MATILDA BARBARA BETHAM-
A PERSONAL SKETCH BY MRS.
IT is sad to
think that the busy little hand which penned Mid-Victorian
Memories will write no more, sad to think that the writer is
numbered now herself among our "Memories."
A melancholy interest attaches to the publication of a last
book. Ours is the disappointment of the author. Delight
in the doing consists largely in expectation of publication, the
crowning moment of achievement. It is hard to be robbed of
that moment, and we feel it the harder in this instance because we
know how much it would have meant to our friend. She had so
looked forward to the event! It might have been her first
book, she was so impatient to see it in print. Or she may
perhaps have had a presentiment that it was to be her last, and was
anxious to lose no time. She had none of the conceit which
masks itself in affected indifference to the public reception of a
book. A sympathetic review elated, a spiteful one depressed
her. But these were passing effects. What she treasured
in her heart were the congratulations of her friends. And she
might well and did rejoice in a letter of thanks and approval from
Mr. Frederic Harrison, Henry James, and other eminent friends—though
not more than she rejoiced in the response of the undistinguished to
whom she had presented copies, provided the undistinguished were
dear to her. In regard to the worth of criticism she was
discriminating, but she valued cordiality for its own sake, as a
measure of affection. At eighty-two and still in harness,
still keenly alive intellectually and with all her faculties intact,
her record itself courted congratulations, of which she would have
had good reason to be proud. Alas! for those who loved her
that it had to be not flowers at her feet, but funeral wreaths In
Remembrance, and at heart the sorrowful sense of "Too late."
She was wont to regret that she had not instantly recorded
her own first impressions of the many interesting people she had
met: "Don't make my mistake, or you will be sorry for it," she often
advised. "Think of Boswell!"
But thinking of Boswell was not persuasive.
A man's best work may soon be put out of date by his
successors who improve upon it. Generally speaking, fame lives
longest on personality, and personality depends for its preservation
on the biographer's power of presentation. The tap-root of
Johnson's fame is his personality; on that he still lives, and
Boswell planted it. If there had been no Boswell there would
have been little left of Johnson by this time. But who ever
wants to be a Boswell? Boswell himself was the enemy of
Boswellism. His own personality discounts the credit of his
industry, and besmirches its character. We are obliged to him,
but we neither like nor respect him. Still, most of us live to
regret that we did not keep a modest diary of events. It would
have saved us remorse for lost opportunities.
One deterrent is the difficulty of recognising in time among
our many "lawful occasions," all so little different, which is an
opportunity not to be lost. Recording each as it occurred for
fear of missing the one which will eventually prove to have been
important, would make huge inroads on our precious time. First
meetings seem ordinary enough at the moment; it is subsequent events
that make them memorable. Usually they take place on social
occasions, when nothing very arresting happens. So-and-so, of
whom we had heard, is casually presented, and is very much what we
expected—or quite different. Venerable cliché's are
exchanged. He or she may attract or may repel us.
Involuntarily we make mental notes, but attach no importance to
them. Memory deals capriciously with involuntary mental notes
to which we have attached no importance; there is no counting on
what it will single out for distinction and retain, or what let
slip; its values are unexpected, and it plays us the oddest tricks.
Glancing at a newspaper one day years ago I chanced to see a
letter "To the Editor," signed M. BETHAM-EDWARDS.
The writer had mentioned me as "my friend, Sarah Grand." Her
name was familiar, but I had no recollection of ever having met her.
I took her friendliness to be the kindly recognition of a newcomer
as a colleague by one looking down from the heights, and thought no
more about it. Then came a note from her. She was
staying at the Wellington Hotel, Tunbridge Wells, after an illness,
to recruit, and had heard from her old friend Mr. Hale White ("Mark
Rutherford") that I was at home, and she proposed to pay me a
visit—"if it please you, and you will kindly name a convenient day
and hour. I always remember with pleasure our first meeting."
I still thought she must be mistaken about our ever having
Feeling it proper that I should first pay my respects to a
distinguished woman of the previous generation, I went at once to
leave a card on her, not expecting to be received, but she sent a
messenger hurrying after me as I left the hotel, to call me back.
She was standing when I was shown into her sitting-room, and greeted
me warmly, but with restraint. Sincerity of feeling is like
water, still on the surface when it runs deep. There was no
mistaking her "I am glad to see you" for conventional politeness.
She was genuine, that was my first impression.
I can see the little lady as she looked at that moment, her
abundant grey hair coiled high on the crown of her head, and
cleverly arranged so as to conceal the too great height of her
forehead, her grey eyes full of interest, a half smile on her lips;
and I recalled my uncomfortable feeling in regard to my own height,
as I looked down on her, that I was all out of proportion. It
seemed assuming, to be so much bigger in the flesh than a woman who
was so much bigger than myself in a finer way. The only detail
of her dress on this occasion that I remember is the violet button
she was entitled to wear as an Officier de I'Instruction Publique
Now that we were face to face I was sure that I had seen her
before, but how and when and where?
When she had seated me to her satisfaction on the only
comfortable chair in the room—it took some little time, for I was so
ill-advised as to dispute my right to it, not knowing then that a
favoured friend whom she delighted to honour by forcing him or her
(generally him) into the seat she should by rights have taken
herself, was obliged heroically to endure to see her uncomfortably
perched while he or she sat at ease, as the only way to please
her,—when I had given in for the same reason, she effectively
recalled the circumstance of our first meeting, and at the same time
unwittingly made me feel ashamed of having thought nothing of an
incident which she had so graciously cared to remember: "I have been
hoping to see more of you ever since that memorable dinner when I
sat next to you," she said.
The words "memorable dinner" acted like pressure on the
button of an electric bell—or was it thought-transference!
Anyway, there flashed into my mind as in a picture, the details of a
complimentary public dinner-party in London, pillars and paint and
gilding and mirrors; long tables loaded with plate and glass and
cutlery and flowers and fruit; seated guests, jostling waiters;
corks popping, wine fizzing and frothing; distracting clatter of
knives, forks, plates, and musical instruments; the dominating roar
of voices —and the little lady herself, seated beside me, placidly
making the best of it.
"I remember," I said.
I remembered perfectly.
The man who was to have taken her in to dinner had not been
able to keep his engagement, so it happened that there was an empty
chair between us. It would be incorrect to say that she broke
the ice, for she gave it no time to form. I should have
hesitated to speak first, partly out of respect for her age, but
mostly because by that time I had been taught by sundry unpleasant
experiences in London crushes not to take the liberty of speaking to
unknown females met haphazard, even at private entertainments.
But she was well-bred. She summed me up with a glance as she
seated herself, then, leaning across the empty chair, she said
easily, pleasantly, in the tone and manner of one who accepts her
fellow-guests as equals for the time being and expects to be treated
with the same courtesy, tapping the chair as she spoke: "Shall we
have this obstruction removed?" We had it removed and drew our
chairs close together, and immediately it was as if I had met an old
acquaintance, who, without being curious, was interested in all I
chose to tell her concerning myself, and took it for granted that I
should return the compliment. I remember my reply when I was
asked afterwards whom I had sat next "at the big feed": "A
bonny-looking, little elderly gentlewoman, with all her wits
about her. Cultivated. The real thing—'old-fashioned
courtesy' and all."
Even then courtesy, which makes the whole difference between
grace and charm in social intercourse and the manners of a rabble,
was called "old fashioned," and was beginning to attract the kind of
attention that would be paid to a sedan chair in the street, or any
other revival of an obsolete custom.
She looked at me with a little enigmatical smile when I
answered, "I remember," into which my conscience read, "I wonder if
"I couldn't think who you were," she proceeded; but I
inquired and was told, after we parted. Did you know me?"
"No, but I know you now," I confidently plunged. "You
are My Brother's Wife, and a great many other things."
"Apt in regard to My Brother's Wife, but wholly
incorrect," she answered drily, and paused, then added, with a
resigned little shrug: "'Twas ever thus! You mistake me for my
cousin Amelia Blandford Edwards. Naturally. I am
moonlight to her sunshine. Our two Bs—Blandford, Betham—caused
confusion. We each clung to her B, though we were advised to
drop it, one of us. Francis Power Cobbe used to say that we
both had Bs in our bonnets. I don't suppose Amelia was
troubled with congratulations on being the author of my books.
It was monotonously the other way. And I can't say I liked it.
Or like it even now."
"Pity me, then," I said.
"It hurts to have hurt."
"It hurts to have hurt," she repeated reflectively,
questioning the statement, and paused; then, with a wince, "It does
hurt," she confessed.
"Then we are quits?" I suggested.
Whereupon she decided to laugh.
The little conscientious pause to make sure of what she
thought of an unexpected proposition was habitual. She was
gleg enough at the uptake on occasion, but always, if she had to
choose between sincerity and "smartness," the telling repartee
promptly delivered or the homely truth on reflection, she reflected.
"Quits then it is," I ventured. "Now we are friends?"
"Sportswomen, eh?" She made a comical attempt to adapt herself to
the genus. "Well, I'm game—if that's the right jargon. Here's my
hand on it, and we'll wet the bargain."
The bargain was wetted in tea.
There was never any restraint after that, never the least
To be met again and again, as she had been all through her career,
by new acquaintances, with compliments intended for her showier
cousin, when she had so good a right to be known for admirable work
of her own, was enough to set up a chronic sore sufficiently painful
to make her wince at a touch. The wonder was that it had not changed
her feeling for her cousin. It had not. She delighted in Amelia's
beauty, her versatility, her achievements, and spoke and wrote of
her to the last with the greatest affection.
