Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
At Lady Blessingtons
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (18061867)
[From Pencillings by the Way.Prose Works. 1850.]
A FRIEND in Italy had kindly given me a letter to Lady Blessington, and with a strong curiosity to see this celebrated lady, I called on the second day after my arrival in London. It was deep i the afternoon, but I had not yet learned the full meaning of town hours. Her ladyship had not come down to breakfast. I gave the letter and my address to the powdered footman, and had scarce reached home when a note arrived inviting me to call the same evening at ten.
In a long library lined alternately with splendidly bound books and mirrors, and with a deep window of the breadth of the room, opening upon Hyde Park, I found Lady Blessington alone. The picture to my eye as the door opened was a very lovely one. A woman of remarkable beauty half buried in a fauteuil of yellow satin, reading by a magnificent lamp, suspended from the centre of the arched ceiling; sofas, couches, ottomans, and busts, arranged in rather a crowded sumptuousness through the room; enamel tables, covered with expensive and elegant trifles in every corner, and a delicate white hand relieved on the back of a book, to which the eye was attracted by the blaze of its diamond rings. As the servant mentioned my name, she rose and gave me her hand very cordially, and a gentleman entering immediately after, she presented me to her son-in-law, Count DOrsay, the well-known Pelham of London, and certainly the most splendid specimen of a man and a well-dressed one that I had ever seen. Tea was brought in immediately, and conversation went swimmingly on.
Her ladyships inquiries were principally about America, of which, from long absence, I knew very little. She was extremely curious to know the degrees of reputation the present popular authors of England enjoy among us, particularly Bulwer, Galt, and DIsraeli (the author of Vivian Grey). If you will come to-morrow night, she said, you will see Bulwer. I am delighted that he is popular in America. He is envied and abused by all the literary men of London, for nothing, I believe, except that he gets five hundred pounds for his books and they fifty, and knowing this, he chooses to assume a pride (some people call it puppyism), which is only the armor of a sensitive mind, afraid of a wound. He is to his friends the most frank and gay creature in the world, and open to boyishness with those who he thinks understand and value him. He has a brother, Henry, who is as clever as himself in a different vein, and is just now publishing a book on the present state of France. Bulwers wife, you know, is one of the most beautiful women in London, and his house is the resort of both fashion and talent. He is just now hard at work on a new book, the subject of which is the last days of Pompeii. The hero is a Roman dandy, who wastes himself in luxury, till this great catastrophe rouses him and develops a character of the noblest capabilities. Is Galt much liked?
I answered to the best of my knowledge that he was not. His life of Byron was a stab at the dead body of the noble poet, which, for one, I never could forgive, and his books were clever, but vulgar. He was evidently not a gentleman in his mind. This was the opinion I had formed in America, and I had never heard another.
I am sorry for it, said Lady B., for he is the clearest and best old man in the world. I know him well. He is just on the verge of the grave, but comes to see me now and then, and if you had known how shockingly Byron treated him, you would only wonder at his sparing his memory so much.
I am pleased at that, too, for I like them both. DIsraeli, the elder, came here with his son the other night. It would have delighted you to see the old mans pride in him. He is very fond of him, and as he was going away, he patted him on the head, and said to me, Take care of him, Lady Blessington, for my sake. He is a clever lad, but he wants ballast. I am glad he has the honor to know you, for you will check him sometimes when I am away! DIsraeli, the elder, lives in the country, about twenty miles from town, and seldom comes up to London. He is a very plain old man in his manners, as plain as his son is the reverse. DIsraeli, the younger, is quite his own character of Vivian Grey, crowded with talent, but very soigné of his curls, and a bit of a coxcomb. There is no reserve about him, however, and he is the only joyous dandy I ever saw.
Oh, by no means. I was equally flattered and amused by the whole affair. I have a great idea of taking a trip to America to see it. Then the letter, commencing Most charming countessfor charming you must be since you have written the conversations of Lord Byronoh, it was quite delightful. I have shown it to everybody. By the way, I receive a great many letters from America, from people I never heard of, written in the most extraordinary style of compliment, apparently in perfectly good faith. I hardly know what to make of them.
I accounted for it by the perfect seclusion in which great numbers of cultivated people live in our country, who, having neither intrigue, nor fashion, nor twenty other things to occupy their minds as in England, depend entirely upon books, and consider an author who has given them pleasure as a friend. America, I said, has probably more literary enthusiasts than any country in the world; and there are thousands of romantic minds in the interior of New England who know perfectly every writer this side the water, and hold them all in affectionate veneration, scarcely conceivable by a sophisticated European. If it were not for such readers, literature would be the most thankless of vocations. I, for one, would never write another line.
