Anna Letitia Barbauld

Poetess Archive: Anna Barbauld's Prose Works

"Letters to Mrs. Fletcher" (1813-1819)     TEI-encoded version


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Letters to Mrs. Fletcher

Sept. 1813.

1.         My dear Madam,

2.         I have to thank you for your very entertaining letter. I would have undergone a good wetting, and even a suspicion of danger, to have enjoyed the grandeur of your thunder-storm. Indeed I am rather partial to a death by lightning; and were I to choose the mode of my departure, should certainly prefer to be "by touch ethereal slain." However, as I have no right to choose for you, I am glad you got shelter under the roof of your hospitable, though penurious, farmer. Surely he must be a phænomenon even in the Highlands: but I believe it is rare in all professions for the same person to amass and to enjoy riches. Even with regard to the treasures of the mind, which one should suppose would include the power of using them, the laborious collector of facts and dates produces some ponderous volume, which sleeps on the shelf till some light and airy wit skims it for tale and anecdote, or some original genius shapes and moulds it into a system.


3.         I am now reading the third and fourth volumes of Mrs. Montague's Letters. To me, who have lived through all the time she writes of, they are interesting, -- independent of the wit and talent, -- as recalling a number of persons and events once present to my mind: they are also, I think, very entertaining, though, as letters, somewhat studied. With all her advantages she seems not to have been happy. She married not Mr. Montague from affection. It is evident she looked upon him as a wise and kind friend, but nothing more; -- a little too wise sometimes, when he kept her in the country longer than she liked. To a person so married, nothing will fill the mind and give a permanent interest to life, but children. She lost her child; and notwithstanding all that nature and all that fortune had given, and high cultivation, and chosen society, and public esteem, she speaks of life as a thing to be got through, rather than to be enjoyed.

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Stoke Newington, June, 1814.

1.          What do I think of the French! -- In the first place, it requires some time before one can think at all, events succeed each other with such astonishing rapidity. The constitution held out to the king's acceptance was indeed all one can wish, -- the principles of liberty were carried


further than even in ours, -- but you see he has not signed it; and if he had, it is a jest to talk of a constitution, when three or four foreign armies are in the kingdom.

2.          France, proud France, gallant France, is a conquered country. I do not think we yet know her real inclinations; convulsed by a revolution, tyrannized over by a despot, and owing her deliverance to her very enemies, -- how she is humbled, how much she has suffered; but how much she has inflicted! The French, however, have a better chance for happiness with the mild imbecility of Bourbons than with Napoleon.

3.         This was written a week ago: and now Spain -- Spain has disappointed all our hopes: "Down with the Cortes, -- up with the Inquisition!" and, as at Naples some years ago, the few fine spirits who would have rejoiced in a better order of things will be consigned to dungeons. I do not know what we can gather from the contemplation of all these revolutions, but this; that the concerns and destinies of all the world are too high for us; that we must wait the winding up of the drama, and be satisfied in promoting and enjoying the happiness of our own little circle .....

4.         The three persons who have most engaged the attention of London societies this year have been women: -- Miss Edgeworth, Madame de Stael, and now the Duchess of Oldenburg, who shows, they


say, a most rational and unsated curiosity. But kings and emperors are now appearing on the stage, and the lesser lights must "pale their ineffectual fires." Dear madam, will not you and Miss F. come to London to see all these sights? You are much mistaken if you think, as you seem to do, that you shall find us anxiously speculating about the liberties of Europe. We shall be squeezing to get a sight of Alexander, and taking tickets for fetes, and looking at the prince's fireworks, and criticizing the Oldenburg hat, and picking up anecdotes to shine with in the next party. Shall I be equally mistaken, or shall I not, when I suppose that you in Edinburgh are deep in Mathematics and metaphysics with Dugald Stewart? I want to know how his work is relished. I am glad he has spoken a good word for final causes, the search for which, under the guidance of judgement and impartiality, certainly assists investigation as truly as it is the reward of it.

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Stoke Newington, August 1814.

