FROM EARLY LIFE TO OLD AGE,
Selections from her Correspondence.
BY HER DAUGHTER, MARTHA SOMERVILLE.
LONDON: JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET, 1874.
[The Right of Translation is reserved.]
WORKS BY MRS. SOMERVILLE.
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THE MECHANISM OF THE HEAVENS. 8vo. 1831.
THE CONNECTION OF THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES. 9th Edition. Post 8vo. 9s. 1858.
PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY. 6th Edition. Post 8vo. 9s. 1870.
MOLECULAR AND MICROSCOPIC SCIENCE. 2 vols. Post 8vo. 21s. 1869.
[Transcriber's Note: commentary by the author, with the exception of her opening and closing words are enclosed in square brackets. In the original text, only an open square bracket was used.]
CHAPTER I. PAGE
INTRODUCTION—PARENTAGE—LIFE IN SCOTLAND IN THE LAST CENTURY—EARLY EDUCATION—SCHOOL 1
FREEDOM—RELIGIOUS EDUCATION—JEDBURGH 24
EDINBURGH—YOUTHFUL STUDIES AND AMUSEMENTS—POLITICS—THE THEATRES OF THE TIME 41
EDINBURGH SUPPER PARTIES—TOUR IN THE HIGHLANDS—MUTINY IN THE FLEET—BATTLE OF CAMPERDOWN 61
FIRST MARRIAGE (1804)—WIDOWHOOD—STUDIES—SECOND MARRIAGE 73
SOMERVILLE FAMILY—DR. SOMERVILLE'S CHARACTER—LETTERS—JOURNEY TO THE LAKES—DEATH OF SIR WILLIAM FAIRFAX—REMINISCENCES OF SIR WALTER SCOTT 83
LIFE IN HANOVER SQUARE—VISIT TO FRANCE—ARAGO—CUVIER—ROME 104
EDUCATION OF DAUGHTERS—DR. WOLLASTON—DR. YOUNG—THE HERSCHELS 127
SOCIETY IN LONDON—CORONATION OF GEORGE IV.—LETTER TO DR. SOMERVILLE 140
DEATH OF MARGARET SOMERVILLE—LETTER FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE TO THE REV. DR. SOMERVILLE—LIFE AT CHELSEA—THE NAPIERS—MARIA EDGEWORTH—TOUR IN GERMANY 152
LETTER FROM LORD BROUGHAM—WRITES "MECHANISM OF THE HEAVENS"—ANECDOTE OF THE ROMAN IMPROVISATRICE—LETTERS FROM SIR JOHN HERSCHEL AND PROFESSOR WHEWELL—ELECTED HON. MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY—NOTICE IN THE ACADEMIE DES SCIENCES, AND LETTER FROM M. BIOT—PENSION—LETTER FROM SIR ROBERT PEEL—BEGINS TO WRITE ON THE CONNECTION OF THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES—VISIT TO CAMBRIDGE—LETTERS FROM PROFESSOR SEDGWICK AND LAPLACE 161
PARIS—ARAGO, LAFAYETTE, MM. BOUVARD, POISSON, LACROIX, &C., MARQUISE DE LAPLACE, DUPIN, F. COOPER—LEGITIMISTE SOCIETY—MAJENDIE—VISIT BARON LOUIS—LETTER FROM LAFAYETTE 183
RETURN TO ENGLAND—LETTER FROM HALLAM—TREATISE ON THE FORM AND ROTATION OF THE EARTH AND PLANETS—SECOND EDITION OF "THE CONNEXION OF THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES"—LETTERS FROM MARIA EDGEWORTH, MISS BERRY, LORD BROUGHAM, MRS. MARCET, ADMIRAL SMYTH—DOUBLE STARS—ECLIPSE OF DOUBLE STARS—LETTER FROM ADMIRAL SMYTH—SIR WILLIAM HERSCHEL—NEBULAE—LETTER FROM LORD ROSSE—LETTER FROM SIR JOHN HERSCHEL—SIR JAMES SOUTH'S OBSERVATORY—MR. JOHN MURRAY—MISS BERRY—LORD DUDLEY—MR. BOWDITCH AND OTHER DISTINGUISHED AMERICANS—MRS. BROWNING WASHINGTON—LETTER FROM THE REV. DR. TUCKERMAN—SIR WILLIAM FAIRFAX ATTACKED BY HIGHWAYMEN 198
ROME, NAPLES, AND COMO—BADEN—WINTER AT FLORENCE—SIENA—LETTER FROM LORD BROUGHAM—MR MOUNTSTEWART ELPHINSTONE—LIFE AT ROME—CAMPAGNA CATTLE 230
ALBANO—POPULAR SINGING—LETTERS FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE—GIBSON—PERUGIA—COMET OF 1843—SUMMER AT VENICE—LETTERS FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE AND MISS JOANNA BAILLIE—ELECTED ASSOCIATE OF THE COLLEGE OF RESURGENTI AND R.I. ACADEMY OF SCIENCE AT AREZZO 243
PUBLISHES "PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY"—LETTER FROM HUMBOLDT—CHRISTMAS AT COLLINGWOOD—LETTER FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE—FARADAY—LETTER FROM FARADAY—KEITH JOHNSTON'S MAPS—WINTER AT MUNICH—SALZBURG—LAKE OF GARDA—MINISCALCHI—POEM BY CATERINA BRENZONI—LETTER FROM BRENZONI—LETTER FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE—ELOGE BY MINISCALCHI—WINTER AT TURIN—BARON PLANA—CAMILLO CAVOUR—COLLINE NEAR TURIN—GENOA—TERESA DOVIA—FLORENCE—MISS F.P. COBBE—VIVISECTION—EXCURSIONS IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD—CHOLERA—MISERICORDIA—PIO NONO IN TUSCANY—COMET—TUSCAN REVOLUTION—WAR IN LOMBARDY—ENTRY OF VICTOR EMMANUEL INTO FLORENCE—LETTERS FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE—MY FATHER'S DEATH—LETTER FROM MISS COBBE 286
SPEZIA—GENOA—BEGINS MOLECULAR AND MICROSCOPIC SCIENCE—TURIN—SPEZIA—BRITISH FLEET—LETTERS FROM MRS. SOMERVILLE—GARIBALDI—SEVERE ILLNESS—FLORENCE—MY BROTHER'S DEATH—NAPLES—ERUPTION OF VESUVIUS—J.S. MILL—CHANGE IN PUBLIC OPINION ON WOMEN'S EDUCATION—EIGHTY-NINTH YEAR—DESCRIBES HER OWN CHARACTER—THOUGHTS ON A FUTURE LIFE—PROGRESS IN KNOWLEDGE OF GEOGRAPHY—VICTORIA MEDAL—MEDAL FROM ROYAL ITALIAN GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY—LETTER FROM MENABREA—ROME, CAPITAL OF ITALY—AURORA BOREALIS 329
ECLIPSE—VISITS OF SCIENTIFIC MEN—LIFE AT NAPLES—DARWIN'S BOOKS—REMARKS ON CIVILIZATION—FINE AURORA BOREALIS—DEATH OF HERSCHEL—SUMMER AT SORRENTO—BILL FOR PROTECTION OF ANIMALS—NINETY-SECOND YEAR—LETTER FROM PROFESSOR SEDGWICK—GRAND ERUPTION OF VESUVIUS—LAST SUMMER AT SORRENTO, PLANTS FOUND THERE—CONCLUSION 354
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INTRODUCTION—PARENTAGE—LIFE IN SCOTLAND IN THE LAST CENTURY—EARLY EDUCATION—SCHOOL.
The life of a woman entirely devoted to her family duties and to scientific pursuits affords little scope for a biography. There are in it neither stirring events nor brilliant deeds to record; and as my Mother was strongly averse to gossip, and to revelations of private life or of intimate correspondence, nothing of the kind will be found in the following pages. It has been only after very great hesitation, and on the recommendation of valued friends, who think that some account of so remarkable and beautiful a character cannot fail to interest the public, that I have resolved to publish some detached Recollections of past times, noted down by my mother during the last years of her life, together with a few letters from eminent men and women, referring almost exclusively to her scientific works. A still smaller number of her own letters have been added, either as illustrating her opinions on events she witnessed, or else as affording some slight idea of her simple and loving disposition.
Few thoughtful minds will read without emotion my mother's own account of the wonderful energy and indomitable perseverance by which, in her ardent thirst for knowledge, she overcame obstacles apparently insurmountable, at a time when women were well-nigh totally debarred from education; and the almost intuitive way in which she entered upon studies of which she had scarcely heard the names, living, as she did, among persons to whom they were utterly unknown, and who disapproved of her devotion to pursuits so different from those of ordinary young girls at the end of the last century, especially in Scotland, which was far more old-fashioned and primitive than England.
