Chapter XVI of Alaric Watts: A Narrative of His Life

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
The Oceanides, Edited by Judith Pascoe

Watts, Alaric Alfred. Alaric Watts: A Narrative of His Life. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1884. 1: 178-88.

MARIA JANE JEWSBURY.

In the foregoing notice of the contents of the first volume of the ‘Literary Souvenir,’ I have mentioned amongst the contributions a sketch published under the initials ‘M.J.J.’ The name of this lady, Maria Jane Jewsbury, like the names of more than one of the literary personages to whom I may have to refer in this narrative, is little more than an echo in the age to which I am addressing myself, and might, indeed, scarcely be even that if it had not been kept somewhat in mind by the writings of a younger sister. She died in the prime of life, and she produced in quantity but little; but she became, nevertheless, a very distinct, because truly original personality, in the history of the literature of that period, and is remembered as such with respect by those who are familiar with it.

Of her, Wordsworth, in a note to a poem addressed to her, published in his collected works, has placed upon record that, apart from other high qualities, in one, quickness in the motions of the mind, she had, within the range of his acquaintance, no equal.

Mrs. Hemans, to whose acquaintance my father introduced her, writing of her after her early death in 1833, speaks of her in words of much tenderness. ‘How much deeper power seemed to lie, coiled up as it were, in the recesses of her mind than was ever manifested to the world in her writings! Strange and sad does it seem that only the broken music of such a spirit should have been given to the earth; the full and finished harmony never drawn forth.’

Miss Landon said of her: ‘I never met with any woman who possessed her powers of conversation. If her language had a fault, it was its extreme perfection. It was like reading an eloquent book full of thought and poetry.’

Such was the person of whose introduction to the public, as a writer, I am now to speak.

In a biographical work entitled ‘The Literary Women of England,’ by Jane Williams, there is a careful sketch of the life of Miss Jewsbury, from which I extract the following notice pertinent to this narrative:

‘Mr. Aston, the editor of the Manchester Gazette, being acquainted with her father, had the honour of first printing and publishing a little poem of hers; and being impressed with a high opinion of her talents, he introduced her to Mr. Alaric A. Watts, who, from the latter part of the year 1822, edited the Leeds Intelligencer, and three years afterwards resigned that paper, removed his residence to Manchester, and became editor of the Manchester Courier. Mr. Watts was less than two years older than Miss Jewsbury, and, with generous zeal, gave publicity to her occasional poems, urged the completion of her first book, and found a publisher for it.’

This account, derived, I conclude, either from Mr. Aston or Miss Jewsbury’s family, for it was seen for the first time by my father in print, epitomizes substantially the actual facts, and leaves little for his biographer to add in detail; but he may perhaps be allowed to tell the story in his own way.

In the course of the year 1823, while keeping a watchful eye upon contemporary verse in the newspapers and periodicals for the collection he was forming of miscellaneous fugitive poetry, subsequently published under the title of the ‘Poetical Album,’ his attention was attracted by some verses in the Manchester Gazette of unusual maturity of thought and perfection of form, bearing the initials M.J.J. Having occasion shortly after to visit Manchester, he took the opportunity to inquire of the editor of the Gazette, Mr. Aston, an early friend, who was this mysterious M.J.J. He learnt that she was the eldest daughter of a gentleman, carrying on business as a manufacturer at Manchester, of the name of Jewsbury; that these, with other compositions, as yet unpublished in prose and verse, were written in intervals of leisure from domestic occupations, the death of her mother having devolved upon her, at an early age, the charge of her father’s household and the care of a young family of six younger brothers and sisters, to whom she was at once mother, nurse, and governess.

This information could not fail to increase my father’s interest in the young writer; an introduction was arranged, and the favourable opinion already formed of her talent and originality was more than confirmed by her conversation and the perusal of her unpublished MSS. These displayed not only much poetical power and feeling, as he had anticipated, but a vein of humour, observation and instinctive knowledge of human character, the first a rare quality in women’s writings at that day, for which he was wholly unprepared. He introduced her to his wife, who liked her, and was equally impressed by her freshness of spirit and powers of mind.

It happened at that time, that a quarterly magazine, published by Andrews of New Bond Street, under the title of The Album, had fallen into the editorship of a friend, Robert Sulivan, (best remembered now as a dramatist), a young writer of taste and possessing a peculiarly delicate vein of wit and humour, a man of all men qualified to do justice to the similar qualities of this young writer. An opening was readily made for her, and, in the numbers for January, 1824, and April, 1825, appeared two prose sketches full of humour and nice observation of character, entitled ‘Boarding School Reminiscences,’ and ‘The Complaint of the Schoolmistress,’ the first of her prose writings ever printed.

