Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

A Literary Wife.

Marriage is such a rabble rout;

That those that are out, would fain get in;

And those that are in, would fain get out.


Having examined some literary blunders, we will now proceed to the subject of a literary wife, which may happen to prove one. A learned lady is to the taste of few. It is however matter of surprise, that several literary men should have felt such a want of taste in respect to “their soul’s far dearer part,” as Hector calls his Andromache. The wives of many men of letters have been dissolute, ill-humoured, slatternly, and have run into all the frivolities of the age. The wife of the learned Budæus was of a different character.

How delightful is it when the mind of the female is so happily disposed, and so richly cultivated, as to participate in the literary avocations of her husband! It is then truly that the intercourse of the sexes becomes the most refined pleasure. What delight, for instance, must the great Budæus have tasted, even in those works which must have been for others a most dreadful labour! His wife left him nothing to desire. The frequent companion of his studies, she brought him the books he required to his desk; she collated passages, and transcribed quotations; the same genius, the same inclination, and the same ardour for literature, eminently appeared in those two fortunate persons. Far from withdrawing her husband from his studies, she was sedulous to animate him when he languished. Ever at his side, and ever assiduous; ever with some useful book in her hand, she acknowledged herself to be a most happy woman. Yet she did not neglect the education of eleven children. She and Budæus shared in the mutual cares they owed their progeny. Budæus was not insensible of his singular felicity. In one of his letters, he represents himself as married to two ladies; one of whom gave him boys and girls, the other was Philosophy, who produced books. He says that in his twelve first years, Philosophy had been less fruitful than marriage; he had produced less books than children; he had laboured more corporally than intellectually; but he hoped to make more books than men. “The soul (says he) will be productive in its turn; it will rise on the ruins of the body; a prolific virtue is not given at the same time to the bodily organs and the pen.”

The lady of Evelyn designed herself the frontispiece to his translation of Lucretius. She felt the same passion in her own breast which animated her husband’s, who has written, with such various ingenuity. Of Baron Haller it is recorded that he inspired his wife and family with a taste for his different pursuits. They were usually employed in assisting his literary occupations; they transcribed manuscripts, consulted authors, gathered plants, and designed and coloured under his eye. What a delightful family picture has the younger Pliny given posterity in his letters! Of Calphurnia, his wife, he says, “Her affection to me has given her a turn to books; and my compositions, which she takes a pleasure in reading, and even getting by heart, are continually in her hands. How full of tender solicitude is she when I am entering upon any cause! How kindly does she rejoice with me when it is over! While I am pleading, she places persons to inform her from time to time how I am heard, what applauses I receive, and what success attends the cause. When at any time I recite my works, she conceals herself behind some curtain, and with secret rapture enjoys my praises. She sings my verses to her lyre, with no other master but love, the best instructor, for her guide. Her passion will increase with our days, for it is not my youth nor my person, which time gradually impairs, but my reputation and my glory, of which, she is enamoured.”

On the subject of a literary wife, I must introduce to the acquaintance of the reader Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. She is known, at least by her name, as a voluminous writer; for she extended her literary productions to the number of twelve folio volumes.

Her labours have been ridiculed by some wits; but had her studies been regulated, she would have displayed no ordinary genius. The Connoisseur has quoted her poems, and her verses have been imitated by Milton.

The duke, her husband, was also an author; his book on horsemanship still preserves his name. He has likewise written comedies, and his contemporaries have not been, penurious in their eulogiums. It is true he was a duke. Shadwell says of him, “That he was the greatest master of wit, the most exact observer of mankind, and the most accurate judge of humour that ever he knew.” The life of the duke is written “by the hand of his incomparable duchess.” It was published in his lifetime. This curious piece of biography is a folio of 197 pages, and is entitled “The Life of the Thrice Noble, High, and Puissant Prince, William Cavendish.” His titles then follow:—“Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle, his wife. London, 1667.” This Life is dedicated to Charles the Second; and there is also prefixed a copious epistle to her husband the duke.

In this epistle the character of our Literary Wife is described with all its peculiarities.

