has yet to learn that beauty and charm are quite distinct from prettiness, and infinitely superior to it.
In addition to her prettiness, Harriet Westbrook had a vivacious manner and talked quite pleasingly. She was likewise not a bad listener; and she would listen by the hour to Shelley in his rhapsodies about chemistry, poetry, the failure of Christianity, the national debt, and human liberty, all of which he jumbled up without much knowledge, but in a lyric strain of impassioned eagerness which would probably have made the multiplication-table thrilling.
For Shelley himself was a creature of extraordinary fascination, both then and afterward. There are no likenesses of him that do him justice, because they cannot convey that singular appeal which the man himself made to almost every one who met him.
The eminent painter, Mulready, once said that Shelley was too beautiful for portraiture; and yet the descriptions of him hardly seem to bear this out. He was quite tall and slender, but he stooped so much as to make him appear undersized. His head was very small-quite disproportionately so; but this was counteracted to the eye by his long and tumbled hair which, when excited, he would rub and twist in a thousand different directions until it was actually bushy. His eyes and mouth were his best features. The former were of a deep violet blue, and when Shelley felt deeply moved they seemed luminous with a wonderful and almost unearthly light. His mouth was finely chiseled, and might be regarded as representing perfection.
One great defect he had, and this might well have overbalanced his attractive face. The defect in question was his voice. One would have expected to hear from him melodious sounds, and vocal tones both rich and penetrating; but, as a matter of fact, his voice was shrill at the very best, and became actually discordant and peacock-like in moments of emotion.
Such, then, was Shelley, star-eyed, with the delicate complexion of a girl, wonderfully mobile in his features, yet speaking in a voice high pitched and almost raucous. For the rest, he arrayed himself with care and in expensive clothing, even though he took no thought of neatness, so that his garments were almost always rumpled and wrinkled from his frequent writhings on couches and on the floor. Shelley had a strange and almost primitive habit of rolling on the earth, and another of thrusting his tousled head close up to the hottest fire in the house, or of lying in the glaring sun when out of doors. It is related that he composed one of his finest poems–“The Cenci”–in Italy, while stretched out with face upturned to an almost tropical sun.
But such as he was, and though he was not yet famous, Harriet Westbrook, the rosy-faced schoolgirl, fell in love with him, and rather plainly let him know that she had done so. There are a thousand ways in which a woman can convey this information without doing anything un-maidenly; and of all these little arts Miss Westbrook was instinctively a mistress.
She played upon Shelley’s feelings by telling him that her father was cruel to her, and that he contemplated actions still more cruel. There is something absurdly comical about the grievance which she brought to Shelley; but it is much more comical to note the tremendous seriousness with which he took it. He wrote to his friend Hogg:
Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way, by endeavoring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice; resistance was the answer. At the same time I essayed to mollify Mr. Westbrook, in vain! I advised her to resist. She wrote to say that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me and throw herself on my protection.
Some letters that have recently come to light show that there was a dramatic scene between Harriet Westbrook and Shelley–a scene in the course of which she threw her arms about his neck and wept upon his shoulder. Here was a curious situation. Shelley was not at all in love with her. He had explicitly declared this only a short time before. Yet here was a pretty girl about to suffer the “horrible persecution” of being sent to school, and finding no alternative save to “throw herself on his protection”–in other words, to let him treat her as he would, and to become his mistress.
The absurdity of the situation makes one smile. Common sense should have led some one to box Harriet’s ears and send her off to school without a moment’s hesitation; while as for Shelley, he should have been told how ludicrous was the whole affair. But he was only nineteen, and she was only sixteen, and the crisis seemed portentous. Nothing could be more flattering to a young man’s vanity than to have this girl cast herself upon him for protection. It did not really matter that he had not loved her hitherto, and that he was already half engaged to another Harriet –his cousin, Miss Grove. He could not stop and reason with himself. He must like a true knight rescue lovely girlhood from the horrors of a school!
It is not unlikely that this whole affair was partly managed or manipulated by the girl’s father. Jew Westbrook knew that Shelley was related to rich and titled people, and that he was certain, if he lived, to become Sir Percy, and to be the heir of his grandfather’s estates. Hence it may be that Harriet’s queer conduct was not wholly of her own prompting.
In any case, however, it proved to be successful. Shelley’s ardent and impulsive nature could not bear to see a girl in tears and appealing for his help. Hence, though in his heart she was very little to him, his romantic nature gave up for her sake the affection that he had felt for his cousin, his own disbelief in marriage, and finally the common sense which ought to have told him not to marry any one on two hundred pounds a year.
So the pair set off for Edinburgh by stagecoach. It was a weary and most uncomfortable journey. When they reached the Scottish capital, they were married by the Scottish law. Their money was all gone; but their landlord, with a jovial sympathy for romance, let them have a room, and treated them to a rather promiscuous wedding-banquet, in which every one in the house participated.
Such is the story of Shelley’s marriage, contracted at nineteen with a girl of sixteen who most certainly lured him on against his own better judgment and in the absence of any actual love.
The girl whom he had taken to himself was a well-meaning little thing. She tried for a time to meet her husband’s moods and to be a real companion to him. But what could one expect from such a union? Shelley’s father withdrew the income which he had previously given. Jew Westbrook refused to contribute anything, hoping, probably, that this course would bring the Shelleys to the rescue. But as it was, the young pair drifted about from place to place, getting very precarious supplies, running deeper into debt each day, and finding less and less to admire in each other.
Shelley took to laudanum. Harriet dropped her abstruse studies, which she had taken up to please her husband, but which could only puzzle her small brain. She soon developed some of the unpleasant traits of the class to which she belonged. In this her sister Eliza–a hard and grasping middle-aged woman–had her share. She set Harriet against her husband, and made life less endurable for both. She was so much older than the pair that she came in and ruled their household like a typical stepmother.
A child was born, and Shelley very generously went through a second form of marriage, so as to comply with the English law; but by this time there was little hope of righting things again. Shelley was much offended because Harriet would not nurse the child. He believed her hard because she saw without emotion an operation performed upon the infant.
Finally, when Shelley at last came into a considerable sum of money, Harriet and Eliza made no pretense of caring for anything except the spending of it in “bonnet-shops” and on carriages and display. In time–that is to say, in three years after their marriage–Harriet left her husband and went to London and to Bath, prompted by her elder sister.
This proved to be the end of an unfortunate marriage. Word was brought to Shelley that his wife was no longer faithful to him. He, on his side, had carried on a semi-sentimental platonic correspondence with a schoolmistress, one Miss Hitchener. But until now his life had been one great mistake–a life of restlessness, of unsatisfied longing, of a desire that had no name. Then came the perhaps inevitable meeting with the one whom he should have met before.
Shelley had taken a great interest in William Godwin, the writer and radical philosopher. Godwin’s household was a strange one. There was Fanny Imlay, a child born out of wedlock, the offspring of Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant, and of Mary Wollstonecraft, whom Godwin had subsequently married. There was also a singularly striking girl who then styled herself Mary Jane Clairmont, and who was afterward known as Claire Clairmont, she and her brother being the early children of Godwin’s second wife.