Nor is her simple account of her early days without interest, when, as a lonely child, she wandered by the seashore, and on the links of Burntisland, collecting shells and flowers; or spent the clear, cold nights at her window, watching the starlit heavens, whose mysteries she was destined one day to penetrate in all their profound and sublime laws, making clear to others that knowledge which she herself had acquired, at the cost of so hard a struggle.
It was not only in her childhood and youth that my mother's studies encountered disapproval. Not till she became a widow, had she perfect freedom to pursue them. The first person—indeed the only one in her early days—who encouraged her passion for learning was her uncle by marriage, afterwards her father-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Somerville, minister of Jedburgh, a man very much in advance of his century in liberality of thought on all subjects. He was one of the first to discern her rare qualities, and valued her as she deserved; while through life she retained the most grateful affection for him, and confided to him many doubts and difficulties on subjects of the highest importance. Nothing can be more erroneous than the statement, repeated in several obituary notices of my mother, that Mr. Greig (her first husband) aided her in her mathematical and other pursuits. Nearly the contrary was the case. Mr. Greig took no interest in science or literature, and possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at that time. Only on her marriage with my father, my mother at last met with one who entirely sympathised with her, and warmly entered into all her ideas, encouraging her zeal for study to the utmost, and affording her every facility for it in his power. His love and admiration for her were unbounded; he frankly and willingly acknowledged her superiority to himself, and many of our friends can bear witness to the honest pride and gratification which he always testified in the fame and honours she attained.
No one can escape sorrow, and my mother, in the course of her long life, had her full share, but she bore it with that deep feeling of trust in the great goodness of God which formed so marked a feature in her character. She had a buoyant and hopeful spirit, and though her affections were very strong, and she felt keenly, it was ever her nature to turn from the shadows to all that is bright and beautiful in mortal life. She had much to make life pleasant in the great honours universally bestowed upon her; but she found far more in the devoted affection of friends, to say nothing of those whose happy lot it has been to live in close and loving intercourse with so noble and gentle a spirit.
She met with unbounded kindness from men of science of all countries, and most profound was her gratitude to them. Modest and unpretending to excess, nothing could be more generous than the unfeigned delight she shewed in recognising the genius and discoveries of others; ever jealous of their fame, and never of her own.
It is not uncommon to see persons who hold in youth opinions in advance of the age in which they live, but who at a certain period seem to crystallise, and lose the faculty of comprehending and accepting new ideas and theories; thus remaining at last as far behind, as they were once in advance of public opinion. Not so my mother, who was ever ready to hail joyfully any new idea or theory, and to give it honest attention, even if it were at variance with her former convictions. This quality she never lost, and it enabled her to sympathise with the younger generation of philosophers, as she had done with their predecessors, her own contemporaries.
Although her favourite pursuit, and the one for which she had decidedly most aptitude, was mathematics; yet there were few subjects in which she did not take interest, whether in science or literature, philosophy or politics. She was passionately fond of poetry, her especial favourites being Shakespeare and Dante, and also the great Greek dramatists, whose tragedies she read fluently in the original, being a good classical scholar. She was very fond of music, and devoted much time to it in her youth, and she painted from nature with considerable taste. The latter was, perhaps, the recreation in which she most delighted, from the opportunity it afforded her of contemplating the wonderful beauty of the world, which was a never-failing source of intense enjoyment to her, whether she watched the changing effects of light and shade on her favourite Roman Campagna, or gazed, enchanted, on the gorgeous sunsets on the bay of Naples, as she witnessed them from her much-loved Sorrento, where she passed the last summers of her life. All things fair were a joy to her—the flowers we brought her from our rambles, the sea-weeds, the wild birds she saw, all interested and pleased her. Everything in nature spoke to her of that great God who created all things, the grand and sublimely beautiful as well as the exquisite loveliness of minute objects. Above all, in the laws which science unveils step by step, she found ever renewed motives for the love and adoration of their Author and Sustainer. This fervour of religious feeling accompanied her through life, and very early she shook off all that was dark and narrow in the creed of her first instructors for a purer and a happier faith.
It would be almost incredible were I to describe how much my mother contrived to do in the course of the day. When my sister and I were small children, although busily engaged in writing for the press, she used to teach us for three hours every morning, besides managing her house carefully, reading the newspapers (for she always was a keen, and, I must add, a liberal politician), and the most important new books on all subjects, grave and gay. In addition to all this, she freely visited and received her friends. She was, indeed, very fond of society, and did not look for transcendent talent in those with whom she associated, although no one appreciated it more when she found it. Gay and cheerful company was a pleasant relaxation after a hard day's work. My mother never introduced scientific or learned subjects into general conversation. When they were brought forward by others, she talked simply and naturally about them, without the slightest pretension to superior knowledge. Finally, to complete the list of her accomplishments, I must add that she was a remarkably neat and skilful needlewoman. We still possess some elaborate specimens of her embroidery and lace-work.
Devoted and loving in all the relations of life, my mother was ever forgetful of self. Indulgent and sympathising, she never judged others with harshness or severity; yet she could be very angry when her indignation was aroused by hearing of injustice or oppression, of cruelty to man or beast, or of any attack on those she loved. Rather timid and retiring in general society, she was otherwise fearless in her quiet way. I well remember her cool composure on some occasions when we were in great danger. This she inherited from her father, Admiral Sir William Fairfax, a gallant gentleman who distinguished himself greatly at the battle of Camperdown.
My mother speaks of him as follows among her "Recollections," of which I now proceed to place some portions before the reader.
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My father was very good looking, of a brave and noble nature, and a perfect gentleman both in appearance and character. He was sent to sea as midshipman at ten years of age, so he had very little education; but he read a great deal, chiefly history and voyages. He was very cool, and of instant resource in moments of danger.
One night, when his little vessel had taken refuge with many others from an intensely violent gale and drifting snow in Yarmouth Roads, they saw lights disappear, as vessel after vessel foundered. My father, after having done all that was possible for the safety of the ship, went to bed. His cabin door did not shut closely, from the rolling of the ship, and the man who was sentry that night told my mother years afterwards, that when he saw my father on his knees praying, he thought it would soon be all over with them; then seeing him go to bed and fall asleep, he felt no more fear. In the morning the coast was strewed with wrecks. There were no life-boats in those days; now the lives of hundreds are annually saved by the noble self-devotion of British sailors.
My mother was the daughter of Samuel Charters, Solicitor of the Customs for Scotland, and his wife Christian Murray, of Kynynmont, whose eldest sister married the great grandfather of the present Earl of Minto. My grandmother was exceedingly proud and stately. She made her children stand in her presence. My mother, on the contrary, was indulgent and kind, so that her children were perfectly at ease with her. She seldom read anything but the Bible, sermons, and the newspaper. She was very sincere and devout in her religion, and was remarkable for good sense and great strength of expression in writing and conversation. Though by no means pretty, she was exceedingly distinguished and ladylike both in appearance and manners.
My father was constantly employed, and twice distinguished himself by attacking vessels of superior force. He captured the first, but was overpowered by the second, and being taken to France, remained two years a prisoner on parole, when he met with much kindness from the Choiseul family. At last he was exchanged, and afterwards was appointed lieutenant on board a frigate destined for foreign service. I think it was the North American station, for the war of Independence was not over till the beginning of 1783. As my mother knew that my father would be absent for some years, she accompanied him to London, though so near her confinement that in returning home she had just time to arrive at the manse of Jedburgh, her sister Martha Somerville's house, when I was born, on the 26th December, 1780. My mother was dangerously ill, and my aunt, who was about to wean her second daughter Janet, who married General Henry Elliot, nursed me till a wetnurse could be found. So I was born in the house of my future husband, and nursed by his mother—a rather singular coincidence.
During my father's absence, my mother lived with great economy in a house not far from Burntisland which belonged to my grandfather, solely occupied with the care of her family, which consisted of her eldest son Samuel, four or five years old, and myself. One evening while my brother was lying at play on the floor, he called out, "O, mamma there's the moon rinnin' awa." It was the celebrated meteor of 1783.
Some time afterwards, for what reason I do not know, my father and mother went to live for a short time at Inveresk, and thence returned to Burntisland, our permanent home.
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[This place, in which my mother's early life was spent, exercised so much influence on her life and pursuits, that I am happy to be able to give the description of it in her own words.]
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Burntisland was then a small quiet seaport town with little or no commerce, situated on the coast of Fife, immediately opposite to Edinburgh. It is sheltered at some distance on the north by a high and steep hill called the Bin. The harbour lies on the west, and the town ended on the east in a plain of short grass called the Links, on which the townspeople had the right of pasturing their cows and geese. The Links were bounded on each side by low hills covered with gorse and heather, and on the east by a beautiful bay with a sandy beach, which, beginning at a low rocky point, formed a bow and then stretched for several miles to the town of Kinghorn, the distant part skirting a range of high precipitous crags.
