Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

66

[ocr errors]

have been sufficient to draw them down. It is written in the prosiest of prose; and yet it was an undoubted success. Mrs. Siddons as Elwina drew tears from Fox, and Mrs. More drew six hundred pounds from Cadell the publisher. She wrote another play called the “Fatal Falsehood." It was not quite so successful. Garrick, too, was dead, and thus Mrs. More had lost the one link which reconciled her to a profession of which her judgment disapproved, and she gave up all play-writing or play-going. Very nearly all play-reading also; though in a preface to her own tragedies, written in after years, she “ventures to hazard an opinion that, in company with a judicious friend or parent, many scenes of Shakespeare may be read, not only without danger, but with improvement." But she had no very hearty appreciation of the peerless genius, no comprehension how entirely he stood alone; for she speaks of "Shakespeare and other writers of the same description."

Her own “poems," as she calls them, are of the most commonplace order. “Any one of moderate capacity," to quote Dr. Johnson's dictum on some one else's work, “could write reams of such stuff, if he did but abandon his mind to it." Let not the reader think for a moment that Dr. Johnson said this of Hannah More's poems. After reading the “ Bas Bleu ” in MS. (admire the large and glorious patience of an age in which authors could read each other's productions in MS.!), he told her that he wanted to see her to "praise it as much as envy could praise,” and that there was no name in literature that might not be glad to own it.” Johnson, however, wrote “ Lives of the Poets” in which place was found for Smith and Sprat, and none for Spenser, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Ford, or Marlowe. He knew how to appreciate virtuous sentiments and big dictionary words in a poem ; but he had no ear for its music. Not for music of any kind, for, as Macaulay humorously says, “he just knew the bell of St. Clement's from the organ;" and in this deficiency Miss More seems to have shared, for thus she wrote to one of her sisters

“ Bear me, some god, O quickly bear me hence,

To wholesome solitude the nurse of 'sense,' I was going to add in the words of Pope, till I recollected that pence had a more appropriate meaning, and was just as good a rhyme. This apostrophe broke from me on coming from the opera -the first that ever I did, the last, I trust, I ever shall go to. For what purpose has the Lord of the Universe made His creature man with a comprehensive mind? Why make him a little lower than the angels? Why give him the faculty of thinking, the powers of wit

and memory, and, to crown all, an immortal and never-dying spirit? Why all this wondrous waste, this prodigality of bounty, if the mere animal senses of sight and hearing (by which he is not distinguished from the brutes that perish) would have answered the end as well? and yet I find the same people are seen at the opera every night-an amusement written in a language the greater part of them do not understand, and performed by such a set of beings." “Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it, and that a very heavy one."

A bit of “high falutin” like this, even though it occurs in a private letter, shows that Mrs. H. More deserved all credit for earnestness, but not a very exalted place in literature.

Her Essays, which were highly thought of in her own day, aim at being logical expositions of the evils of the various vices and follies of which they treat; but they wander away from the point woefully, and she is very fond of using logical terms of which she does not apprehend the meaning. Yet the Bishop of London (Porteous), after reading a little book of hers which she had published anonymously, wrote to her, “ Aut Moros, aut Angelus, it is in vain to think of concealing pourit; your style and manner are so confessedly superior to every other moral writer of the present age, that you will be immediately detected by every one that pretends to any taste in judging of composition." We do not wish to question Miss More's claims to be considered as a woman who spent a very long life in doing her very best to do good to her fellow-creatures, but we do question te morality, not to speak of the taste, of such a passage as the Showing: "Ohif women in general knew what was their true interests, i: they could guess with what a charm even the appearance of modesty invests its possessor, they would dress decorously from mere satove, if not from principle. The designing would assume mesan artifice, the coquette would adopt it as an allurement, there as her appropriate attraction, and the voluptuous as the mint ble art of seduction.”

When Sydney Smith read this passage he said that, " if there were ar truth in it, nudity would become a virtue, and no decent woman Hirit future would be seen in garments.” It is to be read in Mrs. 11. Won's "Caes in Search of a Wife "—a book which is in many punts irry brighor written, and which shows considerable powers of

rathen, baterrs in drawing an absolutely fixed line of demarca. tion on the good and the bid of this world, which line neither pene nor the ver ever overstep by so much as the breadth of a

The sand are all good, the bad entirely bad. “Coelebs in Search of a Wife" is a semi-religious novel, and was immensely popular in its day. It will still repay reading. The first edition sold in a fortnight. Twelve editions came out during the first year. In all, 21,000 copies were sold in England, and 30,000 in America. It was translated into every Continental language-even into Icelandic. This success of “Celebs” was by no means a piece of exceptional good fortune. Miss More's books usually did sell by twenty and thirty thousands, and were translated into Persian, Mahratta, Icelandic, and even Cingalese, by way of unexpected languages. Sometimes a large edition of a book of hers was entirely sold in four hours. Naturally, after hearing of such facts, we wish to learn if the author did not reap some substantial benefit from so much popularity, and are glad to learn from her biographer that she made a fortune of £30,000 ; and that, though the wish of her heart from youth had been to have a house of her own in which a clock could not stand upright, she was able, from her own earnings, to build one of much more commodious dimensions, in which she and her sisters ended their days.

