Mrs. Sarah Ellis, "Mrs. Fletcher, Late Miss Jewsbury"
Mrs. Sarah Ellis, "Mrs. Fletcher, Late Miss Jewsbury." The Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual. Ed. William Ellis. London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1838. 30 - 42.
Miss Jewsbury, whose portrait stands as the frontispiece to the present volume, was a native of Warwickshire, born in the year 1800. In the early part of her life her family removed to Manchester, where she resided until the time of her marriage with the Rev. Kew Fletcher, on the second of August, 1832.
In contemplating the character of this distinguished woman, there appears little for the pen to record, but much for the mind to expatiate upon; and there are few individuals, amongst those who are capable of appreciating the depth, the extent, and the strength of her mental capabilities, who will not feel with the writer of this humble memorial, a disposition, not always rightly controlled, to regret that a star so bright and benignant in its influence, should have set to the world, before the fulness of its splendour was revealed. In the writings of Miss Jewsbury, brilliant and powerful as they are, we are struck more with what she might have been, than with what she was. Not merely with what she might have been as a writer, but as an experienced and exemplary Christian. By her own confession, in an affecting and characteristic letter, written a short time before her departure for India, she had done nothing to live; and of the fragments of thought and feeling left behind her, it cannot be said that they prove, either collectedly or individually, what her mind was capable of working out. It may with more propriety be remarked, that they resemble specimens of the precious ore of some deep unfathomed mine, from whose wealth the world is now shut out for ever. The same impenetrable veil has been drawn between our eyes, and the full developement of her religious character. For though there is clear and satisfactory evidence, in the tone and character of her writings, that her mind was deeply impressed with the force of scriptural truth, and her heart secured against the many temptations to which her ardent nature was peculiarly liable, by a well-grounded religious faith, she was removed from this scene of spiritual conflict, before all the energies of her soul appeared to be fully matured, or devoted, as there is every reason to believe they would have been, to the highest and noblest purposes of existence. And thus we sorrow, perhaps with too much poignancy, over the early death of one so peculiarly calculated to adorn and improve the society of which we form a part; forgetting, that He who seeth not as man seeth, needs no ray of earthly splendour to add to the glory of his crown, and therefore, more compassionate than we are in our short-sightedness and folly, he not unfrequently quenches the rising splendour of human intellect, in mercy to the weak and suffering nature to which it is allied. It is probable, too, that the "early grave which men weep over," may afford a blessed deliverance from temptations, unknown except to the heart where they exist, and to Him who formed that heart, and who pities its manifold infirmities.
It is a well-known truth, that genius is a fearful, and sometimes fatal gift; and genius of that particular kind which distinguished the character of Miss Jewsbury, is, perhaps, the most to be feared in connexion with the happiness or misery of its possessor. The author of the "Enthusiast" has, in that story, bequeathed to the world a striking and most melancholy picture of the ceaseless conflict, the insatiable thirst for what is unattainable, and the final wretchedness necessarily attendant upon the ungoverned ambition of superior intellect, when associated with the weakness, natural dependence, and susceptibility of woman. The character of Julia, with an injustice too frequently practised, has been identified with that of the authoress herself; and though, by her own confession, "the childhood, the opening years, and many of the after opinions" of her heroine are drawn from her own; we feel the highest satisfaction in turning from the dreary void to which this ideal being is consigned, to the indefatigable industry, the practical usefulness, and the religious zeal which imparted solidity and worth to the later years of the real "Enthusiast."
The most striking features in the character of Miss Jewsbury, were such as qualified her in an especial manner for shining in society. Naturally prone to satire, she looked upon the world, not with the tempered vision of one early initiated in its hackneyed customs; but, with the keen perception of an unsophisticated and self-tutored mind, she fearlessly assailed its absurdities, and sported with its follies like a child with its toys, until their impotence wearies him, and their frailty disappoints. It was then, in the midst of her playfulness, when her strong moral feelings were excited, that she seemed to possess an intuitive power of striking off, as it were, masses of thought, and scattering them amongst her hearers, with a rapidity of movement in all the operations of her own intellect, which, in the opinion of Wordsworth, was without its equal in any other mind. And this variety perpetually recurring, mingled also with a profound heart-searching melancholy, whose "boding voice" was ever reminding her of death and the grave, rendered the seasons of intellectual communion with Miss Jewsbury like bright spots, in the existence of all who knew and loved her, never to be forgotten, and never to be effaced by their likeness to any thing on earth.
