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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
page: 78


SITTING under the mulberry tree and looking over the old letters which have been preciously laid aside from year to year, I come upon many memories which may interest the younger world, and of which death and time have made it possible to speak. Among these are certain written relics of Mary Howitt, whom I well knew in the middle of her long career, and whose saintly death in Rome five years ago, vividly recalled her sweet and gracious personality in the hearts of her innumerable English friends, and especially of the surviving contemporaries of her own children. Since then two thick volumes of memoirs have been published by her daughter, and the changes of opinion undergone by Mary Howitt, and in a lesser degree by her husband, are matter of public record. Together they lie in the leafy Protestant cemetery of Rome; not page: 79 far from the heart of Shelley (Cor Cordium), and from where reposes one who bears the sole epitaph of “Filius Goethe.” Although she had lived during her last years as a devout Catholic, and passed as we believe “in Paradiso,” her tender love clung faithfully to the husband of her youth, and special permission was given that she should be reunited to him in death. On the white marble of the beautiful tomb the English stranger in Rome reads the familiar words “William and Mary Howitt.”

When I first saw the home of the Howitts they had left that old house at Clapton to which such tender reference is made in the autobiography. Claude Howitt had been dead about four years, and the pathetic page of Mary Howitt’s writing, in which she tells her sister of the death of her boy, lay buried in a private letter. It can be illustrated by a reference to her daily habit of unflagging work. For many years the Howitts had so arranged their life as to be wholly dependent on their own literary labour. The opportunities of modern authorship were then undeveloped, but William Howitt’s talent and steady industry, and his wife’s genius and page: 80 equally steadfast labour, met every claim. It was at all times beautiful to see the delicate method, the perfection with which Mrs. Howitt managed her household, her dress, her persistent work with the pen. It was the result of the old Quaker training, though she no longer wore the costume of a “Woman Friend,” and expressed a rare high quality of character.

I once had a youthful discussion with her as to how much writing could be done in a day. She smiled, and fixed the limit, saying, “My dear, it is—such a number of—pages of manuscript; it is practically impossible to overpass my average.” And this explains the letter written after Claude’s death, which occurred in March, 1844, and was the result of a sad accident at school caused by the practical joke of a foolish boy. A month elapsed before his mother wrote to her sister the letter which will be found on page fifteen of the second volume of the memoirs. She begins, “Thy letter, my dearest sister (they always used together the Quaker phraseology), was indeed like the voice of the truest and sweetest affection. I have turned to it again and again, and I feel that, page: 81 among the many blessings which I enjoy—and I enjoy a great many—is that of having a sister like thee.” She then speaks at great length and with a wonderful chastened peace about Claude, a letter full of resigned prayer; and ends thus:—

“To‐morrow I intend again to commence my regular avocation. Poor dear Claude! At this very moment I see the unfinished translation lying before me which was broken off by his death. Alas! I could have shed burning tears over this. How often did he beg and pray of me to put aside my translation just for that one day, that I might sit by him and talk or read to him? I, never thinking how near his end was—(the boy had been a tenderly nursed invalid for a year, and while, on the one hand, the numerous doctors seemed to have hoped against hope, the mother’s labour could not stop)—said, ‘Oh, no! I must go on yet a page or two.’ How little did I think that in a short time I should have leisure enough and to spare! Oh, Anna! of all the agonizing feelings which I know, none is so bitter as that longing for the dead. Just one day, one hour of their lives, that one might pour out the whole page: 82 soul of one’s inextinguishable love before them, and let them feel how dear, inexpressibly dear, they are. My very heart at times dies within me from this deep, agonizing longing. But, dearest, when we have angels in heaven, does not death seem robbed of its terrors?

“I wonder how it is with families in heaven? for there must be different degrees of worthiness in the different members. Some must have lower places than others. I would be content to sit on the lowest footstool might I only be permitted to behold the glory and the bliss of my beloved ones, and to make compensation to them in some way for my shortcomings on earth.”

It is well worth while to extract this wonderfully touching and humble letter from the mass of printed matter in which it lies embedded. It is a revelation of the writer’s spiritual life.

In the next year, 1845, the Howitts went to Hastings, and formed a close intimacy with a family with which my parents and I were also shortly to be tenderly and gratefully associated: that of Mr. Benjamin Smith, the member for Norwich. A great domestic affliction caused page: 83 us to take up our residence in Hastings—where, indeed, we were Mr. Smith’s tenants—and until July, 1850, we were almost as one family, sheltered under the magnificent rock of the Castle Hill. Hastings was not then what it is now; the old town was widely separated from St. Leonards, and the lanes leading up to Ore Church were lanes of deep country seclusion. It was here, in 1846‐7, that I first heard of the Howitts as a family. Mrs. Howitt’s tales and poems had, of course, been familiar to me from early childhood, more especially the exquisite “Sketches from Natural History,” containing that ballad beginning “Will you walk into my parlour, said the Spider to the Fly,” which has become so much a classic phrase that I have seen it quoted in prose in a political leader, without any reference to the authoress, or to the fact that the quotation formed part of a verse.

