785. Robert Southey to Mary Hays, 23 May 1803

785. Robert Southey to Mary Hays, 23 May 1803 ⁠* 

Dear Madam

My letter would be a valuable one if the ability of suggesting any fit subject for your talents were equal to the good will with which it is attempted.

Novels are generally interesting in proportion as they excite our attention by what is new. I think the manners & customs of other countries & other times afford mines of such novelty as yet unransacked. the materials are easily acquired from our numerous books of travels. It will be far more difficult to keep up the metaphysical costume. if I did not believe you were capable of overcoming this difficulty I should <not> offer the suggestion. some materials for thinking may be afforded by thus contrasting the opinions & institutions of different countries, & enforcing what is true everywhere.

The French Atala [1]  owed all its celebrity to its scenery & manners – it had the effect of the serious pantomimes at our theatres – Oscar & Malvina [2]  – or the Death of Captain Cook. [3]  & all its scenery, & tenfold as much painted with ten-thousand fold more genius is to be found in Bartrams Travels. [4]  St Pierres Tales [5]  have this advantage in a high degree. I do not know a single English novel that possesses it. Many plans have at various times occurred to me – but the seed never remained long enough to germinate. I remember one which would almost be the antithesis to Atala – a Portugueze on her way from India to the mother country to become a nun, wrecked on the coast of Africa & falling into the power of the Caffers – the best savages of whom we have yet heard – to convert her & her father Confessor till he marries her to a negro might form the groundwork of a story. [6]  If you like to dwell upon the darker side of the picture, the scene <of a gloomier action> may be laid among the fiercer American tribes – or in Hindostan. Mango Capac, the Civilizer of Peru has always appeared to me an excellent hero for a philosophical romance, but I have felt the full difficulty of forming any solution, short of miracle, for his appearing where he did & improving savages by so wonderful a conquest of intellect over ignorance. [7]  Should you think of building any story upon foreign ground, I can perhaps save you some trouble by referring you to the readiest sources of information.

Whenever I have thought of writing a novel among my own ways & means, to develope some single character has been the main object of the plan. Such for instance as a man who accustoms himself to look at every thing in a ridiculous point of view, till by laughing at every thing, he laughs away every good principle. A great mind ruined by a little failing would well deserve to be delineated – by indecision – or procrastination, or by that excess of good humour which submits to weaker intellects rather than inflict pain. I have dwelt with more pleasure upon the ideal character of a man renouncing fair prospects for principle, throwing himself upon the world with the belief that while he can obtain food, raiment or shelter it is beneath him to be unhappy, & being happy in consequence of that belief. [8] 

The narrative of Madame Godin [9]  has been translated, & is so very short that I once transcribed it. I should be sorry to see you employed in translation. nor is it easy to point out any work of merit which has not already been made English. I remember a wild Ariosto-like Romance by Cazotte called Ollivier.  [10]  Gibbons recommendation [11]  induced me to read it. one volume would comprize it & perhaps the Authors name might give it a saleable notoriety. There is a romance of far higher merit by the Abbe Terrasson [12]  of which there is a translation by a Mr Lediard, [13]  some fifty years old, not enough known nor common enough to prevent the success of another. Sethos is the book I mean. it has as much learning as the Anacharsis, [14]  tho unfortunately the Author has given no references & therefore gained no credit. the character of the hero is very finely conceived – a philosopher who voluntarily resigns a kingdom, & a mistress, & the friends if you could find a bookseller who would set out this book with good maps, & prints for which Denons book [15]  would supply noble scenery I am certain it could not fail to answer. It would fill two octavo volumes.

There is a good history of Charlemagne in four duodecimo by Gaillard. [16]  a history of the Arabs of the same length by the Abbe Marigny. [17]  but this last I think has been Englishd. [18]  Booksellers are the people to judge of the saleableness of such works. their merit is another thing. Travels are more saleable. Sir John Chardin [19]  is the best traveller that ever went eastward & only one volume was ever translated. this would be expensive on account of reengraving many prints – but books sell the better for prints. Something might be added to his accounts from modern later travellers. there exists no translation of Niebuhrs travels except a miserable mutilation by that wretched Scotchman Heron. [20]  these writers are both of great & established merit. the former I should prefer were I a bookseller. & should be sanguine in my expectations of success. I think it extends to six small volumes – about half was published in our language in one folio. three quartos might comprize it. but your powers of language ought not to be wasted upon translation.