One day in 1814, Shelley called on Godwin, and found there a beautiful young girl in her seventeenth year, “with shapely golden head, a face very pale and pure, a great forehead, earnest hazel eyes, and an expression at once of sensibility and firmness about her delicately curved lips.” This was Mary Godwin–one who had inherited her mother’s power of mind and likewise her grace and sweetness.
From the very moment of their meeting Shelley and this girl were fated to be joined together, and both of them were well aware of it. Each felt the other’s presence exert a magnetic thrill. Each listened eagerly to what the other said. Each thought of nothing, and each cared for nothing, in the other’s absence. It was a great compelling elemental force which drove the two together and bound them fast. Beside this marvelous experience, how pale and pitiful and paltry seemed the affectations of Harriet Westbrook!
In little more than a month from the time of their first meeting, Shelley and Mary Godwin and Miss Clairmont left Godwin’s house at four o ‘clock in the morning, and hurried across the Channel to Calais. They wandered almost like vagabonds across France, eating black bread and the coarsest fare, walking on the highways when they could not afford to ride, and putting up with every possible inconvenience. Yet it is worth noting that neither then nor at any other time did either Shelley or Mary regret what they had done. To the very end of the poet’s brief career they were inseparable.
Later he was able to pension Harriet, who, being of a morbid disposition, ended her life by drowning–not, it may be said, because of grief for Shelley. It has been told that Fanny Imlay, Mary’s sister, likewise committed suicide because Shelley did not care for her, but this has also been disproved. There was really nothing to mar the inner happiness of the poet and the woman who, at the very end, became his wife. Living, as they did, in Italy and Switzerland, they saw much of their own countrymen, such as Landor and Leigh Hunt and Byron, to whose fascinations poor Miss Clairmont yielded, and became the mother of the little girl Allegra.
But there could have been no truer union than this of Shelley’s with the woman whom nature had intended for him. It was in his love-life, far more than in his poetry, that he attained completeness. When he died by drowning, in 1822, and his body was burned in the presence of Lord Byron, he was truly mourned by the one whom he had only lately made his wife. As a poet he never reached the same perfection; for his genius was fitful and uncertain, rare in its flights, and mingled always with that which disappoints.
As the lover and husband of Mary Godwin, there was nothing left to wish. In his verse, however, the truest word concerning him will always be that exquisite sentence of Matthew Arnold:
“A beautiful and ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings against the void in vain.”
THE STORY OF THE CARLYLES
To most persons, Tennyson was a remote and romantic figure. His homes in the Isle of Wight and at Aldworth had a dignified seclusion about them which was very appropriate to so great a poet, and invested him with a certain awe through which the multitude rarely penetrated. As a matter of fact, however, he was an excellent companion, a ready talker, and gifted with so much wit that it is a pity that more of his sayings have not been preserved to us.
One of the best known is that which was drawn from him after he and a number of friends had been spending an hour in company with Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. The two Carlyles were unfortunately at their worst, and gave a superb specimen of domestic “nagging.” Each caught up whatever the other said, and either turned it into ridicule, or tried to make the author of it an object of contempt.
This was, of course, exceedingly uncomfortable for such strangers as were present, and it certainly gave no pleasure to their friends. On leaving the house, some one said to Tennyson:
“Isn’t it a pity that such a couple ever married?”
“No, no,” said Tennyson, with a sort of smile under his rough beard. “It’s much better that two people should be made unhappy than four.”
The world has pretty nearly come around to the verdict of the poet laureate. It is not probable that Thomas Carlyle would have made any woman happy as his wife, or that Jane Baillie Welsh would have made any man happy as her husband.
This sort of speculation would never have occurred had not Mr. Froude, in the early eighties, given his story about the Carlyles to the world. Carlyle went to his grave, an old man, highly honored, and with no trail of gossip behind him. His wife had died some sixteen years before, leaving a brilliant memory. The books of Mr. Froude seemed for a moment to have desecrated the grave, and to have shed a sudden and sinister light upon those who could not make the least defense for themselves.
For a moment, Carlyle seemed to have been a monster of harshness, cruelty, and almost brutish feeling. On the other side, his wife took on the color of an evil-speaking, evil-thinking shrew, who tormented the life of her husband, and allowed herself to be possessed by some demon of unrest and discontent, such as few women of her station are ever known to suffer from.
Nor was it merely that the two were apparently ill-mated and unhappy with each other. There were hints and innuendos which looked toward some hidden cause for this unhappiness, and which aroused the curiosity of every one. That they might be clearer, Froude afterward wrote a book, bringing out more plainly–indeed, too plainly–his explanation of the Carlyle family skeleton. A multitude of documents then came from every quarter, and from almost every one who had known either of the Carlyles. Perhaps the result to-day has been more injurious to Froude than to the two Carlyles.
Many persons unjustly speak of Froude as having violated the confidence of his friends in publishing the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. They take no heed of the fact that in doing this he was obeying Carlyle’s express wishes, left behind in writing, and often urged on Froude while Carlyle was still alive. Whether or not Froude ought to have accepted such a trust, one may perhaps hesitate to decide. That he did so is probably because he felt that if he refused, Carlyle might commit the same duty to another, who would discharge it with less delicacy and less discretion.
As it is, the blame, if it rests upon any one, should rest upon Carlyle. He collected the letters. He wrote the lines which burn and scorch with self-reproach. It is he who pressed upon the reluctant Froude the duty of printing and publishing a series of documents which, for the most part, should never have been published at all, and which have done equal harm to Carlyle, to his wife, and to Froude himself.
Now that everything has been written that is likely to be written by those claiming to possess personal knowledge of the subject, let us take up the volumes, and likewise the scattered fragments, and seek to penetrate the mystery of the most ill-assorted couple known to modern literature.
It is not necessary to bring to light, and in regular order, the external history of Thomas Carlyle, or of Jane Baillie Welsh, who married him. There is an extraordinary amount of rather fanciful gossip about this marriage, and about the three persons who had to do with it.
Take first the principal figure, Thomas Carlyle. His life until that time had been a good deal more than the life of an ordinary country-man. Many persons represent him as a peasant; but he was descended from the ancient lords of a Scottish manor. There was something in his eye, and in the dominance of his nature, that made his lordly nature felt. Mr. Froude notes that Carlyle’s hand was very small and unusually well shaped. Nor had his earliest appearance as a young man been commonplace, in spite of the fact that his parents were illiterate, so that his mother learned to read only after her sons had gone away to Edinburgh, in order that she might be able to enjoy their letters.
At that time in Scotland, as in Puritan New England, in each family the son who had the most notable “pairts” was sent to the university that he might become a clergyman. If there were a second son, he became an advocate or a doctor of medicine, while the sons of less distinction seldom went beyond the parish school, but settled down as farmers, horse-dealers, or whatever might happen to come their way.
In the case of Thomas Carlyle, nature marked him out for something brilliant, whatever that might be. His quick sensibility, the way in which he acquired every sort of learning, his command of logic, and, withal, his swift, unerring gift of language, made it certain from the very first that he must be sent to the university as soon as he had finished school, and could afford to go.
At Edinburgh, where he matriculated in his fourteenth year, he astonished every one by the enormous extent of his reading, and by the firm hold he kept upon it. One hesitates to credit these so- called reminiscences which tell how he absorbed mountains of Greek and immense quantities of political economy and history and sociology and various forms of metaphysics, as every Scotsman is bound to do. That he read all night is a common story told of many a Scottish lad at college. We may believe, however, that Carlyle studied and read as most of his fellow students did, but far beyond them, in extent.
