Chapter 6

From Ellen.

“Dear, ingenuous, ingenious, and unhappy sister, how easy, did not my heart bleed for you, and did not yours evidently rise in opposition to every sophistical position, how triumphantly so ever it seemed to be brought forward by the powers of your acute and cultivated mind; how easy would it be to convince you of error: dare I add — of studied sophistry, of wilful, of indulged error.

“While I cannot but shudder at the avowed principles on which your ill-assorted and fatal marriage was formed, I should [119] yet hold myself criminal if I forebore to urge upon you, that a dereliction of principle and duty in one instance affords an ill excuse for the breach of them in another; and that it is not by adding fault to fault, by heaping, I had almost said, crime upon crime, that we can expect to expiate, or be exonerated for, the past.

“Whatever might be the motives by which you were induced to bestow your hand on Mr. Wycherly, he is not the less your husband; since with that hand you pledged to him duty and faith, in the presence of the Supreme Being, and with the laws of your country to witness and sanction that pledge. You promised to take him ‘for better and for worse’; to be his solace in sickness and in health; to share with him every vicissitude of life; and, in all cases, in all circumstances, to afford him all the aid and consolation in your power to bestow. [120]

“I will not ask, whether, on either side, those vows have been fulfilled? But, now, declining in fortunes, in health, in life, has the husband no claim to all that a wife can perform, how unwisely so ever chosen that wife may have been: and is she not imperiously bound, not merely by selfish policy or cold decorum, but, by every obligation, every law, religious, moral and civil, to fulfil all that remains of the obligations which she, without compulsion, without either deceiving herself, or being deceived, voluntarily and deliberately — alas! even against warning, took upon herself?

“You are returning, you tell me, reluctantly returning to your forsaken home, from which you have so long absented yourself. Hasten then before it is too late; hasten, with feelings and with resolutions very different from those which dictated the letter before me, if you would escape that most poignant of all miseries, self-accusation and unavailing remorse. [121]

“Dear infatuated Charlotte, how you misuse the powers with which you have been so liberally endowed. If, for indolently suffering our faculties to rust (or, in Scripture language, folding our talent in a napkin) we may be called to a solemn account, what may we expect will be the fate of those by whom they are consciously and wilfully perverted?

“It is true, that good and evil, humanly so termed, are in the plans of Providence, of which our intellect can take in but so small a part, apparently blended: that is, man, in this life, this perhaps first step in a series of infinite existence, is not made perfect: mistaking his true happiness, he wanders in error, till experience, or it may be suffering, shall enlighten his spirit. ‘The rock must be convulsed ere it produces the diamond:’ a woe is nevertheless denounced against those by whom offences shall come. [122]

“I will not here enquire whether the plans of an infinitely powerful, wise and benevolent intelligence, can terminate otherwise than in ultimate and consummate happiness to all: but, even with this glorious perspective, who would not wish to shorten the period of probation, to rise and, not sink on quitting this world, in the scale of existence and enjoyment? To suffer here a few years, a few months, weeks, days, or even hours, is, to a sensitive being, sufficiently painful: how appalling then the thought of more acute, more protracted sorrow, or degradation; of conflicting through ages, through indefinite duration, with misery and vice but to return from reflections which are not mere hypothesis, and in the support of which much both from reason and scripture might be urged, to the subject more immediately claiming my attention.

“Of luxury and dissipation, you say, art and science are the offspring; and, triumphantly quoting Mandeville, advance a [123] a step farther, and aver, with that dangerous because ill understood writer, that private vices are public benefits.

“That the wealth of a nation, a commercial and manufacturing nation, may receive and encrease from the luxury of its inhabitants, which, ever craving, affords a stimulus to ingenuity, to industry, to the inventive arts, is a position that I will not attempt to dispute; and more than this I trust, was not meant by the author of the Fable of the Bees: but though wealth may in some sense, be termed power; are wealth and power synonimous with virtue and happiness? and has their progress always been simultaneous and uniform? Luxury, to a certain degree, as an extension and general diffusion of the decent comforts of social life, and even as connected with refinement of feeling and of mind, is, I grant you, a good to be desired. But, like all other things, it has its limits, beyond which it cannot with impunity pass; an observation that may be [124] extended to commerce itself, that source of freedom, of improved civilization, of all that gives dignity and value to life, — these are truths attested by history in every page.