Our house, which lay to the south of the town, was very long, with a southern exposure, and its length was increased by a wall covered with fruit-trees, which concealed a courtyard, cow-house, and other offices. From this the garden extended southwards, and ended in a plot of short grass covering a ledge of low black rocks washed by the sea. It was divided into three parts by narrow, almost unfrequented, lanes. These gardens yielded abundance of common fruit and vegetables, but the warmest and best exposures were always devoted to flowers. The garden next to the house was bounded on the south by an ivy-covered wall hid by a row of old elm trees, from whence a steep mossy bank descended to a flat plot of grass with a gravel walk and flower borders on each side, and a broad gravel walk ran along the front of the house. My mother was fond of flowers, and prided herself on her moss-roses, which flourished luxuriantly on the front of the house; but my father, though a sailor, was an excellent florist. He procured the finest bulbs and flower seeds from Holland, and kept each kind in a separate bed.
The manners and customs of the people who inhabited this pretty spot at that time were exceedingly primitive.
Upon the death of any of the townspeople, a man went about ringing a bell at the doors of the friends and acquaintances of the person just dead, and, after calling out "Oyez!" three times, he announced the death which had occurred. This was still called by the name of the Passing-bell, which in Catholic times invited the prayers of the living for the spirit just passed away.
There was much sympathy and kindness shown on these occasions; friends always paid a visit of condolence to the afflicted, dressed in black. The gude wives in Burntisland thought it respectable to provide dead-clothes for themselves and the "gude man," that they might have a decent funeral. I once saw a set of grave-clothes nicely folded up, which consisted of a long shirt and cap of white flannel, and a shroud of fine linen made of yarn, spun by the gude wife herself. I did not like that gude wife; she was purse-proud, and took every opportunity of treating with scorn a poor neighbour who had had a misfortune, that is, a child by her husband before marriage, but who made a very good wife. Her husband worked in our garden, and took our cow to the Links to graze. The wife kept a little shop, where we bought things, and she told us her neighbour had given her "mony a sair greet"—that is, a bitter fit of weeping.
The howdie, or midwife, was a person of much consequence. She had often to go far into the country, by day and by night, riding a cart-horse. The neighbours used to go and congratulate the mother, and, of course, to admire the baby. Cake and caudle were handed round, caudle being oatmeal gruel, with sugar, nutmeg, and white wine. In the poorest class, hot ale and "scons" were offered.
Penny-weddings were by no means uncommon in my young days. When a very poor couple were going to be married, the best man, and even the bridegroom himself, went from house to house, asking for small sums to enable them to have a wedding supper, and pay the town fiddler for a dance; any one was admitted who paid a penny. I recollect the prisoners in the Tolbooth letting down bags from the prison windows, begging for charity. I do not remember any execution taking place.
Men and old women of the lower classes smoked tobacco in short pipes, and many took snuff—even young ladies must have done so; for I have a very pretty and quaint gold snuff-box which was given to my grandmother as a marriage present. Licensed beggars, called "gaberlunzie men," were still common. They wore a blue coat, with a tin badge, and wandered about the country, knew all that was going on, and were always welcome at the farm-houses, where the gude wife liked to have a crack (gossip) with the blue coat, and, in return for his news, gave him dinner or supper, as might be. Edie Ochiltree is a perfect specimen of this extinct race. There was another species of beggar, of yet higher antiquity. If a man were a cripple, and poor, his relations put him in a hand-barrow, and wheeled him to their next neighbour's door, and left him there. Some one came out, gave him oat-cake or peasemeal bannock, and then wheeled him to the next door; and in this way, going from house to house, he obtained a fair livelihood.
My brother Sam lived with our grandfather in Edinburgh, and attended the High School, which was in the old town, and, like other boys, he was given pennies to buy bread; but the boys preferred oysters, which they bought from the fishwives, the bargain being, a dozen oysters for a halfpenny, and a kiss for the thirteenth. These fishwives and their husbands were industrious, hard-working people, forming a community of their own in the village of Newhaven, close to the sea, and about two miles from Edinburgh. The men were exposed to cold, and often to danger, in their small boats, not always well-built nor fitted for our stormy Firth. The women helped to land and prepare the fish when the boats came in, carried it to town for sale in the early morning, kept the purse, managed the house, brought up the children, and provided food and clothing for all. Many were rich, lived well, and sometimes had dances. Many of the young women were pretty, and all wore—and, I am told, still wear—a bright-coloured, picturesque costume. Some young men, amongst others a cousin of my own, who attempted to intrude into one of these balls, got pelted with fish offal by the women. The village smelt strongly of fish, certainly; yet the people were very clean personally. I recollect their keeping tame gulls, which they fed with fish offal.
Although there was no individual enmity between the boys of the old and of the new or aristocratic part of Edinburgh, there were frequent battles, called "bickers," between them, in which they pelted each other with stones. Sometimes they were joined by bigger lads, and then the fight became so serious that the magistrates sent the city guard—a set of old men with halberds and a quaint uniform—to separate them; but no sooner did the guard appear, than both parties joined against them.
Strings of wild geese were common in autumn, and I was amused on one occasion to see the clumsy tame fat geese which were feeding on the Links rise in a body and try to follow the wild ones.
As the grass on the plot before our house did not form a fine even turf, the ground was trenched and sown with good seed, but along with the grass a vast crop of thistles and groundsel appeared, which attracted quantities of goldfinches, and in the early mornings I have seen as many as sixty to eighty of these beautiful birds feeding on it.
My love of birds has continued through life, for only two years ago, in my extreme old age, I lost a pet mountain sparrow, which for eight years was my constant companion: sitting on my shoulder, pecking at my papers, and eating out of my mouth; and I am not ashamed to say I felt its accidental death very much.
Before the grass came up on this plot of ground, its surface in the evening swarmed with earthworms, which instantly shrank into their holes on the approach of a foot. My aunt Janet, who was then with us, and afraid even to speak of death, was horrified on seeing them, firmly believing that she would one day be eaten by them—a very general opinion at that time; few people being then aware that the finest mould in our gardens and fields has passed through the entrails of the earthworm, the vegetable juices it contains being sufficient to maintain these harmless creatures.
My mother was very much afraid of thunder and lightning. She knew when a storm was near from the appearance of the clouds, and prepared for it by taking out the steel pins which fastened her cap on. She then sat on a sofa at a distance from the fire-place, which had a very high chimney, and read different parts of the Bible, especially the sublime descriptions of storms in the Psalms, which made me, who sat close by her, still more afraid. We had an excellent and beautiful pointer, called Hero, a great favourite, who generally lived in the garden, but at the first clap of thunder he used to rush howling indoors, and place his face on my knee. Then my father, who laughed not a little at our fear, would bring a glass of wine to my mother, and say, "Drink that, Peg; it will give you courage, for we are going to have a rat-tat-too." My mother would beg him to shut the window-shutters, and though she could no longer see to read, she kept the Bible on her knee for protection.
My mother taught me to read the Bible, and to say my prayers morning and evening; otherwise she allowed me to grow up a wild creature. When I was seven or eight years old I began to be useful, for I pulled the fruit for preserving; shelled the peas and beans, fed the poultry, and looked after the dairy, for we kept a cow.
On one occasion I had put green gooseberries into bottles and sent them to the kitchen with orders to the cook to boil the bottles uncorked, and, when the fruit was sufficiently cooked, to cork and tie up the bottles. After a time all the house was alarmed by loud explosions and violent screaming in the kitchen, the cook had corked the bottles before she boiled them, and of course they exploded. For greater preservation, the bottles were always buried in the ground; a number were once found in our garden with the fruit in high preservation which had been buried no one knew when. Thus experience is sometimes the antecedent of science, for it was little suspected at that time that by shutting out the air the invisible organic world was excluded—the cause of all fermentation and decay.
I never cared for dolls, and had no one to play with me. I amused myself in the garden, which was much frequented by birds. I knew most of them, their flight and their habits. The swallows were never prevented from building above our windows, and, when about to migrate, they used to assemble in hundreds on the roof of our house, and prepared for their journey by short flights. We fed the birds when the ground was covered with snow, and opened our windows at breakfast-time to let in the robins, who would hop on the table to pick up crumbs. The quantity of singing birds was very great, for the farmers and gardeners were less cruel and avaricious than they are now—though poorer. They allowed our pretty songsters to share in the bounties of providence. The shortsighted cruelty, which is too prevalent now, brings its own punishment, for, owing to the reckless destruction of birds, the equilibrium of nature is disturbed, insects increase to such an extent as materially to affect every description of crop. This summer (1872), when I was at Sorrento, even the olives, grapes, and oranges were seriously injured by the caterpillars—a disaster which I entirely attribute to the ruthless havoc made among every kind of bird.
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My mother set me in due time to learn the catechism of the Kirk of Scotland, and to attend the public examinations in the kirk. This was a severe trial for me; for, besides being timid and shy, I had a bad memory, and did not understand one word of the catechism. These meetings, which began with prayer, were attended by all the children of the town and neighbourhood, with their mothers, and a great many old women, who came to be edified. They were an acute race, and could quote chapter and verse of Scripture as accurately as the minister himself. I remember he said to one of them—"Peggie, what lightened the world before the sun was made?" After thinking for a minute, she said—"'Deed, sir, the question is mair curious than edifying."
