The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 14. Sir William Temple, Dorothy Osborne and Lady Giffard
Happily, one collection of private letters of this period has been preserved, which reveals a “native tenderness and innocent gaiety of mind” equal to Cowley’s. These are the letters of Dorothy Osborne, niece of Francis Osborne, written to her future husband, Sir William Temple, between the autumn of 1652 and that of 1654. She not only writes delightful letters, full of good sense, penetration and humour, but she has views of her own about the epistolary style. “All letters, methinks, should be free and easy as one’s discourse: not studied as an oration, not made up of hard words like a charm.” This criticism she does not consider applicable to the letters of her lover.
Nothing is more pleasant than to trace through the records of Temple’s political life the services rendered to him, and, through him, to the public interest, by this most devoted of women, though the title has been held to be disputable on behalf of Temple’s sister, lady Giffard, whom he commemorated with his wife and himself on his tombstone. Lady Giffard gave up the whole of her long widowhood to the companionship and service of her beloved brother, and wrote anonymously the brief Life and admirable character of him, afterwards prefixed to the folio edition of his works (1750). But, although, at times, it was more convenient for lady Giffard to be the companion of her brother’s journeys than it was for his wife, the latter was by no means, as has been suggested, thrown into the shade by her, and a complete harmony of purpose and feeling seems to have existed among the trio. Lady Temple was taken into her husband’s confidence as completely in his public, as in his private, business, except when he was under obligations of absolute secrecy; when left behind at the Hague, she was able to give him trustworthy information as to Buckingham’s negotiations with France; and she had the principal share in the confidential enquiries as to what “concern’d the Person, Humour and Dispositions” of the young princess Mary of York whose hand William of Orange thereupon made up his mind to ask in marriage. Lady Giffard’s own letters, which have been recently published, lack the rare charm which attaches to those of her sister-in-law, after, as well as before, marriage, even at seasons when, according to lady Temple’s own description, she felt “as weary as a dog without his Master.” The greatest tragedy of her life, the death by his own hand of the son of whom, in his babyhood, she had written as “the quietest best little boy that ever was borne,” seems to school her into a calm solemnity of expression which has a pathos of its own, unlike that which mingles with the humour of her earlier writing.