A Bundle of Letters.
One of the most charming chapters in that most charming book, 'Cranford,' contains the description of Miss Matty sorting and burning her old letters. Letters have a curious vitality about them; they carry us back with one bound to the days in which they were written. Time softens so many things, changes so entirely their aspects, blots out so many lines, that our memories scarcely serve us. But letters cath the thousand and one little trivialities of every-day life, and preserve them long after the "hand that writ" them is dust. The wit and scandal and gossip of the Court of Louis XIV. are kept as fresh for us, as though they belonged to yesterday, in the pages of Madame de Sévigné's letters. We pass calm and uneventful days with Jane Austen in the little Hampshire parsonage that stood on the edge of the open chalk downs, nestling among the neat hazel copses. We smell with William Cowper the sweet penetrating scent of the mignonnette in the flower-bed opposite his window, or wander with him and Mrs Unwin through the pleasure-grounds of Weston. Or we discuss household affairs for the benefit of her "Prueship" with kindly Richard Steele, while "the brats . . . stand on each side of the table," and "Miss Moll has taken upon her to hold the sand box, and is so impertinent in her office" that the honest man "cannot write more."
For the very essence of a letter is that it should not merely contain news, but that it should bring with it a touch, an aroma, a subtle something, which is individual to the writer. And the best letters often contain the least news, but have been written as they are read—without effort. They have no purpose, no design, and their and their very art is the "art of simplicity." "I believe I am going to write a long letter, and have therefore taken a whole sheet of paper," writes Johnson. "This will be a quick return for yours, my dear Cassandra," writes Miss Austen to her sister. "I doubt its having much else to recommend it; but there is no saying—it may turn out to be a very long and delightful letter." And it does turn out to be a delightful letter, like all those given to us in her memoir—letters overflowing with gentle humour and keen appreciation of the little comedies, which are for ever being acted free of charge, on the stage of this world. She has always something fresh and pleasant to say about the weather, the every-day people and things that cross her path. Who does not know Mary W., whose "turn is actually come to be grown up, and have a fine complexion, and wear great square muslin shawls"? or Charlotte Craven, whose "hair is done up with an elegance to do credit to any education"? And who but Jane Austen could tell so pleasantly as this little extract shows, the common story of an escape from an unwelcome caller?
"Here has been that excellent Mrs. Couldhart calling, while my mother was out, and I was believed to be so. I always respected her as a good-hearted, friendly woman. And the Browns have been here; I find their affidavits on the table."There is a touch, too, in the following criticism on her niece's MS. novel which is inimitable, and of which the author of 'Mansfield Park' and 'Pride and Prejudice' alone could be capable:
"Julian's history is quite a surprise to me. You had not very long known it yourself, I suspect, but I have no bjection to make to the circumstance; it is very well told, and his having been in love with the aunt gives Cecilia an additional interest with him. I like the idea; a very proper compliment to an aunt! I rather imagine, indeed, that nieces are seldom chosen but in compliment to some aunt or other. I dare say your husband was in love with me once, and would never have thought of you if he had not supposed me dead of a scarlet fever."It has been said that Jane Austen's books are wanting in pathos. It is true they have none of the hysterical sentimentality, none of the morbid love of all that is painful, which are so common in the novels of the present day. Yet it can scarcely be denied that the character of Anne in 'Persuasion' is treated with a great tenderness, and drawn by a very delicate hand. This character is all the more touching for its reticence, for its modest self-control, and Anne is as womanly in her yieldingness as she is in her constancy. There has been a conjecture that Anne is Jane Austen herself, and that the story of the heroine was possibly that of the writer—only with a different ending. It is easy to believe that this may be true, although proofs are wanting. We find in Miss Austen's own letters to her family the same sweet traits, the same gentle affection, the same quiet depth of feeling that we have loved in the heroine of 'Persuasion;' and towards the end, when her health failed her, we read between the lines still more clearly, her pure unselfish nature.
"Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother" (she writes to her nephew, when she was moved to Winchester for further medical advice), "in senidng me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day, I think I should have felt none; but it distressed me to see Uncle Henry and William Knight, who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost the whole way."And again:
"As to what I owe her" (her sister Cassandra), "and the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion" (her illness), "I can only cry over it, and pray God to bless them more and more."In the same way the poet Cowper, in his letters, lets us into the secrets of his reticent, sensitive nature. We learn how "dejection of spirits," which "may have prevented many a man from becoming an author," made him a poet; and that 'John Gilpin' was written "in the saddest mood, and but for that saddest mood, perhaps had never been written at all." We cannot choose but love him, whether we find him struggling in those terribly deep and bitter waters, in which, to use his own simile, he was whelmed; or whether we find him playing with his kitten, "the drollest of all creatures that ever wore a cat's skin," and who was "dressed in a tortoise-shell suit;" or enjoying the beauty of his myrtles in his greenhouse when "our severest winter commonly called spring is over," and the double row of grass pinks, and the bed of beans are filling the air with their delicate scent. He touches all the little details of life, in his letters, with a grace and tact which give each littl esentence an air of its own. His humour has the subdued charm of "the gentleness of the autumnal suns and the calmness of this latter season." The scholarly leisure of his life is an appropriate background for the sober beauty of his poems. The terrible misery which it was his burden to bear, only sets off in still sharper relief the purity and childlike simplicity of his life, passed among his tame hares and his three pet kittens, ("for we have so many in our retinue,") and in "a garden as full of flowers as I have known how to make it." One feels that his nature was really a woman's nature, unfit to meet the wear and tear of the world; dependent, clinging, and with a woman's sense and appreciation of the little daily events, which do not generally enter into a man's life. Even his ambition was so timid and easily affrighted that it was almost unknown to his friends. "I have (what perhaps you little suspect me of) in my nature an infinite share of ambition," he says, underlining his words, to Lady Hesketh. But at the same time he confesses that, "till lately I stole through life without undertaking any thing, yet always wishing to distinguish myself."
His delicate health, which was such a weariness to him through life, never soured his temper. "They all say, it is a pity I am so sickly," wrote poor Pope in a grim jest, "and I think it is a pity they are so healthy." But William Cowper grudged no one health or happiness. If he looked with longing eyes at God's sunshine, he never would have taken it away from man, woman or child. His nature was too sweet and unselfish to know what envy is.
It has been said, and I think unfairly, that with the introduction of the penny post, died the art of letter-writing. But as long as there are people with literary instincts, and with a facility of expression; as long as there is daily life to be chronicled in all its pleasant triviality; as long as there are friends divided by thousands of miles and land and sea; so long, and this will probably be to the end of time, will letter-writing deserve to be cultivated as a fine art.
Nor need we go far to find interest in a bundle of letters. Every one, except perhaps the very tidy people who burn all their letters, and the very untidy people who leave theirs for the housemaid to burn, have, stored away in some drawer, packets of yellowing papers, written over in faded ink, which contain more or less the history of their lives. There are the blotted straggly notes from school-fellows, and from brothers and sisters in the old, very old days—here is the last letter you ever had from poor little Bobbie, and the childish handwriting brings back as keenly as though it were yesterday the pang of despair of your first sorrow, which was so different to all other sorrows because it was the first. And here is that letter of excellent advice which offended you so deeply once upon a time, and which is in substance exactly the same as that you are going to write to your nephew next week. Here are old business letters; old love letters; letters full of old jokes of which the clue has been lost, and which have faded into nothingness long ago, like a candle that is blown out. This is a packet (sealed with the signet ring that was your gift) from the friend who was once all in all to you, and has since passed out of your life like a dream in the night. And here are letters with strange postmarks, and foreign stamps, letters closely written on thin paper, that have travelled thousands and thousands of miles to tell you that the writer still thought of you and loved you. And there is that last one, too, over which you have shed so many tears, and which arrived after the news of his death—a simple garrulous letter winding up with "there is no news to tell you, but I shall be home again, please God, next summer," or some such phrase, which cuts you still to the heart. And so on, and so on, until you are forced to own that these poor old letters have a charm of their own that time and change can only heighten, and around which Death even can but set a halo.
Anonymous [presumed Lefroy, Fanny Caroline.] "A Bundle of Letters." Temple Bar 67 (1883): 285-288.