Besides these public examinations, the minister made an annual visit to each household in his parish. When he came to us, the servants were called in, and we all knelt while he said a prayer; and then he examined each individual as to the state of his soul and conduct. He asked me if I could say my "Questions"—that is, the catechism of the Kirk of Scotland—and asked a question at random to ascertain the fact. He did the same to the servants.
When I was between eight and nine years old, my father came home from sea, and was shocked to find me such a savage. I had not yet been taught to write, and although I amused myself reading the "Arabian Nights," "Robinson Crusoe," and the "Pilgrim's Progress," I read very badly, and with a strong Scotch accent; so, besides a chapter of the Bible, he made me read a paper of the "Spectator" aloud every morning, after breakfast; the consequence of which discipline is that I have never since opened that book. Hume's "History of England" was also a real penance to me. I gladly accompanied my father when he cultivated his flowers, which even now I can say were of the best quality. The tulips and other bulbous plants, ranunculi, anemones, carnations, as well as the annuals then known, were all beautiful. He used to root up and throw away many plants I thought very beautiful; he said he did so because the colours of their petals were not sharply defined, and that they would spoil the seed of the others. Thus I learnt to know the good and the bad—how to lay carnations, and how to distinguish between the leaf and fruit buds in pruning fruit trees; this kind of knowledge was of no practical use, for, as my after-life was spent in towns, I never had a garden, to my great regret.
George the Third was so popular, that even in Burntisland nosegays were placed in every window on the 4th of June, his birthday; and it occasionally happened that our garden was robbed the preceding night of its gayest flowers.
My father at last said to my mother,—"This kind of life will never do, Mary must at least know how to write and keep accounts." So at ten years old I was sent to a boarding-school, kept by a Miss Primrose, at Musselburgh, where I was utterly wretched. The change from perfect liberty to perpetual restraint was in itself a great trial; besides, being naturally shy and timid, I was afraid of strangers, and although Miss Primrose was not unkind she had an habitual frown, which even the elder girls dreaded. My future companions, who were all older than I, came round me like a swarm of bees, and asked if my father had a title, what was the name of our estate, if we kept a carriage, and other such questions, which made me first feel the difference of station. However, the girls were very kind, and often bathed my eyes to prevent our stern mistress from seeing that I was perpetually in tears. A few days after my arrival, although perfectly straight and well-made, I was enclosed in stiff stays with a steel busk in front, while, above my frock, bands drew my shoulders back till the shoulder-blades met. Then a steel rod, with a semi-circle which went under the chin, was clasped to the steel busk in my stays. In this constrained state I, and most of the younger girls, had to prepare our lessons. The chief thing I had to do was to learn by heart a page of Johnson's dictionary, not only to spell the words, give their parts of speech and meaning, but as an exercise of memory to remember their order of succession. Besides I had to learn the first principles of writing, and the rudiments of French and English grammar. The method of teaching was extremely tedious and inefficient. Our religious duties were attended to in a remarkable way. Some of the girls were Presbyterians, others belonged to the Church of England, so Miss Primrose cut the matter short by taking us all to the kirk in the morning and to church in the afternoon.
In our play-hours we amused ourselves with playing at ball, marbles, and especially at "Scotch and English," a game which represented a raid on the debatable land, or Border between Scotland and England, in which each party tried to rob the other of their playthings. The little ones were always compelled to be English, for the bigger girls thought it too degrading.
Lady Hope, a relative of my mother, frequently invited me to spend Saturday at Pinkie. She was a very ladylike person, in delicate health, and with cold manners. Sir Archibald was stout, loud, passionate, and devoted to hunting. I amused myself in the grounds, a good deal afraid of a turkey-cock, who was pugnacious and defiant.
[Footnote 1: Sir William Fairfax was the son of Joseph Fairfax, Esq., of Bagshot, in the county of Surrey, who died in 1783, aged 77, having served in the army previous to 1745. It is understood that his family was descended from the Fairfaxes of Walton, in Yorkshire, the main branch of which were created Viscounts Fairfax of Emly, in the peerage of Ireland (now extinct), and a younger branch Barons Fairfax of Cameron, in the peerage of Scotland. Of the last-named was the great Lord Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the Parliament, 1645-50, whose title is now held by the eleventh Lord Fairfax, a resident in the United States of America.]
[Footnote 2: Wife of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Somerville, minister of Jedburgh, already mentioned (p. 2). Dr. Somerville was author of Histories of Queen Anne and of William and Mary, and also of an autobiography.]
[My mother remained at school at Musselburgh for a twelvemonth, till she was eleven years old. After this prolonged and elaborate education, she was recalled to Burntisland, and the results of the process she had undergone are detailed in her "Recollections" with much drollery.]
* * * * *
Soon after my return home I received a note from a lady in the neighbourhood, inquiring for my mother, who had been ill. This note greatly distressed me, for my half-text writing was as bad as possible, and I could neither compose an answer nor spell the words. My eldest cousin, Miss Somerville, a grown-up young lady, then with us, got me out of this scrape, but I soon got myself into another, by writing to my brother in Edinburgh that I had sent him a bank-knot (note) to buy something for me. The school at Musselburgh was expensive, and I was reproached with having cost so much money in vain. My mother said she would have been contented if I had only learnt to write well and keep accounts, which was all that a woman was expected to know.
This passed over, and I was like a wild animal escaped out of a cage. I was no longer amused in the gardens, but wandered about the country. When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands, looking at the star-fish and sea-urchins, or watching the children digging for sand-eels, cockles, and the spouting razor-fish. I made a collection of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository. I knew the eggs of many birds, and made a collection of them. I never robbed a nest, but bought strings of eggs, which were sold by boys, besides getting sea-fowl eggs from sailors who had been in whalers or on other northern voyages. It was believed by these sailors that there was a gigantic flat fish in the North Sea, called a kraken. It was so enormous that when it came to the surface, covered with tangles and sand, it was supposed to be an island, till, on one occasion, part of a ship's crew landed on it and found out their mistake. However, much as they believed in it, none of the sailors at Burntisland had ever seen it. The sea serpent was also an article of our faith.
In the rocks at the end of our garden there was a shingly opening, in which we used to bathe, and where at low tide I frequently waded among masses of rock covered with sea-weeds. With the exception of dulse and tangle I knew the names of none, though I was well acquainted with and admired many of these beautiful plants. I also watched the crabs, live shells, jelly-fish, and various marine animals, all of which were objects of curiosity and amusement to me in my lonely life.
The flora on the links and hills around was very beautiful, and I soon learnt the trivial names of all the plants. There was not a tree nor bush higher than furze in this part of the country, but the coast to the north-west of Burntisland was bordered by a tree and brushwood-covered bank belonging to the Earl of Morton, which extended to Aberdour. I could not go so far alone, but had frequent opportunities of walking there and gathering ferns, foxgloves, and primroses, which grew on the mossy banks of a little stream that ran into the sea. The bed of this stream or burn was thickly covered with the freshwater mussel, which I knew often contained pearls, but I did not like to kill the creatures to get the pearls.
One day my father, who was a keen sportsman, having gone to fish for red trout at the mouth of this stream, found a young whale, or grampus, stranded in the shallow water. He immediately ran back to the town, got boats, captured the whale, and landed it in the harbour, where I went with the rest of the crowd to see the muckle fish.
There was always a good deal of shipbuilding carried on in the harbour, generally coasting vessels or colliers. We, of course, went to see them launched, which was a pretty sight.
* * * * *
When the bad weather began I did not know what to do with myself. Fortunately we had a small collection of books, among which I found Shakespeare, and read it at every moment I could spare from my domestic duties. These occupied a great part of my time; besides, I had to shew (sew) my sampler, working the alphabet from A to Z, as well as the ten numbers, on canvas.
My mother did not prevent me from reading, but my aunt Janet, who came to live in Burntisland after her father's death, greatly disapproved of my conduct. She was an old maid who could be very agreeable and witty, but she had all the prejudices of the time with regard to women's duties, and said to my mother, "I wonder you let Mary waste her time in reading, she never shews (sews) more than if she were a man." Whereupon I was sent to the village school to learn plain needlework. I do not remember how long it was after this that an old lady sent some very fine linen to be made into shirts for her brother, and desired that one should be made entirely by me. This shirt was so well worked that I was relieved from attending the school, but the house linen was given into my charge to make and to mend. We had a large stock, much of it very beautiful, for the Scotch ladies at that time were very proud of their napery, but they no longer sent it to Holland to be bleached, as had once been the custom. We grew flax, and our maids spun it. The coarser yarn was woven in Burntisland, and bleached upon the links; the finer was sent to Dunfermline, where there was a manufactory of table-linen.