I had nothing subsequently to alter and little to add to my first
impression of Miss Betham-Edwards. She was always the same,
courteous, responsive, gentle, punctilious, and essentially sincere,
a typical English gentlewoman of the old school. One would rather
not date her so, but there is nowhere else to place such women in
these rude times, when the conceit of education by promoting
tawdry-minded self-assertiveness, and the decline of culture, too
often combine in effect to produce so different a type. It is an
ugly phase, but only a phase surely. The intrinsic value and beauty
of the grace and charm of mind and manners which were the aim of
culture in her day cannot be lost. There will be a revival of taste
eventually in favour of refinement, as in the case of treasures of
art which have been rediscovered by successors to the generation
that was insensible to their merits, and had cast them aside as of
In breeding, in culture, in appearance, and in refinement Miss
Betham-Edwards was an Englishwoman of the best type—improved by a
dash of French blood and intimate association with the French
themselves in France. She had none of the stiffness and angularity
which so often make Englishwomen repellent. She was delightfully
French in her daintiness, her self-forgetfulness, her show of
sympathetic interest in and habit of giving her undivided attention
to the person she addressed. And naturally. She did not pose, did
not affect to be French either by gesticulating or interlarding her
conversation with French phrases—though she often wrote them. She
had no mannerisms, but she had little ways of her own and was "set
in them" (as we say in the north), and one had to give in to them. She would have things done regularly and in order, in the same order
each time, and it did not do to upset it. She was upwards of sixty
when I first met her, with a neat figure, and tiny hands and feet. One never thought of her as an old woman, she was so mentally alert,
so wonderfully in possession of every faculty. Judging by her early
portraits she was one of those fortunate women whom age embellishes. The years gave her more than they took. They left her her delicate
complexion and abundant hair, improved her mouth, made her eyes less
brightly observant but more sympathetic, and softened her expression
with kindliness. She must always have been nice looking, and finally
The instinct of self-preservation was marked in her. She remained
efficient to the last by resolutely economising her strength. She
tended her faculties like children, clothing them, feeding them,
exercising them, and putting them to bed punctually. The morning was
her time for work, and of late years she limited herself to two
hours a day. It was astonishing how much she accomplished in this
short time by strict regularity. By the end of the year she had
always more to show than younger and more vigorous writers of her
acquaintance, who only worked by fits and starts when they felt in
the mood. Against "mood" she gave it as her own experience that
l'appetit vient en mangeant, and instanced Anthony Trollope and
Sir Walter Scott. Excellent advice provided the writer who is
favoured with flashes of inspiration destroys all that he writes
when he is not feeling inspired. Mood is naturally a vagrant, but
amenable to discipline; let it rule you and there is no counting
upon it; but put it into harness, break it in with whip and spur at
your writing-table for a stipulated time every day, and it will end
as an obedient servant, ready to respond when it should be on duty.
There is no exception to the rule which makes for production of any
kind; it is always most haste least speed; bursts of energy
culminate in exhaustion and are followed by prolonged intervals of
idleness, and the tortoise wins the race while the hare is asleep.
Miss Betham-Edwards lived by rule, and the result justified the
habit. She was Spartan in her self-denial, and would forego the
pleasure of a visit to a friend if the arrangements to which she was
accustomed could not be carried out. Latterly her acceptance of
invitations was frankly conditional. She went yearly to stay with
two French friends near Paris up to the time of their death, but
after that the only visits she paid were to a friend at Oxford and
to our mutual friend Miss Tindall at Tunbridge Wells. This visit
should properly have been to me, but when we came to consult about
the little lady's entertainment, I felt bound to resign my prior
right in consideration of the many advantages she would enjoy at Hollyshaw that could not be procured for her at my house in the
I remember that before her first visit to Hollyshaw an acquaintance
warned Miss Tindall that she was as exacting as a Royal Personage,
and gave examples of her requirements with the comment that one
experience of her as a guest would be enough. But Miss Tindall was
not to be daunted. Indeed, it was rather with interest than with
trepidation that she prepared for the visit. She expected surprises,
but she did not anticipate more trouble than it would be a pleasure
to take for the comfort of a friend whom she loved and respected. It
may seem that the older acquaintance who warned her was justified,
but she was wrong in her forecast of the result of the experiment.
Miss Tindall's hospitality survived the test, and the invitation was
repeated as often as the necessary conditions for a visit could be
Acting on the suggestion, Miss Tindall decided to prepare for that
first visit as for a Royal Personage, by writing to ask what her
expected guest desired for her entertainment and comfort; but Miss
Betham-Edwards anticipated her, and their letters crossed. The
characteristic touches in Miss Betham-Edwards' letter are worth
preserving. She wrote:
VILLA JULIA, HASTINGS,
DEAR RACHEL MARY,—I
will arrive to-morrow with E. [Emily] in time (I hope) for tea,
i.e. at Tunbridge Wells by 4.30, and both mistress and maid are
looking forward to the visit. Will you, in view of my age and
infirmities, excuse me for asking you to let me have cotton, unlavendered sheets on my bed, and only well-worn blankets, the
scent of new blankets being very trying to me, also the scent of
Also may I ask for dark curtains to the windows, as I like to
exclude every particle of light at night. And again, as I should
hardly like to bring it with me, may I say that the only wine I
drink by medical orders is a glass of very light Chablis at lunch.
And, lastly, will you excuse me if I cannot partake of any good
things at your table, being only able to eat the plainest of plain
nursery fare, no delicacies whatever.
Pray forgive these particulars, it is on account of them that I have
only been able to accept the hospitality of two old friends since my
breakdown six years ago. But I feel sure that you will understand
how impossible it is for me to do as younger and less worn-out folks
Kindest love to self and grand Sarah. Yours ever, M. B.-E.
The following is a Bill of Wants she furnished subsequently for her
Kindly asked for particulars of M. B.-E.'s wants:—
"Chablis at dinner, (I always make dinner of other folks' lunch).
"Cotton sheets and not linen on bed.
"Dark curtains on windows.
"Diet—of the nursery order, i.e. plainest of the plain, no kind of
delicacies, and only plain and very stale cakes.
"For supper a slice of cold mutton, lamb, or chicken. Game I never
touch, do. entrées, creams, etc., all taboo."
"Isn't that considerate?" Miss Tindall remarked on these
precautions. "It would save me many qualms of doubt and anxiety on
the subject of my guests' comfort if they would all tell me as
frankly what they object to and would like."
Immediately on their arrival Miss Betham-Edwards' beloved maid Emily
(beloved by us all, for that matter, in gratitude for the years
during which she smoothed the way for our friend by taking on
herself every trouble in life of which it was possible to relieve
her)—Emily had to set to work to arrange the room her lady had of
necessity to occupy at Hollyshaw, to suit her taste,—a hard task
considering the difference between the large apartment with its big
bay window looking out upon tree-sheltered gardens and meadows, and
the cloistered simplicity of the little bedroom at home which was
her ideal of what a bedroom should be. Brightness and tranquillity
were what she had aimed at when she furnished it. She had had it
papered with golden yellow to give it brightness. Neither pictures
nor ornaments would she have, because they caught the eye and gave
food for thought, which disturbed the mind. Perfect uniformity, she
held, was the secret of tranquillity.
Emily did her best at Hollyshaw to prevent mental distraction by
covering certain glossy articles of furniture and all the mirrors
with shawls and rugs brought for the purpose. What the servants
thought of the room when she had done with it can be imagined. It
looked like a gipsy campment.
Then it appeared that Miss Betham-Edwards was peculiarly sensitive
to noise. She could not endure a sound in the house from the time
she retired to her room for the night until she was about again next
day. This difficulty was tackled at once and bravely overcome. At 6
o'clock every evening shutters were closed, curtains drawn, doors
locked, and all the racket of shutting up done for the night; and
for the rest of the evening, every one playing up gallantly, not a
voice was raised and only the stealthiest movements were made all
over the house. Next morning, much to the gardeners' annoyance,
their usual early work of rolling the terrace beneath the lady's
windows, mowing the lawns, and tidying up generally was stopped,
while, indoors, shutters were not opened or curtains drawn until she
was known to be awake. Miss Tindall too, in the next room, denying
herself the early morning freshness and sunshine, waited patiently
in darkness for fear that the rattle of rings on curtain poles and
the opening of windows to push back Venetian shutters, should
disturb her guest: "And it was worth it," Miss Tindall said.
For never did hostess have a more delightful visitor—she was such
good company, so punctilious, so kindly considerate, so appreciative
of the least little service. After her visit she would send a
message of thanks and a book to every member of that large
household, not one was forgotten. And at Christmas each again
received a dainty little present from her. She had that grace of
nature which commands the heart, and, although "nobody had ever seen
such goings on," the maids had vied with each other in their desire
to please her, conforming as punctually and pleasantly as she did
herself to all that was unaccustomed in the strict ritual prescribed
for each day.
When at Hollyshaw it was her habit to pay her respects to her
hostess the first thing in the morning by sending Emily to deliver
the formula: "Miss Betham-Edwards' love, and she would like to see
Miss Tindall in her room, any time after half-past nine, if Miss
Tindall is at liberty." Miss Tindall made a point of being at
liberty. This was the time at which they had their most delightful
talks together, for the dear old lady, strengthened by her night's
rest and stimulated by her breakfast, was then at her best.
The small lady had dignity, the dignity which is founded on
self-respect and sustained by the respect accorded to it. She
"received" with a becoming sense of her own importance as sufficient
to render her immediate surroundings of no account. Not that there
was anything in her surroundings that needed an apology. The effect
of the "gipsy encampment" was not disorderly but decorative. The
room was always well-aired, and the little fire, which she had to
have whatever the time of year, brightened it and was appropriate as
a finishing touch. Everything about her was dainty and fresh, and
she herself in the midst of it was like a little queen holding her
court. She would be attired in a beautiful wrapper, with her hair
carefully dressed, and on her writing-table the materials for the
work she was engaged upon, manuscripts or proofs, would be neatly
laid out. This was not a hint to be brief. She liked to dilate upon
what she was doing, to give the outline of a story, to read a proof
aloud and consult about it. She liked to hear what you thought; but
she would have it her own way if your opinion differed from hers.
One morning Miss Tindall was "received" in great perturbation. Cows
had been introduced into the meadow opposite the house! During the
night? . . . or since she came, Miss Betham-Edwards was sure. But it
must have been recently, for they had not disturbed her.
The inference that she confidently expected to be disturbed by them
reduced Miss Tindall to despair. The cows were not under her control
and she had no power to order them off. But it turned out to be her
rest that was broken—by dread of their lowing. For the cows proved
to be real ladies. Miss Betham-Edwards herself acknowledged at the
end of her visit that they were well-behaved cows, and had been most
It may be mentioned as an instance of how much sensitive people can
do to save themselves suffering by controlling their nerves instead
of humouring them and insisting on having them humoured, till they
are like children spoilt by being given too much of their own
way,—that during her last visit to Hollyshaw, in 1917, Miss
Betham-Edwards had evidently been relieved of a good deal of her
nervous horror of noise. It was a case of what can't be cured must
be endured. The war had obliged her to accommodate herself to a
medley of strange sounds, and on this occasion she was able to bear,
with at least outward equanimity, even the distracting din made by a
party of buglers in training, all at the same time practising
different notes and calls, a daily trial of patience calculated to
wring expletives from a Christian martyr.
