Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
page: 157


The father and mother of Adelaide Procter were both so highly gifted, and their household was page: 158 known to so many surviving friends, that it is only fitting their names should precede her own, although she achieved a greater fame; yet there were years when “Barry Cornwall” was known to all, and when his songs were sung all over England. Two of them, “The sea, the sea, the open sea,” and the “Return of the Admiral,” have their permanent place, though many of his charming and poetic pages have sunk into comparative oblivion. In his own person he was a refined and somewhat silent man, with a head said to resemble Sir Walter Scott’s in miniature, and he was extremely beloved by the literary world. But he lived an interior life, into which, I think, none but his wife ever penetrated. He was profoundly attached to her, and she was for ever shielding him from the wind that blew too roughly. He had many sorrows, and death twice visited his household under most pathetic circumstances. To ward off blows from “Brian” and to sustain him with her own abundant strength, was Mrs. Procter’s constant care, and in this she showed a side of her character wholly unsuspected by the outer world.

page: 159

Mr. Procter was born so long ago as 1787, and was not far from forty when he married the lovely girl, Anne Skepper, who had been brought up in the home of her stepfather, Basil Montagu. Bryan Walter Procter came from the North of England. He was educated at Harrow, and spent his holidays at the house of a great‐uncle who lived about a dozen miles from London; and his first real instructress in literature was a female servant, born in a better station of life, who had read Richardson and Fielding and worshipped Shakespeare. She used to recite whole scenes to the boy, and encouraged him to buy a Shakespeare of his own. “But,” says he, “I had not leisure to study and worship my Shakespeare long, for at the end of a month or six weeks my destiny drove me back to school.” There he had two schoolfellows, boys named Robert Peel and George Gordon Byron. Of Byron, Mr. Procter says that he then showed no signs of poetic grace. “He was loud, even coarse, and very capable of a boy’s vulgar enjoyments. He played at hockey and racquets, and was occasionally engaged in pugilistic encounters.” Of himself he says he was neither page: 160 very short nor very tall, neither handsome nor hideous. He survived Byron for fifty years, seeing the dawn, the zenith, and the partial oblivion of his fame.

Among Mr. Procter’s poems should be especially noticed the fine ring of Belshazzar, and some of deep and tender domestic interest. The lovely lines to his wife, beginning— “How many years, my Dove, Hast thou been mine! How many years, my Love, Have I been thine!” and the exquisite tribute to his dead boy, called “The Little Voice,” are among the most poignant utterances of the human heart. But nothing in his gentle, reserved face betrayed in later life the interior fire.

He led a hard‐working life in London as a barrister, and later in a Government office.

In looking through the memoir published in his widow’s lifetime, I was chiefly struck by a letter in which he describes his study, and says, regretfully, that he has never been abroad, never seen Italy or France, he, the poet and the lover of Italian art; and by another letter about the page: 161 Indian Mutiny, in which “Our son (the only son I have, indeed) escaped from Delhi.” He tells how this young man, left to him after the death of his eldest boy Edward, had been in Delhi, and how he and four or five other officers, four women, and a child, escaped. The men were “obliged to drop the women a fearful height from the walls of the fort amidst showers of bullets. They were seven days and seven nights in the jungle without money or meat, scarcely any clothes, no shoes. They forded rivers, lay on the wet ground at night, lapped water from the puddles, and finally reached Meerut.”

Montagu Procter married some years later the youngest of the ladies here spoken of. At the time of the Mutiny she was a girl of fifteen. He became eventually a general, and, returning to England, survived his father, but predeceased his mother, who, indeed, lost successively all her children save two.

Of Mrs. Procter much will inevitably be written in future years. She was a very remarkable person, and lived in possession of almost unbroken health and faculties until nearly ninety. As a girl (“my dearest girl,” writes the page: 162 poet during his betrothal) she had been extremely pretty. She was an early playmate of my mother’s, but my memory of her dates from her middle age, and extends over nearly fifty years. She was the daughter by a first marriage of Mrs. Basil Montagu, and always spoke of her mother with the greatest reverence. But of the race of poets to which she was inextricably bound, she spoke with a half‐laughing satire. One was evidently her life‐long lover, and one was her child, and several others clustered about her like bees. She did not exactly hold a salon; there was no great fortune in the household, nor any sort of pretension whatever, and Mrs. Procter gave one the impression of having her hands very full; but everybody of any literary pretension whatever seemed to flow in and out of the house. The Kembles, the Macreadys, the Rossettis, the Dickens, the Thackerays, never seemed to be exactly visitors, but to belong to the place. Three of the daughters became Catholic, and Mrs. Procter, who, I imagine, did not dwell much on the next world, stood between them and the sensitive father, to whom the loss of close union was a great misery. I used to think it infinitely page: 163 touching to see Mrs. Procter trying to harmonize the household. If “Brian” could be kept cheerful and if nobody was ill (and, alas! somebody was very often ill), then the quick vivid mother of the family seemed content. She had a habit of going into the world, a habit of dressing fashionably, a habit of writing the nearest and most concise notes possible; but her consistent, steady kindness had assuredly some deep spiritual root, of which she never spoke. Like her mother, she never abdicated for a moment her great tenue, never kept her room, never lowered the scale of her dress, never lost her composure; I should doubt if in sixty years a meal had ever been placed upon the table which she had not herself ordered. It was my fate to be very closely associated with her under circumstances in which ninety‐nine people out of a hundred would have broken down, and yet when she lost her daughters, it was their friend whom she tried to spare. I particularly remember her taking me with her to the Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green to plant a quantity of ivy on Adelaide’s grave. I can see her kneeling at the headstone, twisting the sprays, with a face of anxious, page: 164 steady determination. That grave is now a place of pilgrimage to American and Colonial travellers. It is thickly overgrown with ivy, but nobody guesses that the mother planted it herself.

