1509. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham, 19 September 1808

1509. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham, 19 September 1808 ⁠* 

The stones of which this house is built were not quarried when Mr Betham [1]  was at Keswick. But I can make him understand the spot on which it stands, & perhaps recall to his memory some persons whom he may long have forgotten.

He knows the Bridge over the Greta, at the end of the town. There is a little hill on the Keswick side the bridge, – the river flows behind it & makes a long sweep by High Hill & the old Quaker meeting. On that hill two houses under one roof have been built by William Jackson, a waggoner in your fathers time; – he has left the business for some years, & lives in the one, & I am his tenant in the other. A worthier hearted man never breathed than my Landlord, & his house keeper is as excellent a good woman. Mr Betham will remember her, – Molly Wilson, – the daughter of the Midwife. Mrs Wilson we call her, – our children call her Wilsy, & she spoils them more than they do her name.

Miss Betham I am sorry to say that whatever may <be> the case in the higher ranks, the breed of good women is growing scarce in the lower ones, & of this we have lamentable proof here in Cumberland. Manufactories furnish fine cloaths to the one sex and bad habits to the other: half the women girls die of consumption occasioned by cotton stockings & thin clothing; & for the other half, – there is scarcely ever a marriage which is not followed by a christening within the month. It is well the white sheet has been disused, – for otherwise clean sheets would be sometimes wanting in Keswick. An inactive clergyman, negligent magistrates, cotton mills & Lakers have ruined the morals of the place. The remote parts of the country have escaped this contagion, & there the peasantry are what one has dreamt of so often, & so seldom seen, a frank, friendly & independent happy & virtuous race.

Any part of the summer will be convenient to us to receive you, – I should however advise you to come as soon as you can after May day; for spring has almost has much variety as autumns, & what you will most enjoy will be the long & lovely evenings on the Lake. From my study I have the finest imaginable view of the Lake, Borrodale, & Newlands, – the river Greta, the Vale of Keswick & Basenthwaite in the distance to the right. Lodore can be distinctly seen after rain. The Greta passes behind the house, at the foot of our orchard, & Skiddaw reaches within half a mile of us on that side. Within doors you will see the best library that ever so poor a man possessed, contained, for the most part, in a room which seems to have the rare property of making all persons feel comfortably who come into it.

You will wonder that I make no mention of the picture. [2]  It has not yet reached us. My friend Rickman who had been entrusted to bring it with him comes next month. Edith is in great expectation, & I had once nearly disappointed her sadly. There came a packet inclosed in a parcel from Longmans which from its size & shape I verily supposed to be this picture, & in that belief was on the point of running to call her that she might see it opened. But liking to be sure of my good tidings I took a prudent peep & found the proof of a little map of Spain which has been engraved for my translation of the Chronicle of the Cid. [3] 

I see you have been feeling like a Spanish Lady, [4]  while these great & heart-awakening transactions are going on in that noble country. Oh what a resurrection of all that is great & ennobling have we lived to see! And if Bonaparte were ten times mightier than he is, here he would be foiled.

As for this rascally affair in Portugal, I would do as the Romans would have done; – refuse to satisfy terms so infamous, & deliver up the Generals who made them to the French, with halters round their necks. [5] 

yrs truly

Robert Southey.

Sept. 19. 1808. Keswick.


* Address: [in another hand] Oswestry Sept. twenty eight/ 1808/ Miss Betham/ Stonham/ Suffolk
Stamped: FREE/ 30SE30/ 1808
Endorsement: Williams Wynn
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 4. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Ernest Betham, ed., A House of Letters: Being Excerpts from the Correspondence of Miss Charlotte Jerningham (the Honble. Lady Bedingfield), Lady Jerningham, Coleridge, Lamb, Southey, Bernard and Lucy Barton, and others, with Matilda Betham; and from Diaries and Various Sources; and a Chapter upon Landor’s Quarrel with Charles Betham at Llanthony (London, 1905), pp. 113–115. BACK

[1] Betham’s father, William Betham (1749–1839; DNB), clergyman, antiquary, schoolmaster, was born at Little Strickland, near Morland, Westmorland, twenty-five miles east of Keswick. BACK

[2] Southey had sat to Betham for his portrait in March. BACK

[3] Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid, from the Spanish was published by Longmans in 1808. BACK

[4] A reference to one of Betham’s ‘Vignettes in Verse’, ‘The Spanish Lady’s Farewell’, published in book form in 1809 in her The Lay of Marie and Vignettes in Verse. BACK

[5] Southey’s exasperation was caused by the Convention of Cintra, signed on 30 August, whereby the French army commanded by Jean-Andoche Junot (1771–1813) and defeated by Anglo-Portuguese forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the 1st Duke of Wellington) at Vimeiro on 21 August, was allowed to retreat intact, with its weapons, from Portugal. Wellesley, who did not sign the Convention, had been superseded in command by two veteran generals, just arrived in Iberia, who were content to make peace: Sir Harry Burrard (1755–1813; DNB) and Sir Hew Dalrymple. Public outcry led to an inquiry, after which Burrard and Dalrymple never again took command. BACK

People mentioned

Jackson, William (1748–1809) (mentioned 1 time)
Wilson, Molly (?–1820) (mentioned 1 time)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)
Greta Hall/ Greeta Hall (mentioned 1 time)
Lodore (mentioned 1 time)
Skiddaw (mentioned 1 time)