If on the one hand we were all full of the distinguished authoress, and her charming eldest daughter Anna Mary, on the other hand here is Mrs. Howitt’s allusion to the Leigh Smiths, which will explain a reference in one of page: 84 her future letters to me. She describes the group of five, of whom the eldest was then eighteen, and the youngest twelve; speaks of their carriages and horses, and outdoor life, and of how “Every year their father takes them a journey. He has a large carriage built like an omnibus, in which they and their servants can travel and in it, with four horses, they make long journeys. This year they were in Ireland,¹ and next year I expect they will go into Italy. Their father dotes on them. They take with them books and sketching materials; and they have every advantage which can be obtained them, whether at home or abroad. Such were and are our friends the Leigh Smiths, and thou canst imagine how much pleasure we were likely to derive from such a family.”

The Howitts presently left Clapton, and settled near the Regent’s Park, and here it was that I first saw them, being taken to the house by Miss Leigh Smith—the Barbara of the letters. A vivid memory remains to me of an

¹ In Connemara, where from a mountain‐top it was jestingly said that they surveyed their father’s Irish land through a telescope; the country being impassable and impossible.

page: 85 evening party, a sort of eminent gathering of art and literature, and of Mary Howitt seated in a corner of the room, her two younger children at her knee. She was then about fifty, and in the very zenith of her life and literary fame. Tennyson and Mrs. Gaskell, Talfourd and Joanna Baillie, Hans Christian Andersen and the Pre‐Raphaelite Brethren, such are the first half‐dozen names which suggest themselves to me in connection with the circle of the Howitts’ lives in that early time.

In May, 1851, came a never‐to‐be‐forgotten day at Cambridge, when “Mr. Smith, of Jesus” (Leigh Smith, the Arctic Explorer), welcomed his father, his sisters, and their friends, including the two Pulskys, Professor Kinkel, and a good number of bearded and moustachioed Hungarian exiles to the old University. Beards and moustaches were quite uncommon in 1851. We all started at seven in the morning from the Shoreditch station, and got back at eight in the evening, after a splendid banquet offered by the father of Mr. Smith, of Jesus; and after forty years that brilliant day is fresh in the memory of one grateful survivor. Mrs. Howitt tells the page: 86 story at length in her bright language, where he who runs may read.

The next home of the Howitt family was at the Hermitage, on the West Hill at Highgate; the premises consisted of a small three‐storeyed house and a lesser tenement—the Hermitage proper. In this extraordinary appendage, with an upper chamber reached by an outside staircase, the whole thatched and buried in an exuberant growth of ancient ivy, poets and painters had their natural home. I find in an old book some verses which describe the strange room wherein once Dante Gabriel Rossetti had painted, and where Anna Mary Howitt now covered her canvas with some of the most delicate, beautiful drawings ever done by a woman’s hand.

She became a pupil of Kaulbach, and recorded her experiences in a book which was warmly welcomed and has been lately reprinted. It was entitled “The Art Student in Munich.” Her companion during that student year was Jane Benham Hay, whose pictures were admitted to the line on the wall of the Royal Academy. The career of this admirable artist suffered eclipse, or she would now be recognized as a page: 87 worthy predecessor of Lady Butler. She had a devoted and honourable friend in the late Mr. Edward Pigott. Her life passed in Italy, and I do not know if she be yet living to read this short record of her early triumphs.

In the second volume of the autobiography, at page 108, will be found an engraving of the Hermitage, with William and Mary Howitt in the foreground. I think, however, that it is of the house and not of the appendage, though the one is apparently as heavy with ivy as the other.

The hand of the spoiler was soon to be laid on the delightful Hermitage. The American traveller who may care to travel up Highgate Hill in search of poets and painters will find it no more, and the Howitts moved up to a house with a large garden just opposite to Holly Lodge, with whose kind mistress they enjoyed a long intimacy.

In 1855 “Anna Mary and Barbara” go off to Hastings, and get lodged in Clive Vale Farm, the place where Holman Hunt had painted his famous picture of the sheep upon the downs. He had made a great mess with his oils upon a page: 88 certain table, which gave pleasure to the artists who were following in his footsteps!