The next item of the day's ritual, after the morning reception, was
the drive before lunch. Punctually to the minute—the little lady was
never a moment late for anything—she would come down ready dressed
and be piloted across the slippery parquet of the hall by Emily to
the carriage. She begged that Emily might be allowed to accompany
her, the drive would be such a pleasure to Emily, and what was good
for the mistress was good for the maid. She preferred to sit with
her back to the horses, with Emily seated opposite, beside Miss Tindall, so that she could see them both. She kept up a lively
conversation. Everything interested her, nothing escaped her. She
revelled in the beauty of the day, of the landscape, of dark fir
woods, of giant forest trees, solitary survivors in the hedgerows,
dominating the fields in splendid isolation. But her enjoyment of
the scenery did not blind her to the condition of insanitary
cottages or evidences of the wasteful neglect of good land. Miss Tindall remembers one specially dramatic occasion after an election
when her guest's democratic gorge rose vigorously against
aristocratic domination in general and iniquitous landlords in
particular, who kept the peasantry in a state of serfdom mitigated
by doles at Christmas. Fortunately it did not occur to her as
incongruous to use that particular carriage both for her own
enjoyment and as a pulpit from which to denounce the extravagance
and luxury of the rich; otherwise there might have been an end to
the great benefit her health was deriving in a manner not consistent
with her principles.
When she had expended her eloquence and reduced herself to a
temporary state of exhaustion she would say to Emily, "Now, Emily,
say your little piece to Miss Tindall," and Emily would ask, "Which
piece, ma'am?" "Oh, you know," she was reminded, "the one about . .
.," and the subject would be given, whereupon Emily obligingly
complied. "Very nice," she was invariably applauded, with a gracious
little bow, accompanied by the enigmatical smile.
At luncheon the little lady shone in conversation delightfully, as
though the drive had sharpened her wits as well as her appetite. One
of the items on the list of "Kindly asked for particulars" was
"Chablis at dinner (I always make my dinner at other folks' lunch)." She drank her Chablis out of a little ruby-red tumbler of her own
which she always brought with her. Doubtless it had a history, but
she never told us it. What with slow eating and much talk luncheon
was a lengthy function, but it did not seem so to us. Some of her
friends thought her conversation better than her books, yet she
spoke as she wrote. The difference was in the reading; she should be
read as she spoke. Those who knew her voice hear her in every
phrase. Her later style in writing was sprinkled with preciosity and
became somewhat archaic. Early impressions are sharpest, and hers
prevailed in her later years. The influences that formed her mind
gradually became apparent in her style.
"My first educators—could any of mortal born
choose better?—were the Bible, Shakespeare and Milton," she tells us
in her Reminiscences. "Next after this triune splendour, this matchless trinity, come
Walter Scott, the Spectator and Tatler, Don Quixote (Smollett's
translation), the Arabian Nights, The Vicar of Wakefield,
Travels, and Boswell's Johnson." But her own charm graced their
language as she spoke it and made all that she said seem pleasing
and appropriate and natural. "Her voice, too," as she herself wrote
of a young Quakeress friend of her youth, "was one of uncommon
sweetness and feeling, and she spoke with an ease, clearness, and
precision that deserve the name of an accomplishment." There was no
mistaking "simplicity for baldness" in her case; she suggested
more than she said. And it deserves to be noted as a distinction
rare in clever men and women, that she never bored one by "talking
clever" all the time. Any subject was grist to her mill, from
to the last fad in dress. When she talked about books she talked
well, thanks to her excellent memory and extensive reading. She
cared more for human nature than for abstract ideas. Men and women
were more to her than their achievements. The personality of the
worker came first, and Herbert Spencer himself appeared in her
conversation as of greater importance than Synthetic Philosophy. She
would soon pass on from the book that was under discussion to
anecdotes about the author, or inquiries, if he were new to her. She
took his character and appearance into account to explain his ideas,
as on one occasion when she trenchantly observed of a man whose
works and ways she detested: "What better could be expected of a
glutton who looked like a camel with a monkey's head."
She would never monopolise the conversation; a fair give and take
was her principle. Her friends would rather have listened to her,
but she was for drawing them out. She had the gift. And that other
good gift too, in a listener, of making the speaker happy in the
belief that she was finding what he had to say worth hearing.
So the luncheon—her great meal of the day—was a rite to be enjoyed
from start to finish. It was as if conversation were the object, and
eating an incident. The leisurely consumption of the "Diet —of the
nursery order, i.e., plainest of the plain, no kind of delicacy,"
was suspended when she spoke and only resumed as a profitable
pastime in silent intervals, like a piece of work a busy woman
ventures to "get on with" in company, because it does not distract
her attention. A congenial man added to the luncheon-party had a
pronounce effect as a stimulant to mind and memory. One such man, a
budding author, young and good-looking, asked to meet her, thanked
his hostess afterwards "for the treat." "One does not often meet a
woman so altogether charming," he said. Her age had not affected him
as in most cases it would have affected a young man in regard to a
woman; like the rest of us, he had not thought of her as old.
After luncheon she would retire to her room to rest until tea-time,
for then she would reappear in drawing-room, herself with "only
plain, very stale cakes," provided according to order. Then I came
on duty to take her for her afternoon walk on her favourite asphalt
path. There she enjoyed the shelter of the high hedge on the one hand
and the view on the other—the old trees, the delicious green of a
rich meadow sprinkled with flowers, a glimpse of gardens, and,
beyond all, the hilly ground rising gently to the sky. Often her
eyes were lovingly turned to the prospect—the same prospect on which
George Meredith's eyes once dwelt, doubtless as lovingly. These were
good times for me. Sometimes she introduced subjects on which she
knew that we differed, stating her own point of view
dispassionately, for the purpose of hearing mine. She had no desire
to convert me. She was one of the signatories of the first petition
to Parliament for the enfranchisement of women, but afterwards
changed her views and became a passive opponent of the movement.
Taking no part in public affairs herself, she had never come up
against that bar to progress, "the dead brick wall," of which such
great reformers as Josephine Butler, Frances Power Cobbe, Sophia Jex
Blake, and her own particular friend Madame Bodichon, complained
that it blocked the efforts of women in every direction, and would
do so until they procured its only leveller, the vote. Why exactly
she had changed her mind she never explained. The remarkable women
who first headed the movement were her particular friends and had
probably carried her along with them, and it may be that afterwards,
when time and distance separated her from them, being no longer
under their immediate influence and unhampered in her own personal
work for want of the vote, her desire for the enfranchisement of
women had lapsed insensibly into unfriendly indifference. The
friends she had cared for and respected most were among the
prophets, but she had no vocation herself for the fate of a prophet
in his own country. The part of onlooker and impartial critic suited
her best, though latterly, in regard to women, she was not
impartial. Probably, as her retrospect lengthened, distance had
produced the usual effect, and recalling the picked women she had
under close observation in her youth, she unfairly compared them,
minus their faults, with ordinary modern women whose faults were
still too prominently in evidence to be ignored. At any rate, her
opinion of women had changed for the worse in the course of time,
and during the war the more proof women gave of their worth as
citizens the less faith she had in them. She acknowledged that women
answer to expectation; but she argued that you could only expect
what you had discovered in them, and that experience, by confirming
her own views of their pettiness, made it impossible for expectation
to remedy their defects.
But it was not often that she argued about anything. She disliked
controversial subjects and disposed of them arbitrarily. Her
friends knew better than to persist, but strangers ventured and were
summarily dealt with. Her temper was quick, but under control, just
a flash and over; but in that flash she got home a touch of caustic
Her sense of humour was always on the alert and her laughter
spontaneous, yet one was not "sure to enjoy a good laugh" in her
company. She was rather more apt to be quietly witty than to provoke
laughter, in a tête-à-tête, but she was always interesting. Naturally, when we were alone together, "shop" was a favourite
topic. The fertility of her mind seemed inexhaustible. She carried
any number of plans for work clearly arranged in her head—subjects
for essays, plots for novels, short stories, and poems. She could
relate a short story she intended to write as though she were
repeating it by heart. Had it been taken down at the moment there
would have been little or nothing to alter. She expected as much of
me—vainly. Sometimes a halting attempt stirred her to help me. She
had been kindly interested in a book of mine which was designed to
have a sequel, and one day on the asphalt path, by way of spurring
me on to work, she gave me what she supposed would be my plot. There
was no resemblance. It was like listening to some one who had been
misinformed about the doings of friends with whom I had kept in
close touch. I knew she was mistaken, yet her circumstantial account
implanted a doubt in my mind as to which of us were really the
better informed. In effect, it disturbed my certainty without
convincing me of error, and the sequel was never written.
At six o'clock she retired to her room for the night, and was no
more seen, except by the invaluable Emily. Her last simple meal—"For
supper, a slice of cold mutton, lamb, or chicken. Game I never
touch, do. entrées, creams, etc., all taboo" was sent up to her. She
spent the evening in reading or in being read to by Emily. Occasionally she would write an urgent letter or a post card, but
she rigorously forbore even to look at the work she was engaged upon
at the moment, once she had put it away for the day.
Her reading was habitually determined by the quality of print and
paper. Small print or bad paper she would not look at. "I have my
eyes to consider," she said, and she had considered them to such
good purpose that her oculist complimented her eyes at eighty on
being as good as they were at sixty. She was for having readers
strike against bad paper and print for the sake of their eyes—"not
to mention their poor brains, which become congested when their eyes
are strained to close attention. Middle-aged readers are the
principal buyers of books, therefore too valuable an asset for the
publisher to trifle with. If only they would abstain from reading
anything but good type, there would soon be an end of mean economy
in print and paper."
After a visit our little lady was wont to write to her hostess
immediately on reaching home, another "old-fashioned" all but
obsolete custom which had its uses and its beauties. The following
extracts from a letter written after her last visit to Hollyshaw are
typical of the punctilious exactness of her acknowledgments:
MY DEAR RACHAEL
MARY,—Safe home and all the better for your
kind hospitality—shall be all the (bodily) better for your most
generous hamper of fruit. I feel filled with the fine air of your
woods and with the fine shifting harmonies of forest scenery. Kindly
destroy Nannie L. S.'s letter and—if you think well—hand on
enclosed to lady reciter. Best love to grand Sarah and on yr knees
beg her to keep herself warm. . . . I will also send you—as you like
the house decently found in books—one or two of mine in the nice
per 3d. editions. I shall try to act on your suggestion and arrange
for 3/6 eds. of the best. The difficulty is that the original
publisher came to grief or the house changed hands . . . so that I
have no interest on their part and no series into which the books
would fall naturally. . . No more to-day except to add Emily's
heartfelt thanks for all your kindness and also for the kind
attention of your household.—Ever affectly yrs, MATILDA BARBARA.