I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it. Among our books I found Chapone's "Letters to Young Women," and resolved to follow the course of history there recommended, the more so as we had most of the works she mentions. One, however, which my cousin lent me was in French, and here the little I had learnt at school was useful, for with the help of a dictionary I made out the sense. What annoyed me was my memory not being good—I could remember neither names nor dates. Years afterwards I studied a "Memoria Technica," then in fashion, without success; yet in my youth I could play long pieces of music on the piano without the book, and I never forget mathematical formulae. In looking over one of my MSS., which I had not seen for forty years, I at once recognised the formulae for computing the secular inequalities of the moon.
We had two small globes, and my mother allowed me to learn the use of them from Mr. Reed, the village schoolmaster, who came to teach me for a few weeks in the winter evenings. Besides the ordinary branches, Mr. Reed taught Latin and navigation, but these were out of the question for me. At the village school the boys often learnt Latin, but it was thought sufficient for the girls to be able to read the Bible; very few even learnt writing. I recollect, however, that some men were ignorant of book-keeping; our baker, for instance had a wooden tally, in which he made a notch for every loaf of bread, and of course we had the corresponding tally. They were called nick-sticks.
My bedroom had a window to the south, and a small closet near had one to the north. At these I spent many hours, studying the stars by the aid of the celestial globe. Although I watched and admired the magnificent displays of the Aurora, which frequently occurred, they seemed to be so nearly allied to lightning that I was somewhat afraid of them. At an earlier period of my life there was a comet, which I dreaded exceedingly.
* * * * *
My father was Captain of the "Repulse," a fifty-gun ship, attached to the Northern fleet commanded by the Earl of Northesk. The winter was extremely stormy, the fleet was driven far north, and kept there by adverse gales, till both officers and crew were on short rations. They ran out of candles, and had to tear up their stockings for wicks, and dip them into the fat of the salt meat which was left. We were in great anxiety, for it was reported that some of the ships had foundered; we were, however, relieved by the arrival of the "Repulse" in Leith roads for repair.
Our house on one occasion being full, I was sent to sleep in a room quite detached from the rest and with a different staircase. There was a closet in this room in which my father kept his fowling pieces, fishing tackle, and golf clubs, and a long garret overhead was filled with presses and stores of all kinds, among other things a number of large cheeses were on a board slung by ropes to the rafters. One night I had put out my candle and was fast asleep, when I was awakened by a violent crash, and then a rolling noise over my head. Now the room was said to be haunted, so that the servants would not sleep in it. I was desperate, for there was no bell. I groped my way to the closet—lucifer matches were unknown in those days—I seized one of the golf clubs, which are shod with iron, and thundered on the bedroom door till I brought my father, followed by the whole household, to my aid. It was found that the rats had gnawed through the ropes by which the cheeses were suspended, so that the crash and rolling were accounted for, and I was scolded for making such an uproar.
Children suffer much misery by being left alone in the dark. When I was very young I was sent to bed at eight or nine o'clock, and the maid who slept in the room went away as soon as I was in bed, leaving me alone in the dark till she came to bed herself. All that time I was in an agony of fear of something indefinite, I could not tell what. The joy, the relief, when the maid came back, were such that I instantly fell asleep. Now that I am a widow and old, although I always have a night-lamp, such is the power of early impressions that I rejoice when daylight comes.
* * * * *
At Burntisland the sacrament was administered in summer because people came in crowds from the neighbouring parishes to attend the preachings. The service was long and fatiguing. A number of clergymen came to assist, and as the minister's manse could not accommodate them all, we entertained three of them, one of whom was always the Rev. Dr. Campbell, father of Lord Campbell.
Thursday was a day of preparation. The morning service began by a psalm sung by the congregation, then a prayer was said by the minister, followed by a lecture on some chapter of the Bible, generally lasting an hour, after that another psalm was sung, followed by a prayer, a sermon which lasted seldom less than an hour, and the whole ended with a psalm, a short prayer and a benediction. Every one then went home to dinner and returned afterwards for afternoon service, which lasted more than an hour and a half. Friday was a day of rest, but I together with many young people went at this time to the minister to receive a stamped piece of lead as a token that we were sufficiently instructed to be admitted to Christ's table. This ticket was given to the Elder on the following Sunday. On Saturday there was a morning service, and on Sunday such multitudes came to receive the sacrament that the devotions continued till late in the evening. The ceremony was very strikingly and solemnly conducted. The communicants sat on each side of long narrow tables covered with white linen, in imitation of the last supper of Christ, and the Elders handed the bread and wine. After a short exhortation from one of the ministers the first set retired, and were succeeded by others. When the weather was fine a sermon, prayers, and psalm-singing took place either in the churchyard or on a grassy bank at the Links for such as were waiting to communicate. On the Monday morning there was the same long service as on the Thursday. It was too much for me; I always came home with a headache, and took a dislike to sermons.
Our minister was a rigid Calvinist. His sermons were gloomy, and so long that he occasionally would startle the congregation by calling out to some culprit, "Sit up there, how daur ye sleep i' the kirk." Some saw-mills in the neighbourhood were burnt down, so the following Sunday we had a sermon on hell-fire. The kirk was very large and quaint; a stair led to a gallery on each side of the pulpit, which was intended for the tradespeople, and each division was marked with a suitable device, and text from Scripture. On the bakers' portion a sheaf of wheat was painted; a balance and weights on the grocers', and on the weavers', which was opposite to our pew, there was a shuttle, and below it the motto, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hop job." The artist was evidently no clerk.
My brother Sam, while attending the university in Edinburgh, came to us on the Saturdays and returned to town on Monday. He of course went with us to the kirk on Sunday morning, but we let our mother attend afternoon service alone, as he and I were happy to be together, and we spent the time sitting on the grassy rocks at the foot of our garden, from whence we could see a vast extent of the Firth of Forth with Edinburgh and its picturesque hills. It was very amusing, for we occasionally saw three or four whales spouting, and shoals of porpoises at play. However, we did not escape reproof, for I recollect the servant coming to tell us that the minister had sent to inquire whether Mr. and Miss Fairfax had been taken ill, as he had not seen them at the kirk in the afternoon. The minister in question was Mr. Wemyss, who had married a younger sister of my mother's.
* * * * *
When I was about thirteen my mother took a small apartment in Edinburgh for the winter, and I was sent to a writing school, where I soon learnt to write a good hand, and studied the common rules of arithmetic. My uncle William Henry Charters, lately returned from India, gave me a pianoforte, and I had music lessons from an old lady who lived in the top story of one of the highest houses in the old town. I slept in the same room with my mother. One morning I called out, much alarmed, "There is lightning!" but my mother said, after a moment, "No; it is fire!" and on opening the window shutters I found that the flakes of fire flying past had made the glass quite hot. The next house but one was on fire and burning fiercely, and the people next door were throwing everything they possessed, even china and glass, out of the windows into the street. We dressed quickly, and my mother sent immediately to Trotter the upholsterer for four men. We then put our family papers, our silver, &c., &c., into trunks; then my mother said, "Now let us breakfast, it is time enough for us to move our things when the next house takes fire." Of its doing so there was every probability because casks of turpentine and oil were exploding from time to time in a carriage manufactory at the back of it. Several gentlemen of our acquaintance who came to assist us were surprised to find us breakfasting quietly as if there were nothing unusual going on. In fact my mother, though a coward in many things, had, like most women, the presence of mind and the courage of necessity. The fire was extinguished, and we had only the four men to pay for doing nothing, nor did we sacrifice any of our property like our neighbours who had completely lost their heads from terror. I may mention here that on one occasion when my father was at home he had been ill with a severe cold, and wore his nightcap. While reading in the drawing-room one evening he called out, "I smell fire, there is no time to be lost," so, snatching up a candle, he wandered from room to room followed by us all still smelling fire, when one of the servants said, "O, sir, it is the tassel of your nightcap that is on fire."
* * * * *
On returning to Burntisland, I spent four or five hours daily at the piano; and for the sake of having something to do, I taught myself Latin enough from such books as we had, to read Caesar's "Commentaries." I went that summer on a visit to my aunt at Jedburgh, and, for the first time in my life, I met in my uncle, Dr. Somerville, with a friend who approved of my thirst for knowledge. During long walks with him in the early mornings, he was so kind, that I had the courage to tell him that I had been trying to learn Latin, but I feared it was in vain; for my brother and other boys, superior to me in talent, and with every assistance, spent years in learning it. He assured me, on the contrary, that in ancient times many women—some of them of the highest rank in England—had been very elegant scholars, and that he would read Virgil with me if I would come to his study for an hour or two every morning before breakfast, which I gladly did.
