The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf

Reflections at Sheffield Place *

* Written in May 1937.

The great ponds at Sheffield Place at the right season of the year are bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other. But there, in an opening among the trees stands a great fantastic house, and since it was there that John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, lived, since it was there that Gibbon stayed, another reflection imposes itself upon the water trance. Did the historian himself ever pause here to cast a phrase, and if so what words would he have found for those same floating flowers? Great lord of language as he was, no doubt he filled his mind from the fountain of natural beauty. The exactions of the DECLINE AND FALL meant, of course, the death and dismissal of many words deserving of immortal life. Order and seemliness were drastically imposed. It was a question, he reflected, “whether some flowers of fancy, some grateful errors, have not been eradicated with the weeds of prejudice.” Still his mind was a whispering gallery of words; the famous “barefooted friars” singing vespers may have been a recollection of Marlowe’s “And ducke as low as any bare-foot Fryar,” murmuring in the background. Be this as it may, to consider what Gibbon would have said had he seen the rhododendrons reflected in the water is an idle exercise, for in his day, late in the eighteenth century, a girl who looked out of the window of Sheffield Place saw not rhododendrons “but four young swans . . . now entirely grey” floating upon the water. Moreover, it is unlikely that he ever bestirred himself to walk in the grounds. “Gib,” that same girl, Maria Josepha Holroyd, remarked, “is a mortal enemy to any person taking a walk, and he is so frigid that he makes us sit by a good roasting Christmas fire every evening.” There he sat in the summer evening talking endlessly, delightfully, in the best of spirits, for no place was more like home to him than Sheffield Place, and he looked upon the Holroyds as his own flesh and blood.

Seen through Maria’s eyes Gibbon — she called him sometimes “Gib,” sometimes “le grand Gibbon,” sometimes “The Historian”— looked different from Gibbon seen by himself. In 1792 she was a girl of twenty-one; he was a man of fifty-five. To him she was “the tall and blooming Maria”; “the soft and stately Maria,” a niece by adoption, whose manners he could correct; whose future he could forecast —“That establishment must be splendid; that life must be happy”; whose style, especially one metaphor about the Rhine escaping its banks, he could approve. But to her he was often an object of ridicule; he was so fat; such a figure of fun “waddling across the room whenever she [Madame da Silva] appeared, and sitting by her and looking at her, till his round eyes run down with water”; rather testy too, an old bachelor, who lived like clockwork and hated to have his plans upset; but at the same time, she had to admit, the most delightful of talkers. That summer night he drew out the two young men who were staying in the house, Fred North and Mr. Douglas, and made them far more entertaining than they would have been without him. “It was impossible to have selected three Beaux who could have been more agreeable, whether their conversation was trifling or serious,” whether they talked about Greek and Latin or turtle soup. For that summer Mr. Gibbon was “raving” about turtles and wanted Lord Sheffield to have one brought from London. Maria’s gaze rested upon him with a mixture of amusement and respect; but it did not rest upon him alone. For not only were Fred North and Mr. Douglas in the room, and the swans on the pond outside and the woods; but soldiers were tramping past the Park gates; the Prince himself was holding a review; they were going over to inspect the camp; Mr. Gibbon and Aunt Serena in the post chaise; she, if only her father would let her, on horseback. But the sight of her father suggested other cares; he was wildly hospitable; he had asked the Prince and the Duke to stay; and as her mother was dead, all the catering, all the entertaining fell upon her. There was too something in her father’s face that made her look at Mr. Gibbon as if for support; he was the only man who could influence her father; who could bring him to reason; who could check his extravagance, restrain . . . But here she paused, for there was some weakness in her father’s character that could not be put into plain language by a daughter. At any rate she was very glad when he married a second time “for I feel delighted to think when sooner or later troubles come, as we who know the gentleman must fear . . . ” Whatever frailty of her father’s she hinted at, Mr. Gibbon was the only one of his friends whose good sense could restrain him.