When he had completed about half of his divinity course, he assured himself that he was not intended for the life of a clergyman. One who reads his mocking sayings, or what seemed to be a clever string of jeers directed against religion, might well think that Carlyle was throughout his life an atheist, or an agnostic. He confessed to Irving that he did not believe in the Christian religion, and it was vain to hope that he ever would so believe.
Moreover, Carlyle had done something which was unusual at that time. He had taught in several local schools; but presently he came back to Edinburgh and openly made literature his profession. It was a daring thing to do; but Carlyle had unbounded confidence in himself–the confidence of a giant, striding forth into a forest, certain that he can make his way by sheer strength through the tangled meshes and the knotty branches that he knows will meet him and try to beat him back. Furthermore, he knew how to live on very little; he was unmarried; and he felt a certain ardor which beseemed his age and gifts.
Through the kindness of friends, he received some commissions to write in various books of reference; and in 1824, when he was twenty-nine years of age, he published a translation of Legendre’s Geometry. In the same year he published, in the London Magazine, his Life of Schiller, and also his translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. This successful attack upon the London periodicals and reviews led to a certain complication with the other two characters in this story. It takes us to Jane Welsh, and also to Edward Irving.
Irving was three years older than Carlyle. The two men were friends, and both of them had been teaching in country schools, where both of them had come to know Miss Welsh. Irving’s seniority gave him a certain prestige with the younger men, and naturally with Miss Welsh. He had won honors at the university, and now, as assistant to the famous Dr. Chalmers, he carried his silk robes in the jaunty fashion of one who has just ceased to be an undergraduate. While studying, he met Miss Welsh at Haddington, and there became her private instructor.
This girl was regarded in her native town as something of a personage. To read what has been written of her, one might suppose that she was almost a miracle of birth and breeding, and of intellect as well. As a matter of fact, in the little town of Haddington she was simply prima inter pares. Her father was the local doctor, and while she had a comfortable home, and doubtless a chaise at her disposal, she was very far from the “opulence” which Carlyle, looking up at her from his lowlier surroundings, was accustomed to ascribe to her. She was, no doubt, a very clever girl; and, judging from the portraits taken of her at about this time, she was an exceedingly pretty one, with beautiful eyes and an abundance of dark glossy hair.
Even then, however, Miss Welsh had traits which might have made it certain that she would be much more agreeable as a friend than as a wife. She had become an intellectuelle quite prematurely–at an age, in fact, when she might better have been thinking of other things than the inwardness of her soul, or the folly of religious belief.
Even as a young girl, she was beset by a desire to criticize and to ridicule almost everything and every one that she encountered. It was only when she met with something that she could not understand, or some one who could do what she could not, that she became comparatively humble. Unconsciously, her chief ambition was to be herself distinguished, and to marry some one who could be more distinguished still.
When she first met Edward Irving, she looked up to him as her superior in many ways. He was a striking figure in her small world. He was known in Edinburgh as likely to be a man of mark; and, of course, he had had a careful training in many subjects of which she, as yet, knew very little. Therefore, insensibly, she fell into a sort of admiration for Irving–an admiration which might have been transmuted into love. Irving, on his side, was taken by the young girl’s beauty, her vivacity, and the keenness of her intellect. That he did not at once become her suitor is probably due to the fact that he had already engaged himself to a Miss Martin, of whom not much is known.
It was about this time, however, that Carlyle became acquainted with Miss Welsh. His abundant knowledge, his original and striking manner of commenting on it, his almost gigantic intellectual power, came to her as a revelation. Her studies with Irving were now interwoven with her admiration for Carlyle.
Since Irving was a clergyman, and Miss Welsh had not the slightest belief in any form of theology, there was comparatively little that they had in common. On the other hand, when she saw the profundities of Carlyle, she at once half feared, and was half fascinated. Let her speak to him on any subject, and he would at once thunder forth some striking truth, or it might be some puzzling paradox; but what he said could never fail to interest her and to make her think. He had, too, an infinite sense of humor, often whimsical and shot through with sarcasm.
It is no wonder that Miss Welsh was more and more infatuated with the nature of Carlyle. If it was her conscious wish to marry a man whom she could reverence as a master, where should she find him– in Irving or in Carlyle?
Irving was a dreamer, a man who, she came to see, was thoroughly one-sided, and whose interests lay in a different sphere from hers. Carlyle, on the other hand, had already reached out beyond the little Scottish capital, and had made his mark in the great world of London, where men like De Quincey and Jeffrey thought it worth their while to run a tilt with him. Then, too, there was the fascination of his talk, in which Jane Welsh found a perpetual source of interest:
The English have never had an artist, except in poetry; no musician; no painter. Purcell and Hogarth are not exceptions, or only such as confirm the rule.
Is the true Scotchman the peasant and yeoman–chiefly the former?
Every living man is a visible mystery; he walks between two eternities and two infinitudes. Were we not blind as molea we should value our humanity at infinity, and our rank, influence and so forth–the trappings of our humanity–at nothing. Say I am a man, and you say all. Whether king or tinker is a mere appendix.
Understanding is to reason as the talent of a beaver–which can build houses, and uses its tail for a trowel–to the genius of a prophet and poet. Reason is all but extinct in this age; it can never be altogether extinguished.
The devil has his elect.
Is anything more wonderful than another, if you consider it maturely? I have seen no men rise from the dead; I have seen some thousands rise from nothing. I have not force to fly into the sun, but I have force to lift my hand, which is equally strange.
Is not every thought properly an inspiration? Or how is one thing more inspired than another?
Examine by logic the import of thy life, and of all lives. What is it? A making of meal into manure, and of manure into meal. To the cui bono there is no answer from logic.
In many ways Jane Welsh found the difference of range between Carlyle and Irving. At one time, she asked Irving about some German works, and he was obliged to send her to Carlyle to solve her difficulties. Carlyle knew German almost as well as if he had been born in Dresden; and the full and almost overflowing way in which he answered her gave her another impression of his potency. Thus she weighed the two men who might become her lovers, and little by little she came to think of Irving as partly shallow and partly narrow-minded, while Carlyle loomed up more of a giant than before.
It is not probable that she was a woman who could love profoundly. She thought too much about herself. She was too critical. She had too intense an ambition for “showing off.” I can imagine that in the end she made her choice quite coolly. She was flattered by Carlyle’s strong preference for her. She was perhaps repelled by Irving’s engagement to another woman; yet at the time few persons thought that she had chosen well.
Irving had now gone to London, and had become the pastor of the Caledonian chapel in Hatton Garden. Within a year, by the extraordinary power of his eloquence, which, was in a style peculiar to himself, he had transformed an obscure little chapel into one which was crowded by the rich and fashionable. His congregation built for him a handsome edifice on Regent Square, and he became the leader of a new cult, which looked to a second personal advent of Christ. He cared nothing for the charges of heresy which were brought against him; and when he was deposed his congregation followed him, and developed a new Christian order, known as Irvingism.
