In the south aisle of Westminster Abbey stands a monument erected to the memory of Lady Grace Gethin.1 A statue of her ladyship represents her kneeling, holding a book in her hand. This accomplished lady was considered as a prodigy in her day, and appears to have created a feeling of enthusiasm for her character. She died early, having scarcely attained to womanhood, although a wife; for “all this goodness and all this excellence was bounded within the compass of twenty years.”
But it is her book commemorated in marble, and not her character, which may have merited the marble that chronicles it, which has excited my curiosity and my suspicion. After her death a number of loose papers were found in her handwriting, which could not fail to attract, and, perhaps, astonish their readers, with the maturity of thought and the vast capacity which had composed them. These reliques of genius were collected together, methodised under heads, and appeared with the title of “Reliquiæ Gethinianæ; or some remains of Grace Lady Gethin, lately deceased: being a collection of choice discourses, pleasant apothegms, and witty sentences; written by her for the most part by way of essay, and at spare hours; published by her nearest relations, to preserve her memory. Second edition, 1700.”
Of this book, considering that comparatively it is modern, and the copy before me is called a second edition, it is somewhat extraordinary that it seems always to have been a very scarce one. Even Ballard, in his Memoirs of Learned Ladies (1750), mentions that these remains “are very difficult to be procured;” and Sir William Musgrave in a manuscript note observed, that “this book was very scarce.” It bears now a high price. A hint is given in the preface that the work was chiefly printed for the use of her friends; yet, by a second edition, we must infer that the public at large were so. There is a poem prefixed with the signature W.C. which no one will hesitate to pronounce is by Congreve; he wrote indeed another poem to celebrate this astonishing book, for, considered as the production of a young lady, it is a miraculous, rather than a human, production. The last lines in this poem we might expect from Congreve in his happier vein, who contrives to preserve his panegyric amidst that caustic wit, with which he keenly touched the age.
I that hate books, such as come daily out
By public license to the reading rout,
A due religion yet observe to this;
And here assert, if any thing’s amiss,
It can be only the compiler’s fault,
Who has ill-drest the charming author’s thought —
That was all right: her beauteous looks were join’d
To a no less admired excelling mind.
But, oh! this glory of frail Nature’s dead,
As I shall be that write, and you that read.2
Once, to be out of fashion, I’ll conclude
With something that may tend to public good;
I wish that piety, for which in heaven
The fair is placed — to the lawn sleeves were given:
Her justice — to the knot of men, whose care
From the raised millions is to take their share.
The book claimed all the praise the finest genius could bestow on it. But let us hear the editor. — He tells us, that “It is a vast disadvantage to authors to publish their private undigested thoughts, and first notions hastily set down, and designed only as materials for a future structure.” And he adds, “That the work may not come short of that great and just expectation which the world had of her whilst she was alive, and still has of everything that is the genuine product of her pen, they must be told that this was written for the most part in haste, were her first conceptions and overflowings of her luxuriant fancy, noted with her pencil at spare hours, or as she was dressing, as her Πἁρεργον only; and set down just as they came into her mind.“
All this will serve as a memorable example of the cant and mendacity of an editor! and that total absence of critical judgment that could assert such matured reflection, in so exquisite a style, could ever have been “first conceptions, just as they came into the mind of Lady Gethin, as she was dressing.”
The truth is, that Lady Gethin may have had little concern in all these “Reliquiæ Gethinianæ.” They indeed might well have delighted their readers; but those who had read Lord Bacon’s Essays, and other writers, such as Owen Feltham and Osborne, from whom these relics are chiefly extracted, might have wondered that Bacon should have been so little known to the families of the Nortons and the Gethins, to whom her ladyship was allied; to Congreve and to the editor; and still more particularly to subsequent compilers, as Ballard in his Memoirs, and lately the Rev. Mark Noble in his Continuation of Granger; who both, with all the innocence of Criticism, give specimens of these “Relics,” without a suspicion that they were transcribing literally from Lord Bacon’s Essays! Unquestionably Lady Gethin herself intended no imposture; her mind had all the delicacy of her sex; she noted much from the books she seems most to have delighted in; and nothing less than the most undiscerning friends could have imagined that everything written by the hand of this young lady was her “first conceptions;” and apologise for some of the finest thoughts, in the most vigorous style which the English language can produce. It seems, however, to prove that Lord Bacon’s Essays were not much read at the time this volume appeared.
The marble book in Westminster Abbey must, therefore, lose most of its leaves; but it was necessary to discover the origin of this miraculous production of a young lady. What is Lady Gethin’s, or what is not hers, in this miscellany of plagiarisms, it is not material to examine. Those passages in which her ladyship speaks in her own person probably are of original growth; of this kind many evince great vivacity of thought, drawn from actual observation on what was passing around her; but even among these are intermixed the splendid passages of Bacon and other writers.
I shall not crowd my pages with specimens of a very suspicious author. One of her subjects has attracted my attention; for it shows the corrupt manners of persons of fashion who lived between 1680 and 1700. To find a mind so pure and elevated as Lady Gethin’s unquestionably was, discussing whether it were most advisable to have for a husband a general lover, or one attached to a mistress, and deciding by the force of reasoning in favour of the dissipated man (for a woman, it seems, had only the alternative), evinces a public depravation of morals. These manners were the wretched remains of the court of Charles the Second, when Wycherley, Dryden, and Congreve seem to have written with much less invention, in their indecent plots and language, than is imagined.
I know not which is worse, to be wife to a man that is continually changing his loves, or to an husband that hath but one mistress whom he loves with a constant passion. And if you keep some measure of civility to her, he will at least esteem you; but he of the roving humour plays an hundred frolics that divert the town and perplex his wife. She often meets with her husband’s mistress, and is at a loss how to carry herself towards her. ’Tis true the constant man is ready to sacrifice, every moment, his whole family to his love; he hates any place where she is not, is prodigal in what concerns his love, covetous in other respects; expects you should be blind to all he doth, and though you can’t but see, yet must not dare to complain. And though both, he who lends his heart to whosoever pleases it, and he that gives it entirely to one, do both of them require the exactest devoir from their wives, yet I know not if it be not better to be wife to an inconstant husband (provided he be something discreet), than to a constant fellow who is always perplexing her with his inconstant humour. For the unconstant lovers are commonly the best humoured; but let them be what they will, women ought not to be unfaithful for Virtue’s sake and their own, nor to offend by example. It is one of the best bonds of charity and obedience in the wife if she think her husband wise, which she will never do if she find him jealous.
“Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.”
The last degrading sentence is found alas! in the Moral Essays of Bacon. Lady Gethin, with an intellect superior to that of the women of that day, had no conception of the dignity of the female character, the claims of virtue, and the duties of honour. A wife was only to know obedience and silence: however, she hints that such a husband should not be jealous! There was a sweetness in revenge reserved for some of these married women.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07