Maria Edgeworth, by Helen Zimmern

Chapter xi.

Visits Abroad and at Home.

Life at Edgeworthstown underwent no outward change owing to the death of its master. His place was taken by his eldest and unmarried son, Lovell, who sought to the best of his abilities to keep the house a home for his father’s widow and his numerous brothers and sisters, an endeavor in which he was successful. Miss Edgeworth describes herself at this time as “quite absorbed in low domestic interests, of which only those who love home and love us can possibly bear to hear.”

For some years after her father’s death all she did was done as an effort, and more from a high sense of duty and from the thought that it would have pleased him who was gone, than from any inner desire to act. When the family after a short absence reassembled at Edgeworthstown, it required all her inherited activity of mind, all her acquired self-command, to enable her to keep up her spirits on reëntering that house in which for her the light was quenched. It was well for her not only that work was the purpose in life of all that family, that no drones were suffered in that household, but that her work had been planned for her by her father, and that in settling down to it she was obeying his commands.

It had been not only his darling wish, but his dying injunction, that she should complete the memoir of his life which he had begun and abandoned ten years previously. Why Mr. Edgeworth had written his life is not made clear, even by the preface, in which he attempts to explain the reasons that impelled him. The real reason was probably the excessive importance he attached to himself and his actions. It had always been his intention that Miss Edgeworth should revise and complete this memoir; but when he was dying he emphatically enjoined that it should be published without any change. This complicated her task, which she felt a heavy one. Excepting a few passages, he had never shown what he had written even to his own family; and when he was urged by them to continue it, he used to say he “would leave the rest to be finished by his daughter Maria.” Almost before her eyes were recovered she set to work upon her pious duty. Her anxiety lest she should not do justice to the theme weighed upon her so greatly that she could hardly speak of the memoirs even to her most intimate friends. It is reflected in the touchingly helpless preface she prefixed to the second volume:—

Till now I have never on any occasion addressed myself to the public alone, and speaking in the first person. This egotism is not only repugnant to my habits, but most painful and melancholy. Formerly I had always a friend and father who spoke and wrote for me; one who exerted for me all the powers of his strong mind, even to the very last. Far more than his protecting kindness I regret, at this moment, the want of his guiding judgment now, when it is most important to me — where his fame is at stake.

To save her eyesight her sisters assisted her in copying or in writing from her dictation; but even so she was forced to use her own vision, and while busy with the memoirs she allowed herself little of what was now her greatest relaxation, writing letters to her friends:—

We are looking to the bright side of every object that remains to us, and many blessings we have still. I am now correcting what I had written of my father’s life, and shall be for some months, so shall not write any letters of such length as this.

Bear up and struggle as she would, bitterly and painfully she missed the always kind and ready adviser, the sympathetic intellectual companion, who had stood by her side till now and aided her in every difficult task. She felt like “drifting over an unknown sea without chart or compass.” Nor were her spirits or those of the family raised by outward events. Wet seasons had induced famine and typhus fever, and the tenants were suffering from disease and distress. Then, too, the family had their own private anxieties in the illness of William, Lovell and Fanny. They were all more or less delicate; most of them had inherited consumptive tendencies, and many months rarely passed without Miss Edgeworth having to record cases of sickness in those about her. These illnesses always absorbed her whole attention, called forth all her kindliness and unselfishness. She was ever the ready, willing nurse, the writer of bulletins to those away, the cheerer of long, sad hours of suffering. They were weary months, those early ones of 1818, and only in her affections did she find comfort. She writes:—

I was always fond of being loved, but of late I am become more sensible of the soothing power of affectionate expressions. Indeed, I have reason, although much has been taken from me, to be heartily grateful for all I have left of excellent friends, and for much, much unexpected kindness which has been shown to me and mine, not only by persons unconnected by any natural ties with me or them, but from mere acquaintance become friends.