"The Nannie L. S." she mentions was Miss Leigh Smith, sister of
Barbara Leigh Smith, the Madame Bodichon who figured with great
distinction in the history of her times and in George Eliot's
correspondence and Miss Betham-Edwards' Reminiscences. The charm of
Madame Bodichon's personality, so often lovingly dwelt on in the
records of her friends, could be well imagined by those who had the
pleasure of knowing her sister, Miss Leigh Smith, whose loss, alas!
is being mourned as I write. She was a great lady. And good. The "enclosed" mentioned in Miss Betham-Edwards' letter, which Miss
Tindall was to "hand on to the lady reciter"—"if you think well"—was
from Miss Leigh Smith, who was one of the party on the occasion, and
unconsciously showed something of her lovely self worth preserving,
in a few lines she wrote to "my dearest Milly" afterwards. "Lovely"
is here used in the American sense, but even in old age it applied
to her physical no less truly than to her inward and spiritual
"Here I am," she wrote, "and up to the ears in duties—first a blind
woman to provide for—and lots of other things, so forgive furious
"I send a clever poem, copied by Janet Crowe, which may please the
gifted reciter who delighted us all on Sunday—if you will pass it on
"My best thanks to Miss Tindall for so kindly admitting me to her
charming gathering—and also in allowing my Bernadine (her Italian
maid) to have the delight of seeing her most beautiful garden . . .
The "gifted reciter" was our friend Miss Marie Shedlock, who that
day (as usual) had generously given us of her best both in French
Recollections of a friend stand not upon the order of their coming,
and it is best to take them as they come. There is less in life to
be had for the satisfaction of the heart than of the intellect; the
intellect is being catered for incessantly, but the heart, nowadays,
is usually sent empty away. And it is the heart that is
all-important. We owe more to our friends for their kindness than
for their cleverness, and the friends of our hearts whom we lose
remain more to us, in death as in life, than the works they leave to
us. In thinking of them it is the little distinctive traits which
endeared them to us that recur most vividly. The aim of this sketch
is to be a portrait of the woman. "Speaking likenesses" are composed
of details, trivial in themselves, but necessary for the whole
effect. The method is to be defended in the interests of truth. A
few sweeping strokes give but a general impression which, like most
generalisation, is as often as not erroneous; and the one-sided
view of a profile suppresses too much that is of value to be the
right kind of half which is better than the whole. Cromwell was
right to have his warts painted in; it would not have been Cromwell
without them. If the portrait fails of its effect it is not the
method but the artist that is at fault, and his excuse may be that
the attempt was worth while.
The great moments of life are generally seized upon for a portrait. They may be striking, but they are not representative. Homely
circumstances are the test of permanent character; exceptional
occasions call for exceptional acts. Habits differ from
circumstances in that they may be the outcome either of character or
of principle. This makes it dangerous to be inexact in depicting
them; there is the danger of giving a wholly wrong and unjust
impression. Miss Betham-Edwards' habits, in so far as they differ
from the ordinary, were the outcome both of character and of
principle. It is a virtue to mind one's own business; her business
was authorship, and she minded it consistently. It is a virtue to be
thorough, and she could only be thorough by living for her work on
principle. This necessitated rules of life. She turned her instinct
of self-preservation to account solely for the benefit of her work. If she has been made to appear selfish in this she has been
misrepresented. The selfishness would have been in those who
expected her, for their convenience, to be false to her principles
by altering the habits which enabled her to live up to them. As it
was, she gave too generously of her strength to help and encourage
others on occasion. No one was ever a better, more satisfying
friend. She never failed one, never disappointed one, never lost
touch with one. To the end her interest in all that concerned a
friend never flagged, and notes, post cards, and little presents
constantly bore witness to her lively affection. Her post cards
(often signed "Base and degrading 'Tilda'") shamed the excuse of
correspondents who profess to have "no time to write." Time can
always be had for the making. One of her post cards would have more
that was essential on it in the way of matter of interest and
importance to the recipient than many people's longest letters. Ill
or well, she responded instantly and fully to letters, so long as
she could hold a pen. On her death-bed, when she could no longer
write, she dictated answers to the letters she received, and with
the last flicker of her mortal intelligence she sent a cheery
message to comfort her friends.
The dear little lady was very woman in her love of pretty things. We
always dressed in our best to please her. If we had succeeded, Emily
would immediately be called that she might as usual have a share of
the pleasure—"Emily, I want you to come and look at the ladies"—and
Emily's attention would be directed to the points her lady specially
admired. But we could never be certain of success beforehand, for
her taste was capricious. Expensive attempts, trophies of a trip to
France, were sometimes not favoured with a second glance, while, on
the other hand, a little something made at home by our Treasure of
the Humble, who came out to work by the day, would delight her.
The easy hour's journey from Tunbridge Wells to Hastings made it
possible for us to spend long afternoons with her. We never took her
by surprise, or proposed ourselves. It was understood that we should
wait to be asked—or, as a friend laughingly put it, "until she held
out the sceptre"—then we would be quite sure that she would be glad
of a visit. She shared her friends liberally by asking them to meet
each other—or anybody whose acquaintance she thought it would please
them to make. There was a ritual for these occasions, so
seldom varied that it became an agreeable habit. The rules of
procedure were precise. We knew exactly the ordering of
events, but never knew what to expect from the company collected for
our entertainment, and this sufficed to vary the monotony both at
the time and in anticipation. Surprises awaited the kind of
person who expected to be asked to meet only "the best people," in
the matter of class, for she cared not in the least who anybody was
by birth. Social position made no impression whatever upon
her. The measure of her respect for her fellow-creatures was
the measure of their character, what they were and their
accomplishments. She would delight in an intellectual baker,
and be frankly bored by a stupid duke.
It was a formidable climb up to her Villa Julia, the house at
the near end of the row at High Wickham; but we took the precaution
to order a taxi in advance to meet us at the station at Hastings.
Half-way up the hill we came in sight of her sitting-room window,
and of her watching for us, handkerchief in hand, ready to respond
to our signals. We lost sight of her at the steepest bit of
the hill—the bit that was so nearly the death of Henry James when he
climbed it on foot to save the life of a cab-horse (why didn't he
have a taxi?)—but when we rounded the turn she would be standing at
the hall standing door, with Emily stationed at the little iron
gate, waiting to open it. Emily greeted, we ran up the flagged
path and were welcomed from the steps with outstretched hands and
cheeks presented to be kissed.
Miss Tindall's offerings of home-produce, fruit, flowers,
eggs and butter, were lovingly appreciated in the hall, then we were
ushered up to the dear little lady's sitting-room. It was
frankly the workshop of a cultivated woman, who had no use for
boudoir fal-lals. The dado was bookshelves filled with
standard works in several languages. On top of it were crowded
rare specimens of china collected in many lands. Above, the
walls were covered with pictures, each with a history, but there was
only one portrait in the room. She liked to have portraits of
her "living friends," but kept them locked up, with the single
exception of Dr. Dodson Hessey's, "my good friend and benefactor."
She might well make him the exception, for he had been to her what
Dr. John Elliotson was to Thackeray, who dedicated Pendennis
to him in recognition of it "constant care and kindness"; what Mr.
Buckston Browne was to George Meredith, who called him "the ablest
and one of the best of men," and dedicated Lord Ormont and His
Aminta to him; what Sir Andrew Clark was to George Eliot, "the
beloved physician." Should the Roll of Honour kept in the
hearts of grateful patients ever be published, Dr. Hessey's name
would be found figuring large among the many gifted and generous men
of his profession to whom authors and artists of all grades have
owed their lives and more than their lives, namely, the preservation
of the intellectual strength which made life worth having.
In Matilda Barbara's sitting-room she loved to be called
Matilda Barbara. I shall never forget how her face brightened
with surprise and pleasure the first time one of us ventured on it,
in inverted commas, as it were. The sound of her Christian
name had become strange and was sweet to her, there were so few left
who still called her by it, so few who came close enough to have a
claim to the right. Age is the lonelier for the formality with
which it is treated. In one corner of her sitting-room was a
round table covered with the books, papers, and magazines she had in
use at the moment; in the opposite corner her pianette stood away
from the bookshelves, with the music on it—good music—bearing
witness to her taste. The little sofa on which she always sat
stood up against the wall on a line with the window. We were
placed opposite with a little tea-table between us. There was
no escape for me from the one arm-chair close to the fire, but Miss
Tindall had a footstool to compensate for the height of her seat.
As soon as we were settled in our places, Emily appeared with a
tray, on which were two cups of delicious tea, a box of matches, and
a miniature earthenware bowl for an ash-tray, and set it on the
table, with the invariable formula: "Just to refresh the ladies
after their journey, and madam must smoke her cigarette."
Only two people were privileged to smoke in the house, the
beloved physician, of course, because he required the rest and
relaxation of a cigarette, and myself—a benign concession to a bad
habit, in pity for the weakness of the flesh. And smoke we had
to, willy-nilly. There is no satisfaction in a cigarette if
one suspects that one's hospitable hostess is enduring rather than
enjoying the smell of it. I once tried the experiment of going
unprovided, but never again! The plea that I had brought none
because it was good for me to go without was scouted as "rubbish,"
and Emily was dispatched on, the instant to borrow cigarettes from
the "son of the cottage at the back." His mother would know
where he kept them if he was out at work. His mother did know.
They were not the brand I usually smoked.
This was the most delightful time, when we had the little
lady all to ourselves, and we always wished it had lasted longer.
Sitting with her back to the light she beamed on us, happy as a hen
with two erratic ducklings safely recovered from the pond.
Agèd eyes are kind to their friends; the ravages of time escape
them. She never looked at us through her spectacles, so to the
last, even in the fifth year of the war, she remained happily
unaware of any sorrowful change in us that would have distressed
her. When we were alone together she could be as young and
merry herself as she thought us. Once when we were talking
about what we liked to do best for a diversion, capping an
extravagance that had amused her, she said: "What would please me
best on a fine summer day would be to be taking tea with a French
officer on a Boulevard in Paris, in a new French bonnet." We
pictured the French officer proudly delighting in her company as in
that d'une mère bien aimée; but we exclaimed, "O frivolous!
