Anna Letitia Barbauld

Poetess Archive: Anna Barbauld's Prose Works

"Letters to Miss E. Belsham" (1771-1811)     TEI-encoded version


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Letters to Miss E. Belsham

Afterwards Mrs. Kenrick

London, Feb. 1771.

1.          Believe me, my dear Betsy, my heart has some time reproached me for being in your debt .... I am much obliged to you for your kind invitation to Bedford: certainly few things would give me more pleasure than conversing with my Betsy; but it will not be in my power to reach Bedford this time. I have already been so long from home, that they begin to be impatient for my return, and I would not trespass too far upon their goodness who, I am sensible, in some measure deny themselves in being without me.

2.         Patty and I are now with Mrs. K. She and I are great walkers, and in fine weather often stroll about almost all the morning; but we have very little to do with visiting any public places except the playhouses, where we have been three or four times. Last night we saw the West Indian, a very pretty play, as we thought on reading it; but the characters are so ill cast, that we had not


half the pleasure in seeing it. On part, indeed, the Irishman, was excellently done, but that was the only one; I think they seem to want actors very much for easy, genteel characters, which are more difficult to support than mimicry or strong-marked passions. The chaste and delicate sensibilities of a young unpracticed heart, or the decorums of a virtuous character, must be very difficult to assume; and indeed there are so many qualifications requisite to make a perfect actor, it is almost pity one possessed of them should follow the profession, nor is it surprising there be but one upon the stage at once ...... I admire Mrs. K. beyond most women I know, that engaged as she is by matrimonial connexions she is not engrossed by them, but has a heart as open to every other endearing relation and friendly sentiment as ever. It is not true, what Dr. Fordyce insinuates, that women's friendships are not sincere; I am sure it is not: I remember when I read it I had a good mind to have burnt the book for that unkind passage. I hope the Doctor will give us our revenge, as he has begun his sermons to young men: they were advertised in the papers, -- was it not a piece of parade unbecoming a preacher? It would be difficult to determine whether the age is growing better or worse; for I think our plays are growing like sermons, and our sermons like plays.

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Warrington, Jan. 1772.

1.         I heard not long ago a piece of news which pleases me beyond measure: can you guess what it is? Mrs. Lewin tells me that my dear Betsy intends coming to Lancashire soon. I hope these her good intentions will speedily be put in execution; if we had you here, Patty and I should be as happy as the day is long. We have a knot of lasses just after your own heart, -- as merry, blithe and gay as you would wish them, and very smart and clever, -- two of them are the Miss Rigbys. We have a West Indian family, too, that I think you would like; a young couple who seem intended by nature for nothing but mirth, frolic and gaiety. I say nothing of our young men, as I would not flatter you with the hopes of any conquest, for the foresaid damsels have left not hearts to conquer.

2.          You who love so dearly to puzzle other people, I have a puzzle for you. Can you find a number of words that will take in all the letters of the alphabet and no more? We have all been trying at it, with Mr. Enfield's assistance, a long time; if you can accomplish it we kiss the hem of your garment.

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Warrington, Jan. 1773.

1.          Not in charity with me forsooth? So you would pretend you never received a letter from me a


great while ago, in answer to your last! A letter, madam, written with such purity of style, such admirable brevity and perspicuity, that I am confident there was not a sentence of it you would object to. Well, if you will fancy I am still in your debt, I must make haste and get out of it as fast as I can.

2.          We are preparing to celebrate the birthday of -- a prince, shall I say? why not? a king if you please, since he has more power than any monarch in the universe, and we all expect blessings from him of more value than the Indies: perhaps, indeed, we may expect too much from him, for it is natural to hope for every thing under the auspices of a new king; and however we may have been disappointed by his predecessors, we fondly flatter ourselves that the young sovereign will crown all our hopes, and put us in possession of all our wishes. Blessings, invaluable ones, he certainly has in his disposal; but if we have wasted the bounties of his predecessors, would it not become us to mingle a tear to their memories with the joy which his accession inspires? May the present reign, however, be happy to you and me, and all of us, long I dare not add, except in good actions, because, young as the prince is, it is not presumption to say that his days are numbered; the astronomers have already cast his nativity,


nor is it in the power of all the sons of Adam to prolong beyond the appointed term, though but for an hour, the life of -- the New Year.