In June she was able to announce: “I am now within two months’ work of finishing all I mean to write; but the work of revision and consideration — O! most anxious consideration.” She was still desirous of having the opinion of friends, and more especially she desired the opinion of M. Dumont. Hearing he was to stay with Lord Lansdowne, at Bowood, she yielded to the importunities of these friends and went there to meet him, taking with her her sister Honora. She was soon able to tell Mrs. Edgeworth that Dumont “has been very much pleased with my father’s manuscript; he has read a good deal and likes it. He hates Mr. Day in spite of all his good qualities; he says he knows he could not bear that sort of man, who has such pride and misanthropies about trifles, raising a great theory of morals upon an amour propre blessé.”

The change of scene was clearly beneficial to her. Once more her letters were filled with the anecdotes, the interesting talk she hears, accounts of which she knows will give pleasure to those at home. To give pleasure to others was always the one thought uppermost in her mind. “I am a vile correspondent when I have nothing to say; but at least I do write in some sort of way when I know I have something to say that will give pleasure to my friends.” The whole character of the woman is revealed in these simple words. Among the good stories she tells from Bowood is one concerning Madame de Staël:—

Madame de Staël — I tumble anecdotes together as I recollect them — Madame de Staël had a great wish to see Mr. Bowles, the poet, or as Lord Byron calls him, the sonneteer; she admired his sonnets and his Spirit of Maritime Discovery, and ranked him high as an English genius. In riding to Bowood he fell and sprained his shoulder, but still came on. Lord Lansdowne alluded to this in presenting him to Madame de Staël, before dinner, in the midst of the listening circle. She began to compliment him and herself upon the exertion he had made to come and see her. “O, ma’am, say no more, for I would have done a great deal more to see so great a curiosity!” Lord Lansdowne says it is impossible to describe the shock in Madame de Staël’s face — the breathless astonishment and the total change produced in her opinion of the man. She said afterwards to Lord Lansdowne, who had told her he was a simple country clergyman, “Je vois bien que ce n’est qu’un simple curé qui n’a pas le sens commun quoique grand poëte!

From Bowood Miss Edgeworth paid some other visits, seeing many old friends, and among them Mrs. Barbauld and the Misses Baillie:—

Joanna Baillie and her sister, most kind, cordial and warm-hearted, came running down their little flagged walk to welcome us. Both Joanna and her sister have such agreeable and new conversation — not old trumpery literature over again, and reviews, but new circumstances worth telling apropos to every subject that is touched upon; frank observations on character without either ill nature or the fear of committing themselves; no blue-stocking tittle-tattle or habits of worshipping or being worshipped; domestic, affectionate, good to live with and without fussing, continually doing what is most obliging and whatever makes us feel most at home. Breakfast is very pleasant in this house, the two good sisters look so neat and cheerful.

Although she had met with much encouraging criticism in the matter of her father’s life, she still hesitated to publish. “The result of all I see, think and feel,” she tells her stepmother, “is that we should be in no haste.” Down to the very business arrangements the book weighed on her. She had hitherto left all such details to her father; and her kind friend Johnson being also dead, she felt yet more undecided how to act. At every moment, in every detail of her life, she missed her father; but she was too brave a woman not to struggle with her grief, or not to adapt herself to altered conditions. Her eyes still caused her much trouble, and for nearly two years she was obliged to give them almost entire rest.

But for her patience and fortitude in following the doctor’s injunctions, it seems possible she might have entirely lost her sight. As it was, a complete recovery took place; and though at times her eyes were weak, she was able to the end of her life to read, write and work with ease. At the end of the year 1819 she is able gleefully to tell her cousin that she must now make up for lost time and read.

“Now that I have eyes to read again, I find it delightful, and I have a voracious appetite and a relish for food; good, bad and indifferent, I am afraid, like a half-famished, shipwrecked wretch.”

