Skip to main content

Letters From the Great

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 1808-1811. Centenary Edition. Vol. II. Edited by H. J. C. Grierson and Others. London: Constable and Company, Limited. 18s. Letters of Robert Browning. Collected by Thomas J. Wise. Edited with an Introduction and notes by Thurman L. Hood. New Haven: Yale University Press. $5.00. Letters of Charles Dickens to the Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Edited by Charles C. Osborne. New York: E. P. Dutton Company. $2.50.

Among the essays I have read, I recall several—now nameless and near forgot—on “the art of letter writing.” Then, as now, I never understood the phrase. Truly, letter writing can share that excellence which lies in whatever an artist writes, but, it seems to me, the letter written to be sent and read has seldom those formal phrases we ascribe to art: a utilitarian letter from one individual to another is seldom complete, round, and beautiful; a shapely, fashioned letter suggests the self-conscious, notwithstanding Chesterfield, much lauded, to the contrary.

Readable, necessary letters furnish us what Croce calls the allotrious materials of literary study. They offer background information, setting, social history, facts, biographical details, meanings the author had for what he wrote, but they belong to the tool writing of the world and they do not seem to me to be art by aim or by effect, although they may often charm us. For the rest, the patterned letters, I distrust them above all others. They smack of the posing writer, eager to be a fine fellow at the expense of his correspondent. Such people have one eye fixed upon posterity. They are suave but on parade. No, give me the hurried, worried note or the enthusiasm of a friend. Artless he is, and incoherent, but honest, alive, worth listening to because then I know him as he is.

By good fortune, three new volumes of letters, by Browning, by Dickens, and by Scott, are utilitarian enough to be delightful. All three seem unaffected, very much themselves, striking no attitudes of graceless distinction. These English authors merely show in their letters traits of character I have commonly ascribed to them as authors. For this reason, I should call Browning, Dickens, and Scott admirable letter writers; what graces their letters show grow out of writing well the letters they had to write. There is no sign of self-consciousness, even though Scott is formal after the manner of his day.

Walter Scott appears in his letters as a practical-minded gentleman, a good friend to those like Lady Abercorn, politically useful, and a bitter enemy, as in his quarrel with Constable. As his books suggest, he admires the romantically fine and the ideally grand; easily swayed by sentiment in plays or in heroic scenes, he manufactures his own poetry with an eye to the market. The times being favorable, he will write “The Lady of the Lake” when he is certain of an audience. Never does he show that near-ecstatic possession which seems, at times, to drive Blake and Shelley to poetry. In these letters, Scott shows no artistic taste of a high order in his enthusiastic reception of Joanna Baillic’s sentimentally “classical-heroical” dramas to which he and his patriotic friends lost their hearts. He lived with his eye on the main chance, tritely admiring, nearly fawning in his address to people of birth and position who could help him to political office.

Of this honest, hard-working, moral British poet his letters give a true picture; serious and idealistic in his way, truly enthusiastic over folk poetry, he shows a love of literature, a romantic enthusiasm for the quaint and strange, although he seldom sees real people around him as the materials for poetry. Closely in touch with Edinburgh life, he is yet free from the lyric poet’s sympathy with man, “his brother.”

This Centenary Edition is admirably prepared, a model, it seems to me, for editors. Particularly rich are the footnotes that identify obscure correspondents and give the gist and phrasing of the letters Scott answers; in this way, the life of Scott and the continuity of the letters become pleasantly apparent; and the editorial emendations, often ironical, are keen and diverting; they suggest an editorial point of view rare when such professional editions as this are prepared for the press. I am sorry that the edition contains no index; in following through the Constable quarrel and the remarks about Anna Seward and about Scott’s 1811 appointment, I found that I wished often to leaf back and forth more certainly than I was able. A list of persons referred to would be a critical help; the list of correspondents is not enough. At times, too, the cross references of a good index would make of the letters a more readable, understanding picture of Walter Scott. Some of the notes, quoting sources for literary allusions given rather fully in the text itself, seem to me to have little point.

In the “Letters of Robert Browning,” this Victorian appeals to me through the force of what he writes. Warmhearted, he enjoys his own life; an enthusiastic, discriminating reader of poetry, he brings to his work and to that of others a sympathy and a quick, fine mind: surely genius shows through the pages of Mr. Hood’s volume as it never appears in the letters of Scott. Browning’s popular character of a sentimental hero in, by now, a tedious love story is given no support by these letters: in his relationships with his wife he is tender, concerned for her happiness and health, but a sensible husband; his marriage forms a satisfying background for his life’s work. Elizabeth Barrett’s affectionate companionship stands implied by letter after letter, but after the story of her death in a note to Sarianna, Browning’s letters gain rather than lose interest, not merely because of the rich literary talk with friends but also because Browning touches more topics of general interest; the necessary domestic gossip gives place to subjects more lastingly interesting to the reader.

This is not only a fascinating volume, but it is also a useful addition to Victorian studies, a book full of specific detail that rounds out Browning’s character—alive and curious—that we guess at from his poems. The editing of the letters is scholarly and full: the notes have less of flavor and discrimination than those in the Grierson volume, but they are equally intelligent and illuminating, relating the letter substance to literary studies of Browning and his times. A full index of names furnishes a unifying device. It is mean-spirited, I know, to suggest that the grouping of notes at the end of the book is an editorial mistake, but so I find it; not only is the position annoying if one tries to read so large a book carefully, but the scheme of reference by year and index number makes reference difficult.

The Baroness Burdett-Coutts, although her life brought her “a fame second only to that of Queen Victoria,” as a rich woman and a humanitarian, receives the principal attention in the newly published fragments from letters which Charles Dickens wrote to her. Dickens wrote them on those occasions when he found distressing cases he felt she might relieve or when he assisted her in her own projects for reform —projects like homes for fallen women, refuges for poor artists, and model tenements. The editor, Charles C. Osborne, one-time secretary to the Baroness, selects from letters Dickens sent her those extracts which best support the picture of her noble character which Mr. Osborne himself outlines clearly but somewhat palely in his abstract introduction. The fragments are often incomplete in what they imply or half tell; facts are filled in by interpolated paragraphs and sentences by the editor; often the occasion is trivial and the reason for including the selection seems vague.

Yet Dickens stands out, the brightest letter writer of the three. Lively, quick to feel sorry for others, sentimentally hopeful about schemes for reform, acting the fool by talk about his dead raven who stole the carpenter’s hammer and by telling the Baroness her handwriting means anything and nothing, he takes the occasion away from his rich friend: she becomes a mere chance reformer; he, always something of the showman, cuts a fine figure as he must have done when, half-contemptuous, half-pleased, he shook hands with ill-at-ease Americans. For me, the fragments are insufficient; I should like to have more of those chopped-off letters. He has the gift of vividly presenting what was vivid to him. Models on a church steps, clean, poor children, a rough trip by sea—when he pictures what he saw, that life lives again. Experience was enough; its abstract value did not always have to show itself: the less philosopher, the more true novelist he. This being Dickens, it is not surprising that “Copperfield” and “(treat Expectations” overshadow the preaching novels of his own time. It is not surprising, cither, that his fresh and lively letters turn our minds to Dickens rather than to the good and zealous Baroness whose life works this brief volume outlines, a volume which makes a new though slight addition to Victorian studies now at hand.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading