Wives, Queens, Distant Princesses

John Bayley

  • The Bondage of Love: A Life of Mrs Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Molly Lefebure
    Gollancz, 287 pp, £15.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 575 03871 3
  • Jane Welsh Carlyle by Virginia Surtees
    Michael Russell, 294 pp, £12.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 85955 134 2

Suppose Mr and Mrs Coleridge to be young SDP yuppies today, who have asked us to dinner. What impression of each should we get? Of an amiable but very silly young man who talked too much and put on a great show of domestic warmth and solidarity? Of a capable and animated young woman, witty and elegant without being a show-off; devoted to the husband without making a display of it; admirable cook, makes all her own clothes? That would be about right. Her radical chic would have been much the same as his, but we might have the impression that it was a more settled part of her life-style and her way of facing society. Both made considerable social efforts, anxious to charm, particularly prospective employers and men in the media. Signs of strain in the marriage? Rather conspicuously absent, except for young Sam’s general tendency to overdo things: but she handled him sensibly. Child on the way. Outlook bright.

Our impression would not be wrong, but it would certainly be incomplete. We should have no means of knowing how deeply young Sam was hooked on the hard stuff; nor would we attach significance to the fact that Sara dropped the coffee tray, in what seemed an uncharacteristic outbreak of clumsiness, and slightly scalded her husband’s foot. The bohemian comfort would not have revealed how poor they were, and how uncertain Sam’s future in journalism. Above all, we should have no means of knowing they had recently met an odious couple called the Wordsworths, a brother and sister, about whom Sam was wildly enthusiastic but whom Sarah correctly divined to be a dire threat.

What was so objectionable about these Wordsworths? Well, to begin with they were so quietly but insufferably pleased with themselves, so convinced that they represented sensibility in its highest form. Then William was always stealing Sam’s ideas and appropriating his contacts, with a never-failing air of disinterested benevolence, and in the sacred name of friendship. Robert Southey, Sam’s great friend, Sara’s brother-in-law, another promising young man in the media, had already rumbled the Wordsworths. ‘Wordsworth and his sister,’ he was later to observe ‘who pride themselves on having no selfishness, are of all human beings whom I have ever known the most intensely selfish. The one thing to which W would sacrifice all others is his own reputation.’ That was about right too, making allowance for a little professional jealousy on young Robert’s part. Even Tom Poole, that sweet young man who lived with his mother and had a steady job in his father’s business, distrusted the Wordsworths. True, Tom had a bit of a gay crush on Sam and wanted to keep him to himself, but he was a real family friend, always ready with the odd spot of cash, kindness itself to Sara, who was very fond of him and whom he admired in a tactfully chivalrous sort of way.

But the real bitch was the sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. Do you know the sort of thing she did? She was mad about Sam, of course. She and her brother used to carry him off for long walks, never asking Sara to join them – in any case she was far too busy and had better things to do, with the baby coming too – and sometimes they got back wet through. In which case, as another sharp-eyed young friend called De Quincey noticed, ‘Dorothy with a laughing gaiety and evidently unconscious of any liberty she was taking’, would run up to Sara’s wardrobe and put on her dresses without even bothering to ask if she could, and then ‘make herself merry with her own unceremoniousness’. I ask you! And ‘unconscious of any liberty she was taking’ – hang that for a tale! Poor Sara was intensely proud of her clothes, made with great economy and loving care. How could Dorothy behave so? Intensely jealous, of course, for Sam – whom they all called ‘STC’ in a sycophantic chorus, as he hated his Christian name – was blissfully happy in bed with Sara and never looked at Dorothy in that sort of way. And to turn the knife in the wound Sam had acquired such a lot of Wordsworthian self-righteousness, and if Sara spoke out at all would accuse her of being ‘narrow-minded’.

