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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
page: 553




AN event occurred last Saturday night which makes us ask ourselves whether we have really passed the middle of our century. In the course of Saturday night, the twentieth of November, one died who could and did tell so much of what happened early in the reign of George the Third, that hearers felt as if they were in personal relations with the men of that time. Miss Berry was remarkable enough in herself to have excited a good deal of emotion by dying any time within the last seventy years. Dying now, she leaves as strong as ever the impression of her admirable faculties, her generous and affectionate nature, and her high accomplishments, while awakening us to a retrospect of the changes and fashions of our English intellect, as expressed by literature. She was not only the woman of letters of the last century carried forward into our own—she was not only the woman of fashion who was familiar with the gaieties of life before the fair daughters of George the Third were seen abroad, and who had her own will and way with society up to last Saturday night: she was the repository of the whole literary history of fourscore years; and when she was pleased to throw open the folding‐doors of her memory, they were found to be mirrors, and in them was seen the whole procession of literature, from the mournful Cowper to Tennyson the laureate.

It was a curious sight—visible till recently, though now all are gone—the chatting of three ladies on the same sofa—the two Miss Berrys and their intimate friend, Lady Charlotte Lindsay. Lady Charlotte Lindsay was the daughter of Lord North; and the Miss Berrys had both received, as was never any secret, the offer of the hand of Horace Walpole. It is true he was old, and knew himself to be declining, and made this offer as an act of friendship and gratitude; but still, the fact remains that she, who died last Saturday page: 554 night, might have been the wife of him who had the poet Gray for his tutor. These ladies brought into our time a good deal of the manners, the conversation and the dress of the last century; but not at all in a way to cast any restraint on the youngest of their visitors, or to check the inclination to inquire into the thoughts and ways of men long dead, and the influence of modes long passed away. It was said that Miss Berry’s parties were rather blue; and perhaps they were so; but she was not aware of it: and all thought of contemporary pedantry dissolved under her stories of how she once found on the table, on her return from a ball, a volume of “Plays on the Passions,” and how she kneeled on a chair at the table to see what the book was like, and was found there—feathers and satin shoes and all—by the servant who came to let in the winter morning light; or of how the world of literature was perplexed and distressed—as a swarm of bees that have lost their queen—when Dr. Johnson died; or of how Charles Fox used to wonder that people could make such a fuss about that dullest of new books—Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” He was an Eton boy, just promised a trip to Paris by his father, when Miss Berry was born; and Pitt was a child in the nursery, probably applauded by his maid for success in learning to speak plain. Burns was then toddling in and out, over the threshold of his father’s cottage. Just when she was entering on the novel‐reading age, Evelina came out; and Fanny Burney’s series of novels were to that generation of young people what Scott’s were to the next but one. If the youths and maidens of that time had bad fiction, they had good history; for the learned Mr. Gibbon gave them volume after volume which made them proud of their age. They talked about their poets, and, no doubt, each had an idol in that day as in our’s and every body’s. The earnestness, sense, feeling and point of Cowper delighted some; and they reverently told of the sorrows of his secluded life, as glimpses were caught of him in his walks with Mrs. Unwin. Others stood on tiptoe to peep into Dr. Darwin’s “chaise” as he went his professional round, writing and polishing his verses as he went; and his admirers insisted that nothing so brilliant had ever been written before. Miss Berry must have well remembered the first exhibition of this brilliancy before the careless eyes of the world; and she must have remembered the strangeness of the impression when Crabbe tried the contrast of his homely pathos, encouraged to do so by Burke. And then came something which it is scarcely credible that the world should have received during the period of Johnson’s old age, and the maturity of page: 555 Gibbon, and Sir William Jones, and Burns—the wretched rhyming of the Batheaston set of sentimental pedants. In rebuke of them, the now mature woman saw the theory of Wordsworth rise; and in rebuke of him, she saw the young and confident Jeffrey and his comrades arise; and in rebuke of them, saw the “Quarterly Review” arise, when she was beginning to be elderly. She saw Joanna Baillie’s great frame rise and decline, without either the rise or decline changing in the least the countenance or the mood of the happy being whose sunshine came from quite another luminary than fame. She saw the rise of Wordsworth’s fame, growing as it did out of the reaction against the pomps and vanities of the Johnsonian and Darwinian schools; and she lived to see its decline when the great purpose was fulfilled, of inducing poets to say what they mean, in words which will answer that purpose. She saw the beginning and the end of Moore’s popularity; and the rise and establishment of Campbell’s, The short career of Byron passed before her eyes like a summer storm: and that of Scott constituted a great interest of her life for many years. What an experience—to have studied the period of horrors—represented by Monk Lewis—of conventionalism in Fanny Burhey—of metaphysical fiction in Godwin—of historical romance in Scott—and of a new order of fiction in Dickens, which it is yet too soon to characterise by a phrase.

