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A Very Woman,
By the Author of the Maiden Aunt, 17
New York Tribune,
LITTELL'S LIVING AGE.-No. 282.-13 OCTOBER, 1849.
From Blackwood's Magazine. if excessive, contemptible ; and that, although the AUTOBIOGRAPHY-CHATEAUBRIAND'S ME world would thankfully receive all the details, how MOIRS.
minute soever, connected with his immortal work,
they would not take off his hands any symptom of AUTOBIOGRAPHY, when skilfully and judiciously his own entertaining the opinion of it which all done, is one of the most delightful species of com- others have formed. It is the consummate judgment position of which literature can boast. There is with which Gibbon has given enough of the dea strong desire in every intelligent and well-in- tails connected with the preparation of his works formed mind to be made acquainted with the pri- to be interesting, and not enough to be ridiculous, vate thoughts, and secret motives of action, of which constitutes the great charm, and has octhose who have filled the world with their renown. casioned the marked success, of his autobiography. We long to learn their early history, to be made There are few passages in the English language acquainted with their first aspirations—to learn so popular as the well-known ones in which he how they became so great as they afterwards has recounted the first conception, and final comturned out. Perhaps literature has sustained no pletion of his history, which, as models of the greater loss than that of the memoirs which kind, as well as passages of exquisite beauty, we Hannibal wrote of his life and campaigns. From cannot refuse ourselves the pleasure of transcribing, the few fragments of his sayings which Roman the more especially as they will set off, by way admiration or terror has preserved, his reach of of contrast, the faults in some parallel passages thought and statesman-like sagacity would appear attempted by Chateaubriand and Lamartine. to have been equal to his military talents. Cæsar's Commentaries have always been admired; but
At the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither there are some doubts whether they really were tated my mind as I first approached and entered the
forget nor express the strong emotions which agiwritten by the dictator ; and, supposing they were, Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with they relate almost entirely to military movements a lofty step the ruins of the Forum. Each memoand public events, without giving much insight rable spot—where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, into private character. It is that which we desire or Cæsar fell—was at once present to my eyes ; in autobiography : we hope to find in it a window and several days of intoxication were lost, or enby which we may look into a great man's mind. | joyed, before I could descend to a cool and minute Plutarch's Lives owe their vast and enduring pop- ber, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the
investigation. It was at Rome, on the 15th Octoularity to the insight into private character which capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing the innumerable anecdotes he has collected, of the vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of heroes and statesmen of antiquity, afford.
writing this Decline and Fall of the city first started Gibbon's antobiography is the most perfect ac- to my mind. But my original plan was circumcount of an eminent man's life, from his own hand, scribed to the decay of the city, rather than of the which exists in any language. Independent of the empire ; and though my reading and reflections beinterest which naturally belongs to it as the record gan to point towards that object, some years elapsed,
and several avocations intervened, before I was seof the studies, and the picture of the growth of riously engaged in the execution of that laborious the mind of the greatest historian of modern times, work.–(Life, p. 198, 8vo edition.) it possesses a peculiar charm from the simplicity with which it is written, and the judgment it dis Again, the well-known description of the conplays, conspicuous alike in what is revealed and clusion of his labors :what is withheld in the narrative. It steers the
I have presumed to mark the moment of concepmiddle channel so difficult to find, so invaluable tion; I shall now commemorate the hour of my when found, between ridiculous vanity on the one final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather side, and affected modesty on the other. We see, night, of the 27th June, 1787, between the hours from many passages in it, that the author was of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of fully aware of the vast contribution he had made the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. to literature, and the firm basis on which he had After laying down my pen, I took several turns in
a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which combuilt his colossal fame. But he had good sense mands a prospect of the country, the lake, and enough to see that those great qualities were mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was never so likely to impress the reader as when only serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected cautiously alluded to by the author. He knew from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will that vanity and ostentation never fail to make the not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery character in which they predominate ridiculous— of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of
my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a * Mémoires d'Outre Tombe. Par M. le VICOMTE DE sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the CHATEAUBRIAND. 4 vols. Paris, 1846-49.
| idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old 4
and agreeable companion; and that, whatever might|pher, need seek in the works of others for the be the future fate of my history, the life of the his- grounds of doing so. Enough is to be found in torian must be short and precarious.—(Life, p. 255, his own to consign him to eternal execration and 8vo edition.)