Jane Welsh, in her musings, might rightfully have compared the two men and the future which each could give her. Did she marry Irving, she was certain of a life of ease in London, and an association with men and women of fashion and celebrity, among whom she could show herself to be the gifted woman that she was. Did she marry Carlyle, she must go with him to a desolate, wind- beaten cottage, far away from any of the things she cared for, working almost as a housemaid, having no company save that of her husband, who was already a dyspeptic, and who was wont to speak of feeling as if a rat were tearing out his stomach.
Who would have said that in going with Carlyle she had made the better choice? Any one would have said it who knew the three– Irving, Carlyle, and Jane Welsh.
She had the penetration to be certain that whatever Irving might possess at present, it would be nothing in comparison to what Carlyle would have in the coming future. She understood the limitations of Irving, but to her keen mind the genius of Carlyle was unlimited; and she foresaw that, after he had toiled and striven, he would come into his great reward, which she would share. Irving might be the leader of a petty sect, but Carlyle would be a man whose name must become known throughout the world.
And so, in 1826, she had made her choice, and had become the bride of the rough-spoken, domineering Scotsman who had to face the world with nothing but his creative brain and his stubborn independence. She had put aside all immediate thought of London and its lures; she was going to cast in her lot with Carlyle’s, largely as a matter of calculation, and believing that she had made the better choice.
She was twenty-six and Carlyle was thirty-two when, after a brief residence in Edinburgh, they went down to Craigenputtock. Froude has described this place as the dreariest spot in the British dominions:
The nearest cottage is more than a mile from it; the elevation, seven hundred feet above the sea, stunts the trees and limits the garden produce; the house is gaunt and hungry-looking. It stands, with the scanty fields attached, as an island in a sea of morass. The landscape is unredeemed by grace or grandeur–mere undulating hills of grass and heather, with peat bogs in the hollows between them.
Froude’s grim description has been questioned by some; yet the actual pictures that have been drawn of the place in later years make it look bare, desolate, and uninviting. Mrs. Carlyle, who owned it as an inheritance from her father, saw the place for the first time in March, 1828. She settled there in May; but May, in the Scottish hills, is almost as repellent as winter. She herself shrank from the adventure which she had proposed. It was her husband’s notion, and her own, that they should live there in practical solitude. He was to think and write, and make for himself a beginning of real fame; while she was to hover over him and watch his minor comforts.
It seemed to many of their friends that the project was quixotic to a degree. Mrs. Carlyle delicate health, her weak chest, and the beginning of a nervous disorder, made them think that she was unfit to dwell in so wild and bleak a solitude. They felt, too, that Carlyle was too much absorbed with his own thought to be trusted with the charge of a high-spirited woman.
However, the decision had been made, and the newly married couple went to Craigenputtock, with wagons that carried their household goods and those of Carlyle’s brother, Alexander, who lived in a cottage near by. These were the two redeeming features of their lonely home–the presence of Alexander Carlyle, and the fact that, although they had no servants in the ordinary sense, there were several farmhands and a dairy-maid.
Before long there came a period of trouble, which is easily explained by what has been already said. Carlyle, thinking and writing some of the most beautiful things that he ever thought or wrote, could not make allowance for his wife’s high spirit and physical weakness. She, on her side–nervous, fitful, and hard to please–thought herself a slave, the servant of a harsh and brutal master. She screamed at him when her nerves were too unstrung; and then, with a natural reaction, she called herself “a devil who could never be good enough for him.” But most of her letters were harsh and filled with bitterness, and, no doubt, his conduct to her was at times no better than her own.
But it was at Craigenputtock that he really did lay fast and firm the road to fame. His wife’s sharp tongue, and the gnawings of his own dyspepsia, were lived down with true Scottish grimness. It was here that he wrote some of his most penetrating and sympathetic essays, which were published by the leading reviews of England and Scotland. Here, too, he began to teach his countrymen the value of German literature.
The most remarkable of his productions was that strange work entitled Sartor Resartus (1834), an extraordinary mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The book quivers and shakes with tragic pathos, with inward agonies, with solemn aspirations, and with riotous humor.
In 1834, after six years at Craigenputtock, the Carlyles moved to London, and took up their home in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, a far from fashionable retreat, but one in which the comforts of life could be more readily secured. It was there that Thomas Carlyle wrote what must seem to us the most vivid of all his books, the History of the French Revolution. For this he had read and thought for many years; parts of it he had written in essays, and parts of it he had jotted down in journals. But now it came forth, as some one has said, “a truth clad in hell-fire,” swirling amid clouds and flames and mist, a most wonderful picture of the accumulated social and political falsehoods which preceded the revolution, and which were swept away by a nemesis that was the righteous judgment of God.
Carlyle never wrote so great a book as this. He had reached his middle style, having passed the clarity of his early writings, and not having yet reached the thunderous, strange-mouthed German expletives which marred his later work. In the French Revolution he bursts forth, here and there, into furious Gallic oaths and Gargantuan epithets; yet this apocalypse of France seems more true than his hero-worshiping of old Frederick of Prussia, or even of English Cromwell.
All these days Thomas Carlyle lived a life which was partly one of seclusion and partly one of pleasure. At all times he and his dark-haired wife had their own sets, and mingled with their own friends. Jane had no means of discovering just whether she would have been happier with Irving; for Irving died while she was still digging potatoes and complaining of her lot at Craigenputtock.
However this may be, the Carlyles, man and wife, lived an existence that was full of unhappiness and rancor. Jane Carlyle became an invalid, and sought to allay her nervous sufferings with strong tea and tobacco and morphin. When a nervous woman takes to morphin, it almost always means that she becomes intensely jealous; and so it was with Jane Carlyle.
A shivering, palpitating, fiercely loyal bit of humanity, she took it into her head that her husband was infatuated with Lady Ashburton, or that Lady Ashburton was infatuated with him. She took to spying on them, and at times, when her nerves were all a jangle, she would lie back in her armchair and yell with paroxysms of anger. On the other hand, Carlyle, eager to enjoy the world, sought relief from his household cares, and sometimes stole away after a fashion that was hardly guileless. He would leave false addresses at his house, and would dine at other places than he had announced.
In 1866 Jane Carlyle suddenly died; and somehow, then, the conscience of Thomas Carlyle became convinced that he had wronged the woman whom he had really loved. His last fifteen years were spent in wretchedness and despair. He felt that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He recalled with anguish every moment of their early life at Craigenputtock–how she had toiled for him, and waited upon him, and made herself a slave; and how, later, she had given herself up entirely to him, while he had thoughtlessly received the sacrifice, and trampled on it as on a bed of flowers.
Of course, in all this he was intensely morbid, and the diary which he wrote was no more sane and wholesome than the screamings with which his wife had horrified her friends. But when he had grown to be a very old man, he came to feel that this was all a sort of penance, and that the selfishness of his past must be expiated in the future. Therefore, he gave his diary to his friend, the historian, Froude, and urged him to publish the letters and memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Mr. Froude, with an eye to the reading world, readily did so, furnishing them with abundant footnotes, which made Carlyle appear to the world as more or less of a monster.
