Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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The Seventeenth Century

All Englishmen know the name of Lucy Hutchinson; and of her calling and election to the most wifely of all wifehoods–that of a soldier’s wife–history has made her countrymen aware. Inasmuch as Colonel Hutchinson was a political soldier, moreover, she is something more than his biographer–his historian. And she convinces her reader that her Puritan principles kept abreast of her affections. There is no self-abandonment; she is not precipitate; keeps her own footing; wife of a soldier as she is, would not have armed him without her own previous indignation against the enemy. She is a soldier at his orders, but she had warily and freely chosen her captain.

Briefly, and with the dignity that the language of her day kept unmarred for her use, she relates her own childhood and youth. She was a child such as those serious times desired that a child should be; that is, she was as slightly a child, and for as brief a time, as might be. Childhood, as an age of progress, was not to be delayed, as an age of imperfection was to be improved, as an age of inability was not to be exposed except when precocity distinguished it. It must at any rate be shortened. Lucy Apsley, at four years old, read English perfectly, and was “carried to sermons, and could remember and repeat them exactly.” “At seven she had eight tutors in several qualities.” She outstripped her brothers in Latin, albeit they were at school and she had no teacher except her father’s chaplain, who, poor gentleman, was “a pitiful dull fellow." She was not companionable. Her many friends were indulged with “babies” (that is, dolls) and these she pulled to pieces. She exhorted the maids, she owned, “much.” But she also heard much of their love stories, and acquired a taste for sonnets.

It was a sonnet, and indeed one of her own writing, that brought about her acquaintance with Mr. Hutchinson. The sonnet was read to him, and discussed amongst his friends, with guesses at the authorship; for a young woman did not, in that world, write a sonnet without a feint of hiding its origin. One gentleman believed a woman had made it. Another said, if so, there were but two women capable of making it; but he owned, later, that he said “two” out of civility (very good civility of a kind that is not now practised) to a lady who chanced to be present; but that he knew well there was but one; and he named her. From her future husband Lucy Apsley received that praise of exceptions wherewith women are now, and always will be, praised: “Mr. Hutchinson, she says, “fancying something of rationality in the sonnet beyond the customary reach of a she-wit, could scarcely believe it was a woman’s.”

He sought her acquaintance, and they were married. Her treasured conscience did not prevent her from noting the jealousy of her young friends. A generous mind, perhaps, would rather itself suffer jealousy than be quick in suspecting, or complacent in causing, or precise in setting it down. But Mrs. Hutchinson doubtless offered up the envy of her companions in homage to her Puritan lover’s splendour. His austerity did not hinder him from wearing his “fine, thick-set head of hair” in long locks that were an offence to many of his own sect, but, she says, “a great ornament to him.” But for herself she has some dissimulated vanities. She was negligent of dress, and when, after much waiting and many devices, her suitor first saw her, she was “not ugly in a careless riding-habit.” As for him, “in spite of all her indifference, she was surprised (she writes) with some unusual liking in her soul when she saw this gentleman, who had hair, eyes, shape, and countenance enough to beget love in any one.” He married her as soon as she could leave her chamber, when she was so deformed by small-pox that “the priest and all that saw her were affrighted to look at her; but God recompensed his justice and constancy by restoring her.”

The following are some of the admirable sentences that prove Lucy Hutchinson a woman of letters in a far more serious sense than our own time uses. One phrase has a Stevenson-like character, a kind of gesture of language; this is where she praises her husband’s “handsome management of love.” {1} She thus prefaces her description of her honoured lord: “If my treacherous memory have not lost the dearest treasure that ever I committed to its trust -.” She boasts of her country in lofty phrase: “God hath, as it were, enclosed a people here, out of the waste common of the world.” And again of her husband: “It will be as hard to say which was the predominant virtue in him as which is so in its own nature.” “He had made up his accounts with life and death, and fixed his purpose to entertain both honourably.” “The heat of his youth a little inclined him to the passion of anger, and the goodness of his nature to those of love and grief; but reason was never dethroned by them, but continued governor and moderator of his soul.”

She describes sweetly certain three damsels who had “conceived a kindness” for her lord, their susceptibility, their willingness, their “admirable tempting beauty,” and “such excellent good-nature as would have thawed a rock of ice"; but she adds no less beautifully, “It was not his time to love.” In her widowhood she remembered that she had been commanded “not to grieve at the common rate of women"; and this is the lovely phrase of her grief: “As his shadow, she waited on him everywhere, till he was taken to that region of light which admits of none, and then she vanished into nothing.”

She has an invincible anger against the enemies of her husband and of the cause. The fevers, “little less than plagues,” that were common in that age carry them off exemplarily by families at a time. An adversary is “the devil’s exquisite solicitor.” All Royalists are of “the wicked faction.” She suspected his warders of poisoning Colonel Hutchinson in the prison wherein he died. The keeper had given him, under pretence of kindness, a bottle of excellent wine, and the two gentlemen who drank of it died within four months. A poison of strange operation! “We must leave it to the great day, when all crimes, how secret soever, will be made manifest, whether they added poison to all their other iniquity, whereby they certainly murdered this guiltless servant of God.” When he was near death, she adds, “a gentlewoman of the Castle came up and asked him how he did. He told her, Incomparably well, and full of faith.”

On the subject of politics, Mrs. Hutchinson writes, it must be owned, platitudes; but all are simple, and some are stated with dignity. Her power, her integrity, her tenderness, her pomp, the liberal and public interests of her life, her good breeding, her education, her exquisite diction, are such as may well make a reader ask how and why the literature of England declined upon the vulgarity, ignorance, cowardice, foolishness, that became “feminine" in the estimation of a later age; that is, in the character of women succeeding her, and in the estimation of men succeeding her lord. The noble graces of Lucy Hutchinson, I say, may well make us marvel at the downfall following–at Goldsmith’s invention of the women of “The Vicar or Wakefield” in one age, and at Thackeray’s invention of the women of “Esmond” in another.

Mrs. Hutchinson has little leisure for much praise of the natural beauty of sky and landscape, but now and then in her work there appears an abiding sense of the pleasantness of the rural world–in her day an implicit feeling rather than an explicit. “The happiness of the soil and air contribute all things that are necessary to the use or delight of man’s life.” “He had an opportunity of conversing with her in those pleasant walks which, at the sweet season of the spring, invited all the neighbouring inhabitants to seek their joys.” And she describes a dream whereof the scene was in the green fields of Southwark. What an England was hers! And what an English! A memorable vintage of our literature and speech was granted in her day; we owe much to those who–as she did–gathered it in.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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