contempt. He has told us equally in detail, and Hume's account of his own life is a model of with the same air of infantine simplicity, how he perspicuity, modesty, and good sense, but it is so committed a theft when in service as a lackey, and brief that it scarcely can be called a biography. permitted an innocent girl, his fellow-servant, to It is not fifty pages long. The wary Scotch au- bear the penalty of it; how he alternately drank thor was well aware how vanity in such composi- the wine in his master's cellars, and made love to tions defeats its own object; he had too much good his wife ; how he corrupted one female benefacsense to let it appear in his pages. Perhaps, how-tress who had sheltered him in extremity of want, ever, the existence of such a feeling in the recesses and afterwards made a boast of her disgrace ; and of his breast may be detected in the prominent man- abandoned a male benefactor who fell down in a fit ner in which he brings forward the discouragement of apoplexy on the streets of Lyons, and left him he experienced when the first volume of his his- lying on the pavement, deserted by the only friend tory was published, and the extremely limited sale whom he had in the world. The author of so it met with for some time after its first appearance. many eloquent declamations against mothers negHe knew well how these humble beginnings would lecting their children, on his own admission, when be contrasted with its subsequent triumphant suc- in easy circumstances, and impelled by no neces
Amidst his great and good qualities, there sity, consigned five of his natural children to a is none for which Sir Walter Scott was more ad-foundling hospital, with such precautions against mirable than the unaffected simplicity and good their being known that he never did or could hear sense of his character, which led him to continue of them again! Such was his vanity, that he through life utterly unspotted by vanity, and un- thought the world would gladly feed on the changed by an amount of adulation from the most crumbs of this sort which fell from the table of fascinating quarters, which would probably have the man rich in genius. His grand theory was turned the head of any other man. Among the that the human mind is born innocent, with dismany causes of regret which the world has for the positions only to good, and that all the evils of catastrophes which overshadowed his later years, society arise from the follies of education or the it is not the least that it prevented the completion oppression of government. Judging from the picof that autobiography with which Mr. Lockhart ture he has presented of himself, albeit debased by has commenced his Life. His simplicity of char- no education but what he himself had afforded, we acter, and the vast number of eminent men with should say his disposition was more corrupt than whom he was intimate, as well as the merit of has even been imagined by the most dark-minded that fragment itself, leave no room for doubt that and bigoted Calvinist that ever existed. he would have made a most charming memoir, if
Alfieri was probably as vain in reality as Roushe had lived to complete it. This observation does seau ; but he knew better how to conceal it. He not detract in the slightest degree from the credit had not the folly of supposing that he could enterjustly due to Mr. Lockhart, for his admirable Life tain women by the boastful detail of his conquests of his illustrious father-in-law ; on the contrary, it
He judged wisely, and more like a forms its highest encomium. The charm of that man who had met with bonnes fortunes, that he work is mainly owing to its being so embued with would attain more effectually the object of interthe spirit of the subject, that it may almost be re-esting their feelings, by painting their conquests garded as an autobiography.
over him. He has done this so fully, so sincereContinental writers of note have, more than ly, and with such eloquence, that he has made one English ones, fallen into that error which is of all of the most powerful pieces of biography in any others the most fatal in autobiography—inordi- language. Its charm consists in the picture he has nate vanily. At the head of all the delinquents drawn, with equal truth and art, of a man of the of this class we must place Rousseau, whose cele- most impetuous and ardent temperament, alternatebrated Confessions contain a revelation of folly so ly impelled by the strongest passions which can extreme, vanity so excessive, and baseness so dis- agitate the breast—love and ambition. Born of a graceful, that it would pass for incredible if not noble family, inheriting a great fortune, he exhibproved by the book itself, which is to be found in ited an uncommon combination of patrician tastes every library. Not content with affirming, when and feelings with republican principles and aspira
past fifty, that there was no woman of fashion of tions. He was a democrat because he knew the whom he might not have made the conqrest if he great by whom he was surrounded, and did not chose to set about it,* he thought fit to entertain know the humble who were removed to a distance. the world with all the private details of his life, He said this himself, after witnessing at Paris the which the greater prudence of his most indiscreet horrors of the 10th August." Je connais bien biographers would have consigned to oblivion. No les grands, mais je ne connais pas les petits.” He one who wishes to discredit the Genevese philoso- drew the vices of the former from observation, he
painted the virtues of the latter from imagination. *"Il y a peu des femmes, même dans le haut rang; Hence the absurdity and unnatural character of dont je n'eusse fait la conquéte si je l'avais enterprise. " -Biographie Universelle, xxxix., 136.