“Certainly, my lord, you have had as many enemies and as many friends as ever any one particular person had; nor do I so much wonder at it, since I, a woman, cannot be exempt from the malice and aspersions of spiteful tongues, which they cast upon my poor writings, some denying me to be the true authoress of them; for your grace remembers well, that those books I put out first to the judgment of this censorious age were accounted not to be written by a woman, but that somebody else had writ and published them in my name; by which your lordship was moved to prefix an epistle before one of them in my vindication, wherein you assure the world, upon your honour, that what was written and printed in my name was my own; and I have also made known that your lordship was my only tutor, in declaring to me what you had found and observed by your own experience; for I being young when your lordship married me, could not have much knowledge of the world; but it pleased God to command his servant Nature to endue me with a poetical and philosophical genius, even from my birth; for I did write some books in that kind before I was twelve years of age, which for want of good method and order I would never divulge. But though the world would not believe that those conceptions and fancies which I writ were my own, but transcended my capacity, yet they found fault, that they were defective for want of learning, and on the other side, they said I had pluckt feathers out of the universities; which was a very preposterous judgment. Truly, my lord, I confess that for want of scholarship, I could not express myself so well as otherwise I might have done in those philosophical writings I published first; but after I was returned with your lordship into my native country, and led a retired country life, I applied myself to the reading of philosophical authors, on purpose to learn those names and words of art that are used in schools; which at first were so hard to me, that I could not understand them, but was fain to guess at the sense of them by the whole context, and so writ them down, as I found them in those authors; at which my readers did wonder, and thought it impossible that a woman could have so much learning and understanding in terms of art and scholastical expressions; so that I and my books are like the old apologue mentioned in Æsop, of a father and his son who rid on an ass.” Here follows a long narrative of this fable, which she applies to herself in these words —“The old man seeing he could not please mankind in any manner, and having received so many blemishes and aspersions for the sake of his ass, was at last resolved to drown him when he came to the next bridge. But I am not so passionate to burn my writings for the various humours of mankind, and for their finding fault; since there is nothing in this world, be it the noblest and most commendable action whatsoever, that shall escape blameless. As for my being the true and only authoress of them, your lordship knows best; and my attending servants are witness that I have had none but my own thoughts, fancies, and speculations, to assist me; and as soon as I set them down I send them to those that are to transcribe them, and fit them for the press; whereof, since there have been several, and amongst them such as only could write a good hand, but neither understood orthography, nor had any learning, (I being then in banishment, with your lordship, and not able to maintain learned secretaries,) which hath been a great disadvantage to my poor works, and the cause that they have been printed so false and so full of errors; for besides that I want also skill in scholarship and true writing, I did many times not peruse the copies that were transcribed, lest they should disturb my following conceptions; by which neglect, as I said, many errors are slipt into my works, which, yet I hope, learned and impartial men will soon rectify, and look more upon the sense than carp at words. I have been a student even from childhood; and since I have been your lordship’s wife I have lived for the most part a strict and retired life, as is best known to your lordship; and therefore my censurers cannot know much of me, since they have little or no acquaintance with me. ’Tis true I have been a traveller both before and after I was married to your lordship, and some times shown myself at your lordship’s command in public places or assemblies, but yet I converse with few. Indeed, my lord, I matter not the censures of this age, but am rather proud of them; for it shows that my actions are more than ordinary, and according to the old proverb, it is better to be envied than pitied; for I know well that it is merely out of spite and malice, whereof this present age is so full that none can escape them, and they’ll make no doubt to stain even your lordship’s loyal, noble, and heroic actions, as well as they do mine; though yours have been of war and fighting, mine of contemplating and writing: yours were performed publicly in the field, mine privately in my closet; yours had many thousand eye-witnesses; mine none but my waiting-maids. But the great God, that hitherto bless’d both your grace and me, will, I question not, preserve both our fames to after-ages.

“Your grace’s honest wife,
“and humble servant,

“M. Newcastle.”

The last portion of this life, which consists of the observations and good things which she had gathered from the conversations of her husband, forms an excellent Ana; and shows that when Lord Orford, in his “Catalogue of Noble Authors,” says, that “this stately poetic couple was a picture of foolish nobility,” he writes, as he does too often, with extreme levity. But we must now attend to the reverse of our medal.