And do you think these are the people who write to me? If I could think so, I should be exceedingly happy. People in England are refined down to such heartlessnesscriticism, private and public, is so interested and so cold, that it is really delightful to know there is a more generous tribunal. Indeed I think all our authors now are beginning to write for America. We think already a great deal of your praise or censure.
Not in London, but a great many abroad. I was with Lord Blessington in his yacht at Naples, when the American fleet was lying there, eight or ten years ago, and we were constantly on board your ships. I knew Commodore Creighton and Captain Deacon extremely well, and liked them particularly. They were with us, either on board the yacht or the frigate, every evening, and I remember very well the bands playing always God save the King as we went up the side. Count DOrsay here, who spoke very little English at that time, had a great passion for Yankee Doodle, and it was always played at his request.
The count, who still speaks the language with a very slight accent, but with a choice of words that shows him to be a man of uncommon tact and elegance of mind, inquired after several of the officers, whom I have not the pleasure of knowing. He seemed to remember his visits to the frigate with great pleasure. The conversation, after running upon a variety of topics, which I could not with propriety put into a letter for the public eye, turned very naturally upon Byron. I had frequently seen the Countess Guiccioli on the continent, and I asked Lady Blessington if she knew her.
No. We were at Pisa when they were living together, but though Lord Blessington had the greatest curiosity to see her, Byron would never permit it. She has a red head of her own, said he, and dont like to show it. Byron treated the poor creature dreadfully ill. She feared more than she loved him.
It would be impossible, of course, to make a full and fair record of a conversation of some hours. I have only noted one or two topics which I thought most likely to interest an American reader. During all this long visit, however, my eyes were very busy in finishing for memory a portrait of the celebrated and beautiful woman before me.
The portrait of Lady Blessington in the Book of Beauty is not unlike her, but it is still an unfavorable likeness. A picture by Sir Thomas Lawrence hung opposite me, taken, perhaps, at the age of eighteen, which is more like her, and as captivating a representation of a just matured woman, full of loveliness and love, the kind of creature with whose divine sweetness the gazers heart aches, as ever was drawn in the painters most inspired hour. The original is now (she confessed it very frankly) forty. She looks something on the sunny side of thirty. Her person is full, but preserves all the fineness of an admirable shape; her foot is not crowded in a satin slipper, for which a Cinderella might long be looked for in vain, and her complexion (an unusually fair skin, with very dark hair and eyebrows) is of even a girlish delicacy and freshness. Her dress of blue satin (if I am describing her like a milliner, it is because I have here and there a reader of the Mirror in my eye who will be amused by it) was cut low and folded across her bosom, in a way to show to advantage the round and sculpture-like curve and whiteness of a pair of exquisite shoulders, while her hair dressed close to her head, and parted simply on her forehead with a rich ferronier of turquoise, enveloped in clear outline a head with which it would be difficult to find a fault. Her features are regular, and her mouth, the most expressive of them, has a ripe fulness and freedom of play, peculiar to the Irish physiognomy, and expressive of the most unsuspicious good humor. Add to all this a voice merry and sad by turns, but always musical, and manners of the most unpretending elegance, yet even more remarkable for their winning kindness, and you have the most prominent traits of one of the most lovely and fascinating women I have ever seen. Remembering her talents and her rank, and the unenvying admiration she receives from the world of fashion and genius, it would be difficult to reconcile her lot to the doctrine of compensation.
In the evening I kept my appointment with Lady Blessington. She had deserted her exquisite library for the drawing-room, and sat, in fuller dress, with six or seven gentlemen about her. I was presented immediately to all, and when the conversation was resumed, I took the opportunity to remark the distinguished coterie with which she was surrounded.
Nearest me sat Smith, the author of Rejected Addressesa hale, handsome man, apparently fifty, with white hair, and a very nobly-formed head and physiognomy. His eye alone, small and with lids contracted into an habitual look of drollery, betrayed the bent of his genius. He held a cripples crutch in his hand, and though otherwise rather particularly well dressed, wore a pair of large India-rubber shoesthe penalty he was paying doubtless for the many good dinners he had eaten. He played rather an aside in the conversation, whipping in with a quiz or a witticism whenever he could get an opportunity, but more a listener than a talker .