Many years afterwards, Edythe Procter died very suddenly—indeed, in a manner truly tragical—failure of the heart’s action. Mrs. Procter was then more than eighty; and before the announcement could traverse the Continent in the newspapers, came a careful letter, addressed to a delicate friend at Mentone, and on the corner of the envelope two tiny, neatly‐written words, “Bad News.”

Such were the environments of Adelaide Procter’s life—a short life, for she died at the age of thirty‐eight. Of outward incidents, apart from the sudden blossoming of her literary fame, there were scarcely any. The year spent in Italy, where her aunt, Madame de Viry, was attached to the Court circle at Turin, was certainly a determining influence on her life. Emily de Viry had become a devout Catholic, and at that time the saintly wife of Victor Emmanuel was living. The example impressed page: 165 Adelaide’s mind, and doubtless contributed to her religious change. At Aix‐les‐Bains is a large portrait en pied of the young Queen of Sardinia in her bridal dress. It looks, at first sight, to be a purely conventional picture, but the eyes are of a haunting depth. They recall a word‐picture of the Queen returning from Holy Communion, which Adelaide Procter gave. The wife of Victor Emmanuel was passing along one of the galleries of the Palace, her face “shining as with an interior lamp,” when she was met by the young English girl, who never forgot the sight. Of this association Adelaide Procter always bore the trace. In her religious attitude she resembled a foreign rather than an English Catholic. She looked like a Frenchwoman mounting the steps of the Madeleine, or a veiled Italian in St. Peter’s. The one thing she never mentioned was her own conversion.

One of Miss Procter’s sisters, named Agnes, joined the order of the Irish Sisters of Mercy; and in looking back to our childhood I best remember her, as the nearer to my own age.

In 1840 the Procters lived in St. John’s Wood, page: 166 and used to visit their grandparents in Storey’s Gate; and in this house it must have been that two children were sitting by the fireside one evening. There was no other light in the room, and Agnes Procter (Sister Mary Francis) suddenly made a confidence; saying, in a tone of intense childish conviction, “I do love mama.” These words made an ineffaceable impression on the hearer, for the little speaker was never supposed to be at all imaginative, and certainly Mrs. Procter did not pose before the world as a tender woman—rather the reverse—though her intimates knew her for a very good and kind one. And the last time that I saw Sister Mary Francis she was kneeling by that mother’s open grave at Kensal Green, her sincere, gentle face, under its veil, looking but little changed since the day of her profession some thirty years before. It may not be irrelevant to add that shortly after her somewhat unexpected death after a few days’ illness, the Reverend Mother spoke of Sister Mary Francis’ great and unusual affection for her mother as of a profound sentiment rarely noticed either in or out of the religious life. It was the sweet soul’s one page: 167 earthly romance. I do not know in what light Mrs. Procter’s memory will go down to posterity when the letters and memoirs of the generation in which she played so large a social part come to be written and published; but this image of her as enshrined in her daughter’s heart should be recorded, for it is true.

Of the gifted eldest daughter the mother was intensely proud, and well may she have been, for a more vital spirit never inhabited a finely‐wrought frame. Adelaide Anne Procter was so curiously unlike her poems, and yet so distinct in individuality, that it is a pity she was not painted by any artist capable of rendering her singular and interesting face. There was something of Dante in the contour of its thin lines, and the colouring was a pale, delicate brown, which harmonized with the darker hair, while the eyes were blue, less intense in hue than those of Shelley; and like his also was the exquisitely fine, fluffy hair, which when ruffled stood out in a halo round the brow. A large oil painting of her exists, done, I believe, by Emma Galiotti, and it is like her as she appeared in a conventional dress and a most lugubrious mood, but the real page: 168 woman was quite different. She had a forecast of the angel in her face and figure, but it was of the Archangel Michael that she made one think. There was something spirited and almost militant in her aspect, if such a word can be applied to one so exquisitely delicate and frail. She was somewhat older than myself, and therefore, while I remember Agnes as a little girl, my first distinct memory of Adelaide dates from a period when she was already grown up, and had returned from Turin.

