Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Mrs. Dingley

We cannot do her honour by her Christian name. {2} All we have to call her by more tenderly is the mere D, the D that ties her to Stella, with whom she made the two-in-one whom Swift loved “better a thousand times than life, as hope saved.” MD, without full stops, Swift writes it eight times in a line for the pleasure of writing it. “MD sometimes means Stella alone,” says one of many editors. “The letters were written nominally to Stella and Mrs. Dingley," says another, “but it does not require to be said that it was really for Stella’s sake alone that they were penned.” Not so. “MD” never stands for Stella alone. And the editor does not yet live who shall persuade one honest reader, against the word of Swift, that Swift loved Stella only, with an ordinary love, and not, by a most delicate exception, Stella and Dingley, so joined that they make the “she” and “her” of every letter. And this shall be a paper of reparation to Mrs. Dingley.

No one else in literary history has been so defrauded of her honours. In love “to divide is not to take away,” as Shelley says; and Dingley’s half of the tender things said to MD is equal to any whole, and takes nothing from the whole of Stella’s half. But the sentimentalist has fought against Mrs. Dingley from the outset. He has disliked her, shirked her, misconceived her, and effaced her. Sly sentimentalist–he finds her irksome. Through one of his most modern representatives he has but lately called her a “chaperon.” A chaperon!

MD was not a sentimentalist. Stella was not so, though she has been pressed into that character; D certainly was not, and has in this respect been spared by the chronicler; and MD together were “saucy charming MD,” “saucy little, pretty, dear rogues,” “little monkeys mine,” “little mischievous girls,” “nautinautinautidear girls," “brats,” “huzzies both,” “impudence and saucy-face,” “saucy noses," “my dearest lives and delights,” “dear little young women,” “good dallars, not crying dallars” (which means “girls”), “ten thousand times dearest MD,” and so forth in a hundred repetitions. They are, every now and then, “poor MD,” but obviously not because of their own complaining. Swift called them so because they were mortal; and he, like all great souls, lived and loved, conscious every day of the price, which is death.

The two were joined by love, not without solemnity, though man, with his summary and wholesale ready-made sentiment, has thus obstinately put them asunder. No wholesale sentiment can do otherwise than foolishly play havoc with such a relation. To Swift it was the most secluded thing in the world. “I am weary of friends, and friendships are all monsters, except MD’s;” “I ought to read these letters I write after I have done. But I hope it does not puzzle little Dingley to read, for I think I mend: but methinks,” he adds, “when I write plain, I do not know how, but we are not alone, all the world can see us. A bad scrawl is so snug; it looks like PMD." Again: “I do not like women so much as I did. MD, you must know, are not women.” “God Almighty preserve you both and make us happy together.” “I say Amen with all my heart and vitals, that we may never be asunder ten days together while poor Presto lives." “Farewell, dearest beloved MD, and love poor, poor Presto, who has not had one happy day since he left you, as hope saved.”

With them–with her–he hid himself in the world, at Court, at the bar of St. James’s coffee-house, whither he went on the Irish mail- day, and was “in pain except he saw MD’s little handwriting.” He hid with them in the long labours of these exquisite letters every night and morning. If no letter came, he comforted himself with thinking that “he had it yet to be happy with.” And the world has agreed to hide under its own manifold and lachrymose blunders the grace and singularity–the distinction–of this sweet romance. “Little, sequestered pleasure-house"–it seemed as though “the many could not miss it,” but not even the few have found it.

It is part of the scheme of the sympathetic historian that Stella should be the victim of hope deferred, watching for letters from Swift. But day and night Presto complains of the scantiness of MD’s little letters; he waits upon “her” will: “I shall make a sort of journal, and when it is full I will send it whether MD writes or not; and so that will be pretty.” “Naughty girls that will not write to a body!” “I wish you were whipped for forgetting to send. Go, be far enough, negligent baggages.” “You, Mistress Stella, shall write your share, and then comes Dingley altogether, and then Stella a little crumb at the end; and then conclude with something handsome and genteel, as ’your most humble cumdumble.’” But Scott and Macaulay and Thackeray are all exceedingly sorry for Stella.

Swift is most charming when he is feigning to complain of his task: “Here is such a stir and bustle with this little MD of ours; I must be writing every night; O Lord, O Lord!” “I must go write idle things, and twittle twattle.” “These saucy jades take up so much of my time with writing to them in the morning.” Is it not a stealthy wrong done upon Mrs. Dingley that she should be stripped of all these ornaments to her name and memory? When Swift tells a woman in a letter that there he is “writing in bed, like a tiger,” she should go gay in the eyes of all generations.

They will not let Stella go gay, because of sentiment; and they will not let Mrs. Dingley go gay, because of sentiment for Stella. Marry come up! Why did not the historians assign all the tender passages (taken very seriously) to Stella, and let Dingley have the jokes, then? That would have been no ill share for Dingley. But no, forsooth, Dingley is allowed nothing.

There are passages, nevertheless, which can hardly be taken from her. For now and then Swift parts his dear MD. When he does so he invariably drops those initials and writes “Stella” or “Ppt” for the one, and “D” or “Dingley” for the other. There is no exception to this anywhere. He is anxious about Stella’s “little eyes,” and about her health generally; whereas Dingley is strong. Poor Ppt, he thinks, will not catch the “new fever,” because she is not well; “but why should D escape it, pray?” And Mrs. Dingley is rebuked for her tale of a journey from Dublin to Wexford. “I doubt, Madam Dingley, you are apt to lie in your travels, though not so bad as Stella; she tells thumpers.” Stella is often reproved for her spelling, and Mrs. Dingley writes much the better hand. But she is a puzzle-headed woman, like another. “What do you mean by my fourth letter, Madam Dinglibus? Does not Stella say you had my fifth, goody Blunder?” “Now, Mistress Dingley, are you not an impudent slut to except a letter next packet? Unreasonable baggage! No, little Dingley, I am always in bed by twelve, and I take great care of myself.” “You are a pretending slut, indeed, with your ’fourth’ and ’fifth’ in the margin, and your ’journal’ and everything. O Lord, never saw the like, we shall never have done.” “I never saw such a letter, so saucy, so journalish, so everything.” Swift is insistently grateful for their inquiries for his health. He pauses seriously to thank them in the midst of his prattle. Both women– MD–are rallied on their politics: “I have a fancy that Ppt is a Tory, I fancy she looks like one, and D a sort of trimmer.”

But it is for Dingley separately that Swift endured a wild bird in his lodgings. His man Patrick had got one to take over to her in Ireland. “He keeps it in a closet, where it makes a terrible litter; but I say nothing; I am as tame as a clout.”

Forgotten Dingley, happy in this, has not had to endure the ignominy, in a hundred essays, to be retrospectively offered to Swift as an unclaimed wife; so far so good. But two hundred years is long for her to have gone stripped of so radiant a glory as is hers by right. “Better, thanks to MD’s prayers,” wrote the immortal man who loved her, in a private fragment of a journal, never meant for Dingley’s eyes, nor for Ppt’s, nor for any human eyes; and the rogue Stella has for two centuries stolen all the credit of those prayers, and all the thanks of that pious benediction.


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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