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Geneva, Oct. 21, 1785.

1.          My dear Eliza has desired me to write to her during our tour. She could not have put me upon an employment more agreeable to myself, for I am continually wishing those I love in England could share the pleasure we receive by the new scenes and objects which are continually passing before our eyes; and though I can give you but a very inadequate idea of them, it will be without any drawback from fatigue, bad inns, dirt, and various other &c's which may be put on the opposite side when the travelling account is balanced. We landed at Calais Sept. 18th, and you may wonder that we have as yet only reached Geneva; but Mr. B. from kind regard to my health, and indeed the convenience of us both, thought it best to make short stages; besides which, we have stopped wherever there were churches or fine things to be seen. One very agreeable ornament of the town abroad, which in England we are strangers to, is their fountains, the more pleasing as they connect public utility with a degree of magnificence. They excel us


likewise in public walks, and in every fortified town the ramparts alone afford very fine ones.

2.          We find ourselves very happy at Geneva; and if the season was not so far advanced, should like to spend a month or two here: indeed we have been singularly fortunate, for Mr. B. has found out a family of relations here, of the name of Rochemont, very amiable and respectable people; and the society here in general seems easy, sprightly and literary. English is much understood, and very tolerably spoken by many. The town is still divided into parties, and one side will tell you that Geneva is no longer what it was, that it has lost its liberty and every thing worth living for; and thus far is true, that the government is become entirely aristocratical, and is at present so strict, that half a dozen people cannot have a weekly meeting at each other's houses, unless they choose to declare they keep an open tavern. The situation of Geneva, as you well know, is delightful. I am just returned from an excursion to the mountain of Saleve, within a league of the town; from whence on one side you have a view of Geneva, with its lake of the purest blue, a large plain between the chair of Mount Jura and that of the Alps, cultivated like a parterre, and full of villages, country houses and farms, watered by the Arve, which meanders through it in the most sportive manner, making several islands,


and beyond Geneva falls into the Rhone. The vintage is not here got in, so that the vineyards are still in their beauty. On the other side Saleve, the mountains open upon you in all their grandeur. Mr. B. is gone to the Glaciers, to feast his eyes with a nearer view of these stupendous mountains; but I thought the expedition beyond my strength, and I am during his absence in a family of Genevois, who are very good kind of people.

3.          Will you hear how they pass the Sunday at Geneva? They have service at seven in the morning, at nine, and at two; after that they assemble in parties for conversation, cards and dancing, and finish the day at the theatre. Did not you think they had been stricter at Geneva than to have plays on the Sunday, especially as it is but two or three years since they were allowed at all? The service at their churches is seldom much more than an hour, and I believe few people go more than once a day. As soon as the text is named, the minister puts on his hat, in which he is followed by all the congregation, except those whose hats and heads have never any connexion; for you well know that to put his hat upon his head is the last use a well-dressed Frenchman would think of putting it to. At proper periods of the discourse, the minister stops short, and turns his back to you, in order to blow


his nose, which is a signal for all the congregation to do the same; and a glorious concert it is, for the weather is already severe, and people have got colds. I am told, too, that he takes this time to refresh his memory by peeping at his sermon, which lies behind him in the pulpit.

4.          Nobody ought to be too old to improve: I should be sorry if I was; and I flatter myself I have already improved considerably by my travels. First, I can swallow gruel soup, egg soup, and all manner of soups, without making faces much. Secondly, I can pretty well live without tea; they give it, however, at Geneva. Thirdly, I am less and less shocked, and hope in time I shall be quite easy at seeing gentlemen, perhaps perfect strangers, enter my room without ceremony when I am in my bedgown. I would not have you think, however, I am in danger of losing my modesty; for if I am no longer affected at some things, I have learned to blush at others; and I will tell you, as a friend, that I believe there is but one indecency in France, which is, for a man and his wife to have the same sleeping-room. "Est ce votre chambre, madame, ou cell de M. votre epoux?" said a lady to me the other day. I protest I felt quite out of countenance to think we had but one.

