Anna Letitia Barbauld

Poetess Archive: Anna Barbauld's Prose Works

"Letters to Mrs. J. Taylor" (1785-1818)     TEI-encoded version


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Letters to Mrs. J. Taylor

Yarmouth, Sept. 1st, 1785.

1.         Dear Madam,

2.          Though I have had the pleasure (it was a very real one) of a glimpse of Mr. Taylor, yet I cannot prevail on myself to entrust either him or Mr. Barbauld with those affectionate wishes and grateful acknowledgements of your friendship which, before I leave England, I wish to convey to you with my own hand. Mr. Barbauld will tell you our route. -- Now it comes to the point, I cannot help feeling it a solemn thing to leave England, and all our dear connexions in it, for so many months. Often will they be in our minds; and when we recollect those who hold the highest places in our esteem and affection, Mrs. Taylor will always be presented to our thoughts. Allow me, dear madam, again to thank you for your kindness to us at Norwich, and the pleasure we enjoyed in that short but delightful intercourse with you and your family. On that family may health and every blessing ever rest.


3.         By the time we return, I think I shall have had a sufficient draught of idleness, and be very ready to engage again in some active pursuit; but at present, Avaunt care! and Vive la bagatelle! for we are bound for France.

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Paris, June 7th, 1786.

1.         Dear Madam,

2.          Though we expect now very soon to finish our long pilgrimage, I cannot quit this country without giving you a little testimonial that in it we think of those beloved English friends from whom the sea now divides us: they are often recalled to my mind by different and opposite trains of thinking, -- for contrast, you know, is one source of association; and when I see the Parisian ladies covered with rouge and enslaved by fashion, cold to the claims of maternal tenderness, and covering licentiousness with the thin veil of a certain factitious decency of manners, my thoughts turn away from the scene, and delight to contemplate the charming union formed by deep affection and lasting esteem, -- the mother endowed with talents and graces to draw the attention of polite circles, yet devoting her time and cares to her family and children -- English delicacy, unspoiled beauty, and unaffected sentiment, -- when I think of these, (and your friends will not be at a loss to guess where I look for them,) it gives the


same relief to my mind as it would to my eye when wearied and dazzled by their sand-walks and terraces, if it could repose upon the cheerful and soft green of our lawny turf. I would not, however, have you imagine that I am out of humour with Paris, where we have enjoyed much pleasure; only it is the result of our tour, that taking in all things, manners and government as well as climate, we like our own country best: and this is an opinion certainly favourable to our happiness, who shall probably never leave England again. The weather with us is, and has been, extremely hot. The trees are in their freshest green; but one sees that the grass will soon be burnt if we have not rain. Indeed they are obliged every day to water the turf in all their gardens where they are solicitous about verdure. The environs of Paris are charming, yet I think evidently inferior to those of London. Yesterday (Whitsunday) we were gratified with a view of all the magnificence of Versailles. in compliment to the day the water-works played, and there was the brilliant procession of the cordon blue; in consequence of which all Paris in a manner was poured into Versailles; and I was ready to forgive the enormous expense and ostentation of this palace, when I saw a numerous people of all sorts and degrees filling the rooms and wandering in the gardens, full of admiration, and deriving both


pleasure and pride from their national magnificence; and many a one, I dare say, exulted in the thought that the grand monarque's horses are better lodged than is the king of England himself. The grand gallery filled with Le Brun's paintings is of a striking beauty; the gardens are full of water thrown up in artificial fountains, and glittering through artificial bosquets; the walks are adorned with whole quarries of marble wrought into statues. In short, art and symmetry reign entirely; and I hope they will never attempt to modernize these gardens, because they are a model of magnificence in their kind, and Art appears with so much imposing grandeur, that she seems to have a right to reign. The petit Trianon belonging to the queen is in another style; with cottages and green lawns and winding walks of flowering shrubs in the English mode, which indeed prevails very much at present.

3.          There is a person here, the Abbe d'Hauy, who teaches the blind to read by means of books printed expressly for them in a relief of white. The undertaking is curious; but they are at present somewhat in the state of the blind men brought up for painters in the island of Laputa, who were not so perfect in the mixing their colours but that they sometimes mistook blue for red.

4.          The French stage is not, I think, at present very brilliant; three of their best actors have lately


left it. But at the Italian theatre they have a delightful little piece, which under the name of a comic opera draws tears from all the world. It is called Nina, or La Folle d'Amour, and Mademoiselle du Gazon acts the part of Nina; and does it with such enchanting grace, such sweet and delicate touches of sensibility and passion, as I never saw upon any theatre. It is the sweet bells jangled out of tune, but not harsh: no raving, no disorder of dress; but every look and gesture showed an unsettled mind, and a tenderness inimitable. At the Opera they have likewise an actress full of grace beyond mere nature. Everybody (that is everybody who follows the fashion) leaves Paris in the summer, which was not the case some years ago. We stay now for a fine show, -- the procession on the Fete Dieu, in which all the tapestry of the Gobelins is exposed in the streets. We shall return by Calais and proceed immediately to London, where we shall take lodgings for some time.

5.          Will you do me the favour to remember us with grateful affection to all our friends at Norwich? there are so many that claim our esteem, I do not attempt to enumerate them; but do not forget to give a kiss for us to each of your dear boys, and to assure Mr. Taylor of Mr. Barbauld's and my affectionate esteem.

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1.         I am now reading Mr. Johnes's Froissart, and I think I never was more struck with the horrors of war, -- simply because he seems not at all struck with them; and I feel ashamed at my heart having ever beat with pleasure at the names of Cressy and Poitiers. He tells you the English marched into such a district; the barns were full, and cattle and corn plentiful; they burned and destroyed all the villages, and laid the country bare; such an English earl took a town, and killed men, women, and little children; -- and he never makes a remark, but shows he looks upon it as the usual mode of proceeding.