Qui peut tout dire arrive à tout faire," and
inadvertently gave her a chance, for the phrase cuts both ways.
Qui peut tout dire when he aspired to do right, arrive à
tout faire to further his purpose. And gaiety went out in
moralising, which culminated in Shelley's sigh:
"Alas! we know not what we do
When we speak words!"
Our audience was cut short by the arrival of the guests for
tea, whom we were hurried down to meet in the dining-room. She
gave us "schoolroom teas," and it was pleasant to see her enjoying
her own hospitality, as it were, in the appetites of the friends she
collected round her table. No "plain very stale cakes" for
them. The homemade best of everything was somehow provided,
including those wonders in war-time, lump sugar and apricot jam.
The difficulty was to satisfy her that you had had enough. It
was wise to curb your appetite at lunch if you were going to have
tea with Miss Betham-Edwards. Seated in her own particular
chair—the chair she describes in her notes upon Henry James—she kept
her eyes open to everybody's wants and her ears to their
conversation. Should the doctor happen in, nothing would
content her but that he should sit in her chair, while she,
dethroned, took the first that offered opposite. His
predicament and his feelings in the circumstances were well
understood by others of the party, and this may have helped to
sustain him. At all events he bore himself nobly. Henry
James doubtless accepted the distinction in the same spirit of
self-sacrifice, and was rewarded in like manner by his hostess's
gratification. She had the eyes of a mother for the doctor, a
mother with an only son on whose accomplishments she might well
pride herself, allowing heredity to account for them. Only
once did we see the fair weather of her enjoyment of these occasions
overcast, and then—oh, dictu!—it dictu!—it was the doctor
himself who raised the wind and caused a squall—with the best
intentions. He had been specially asked to meet the author of
a recently published book in which he had expressed an interest, the
meeting being designed to give him an opportunity he desired to
discuss the book; and, thinking to show his appreciation of the
kindness by making the most of it, he devoted himself to the purpose
of the interview. The book was a long one, with controversial
matter in it, and he picked up the points categorically, with the
acumen and accuracy so conspicuous, as a rule, by their absence in
the reviews of professional critics. He differed from the
author's views in several important respects, but that only relieved
the discussion from insipidity. There is help in an impartial
difference of opinion, ably stated, for a writer whose only desire
is to arrive at the truth; and the author was benefiting. The
rest of the party, interested in the animated discussion, were
silently absorbed in listening, when from the other side of the
table came the plaintive protest: "Never have you said so much about
any one of my books!"
It was the woman who spoke, not the authoress. Give the
woman your first consideration, and you may lavish your subsequent
attention on whom you please—in a matter of the kind.
Our authoress was a great little lady; there was nothing
petty about her. She delighted in the success of a colleague
per se, even when she was not in sympathy with his views.
News of a fresh arrival kindled in her the friendliest interest.
It was a happiness to her to help on an aspirant to literary fame,
and she grudged neither time, trouble, nor strength for the purpose.
She exerted herself to write to me just before the fatal stroke—her
last letter—on the subject of a first book for which she was doing
her best to help a new writer to find a publisher. The news
that the book had been accepted reached her on her death-bed, while
she was still conscious enough to understand and show with a smile
that she was glad.
She did not show her interest in young writers by reading
their books. Her way was to set others to the task, and form
her own opinion on a digest; and she was seldom out in her estimate.
She detected the brawling conceit of a shallow stream in one young
man who was helping to "debase the moral currency." If
she had lived to hear of him loudly proclaiming to a companion in
the street, for the information of the passers-by: "We are the only
writers who have any style!" we should have had her dry little
comment: "I thought so!"
Vauvenargues was wrong in her case when he declared that "to
praise moderately is a great sign of mediocrity." She did not
pay "handsome compliments," but she spoke with that "accent of truth
" which makes a few words from those who have it worth treasuring
for their weight and meaning. Genuinely diffident souls, in
whom extravagant flattery only suffices to inspire a passing gleam
of self-confidence and hope, unwarmed by the careful restraint of
her calm assurances, felt themselves sent empty away; yet her sober
phrasing had not failed of its intended effect, as they eventually
discovered—by finding the impression a lasting source of
If not one of the greatest, Miss Betham-Edwards was certainly
one of the most remarkable of the group of distinguished women whom
we now call Mid-Victorian, both in respect to her own interesting
personality and for the long list of her achievements. She had
the high sense of the dignity of her calling, and of its moral
responsibility common to the choicer spirits of her day. The
commercialising of literature, which is nowadays degrading the
pursuit of it to the level of a sordid trade, was abhorrent to her.
To have tradesmen ordering the product of brains by the inch; to be
requested to scamp an idea of its perfect expression in order to
make room for advertisements of scented soaps; to place the work of
genius itself as a mere adjunct to a display of the wares of
enterprising shopkeepers, she rightly regarded as a triumph of
vulgar materialism blind even to its own interests, which are best
served by catering for the satisfaction of the spiritual needs of
mankind. She recognised the necessity of providing for others,
which in some cases had subordinated the artist to the tradesman,
and deplored it; but she despised mercenariness—the enslavement of
mind to money—when the choice lay between that and poverty, with
liberty for self-expression. She had no reason to envy anybody
their standing, nor did she—her own was secure. Which is not
to say that she was self-satisfied. Nobody who has the power
of growth still in them is self-satisfied, for growth is stopped
when self-satisfaction sets in. If she could not flatter
herself with the assurance that she had done the best that could be
done, she was at all events well entitled to rest contented in the
certainty that she had conscientiously done her best.
And she had been fortunate. Talent was not at a discount in
her day as it is in ours, and she never suffered the blight of
incessant rejection. She came into her own when she was about
seventeen, and was received with open arms—if Dickens may be called
her own, for it was he who gave her her first five-pound note for a
poem entitled The Golden Bee. At twenty she succeeded
as a novelist with her first work of fiction, The While House by
the Sea; and at seventy, at the request of her publisher, Mr.
Reginald Smith, she wrote a novel—entitled Hearts of Alsace—to
celebrate the jubilee of her working life. In the meantime she had
added to her fame by one novel after another. Mr. Frederic Harrison
mentions Kitty, Dr. Jacob, John and I, as among her
best, but considers that "A Suffolk Courtship, The Lord of the
Harvest, and Mock Beggars' Hall have a special value,
even as historic records of 'Old England' in Corn Law days, and they
are worthy to stand beside those of Maria Edgeworth and Mary
In 1898 Miss Betham-Edwards wrote in her first series of
Reminiscences: "Not to many comes the satisfaction of what may
almost be called posthumous fame," little dreaming that she herself
was to have the still greater gratification of being definitely
ranked as a "classic" in her lifetime by the publication of her
novel, The Lord of the Harvest (first published in 1889), in
The World's Classics, in 1913. Up to the present most
of her novels have been reprinted again and again, and are still
selling, but she herself reaped no great monetary benefit from them.
She accepted twenty-five copies in payment for The White House by
the Sea, and never received a farthing of profit for it, though
it is still in print. Yet she defended the bargain as
equitable "for a young writer."
She was in her eightieth year when the Diamond Jubilee of her
working life was celebrated in 1917. In the long retrospect
she had nothing to regret and very much which it must have been good
to remember. Her novels were but a light part of her output.
She had to her credit besides, in the solider parts, some of the
best works ever written on French life, organisation, and character.
In 1891 the French Government, considering that her writings had
materially helped to promote the sympathy and understanding which
resulted in the Entente Cordiale, made her an Officier de
l'Instruction Publique de France. She was, I believe, the
first English officer of the Order. She was also awarded a
gold medal for the nine volumes, published over a period of
thirty-five years, which she exhibited in the Palace of Women's Work
in the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. From the Government
of her own unappreciative country she received no public recognition
whatever; and she felt it, for in 1918 she wrote to me—with a wry
smile, as it were—"My literary Diamond jubilee 1857-1918 won't, I
fear, bring me my deserts, viz., the title of Baroness as
accorded to Miss Burdett-Coutts. Any lesser distinction I
should refuse, as these are showered upon grocers, bakers, and
candlestick makers." Happily she had ample private tokens of
respect and affection. Among her regular visitors to the last
were many distinguished men. I never heard of any particularly
distinguished woman paying her the same pretty attentions in her old
age, but that would not strike her as worth mentioning, she so very
much preferred the men.
The gallant little lady escaped the trial so many who love
their work have had forced upon them in their declining years, the
trial of idleness. We dreaded the effect of the war on her.
We feared her self-preservative detachment from public affairs—her
attitude of merely interested onlooker—would not survive the din of
battle, the incessant shock and jar and horror which must certainly
invade even her seclusion. Physically frail as she was there
was no knowing what she might not attempt if she heard herself
called in the cries for help to which hundreds of thousands of women
were everywhere responding at no matter what cost of suffering to
themselves. Happily, from the height of her detachment she
continued to look down serenely, as the gods look down, on the
follies of men. Her active work in the world was done, and she
was mercifully left to the repose which had been awarded her on her
Mount Parnassus. Moments of anxiety she had for the safety of
friends in the danger zone; moments of grief for the havoc wrought,
as on one occasion when she wrote: "I weep for Rheims Cathedral as
if a star had been darkened in the heavens"; moments of splendid
wrath—short squalls these, which burst in vigorous language
(generally on a post card), and were immediately succeeded by
sunshine in the next paragraph. In one example, dated
"22/5/18," after tersely condemning the Huns to eternal perdition in
Doric English, the sun shone (in French) on the prospect of seeing
us soon again: "Enchantée par l'espoir de vous revoir ici aver la
très chère R. M. T. sitôt que la jolie petite fiancée serait mariée.
Votre visite, vos visites je dois dire ici, seront des fêtes.
Tant d'amis et d'admirateurs viendraient vous rencontrer. La
fidèle E. all 'hop, skip, and jump,' at the thought, and the dear
sofa-ridden at W. Croft will be so pleased."
Her attitude in regard to the war was early determined, and,
once determined, she mentioned it, as a rule, as we mention the
sorrows of others when they do not personally concern us.