The first letter which I find I have preserved of Mary Howitt’s is dated from this residence, on the West Hill, where they remained many years. It is of December, 1858, and is addressed to my mother, at a moment when I was lying in imminent danger of death. It is too personal for quotation, and I pass on to Good Friday of the year 1865, when Mrs. Howitt writes from West Hill Lodge about a Sussex Guide of mine which she had in her possession. She is about to go to Switzerland, but “that is only perhaps.” The note ends thus:—“How the budding leaves and all the amenity of this lovely springtime recall Scalands and those pleasant woods to my mind.” She refers to a time which really gave me my last living memory of dear Mary Howitt, though our intimacy may truly be said to have lasted unbroken to the weeks immediately preceding her death, five and twenty years afterwards. I shall ever remain grateful for those spring weeks of 1864, when William and Mary Howitt were living at Scalands Cottage, the English home of page: 89 Miss Leigh Smith, who had become Madame Bodichon. It was in the April of that year, and very shortly after the death in New Zealand of poor Charlton Howitt, whom I had known so well as a young boy, and of my own familiar friend Adelaide Procter, who had died on Candlemas Day, that I met Mrs. Howitt on the platform of the Robertsbridge station. I was going to a kind friend at an old farmhouse known as Brown’s, and the Howitts were at Scalands, of which she writes:—“Barbara has built her cottage upon the plan of the old Sussex houses, in a style which must have prevailed at the time of the Conquest. It is very quaint, and very comfortable at the same time.” And she gives lovely pictures in her letters of those “purple woods of Sussex,” then blue with the wild hyacinth, in all the inexpressible tender beauty of the spring. It was there that I was privileged to enjoy my last conversations with Mary Howitt. I was on the very eve of submitting to the Catholic Church, though I feel sure that I said nothing of it to her; and she at that time was deeply impressed with Spiritualism, and her whole nature quiver‐ page: 90 ing quivering with grief at Charlton’s death. The young man of twenty‐five had been drowned in a New Zealand lake. His knotted blanket, with its home letters and the scant baggage of a young surveying engineer, had been washed ashore; but of the manner and moment of his perishing there was no earthly record, nor was his body ever washed ashore. I well remember Mrs. Howitt’s unwonted pallor as she spoke of him to me, and that for the first and only time I felt her strong nature to be shaken from its perfect equilibrium. She believed she had communications from Charlton, and said so to me with the utmost plainness, and many were the conversations we had together.

It was in the spring of 1856 that, as she herself tells, she and her husband first paid attention to the phenomena of spiritualism. At a séance at Professor de Morgan’s she “was much astonished and affected by communications purporting to come from my dear son Claude.” Just as at the later epoch she asserted that she had been told of the manner in which Charlton went down, unwitnessed, in the waters of the New Zealand lake. For certainly more page: 91 than ten years the mind of both the husband and the wife were extraordinarily impressed by the extraordinary meetings which took place in every part of London. Those were days when Mr. Hume was credibly asserted (I believe, by the Master of Lindsay) to have floated out of one window and through another of a flat in Victoria Street upon the sixth floor; when, as Mrs. S.C. Hall described to me, a band of musical instruments flew madly about her room, to the imminent danger of her mirrors; and Mr. Hall told me that he had seen Hume stretched to the abnormal length of seven feet upon the floor, and afterwards contract to his natural size. It was impossible then, it is equally impossible now, to decide what part in these things was played by imposture and what by occult agencies, with which Catholics are forbidden to tamper, but do not deny. In her later years Mrs. Howitt shrank from the subject, and her daughter has touched upon it lightly. She herself, however, alludes to it in the first of the two letters which I shall now give. The first sentence I believe to refer to the granting of a pension on the Civil List to William Howitt. After page: 92 his death, in 1879, Lord Beaconsfield granted a similar pension to Mary Howitt.

“Egerton House, Beckenham,

“July 13th (’65).

“DEAREST BESSIE,—Thank you for your loving little note of congratulation and sympathy. Everybody seems pleased with what has been done; though it is but small, still it is a recognition, and in itself a benefit.

“I am here only for a few days on our way to join Maggie in France, where she has been since April, whilst we have been ruralizing among the pleasant Cotswolds.

“I am afraid I shall not be able to see you whilst in town, as I have now only to‐morrow remaining; still, I shall try to call on dear Barbara, as I must be in her neighbourhood, and by some good chance you may be there. If I should not see her, will you take charge of my dear love to her? I hear that she is bright and beautiful as usual. Can she be otherwise? Dear Barbara! she is one of my grand and lovely women.

“Annie and I have been reading the Lamp and other Catholic books in Gloucestershire, as page: 93 we were located with Catholics. We found much mental and spiritual food, which was very accordant with our tastes and feelings. It was a pleasure also to find your name amongst the writers. We are half Catholics, our spiritualism makes us so, though you perhaps will not admit it.