The relation between the Peer and the Historian was very singular. They were devoted. But what tie was it that attached the downright, self-confident, perhaps loose-living man of the world to the suave, erudite sedentary historian? — the attraction of opposites perhaps. Sheffield, with his finger in every pie, his outright, downright man of-the-world’s good sense, supplied the historian with what he must sometimes have needed — someone to call him “you damned beast,” someone to give him a solid footing on English earth. In Parliament Gibbon was dumb; in love he was ineffective. But his friend Holroyd was a member of a dozen committees; before one wife was two years in the grave he had married another. If it is true that friends are chosen partly in order to live lives that we cannot live in our own persons, then we can understand why the Peer and the Historian were devoted; why the great writer divested himself of his purple language and wrote racy colloquial English to Sheffield; why Sheffield curbed his extravagance and restrained his passions in deference to Gibbon; why Gibbon crossed Europe, in a post chaise to console Sheffield for his wife’s death; and why Sheffield, though always busied with a thousand affairs of his own, yet found time to manage Gibbon’s tangled money matters; and was now indeed engaged in arranging the business of Aunt Hester’s legacy.

Considering Hester Gibbon’s low opinion of her nephew and her own convictions it was surprising that she had left him any thing at all. To her Gibbon stood for all those lusts of the flesh, all those vanities of the intellect which many years previously she had renounced. Many years ago, many years before the summer night when they sat round the fire in the Library and discussed Latin and Greek and turtle soup, Hester Gibbon had put all such vanities behind her. She had left Putney and the paternal house to follow her brother’s tutor William Law to his home in Northamptonshire. There in the village of King’s Cliffe she lived with him trying to understand his mystic philosophy, more successfully putting it into practice; teaching the ignorant; living frugally; feeding beggars, spending her substance on charity. There at last, for she made no haste to join the Saints as her nephew observed, at the age of eighty-six she lay by Law’s side in his grave; while Mrs. Hutcheson, who had shared his house but not his love, lay in an inferior position at their feet. Every difference that could divide two human beings seems to have divided the aunt from the nephew; and yet they had something in common. The suburban world of Putney had called her mad because she believed too much; the learned world of divinity had called him wicked because he believed too little. Both aunt and nephew found it impossible to hit off the exact degree of scepticism and belief which the world holds reasonable. And this very difference perhaps had not been without its effect upon the nephew. When he was a young man practising the graces which were to conciliate the world he adored, his eccentric aunt had roused his ridicule. “Her dress and figure exceed anything we had at the masquerade; her language and ideas belong to the last century,” he wrote. In fact, though his urbanity never deserted him in writing to her — he was her heir-at-law we are reminded — his comments to others upon the Saint, the Holy Matron of Northamptonshire, as he called her, were of an acutely ironical kind; nor did he fail to note maliciously those little frailties — her anger when Mrs. Hutcheson forgot her in her will; her reprehensible desire to borrow from a nephew whom she refused to meet — which were to him so marked a feature of the saintly temper, so frequent an accompaniment of a mind clouded by enthusiasm. As Maria Holroyd observed, and others have observed after her, the great historian had a round mouth but an extremely pointed tongue; and — who knows? — it may have been Aunt Hester herself who first sharpened that weapon. Edward’s father, for instance, may have talked about William Law, his tutor — an admirable man of course; far too great a man, to have been the tutor of a scatter-brained spendthrift like himself; still William Law had made himself very comfortable at the Gibbon’s house in Putney, had filled it with his own friends; had allowed Hester to fall passionately in love with him, but had never married her, since marriage was against his creed — had only accepted her devotion and her income, conduct which in another might have been condemned — so he may have gossiped. From very early days at any rate Edward must have had a private view of the eccentricities of the unworldly, of the inconsistencies of the devout. At last, however, Aunt Hester, as her nephew irreverently remarked, had “gone to sing Hallelujahs.” She lay with William Law in the grave, after a life of what ecstasies, of what tortures, of what jealousies, of what safisfactions who can say? The only fact that was certain was that she had left one hundred pounds and an estate at Newhaven to her “poor though unbelieving nephew.” “She might have done better, she might have done worse,” he observed. And by an odd coincidence her land lay not far from the Holroyd property; Lord Sheffield was eager to buy it. He could easily pay for it, he was sure, by cutting down some of the timber.