Except when isolated incidents poignantly affected her, she thought
of it as we had been in the habit of thinking of remote wars, in
China or Peru, her intellect alive to the tragedy, but her heart
untouched—and that was right and best for her, at her great age—and
a blessing to the friends whose own heavy burden of anxiety and
sorrow was eased by knowing that her peaceful contemplation from her
sitting-room window of the view she loved—the green slopes, the red
roofs picturesquely huddled below, and the grey church tower
outlined squarely against the changeful sea—was untroubled by a too
vivid sense of the horrors that were being enacted out there, just
On a card to Miss Tindall, dated "1/3/15," which begins, "Do
write that cleverly suggested paper—how the war affects
individuals"— she goes on to say: "The war does not affect me either
in mental or bodily powers—the reverse, for I look to it as a
universal moral, religious, and intellectual purifier—the dawn (I
may not live to see) of a new (lay) religion."
That expression—"a new (lay) religion loosely used because
she knew it was safe not to be misunderstood, may be thought to
savour of materialism. Judging from many passages in her works
such an assumption would be incorrect. Mr. Frederic Harrison,
writing in the Positivist Review, February 1919, says:
Her close friendship with French Protestants and with leaders of the
Voltairian parties made her an uncompromising opponent of the
Catholic Church and of clerical teaching. And she was hardly
less tolerant of the Anglican Church and its schools. For
practical purposes she alluded to the principles which this Review
maintains, and was in intimate fellowship with its founders and
principal contributors. At the same time, the Voltairian
strain in her creed and sympathies withheld her from any formal
co-operation with our body. We often found her a zealous
fellow-worker, and always a sympathetic friend, whilst she
maintained a keen independence in judgment, held on to a passionate
belief in her heroes and causes, and by temperament and training was
averse to any type of religious organisation.
This is admirably true of her as far as it goes, but it does
not go far enough. She quarrelled with the Established Church
for being a political institution—"that branch of the Civil Service
usually called the Church of England," Lord Houghton's witticism,
she habitually quoted on subject—instead of being, as it should be,
the Fountainhead of Pure Christianity. Which is not to suggest
that she would have belonged to it even if it had been her ideal of
a religious body. The nonconformity in her blood rendered her
averse from organisations of every kind; but equally in her blood
was Christianity itself—"Christianity, untravestied, unadulterated
by Councils and Synods, St. Augustines and St. Athanasiuses."
"Theology and theologians have never possessed the slightest
attraction for me," she says in her first published Reminiscences
(p. 339). But theology is not religion; neither is
ecclesiasticism. History teems with examples of religious
evolution fettered by the tyrannous application of the shackles of
dogma, and of the pursuit of truth barred by ecclesiastical
intolerance at every step. Religion so hampered is like a
forest tree grown in a flower-pot, dwarfed and deformed.
Superstition has done its worst to impede in every department of
life, but progress only in this, the most important of all, seeing
that upon the enlightened conduct of it hinges the worth-while of
all else—has superstition succeeded, by blocking inquiry, in
checking the acquisition of knowledge and its sane application.
The fatal result is that the human race, grown out of the fairy
tales which sufficed for its childhood and forbidden to replace them
by the stronger pabulum for which it is ripe, is being spiritually
starved by the restriction. Miss Betham-Edwards expressed
herself on this subject courageously: "No music ravishes my ears as
that of the Salvation Army," she says. "Those hearty strains,
heard every Sunday, never fail to stir my pulse with purest rapture.
For do they not remind me of our hardly acquired religious liberty,
the right enjoyed by every English subject to save or damn himself
as he pleases, to regard his salvation, so called, as purely a
personal affair as that of choosing a partner in life or a career!"
She was not triumphing here in the special form in which
"religious liberty" found self-expression, but in its escape from
enslavement. It is significant that, of all the influences she
came under in her friendships with distinguished men of all shades
of opinion, the following is the one she most gratefully
"A millionaire, as I have always deemed myself in the matter
of friendships, how was my capital diminished by the loss of this
most beloved and worthily-beloved man! Some of our friends
embellish our lives, others build up, one or two beatify.
Neither a flower, melody, nor palmer's staff was the close
friendship of Dr. Wilson; instead a Scripture, plain to read,
bearing the incontestible stamp of finer spirits, souls, in the
words of Plato and Spinoza, exempt from the lot of mortality."
She goes on to quote as the "keynote of Dr. Wilson's character
struck in early life": . . . "Thank God, we have still a leaven of
manly Christian devotion in the world's lump of vexatious vanity; we
may yet hope to see our national worship in spirit and in truth
within the walls of our churches, where, upon a broad level, rich
and poor, old and young, learned and simple, may bow down as
brethren in the presence of the God and Father of us all. Here
might be a reknitting of that bond of union which is the bond of
strength in our social system, now bound by a rope of sand . . . the
Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of practical Christianity
realised in our lives as professed upon our lips."—Reminiscences,
This passage may or may not embody her own hopes. She
makes no comment on it. But that was her way when she
approved; it was when she disagreed that she had most to say.
Mysticism intrigued her mind, and intellectually she appeared to
have the limited outlook of the scientific materialist; but
spiritually she was better informed. She could not have
written her poems without having experienced "the delightful bathing
of the soul in emotions which overpass the outlines of definite
thought"—in which her great contemporary George Eliot's mind was
washed clean of its doubts. Essentially honest as she was, she
would not have republished, towards the end of her life (1907),
hymns full of childlike faith, if she had ceased to believe in the
God to whom they were addressed
"In grief, perplexity, or pain
None ever go to Thee in vain
Thou makest life a joy again,
God of the weary,"
would have been ruthlessly deleted if it had ceased to be true of
her personal experience. The intellect may faithfully describe
its acquirements in words, but spiritual perceptions, real as they
are to the individual, transcend his powers of expression. It
is not an uncommon thing for this difficulty to be evaded by making
no effort to subordinate intellectual experience, which consists in
the acquisition of secular learning, with the spiritual intuitions
with which the soul would have mankind value the product of their
minds. Advanced thinkers who are guilty of this evasion tell
us sometimes naively that they have to keep their "faith" apart in a
"separate water-tight compartment" or they would lose it.
There it remains unvisited, but at all events safe and intact; but
its growth is stopped, so that, at the end of their lives, they are
spiritually no further advanced than they were at their mother's
knee. Childlike faith is beautiful at any age, but
". . . his deserts are small,
That dares not put it to the touch
To gain or lose it all . . . "
is felt by the more courageous, probably because, in their own case,
the effect of putting it to the touch was to prove that the danger
was imaginary. In too many instances there is reason to mourn
the lack of enterprise in this direction which has resulted in the
loss to the individual and to the world of all that must have
accrued had he seen to it that his spiritual evolution kept pace
with his intellectual development.
Miss Betham-Edwards' religion was a natural secretion of her
heredity and an integral part of her being. Like the
circulation of her blood, it performed its function without
attracting special attention on her part to itself. She was
reticent on the subject, even to Dr. Hessey, to whom, if to any one,
she was most likely to have expressed herself precisely if she had
arrived at any precise conclusion. His cultivated
psychological sense may be trusted to have formed an accurate
diagnosis of her spiritual state from fugitive symptoms, and he
could only say, in answer to a question on the subject of her
apprehension of a life to come, "I know that she had no fear of the
future, though her ideas on the subject were extraordinarily
primitive. She would rarely talk on the subject, but sometimes
she would lead me on, and then one had to walk warily." Taking
his "primitive" to mean the same as my "childlike," we agree in our
main conclusion in regard to the faith of our friend.
But if transcendentally her outlook was nebulous, ethically
it was clearly defined. She rejoiced in the belief "that one
of the greatest changes of the Victorian era is a progressive moral
standard." She perceived that the advance of mankind depends
not on scientific discoveries, mechanical inventions, artistic
triumphs, or commercial success, but on the conquest of their
misery-making propensities by the development of their sense of
moral obligation. In the conduct of her own life she set a
courageous example. In her childhood she had turned to the
right, and she kept straight on to the end of her days, however
toilsome the way. Her rectitude is as apparent in her work as
it was in her social relations. She verified the smallest
detail and scrupulously gave the name of every author to whom she
was indebted, even for a phrase. All her affairs were
regulated with the same punctilious probity, and every obligation
punctually met. Decency and order were the rule of her life.
In her last will and testament she showed her habitual consideration
for others by doing herself everything that she could do to save
them trouble. Her directions were explicit and had only to be
carried out. She guarded her dignity both in the disposal of
her property and in the arrangements she made for the final disposal
of her mortal remains. Emily provided for, her one cause for
anxiety was removed, and she could face what was to come in
undisturbed peace of mind. In her time she had been wiser than
either ant or cigale. One-sidedness had robbed the ant of
pleasure in the present and the cigale of safety in the future.
Our friend, better balanced, had divided her time between work and
play. The one helping the other, she enjoyed both to the top
of her bent, and at the same time laid in a rich store of pleasant
recollections upon which to browse when strength failed for the
continuous active pursuit of either. It is good to think of
her in the long precious hours she spent in happy contemplation,
sitting out of doors, as we sometimes saw her, in summer, her face
beautifully serene, with just that touch of melancholy upon it in
repose which is proper to the autumn of life as to the autumn of the
year. Content with what she had, satisfied with what she had
accomplished, still able to exercise the gifts she had used to such
good purpose all her life, out of the crowd but surrounded by
devoted friends, the sun may be said to have shone on her throughout
the winter of her days till the last.
She declined so gently that no great change in her was
observable until 1918. She had been ailing the previous year,
but her mind was as active as ever. The following post card is
VILLA JULIA, HASTINGS,
Who wrote The Schönberg Colla Family, etc. etc.,
Mid-Victorian and a woman? See the other side. Will
answer yr long letter soon. But I have been in bed for several
days with cold (or influenza), and only now get half-way downstairs,
but hope to begin work to-morrow. The Dr. all cheerfulness and
devotion. Yes, as Voltaire said, "Work drives away disease,
crime, and ennui." Shall look forward to your next.
Induce our friend to stick for the present to the petites
nouvelles which she does so well. Romans must be
short, full of incident and cheerful nowadays, and not too
conversational and philosophical, a rattling short story is the
thing. Puis-je être utile a elle re short story or novel.