In whatever plan you may adopt, if there be any way in which I can be of the smallest service I shall be very glad to prove that the proffer is not designed a mere form of courtesy. Should you like my first suggestion I have a trick of dreaming stories & could send you some rude outlines which you might work upon at your own pleasure, & fill up – or use as painters use their daubs. In the course of next month I expect to visit London, & will then look for Ollivier [21]  (which is somewhere among my poor scattered books) that you may cast your eye over it. meantime if you can make me in any way useful, command me freely. the points on which we differ are fewer than those on which we agree, & our hopes of mankind are the same.

yrs truly & respectfully

Robert Southey.

Kingsdown. Bristol.

May. 23rd 1803.


* Address: To/ Miss Hays/ 9. St Georges Place/ Camberwell/ Surry/ Single
Postmarks: [partial] BRISTOL; B/ MAY 24/ 1803; 10 o’Clock/ MY 24/ 1803 FNn
Endorsement: Continuation: Southey/ May 23/ 1803
MS: Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library, Misc 2213. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: A. F. Wedd, The Love-letters of Mary Hays (1779-1780), pp. 242-245 [misdated 3 May 1803]. BACK

[1] Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), Atala (1801). BACK

[2] William Reeve (1757-1815; DNB), Oscar and Malvina (1791). BACK

[3] Jean Francois Mussot Arnould (dates unknown), La Mort du Capitaine Cook (1788). Two English translations of this ‘grand serious pantomimic ballet’ appeared in 1789 and 1790. BACK

[4] William Bartram (1739-1823), Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country etc (1791). BACK

[5] Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814), well-known for the exotic locations of his novels, especially Paul et Virginie (1787). BACK

[6] Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 10. BACK

[7] Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 3-4, outline Southey’s difficulties in writing about Manco Capac, the legendary first Inca BACK

[8] A description of Southey’s planned novel ‘Oliver Elton’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 9-10. BACK

[9] The Weekly Entertainer; or Agreeable and Instructive Repository, 59 vols (Sherborne[?], 1784-1819), III, 394-398, ‘Narrative of the Sufferings of Madame Godin’. BACK

[10] Jacques Cazotte (1719-1792), Ollivier (1762). BACK

[11] Edward Gibbon (1737-1794; DNB), ‘Extraits de Mon Journal’, in Miscellaneous Works, 2 vols (London, 1796), II, pp. 228-229. BACK

[12] Jean Terrasson (1670-1750), Sethos, Histoire ou Vie tiree des Monumens Anecdotes de l’Ancienne Egypte (1731). BACK

[13] Thomas Lediard (1685-1743; DNB), The Life of Sethos. Taken From Private Memoirs of the Ancient Egyptians (1732). BACK

[14] Jean-Jacques Barthelemy (1716-1795), Voyage du Jeune Anarcharsis en Grece (1789), no. 120 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[15] Dominique Vivant de Denon (1747-1825), Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (1802). BACK

[16] Gabriel-Henri Gaillard (1726-1806), Histoire de Charlemagne (1782), no. 1078 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[17] Francois Augier de Marigny (d. 1762), Histoire des Arabes sous le Gouvernement des Califes (1750), no. 1802 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[18] The History of the Arabians under the Government of the Caliphs (1758). BACK

[19] Sir John Chardin (1643-1713; DNB), Protestant French jeweller and traveller who settled in England. The complete account of his travels in the Middle East is Voyages de Monsieur le Chevalier Chardin en Perse et Autres Lieux l’Orient (1711), but only The Travels of Sir John Chardin in Persia and the East Indies: the First Volume (1686) was published in English. The book contained 25 engraved plates. BACK

[20] Carsten Niebuhr’s (1733-1815) travels had been published in German, French and Dutch. The only English version was Robert Heron’s (1764-1807; DNB) abridgement, Travels through Arabia, and other Countries in the Near East (1792). BACK

[21] Ollivier (1762) is not in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library, so possibly he did give his copy to Mary Hays. BACK

Places mentioned