1.          ..... What an alteration a few weeks has made in London! If you but crossed the street a month ago, you had a chance of meeting a prince or an emperor; and now it is empty beyond the usual emptiness of summer, and everybody you meet has been, or is planning to go, across the


Channel. I am sorry to say, that among my female acquaintance the joy of bringing home, cleverly concealed, shawls, lace &c., seems to dwell more upon the fancy than museums of art or new scenes of nature; and truly, some of the young men seem better able to criticize French cookery than French conversation, or the Venus and Apollo. Is there not something strange and rather revolting in speaking of the French, as most have done for these twenty years past, with the utmost abhorrence and contempt, - and pouring ourselves over their country the moment it is accessible, to mix in their parties and bring home their fashions? ...... We have been full fed with novels lately, and shall be with poems. Think of a thick quarto of ----'s, entitled Fragments, being only a taste of the second part of a poem, which I suppose he means to give us some time or other. I should like to supply him with a motto: -- "And of the fragments there were taken up twelve baskets full."

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April, 1817.

1.         Dear Madam,

2.         It has been the impulse of my heart to write to you, and yet I hardly know how. What can I say? how can I express the shock this awful, this most affecting event has given me, has given all of us! How are the fairest hopes destroyed!


How are the dearest ties severed! When was the uncertainty of life and all its hopes exemplified in a more solemn manner! Dear Grace! I had hoped myself sometime, perhaps this summer, to see more of her, -- to see her open the stores of her mind, -- to see the modest flower expand and show all its lustre; -- but it is shut up for ever here, to blow, I trust, in a happier climate. Young as she was, she has seen, perhaps, the best of life. Like Young's Narcissa,* "She sparkled, was exhaled, and went to heaven." No long sickness to wear the mind as well as body, -- none of the decays incident to a more advanced period; she leaves life, it is true, in all its freshness, but without having tasted its cares or sorrows.

3.         And is it nothing to have raised and cultured such a mind? Is she not fitter for another state, with higher powers, than many a one who has passed sixty years of a drowsy existence? May we not presume that, like a forward schoolboy, who has run rapidly through his classes and left the school, while others of his own age and standing are still drudging on, -- she will step into a higher form with more advantages? O but, I think I hear you say, the mother's heart must bleed. It must; I know it. God comfort you, my dear Mrs. F., and Mr. F., and all your family. Your mind will turn, I know it will, to the promising children you still have. One jewel has


fallen from your maternal crown, but many remain; your are still rich. May God enable you to bear what he has laid upon you!

4.         [*Edward Young, The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (London, 1742). Narcissa is a figure appearing in "Night the Third." The line quoted, however, comes from "Night the Fifth":

Early, bright, transient, chaste as morning dew,
She sparkled, was exhal’d and went to heaven. (line 600-1)

5.         (Much thanks to Paul Cooper, Presbyterian Theological Centre, Sydney, Australia). Ed.]

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Stoke Newington, Sept. 1819.

1.         How good you are to me, my dear Mrs. F., and how kind and how cheering are your expressions of regard! I will not tell you how much you have made me love you by your late visit. You kindness, your frankness, the interest you have made me take in your family, the thought how much your own feelings have been tried, have made me look on you with mingled reverence and affection. I hope the Miss F.'s visit to London will have made sufficiently favourable impressions to induce them sometimes to repeat it; and yet I fancy I hear them saying, that after all, this great overgrown mass of buildings, these pushing, bustling, crowded streets, -- this hubbub and hum of the busy hive, -- that poverty and crime which form the back-ground of the gay picture, are not so attractive as their own Edinburgh, with its picturesque site, -- the singularity of the Old, the splendour of the New town, -- with the remembrances that attach (softened by being only remembrances) to the decayed palace and the closed doors of the hall of legislation -- with taste and spirit of inquiry emanating from the


seat of literature, and spreading its influence over society, and with all the romantic stories attached to glen and brook and heath, impressed with the still recent footsteps of a wild and hardy race, but lately brought within the pale of civilised society; -- stories the treasure-house of the poet and the novelist. And if they do make this preference, I have not much to say against it, provided you keep your Edinburgh as it is, and do not imitate us too much.

2.          Our weather is still pleasant. I am going to spend two or three days at ----, Mr. and Miss B. and myself in a post-chaise. An agreeable companion in a post-chaise, though I would not advertise for one, is certainly an agreeable thing. You talk, and yet you are not bound to talk; and if the conversation drops, you may pick it up again at every brook or village, or seat you pass, -- "What's o'clock?" and "How's the wind?" "Whose chariot's that we left behind?" You may sulk in a corner if you will; nay, you may sleep without offence.

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Date: 1825 (revised 01/28/2005) Author: Anna Letitia Barbauld (revised Zach Weir).
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