She read all the new literature of the day, and eagerly inquired among all her friends what they commended. Byron’s Don Juan had caused much talk, but this did not attract her:—

After what you have told me, and after all I hear from every good judge of Don Juan, I never desire to see it. The only regret I feel upon the subject is that any pearls should be found, as I am told they may be found, in this intellectual dung-hill. How can the public allow this drunken, flagitious actor to appear before them, disgracing genius and the taste of his country? In Scott’s last tales there are all the signs of a master mind, but now and then all the spasms in the stomach, for which I pity him. I am glad he is going to try some new scheme, for he has, I think, exhausted every variety of Scotch character.

It was not till early in 1820 that the memoirs of Mr. Edgeworth were completed. Having arranged that they should appear at Easter, Miss Edgeworth resolved to carry out a long-cherished plan, that of visiting Paris in company with her two young sisters, Fanny and Harriet. At one time it seemed as if political events were too unsettled to make this project advisable, on which account she asked her good friend, Dr. Holland, of Knutsford, to propose some other plans. Very significant is the remark she makes: “Observe that Fanny and I both prefer society, good society, even to fine landscapes or even to volcanoes.” Finally Paris was pronounced safe, and they set out thither. It was on this occasion, when crossing to Holyhead, that she made her first acquaintance with a steamboat. She disliked what she called the “jigging motion,” which, she said, was like the shake felt in a carriage when a pig is scratching himself behind the hind wheel while waiting at an Irish inn door. Her letters to her stepmother and sisters during this trip are frequent and detailed. At Paris they stayed some months, establishing themselves domestically in apartments in the Place du Palais Bourbon. “Madame Maria Edgeworth et Mademoiselles ses soeurs” ran their visiting-cards, which were soon left at the best Parisian houses. Many new friends were added to those they had previously made, and under the changed régime the connection of Miss Edgeworth with the Abbé Edgeworth became a passport to the homes of the old nobility. The circumstance that Miss Edgeworth was a most accomplished French scholar, speaking the language with as much ease as if it were her own, enabled her thoroughly to enter into and enjoy the society that was offered her. Her knowledge of French classic literature charmed her hosts and brought out all their best powers of conversation. Her ready sympathy and real interest won their hearts and induced many of them to tell her the sad stories of their adventures in the revolutionary days. But her intercourse was not confined to the aristocracy. Her hereditary taste for science brought her in contact with most of the distinguished scientific men of France, while literary society was, of course, thrown open to her. She noticed a great alteration in manners since their last visit:—

I should observe that a great change has taken place: the men huddle together now in France as they used to do in England, talking politics with their backs to the women in a corner, or even in the middle of the room, without minding them in the least, and the ladies complain and look very disconsolate, and many ask “If this be Paris?” and others scream Ultra nonsense or Liberal nonsense to make themselves of consequence and to attract the attention of the gentlemen. In 1803, under the First Consul’s reign, when all freedom of discussion on public affairs was dangerous, and when all parties were glad to forget the horrors of the revolutionary days, conversation was limited to literary or scientific subjects, and was therefore much more agreeable to foreigners; now in 1820 the verb politiquer, to talk politics, had been invented.

As a foreigner Miss Edgeworth was enabled to visit at the houses of all factions, and she found much entertainment in hearing their opinions and diametrically opposite views. The Emigrants spoke of the Liberals with the bitterest detestation as revolutionary monsters; the Liberals spoke of the Ultras as bigoted idiots. One of these said of a lady celebrated in 1803 as a brilliant talker: “Autrefois elle avait de l’esprit, mais elle est devenue Ultra, dévote et bête.” While not sympathizing with the insolence of either party, Miss Edgeworth extracted some diversion and yet more moral reflection from all she saw. Writing to Dr. Holland after she had been an observer for some time, she says:—

Upon the whole, after comparing the society in Paris and London, I far prefer the London society, and feel a much stronger desire to return to London than ever to revisit Paris. There is scarcely any new literature or any taste for old literature in Paris. In London the production of a single article in the Edinboro’ or Quarterly Review, the lustre, however evanescent, it casts on the reviewer or the author, is a proof of the importance of literature in fashionable society. No such thing in Paris. Even the Parisian men of science, many of them equal, some superior to ours, are obliged or think themselves obliged to turn statesmen, and sorry statesmen they make. Everything in Parisian society is, as it were, tainted by politics, and the politicians themselves seem to be mere actors. I could forgive all their violence and the noise they make, screaming always all at a time, if they were really actuated by patriotism, but it seemed all for effect. A few exceptions, of course, to prove the rule.