I never was happier in my life than during the months I spent at Jedburgh. My aunt was a charming companion—witty, full of anecdote, and had read more than most women of her day, especially Shakespeare, who was her favourite author. My cousins had little turn for reading, but they were better educated than most girls. They were taught to write by David Brewster, son of the village schoolmaster, afterwards Sir David, who became one of the most distinguished philosophers and discoverers of the age, member of all the scientific societies at home and abroad, and at last President of the University of Edinburgh. He was studying in Edinburgh when I was at Jedburgh; so I did not make his acquaintance then; but later in life he became my valued friend. I did not know till after his death, that, while teaching my cousins, he fell in love with my cousin Margaret. I do not believe she was aware of it. She was afterwards attached to an officer in the army; but my aunt would not allow her to go to that outlandish place, Malta, where he was quartered; so she lived and died unmarried. Steam has changed our ideas of distance since that time.
My uncle's house—the manse—in which I was born, stands in a pretty garden, bounded by the fine ancient abbey, which, though partially ruined, still serves as the parish kirk. The garden produced abundance of common flowers, vegetables, and fruit. Some of the plum and pear trees were very old, and were said to have been planted by the monks. Both were excellent in quality, and very productive. The view from both garden and manse was over the beautiful narrow valley through which the Jed flows. The precipitous banks of red sandstone are richly clothed with vegetation, some of the trees ancient and very fine, especially the magnificent one called the capon tree, and the lofty king of the wood, remnants of the fine forests which at one time had covered the country. An inland scene was new to me, and I was never tired of admiring the tree-crowned scaurs or precipices, where the rich glow of the red sandstone harmonized so well with the autumnal tints of the foliage.
We often bathed in the pure stream of the Jed. My aunt always went with us, and was the merriest of the party; we bathed in a pool which was deep under the high scaur, but sloped gradually from the grassy bank on the other side. Quiet and transparent as the Jed was, it one day came down with irresistible fury, red with the debris of the sandstone scaurs. There had been a thunderstorm in the hills up-stream, and as soon as the river began to rise, the people came out with pitchforks and hooks to catch the hayricks, sheaves of corn, drowned pigs, and other animals that came sweeping past. My cousins and I were standing on the bridge, but my aunt called us off when the water rose above the arches, for fear of the bridge giving way. We made expeditions every day; sometimes we went nutting in the forest; at other times we gathered mushrooms on the grass parks of Stewartfield, where there was a wood of picturesque old Scotch firs, inhabited by a colony of rooks. I still kept the habit of looking out for birds, and had the good fortune to see a heron, now a rare bird in the valley of the Jed. Some of us went every day to a spring called the Allerly well, about a quarter of a mile from the manse, and brought a large jug of its sparkling water for dinner. The evenings were cheerful; my aunt sang Scotch songs prettily, and told us stories and legends about Jedburgh, which had been a royal residence in the olden time. She had a tame white and tawny-coloured owl, which we fed every night, and sometimes brought into the drawing-room. The Sunday evening never was gloomy, though properly observed. We occasionally drank tea with acquaintances, and made visits of a few days to the Rutherfurds of Edgerton and others; but I was always glad to return to the manse.
My uncle, like other ministers of the Scottish Kirk, was allowed a glebe, which he farmed himself. Besides horses, a cow was kept, which supplied the family with cream and butter, and the skimmed milk was given to the poor; but as the milk became scarce, one woman was deprived, for the time, of her share. Soon after, the cow was taken ill, and my uncle's ploughman, Will, came to him and said, "Sir, gin you would give that carline Tibby Jones her soup o' milk again, the coo would soon be weel eneugh." Will was by no means the only believer in witchcraft at that time.
EDINBURGH—YOUTHFUL STUDIES AND AMUSEMENTS—POLITICS—THE THEATRES OF THE TIME.
[My mother's next visit was to the house of her uncle, William Charters, in Edinburgh. From thence she was enabled to partake of the advantages of a dancing-school of the period.]
* * * * *
They sent me to Strange's dancing school. Strange himself was exactly like a figure on the stage; tall and thin, he wore a powdered wig, with cannons at the ears, and a pigtail. Ruffles at the breast and wrists, white waistcoat, black silk or velvet shorts, white silk stockings, large silver buckles, and a pale blue coat completed his costume. He had a little fiddle on which he played, called a kit. My first lesson was how to walk and make a curtsey. "Young lady, if you visit the queen you must make three curtsies, lower and lower and lower as you approach her. So—o—o," leading me on and making me curtsey. "Now, if the queen were to ask you to eat a bit of mutton with her, what would you say?" Every Saturday afternoon all the scholars, both boys and girls, met to practise in the public assembly rooms in George's Street. It was a handsome large hall with benches rising like an amphitheatre. Some of the elder girls were very pretty, and danced well, so these practisings became a lounge for officers from the Castle, and other young men. We used always to go in full evening dress. We learnt the minuet de la cour, reels and country dances. Our partners used to give us gingerbread and oranges. Dancing before so many people was quite an exhibition, and I was greatly mortified one day when ready to begin a minuet, by the dancing-master shaking me roughly and making me hold out my frock properly.
Though kind in the main, my uncle and his wife were rather sarcastic and severe, and kept me down a good deal, which I felt keenly, but said nothing. I was not a favourite with my family at that period of my life, because I was reserved and unexpansive, in consequence of the silence I was obliged to observe on the subjects which interested me. Three Miss Melvilles, friends, or perhaps relatives, of Mrs. Charters, were always held up to me as models of perfection, to be imitated in everything, and I wearied of hearing them constantly praised at my expense.
In a small society like that of Edinburgh there was a good deal of scandal and gossip; every one's character and conduct were freely criticised, and by none more than by my aunt and her friends. She used to sit at a window embroidering, where she not only could see every one that passed, but with a small telescope could look into the dressing-room of a lady of her acquaintance, and watch all she did. A spinster lady of good family, a cousin of ours, carried her gossip so far, that she was tried for defamation, and condemned to a month's imprisonment, which she actually underwent in the Tolbooth. She was let out just before the king's birthday, to celebrate which, besides the guns fired at the Castle, the boys let off squibs and crackers in all the streets. As the lady in question was walking up the High Street, some lads in a wynd, or narrow street, fired a small cannon, and one of the slugs with which it was loaded hit her mouth and wounded her tongue. This raised a universal laugh; and no one enjoyed it more than my uncle William, who disliked this somewhat masculine woman.
Whilst at my uncle's house, I attended a school for writing and arithmetic, and made considerable progress in the latter, for I liked it, but I soon forgot it from want of practice.
My uncle and aunt generally paid a visit to the Lyells of Kinnordy, the father and mother of my friend Sir Charles Lyell, the celebrated geologist; but this time they accepted an invitation from Captain Wedderburn, and took me with them. Captain Wedderburn was an old bachelor, who had left the army and devoted himself to agriculture. Mounted on a very tall but quiet horse, I accompanied my host every morning when he went over his farm, which was chiefly a grass farm. The house was infested with rats, and a masculine old maid, who was of the party, lived in such terror of them, that she had a light in her bedroom, and after she was in bed, made her maid tuck in the white dimity curtains all round. One night we were awakened by violent screams, and on going to see what was the matter, we found Miss Cowe in the middle of the room, bare-footed, in her night-dress, screaming at the top of her voice. Instead of tucking the rats out of the bed, the maid had tucked one in, and Miss Cowe on waking beheld it sitting on her pillow.
* * * * *
There was great political agitation at this time. The corruption and tyranny of the court, nobility, and clergy in France were so great, that when the revolution broke out, a large portion of our population thought the French people were perfectly justified in revolting, and warmly espoused their cause. Later many changed their opinions, shocked, as every one was, at the death of the king and queen, and the atrocious massacres which took place in France. Yet some not only approved of the revolution abroad, but were so disgusted with our mal-administration at home, to which they attributed our failure in the war in Holland and elsewhere, that great dissatisfaction and alarm prevailed throughout the country. The violence, on the other hand, of the opposite party was not to be described,—the very name of Liberal was detested.
Great dissensions were caused by difference of opinion in families; and I heard people previously much esteemed accused from this cause of all that was evil. My uncle William and my father were as violent Tories as any.
The Liberals were distinguished by wearing their hair short, and when one day I happened to say how becoming a crop was, and that I wished the men would cut off those ugly pigtails, my father exclaimed, "By G—, when a man cuts off his queue, the head should go with it."
The unjust and exaggerated abuse of the Liberal party made me a Liberal. From my earliest years my mind revolted against oppression and tyranny, and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men. My liberal opinions, both in religion and politics, have remained unchanged (or, rather, have advanced) throughout my life, but I have never been a republican. I have always considered a highly-educated aristocracy essential, not only for government, but for the refinement of a people.
[After her winter in Edinburgh, my mother returned to Burntisland. Strange to say, she found there, in an illustrated Magazine of Fashions, the introduction to the great study of her life.]
* * * * *
I was often invited with my mother to the tea-parties given either by widows or maiden ladies who resided at Burntisland. A pool of commerce used to be keenly contested till a late hour at these parties, which bored me exceedingly, but I there became acquainted with a Miss Ogilvie, much younger than the rest, who asked me to go and see fancy works she was doing, and at which she was very clever. I went next day, and after admiring her work, and being told how it was done, she showed me a monthly magazine with coloured plates of ladies' dresses, charades, and puzzles. At the end of a page I read what appeared to me to be simply an arithmetical question; but on turning the page I was surprised to see strange looking lines mixed with letters, chiefly X'es and Y's, and asked; "What is that?" "Oh," said Miss Ogilvie, "it is a kind of arithmetic: they call it Algebra; but I can tell you nothing about it." And we talked about other things; but on going home I thought I would look if any of our books could tell me what was meant by Algebra.