Many chagrins may corrode the nuptial state of literary men. Females who, prompted by vanity, but not by taste, unite themselves to scholars, must ever complain of neglect. The inexhaustible occupations of a library will only present to such a most dreary solitude. Such a lady declared of her learned husband, that she was more jealous of his books than his mistresses. It was probably while Glover was composing his “Leonidas,” that his lady avenged herself for this Homeric inattention to her, and took her flight with a lover. It was peculiar to the learned Dacier to be united to woman, his equal in erudition and his superior in taste. When she wrote in the album of a German traveller a verse from Sophocles as an apology for her unwillingness to place herself among his learned friends, that “Silence is the female’s ornament,” it was a trait of her modesty. The learned Pasquier was coupled to a female of a different character, since he tells us in one of his Epigrams that to manage the vociferations of his lady, he was compelled himself to become a vociferator. —“Unfortunate wretch that I am, I who am a lover of universal peace! But to have peace I am obliged ever to be at war.”

Sir Thomas More was united to a woman of the harshest temper and the most sordid manners. To soften the moroseness of her disposition, “he persuaded her to play on the lute, viol, and other instruments, every day.” Whether it was that she had no ear for music, she herself never became harmonious as the instrument she touched. All these ladies may be considered as rather too alert in thought, and too spirited in action; but a tame cuckoo bird who is always repeating the same note must be very fatiguing. The lady of Samuel Clarke, the great compiler of books in 1680, whose name was anagrammatised to ”suck all cream,“ alluding to his indefatigable labours in sucking all the cream of every other author, without having any cream himself, is described by her husband as entertaining the most sublime conceptions of his illustrious compilations. This appears by her behaviour. He says, “that she never rose from table without making him a curtsey, nor drank to him without bowing, and that his word was a law to her.”

I was much surprised in looking over a correspondence of the times, that in 1590 the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, writing to the Earl of Shrewsbury on the subject of his living separate from his countess, uses as one of his arguments for their union the following curious one, which surely shows the gross and cynical feeling which the fair sex excited even among the higher classes of society. The language of this good bishop is neither that of truth, we hope, nor certainly that of religion.

“But some will saye in your Lordship’s behalfe that the Countesse is a sharpe and bitter shrewe, and therefore licke enough to shorten your lief, if shee should kepe yow company, Indeede, my good Lord, I have heard some say so; but if shrewdnesse or sharpnesse may be a juste cause of separation between a man and wiefe, I thinck fewe men in Englande would keepe their wives longe; for it is a common jeste, yet trewe in some sense, that there is but one shrewe in all the worlde, and everee man hath her: and so everee man must be ridd of his wiefe that wolde be ridd of a shrewe.” It is wonderful this good bishop did not use another argument as cogent, and which would in those times be allowed as something; the name of his lordship, Shrewsbury, would have afforded a consolatory pun!

The entertaining Marville says that the generality of ladies married to literary men are so vain of the abilities and merit of their husbands, that they are frequently insufferable.

The wife of Barclay, author of “The Argenis,” considered herself as the wife of a demigod. This appeared glaringly after his death; for Cardinal Barberini having erected a monument to the memory of his tutor, next to the tomb of Barclay, Mrs. Barclay was so irritated at this that she demolished his monument, brought home his bust, and declared that the ashes of so great a genius as her husband should never be placed beside a pedagogue.

Salmasius’s wife was a termagant; Christina said she admired his patience more than his erudition. Mrs. Salmasius indeed considered herself as the queen of science, because her husband was acknowledged as sovereign among the critics. She boasted that she had for her husband the most learned of all the nobles, and the most noble of all the learned. Our good lady always joined the learned conferences which he held in his study. She spoke loud, and decided with a tone of majesty. Salmasius was mild in conversation, but the reverse in his writings, for our proud Xantippe considered him as acting beneath himself if he did not magisterially call every one names!

The wife of Rohault, when her husband gave lectures on the philosophy of Descartes, used to seat herself on these days at the door, and refused admittance to every one shabbily dressed, or who did not discover a genteel air. So convinced was she that, to be worthy of hearing the lectures of her husband, it was proper to appear fashionable. In vain our good lecturer exhausted himself in telling her, that fortune does not always give fine clothes to philosophers.

The ladies of Albert Durer and Berghem were both shrews. The wife of Durer compelled that great genius to the hourly drudgery of his profession, merely to gratify her own sordid passion: in despair, Albert ran away from his Tisiphone; she wheedled him back, and not long afterwards this great artist fell a victim to her furious disposition.1 Berghem’s wife would never allow that excellent artist to quit his occupations; and she contrived an odd expedient to detect his indolence. The artist worked in a room above her; ever and anon she roused him by thumping a long stick against the ceiling, while the obedient Berghem answered by stamping his foot, to satisfy Mrs. Berghem that he was not napping.