The more she saw of Parisian life, the more convinced she felt that the French required, if not a despot, at least an absolute monarch to reign over them. A brilliant and ready talker, Miss Edgeworth was also an able listener, and hence her society was much sought after, while the beauty, intelligence and excellent dressing of her sisters caused them also to be regarded as acquisitions in days when the Continent was not swamped with tourists, as it is now, and natives were therefore able to open their doors. A galaxy of brilliant and historical names pass across the pages of Miss Edgeworth’s letters, and many a reminiscence she has preserved of them. Her accounts of the various parties to which they went are so vivacious and graphic that those for whom they were written must have felt as if they had been present too, and had listened to all the talk in which science, politics, literature and nonsense were mixed in happy proportions. Here is an account of an evening at Cuvier’s:—

Prony, with his hair nearly in my plate, was telling me most entertaining anecdotes of Bonaparte; and Cuvier, with his head nearly meeting him, talking as hard as he could, not striving to show learning or wit — quite the contrary; frank, open-hearted genius, delighted to be together at home and at ease. This was the most flattering and agreeable thing to me that could possibly be. Harriet was on the off side, and every now and then he turned to her in the midst of his anecdotes and made her so completely one of us; and there was such a prodigious noise, nobody could hear but ourselves. Both Cuvier and Prony agreed that Bonaparte never could bear to have any but a decided answer. “One day,” said Cuvier, “I nearly ruined myself by considering before I answered. He asked me, ‘Faut il introduire le sucre de bettetrave en France?’ ‘D’abord, Sire, il faut songer si vos colonies’—‘Faut il avoir le sucre de bettetrave en France?’ ‘Mais, Sire, il faut examiner’—‘Bah! je le demanderai à Berthollet.’” This despotic, laconic mode of insisting on learning everything in two words had its inconveniences. One day he asked the master of the woods at Fontainebleau, “How many acres of wood here?” The master, an honest man, stopped to recollect. “Bah!” and the under-master came forward and said any number that came into his head. Bonaparte immediately took the mastership from the first and gave it to the second. “Qu’arrivait il?” continued Prony; “the rogue who gave the guess answer was soon found cutting down and selling quantities of the trees, and Bonaparte had to take the rangership from him and reinstate the honest hesitator.”

Many of her good stories had to be cut short or omitted for lack of time to tell them. “I find always that when I come to the end of my paper I have not told you half the entertaining things I had treasured up for you,” she tells her stepmother. As in London, they lived in a constant whirl of gaiety. But Miss Edgeworth never forgot others amid the distinctions paid to herself. She was constantly thinking either what would please those left behind or what kind act she could do for those around her; and if it were nothing more than helping other English visitors to gain a glimpse of French society, she set herself with all ardor to accomplish it:—

Next to the delight of seeing my sisters so justly appreciated and so happy at Paris, my greatest pleasure has been in the power of introducing people to each other, who longed to meet, but could not contrive it before.

Social success did not turn her head:—

Certainly no people can have seen more of the world than we have done in the last three months. By seeing the world I mean seeing varieties of characters and manners, and being behind the scenes of life in many different societies and families. The constant chorus of our moral as we drive home together at night is, “How happy we are to be so fond of each other! How happy we are to be independent of all we see here! How happy that we have our dear home to return to at last!”

Her sisters told on their return how readily Miss Edgeworth would quit the company of the greatest people of the day, to superintend their dress or arrange some pleasure for them. “We often wondered,” they said, “what her admirers would say, after all the profound remarks and brilliant witticisms they had listened to, if they heard all her delightful nonsense with us.”