First, there was set forth the almost continual unhappiness of the pair. In the second place, by hint, by innuendo, and sometimes by explicit statement, there were given reasons to show why Carlyle made his wife unhappy. Of course, his gnawing dyspepsia, which she strove with all her might to drive away, was one of the first and greatest causes. But again another cause of discontent was stated in the implication that Carlyle, in his bursts of temper, actually abused his wife. In one passage there is a hint that certain blue marks upon her arm were bruises, the result of blows.
Most remarkable of all these accusations is that which has to do with the relations of Carlyle and Lady Ashburton. There is no doubt that Jane Carlyle disliked this brilliant woman, and came to have dark suspicions concerning her. At first, it was only a sort of social jealousy. Lady Ashburton was quite as clever a talker as Mrs. Carlyle, and she had a prestige which brought her more admiration.
Then, by degrees, as Jane Carlyle’s mind began to wane, she transferred her jealousy to her husband himself. She hated to be out-shone, and now, in some misguided fashion, it came into her head that Carlyle had surrendered to Lady Ashburton his own attention to his wife, and had fallen in love with her brilliant rival.
On one occasion, she declared that Lady Ashburton had thrown herself at Carlyle’s feet, but that Carlyle had acted like a man of honor, while Lord Ashburton, knowing all the facts, had passed them over, and had retained his friendship with Carlyle.
Now, when Froude came to write My Relations with Carlyle, there were those who were very eager to furnish him with every sort of gossip. The greatest source of scandal upon which he drew was a woman named Geraldine Jewsbury, a curious neurotic creature, who had seen much of the late Mrs. Carlyle, but who had an almost morbid love of offensive tattle. Froude describes himself as a witness for six years, at Cheyne Row, “of the enactment of a tragedy as stern and real as the story of Oedipus.” According to his own account:
I stood by, consenting to the slow martyrdom of a woman whom I have described as bright and sparkling and tender, and I uttered no word of remonstrance. I saw her involved in a perpetual blizzard, and did nothing to shelter her.
But it is not upon his own observations that Froude relies for his most sinister evidence against his friend. To him comes Miss Jewsbury with a lengthy tale to tell. It is well to know what Mrs. Carlyle thought of this lady. She wrote:
It is her besetting sin, and her trade of novelist has aggravated it–the desire of feeling and producing violent emotions. … Geraldine has one besetting weakness; she is never happy unless she has a grande passion on hand.
There were strange manifestations on the part of Miss Jewsbury toward Mrs. Carlyle. At one time, when Mrs. Carlyle had shown some preference for another woman, it led to a wild outburst of what Miss Jewsbury herself called “tiger jealousy.” There are many other instances of violent emotions in her letters to Mrs. Carlyle. They are often highly charged and erotic. It is unusual for a woman of thirty-two to write to a woman friend, who is forty-three years of age, in these words, which Miss Jewsbury used in writing to Mrs. Carlyle:
You are never out of my thoughts one hour together. I think of you much more than if you were my lover. I cannot express my feelings, even to you–vague, undefined yearnings to be yours in some way.
Mrs. Carlyle was accustomed, in private, to speak of Miss Jewsbury as “Miss Gooseberry,” while Carlyle himself said that she was simply “a flimsy tatter of a creature.” But it is on the testimony of this one woman, who was so morbid and excitable, that the most serious accusations against Carlyle rest. She knew that Froude was writing a volume about Mrs. Carlyle, and she rushed to him, eager to furnish any narratives, however strange, improbable, or salacious they might be.
Thus she is the sponsor of the Ashburton story, in which there is nothing whatsoever. Some of the letters which Lady Ashburton wrote Carlyle have been destroyed, but not before her husband had perused them. Another set of letters had never been read by Lord Ashburton at all, and they are still preserved–friendly, harmless, usual letters. Lord Ashburton always invited Carlyle to his house, and there is no reason to think that the Scottish philosopher wronged him.
There is much more to be said about the charge that Mrs. Carlyle suffered from personal abuse; yet when we examine the facts, the evidence resolves itself into practically nothing. That, in his self-absorption, he allowed her to Sending Completed Page, Please Wait … overflowed toward a man who must have been a manly, loving lover. She calls him by the name by which he called her–a homely Scottish name.
GOODY, GOODY, DEAR GOODY:
You said you would weary, and I do hope in my heart you are wearying. It will be so sweet to make it all up to you in kisses when I return. You will take me and hear all my bits of experiences, and your heart will beat when you find how I have longed to return to you. Darling, dearest, loveliest, the Lord bless you! I think of you every hour, every moment. I love you and admire you, like–like anything. Oh, if I was there, I could put my arms so close about your neck, and hush you into the softest sleep you have had since I went away. Good night. Dream of me. I am ever YOUR OWN GOODY.
It seems most fitting to remember Thomas Carlyle as a man of strength, of honor, and of intellect; and his wife as one who was sorely tried, but who came out of her suffering into the arms of death, purified and calm and worthy to be remembered by her husband’s side.
THE STORY OF THE HUGOS
Victor Hugo, after all criticisms have been made, stands as a literary colossus. He had imaginative power which makes his finest passages fairly crash upon the reader’s brain like blasting thunderbolts. His novels, even when translated, are read and reread by people of every degree of education. There is something vast, something almost Titanic, about the grandeur and gorgeousness of his fancy. His prose resembles the sonorous blare of an immense military band. Readers of English care less for his poetry; yet in his verse one can find another phase of his intellect. He could write charmingly, in exquisite cadences, poems for lovers and for little children. His gifts were varied, and he knew thoroughly the life and thought of his own countrymen; and, therefore, in his later days he was almost deified by them.
At the same time, there were defects in his intellect and character which are perceptible in what he wrote, as well as in what he did. He had the Gallic wit in great measure, but he was absolutely devoid of any sense of humor. This is why, in both his prose and his poetry, his most tremendous pages often come perilously near to bombast; and this is why, again, as a man, his vanity was almost as great as his genius. He had good reason to be vain, and yet, if he had possessed a gleam of humor, he would never have allowed his egoism to make him arrogant. As it was, he felt himself exalted above other mortals. Whatever he did or said or wrote was right because he did it or said it or wrote it.
This often showed itself in rather whimsical ways. Thus, after he had published the first edition of his novel, The Man Who Laughs, an English gentleman called upon him, and, after some courteous compliments, suggested that in subsequent editions the name of an English peer who figures in the book should be changed from Tom Jim-Jack.
“For,” said the Englishman, “Tom Jim-Jack is a name that could not possibly belong to an English noble, or, indeed, to any Englishman. The presence of it in your powerful story makes it seem to English readers a little grotesque.”
Victor Hugo drew himself up with an air of high disdain.
“Who are you?” asked he.
“I am an Englishman,” was the answer, “and naturally I know what names are possible in English.”
Hugo drew himself up still higher, and on his face there was a smile of utter contempt.
“Yes,” said he. “You are an Englishman; but I–I am Victor Hugo.”
In another book Hugo had spoken of the Scottish bagpipes as “bugpipes.” This gave some offense to his Scottish admirers. A great many persons told him that the word was “bagpipes,” and not “bugpipes.” But he replied with irritable obstinacy:
“I am Victor Hugo; and if I choose to write it ‘bugpipes,’ it IS ‘bugpipes.’ It is anything that I prefer to make it. It is so, because I call it so!”