“Give my kind regards to your mother, and with much love to yourself,

“I remain, dearest Bessie,

“Your true old friend,


This was her last English letter, and indeed, it is very sad to me now to remember that I never saw her again. My marriage caused me to live much in France, and on their side the Howitts left England, and went to live in Italy and in Tyrol. Letters must have passed, and messages through our many mutual friends. I never assuredly forgot the happy intercourse of former years, nor they a kindly interest in the vicissitudes of my lot. But the war of 1870 swept away all my correspondence of the immediately preceding years, and I was page: 94 shortly absorbed in responsibilities which left me scant leisure for anything beyond the duties of every hour. At last when many days, and many deaths, and the slow blossoming of time had entirely changed my life, I received the following letter from Mary Howitt, then eighty years of age. It is dated from Tyrol, and from her own house of Mariensruhe (“Mary’s Rest”):—

“Mariensruhe, Obernais,

“Meran, March 17, 1884.

“MY DEAR BESSIE,—I write to you, as I used to address you, passing over but not forgetting all that has happened since we knew each other personally, because I am willing to believe that you, as I know to be the case with myself, are very much the same as regards an old friend as in the old days; therefore I address you familiarly as I did then.

“From time to time tidings of you have reached us, and the impulse has been, both with Margaret and myself, that a salutation of love should pass from us to you, and that we should seek for tidings about you and your children; in short, that the friendship which was alive page: 95 formerly should not be allowed to die. Therefore, I now write, and I feel sure that you will give us in return what we ask from you in love, news of yourself and your children. Tell us all about them like a fond mother—what are their ages, what are their names, and what is the direction of their minds—which is the poet and which is the philosopher, for I believe there are two of them—and what are their tastes and especial talents. In short, let it be a loving mother’s letter to an aunt and grandmother, to whom they are strangers, but who loved their mother of old. Nor is that the only subject on which you would find us sympathetic. You are a Catholic, one of the great flock of Christ, and your heart and your intellect have found nourishment and life in the loving and in the sublime teaching of the Church—all that you aspired after and hungered and thirsted for in the most exalted dreams of your young poetical imagination has been given to you there. I do not think it was any surprise to us to learn that you had joined that great fellowship of saints and martyrs, for you and Adelaide Procter were kindred in so many ways.

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“Perhaps you know that Margaret, the little girl to whom your mother was so kind, and who was, from her childhood upwards, a seeker of true discipleship, found from deep thought and constant, earnest prayer during our life in Rome, that nowhere was it to be found except in the Church of St. Peter. But it was not in Rome that she entered the Church, but in Meran, the second year after our leaving Rome; and then truly did she understand what all the long, long years of study had led her to—for in spirit she had been a Catholic almost from her youth.

“Nor was the blessing alone confined to her, for the dear Lord in His mercy opened my mind also to the same grand imperishable truth, and I too was received into the Catholic Church, and that by baptism; I, having been born a Friend. And after all my later seeking for the Truth and for peace with God, which I did not find with any of the sects, I was, two years ago this coming Whitsuntide, baptized, as I have said, into the Church. I thank the blessed Lord for so great a mercy. But it is not generally known in England, and as my dear husband page: 97 was known to be adverse to the Church of Rome—though, during the latter years of his life his best and most valued friends were of the Faith, still his outward profession was Protestant—I am not desirous of making my own faith more public than needful.

“I have spoken, dear Bessie, of our best and dearest Roman friends being Catholic. They lived at that time (and still own) in the beautiful villa of Alimontana, just by those remarkable historical churches of St. Gregory and St. John and Paul, with the Fountain of Egeria and the walks in which St. Philip Neri discoursed with his disciples on the things of God, in their grounds. Of course you know the place. But I mention it particularly, because they were so proud of and so pleased with your beautiful poems on that locality and others, that they bought the whole set of Longfellow’s volumes on the ‘Poetry of Places’ that they might possess yours, and there it was that we saw them first.

“Now this is a long letter, dear Bessie, but I hope it will not be uninteresting to you; and, page: 98 with the kindest and best wishes for you and yours, and love from us both,

“I remain,

“Your faithful and affectionate old friend,


Such was the long and lovely letter in which she told me of her reception into the Fold. I trust I may be forgiven for having given it in its entirety, in spite of its references to myself and my forgotten verses. One other long letter I received from the same dear and venerated hand; it was written about three months before her death, and being dated from Meran, spoke of her approaching journey to Rome for the Jubilee, where she greatly wished me to join her. I was unable to go at Christmas, but fully purposed to do so at Easter, and thus see her once more; for nothing in the letter indicated feebleness, or warned me of an approaching end,

But it was not to be. On January the 10th, 1888, Mary Howitt, the first of the English pilgrims, was led up to Leo the Thirteenth on the occasion of his Jubilee. Mr. Clifford presented her, and the Duke of Norfolk brought her away. page: 99 The Pope laid his right hand upon her aged head, and blessed her, telling her he would meet her again “in Paradiso.” On the 30th of January she passed away in her sleep. When I came to Rome in October, 1889, that Holy City of the most sacred memories of my life contained also the grave of Mary Howitt.