many of his dramas, which, to the inhabitant of
our free country, who is familiar with the real | quiet seclusion of a small German town, the object working of popular institutions, renders them, of almost superstitious admiration to a few females despite their genius, quite ridiculous. But, in by whom he was surrounded, he became at once the delineation of what passed in his own breast, a little god of his own and their idolatry, and he is open to no such reproach. His picture of warmly inclined, like monks all over the world, his own feelings is as forcible and dramatic as that to the innocent but not very elevating pleasures of of any he has drawn in his tragedies ; and it is far breakfast and dinner. Mahomet said that he exmore truthful, for it is taken from nature, not an perienced more difficulty in persuading his four imaginary world of his own creation, having little wives of his divine mission, than all the rest of resemblance to that we see around us. His char- the world besides ; and this, says Gibbon, was not acter and life were singularly calculated to make surprising, for they knew best his weaknesses as such a narrative interesting, for never was one
Goethe thought, on the same principle, more completely tossed about by vehement pas- his fame was secure, when he was worshipped as sions, and abounding with melodramatic incidents. a god by his female coterie. He had the highest Alternately dreaming over the most passionate at- opinion of his own powers, and of the lofty mission tachments, and laboring of his own accord at Dante on which he was sent to mankind ; but his selffourteen hours a-day; at one time making love to love was less offensive than that of Rousseau, bean English nobleman's wife, and fighting him in cause it was more unobtrusive. It was allied the Park, at another driving through France with rather to pride than to vanity—and though pride fourteen blood horses in harness ; now stealing may often be hateful, it is never contemptible. from the Pretender his queen, now striving to From the Life of Lord Byron which Moore has emulate Sophocles in the energy of his picture of published, it may be inferred that the latter acted the passions, he was himself a living example of wisely in consigning the original manuscript of the the intensity of those feelings which he has so noble poet's autobiography to the flames. Aspowerfully portrayed in his dramas. It is this suming that a considerable part of that biography variety joined to the simplicity and candor of the is taken from what the noble bard had left of himconfessions, which constitutes the charm of this self, it is evident that a more complete detail of very remarkable autobio aphy. It could have his feelings and motives of action would have been written by no one but himself ; for an ordi- done anything rather than have added to his repunary biographer would only have described the in- | tation. In fact, Moore's Life has done, more than cidents of his life, none else could have painted anything else to lower it. The poetical biographer the vehement passions, the ardent aspirations, from had thought and sung so much of the passions, that which they sprang.
he had forgotten in what light they are viewed by From the sketches of Goëthe's life which have the generality of men : he was so deeply imbued been preserved, it is evident that, though probably with the spirit of his hero, that he had come to not less vain than the French philosopher or the regard his errors and vices as not the least interItalian poet, his vanity took a different direction esting part of his life. That they may be so to from either of theirs. He was neither vain of his that class of readers, unhappily too extensive, who turpitudes, like Rousseau, nor of his passions, like are engaged in similar pursuits, is probably true ; Alfieri. His self-love was more of a domestic but how small a portion do these constitute of the kind ; it partook more of the home-scenes of the human race, and how weak and inaudible is their Fatherland. No one will question the depth of applause when compared to the voice of ages ! Goëthe's knowledge of the heart, or the sagacity What has become of the innumerable licentious of the light which his genius has thrown on the works whose existence in antiquity has become most profound feelings of human nature. But his known from the specimens disinterred in the ruins private life partook of the domestic affections and of Herculaneum ? Is there one of them which has unobtrusive rest in which it was passed, exempt taken its place beside the Lives of Plutarch? Whatalike from the grinding poverty which too often ever is fetid, however much prized at the moment, impelled the Genevese watchmaker's son into dis- is speedily sunk in the waves of time. Nothing graceful actions, or the vehement passions which permanently floats down its stream but what is drove the Italian nobleman" into brilliant crimes. buoyant from its elevating tendency. Hence his biography exhibits an extraordinary Boswell's Life of Johnson is 80 replete with mixture of lofty feelings with puerile simplicity, the sayings and thoughts of the intellectual giant, of depth of views with childishness, of divine whom it was so much his object to elevate, even philosophy with homely inclinations. Amidst all above his natural Patagonian stature, that it may his enthusiasm and effusions of sentiment, he was be regarded as a sort of autobiography, dictated by as much under the influence as any man of creature the sage in his moments of abandon to his devout comforts ; and never hesitated to leave the most worshipper. It is hardly going too far to say lofty efforts of the muse, to participate in the sub- that it is the most popular book in the English stantial advantages of rich preserves or sweet language. Johnson's reputation now mainly rests cakes. This singular mixture arose in a great on that biography. No one now reads the Rammeasure from the habits of his life, and the limited bler or the Idler-few the Lives of the Poets, incircle by which, during the greater part of it, he teresting as they are, and admirable as are the was surrounded. Living with a few friends in the criticisms on our greatest authors which they con
tain. But Boswell's Life of Johnson is in every-| whose divine genius was so deeply tarnished by body's hands ; you will hear the pithy sayings, the asperity of his feelings, and the unpardonable the admirable reflections, the sagacious remarks it license in controversy which he permitted to his contains, from one end of the world to the other. tongue, to those of Lord Byron, who scandalized The secret of this astonishing success is to be his country and the world by the undisguised found in the caustic tone, sententious brevity, and profligacy of his private life, the biography of sterling good sense of Johnson, and the inimitable literary men, with a few brilliant exceptions—in accuracy, faithful memory, and almost infantine the foremost of which we must place Sir Walter simplicity of his biographer. From the unbounded Scott-—consists in great part of a series of follies, admiration with which he was inspired for the weaknesses, or faults, which it would be well for sage, and the faithful memory with which he was their memory could they be buried in oblivion. gifted, he was enabled to commit to paper, almost We will not say that tiie labors of their biogas they were delivered, those admirable sayings raphers have been the Massucre of the Innocents, which have ever since been the delight and admi- for truly there were very few innocents to massaration of the world. We almost live with the mem- cre ; but we will say that they have, in general, bers of the Literary Club; we hear their divers sen- done more to degrade those they intended to eletiments, and can almost conceive their tones of voice. vate, than the envenomed hostility of their worst We see the gigantic form of the sage towering enemies. We forbear to mention names, which above his intellectual compeers.