So, Victor Hugo became a violent republican, because he did not wish France to be an empire or a kingdom, in which an emperor or a king would be his superior in rank. He always spoke of Napoleon III as “M. Bonaparte.” He refused to call upon the gentle-mannered Emperor of Brazil, because he was an emperor; although Dom Pedro expressed an earnest desire to meet the poet.
When the German army was besieging Paris, Hugo proposed to fight a duel with the King of Prussia, and to have the result of it settle the war; “for,” said he, “the King of Prussia is a great king, but I am Victor Hugo, the great poet. We are, therefore, equal.”
In spite, however, of his ardent republicanism, he was very fond of speaking of his own noble descent. Again and again he styled himself “a peer of France;” and he and his family made frequent allusions to the knights and bishops and counselors of state with whom he claimed an ancestral relation. This was more than inconsistent. It was somewhat ludicrous; because Victor Hugo’s ancestry was by no means noble. The Hugos of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not in any way related to the poet’s family, which was eminently honest and respectable, but by no means one of distinction. His grandfather was a carpenter. One of his aunts was the wife of a baker, another of a barber, while the third earned her living as a provincial dressmaker.
If the poet had been less vain and more sincerely democratic, he would have been proud to think that he sprang from good, sound, sturdy stock, and would have laughed at titles. As it was, he jeered at all pretensions of rank in other men, while he claimed for himself distinctions that were not really his. His father was a soldier who rose from the ranks until, under Napoleon, he reached the grade of general. His mother was the daughter of a ship owner in Nantes.
Victor Hugo was born in February, 1802, during the Napoleonic wars, and his early years were spent among the camps and within the sound of the cannon-thunder. It was fitting that he should have been born and reared in an age of upheaval, revolt, and battle. He was essentially the laureate of revolt; and in some of his novels–as in Ninety-Three–the drum and the trumpet roll and ring through every chapter.
The present paper has, of course, nothing to do with Hugo’s public life; yet it is necessary to remember the complicated nature of the man–all his power, all his sweetness of disposition, and likewise all his vanity and his eccentricities. We must remember, also, that he was French, so that his story may be interpreted in the light of the French character.
At the age of fifteen he was domiciled in Paris, and though still a schoolboy and destined for the study of law, he dreamed only of poetry and of literature. He received honorable mention from the French Academy in 1817, and in the following year took prizes in a poetical competition. At seventeen he began the publication of a literary journal, which survived until 1821. His astonishing energy became evident in the many publications which he put forth in these boyish days. He began to become known. Although poetry, then as now, was not very profitable even when it was admired, one of his slender volumes brought him the sum of seven hundred francs, which seemed to him not only a fortune in itself, but the forerunner of still greater prosperity.
It was at this time, while still only twenty years of age, that he met a young girl of eighteen with whom he fell rather tempestuously in love. Her name was Adele Foucher, and she was the daughter of a clerk in the War Office. When one is very young and also a poet, it takes very little to feed the flame of passion. Victor Hugo was often a guest at the apartments of M. Foucher, where he was received by that gentleman and his family. French etiquette, of course, forbade any direct communication between the visitor and Adele. She was still a very young girl, and was supposed to take no share in the conversation. Therefore, while the others talked, she sat demurely by the fireside and sewed.
Her dark eyes and abundant hair, her grace of manner, and the picture which she made as the firelight played about her, kindled a flame in the susceptible heart of Victor Hugo. Though he could not speak to her, he at least could look at her; and, before long, his share in the conversation was very slight. This was set down, at first, to his absent-mindedness; but looks can be as eloquent as spoken words. Mme. Foucher, with a woman’s keen intelligence, noted the adoring gaze of Victor Hugo as he silently watched her daughter. The young Adele herself was no less intuitive than her mother. It was very well understood, in the course of a few months, that Victor Hugo was in love with Adele Foucher.
Her father and mother took counsel about the matter, and Hugo himself, in a burst of lyrical eloquence, confessed that he adored Adele and wished to marry her. Her parents naturally objected. The girl was but a child. She had no dowry, nor had Victor Hugo any settled income. They were not to think of marriage. But when did a common-sense decision, such as this, ever separate a man and a woman who have felt the thrill of first love! Victor Hugo was insistent. With his supreme self-confidence, he declared that he was bound to be successful, and that in a very short time he would be illustrious. Adele, on her side, created “an atmosphere” at home by weeping frequently, and by going about with hollow eyes and wistful looks.
The Foucher family removed from Paris to a country town. Victor Hugo immediately followed them. Fortunately for him, his poems had attracted the attention of Louis XVIII, who was flattered by some of the verses. He sent Hugo five hundred francs for an ode, and soon afterward settled upon him a pension of a thousand francs. Here at least was an income–a very small one, to be sure, but still an income. Perhaps Adele’s father was impressed not so much by the actual money as by the evidence of the royal favor. At any rate, he withdrew his opposition, and the two young people were married in October, 1822–both of them being under age, unformed, and immature.
Their story is another warning against too early marriage. It is true that they lived together until Mme. Hugo’s death–a married life of forty-six years–yet their story presents phases which would have made this impossible had they not been French.
For a time, Hugo devoted all his energies to work. The record of his steady upward progress is a part of the history of literature, and need not be repeated here. The poet and his wife were soon able to leave the latter’s family abode, and to set up their own household god in a home which was their own. Around them there were gathered, in a sort of salon, all the best-known writers of the day–dramatists, critics, poets, and romancers. The Hugos knew everybody.
Unfortunately, one of their visitors cast into their new life a drop of corroding bitterness. This intruder was Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a man two years younger than Victor Hugo, and one who blended learning, imagination, and a gift of critical analysis. Sainte-Beuve is to-day best remembered as a critic, and he was perhaps the greatest critic ever known in France. But in 1830 he was a slender, insinuating youth who cultivated a gift for sensuous and somewhat morbid poetry.
He had won Victor Hugo’s friendship by writing an enthusiastic notice of Hugo’s dramatic works. Hugo, in turn, styled Sainte- Beuve “an eagle,” “a blazing star,” and paid him other compliments no less gorgeous and Hugoesque. But in truth, if Sainte-Beuve frequented the Hugo salon, it was less because of his admiration for the poet than from his desire to win the love of the poet’s wife.
It is quite impossible to say how far he attracted the serious attention of Adele Hugo. Sainte-Beuve represents a curious type, which is far more common in France and Italy than in the countries of the north. Human nature is not very different in cultivated circles anywhere. Man loves, and seeks to win the object of his love; or, as the old English proverb has it:
It’s a man’s part to try,
And a woman’s to deny.
But only in the Latin countries do men who have tried make their attempts public, and seek to produce an impression that they have been successful, and that the woman has not denied. This sort of man, in English-speaking lands, is set down simply as a cad, and is excluded from people’s houses; but in some other countries the thing is regarded with a certain amount of toleration. We see it in the two books written respectively by Alfred de Musset and George Sand. We have seen it still later in our own times, in that strange and half-repulsive story in which the Italian novelist and poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio, under a very thin disguise, revealed his relations with the famous actress, Eleanora Duse. Anglo-Saxons thrust such books aside with a feeling of disgust for the man who could so betray a sacred confidence and perhaps exaggerate a simple indiscretion into actual guilt. But it is not so in France and Italy. And this is precisely what Sainte-Beuve attempted.