We might go on for hours, and not exhaust the history of what she saw on the side of literature alone. If we attempted to number the scientific men who have crossed her threshold—the foreigners who found within her doors the best of London and the cream of society, we should never have done. And what a series of political changes she saw—the continental wars, the establishment of American independence—the long series of French revolutions—the career of Washington, of Napoleon, of Nelson, of Wellington, with that of all the statesmen from Lord Chatham to Peel—from Franklin to Webster! But it is too much. It is bewildering to us, though it never overpowered her. She seemed to forget nothings and to notice every thing, and to be able to bear so long a life in such times; but she might well be glad to sink to sleep, as she did last Saturday night after so long‐drawn a pageant of the world’s pomps and vanities, and transient idolatries and eternal passions.

Reviewing the spectacle, it appears to us, as it probably did to her, that there is no prevalent taste, at least in literature, without a counteraction on the spot, preparing society for a reaction. Miss Berry used to say that she published the later volumes of Walpole’s correspondence to prove that the world was wrong in thinking him heart‐ page: 556 less heartless ; she believing the appearance of heartlessness in him to be ascribable to the influence of his time. She did not succeed in changing the world’s judgment of her friend; and this was partly because the influences of the time did not prevent other men from showing heart. Charles James Fox had a heart; and so had Burke and a good many more. While Johnson and then Darwin were corrupting men’s taste in diction, Cowper was keeping it pure enough to enjoy the three rising poets, alike only in their plainness of speech—Crabbe, Burns, and Wordsworth. Before Miss Burney had exhausted our patience, the practical Maria Edgeworth was growing up. While Godwin would have engaged us wholly with the interior scenery of man’s nature, Scott was fitting up his theatre for his mighty procession of costumes, with men in them to set them moving; and Jane Austen, whose name and works will outlive many that were supposed immortal, was stealthily putting forth her unmatched delineations of domestic life in the middle classes of our aristocratic England. And against the somewhat feeble elegance of Sir William Jones’s learning there was the safeguard of Gibbon’s marvelous combination of strength and richness in his erudition. The vigor of Camphell’s lyrics was a set‐off against the prettiness of Moore’s. The subtlety of Coleridge meets its match, and a good deal more, in the development of science; and the morose complainings of Byron are less and less echoed now that the peace has opened the world to gentry whose energies would be self‐corroding if they were under blockade at home, through an universal continental war. Byron is read at sea now, on the way to the North Pole, or to California, or to Borneo; and in that way his woes can do no harm. To every thing there is a season; and to every fashion of a season there is an antagonism preparing. Thus all things have their turn; all human faculties have their stimulus, sooner or later, supposing them to be put in the way of the influences of social life.

It was eminently so in the case of the aged lady who is gone from us; and well did her mind respond to the discipline offered by her long and favorable life of ninety years. One would like to know how she herself summed up such an experience as hers,—the spectacle of so many everlasting things dissolved—so many engrossing things forgotten—so many settled things set afloat again, and floated out of sight. Perhaps those true words wandered once more into her mind as her eyes were closing:‐-

“We are such stuff As dreams are made of; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.”