Ælian had an aversion to the married state. Sigonius, a learned and well-known scholar, would never marry, and alleged no inelegant reason; “Minerva and Venus could not live together.”

Matrimony has been considered by some writers as a condition not so well suited to the circumstances of philosophers and men of learning. There is a little tract which professes to investigate the subject. It has for title, De Matrimonio Literati, an cœlibem esse, an verò nubere conveniat, i.e., of the Marriage of a Man of Letters, with an inquiry whether it is most proper for him to continue a bachelor, or to marry?

The author alleges the great merit of some women; particularly that of Gonzaga the consort of Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino; a lady of such distinguished accomplishments, that Peter Bembus said, none but a stupid man would not prefer one of her conversations to all the formal meetings and disputations of the philosophers.

The ladies perhaps will be surprised to find that it is a question among the learned, Whether they ought to marry? and will think it an unaccountable property of learning that it should lay the professors of it under an obligation to disregard the sex. But it is very questionable whether, in return for this want of complaisance in them, the generality of ladies would not prefer the beau, and the man of fashion. However, let there be Gonzagas, they will find converts enough to their charms.

The sentiments of Sir Thomas Browne on the consequences of marriage are very curious, in the second part of his Religio Medici, sect, 9. When he wrote that work, he said, “I was never yet once, and commend their resolutions, who never marry twice.” He calls woman “the rib and crooked piece of man.” He adds, “I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to procreate the world without this trivial and vulgar way.” He means the union of sexes, which he declares, “is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life; nor is there anything that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.” He afterwards declares he is not averse to that sweet sex, but naturally amorous of all that is beautiful: “I could look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of a horse.” He afterwards disserts very profoundly on the music there is in beauty, “and the silent note which Cupid strikes is far sweeter than the sound of an instrument.” Such were his sentiments when youthful, and residing at Leyden; Dutch philosophy had at first chilled his passion; it is probable that passion afterwards inflamed his philosophy — for he married, and had sons and daughters!

Dr. Cocchi, a modern Italian writer, but apparently a cynic as old as Diogenes, has taken the pains of composing a treatise on the present subject enough to terrify the boldest Bachelor of Arts! He has conjured up every chimera against the marriage of a literary man. He seems, however, to have drawn his disgusting portrait from his own country; and the chaste beauty of Britain only looks the more lovely beside this Florentine wife.

I shall not retain the cynicism which has coloured such revolting features. When at length the doctor finds a woman as all women ought to be, he opens a new string of misfortunes which must attend her husband. He dreads one of the probable consequences of matrimony — progeny, in which we must maintain the children we beget! He thinks the father gains nothing in his old age from the tender offices administered by his own children: he asserts these are much better performed by menials and strangers! The more children he has, the less he can afford to have servants! The maintenance of his children will greatly diminish his property! Another alarming object in marriage is that, by affinity, you become connected with the relations of the wife. The envious and ill-bred insinuations of the mother, the family quarrels, their poverty or their pride, all disturb the unhappy sage who falls into the trap of connubial felicity! But if a sage has resolved to marry, he impresses on him the prudential principle of increasing his fortune by it, and to remember his “additional expenses!” Dr. Cocchi seems to have thought that a human being is only to live for himself; he had neither heart to feel, a head to conceive, nor a pen that could have written one harmonious period, or one beautiful image! Bayle, in his article Raphelengius, note B, gives a singular specimen of logical subtlety, in “a reflection on the consequence of marriage.” This learned man was imagined to have died of grief, for having lost his wife, and passed three years in protracted despair. What therefore must we think of an unhappy marriage, since a happy one is exposed to such evils? He then shows that an unhappy marriage is attended by beneficial consequences to the survivor. In this dilemma, in the one case, the husband lives afraid his wife will die, in the other that she will not! If you love her, you will always be afraid of losing her; if you do not love her, you will always be afraid of not losing her. Our satirical celibataire is gored by the horns of the dilemma he has conjured up.

James Petiver, a famous botanist, then a bachelor, the friend of Sir Hans Sloane, in an album signs his name with this designation:—

“From the Goat tavern in the Strand, London,
Nov. 27. In the 34th year of my freedom,
A.D. 1697.”

1 Leopold Schefer, the German novelist, has composed an excellent sketch of Durer’s married life. It is an admirably philosophic narrative of an intellectual man’s wretchedness.

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