Her books brought her honours of all kinds, as well as money. The Queen consulted her about the education of the Princess Charlotte ; the Duchess of Gloucester gave her a public breakfast; the Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Belles Lettres in Rouen elected her a member. If she scribbled a pencil translation of an Italian piece at a concert, it was snatched from her hands and put into the principal magazine of the day; and her letters, though composed only "for the fireside and the bosom,” were eagerly copied by those who saw them. Then, to crown her triumphs, no doctor would ever take a fee from her ; and actually, when the course of the mails between Bristol and Exeter was being altered for some good reason, Sir Francis Freeling was especially charged by the Royal family to ascertain if the alteration would be inconvenient to Mrs. More, in which case the project was to be abandoned.

Hannah More's success being an undoubted fact, it remains to consider in what kind of a world it was won. London was at her feet; but the London of those days was something very like a small country-town now, and the circle of wits was limited. Mrs. More often went to parties from which it was remarked that not one woman in London distinguished for taste or literature was absent. It was as easy then to count the heads in which was to be found a little wit and learning, as for Ali Baba in his tree to number the robbers down below; for Society was composed of one small, select, though by no means refined circle, the members of which were all

well known to each other. A moderately good play, poem, or novel then met with a recognition more complete than would now be accorded to a work even of genius. Society is, in fact, now split up into circles innumerable, some of which touch and meet, but others remain apart to all eternity; and it would be quite possible for a work which moved the members of one circle to its very outermost and innermost rings, to remain for ever unknown and unheard of by all the members of the other. Besides, when considering Hannah More's popularity, it is hardly possible to make sufficient allowance for the mighty and all-conquering power of commonplace. In all ages it has stirred thousands to enthusiasm ! Really good and great books always make their mark sooner or later, but not with such steady certainty as a good bit of commonplace work which surprises you by no unexpected ideas, but jogs on comfortably on a level with your own intelligence, without disturbing you by requiring any thought. Who are the poets of the present day who can stand the test of being asked to produce their literary balance sheets? Has any one made as much money as Tupper? Have Carlyle's Essays been half so popular as those of A. K. H. B.? Added to this, there are innumerable people who think it a duty to pass their Sundays in a "dim religious light” of dulness. They must not read anything but good books, by which they understand the Bible, sermons, essays on moral culture, and feeble volumes of religious verse.

It must, there. fore, be readily seen that a writer who supplies these persons with a change of reading which they like, is sure of both fame and fortune. In Hannah More's days there were hardly any of these books to be had (the taste of the age was not elevated enough to find pleasure in the grand old sermons of Jeremy Taylor and the men of his time), and it must be owned, besides, that every one, high and low, did want a great deal of teaching, and very rudimentary teaching too, as is proved by Sir Joshua's complaint that nearly all the visitors who came to his studio to see his Infant Samuel had to ask him who Samuel was. And—to give an idea of the depth of ignorance existing among the lower classes-when Hannah More, with noble disregard of personal comfort, went miles and miles on Sundays, to teach the semi-savages in the villages near Cheddar, the parents resisted her endeavours to secure the children's attendance at school, because they were sure that she wished to steal them away to sell them as slaves.

She persevered, however, and in time did an immense amount of good in benighted regions which had not known the care of a clergynow for nearly a century. This was only one amongst many of her

patient and unselfish efforts to help others, and we are glad to chronicle it, and especially anxious, besides, to declare that we feel a sincere reverence for Hannah More, and believe her to have been a very earnest good woman, though we cannot but wonder at the success which she obtained as a writer during the earlier part of her life, when, if ever, she was judged as a writer merely. One person seems to have shared our opinion even in those days; for when poor Mrs. More set her dress on fire, and was only saved by the courage of a friend, the announcement of this fact and that the dress she wore at the time was made of a stuff called lasting, which did not burn readily, provoked the following epigram from "some heartless pretender to wit" :

Vulcan to scorch thy gown in vain essays ;
Apollo strives in vain to fire thy lays;
Ilannah ! the cause is visible enough :

Stuff is thy raiment, and thy writings stuff. This was met by the following happy rejoinder from a partisan of the lady's :

Clothed all in filth, lo! Epigram appears,
His face distorted by a thousand sneers ;
Why, this attack is visible enough-
The scribbler envies Hannah's lasting stuff.

MARGARET HUNT.

« AnkstesnisTęsti »