Dr. George McLean Harper, in his lately published study of Sainte- Beuve, has summed the matter up admirably, in speaking of The Book of Love:
He had the vein of emotional self-disclosure, the vein of romantic or sentimental confession. This last was not a rich lode, and so he was at pains to charge it secretly with ore which he exhumed gloatingly, but which was really base metal. The impulse that led him along this false route was partly ambition, partly sensuality. Many a worse man would have been restrained by self-respect and good taste. And no man with a sense of honor would have permitted The Book of Love to see the light–a small collection of verses recording his passion for Mme. Hugo, and designed to implicate her.
He left two hundred and five printed copies of this book to be distributed after his death. A virulent enemy of Sainte-Beuve was not too expressive when he declared that its purpose was “to leave on the life of this woman the gleaming and slimy trace which the passage of a snail leaves on a rose.” Abominable in either case, whether or not the implication was unfounded, Sainte-Beuve’s numerous innuendoes in regard to Mme. Hugo are an indelible stain on his memory, and his infamy not only cost him his most precious friendships, but crippled him in every high endeavor.
How monstrous was this violation of both friendship and love may be seen in the following quotation from his writings:
In that inevitable hour, when the gloomy tempest and the jealous gulf shall roll over our heads, a sealed bottle, belched forth from the abyss, will render immortal our two names, their close alliance, and our double memory aspiring after union.
Whether or not Mme. Hugo’s relations with Sainte-Beuve justified the latter even in thinking such thoughts as these, one need not inquire too minutely. Evidently, though, Victor Hugo could no longer be the friend of the man who almost openly boasted that he had dishonored him. There exist some sharp letters which passed between Hugo and Sainte-Beuve. Their intimacy was ended.
But there was something more serious than this. Sainte-Beuve had in fact succeeded in leaving a taint upon the name of Victor Hugo’s wife. That Hugo did not repudiate her makes it fairly plain that she was innocent; yet a high-spirited, sensitive soul like Hugo’s could never forget that in the world’s eye she was compromised. The two still lived together as before; but now the poet felt himself released from the strict obligations of the marriage-bond.
It may perhaps be doubted whether he would in any case have remained faithful all his life. He was, as Mr. H.W. Wack well says, “a man of powerful sensations, physically as well as mentally. Hugo pursued every opportunity for new work, new sensations, fresh emotion. He desired to absorb as much on life’s eager forward way as his great nature craved. His range in all things–mental, physical, and spiritual–was so far beyond the ordinary that the gage of average cannot be applied to him. The cavil of the moralist did not disturb him.”
Hence, it is not improbable that Victor Hugo might have broken through the bonds of marital fidelity, even had Sainte-Beuve never written his abnormal poems; but certainly these poems hastened a result which may or may not have been otherwise inevitable. Hugo no longer turned wholly to the dark-haired, dark-eyed Adele as summing up for him the whole of womanhood. A veil was drawn, as it were, from before his eyes, and he looked on other women and found them beautiful.
It was in 1833, soon after Hugo’s play “Lucrece Borgia” had been accepted for production, that a lady called one morning at Hugo’s house in the Place Royale. She was then between twenty and thirty years of age, slight of figure, winsome in her bearing, and one who knew the arts which appeal to men. For she was no inexperienced ingenue. The name upon her visiting-card was “Mme. Drouet”; and by this name she had been known in Paris as a clever and somewhat gifted actress. Theophile Gautier, whose cult was the worship of physical beauty, wrote in almost lyric prose of her seductive charm.
At nineteen, after she had been cast upon the world, dowered with that terrible combination, poverty and beauty, she had lived openly with a sculptor named Pradier. This has a certain importance in the history of French art. Pradier had received a commission to execute a statue representing Strasburg–the statue which stands to-day in the Place de la Concorde, and which patriotic Frenchmen and Frenchwomen drape in mourning and half bury in immortelles, in memory of that city of Alsace which so long was French, but which to-day is German–one of Germany’s great prizes taken in the war of 1870.
Five years before her meeting with Hugo, Pradier had rather brutally severed his connection with her, and she had accepted the protection of a Russian nobleman. At this time she was known by her real name–Julienne Josephine Gauvin; but having gone upon the stage, she assumed the appellation by which she was thereafter known, that of Juliette Drouet.
Her visit to Hugo was for the purpose of asking him to secure for her a part in his forth-coming play. The dramatist was willing, but unfortunately all the major characters had been provided for, and he was able to offer her only the minor one of the Princesse Negroni. The charming deference with which she accepted the offered part attracted Hugo’s attention. Such amiability is very rare in actresses who have had engagements at the best theaters. He resolved to see her again; and he did so, time after time, until he was thoroughly captivated by her.
She knew her value, and as yet was by no means infatuated with him. At first he was to her simply a means of getting on in her profession–simply another influential acquaintance. Yet she brought to bear upon him the arts at her command, her beauty and her sympathy, and, last of all, her passionate abandonment.
Hugo was overwhelmed by her. He found that she was in debt, and he managed to see that her debts were paid. He secured her other engagements at the theater, though she was less successful as an actress after she knew him. There came, for a time, a short break in their relations; for, partly out of need, she returned to her Russian nobleman, or at least admitted him to a menage a trois. Hugo underwent for a second time a great disillusionment. Nevertheless, he was not too proud to return to her and to beg her not to be unfaithful any more. Touched by his tears, and perhaps foreseeing his future fame, she gave her promise, and she kept it until her death, nearly half a century later.
Perhaps because she had deceived him once, Hugo never completely lost his prudence in his association with her. He was by no means lavish with money, and he installed her in a rather simple apartment only a short distance from his own home. He gave her an allowance that was relatively small, though later he provided for her amply in his will. But it was to her that he brought all his confidences, to her he entrusted all his interests. She became to him, thenceforth, much more than she appeared to the world at large; for she was his friend, and, as he said, his inspiration.
The fact of their intimate connection became gradually known through Paris. It was known even to Mme. Hugo; but she, remembering the affair of Sainte-Beuve, or knowing how difficult it is to check the will of a man like Hugo, made no sign, and even received Juliette Drouet in her own house and visited her in turn. When the poet’s sons grew up to manhood, they, too, spent many hours with their father in the little salon of the former actress. It was a strange and, to an Anglo-Saxon mind, an almost impossible position; yet France forgives much to genius, and in time no one thought of commenting on Hugo’s manner of life.
In 1851, when Napoleon III seized upon the government, and when Hugo was in danger of arrest, she assisted him to escape in disguise, and with a forged passport, across the Belgian frontier. During his long exile in Guernsey she lived in the same close relationship to him and to his family. Mme. Hugo died in 1868, having known for thirty-three years that she was only second in her husband’s thoughts. Was she doing penance, or was she merely accepting the inevitable? In any case, her position was most pathetic, though she uttered no complaint.
A very curious and poignant picture of her just before her death has been given by the pen of a visitor in Guernsey. He had met Hugo and his sons; he had seen the great novelist eating enormous slices of roast beef and drinking great goblets of red wine at dinner, and he had also watched him early each morning, divested of all his clothing and splashing about in a bath-tub on the top of his house, in view of all the town. One evening he called and found only Mme. Hugo. She was reclining on a couch, and was evidently suffering great pain. Surprised, he asked where were her husband and her sons.