I began H. J.'s [Henry James] "Middle Yrs," but as I am writing a
short biographical novel (date 1864) . . . I am sending the book
back unread to Mudie, fearful of catching that delightful (in his
case) involved style but terrible if caught. . . . I find that it is
H. James' "Sense of the Past" I tried to read and couldn't, and I
remember now that I did read the passages about G. Eliot in "The
The early part of 1918 tried her, but in March she wrote buoyantly:
"Haven't been out of the house for months this yr. Out once and then
slipped down on wet cobble stones—no harm done but a little shaken. Quite well now and just finishing a set of fire-eating short stories
(autobiographical) of Germany and France. If the Huns get here I
shall be shot, that's certain. Have you read the life of Wilkes—a
terrible disreputable; but oh! to have half, a quarter, a grain of
his never failing wit!"
We saw her last in July 1918, and found a difference in her, but
accounted for it hopefully as the temporary effect of the fall,
which had been a greater shock than she pretended. Her memory did
not fail her, but it responded tardily to her calls upon it. She had
often to pause till the word or name or quotation she wanted
recurred to her. Loss of memory to this extent is a common
experience during convalescence, we reminded each other. She did
revive afterwards, for our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Coulson Kernahan,
had tea with her only a week or two before she was stricken, and Mr.
Kernahan reported that they had "found her talking as animatedly, as
shrewdly, and as wittily as talking ever. When we threatened to
report her to the Food Controller for the sumptuousness of her
table, she retorted, 'When I can't afford to ask old friends to tea
I'll invite them to morning prayers.'"
We had the happiness of being her only guests on that last occasion,
but all the usual dear little ceremonies were strictly observed.
Taxis being "off" on account of the war, we had thankfully taken to
a little public omnibus known to us as "Black Maria," which plied at
set times between the station and the foot of High Wickham hill. When it was time to go the little lady parted from us on the
doorstep, with a confident au revoir!
As we walked down the green hill in front of the house we had one
last glimpse of her standing at her sitting-room window waving her
handkerchief and watching us out of sight. There was a sorrowful
foreboding in each of our hearts which made us determine to waste no
opportunities we might have of seeing her again; but, alas for us!
visits had to be postponed for one reason and another, to our
abiding regret, until it was too late. Her last card to "Dearest
Rachel Mary" ends joyously:
"Lovingest greetings to both from
Base and degrading 'TILDA.
Mid-Victorian Memories out in June. Diamond Jubilee Edition
of The White House by the Sea, (1857-1918), forthcoming got
up regardless of expense.
"Emily's best love and duty to both dear ladies."
She had corrected the proofs of Mid-Victorian Memories and begun a
new novel, which she told us was to have "the ineffable title of
Bitter Sweet"; and she had yet another novel projected with a title
which was too thrilling to be confided to us in writing, but we were
to hear all about it after Christmas, when, for certain, our
promised visit was to have been paid. Long before the date she had
fixed for it, alas! little hope was left us of ever seeing her on
earth again. The fatal illness began with a stroke on the 8th
December 1918. On the 4th January 1919, at twenty minutes to four in
the afternoon, she breathed her last.
She faced death as she had faced life: "Tell my friends that I am
quite cheerful, and tell the doctor that I never lose my good
spirits. I mean to keep them to the end"—were the last messages she
sent us. Her last words were "loving thanks" to Emily and Mrs. Ransome—her "two guardian angels," as she called them—for all they
had done for her to smooth the last little bit of the way. There
were to have been "no flowers," but ours had been sent before we
were told; and we were glad on Emily's account as well as our own,
for it would have hurt to think the cloistered austerity of the room
in which she lay was unrelieved by a single token of faithful
affection. Emily decided in the matter as she had been in the habit
of deciding for the good of her lady in other matters in which they
had differed. "I had to give my dear lady your beautiful flowers,"
she wrote pathetically. "She looks so sweet."
When all was over Dr. Hessey wrote to Miss Tindall: "We shall all
miss the dear little lady immensely. It has been a great privilege
to have known her so intimately. Hers was an extraordinarily clear
mind acting through a remarkable brain. I feel I owe her much.
"After her stroke, which affected her right arm and leg, she
remained almost her usual self for some time and took a great
interest in her letters, and was always pleased and interested in
seeing me and Mrs. Darent Harrison—I did not allow any one else to
see her—who went in to read to her occasionally, but gradually she
failed, and during the last few days she was practically unconscious
and gently faded away. One cannot be too thankful that life here was
not prolonged. . . . For her to have lived on with an enfeebled
brain would have been a tragedy."
A brave successful life ending in a brave happy death is good to
think upon, and this is our comfort in the present. We do "all miss
the dear little lady immensely." We do all "feel that we owe her
much." We grieve for that we have looked our last upon her in this
earth-life, but we do not grieve as for one who is lost to us for
ever. She has only gone on before a little distance, for a little
while; and when our time comes and we too pass on through the Gate
of Death, we have no fear but that she will meet us on the Other
Side, with little hands outstretched, and in her eyes the silent
welcome of a great joy.
"THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE,"
the late Professor Beesly said to me a few years ago, "is a book
that ought to be put into the hands of every young man on entering
Could higher praise be coveted by any poet? I am sorry that Coventry
Patmore did not live to hear the compliment, all the more piquant
coming as it did from a brand not to be snatched from the burning. That is to say, was he or anyone else logical where theological
matters lie nearest their hearts?
Taking him all in all, my neighbour and intimate friend was far and
away the most original figure in these memorabilia.
From the crown of his head to the sole of his foot a rank
mediævalist, he was born several centuries too late. He ought to
have been a contemporary of Saint Simeon Stylites, who spent thirty
years on a pillar seventy-two feet high and four feet square at the
top—a pretty tight residence for a lifetime!—or at least of Saint
Francis d'Assisi five centuries later, who walked a whole day
through a forest, forgetting all the time where he was; had he been
told in a brickfield, he would of course have assented.
More justifiably perhaps than Jean Paul Richter might
Coventry Patmore be styled "the only one." The German prose
poet, after all, was not out of place in the eighteenth-century
Fatherland. The other seemed a contemporary of Dante,
Calderon, even of the Troubadours; little indeed of the Victorian
gentleman was there about him but his dress. The Franciscan
garb in which he chose to be buried symbolised medævalism of life
and character. With Don Quixote, Coventry Patmore had come
into the world three hundred years too late. Our epoch, so he
perpetually lamented, possessed neither distinction, romance, nor
magnanimous opportunity. Sorry medium indeed for any child of
song! Yet so ruthless is the logic of facts, his best—may we
not aver, his only enduring work?—belongs essentially to the modern
spirit he repudiated!
The writer who is not of his own epoch is identifiable with
none. Mysticism here had dried the springs of artless fancy.
A unique, a brilliant personality remained. The sweet singer
in Israel was lost to the world.
It was in 1868 that the poet relinquished his post at the
British Museum, married a rich woman, and settled at Hastings, in a
house, as he told me, he had coveted all his life. This was a
fine mansion at the foot of the East Hill. Built by the
fourfold-wedded Lady Waldegrave, the house seemed a veritable shrine
of matrimony, a roof-tree under Hymen's especial patronage.
The second Mrs. Patmore now installed as mistress was one of
Cardinal Manning's wealthiest and most devout converts, who not only
swallowed her new creed whole but would fain have had it of much
stronger mediæval flavour, as the tragedy of her end will show.
Stepmotherhood was not field wide enough for the handsome, imperious
mistress of old Hastings House. She should have been an abbess
of some convent famed for its asceticism.
A noble old house it is, Georgian in date, its red brick
frontage beautified by a trellised magnolia, stretching on the left
and raised high above the road, possessing a spacious, well-wooded
pleasaunce—garden hardly seems an adequately descriptive word.
Few such dwellings are to be found near a large town nowadays, and
the new tenant of The Mansion, as it was then called, revelled in a
sense of amplitude, retirement, and dignity. Dignity, indeed,
characterised the poet's household; distinction was the atmosphere
that he brought with him.
It was soon after the poet's settling-down that I was invited
to a luncheon given in honour of the event. On entering the
drawing-room, my eyes immediately rested on a sumptuous woman
standing in the centre of a group; she wore over her black satin
dress a gold chain, not round her neck, but, doubtless with some
fantastic meaning, encircling her waist. But what at once
struck observers was her beaming look of triumph. Well,
indeed, from her point of view, might she triumph! Had not the
Cardinal's convert been the means of bringing not only her poet, but
those belonging to him, within the pale of Rome? That beaming
look was always there. A cultivated woman of the world, an
ardent dévote, she saw everything from one standpoint only.
Graciousness she was itself, and fond of society, as she frankly
admitted. Upon one occasion, when we had discussed theological
questions, fearing that she had not made her meaning transparent,
she wrote to me that same evening: "You will understand me when I
say that I have more fellow-feeling with an ignorant, dirty old
Breton peasant woman who belongs to my religion than with any
outsider, no matter how gifted." The word "timid" occurs in
Mr. Gosse's three or four lines of characterisation. [p.4]
Never did any woman possess a more imperious will than the second
Mrs. Patmore; never did any more completely wield "all the rule, one
umpire." Thus for many years Coventry Patmore submitted to
both spiritual and domestic sway. The autocratic rule of his
household during that period was strictly a feminine one.
Days of struggle, material and spiritual, were well over.
Wedded to a rich, handsome, and in every respect sympathetic wife,
with herself, for once and for all, he became an ardent Romanist.
Coventry Patmore's lines were now cast in pleasant places. But
prosperous circumstances left him in one respect what he had ever
been. Like Shakespeare's Thersites, [p.5]
he always loved to be "where wit was stirring." To him, as to
rare Ben Jonson, a keen wit was dear as his nutriment. The
Open Sesame of The Mansion was lively intellect, mental alertness,
suggestiveness: rank, opulence, fashion could not turn the key.
Within its walls you breathed an atmosphere of literary eclecticism
and simple refinement.
Frank, informal hospitality characterised the fine old house
with the magnolias. One pleasant visit was made with a dear
Scottish friend, the late Dr. Japp. Just twenty years ago,
when staying at Hastings, the co-editor of Good Words
expressed a wish to make Coventry Patmore's acquaintance.
On asking permission to introduce my guest, came an immediate
invitation to lunch, or rather early dinner. Much enlivening
conversation we had at table, and much more doubtless had the two
men after they had retired for a tête-à-tête and a pipe.
In a little volume of poems published for private circulation, I
find that Dr. Japp commemorated the day, August 12, 1888, by writing
two sonnets, in one of which occurs the line
"Sweet brotherhood, made one by sorrow's seal."