Nor did my father’s good offices rest here. On one of his now frequent visits to London for the purpose of conferring with his publishers respecting the ‘Literary Souvenir,’ he took the opportunity of introducing Miss Jewsbury’s name to the notice of Mr. Robinson, and threw himself into the cause with so much ardour as to succeed in awakening some corresponding enthusiasm in the mind of the worthy publisher, who, as may be judged from his correspondence, was both enterprising and of a generous spirit. The result was that he took back with him to Leeds an agreement from Hurst and Robinson to purchase from the young authoress a work, unseen, and for the most part unwritten, to consist of miscellaneous sketches and essays, for the, to her, magnificent sum of £100.

This work, under the title of ‘Phantasmagoria,’ was published in the year 1825, the writer being in her twenty-fifth year. It displays a ready grasp of the limited experiences of a young woman, considerable perception of human nature, and a vein of humour in character and quality greatly in advance of its age, at all events in the writings of women. In this respect it may be affirmed to have preceded its day by at least thirty years. The titles of some of the sketches afford the only idea which the space at disposal enables me to give of this highly promising literary essai . Here are some of them: ‘The Age of Books,’ ‘Human Sorrow and Human Sympathy,’ ‘Religious Novels,’ ‘On the Habit of Analyzing One’s Emotions,’ ‘Why is the Spirit of Poetry Anticheerful?’ ‘The Comfortable Woman,’ ‘First Efforts in Criticism.’

In the last-mentioned paper, she parodies the Reviewers of that day, weekly and quarterly, with considerable humour, and even ventures on a joke at the expense of Mr. Southey, rather hinting that certain influential reviews, in whatever subject originating, were sometimes apt to land the reader, without any very definite connection of subject, in the Brazils, the Peninsular War, or Church History. To appreciate the audacity of this suggestion, it is necessary to bear in mind that the ‘great and good’ Mr. Southey, as it was the fashion with a large section of the community to designate him,—I am far from insinuating unjustly,—enjoyed in Tory circles somewhat of the moral pre-eminence over the rest of the world so universally, in the opposite camp, assigned at the present day to Mr. Gladstone, and that to laugh at him involved a daring only to be paralleled by that of Sydney Smith’s man who had been heard to speak disrespectfully of the Equator. The matter was not mended when Mr. Wordsworth, desirous of serving his young friend, in the innocency of his heart, sent the book to Southey and asked him to review it in the Quarterly! The Laureate, who, like many eminent men, preferred his own jokes to other people’s, responded to this overture with some austerity; and signified, no doubt truly enough, that, in all the circumstances, the best service he could render to this misguided young person was to leave her wholly unnoticed. Mr. Wordsworth, whose interest in the young lady had possibly not gone so far as to lead him to read her book, unless, perhaps, the dedicatory poem to himself, must have wondered what it all meant.

In 1827, Miss Jewsbury published ‘Letters to the Young,’ which went into a second edition in 1829, in which year she collected her poems into a volume which she entitled ‘Lays of Leisure Hours.’ Her final and most sustained work, ‘The Three Histories,’ which contains a sketch of the character of Mrs. Hemans under the name of Egeria, appeared in 1830. In 1832 she married the Rev. Kew Fletcher, a clergyman of the Church of England, employed in missionary labours in India, where she died of cholera in the following year. There is a portrait of her in the ‘Christian Keepsake,’ an annual published in the year 1838.

The following letter relates to the episode in the literary career of Miss Jewsbury with which this narrative is more immediately concerned:

‘13, Brooke Street, Chorlton Road,
‘Manchester, 6th March, 1824.

‘M Y DEAR F RIEND .

‘What shall I say to you for your letter? Pleased, and gratified, and surprised, are all cold and insufficient terms, indeed I cannot find terms that will adequately express my feelings; and you must not, therefore, because I say little, suppose I do not feel much. I am quite sure that your warm and undeserved exertions gratify me more than even the success itself; and whilst, as a child, I rejoice in the prospect of contributing to the comfort of my father; and, as a woman, exult in the prospect of winning a little attention, the feeling of respectful gratitude to yourself forms, just now, my predominant feeling. The results which you communicate surpass my expectations, if, indeed, I had formed any, and ought to satisfy the most sceptical of my friends. I have, I confess, a real horror of second volumes, unless they are good; but perhaps, like many other young ladies, I am turning timid in the wrong place. I will, therefore, undertake to make the work two volumes, and shall not rest till I have finished them,—and finished them, I hope, to your satisfaction. How often before then shall I wish that Leeds were nearer to Manchester,—or Manchester to Leeds! When you have leisure, on your return I shall be highly gratified by hearing from you. Will not Mrs. Watts also gratify me by a line? It would give me great pleasure. My father I shall not see till the evening, so that he cannot unite with me in thanks on the present occasion; but, rest assured that you will have made happy one of the kindest and worthiest of men. Ever believe me, with a deep feeling of your kindness,

‘Your obliged friend,
‘M ARIA J ANE J EWSBURY .’

Published @ RC

November 2003