It is not for common-place, tame, and unimaginative minds to form an idea of what must have been the temptations to a being thus endowed, when surrounded by an admiring circle. That Miss Jewsbury’s experience should, in many points, have too closely resembled that of her own "Enthusiast," can be no subject of surprise. The wonder is, (and would that all who wonder might learn to imitate as well as admire!) that, knowing and feeling herself to be thus endowed, she should have devoted her time, her care, and her affectionate attention, to the household duties of her father’s family, until the total failure of her health rendered it a higher duty to withdraw from such arduous and unremitting occupations. Even then, when her recovery was despaired of, she was not idle; for she had a strong principle within her, perpetually prompting her to employ all the powers she was gifted with, in promoting the temporal and eternal benefit of her fellow-creatures. During her stay at Leamington she wrote her "Letters to the Young," many of them addressed to her own young friends, and all bearing evidence of a strong conviction of the importance and necessity of that entire devotedness of the heart to God, which this work so strenuously recommends.
It may be said, (for many unjust and unkind things are said of literary women,) that the love of fame might influence her even in the high and holy duty of recommending the religion of the Bible to the acceptance and adoption of youth; and rather than dispute this point, we turn again to her domestic character, and contemplate her at the age of nineteen, taking the sole management of a large family, the youngest of which was but a month old. To this child, whose health was extremely delicate, she devoted herself with unremitting anxiety, and it is, humanly speaking, to her long and unceasing kindness that her youngest brother now owes his life. Yet at the same time, that there burned within her soul the unquenchable fire of a genius too powerful to be extinguished by the many cares of her arduous life, so fearful was she of being absorbed by any selfish pursuit, that she made it a point of conscience never to take up a book, until all her little charge had retired to rest for the night. With what avidity she then drank at the well of knowledge, may be inferred from the insatiable thirst for distinction which at a very early period of her existence filled her mind.
"I was nine years old," she says in the letter already alluded to, "when the ambition of writing a book, being praised publicly, and associating with authors, seized me as a vague longing." The desire of her heart in after years was granted, and what was the result? Not the satisfaction of having earned a rich reward, but keen regrets that she had not done better, and earned more. "I would gladly burn almost every thing I ever wrote," is her own affecting expression in the same letter, "if so be that I might start now with a mind that has seen, and thought, and suffered something at least approaching to a preparation." And then in what beautiful language does she lament her own past impatience in attempting to seize, without attaining, excellence. "Alas! alas! we all sacrifice the palm-tree, to obtain the temporary draught of wine! We slay the camel that would bear us through the desert, because we will not endure a momentary thirst. I have done nothing to live, and what I have yet done must pass away with a thousand other blossoms, the growth, the beauty, and oblivion of a day. The powers which I feel, and of which I have given promise, may mature, may stamp themselves in act; but the spirit of despondency is strong upon the future exile, and I fear they never will.
In the best of every thing I have done, you will find one leading idea—death: all thoughts, all images, all contrasts of thoughts and images, are derived from living much in the valley of that shadow."
And well was it for the gifted authoress that her thoughts had this peculiar bias; and merciful was the shadow thus cast upon her earthly path, as if to obscure the brilliance which her own genius shed around her, and veil from her eyes the allurements of a deceitful world. Had it been otherwise, in what a different state of mind, and feeling, and experience, might she have met her early death! for there was every thing in her own nature calculated to make her the idol of society; and but for such internal premonitions of her doom, she might have been the idol of society, and nothing more.