Well, well. That was how it might have struck a contemporary, either then or now. Lyrical Ballads and Journals and things – their fame was all to come, and it was how the living individuals struck their friends that mattered. It is an odd thing that behaviour in domestic affairs – selfishness, exploitation, good and bad motives, what we want and what we have to settle for – hardly alters over the centuries: what do change are the fashions in feeling and outlook which determine how it is regarded. There are people in any age, like Jane Austen, or Tom Poole, who see things pretty steadily and whole, and without necessarily being censorious have a good idea of what constitutes decent conduct and bad conduct, selfishness, thoughtlessness, blind lack of consideration, all masquerading as genius or enlightenment or sensitivity. Molly Lefebure has a pretty good idea herself. In her previous Coleridge book, A Bondage of Opium, she told the story from the point of view of drug addiction: now she tells it from the point of view of two young people getting married, and why it was not, on the whole, a success, although as in many stormy marriages the partners retained a dogged underlying intimacy through all their vicissitudes. What does not come in, of course, is the genius, and its products: it would be right to suppose, too, that Jane Austen would not have thought such things as genius and poetry counted in the general scale of human conduct and doing one’s duty. Nor would Dr Johnson. It was the Romantics who were to become a moral law unto themselves, although, to be fair to them, Wordsworth and Coleridge would no more have seen things in that light than did the virtuous brother-in-law Robert Southey.

It is, in fact, curious that, as Molly Lefebure intimates, Jane Austen would probably have got on with Sara Coleridge (née Fricker), seen her as very much her own kind of person, observed her essential likeness to both Elinor and Marianne, to Sense and Sensibility. The Fricker sisters – five of them – were Bath-type girls, coming from a respectable family with an improvident father who had gone bankrupt. In genteel poverty they remained cheerful and indomitable, and Sara in particular was avidly curious of all that was going in the world of fashion, literature, ideas. She read Mary Wollstonecraft and was an ardent but rational feminist, a position she adhered to staunchly throughout her life. Snobs and gossips put it about that Coleridge and Southey had been ensnared by two designing shopgirls – ‘Milliners from Bath’ was Byron’s phrase, implying they were not much better than genteel prostitutes. Except that poverty compelled them to make their own and other people’s clothes, nothing could have been more slanderous.

It was Southey who introduced Coleridge to the Fricker sisters. At that stage both young men were in search of wives to carry off as Pantisocratic helpmates to the banks of the Susquehanna. Both were sure that love was quite beside the point: all that mattered was to find two amenable young women who would work loyally for the common cause and allow their minds to take the lofty imprint of those of their spouses. Southey and Coleridge and their friends romped through the theories and abstractions of the time like colts in a meadow. France was standing on the top of golden hours, human nature seeming born again, and was it any wonder that Dorothy should catch the prevailing intoxication and ‘make herself merry with her own unceremoniousness’? Her brother, after all, had been seducing a young lady in France, where he had lived in a lofty rapture, as he was now doing – though with different ambitions and intentions – with his sister at Alfoxden Park near Nether Stowey.

At all times of idealistic fervour it is the women who lose out. Where they are concerned, equality, in some absent-minded way, doesn’t seem to apply: the men are far too busy with more important matters to do anything but make use of them. The militants of 1968 were no different, in this respect, from the young men of 1796, though they were probably less high-minded. After Wordsworth and Coleridge had subsided into conventional habits and attitudes of mind their awareness of the women in their lives was one thing that didn’t have to change. And it is ironic that Sara was excluded from their souls’ conclave, not so much from her deficiencies of sensibility, or her busy attachment to home and child, but because her spirit was too independent, too argumentative, too much – as Coleridge shudderingly said – that of a ‘blue-stocking’. She received a uniformly bad press from the poets and their admirers and wives and families because she stuck too loyally to the idea of feminine enlightenment which they in their age were supposed to endorse. She did not join, like Dorothy and the Hutchinsons and most of their friends, in a collective act of worship of the male ego. Her assumption was more like what an admirer of Jane Austen’s was to call ‘intelligent love’.