The sisters’ gay life continued without intermission, only varied now and then by visits to French country houses. Among the most agreeable people they met Miss Edgeworth numbered some Russians and Poles. At the house of the Princess Potemkin she first made wondering acquaintance with, what is now fortunately a matter of course, the more refined mode of serving dinner known as à la Russe. She met, too, Prince Rostopchin, the man who burned Moscow by first setting fire to his own house:—

I never saw a more striking Calmuck countenance. From his conversation as well as from his actions I should think him a man of great strength of character. Speaking of the Russians, he compared their civilization to a naked man looking at himself in a gilt-framed mirror, and he told an anecdote that illustrated the perfunctory method of government. The Governor of Siberia lived at Petersburg and never went near his Government. One day the Emperor, in presence of this Governor and Rostopchin, was boasting of his far-sightedness. “Commend me,” said Rostopchin, “to M. le Gouverneur, who sees so well from Petersburg to Siberia.”

At a breakfast at Camille Jordain’s were assembled three of the most distinguished of the party who called themselves Les Doctrinaires, and alleged that they were more attached to measures than to men:—

These three doctrinaires were Casimir Perier, Royer Collard and Benjamin Constant, who is, I believe, of a more violent party. I do not like him at all; his countenance, voice, manner and conversation are all disagreeable to me. He is a fair, “whithky” looking man, very near-sighted, with spectacles which seemed to pinch his nose. He pokes out his chin to keep his spectacles on, and yet looks over the top of his spectacles, squinching up his eyes, so that you cannot see your way into his mind. Then he speaks through his nose and with a lisp, strangely contrasting with the vehemence of his emphasis. He does not give me any confidence in the sincerity of his patriotism, nor any high idea of his talents, though he seems to have a mighty high idea of them himself. He has been well called Le Héros des Brochures. We sat beside one another, and I think felt a mutual antipathy. On the other side of me was Royer Collard, suffering with toothache and swelled face; but notwithstanding the distortion of the swelling, the natural expression of his countenance and the strength and sincerity of his soul made their way, and the frankness of his character and plain superiority of his talents were manifest in five minutes’ conversation.

In June Miss Edgeworth and her sisters left Paris for a tour in Switzerland, visiting their friends the Moilliets, who lived at Pregny, near Geneva. Their house, which had formerly belonged to Josephine, commanded a superb view of the lake and of Mont Blanc. It was a surprise to Miss Edgeworth to find how much she was impressed with the beauty of the scenery about her:—

I did not conceive it possible that I should feel so much pleasure from the beauties of nature as I have done since I came to this country. The first moment when I saw Mont Blanc will remain an era in my life — a new idea, a new feeling, standing alone in the mind.

Geneva was at that time enjoying what has been termed its Augustan age. An unusual number of distinguished persons resided there, and it was besides largely resorted to by eminent men and women from all lands, most of whom Miss Edgeworth met at the house of her host. Besides, Monsieur Pictet and Monsieur Dumont, these old, faithful friends, were also domiciled at Geneva, and strove to do the honors of the place. Among temporary residents were such men and women as Dr. and Mrs. Marcet, Arago, De Candolle, the botanist, Freiherr von Stein, Madame Necker de Saussure, and Sismondi. They also met Bonstetten, the poet Gray’s youthful friend, then an old man, who spoke with enthusiasm of Madame de Staël.

This mixture of persons from all parts of the world gave a piquancy to the reunions that were held at Geneva. Sometimes the guests met in the evening at a house in town, sometimes at breakfast in the different country villas in all the freshness of the sweet Swiss morning, sometimes by moonlight on lawns sloping down to the lake; when they would sit under trees or stroll about, while tea and ices and the famous varieties of Geneva cakes were handed round. It was at one of these evening assemblies that Miss Edgeworth, while talking to De Candolle in her most brilliant strain, attracted a crowd five deep.