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May, 1813.

1.          ..... There is certainly at present a great deal of zeal in almost every persuasion; -- certainly much more in England, as far as I am able to judge, than when I was young. I often speculate upon what it will produce, -- not uniformity of opinion certainly; that is a blessing we seem not destined here to enjoy, if indeed it would be a blessing. But will it tend to universal toleration and enlarged liberality of thinking? or, with increase of zeal, will the church spirit of bigotry revive, and unite with the increasing power of government to crush the spirit of research and


freedom of opinion? Bible societies, missionary schemes, lectures, schools for the poor, are set on foot and spread, not so much from a sense of duty as from being the real taste of the times; and I am told that Mrs. Siddons's readings are much patronized by the evangelical people, as they are called of fashion, who will not enter the doors of a theatre. Would that with all this there could be seen some little touch of feeling for the miseries of war, that are desolating the earth without end or measure! One should be glad to see some suspicion arise that it was not consistent with the spirit of the Gospel; but this you do not see even in good people.

2.          ..... Friends at a distance do not want some medium of sympathy though they do not meet. I have sometimes looked upon new books in that light. When I peruse a book of merit to be generally read, I feel sure, though not informed of it, that precisely the same stream of ideas which is flowing through my mind is flowing through my friend's also; and without any communication, either by work or letter, I know that he has admired and criticized, and laughed and wept as I have done.

June 18, 1810.

1.          My dear Mrs. Taylor,

2.         A thousand thanks for your kind letter; still more for the very kind visit that preceded it; -- though short, too short, it has left indelible impressions on my mind; my heart has truly had communion with yours, -- your sympathy has been balm to it; and I feel that there is no one now on earth to whom I could pour out that heart more readily, I may say so readily, as to yourself. Very good also has my dear amiable Mrs. Beecroft been to me, whose lively sweetness and agreeable conversation has at times won me to forget that my heart is heavy.

3.         I am now alone again, and feel like a person who has been sitting by a cheerful fire, not sensible at the time of the temperature of the air, but the fire removed, he finds the season is still winter. Day after day passes, and I do not know what I do with my time; and my mind has no energy, nor power or application. I can tell you, however, what I have done with some hours of it, which have been agreeably employed in reading Mrs. Montague's Letters. I think her nephew has made a very agreeable present to the public; and I was greatly edified to see them printed in modest octavo, with Mrs. Montague's sweet face (for it is a very pretty face) at the head.


They certainly show a very extraordinary mind, full of wit, and also of deep thought and sound judgement. She seems to have liked not a little to divert herself with the odd and the ludicrous, and show herself in the earlier letters passionately found of balls and races and London company; this was natural enough at eighteen. Perhaps you may not so easily pardon her for having early settled her mind, as she evidently had, not to marry except for an establishment. This seems to show a want of some of those fine feelings that one expects in youth: but when it is considered that she was the daughter of a country gentleman with a large family, and no fortune to expect, and her connexions all in high life, one is disposed to pardon her, especially as I dare say she would never have married a fool or a profligate. I heard her say, -- what I suppose very few can say, -- that she never was in love in her life. Many of the letters are in fact essays; and I think had she turned her thoughts to write in that way, she would have excelled Johnson.

4.         I have also turned over Lamb's Specimens of Old Plays, and am much pleased with them. I make a discovery there, that La Motte's fable of Genius, Virtue, and Redemption, which has been so much praised for its ingenious turn, is borrowed from Webster, an author of the age of Shakespear; or they have taken it from some common


source, for a Frenchman was not very likely to light upon an English poet of that age; they knew about as much of us then, as we did fifty years ago of the Germans. It is surprising how little invention there is in the world; no very good story was ever invented. It is perhaps originally some fact a little enlarged; then, by some other hand, embellished with circumstances; then, by somebody else, a century after, refined, drawn to a point, and furnished with a moral. When shall we see the moral of the world's great story, which astonishes by its events, interests by the numerous agents it puts in motion, but of which we cannot understand the bearings, or predict the catastrophe? It is a tangled web, of which we have not the clue. I do not know how to rejoice at this victory, splendid as it is, over Buonaparte, when I consider the horrible waste of life, the mass of misery, which such gigantic combats must occasion. I will think no more of it; let me rather contemplate your family: there the different threads all wind evenly, smoothly, and brightly.

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Stoke Newington, Dec. 8th, 1818.

1.          I will write now my dear friend is better, is recovering, is, I hope, in a fair way to be soon quite well, and all herself again; and she will ac-


cept, and so will Mr. T. and Mrs. R. my warmest congratulations. To tell you how anxious we have been, would, I trust, be superfluous, or how much joy we have felt in being relieved from that anxiety. It is pleasant to have some one to share pleasure with; and though I could have had that satisfaction in a degree with every one who knows you, it is more particularly agreeable to me at this time to have your dear Sarah to sympathize with and talk to about you. Among other things we say, that you must not let mind wear out body, which I suspect you are a little inclined to do. Mind is often very hard upon his humble yoke-fellow, sometimes speaking contemptuously of her, as being of a low, mean family, in comparison with himself; often abridging her food or natural rest for his whims. Many a headache has he given her when, but for him, she would be quietly resting in her bed. Sometimes he fancies that she hangs as a dead weight upon him, and impedes all his motions; yet it is well known, that though he gives himself such airs of superiority, he can in fact do nothing without her; and since, however they came together, they are united for better for worse, it is for his interest as well as hers, that she should be nursed and cherished, and taken care of. -- And so ends my sermon.

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Date: 1825 (revised 01/25/2005) Author: Anna Letitia Barbauld (revised Zach Weir).
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