5.          It is time to leave Geneva, for I see from my window the tops of Mount Jura, which are already covered with snow; and we have had a vent de bise so severe, that I have been confined to my


chamber, it is now the sixth day, with a very painful swelled face.

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Hampstead, 1800.

1.         My dear friend,

2.         Whether or no I received the letter which you forgot to write, I shall not tell you; I only know that I am often reproached by my correspondents for negligence; and for the life of me I cannot think of any thing that has hindered the arrival of my letters, except the cause to which I will no longer defer my affectionate thanks. And what shall I tell you first? That we are well, that we have rubbed tolerably through the winter, and that we have been enjoying the sudden burst of spring, which clothed every tree and every hedge in verdure with a rapidity seldom observed in our climate. The blossoms were all pushed out at once, but unfortunately few have remained long enough to give the expectation of fruit. I fear it may be the same with your beautiful apple-orchards. We often picture to ourselves the beautiful country, and still oftener the affectionate friends and the interesting family with whom we spent so happy a fortnight last summer.


3.         If all that has happened has not happened, or the memory of it could be washed away with Lethe, how usefully and respectably might Dr. Priestley now be placed at the head of the Royal Institution, which is so fashionable just now in London! I went a few mornings ago to hear Dr. Garnet, who is at present the only lecturer, and was much pleased to see a fashionable and very attentive audience, about one third ladies, assembled for the purposes of science and improvement. How much is taught now, and even made a part of education, which, when you and I were young, was not even discovered! It does some credit to the taste of the town, that the Institution and the Bishop of London's lectures have been the most fashionable places of resort this winter. I have received, however, great pleasure lately from the representation of De Monfort, a tragedy which you probably read a year and half ago, in a volume entitled A Series of Plays on the Passions. I admired it then, but little dreamed I was indebted for my entertainment to a young lady of Hampstead whom I visited, and who came to Mr. Barbauld's meeting all the while with as innocent a face as if she had never written a line. The play is admirably acted by Mrs. Siddons and Kemble, and is finely written, with great purity of sentiment, beauty of diction, strength and originally of character; but it is open to criticism, -- I cannot believe such a hat-


red natural. The affection between the brother and sister is most beautifully touched, and, as far as I know, quite new. The play is somewhat too good for our present taste.

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Stoke Newington, May, 1811.

1.         My dear Mrs. Kenrick,

2.         I have been thinking what to liken our uncertain and unfrequent correspondence to. I cannot liken it to the regular blow of flowers that come out and blossom in their proper season. It is rather like the aloe, that after having been barren season after season shows signs of life all on a sudden, and pushes out when you least expect it. But take notice, the life is in the aloe all the while, and sorry indeed should I be if the life was not all the while in our friendship, thought it so seldom diffuses itself over a piece of paper. How much I long to see you again! I wish you would come and see me this summer, the journey I should hope would not be too much for you; and in coming to me you would be near all your friends. Do think of it!

3.          ..... I believe I am writing you an enormous letter; but I have been in a course of letter-reading. I am wading through the letters of Madame du Deffand, in four volumes. Have you read them? Walpole and she wrote every week, and they were continually grumbling at one an-


other, yet they went on. Walpole, poor man, seems to have been terribly afraid that this old blind lady was in love with him; and he had much ado to reduce her expressions of friendship to something of an English standard. This lady appears to have been very unhappy. She was blind, indeed, but she had every thing else that could make age comfortable; fortune, friends, talents, consideration in the world, the society of all the wits and all the people of rank of Paris, or who visited Paris, but she totally wanted the best support of all, -- religious feelings and hopes; and I do not know any thing that is likely to impress their importance more on the mind than the perusal of these letters. You see her tired of life, almost blaspheming providence for having given her existence; yet dreading to die, because she had no hopes beyond death. A lady told me she would not on any account let her daughter read the letters. I think, for my part, they give in this view as good a lesson as you can pick out of Mrs. More's Practical Piety, which, if you have not read, I cannot help it.

4.         Adieu! do let me hear from you soon. I wonder, say you, the woman has the face to ask it. That's true, but I hope you will, notwithstanding. Nothing will give more pleasure to

5.         Your affectionate friend.

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Date: 1825 (revised 01/26/2005) Author: Anna Letitia Barbauld (revised Zach Weir).
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