I fell into conversation after a while with Smith, who, supposing I might not have heard the names of the others, in the hurry of an introduction, kindly took the trouble to play the dictionary, and added a graphic character of each as he named him. Among other things he talked a great deal of America, and asked me if I knew our distinguished countryman, Washington Irving. I had never been so fortunate as to meet him. You have lost a great deal, he said, for never was so delightful a fellow. I was once taken down with him into the country by a merchant, to dinner. Our friend stopped his carriage at the gate of his park, and asked us if we would walk through his grounds to the house. Irving refused and held me down by the coat, so that we drove on to the house together, leaving our host to follow on foot. I make it a principle, said Irving, never to walk with a man through his own grounds. I have no idea of praising a thing whether I like it or not. You and I will do them to-morrow morning by ourselves. The rest of the company had turned their attention to Smith as he began his story, and there was a universal inquiry after Mr. Irving. Indeed the first questions on the lips of every one to whom I am introduced as an American, are of him and Cooper. The latter seems to me to be admired as much here as abroad, in spite of a common impression that he dislikes the nation. No mans works could have higher praise in the general conversation that followed, though several instances were mentioned of his having shown an unconquerable aversion to the English when in England. Lady Blessington mentioned Mr. Bryant, and I was pleased at the immediate tribute paid to his delightful poetry by the talented circle around her.
Toward twelve oclock, Mr. Lytton Bulwer was announced, and enter the author of Pelham. I had made up my mind how he should look, and between prints and descriptions thought I could scarcely be mistaken in my idea of his person. No two things could be more unlike, however than the ideal Mr. Bulwer in my mind and the real Mr. Bulwer who followed the announcement. Imprimis, the gentleman who entered was not handsome. I beg pardon of the boarding-schoolsbut he really was not. The engraving of him published some time ago in America is as much like any other man living, and gives you no idea of his head whatever. He is short, very much bent in the back, slightly knock-kneed, and, if my opinion in such matters goes for anything, as ill-dressed a man, for a gentleman, as you will find in London. His figure is slight and very badly put together, and the only commendable point in his person, as far as I could see, was the smallest foot I ever saw a man stand upon. Au reste, I liked his manners extremely. He ran up to Lady Blessington, with the joyous heartiness of a boy let out of school; and the how dye, Bulwer! went round, as he shook hands with everybody, in the style of welcome usually given to the best fellow in the world. As I had brought a letter of introduction to him from a friend in Italy, Lady Blessington introduced me particularly, and we had a long conversation about Naples and its pleasant society.
Bulwers head is phrenologically a fine one. His forehead retreats very much, but is very broad and well marked, and the whole air is that of decided mental superiority. His nose is aquiline, and far too large for proportion, though he conceals its extreme prominence by an immense pair of red whiskers, which entirely conceal the lower part of his face in profile. His complexion is fair, his hair profuse, curly, and of a light auburn, his eye not remarkable, and his mouth contradictory, I should think, of all talent. A more good-natured, habitually-smiling, nerveless expression could hardly be imagined. Perhaps my impression is an imperfect one, as he was in the highest spirits, and was not serious the whole evening for a minutebut it is strictly and faithfully my impression.
I can imagine no style of conversation calculated to be more agreeable than Bulwers. Gray, quick, various, half-satirical, and always fresh and different from everybody else, he seemed to talk because he could not help it, and infected everybody with his spirits. I cannot give even the substance of it in a letter, for it was in a great measure local or personal. A great deal of fun was made of a proposal by Lady Blessington, to take Bulwer to America and show him at so much a head. She asked me whether I thought it would be a good speculation. I took upon myself to assure her ladyship that, provided she played showman, the concern, as they would phrase it in America, would be certainly a profitable one. Bulwer said he would rather go in disguise and hear them abuse his books. It would be pleasant, he thought, to hear the opinions of people who judged him neither as a member of parliament nor a dandysimply a book-maker. Smith asked him if he kept an amanuensis. No, he said, I scribble it all out myself, and send it to the press in a most ungentlemanlike hand, half print and half hieroglyphic, with all its imperfections on its head, and correct in the proofvery much to the dissatisfaction of the publisher, who sends me in a bill of sixteen pounds six shillings and fourpence for extra corrections. Then I am free to confess I dont know grammar. Lady Blessington, do you know grammar? I detest grammar. There never was such a thing heard of before Lindley Murray. I wonder what they did for grammar before his day! Oh, the delicious blunders one sees when they are irretrievable! And the best of it is, the critics never get hold of them. Thank Heaven for second editions, that one may scratch out his blots, and go down clean and gentlemanlike to posterity! Smith asked him if he had ever reviewed one of his own books. Nobut I could! And then how I should like to recriminate and defend myself indignantly! I think I could be preciously severe. Depend upon it nobody knows a books defects half so well as its author. I have a great idea of criticising my works for my posthumous memoirs. Shall I, Smith? Shall I, Lady Blessington?
It is quite impossible to convey in a letter scrawled literally between the end of a late visit and a tempting pillow the evanescent and pure spirit of a conversation of wits. I must confine myself, of course, in such sketches, to the mere sentiment of things that concern general literature and ourselves.
The Rejected Addresses got upon his crutches about three oclock in the morning, and I made my exit with the rest, thanking Heaven that, though in a strange country, my mother-tongue was the language of its men of genius.