If then we accept Aunt Hester’s view, Gibbon was a worldling, wallowing in the vanities of the flesh, scoffing at the holiness of the faith. But his other aunt, his mother’s sister, took a very different view of him. To his Aunt Kitty he had been ever since he was a babe a source of acute anxiety — he was so weakly; and of intense pride — he was such a prodigy. His mother was one of those flyaway women who make great use of their unmarried sisters, since they are frequently in childbed themselves and have an appetite for pleasure when they can escape the cares of the nursery. She died, moreover, in her prime; and Kitty of course took charge of the only survivor of all those cradles, nursed him, petted him, and was the first to inspire him with that love of pagan literature which was to bring the glitter of minarets and the flash of eastern pageantry so splendidly into his sometimes too pale and pompous prose. It was Aunt Kitty who, with a prodigality that would have scandalized Aunt Hester, flung open the door of that enchanted world — the world of THE CAVERN OF THE WINDS, of the PALACE OF FELICITY, of Pope’s HOMER, and of the ARABIAN NIGHTS in which Edward was to roam for ever. “Where a title attracted my eye, without fear or awe I snatched the volume from the shelf; and Mrs. Porten, who indulged herself in moral and religious speculations, was more prone to encourage. than to check a curiosity above the strength of a boy.” And it was she who first loosened his lips. “Her indulgent tenderness, the frankness of her temper, and my innate rising curiosity, soon removed all distance between us; like friends of an equal age, we freely conversed on every topic, familiar or abstruse.” It was she who began the conversation which was still continuing in front of the fire in the library that summer night.

What would have happened if the child had fallen into the hands of his other aunt and her companion? Should we have had the DECLINE AND FALL if they had controlled his reading and checked his curiosity, as William Law checked all reading and condemned all curiosity? It is an interesting question. But the effect on the man of his two incompatible aunts developed a conflict in his nature. Aunt Hester, from whom he expected a fortune, encouraged, it would seem from his letters, a streak of hypocrisy, a vein of smooth and calculating conventionality. He sneered to Sheffield at her religion; when she died he hailed her departure with a flippant joke. Aunt Kitty on the other hand brought out a strain of piety, of filial devotion. When she died he wrote, as if it were she and not the Saint who made him think kindly for a moment of Christianity, “The immortality of the soul is on some occasions a very comfortable doctrine.” And it was she certainly who made him bethink him when she was asked to stay at Sheffield Place, that “Aunt Kitty has a secret wish to lye in my room; if it is not occupied, it might be indulged.” So while Aunt Hester lay with William Law in the grave, Aunt Kitty hoisted herself into the great four-poster with the help of the stool which the little man always used, and lay there, seeing the very cupboards and chairs that her nephew saw when he slept there, and the pond perhaps and the trees out of the window. The great historian, whose gaze swept far horizons and surveyed the processions of the Roman Emperors, could also fix them minutely upon a rather tedious old lady and guess her fancy to sleep in a certain bed. He was a strange mixture.

Very strange, Maria may have thought as she sat there listening to his talk while she stitched: selfish yet tender; ridiculous but sublime. Perhaps human nature was like that — by no means all of a piece; different at different moments; changing, as the furniture changed in the firelight, as the waters of the lake changed when the night wind swept over them. But it was time for bed; the party broke up. Mr. Gibbon, she noted with concern, for she was genuinely fond of him, had some difficulty in climbing the stairs. He was unwell; a slight operation for an old complaint was necessary, and he left them with regret to go to town. The operation was over; the news was good; they hoped that he would soon be with them again. Then suddenly between five and six of a January evening an express arrived at Sheffield Place to say that he was dangerously ill. Lord Sheffield and his sister Serena started immediately for London. It was fine, luckily, and the moon was up. “The night was light as day,” Serena wrote to Maria. “The beauty of it was solemn and almost melancholy with our train of ideas, but it seemed to calm our minds.” They reached Gibbon’s lodging at midnight and “poor Dussot came to the door the picture of despair to tell me HE was no more. . . . ” He had died that morning; he was already laid in the shell of his coffin. A few days later they brought him back to Sheffield Place; carried him through the Park, past the ponds, and laid him under a crimson cloth among the Holroyds in the Mausoleum.

As for the “soft and stately Maria” she survived to the year 1863; and her granddaughter Kate, the mother of Bertrand Russell, marvelled that an old woman of that age should mind dying — an old woman who had lived through the French Revolution, who had entertained Gibbon at Sheffield Place.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 11:53