It is remarkable, that the same bias and tendency of thought should have pervaded with equal power the mind of a sister genius, destined to follow at a short distance the steps of her friend to the same house appointed to all living, and that the intimacy, which at a late period of their lives existed between Miss Jewsbury and Mrs. Hemans, should have been cemented by the sympathy of their souls, on what appears to have been to both, a subject of absorbing and profound interest—that of death and eternity. In describing the effect produced upon her own feelings by the tidings of Mrs. Fletcher’s decease, Mrs. Hemans uses the following expressive language: "It hung the more heavily upon my spirits, as the subject of death and the mighty future had so many times been that of our most confidential communion. How much deeper power seemed to lie coiled up as it were in the recesses of her mind, than was ever manifested to the world in her writings. Strange and sad does it seem that only the broken music of such a spirit has been given to the earth, the full and finished harmony never drawn forth!"
And many are the hearts that will echo a response to this exclamation. Yet when we reflect, that the elements of intellectual greatness are seldom allied to those of social and domestic happiness, especially in woman; that there is a fervour and an impulse of feeling connected with high mental capabilities, at variance in their nature with the repose, and too often with the loveliness, of the female character,—we are willing to bow beneath the hand of Him who doeth all things well, without murmuring that he has added to the harmony of heaven, those strains which it is possible might never have been tuned on earth without some jarring chord.
As a writer Miss Jewsbury is well known to the world, and all comments upon her ability as an authoress must fall short of what she merits as an highly-gifted and intellectual woman. It may, therefore, be briefly remarked, that her mind, though imaginative, was not naturally poetical; and though her style abounds in imagery, it wants the easy flow—the melody of poetic numbers. It is possible the movements of her mind were too rapid for verse, and the materials with which it worked out its purposes, too massive and ponderous to be associated with perfect harmony. The following stanzas on man will exemplify this defect, in conjunction with the magnitude and abruptness of thought in which it originated; at the same time that they show how expansive, and how noble, were the subjects upon which her thoughts were exercised:—
It is in the prose writings of Miss Jewsbury that we are more frequently struck with those flashes of genius, and that bursting forth of powerful intellect, by which she was so strikingly distinguished from the more superficial writers of her day, and which gave promise of a degree of literary eminence which few women have attained. They story of the "Enthusiast," defective as it is in some respects, abounds in passages of this description; passages that strike the heart with an instantaneous conviction of how much the writer of them must have thought, and felt, and suffered, in her own short experience of human life; and how much she must have learned in her eager quest after the knowledge of good and evil. The following description of society after it has been sought as the idol of an ambitious woman, though accompanied with the wildness of highly wrought enthusiasm, is strongly characteristic of her own mind; and while she makes her heroine speak for her, we cannot but suspect that the feelings she expresses had a deeper root than in the imagination of the author. "None know better than I do that this society is magnificent in its outward aspect, but in detail it will not bear inspection. The temple is barbaric, not Grecian; the worship is idolatrous, not Christian. It is a divinity gorgeous in apparel, but a fire is concealed within its hollow bosom, and whoso worships must cast therein the first-born of the soul’s simplicity. Do not refer me to nature for the well-spring of beauty and consolation. I love her, but it is as a luxury—as an addition to other things; I could not be satisfied to live with her alone, and for her own sake. Besides, I deserted her once; and she does not, like Deity, call back her prodigals to her bosom. There is no voice in nature which says, ‘Return, and I will receive you again.’ Ah, what is genius to a woman, but a splendid misfortune! What is fame to woman, but a dazzling degradation! She is exposed to the pitiless gaze of admiration; but little respect, and no love, blends with it. However much as an individual she may have gained in name, in rank, in fortune, she has suffered as a woman. In the history of letters she may be associated with man, but her own sweet life is lost; and though in reality she may flow through the ocean of the world, maintaining an unsullied current; she is nevertheless apparently absorbed, and become one with the elements of tumult and distraction. She is a reed shaken with the wind—a splendid exotic nurtured for display; she is the Hebrew whose songs are demanded in a strange land; Ruth standing, amid the alien corn; her affections are the dew that society exhales, but gives not back to her in rain; she is a jewelled captive, bright, and desolate, and sad!"