In Robertson's "Navigation" I flattered myself that I had got precisely what I wanted; but I soon found that I was mistaken. I perceived, however, that astronomy did not consist in star-gazing, and as I persevered in studying the book for a time, I certainly got a dim view of several subjects which were useful to me afterwards. Unfortunately not one of our acquaintances or relations knew anything of science or natural history; nor, had they done so, should I have had courage to ask any of them a question, for I should have been laughed at. I was often very sad and forlorn; not a hand held out to help me.
My uncle and aunt Charters took a house at Burntisland for the summer, and the Miss Melville I have already mentioned came to pay them a visit. She painted miniatures, and from seeing her at work, I took a fancy to learn to draw, and actually wasted time in copying prints; but this circumstance enabled me to get elementary books on Algebra and Geometry without asking questions of any one, as will be explained afterwards. The rest of the summer I spent in playing on the piano and learning Greek enough to read Xenophon and part of Herodotus; then we prepared to go to Edinburgh.
My mother was so much afraid of the sea that she never would cross the Firth except in a boat belonging to a certain skipper who had served in the Navy and lost a hand; he had a hook fastened on the stump to enable him to haul ropes. My brother and I were tired of the country, and one sunny day we persuaded my mother to embark. When we came to the shore, the skipper said, "I wonder that the leddy boats to-day, for though it is calm here under the lee of the land, there is a stiff breeze outside." We made him a sign to hold his tongue, for we knew this as well as he did. Our mother went down to the cabin and remained silent and quiet for a time; but when we began to roll and be tossed about, she called out to the skipper, "George! this is an awful storm, I am sure we are in great danger. Mind how you steer; remember, I trust in you!" He laughed, and said, "Dinna trust in me, leddy; trust in God Almighty." Our mother, in perfect terror, called out, "Dear me! is it come to that?" We burst out laughing, skipper and all.
Nasmyth, an exceedingly good landscape painter, had opened an academy for ladies in Edinburgh, a proof of the gradual improvement which was taking place in the education of the higher classes; my mother, very willingly allowed me to attend it. The class was very full. I was not taught to draw, but looked on while Nasmyth painted; then a picture was given me to copy, the master correcting the faults. Though I spoilt canvas, I had made some progress by the end of the season. Mr. Nasmyth, besides being a good artist, was clever, well-informed, and had a great deal of conversation. One day I happened to be near him while he was talking to the Ladies Douglas about perspective. He said, "You should study Euclid's Elements of Geometry; the foundation not only of perspective, but of astronomy and all mechanical science." Here, in the most unexpected manner, I got the information I wanted, for I at once saw that it would help me to understand some parts of Robertson's "Navigation;" but as to going to a bookseller and asking for Euclid the thing was impossible! Besides I did not yet know anything definite about Algebra, so no more could be done at that time; but I never lost sight of an object which had interested me from the first.
I rose early, and played four or five hours, as usual, on the piano, and had lessons from Corri, an Italian, who taught carelessly, and did not correct a habit I had of thumping so as to break the strings; but I learned to tune a piano and mend the strings, as there was no tuner at Burntisland. Afterwards I got over my bad habit and played the music then in vogue: pieces by Pleyel, Clementi, Steibelt, Mozart, and Beethoven, the last being my favourite to this day. I was sometimes accompanied on the violin by Mr. Thomson, the friend of Burns; more frequently by Stabilini; but I was always too shy to play before people, and invariably played badly when obliged to do so, which vexed me.
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The prejudice against the theatre had been very great in Scotland, and still existed among the rigid Calvinists. One day, when I was fourteen or fifteen, on going into the drawing-room, an old man sitting beside my mother rose and kissed me, saying, "I am one of your mother's oldest friends." It was Home, the author of the tragedy of "Douglas." He was obliged to resign his living in the kirk for the scandal of having had his play acted in the theatre in Edinburgh, and some of his clerical friends were publicly rebuked for going to see it. Our family was perfectly liberal in all these matters. The first time I had ever been in a theatre I went with my father to see "Cymbeline." I had never neglected Shakespeare, and when our great tragedians, Mrs. Siddons and her brother, John Kemble, came for a short time to act in Edinburgh, I could think of nothing else. They were both remarkably handsome, and, notwithstanding the Scotch prejudice, the theatre was crowded every night. It was a misfortune to me that my mother never would go into society during the absence of my father, nor, indeed, at any time, except, perhaps, to a dinner party; but I had no difficulty in finding a chaperone, as we knew many people. I used to go to the theatre in the morning, and ask to see the plan of the house for the evening, that I might know which ladies I could accompany to their boxes. Of course I paid for my place. Our friends were so kind that I saw these great artists, as well as Charles Kemble, Young, and Bannister, in "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Othello," "Coriolanus," "The Gamester," &c.
It was greatly to the honour of the British stage that all the principal actors, men and women, were of excellent moral character, and much esteemed. Many years afterwards, when Mrs. Siddons was an old woman, I drank tea with her, and heard her read Milton and Shakespeare. Her daughter told us to applaud, for she had been so much accustomed to it in the theatre that she could not read with spirit without this expression of approbation.
My mother was pleased with my music and painting, and, although she did not go to the theatre herself, she encouraged me to go. She was quite of the old school with regard to the duties of women, and very particular about her table; and, although we were obliged to live with rigid economy, our food was of the best quality, well dressed, and neatly served, for she could tell the cook exactly what was amiss when anything was badly cooked. She thought besides that some of the comfort of married life depended upon the table, so I was sent to a pastrycook for a short time every day, to learn the art of cookery. I had for companions Miss Moncreiff, daughter of Sir Henry Moncreiff Wellwood, a Scotch baronet of old family. She was older than I, pretty, pleasing, and one of the belles of the day. We were amused at the time, and afterwards made jellies and creams for little supper parties, then in fashion, though, as far as economy went, we might as well have bought them.
On returning to Burntisland, I played on the piano as diligently as ever, and painted several hours every day. At this time, however, a Mr. Craw came to live with us as tutor to my youngest brother, Henry. He had been educated for the kirk, was a fair Greek and Latin scholar, but, unfortunately for me, was no mathematician. He was a simple, good-natured kind of man, and I ventured to ask him about algebra and geometry, and begged him, the first time he went to Edinburgh, to buy me something elementary on these subjects, so he soon brought me "Euclid" and Bonnycastle's "Algebra," which were the books used in the schools at that time. Now I had got what I so long and earnestly desired. I asked Mr. Craw to hear me demonstrate a few problems in the first book of "Euclid," and then I continued the study alone with courage and assiduity, knowing I was on the right road. Before I began to read algebra I found it necessary to study arithmetic again, having forgotten much of it. I never was expert at addition, for, in summing up a long column of pounds, shillings, and pence, in the family account book, it seldom came out twice the same way. In after life I, of course, used logarithms for the higher branches of science.
I had to take part in the household affairs, and to make and mend my own clothes. I rose early, played on the piano, and painted during the time I could spare in the daylight hours, but I sat up very late reading Euclid. The servants, however, told my mother "It was no wonder the stock of candles was soon exhausted, for Miss Mary sat up reading till a very late hour;" whereupon an order was given to take away my candle as soon as I was in bed. I had, however, already gone through the first six books of Euclid, and now I was thrown on my memory, which I exercised by beginning at the first book, and demonstrating in my mind a certain number of problems every night, till I could nearly go through the whole. My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, "Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!"
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In our younger days my brother Sam and I kept various festivals: we burnt nuts, ducked for apples, and observed many other of the ceremonies of Halloween, so well described by Burns, and we always sat up to hail the new year on New Year's Eve. When in Edinburgh we sometimes disguised ourselves as "guisarts," and went about with a basket full of Christmas cakes called buns and shortbread, and a flagon of "het-pint" or posset, to wish our friends a "Happy New Year." At Christmas time a set of men, called the Christmas Wakes, walked slowly through the streets during the midnight hours, playing our sweet Scotch airs on flageolets. I remember the sound from a distance fell gently on my sleeping ear, swelled softly, and died away in distance again, a passing breeze of sweet sound. It was very pleasing; some thought it too sad.