“Oh,” she replied, “they’ve all gone to Mme. Drouet’s to spend the evening and enjoy themselves. Go also; you’ll not find it amusing here.”
One ponders over this sad scene with conflicting thoughts. Was there really any truth in the story at which Sainte-Beuve more than hinted? If so, Adele Hugo was more than punished. The other woman had sinned far more; and yet she had never been Hugo’s wife; and hence perhaps it was right that she should suffer less. Suffer she did; for after her devotion to Hugo had become sincere and deep, he betrayed her confidence by an intrigue with a girl who is spoken of as “Claire.” The knowledge of it caused her infinite anguish, but it all came to an end; and she lived past her eightieth year, long after the death of Mme. Hugo. She died only a short time before the poet himself was laid to rest in Paris with magnificent obsequies which an emperor might have envied. In her old age, Juliette Drouet became very white and very wan; yet she never quite lost the charm with which, as a girl, she had won the heart of Hugo.
The story has many aspects. One may see in it a retribution, or one may see in it only the cruelty of life. Perhaps it is best regarded simply as a chapter in the strange life-histories of men of genius.
THE STORY OF GEORGE SAND
To the student of feminine psychology there is no more curious and complex problem than the one that meets us in the life of the gifted French writer best known to the world as George Sand.
To analyze this woman simply as a writer would in itself be a long, difficult task. She wrote voluminously, with a fluid rather than a fluent pen. She scandalized her contemporaries by her theories, and by the way in which she applied them in her novels. Her fiction made her, in the history of French literature, second only to Victor Hugo. She might even challenge Hugo, because where he depicts strange and monstrous figures, exaggerated beyond the limits of actual life, George Sand portrays living men and women, whose instincts and desires she understands, and whom she makes us see precisely as if we were admitted to their intimacy.
But George Sand puzzles us most by peculiarities which it is difficult for us to reconcile. She seemed to have no sense of chastity whatever; yet, on the other hand, she was not grossly sensual. She possessed the maternal instinct to a high degree, and liked better to be a mother than a mistress to the men whose love she sought. For she did seek men’s love, frankly and shamelessly, only to tire of it. In many cases she seems to have been swayed by vanity, and by a love of conquest, rather than by passion. She had also a spiritual, imaginative side to her nature, and she could be a far better comrade than anything more intimate.
The name given to this strange genius at birth was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. The circumstances of her ancestry and birth were quite unusual. Her father was a lieutenant in the French army. His grandmother had been the natural daughter of Marshal Saxe, who was himself the illegitimate son of Augustus the Strong of Poland and of the bewitching Countess of Konigsmarck. This was a curious pedigree. It meant strength of character, eroticism, stubbornness, imagination, courage, and recklessness.
Her father complicated the matter by marrying suddenly a Parisian of the lower classes, a bird-fancier named Sophie Delaborde. His daughter, who was born in 1804, used afterward to boast that on one side she was sprung from kings and nobles, while on the other she was a daughter of the people, able, therefore, to understand the sentiments of the aristocracy and of the children of the soil, or even of the gutter.
She was fond of telling, also, of the omen which attended on her birth. Her father and mother were at a country dance in the house of a fellow officer of Dupin’s. Suddenly Mme. Dupin left the room. Nothing was thought of this, and the dance went on. In less than an hour, Dupin was called aside and told that his wife had just given birth to a child. It was the child’s aunt who brought the news, with the joyous comment:
“She will be lucky, for she was born among the roses and to the sound of music.”
This was at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Lieutenant Dupin was on the staff of Prince Murat, and little Aurore, as she was called, at the age of three accompanied the army, as did her mother. The child was adopted by one of those hard-fighting, veteran regiments. The rough old sergeants nursed her and petted her. Even the prince took notice of her; and to please him she wore the green uniform of a hussar.
But all this soon passed, and she was presently sent to live with her grandmother at the estate now intimately associated with her name–Nohant, in the valley of the Indre, in the midst of a rich country, a love for which she then drank in so deeply that nothing in her later life could lessen it. She was always the friend of the peasant and of the country-folk in general.
At Nohant she was given over to her grand-mother, to be reared in a strangely desultory sort of fashion, doing and reading and studying those things which could best develop her native gifts. Her father had great influence over her, teaching her a thousand things without seeming to teach her anything. Of him George Sand herself has written:
Character is a matter of heredity. If any one desires to know me, he must know my father.
Her father, however, was killed by a fall from a horse; and then the child grew up almost without any formal education. A tutor, who also managed the estate; believed with Rousseau that the young should be reared according to their own preferences. Therefore, Aurore read poems and childish stories; she gained a smattering of Latin, and she was devoted to music and the elements of natural science. For the rest of the time she rambled with the country children, learned their games, and became a sort of leader in everything they did.
Her only sorrow was the fact that her mother was excluded from Nohant. The aristocratic old grandmother would not allow under her roof her son’s low-born wife; but she was devoted to her little grandchild. The girl showed a wonderful degree of sensibility.
This life was adapted to her nature. She fed her imagination in a perfectly healthy fashion; and, living so much out of doors, she acquired that sound physique which she retained all through her life.
When she was thirteen, her grandmother sent the girl to a convent school in Paris. One might suppose that the sudden change from the open woods and fields to the primness of a religious home would have been a great shock to her, and that with her disposition she might have broken out into wild ways that would have shocked the nuns. But, here, as elsewhere, she showed her wonderful adaptability. It even seemed as if she were likely to become what the French call a devote. She gave herself up to mythical thoughts, and expressed a desire of taking the veil. Her confessor, however, was a keen student of human nature, and he perceived that she was too young to decide upon the renunciation of earthly things. Moreover, her grandmother, who had no intention that Aurore should become a nun, hastened to Paris and carried her back to Nohant.
The girl was now sixteen, and her complicated nature began to make itself apparent. There was no one to control her, because her grandmother was confined to her own room. And so Aurore Dupin, now in superb health, rushed into every sort of diversion with all the zest of youth. She read voraciously–religion, poetry, philosophy. She was an excellent musician, playing the piano and the harp. Once, in a spirit of unconscious egotism, she wrote to her confessor:
Do you think that my philosophical studies are compatible with Christian humility?
The shrewd ecclesiastic answered, with a touch of wholesome irony:
I doubt, my daughter, whether your philosophical studies are profound enough to warrant intellectual pride.
This stung the girl, and led her to think a little less of her own abilities; but perhaps it made her books distasteful to her. For a while she seems to have almost forgotten her sex. She began to dress as a boy, and took to smoking large quantities of tobacco. Her natural brother, who was an officer in the army, came down to Nohant and taught her to ride–to ride like a boy, seated astride. She went about without any chaperon, and flirted with the young men of the neighborhood. The prim manners of the place made her subject to a certain amount of scandal, and the village priest chided her in language that was far from tactful. In return she refused any longer to attend his church.
Thus she was living when her grandmother died, in 1821, leaving to Aurore her entire fortune of five hundred thousand francs. As the girl was still but seventeen, she was placed under the guardianship of the nearest relative on her father’s side–a gentleman of rank. When the will was read, Aurore’s mother made a violent protest, and caused a most unpleasant scene.