The duologue had perhaps turned upon subjects too sad and solemn for
the family board.
Coventry Patmore delighted to give people little shocks.
One day at table, all present being fellow-converts to Romanism but
myself, he burst out with: "Nothing is a greater mistake than to
think that religion makes folks happy: it makes them miserable.
Look at my own case. I had planned a delightful little spree
in town with X." (naming a boon companion). "We were going to
see this, that, and the other, and have a scrumptious lunch together
at the Criterion, when lo! I discovered that the day fixed was
Friday, a fast day! So I had to telegraph to X. and mope at
home over eggs and potatoes."
He set as much store by genial intercourse as did Montaigne.
Whilst living at the beautiful old house at Hastings, a kind of a
Harold Skimpole from America contrived to make the poet's
acquaintance. "I said to myself," he told me, "'My fine
fellow, you are worth fifty pounds to me; beyond that I shall not
go.' He was very good company, and used to tell me most
amusing stories of his own adventures in different parts of the
world by the yard, not a word of any, I'll vouch for it, being true.
I paid some of his bills for him, but when he asked a loan of
several hundred pounds I wished him good day.
"That fellow was one of the cleverest I ever came across,"
Mr. Patmore continued. "One day in the early part of our
acquaintance he came to me for advice. His wife had purchased
a costume at one of the principal local drapers, but when an
assistant was sent for to make certain alterations she packed it up
and carried it back to the shop. What should he do? 'Go
to Z.,' I said, naming my lawyer; and off he started.
'Summon the people,' said Z.; 'that is what you had better do.
But wait—have you paid for the dress? If not, send a cheque
and summon them afterwards.' 'On my word, I never thought of
that,' exclaimed the other innocently; 'and as I don't happen to
have my purse, just oblige me with your cheque for the amount.'
And I'll be hanged," added Coventry Patmore, chuckling, "if he
didn't bamboozle the lawyer. Instead of stepping over the way,
he went straight home. The dress was never paid for, and Z.
never got back his money!"
To the very last Coventry Patmore worshipped at the shrine of
grace and beauty. A few years before he died he was introduced
to a charming young lady at my house, and whenever we met afterwards
he became dithyrambic about her. She married a little later,
and I begged his autograph for a copy of his poems I had bought as a
wedding gift. He thus quoted himself under a pretty
"Nature to you was more than kind.
What fond perversity to dress
So much simplicity of mind
In such a wealth of loveliness!"
But the compliment was felt to be overwhelming, and the volume did
not appear with the other wedding gifts.
"The waters of Shiloh that go softly" were to be rudely
disturbed. The Mansion had changed hands, and was wanted as a
residence by its new owner. All the heavier fell the blow
because over against his much-loved home Coventry Patmore had raised
a handsome church in memory of his second wife, thus creating a
little Catholic centre, in which he naturally occupied a foremost
place. He had made many friends, too, among non-Catholics, and
loved the quaint old seaboard town. Hastings also regretted
the loss of the poet. Cassell's three-penny edition of The
Angel in the House had popularised the poem among all classes.
The townsfolk would turn to gaze on the tall, attenuated, erect
figure in black velvet with the striking countenance as he stalked
along, holding by the hand a miniature of himself, the little son
born of his third marriage. There were keen regrets on both
sides. The poet forfeited an ideal abode: Hastings lost
distinction. But the thing had to be done, and after much
painful journeying to and fro a suitable retreat journeying for one
so fastidious was found at Lymington. The house, flanked by an
old-world garden, overlooked the Solent, and was roomy, irregular,
and secluded—a very fair substitute for the Georgian mansion with
the magnolia. One drawback was the distance from the little
church, which had to be reached by a ferry-boat. Shortly after
the family installation, I was invited for a few days, and memorable
days they were. Never had I found Coventry Patmore in
livelier, more paradoxical mood, more thoroughly himself. As
good a listener as he was a talker, he always spurred on other
folk's wits; and although a bottomless gulf of antipodean opinion
divided us, we loved each other dearly.
He would say to me when I was his guest, "Now come into my
study, and have a pipe and a glass of beer." The pipe and
glass might be declined, but the tête-à-tête was, of course,
irresistible. A first-rate story-teller, full of literary
reminiscence, an original and epigrammatic but wayward critic,
Coventry Patmore only needed a suggestive remark or apt question,
and his talk would flow in a brilliant unbroken stream. As the
blue tobacco fumes curled upwards, and the strange, lank, sardonic
figure of the speaker became partly obscured, his listener would
forget the man in the potency of the voice—a voice mysterious,
penetrating, Dantesque, belonging not to one of ourselves, but to
the olden time, an echo of the grand old days, "the days that are no
Here are a few jottings, mere crumbs from the rich man's
table, which may give some idea of his table-talk. He had
known Carlyle well, and was fond of talking about him. "Why,"
I asked one evening, "should Carlyle have written his French
Revolution in the chaotic, parenthetic style of Jean Paul
Richter, every sentence being a Chinese puzzle?" "Why?" he
replied. "Because to put all that he had to say in clear,
matter-of-fact prose would have required twenty pages instead of
one. His book suited the theme: it is in itself a revolution!"
"The lack of our age is distinction," he said at another
time. "What opportunity is there in these days for heroism, or
in literature for really great work? Writers cannot say what
they would. Some of the great books of the world are coarse.
Look at Othello, Dante, Calderon who in the present time could dare
to write as freely?"
Then, sadly enough, he went on to tell me that the manuscript
of a mystical poem—his best work, he considered it—had lately been
burnt. "My spiritual adviser, Father—, disapproved of
publication," he added, with a rueful face and deep-drawn sigh.
It was in the modern novel that Coventry Patmore found mental
recreation, not in stories written with a purpose, but in natural
pictures of life. The super-sensuous, psychological fiction
now in fashion had not as yet supplanted former ideals, and would
most assuredly have been anathematised by the poet. With one
or two startling exceptions, the lady novelists of the Victorian
epoch were his favourite reading. To the Brontë sisters he was
whimsically antipathetic. On the other hand, he once said to
me, "I could name a hundred novels of our day each in its way as
perfect as Paradise Lost," singling out for praise several
women writers. The authoress of The Atelier du Lys had
his suffrages, among others.
Coventry Patmore ever proved the inspiring and inspired in
such a milieu.
Who else could have thus paraphrased the second William's
telegram to his spouse after Sedan? Was Punch ever
relished as was the number containing his famous parody of that
pietistic monarch's message to his wife?
"Thank the Lord, my dear Augusta,
We have fought the French a buster,
Ten thousand Frenchmen sent below,
Praise Him from whom all blessings flow."
Like the fat boy in Pickwick, Coventry Patmore loved to make
folk's flesh creep. Thus I remember when a guest at the
beautiful old house, his last home, near Lymington, a small
dinner-party was given in my honour, the company consisting of
neighbouring gentry, county families, as the phrase goes; that is to
say, squires and squiresses of the most rigid gentility—dullish
company, one would deem, for a poet and a wit. As wine was
being handed round, he blurted out:
"After all that is said and done, the best drink out and out
is gin and water."
The horrification of his guests may be imagined. Had he
turned mad on the spot they could not have shuddered more.
Despite his set resolve to live mentally in the Dark Ages—in
other words, be a model convert worthy of his converter, rather I
should say perverter—Coventry Patmore could not divest himself of
his humour, savoir vivre, and chivalrous devotion to women
And here I cannot resist an amusing incident. When
meeting the poet at my house, my cousin, Amelia B. Edwards, after
eyeing him front and back with a glance at his shoulders, asked,
with well-affected disillusion, "But where are his wings?"
This reference to The Angel in the House pleased the poet
mightily. A most animated group were my guests, and many happy
and witty good things they said, but as hostess I was too distracted
to store them up. For it is not every day that a most famous
Egyptologist and a popular poet can be brought together, and I had
gathered as many friends as my small drawing-rooms would hold, to
share the privilege with me.
"My second wife brought me so many thousand pounds" (I do not
venture on figures), Patmore would confide to his friends, and the
unkind and unspoken comment—at least of one listener—was that she
was very dear at the money. But her wealth, of course, did not
alter by one jot the simplicity of home life. With it was
built and endowed the church of St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea, and
doubtless increasing and cementing the small Catholic colony in the
south coast. But, zealous to set a personal as well as a
public example of religious enthusiasm, the poor lady soon after
fell a victim to excessive devotion. On some special day in
the Romish calendar, without breaking her fast she set out for St.
Leonards, attending service in the little church there, a six-mile
walk to and fro. Reaching home, she dropped down in a faint,
and her clothes had to be cut piecemeal from her lifeless body.
A very agreeable woman of the world but for pietistic
ostentation was the second Mrs. Patmore, and a still more engaging
figure was her successor, who gave her husband a son in his old age.
A curious pair they made as they sauntered along hand in
hand, the little fellow a curiously old-looking child and the very
image of his father, but an apt little chap, and he was very quick
at putting two and two together.
"Why, papa, you are half as bad as Henry the Eighth," he
broke out with one day, and other sallies are recorded of him.
Had the exquisite poem, "The Toys," any foundation in fact?
"My little Son, who look'd from
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise."
Had he ever stirred his elderly father and boon companion to
anger? Those who saw them and knew them together cannot
believe it. Anyhow, "The Toys" is one of those simple
effusions that few can read with dry eyes. And that line:
"His Mother, who was patient, being dead,"
how it throbs with feeling and pathos!
"You must pay us another visit in the summer," was Coventry
Patmore's charge! as I quitted the hospitable house in the Solent.
But before the summer came he was borne to his last rest in
the monastic garb symbolising not the sweet story-teller in verse,
but the mystic whose most cherished work had been condemned by
priestly counsel to an auto-da-fé!
If the gaiety of nations was not eclipsed by the death of
Coventry Patmore, the town which he had distinguished by residence
keeps his memory green. Not, certainly, after the good French
fashion. With ourselves, little except military or naval
history is inculcated by street nomenclature. The poet's
seaside home has as yet no street named after him, but an admirable
likeness hangs in the local museum.
A last word about my old friend, to whom in one sense I was
anathema, a brand not to be snatched from the burning, in another a
cherished friend and companion.
If he drew tears from my eyes, I was happy in being repaid by
smiles from his lips. On a sixpenny edition of Kitty, I
am proud to read on the first leaf this fine compliment of a poet
whose opus magnum is no less alive:
"Kitty is a classic. I have read
it over and over again.