My grandfather was intimate with the Boswells of Balmuto, a bleak place a few miles to the north of Burntisland. Lord Balmuto, a Scotch judge, who was then proprietor, had been a dancing companion of my mother's, and had a son and two daughters, the eldest a nice girl of my age, with whom I was intimate, so I gladly accepted an invitation to visit them at Balmuto. Lord Balmuto was a large coarse-looking man, with black hair and beetling eyebrows. Though not vulgar, he was passionate, and had a boisterous manner. My mother and her sisters gave him the nickname of the "black bull of Norr'away," in allusion to the northern position of Balmuto. Mrs. Boswell was gentle and ladylike. The son had a turn for chemistry, and his father took me to see what they called the Laboratory. What a laboratory might be I knew not, as I had never heard the word before, but somehow I did not like the look of the curiously-shaped glass things and other apparatus, so when the son put a substance on the table, and took a hammer, his father saying, "Now you will hear a fine report," I ran out of the room, saying, "I don't like reports." Sure enough there was a very loud report, followed by a violent crash, and on going into the room again, we found that the son had been knocked down, the father was trembling from head to foot, and the apparatus had been smashed to pieces. They had had a narrow escape. Miss Boswell led a dull life, often passing the winter with her mother in that solitary place, Balmuto; and when in Edinburgh, she was much kept down by her father, and associated little with people of her own age and station. The consequence was that she eloped with her drawing-master, to the inexpressible rage and mortification of her father, who had all the Scotch pride of family and pure blood.
This year we remained longer in the country than usual, and I went to spend Christmas with the Oswalds of Dunnikeir. The family consisted of a son, a colonel in the army, and three daughters, the youngest about my age, a bold horsewoman. She had talent, became a good Greek and Latin scholar, and was afterwards married to the Earl of Elgin. More than seventy years after this I had a visit from the Dean of Westminster and Lady Augusta Stanley, her daughter; a very charming person, who told me about her family, of which I had heard nothing for years. I was very happy to see the Dean, one of the most liberal and distinguished members of the Church of England, and son of my old friend the late Bishop of Norwich.
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When I returned to Edinburgh Mr. Nasmyth was much pleased with the progress I had made in painting, for, besides having copied several landscapes he had lent me, I had taken the outline of a print and coloured it from a storm I saw at the end of our garden. This picture I still possess.
Dr. Blair, minister of the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the well-known author and professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the University, an intimate friend of my grandfather's, had heard of my turn for painting, and asked my mother to let him see some of my pictures. A few of the best were sent to him, and were returned after a few days accompanied by a long letter from the old gentleman, pointing out what he admired most in each picture. I was delighted with the letter, and not a little vain of the praise.
LETTER FROM DR. BLAIR TO MARY FAIRFAX.
MY DEAR MISS FAIRFAX,
This comes to return you a thousand thanks for the pleasure and entertainment I have had from your landscape paintings. I had them placed in the best light I could contrive in my drawing-room, and entertained myself a good while every day looking at them and admiring their beauties, which always grew upon me. I intend to return them to you to-morrow, or rather on the beginning of next week; and as they were taken particular care of, I hope they shall not appear to have suffered any injury.
I have exhibited them to several people, some of whom were excellent judges, whom I brought on purpose to view them—Lady Miller, the Solicitor and Mrs. Blair, his lady, Dr. Hill, Miss Anne Ker of Nisbet, and a variety of ladies. All joined in praising them highly. The penserosa figure caught the highest admiration of any, from the gracefulness of the figure and attitude, and the boldness and propriety of the scenery. The two morning and evening views—one of Lochness, and the other of Elcho Castle—which make fine companions, and which I always placed together, were also highly admired. Each of them had their different partizans, and I myself was for a good while undetermined which of them to prefer. At last, I found the placidity of the scene in Elcho Castle, with the cottages among the trees, dwelt most on my imagination, though the gaiety and brightness of the morning sky in the other has also exquisite beauty. On the whole, I am persuaded that your taste and powers of execution in that art are uncommonly great, and that if you go on you must excel highly, and may go what length you please. Landscape painting has been always a great favourite with me; and you have really contributed much to my entertainment. As I thought you might wish to know my sentiments, after your paintings had been a little considered, I was led to write you these lines (in which I assure you there is nothing flattering), before sending back your pieces to you. With best compliments to Lady Fairfax, believe me,
Your obliged and most obedient Servant, HUGH BLAIR. ARGYLL SQUARE, 11th April (probably) 1796.
A day or two after this a Mrs. Ramsay, a rich proud widow, a relation of my mother's, came with her daughter, who was an heiress, to pay us a morning visit. Looking round the room she asked who had painted the pictures hung up on the walls. My mother, who was rather proud of them, said they were painted by me. "I am glad," said Mrs. Ramsay, "that Miss Fairfax has any kind of talent that may enable her to win her bread, for everyone knows she will not have a sixpence." It was a very severe hit, because it was true. Had it been my lot to win my bread by painting, I fear I should have fared badly, but I never should have been ashamed of it; on the contrary, I should have been very proud had I been successful. I must say the idea of making money had never entered my head in any of my pursuits, but I was intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low.
Not long after Mrs. Ramsay's visit to my mother, Miss Ramsay went to visit the Dons, at Newton Don, a pretty place near Kelso. Miss Ramsay and the three Miss Dons were returning from a long walk; they had reached the park of Newton Don, when they heard the dinner bell ring, and fearing to be too late for dinner, instead of going round, they attempted to cross a brook which runs through the park. One of the Miss Dons stumbled on the stepping-stones and fell into the water. Her two sisters and Miss Ramsay, trying to save her, fell in one after another. The three Miss Dons were drowned, but Miss Ramsay, who wore a stiff worsted petticoat, was buoyed up by it and carried down stream, where she caught by the branch of a tree and was saved. She never recovered the shock of the dreadful scene.
[Footnote 3: Many people evidently think the science of astronomy consists entirely in observing the stars, for I have been frequently asked if I passed my nights looking through a telescope, and I have astonished the enquirers by saying I did not even possess one.]
[Footnote 4: Nasmyth told a lady still alive who took lessons from him in her youth, that the cleverest young lady he ever taught was Miss Mary Fairfax.]
EDINBURGH SUPPER PARTIES—TOUR IN THE HIGHLANDS—MUTINY IN THE FLEET—BATTLE OF CAMPERDOWN.
[By this time my mother was grown up, and extremely pretty. All those who knew her speak of her rare and delicate beauty, both of face and figure. They called her the "Rose of Jedwood." She kept her beauty to the last day of her life, and was a beautiful old woman, as she had been a lovely young one. She used to say, laughing, that "it was very hard no one ever thought of painting her portrait so long as she was young and pretty." After she became celebrated, various likenesses were taken of her, by far the best of which are a beautiful bust, modelled at Rome in 1844 by Mr. Lawrence Macdonald, and a crayon drawing by Mr. James Swinton, done in London in 1848. My mother always looked considerably younger than her age; even at ninety, she looked younger than some who were her juniors by several years. This was owing, no doubt, principally to her being small and delicate in face and figure, but also, I think, to the extreme youthfulness and freshness of both her heart and mind, neither of which ever grew old. It certainly was not due to a youthful style of dress, for she had perfect taste in such matters, as well as in other things; and although no one spent less thought or money on it than she, my mother was at all times both neatly and becomingly dressed. She never was careless; and her room, her papers, and all that belonged to her were invariably in the most beautiful order. My mother's recollections of this period of her life are as follows:—]
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At that time Edinburgh was really the capital of Scotland; most of the Scotch families of distinction spent the winter there, and we had numerous acquaintances who invited me to whatever gaiety was going on. As my mother refused to go into society when my father was at sea, I had to find a chaperon; but I never was at a loss, for we were somehow related to the Erskine family, and the Countess of Buchan, an amiable old lady, was always ready to take charge of me.
It was under Lady Buchan's care that I made my first appearance at a ball, and my first dancing partner was the late Earl of Minto, then Mr. Gilbert Elliot, with whom I was always on very friendly terms, as well as with his family. Many other ladies were willing to take charge of me, but a chaperon was only required for the theatre, and concerts, and for balls in the public assembly rooms; at private balls the lady of the house was thought sufficient. Still, although I was sure to know everybody in the room, or nearly so, I liked to have some one with whom to enter and to sit beside. Few ladies kept carriages, but went in sedan chairs, of which there were stands in the principal streets. Ladies were generally attended by a man-servant, but I went alone, as our household consisted of two maid-servants only. My mother knew, however, that the Highlanders who carried me could be trusted. I was fond of dancing, and never without partners, and often came home in bright daylight. The dances were reels, country dances, and sometimes Sir Roger de Coverley.
[At this period, although busily engaged in studying painting at Nasmyth's academy, practising the piano five hours a day, and pursuing her more serious studies zealously, my mother went a good deal into society, for Edinburgh was a gay, sociable place, and many people who recollect her at that time, and some who were her dancing partners, have told me she was much admired, and a great favourite. They said she had a graceful figure, below the middle size, a small head, well set on her shoulders, a beautiful complexion, bright, intelligent eyes, and a profusion of soft brown hair. Besides the various occupations I have mentioned, she made all her own dresses, even for balls. These, however, unlike the elaborate productions of our day, were simply of fine India muslin, with a little Flanders lace. She says of her life in Edinburgh:—]