Who can read this description of the fate of an ambitious woman, without believing that the writer must herself have played upon the brink of that precipice, down which her heroine had plunged; and the more feelingly we contemplate the degree of suffering and temptation to which her own ardent nature was liable, the more we rejoice that she listened to the warnings of the still small voice, and retreated to a safe resting-place, and found that shelter and repose, which, beloved and admired as she was, she never could have enjoyed as the idol of society.
There is nothing more powerfully expressed in the writings of Miss Jewsbury, than her own deep sense of the utter emptiness and insufficiency of all earthly enjoyments. Even of human sympathy, she who must have proved its utmost worth remarks, in one of her earliest publications,—"It is indeed a frail evanescent thing, which we all over-estimate, until deep suffering convinces us of its little real worth. As the parent of charity, it may alleviate tangible evils, and diminish the sum of bodily sufferings. Food may relieve hunger; medicine may assuage sickness; money may convey warmth and plenty to the abodes of poverty; sympathy may smooth the surface of human sorrow; but its dark troubled depths must remain dark and troubled still. It cannot medicine the soul, and there lie all the griefs that kill."— Again speaking through her imaginary "Enthusiast," she says of "knowledge—ask, is it come to this! Knowledge, though it still invigorates my understanding, no longer fills my heart with unalloyed pleasure; it seems only to open my eyes to fresh views of human crime and sorrow. And what is the office of poetry? little other than to strew flowers over the various sepulchres in which the heart buries its dead. Yes, poetry may be ethereal in our nature, but it also enervates, and saddens; it imparts poison in an odour; it slays with a jewelled scymetar."
What, then, was left for one who had tried all things which her ambition had pointed out as desirable, and experienced, ere the prime of life, that all was vanity? What but to choose that better part commended by the Saviour himself, when he accepted the precious ointment as the offering of a love, whose depth and devotedness he alone could comprehend.
In Miss Jewsbury’s earliest connected work, entitled "Phantasmagoria," much of her natural tendency to satire is exhibited, without the subdued and chastened feelings which imparted a deep interest to the productions of her riper years. It is said by those most intimately acquainted with her, that many of her best writings appeared anonymously in the periodicals of the day, and these she collected together previously to her departure for India, there is every reason to suppose, with the intention of having them republished under her own name. It is much to be regretted, that no complete edition of her works has yet appeared; and if such be in preparation, it must be the ardent wish of every admirer of true genius, that they may fall into able and generous hands, capable of doing justice to so talented an author.
If neither the intellectual nor religious part of Miss Jewsbury’s character was ever fully exhibited in her native country, there is a noble testimony on record, that, during her short but honourable career in India, the matured virtues of her heart and mind were brought into more powerful and efficient exercise. Sustained by that faith which gives strength to the feeble, and energy to the desponding, she devoted herself to her husband through a severe and protracted illness; and when disease was raging around her, and famine presented every aspect of wretchedness to her compassionate view, her abode was thronged by the native women and children, whose sufferings were not only commiserated, but as far as possible relieved. It was in this way that she sought to win the hearts of the people, as well as to gratify her own benevolent feelings; to convince them that her religion was one which led those who received it to delight in binding up the broken-hearted, and comforting those that mourned, while she hoped to be able gradually to instil into their minds its important and sublime principles. But the term of her usefulness was near its close, and while compassionating the sufferings of others, she herself fell a victim to the same dreadful disease. Mrs. Fletcher died of the cholera, in her way from Sholapore to Bombay, on the 3d of October, 1833.
It is recorded, as one of the last acts of her valuable life, that while famine was desolating the neighbourhood of Sholapore, and her benevolence and charity were extending themselves in every available channel, a poor Hindoo, deprived by starvation of his wife and all his children, except one infant daughter, having crawled with this child in his arms to the foot of his idol, was found dead before the altar, as if arrested in the act of supplicating for relief. Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher hastened to the spot—had the father buried, and the unconscious child thus literally found in the arms of death, they adopted as their own. During the short remaining period of her life, Mrs. Fletcher carefully and affectionately attended upon this orphan; and it was one of the last acts of her benevolence to have it placed in a female missionary school.