Given these impossible discrepancies, as well as her own lively temper, she did her best to humour her husband. And in separation they remained warm friends, never more so than in Coleridge’s last years at Highgate. But apart from the opium problem, Coleridge’s amative requirements, or imagined requirements, were themselves impossible. The spoilt Benjamin of a large family, he luxuriated in tenderness; he loved to be loved; but the merest whiff of sensible criticism from those who loved him drove him frantic. It is an odd thing that the lovingly domestic poems of his which have been so much admired, like ‘Frost at Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, have, in fact, as much visionary unreality about them as ‘Christabel’ or ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘The Ancient Mariner’. They are, that is to say, self-indulgent, dream-creating rhapsodies, in which the poet feeds himself on his image of domestic bliss as if it were the milk of paradise. The actual irritations and adjustments of household life are nowhere, and in spite of the vivid felicities in them there is surely an overall quality of sickliness about these poems. Naturally, too, there is nothing of the real Sara in them. For his dream-girl Coleridge had to invent someone quite other – no uncommon thing, but he carried it to bizarre lengths, throwing the same cloak of sickliness over his worship of the plain, pop-eyed and highly reluctant Sara Hutchinson, who had not the least desire to be his ‘Asra’, but much preferred her snug subordinate place in the choir which sang Wordsworth’s praises. The Abyssinian maid would have been a more suitable figure of romance.

Poor Sara Fricker could hardly have avoided trying to become a figure of romance for Coleridge when he carried out his first extremely unromantic wooing of her in Bristol – mostly by letter, with long gaps. Having committed himself, he desperately tried to get out of it; and no doubt it would have been better for Sarah if he had; but when finally dragged by the scruff to Bristol by Southey he suddenly fell madly in love with her and she with him. For a time they became each other’s romantic ideal. Ironically again, it would have been far better if Sara had married Southey: there was attachment between them but Coleridge suddenly got in the way and Southey settled for her younger sister. When brother and sister-in-law were sharing Greta Hall later in life, they both seem to have regretted missing each other, and Southey had some hard things to say about the deceased wife’s sister act. On the other hand, one doubts Sara ever really regretted becoming Mrs Coleridge, although she used to talk in later life about what a strange lottery marriage was.

What was Thomas Carlyle’s figure of romance? One thing that can be said for the Romantic poets is that they were not snobs: their images of love were of violets by mossy stones rather than grand society hostesses. Carlyle looks forward to the style of romance familiar to Proust or Browning or Rilke. His wife Jane had other tastes, preferring the dashing and magnificent physical bravura of Edward Irving. Virginia Surtees has done a delicate and admirable job of investigating her life, and his, in terms of their external relations and dream commitments. Carlyle’s infatuation with Harriet Baring has something touching about it and exemplifies a romantic phenomenon that became stronger as the century went on: the self-made man’s worship – not necessarily from afar – of the behaviour of the rich and great. Even Jane was dazzled at the Ashburton Ball. ‘It was an additional idea for life, to have seen such a party – all the Duchesses one ever heard tell of blazing in diamonds, all the young beauties of the season, all the distinguished statesmen.’ But her husband was positively in seventh heaven, writing afterwards to Harriet Baring that ‘you gave us a glorious Ball; and were and are a glorious Queen. It is something to have seen such a one.’

Jane Welsh Carlyle is a quiet book, beautifully documented and full of unobtrusive scholarship. Whether Jane comes quite as alive under this treatment as Sara does when subjected to Molly Lefebure’s more harum-scarum methods – her style is giddy and occasionally repetitive – is another matter. Whether or not Sarah was intrinsically a more interesting woman she is certainly a more unfamiliar one today, and a woman well worth rescuing from the neglect of time and the slanders of her contemporaries. Molly Lefebure has the knack of bringing her to life. Both Sarah and Jane were indomitable women, who did their best to lie on the bed that had been made for them, and who can rightly be seen as luminaries in the feminist pantheon.

More important, perhaps, these biographies illustrate the point that Henry James made when writing the life of his friend William Wetmore Story, aptly quoted by Virginia Surtees as her epigraph: ‘To live over people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same – since it was by these they themselves lived ... how such dramas, as it were, with all the staked beliefs, invested hopes, throbbing human intensities they involve in ruin, enact themselves.’