In her manner and dress she bore all the marks of a very exquisite breeding. She was conversant with foreign languages, knew French and Italian well, and wrote a peculiarly clear and delicate hand. One of her minor accomplishments was that of illumination. Monsignor Gilbert possessed two excellent examples of her skill in this unusual art. In her youth she danced lightly and well. All these little details go to make up the portrait of a very charming personality.

She was already thirty before her name had been heard, except as that of Barry Cornwall’s “sweet, beloved First Born.” Her poems circu‐ page: 169 lated circulated among friends, just as Rossetti’s used to do, being copied from hand to hand. Then one was sent by her anonymously to Charles Dickens, and inserted by him in a Christmas number of Household Words. Dickens thus tells the story:—“Happening one day to dine with an old and dear friend, distinguished in literature as ‘Barry Cornwall,’ I took with me an early proof of the Christmas number of Household Words, entitled ‘The Seven Poor Travellers,’ and remarked, as I laid it on the drawing‐room table, that it contained a very pretty poem, written by a certain Miss Berwick. Next day brought me a disclosure that I had so spoken of the poem to the mother of the writer in the writer’s presence; that I had no such correspondent in existence as Miss Berwick, and that the name had been assumed by Barry Cornwall’s daughter, Miss Adelaide Anne Procter.”

From this time forward, I forget the year, she continued to write in Household Words, and the poems attracted so much attention that people used to pretend they had written them. When they were at length collected into volume, with the writer’s name attached, they page: 170 rushed into fame, and circulated all over the kingdom; and Miss Procter received a pathetic appeal from a young lady, who asked her could it be true that these lovely verses were all hers, for her lover had been in the habit of assuring her, as each poem successively appeared, that it was his own! Twelve editions followed one another, and five years after, the demand for her poems was still “far in excess of that for the writings of any living poet except Mr. Tennyson.” I think it caused her a feeling of shyness amounting to pain to have so far outstripped her poet‐father in popular estimation. “Papa is a poet. I only write verses.”

A very few years after this wide recognition of her genius the end came. Her health began to fail in 1862, and by the end of that year she was confined to her bed. So great was the fragility of her frame, that when once the lungs were attacked there seemed to be no chance of saving her. Then began a battle which the two or three surviving people who witnessed it can assuredly never forget—a battle royal with the power of Death. I do not mean that she consciously tried to live a longer life, but that she did page: 171 not give way an inch to the Destroyer. The only time I ever saw her quail was one day when I got a little pencil note, “They say the second lung is attacked.” I hurried off to the house, and found her sitting up in bed, her pretty fair hair standing out in a halo, her blue eyes fastening on mine with an anxious, wistful look. But the momentary panic passed away, and she recovered her cheerfulness, repeated her prayers, talked of Jean Ingelow’s poems (and particularly of the “High Tide in Lincolnshire”), made her gentle jests—she was naturally extremely witty—and faced the Destroyer with the most pathetic mixture of resignation and pluck imaginable.
At last, one day—it was the 1st of February, 1864 (Thackeray had died on Christmas Eve)—I went to her in the evening, and found her greatly oppressed. But she was very eager about a poem of mine, “Avignon,” and would sit up in bed holding it in her slender, trembling hands, and trying to correct the proof. The last line ran— “Ora pro nobis, Sainte Marie.”
The evening wore on—nine—ten—eleven page: 172 o’clock. It was not possible for me to remain later without greatly alarming my parents, and I had to leave. After an anxious consultation with Edythe, I returned to the sick‐room and kissed her forehead, saying, “Good‐night, dear.” She looked up at me quickly and gravely, and said, “Good‐night.” After I had left, they sat beside her—the mother, the sister, and the maid who had been with them very many years. About two in the morning of the Feast of the Purification her breathing became oppressed. She looked up in her mother’s face, and said, “Mamma, has it come?” And Mrs. Procter said, “Yes, my dear,” and took her in her arms. And so, while Edythe knelt by her side, reciting the prayers for the dying, my dear Adelaide passed away in peace.

It remains to say a few words about her poems. Since for years they had a larger sale than those of any other poet save Tennyson, they must have penetrated into every reading household in Great Britain. Of late, however, their popular fame seems chiefly to repose on the “Lost Chord,” nobly set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It is wonderful to see the enthusiasm infused by this page: 173 song. The vast audience of St. James’s Hall thrills as one man when it is given. But in the beauty of the narrative poems, and in the profound depth of feeling of those which have an autobiographical source, the student of Victorian literature will, I am convinced, find permanent delight; and that many verses and many lines will survive may be inferred from that perfection of form which is essential to lasting fame. Miss Procter always used the plainest words to convey her thought, the simplest, choicest words to express her feeling. Some of those which deal with the human heart are wonderfully sweet and subtle.

One of the most striking of the personal poems is “A Woman’s Question,” beginning— “Before I trust my fate to thee.”
And another, named “Beyond,” of which the two last stanzas run thus:— “If in my heart I now could fear that, risen again, we should not know What was our Life of Life when here—the hearts we loved so much below; I would arise this very day, and cast so poor a thing away. page: 174 But love is no such soulless clod; living, perfected it shall rise Transfigured in the light of God, and giving glory to the skies. And that which makes this life so sweet shall render Heaven’s joy complete.”
Another delicately subtle poem is entitled “Returned—Missing,” and how strong and noble is “A Parting.” And lastly, the charming “Comforter.”
  • “If you break your plaything yourself, dear,
  • Don’t you cry for it all the same?
  • I don’t think it is such a comfort,
  • One has only oneself to blame.
  • “People say things cannot be helped, dear,
  • But then that is the reason why;
  • For if things could be helped or altered,
  • One would never sit down to cry.”
The more specially religious poems are to be found in a small volume entitled “A Chaplet of Verses,” published for the benefit of the Night Refuge originally established close to the church in Moorfields. It opens with the trumpet call of the “Army of the Lord,” a splendid piece of verse. But “Give me thy heart” is to be found in the first volume of “Legends and Lyrics.” Both of them are surely equal to any of Father Faber’s. What nobler prayer, more perfectly page: 175 expressed, than that contained in the eight lines:— “Send down, O Lord, Thy sacred fire! Consume and cleanse the sin That lingers still within its depths; Let heavenly love begin. That sacred flame Thy Saints have known. Kindle, O Lord, in me! Thou above all the rest for ever, And all the rest in Thee.”
The “Chaplet” has been stereotyped, and has had a wide circulation. One poem, entitled “Homeless,”¹ was written at Monsignor Gilbert’s special request, and was for years inserted in the annual report and appeal for funds. Of the seven stanzas, I quote two. The concluding lines of each exemplify the rigour with which Miss Procter rounded a thought where weaker poets fail:—
  • “Why, our criminals all are sheltered,
  • They are pitied, and taught, and fed;
  • That is only a sister—woman,
  • Who has got neither food nor bed—
  • And the Night cries, ‘Sin to be living,’
  • And the River cries, ‘Sin to be dead.’”

¹ Now that Monsignor Gilbert has been withdrawn from our midst, there is no reason for refraining to say that he, who was her confessor, and whom she certainly trusted above all, read through this paper and ratified it with his approval.

page: 176
  • “Nay; goods in our thrifty England
  • Are not left to lie and grow rotten;
  • For each man knows the market value
  • Of silk, or woollen, or cotton...
  • But in counting the riches of England,
  • I think our Poor are forgotten!
The profits of this little book, of which the sale still continues, were so considerable that Monsignor Gilbert founded a bed in the Refuge called the “Adelaide Procter Bed,” a permanent memento and reminder of prayer for her soul.

And lastly, I have been told upon the highest authority that her personal habits of piety were of the most fervent and consistent kind. The intensity of her susceptible nature found expression and support in her faith. She was strengthened in much suffering, and consoled in much grief, by ardent love of God. She never failed in courage when to publicly confess obedience to the Catholic Church demanded strength of no usual sort, for her lot was cast among those who did not acknowledge the claim; and she, who was eminently delicate in fibre and subject to many fears, went down by slow degrees into the page: 177 “valley of the shadow of Death,” with a cheerful heroism rarely seen.

It was on the 2nd of February, 1864, that Adelaide Procter’s wasted frame was laid within the coffin. The snow lay on the ground in patches outside the old church in Spanish Place, full of the lighted candles held by a dense congregation. “And we know when the Purification, Her first feast, comes round, The early spring flowers to greet it Just opening are found; And pure, white, and spotless, the snowdrop Will pierce the dark ground.”

So we laid masses of snowdrops all about her, and for years the recurring sight of them brought back the vision of that calm spiritual face amidst the flowers. But of her, more than of others, it truly appeared that only the frail worn envelope lay there. While on earth she had habitually dwelt in the spiritual world; and into its inner depths, behind the veil, the Lord, whom she so well loved, had led her, by a long and painful path, so that it seemed to those who knew her as if by an almost imperceptible vanishing she had been withdrawn from their eyes. page: 178 Edythe now lies in the same grave in the Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green, and the names of the two sisters are folded in the ivy which their mother planted there.