Several short excursions into the lower Alpine regions were made from Geneva by the sisters and their friends; but though Miss Edgeworth enjoyed the beauties of nature beyond her expectations, she yet, as before in her letters, mentions persons and matters of intellectual interest more frequently than scenery. It was a keen gratification to her that M. Dumont spoke well of the now published memoirs. She cared more for this than for the many compliments that were paid to herself, only a few of which she modestly records, and then only because she knows they will please the dear ones at home. At Coppet the party breakfasted with M. de Staël, who showed them all the rooms once inhabited by his mother, which Miss Edgeworth “could not regard as common rooms; they have a classical power over the mind.” M. de Staël told her —

That his mother never gave any work to the public in the form in which she had originally composed it. She changed the arrangement and expression of her thoughts with such facility, and was so little attached to her own first views of the subject, that often a work was completely remodeled by her while passing through the press. Her father disliked to see her make any formal preparation for writing when she was young, so that she used to write often on the corner of the chimney-piece or on a pasteboard held in her hand, and always in the room with others, for her father could not bear her to be out of the room, and this habit of writing without preparation she preserved ever afterwards.

M. de Staël told me of a curious interview he had with Bonaparte when he was enraged with his mother, who had published remarks on his government, concluding with “Eh bien! vous avez raison aussi. Je conçois qu’un fils doit toujours faire la defense de sa mère, mais enfin, si monsieur veut écrire des libelles, il faut aller en Angleterre. Ou bien s’il cherche la gloire c’est en Angleterre qu’il faut aller. C’est l’Angleterre, ou la France — il n’y a que ces deux pays en Europe — dans le monde.

During her absence abroad Miss Edgeworth had revised the manuscript of the latter portion of Rosamond and sent it home to press. At the eleventh hour her publisher discovered that there was not enough material to complete two volumes, and urged her to supply more copy without delay. “I was a little provoked,” she writes on first hearing the news, “but this feeling lasted but a moment, and my mind fixed on what is to be done. It is by no means necessary for me to be at home or in any particular place to invent or to write.” Instantly she set to work, and in the midst of all social attractions and distractions around her she wrote the two additional chapters called The Bracelet of Memory and Blind Kate.

Late in October the Misses Edgeworth left Switzerland for Paris, visiting Lyons on their way. The town had a special interest for Miss Edgeworth because of her father’s early residence there. By the end of October they were once more settled at Paris in a floor to themselves, with a valet de place and a femme de chambre. Another gay three months followed, seeing old friends and making new ones:—

We have seen Mademoiselle Mars twice, or thrice rather, in the Mariage de Figaro, and in the little pieces of Le jaloux sans amour and La jeunesse de Henri Cinq, and admire her exceedingly. En petit comité the other night at the Duchesse d’Escars, a discussion took place between the Duchesse de la Force, Marmont and Pozzo di Borgo on the bon et mauvais ton of different expressions; bonne société is an expression bourgeoise. You may say bonne compagnie or la haute société. “Violà des nuances,” as Madame d’Escars said. Such a wonderful jabbering as these grandees made about these small matters! It puts me in mind of a conversation in the World on good company, which we all used to admire.

In December the travellers were back again in London, but several more visits were paid before they returned to Ireland. Thus they halted at Clifton to see Miss Edgeworth’s sister Emmeline, who was married there, and stayed at Bowood, Easton Grey, Badminton and various other houses, in all of which they met with a warm welcome. Beloved Aunt Ruxton, too, had to be seen on the way home. It was March before the sisters reached Edgeworthstown, after not quite a year’s absence; a year that seemed to Miss Edgeworth like a delightful dream, full of Alps and glaciers and cascades and Mont Blanc, and “troops of acquaintances in splendid succession and visionary confusion”— a dream of which the sober certainty of happiness remained, assuring her that all that had passed had been no dream, but a reality.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/edgeworth/maria/zimmern/chapter11.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37