“I descend from general to particular remarks on a letter by which I have been so variously affected. I will not, however flattering they may be, accept your compliments to my sensibility at the expense of my principles. That my lot is most favoured, though I trust not unique, I am gratefully disposed to acknowledge: but yet, as a wife and a mother, I am not without sources of deep anxiety: my Neville, though restored to a family of which he is the centre and the animating spirit, has still a varying flush on his cheek, a humid brightness in his eyes, an atmospherical tenderness of constitution, that promises not length of years. Yet, with those apprehensions, that might, otherwise, I own, dash with bitterness the cup of joy that I gratefully raise to my lips, hope is mingled; [125] a hope which has for its foundation his present temperate, easy, equal tenor of life; to say nothing of the solicitudes of affection watching constantly over an existence so dear and valuable.

“But, should my fortitude be eventually destined to struggle with that most severe of trials, I should not, I humbly trust, allow myself to sink in helpless despondency; but, remembering that I had other duties to perform, that my children had a claim on my redoubled cares, that, whether contemplated with the eye of reason or of faith, it would be vain to expect in this life a scene of unmingled good; I should not dare to repine at sharing the universal lot — much less venture to call in question that omniscient power, by whom the universe is ordered and directed aright. Nature, it is true, would assert her powerful rights; but philosophy, which compels our submission to what is unavoidable, to an unyielding, a stern necessity, would, I [126] trust, mark their limits; while religion, by its cheering assurances of the inseparable connexion between infinite wisdom and goodness, would pour in its divine consolations; would teach —

‘That this dark state

In wayward passions lost, and vain pursuits,

This infancy of being, cannot prove

The final issue of the works of God,

For ever rising with the rising mind.’

“Do not call mine a singular mind and character, and a singular destiny, because, surrounded by the great and gay world, you have not allowed yourself leisure to look into the quiet circles of family affection, of domestic peace. Many happy families have I seen even in the metropolis, where temptation to seek pleasure from home more particularly abounds: of many domestic virtues and endearments have I been the delighted witness.

“The gay and fashionable, like certain [127] bigoted religionists, make to themselves a little Goshen, where light only shines, and decorate that with the name of the world, which is merely a contracted artificial theatre, in which all is factitious and delusive, calculated wholly for stage effect. ‘They are dogs without!’ say the bigots, with exclusive pretension and spiritual pride: with similar self-complacence, originating in a similar source, though somewhat differently modified, does the fashionist disdain as canaille (a word imported from the continent with other silly vanities, and for which, in free and happy England, where the dignity of human nature and of reason are respected, we have no appropriate translation) all not included in his own petty sphere.

“It is only among the varied ranks of society, of social and civil life, that a real knowledge of the world, that is of human nature and character, can be acquired. Intelligence must be the result of stronger pursuits, of warmer feelings, than a life of idle [128] amusement affords: every faculty of the mind must, like every organ of the body, receive from vigorous exercise its healthy tone.

“My Charlotte herself, in the letter before me, affords an illustration of what has been observed. ‘The cup seems luscious to the taste’ says she ‘but its dregs are vapid: the gratifications of vanity, even in their highest zest, exhausted without filling my heart.

“Exchange then, dearest sister, pursuits so unworthy of your heart and your mind: try, at least, whether in the fulfillment of duties a more solid recompense is not to be found. Dissipation, amusement, heartless splendour may suffice for the real canaille, but will ever be found insufficient for an understanding and character like yours.

“Leave these idle pursuits, these idler distinctions, to such as have no power to distinguish themselves otherwise, to those [129] who can take no flight beyond them. Let the moth hover round the taper till his flimsy substance shrivels in the flame; let the painted butterfly waste his short summer-day, sporting on the wing of zephyr over flowery beds; and select for your model the industrious bee, who, foreseeing that a winter will arrive, uses the season of action in accumulating stores whereby its rigours may be softened or endured.

“The spring and summer of life flit swiftly away; but, when not abused, their blossoms will be succeeded by fruits richer and scarcely less fragrant or fair, affording for the winter a solace and supply. Oh! how lovely, how venerable, is virtuous, wise, benevolent old age! Then indeed is the hoary head a crown of glory! From the reverse of the portrait, we turn pained, with mingled pity, disgust, and contempt.

“My sister, my friend, worthy of better things, of a better fate! a crisis seems approaching [130], that before the chains of habit are rivetted beyond the power of unlocking, may yet redeem the past. Not midway has thy sand yet run — Stop, reflect, retrace thy steps, be wise and yet be happy!

“Ellen.” [131]