Burke said that might give pain to many respectable persons still Johnson was greater in conversation than wri. alive. The persons alluded to, and the truth of ting; and greater in Boswell than either; and it the observation, will be at once understood and is easy to conceive that this must have been the admitted by every person acquainted with the
The Life contains all the admirable say- literary history of France and England during the ings, verbatim as they were delivered, and without last century. the asperity of tone and manner which formed so Vanity and jealousy-vanity of themselves, great a blot in the original deliverer. Johnson's jealousy of others—are the great failings which sayings were of a kind which were susceptible of have hitherto tarnished the character and disfigbeing accurately transferred, and with full effect, ured the biography of literary men. We fear it to paper, because they were almost all reflections is destined to continue the same to the end of the on morals, men, or manners, which are of univer- world. The qualities which contribute to their sal application, and come home to the senses of man- greatness, which occasion their usefulness, which kind in every age. In this respect they were much insure their fame, are closely allied to failings more likely to produce an impression in biography which too often disfigure their private lives, and than the conversation of Sir Walter Scott, which, form a blot on their memory, when indiscreetly however charming to those who heard it, con- revealed in biography, either by themselves or sisted chiefly of anecdotes and stories, great part others. Genius is almost invariably united to susof the charm of which consisted in the mode of ceptibility; and this temperament is unhappily 100 telling and expression of the countenance, which, apt to run into irritability. No one can read of course, could not be transferred to paper. D’Israeli's essay on The Literary Character, the
But it is not every eminent man who is so for- most admirable of his many admirable works, tunate as to find a biographer like Boswell, who, without being convinced of that. Celebrity of totally forgetful of self, recorded for posterity with any sort is the natural parent of vanity, and this inimitable fidelity all the sayings of his hero. Nor weakness is in a peculiar manner fostered in poets is it many men who would bear so faithful and and romance writers, because their writings intersearching an exposure. Johnson, like every other est so warmly the fair, who form the great disman, had his failings; but they were those of pensers of general fame, and convey it in the most prejudice or manner, rather than morals or con- flattering form to the author. It would perhaps duct. We wish we could say that every other be unjust to women to say that poets and novelists eminent literary man was equally immaculate, or share in their weaknesses ; but it is certain that that an entire disclosure of character would in their disposition is, in general, essentially femevery case reveal no more weaknesses or failings inine ; and that, as they attract the admiration of than have been brought to light by Boswell's faith- the other sex more strongly than any other class ful chronicle. We know that every one is liable of writers, so they are liable in a peculiar degree to err, and that no man is a hero to his valet-de- to the failings, as well as distinguished by the chambre. But being aware of all this, we were excellencies, by which their female admirers are not prepared for the immense mass of weaknesses, characterized. We may regret that it is so; we follies, and errors, which have been brought to may Jament that we cannot find poets and rolight by the indiscreet zeal of biographers, in the mancers, who to the genius of Byron, or the fancy character of many of our ablest literary, poetical, of Moore, unite the sturdy sense of Johnson, or and philosophical characters. Certainly, if we the simplicity of character of Scott; but it is to look at the details of their private lives, these men be feared such a combination is as rare, and as of literary celebrity have had little title to set up little to be looked for in general life, as the union as the instructors, or to call themselves the bene- of the strength of the war-horse to the fleetness - factors, of mankind. From the days of Milton, of the racer, or the courage of the mastiff to the