August 1843-March 1844

The Collected Letters, Volume 17


JWC TO SUSAN STIRLING ; 14 November 1843; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18431114-JWC-SS-01; CL 17: 175-179


[14 November 1843]

Dearest Susan

Do you not find me wonderful?— I declare to you I am a living mystery even to myself! when I stop to consider about myself and my ways (which I make a point of doing as seldom as possible) I am struck with a sort of stupor “as in presence of the Infinite”!—the Infinite—Absurd!— Just to think that your letter should have been all this time unacknowledged and I so glad to get it! and loving you always so truly!— Let us hope, for the credit of human-nature that such instances of inconsistency are rare! nay, that I am the only modern woman who “paves such vast extent of the bad place with good intentions”!1— There is but one salvation for me, and that is to do always the thing which I ought to do in the first possible moment—if ever I wait for a probable moment, no mortal, and least of all myself, can predict when it will be got done—if ever!—the letter which I do not write by return of post, seems to pass out of the sphere of my own volition into the sphere of Fate or Chance (however one calls that power lying outside one's own skin which urges one this way and that) and so it is the will of that supreme and highly capricious Power that I should write to you just to-day of all days; when, with a slight headach, cross—(as our november fog alwa[y]s2 makes me) and with an uneasy consciousness of— —a sewing-girl at work in the house(!) there would have been no lack of pretexts for putting off one day longer what I had already put off so long!

Your letter found me just in the thick of unpacking and putting by my husband—the unpacking was got accomplished within a reasonable time but the putting by— Oh Dio!—that has proved a work of some difficulty—and has kept my hands full-up to the present hour!! The whole period of his absence I was as busy as a Slave of the Lamp3 in making this old house bloom up into new consciousness and comelinesses to charm his soul and senses at his return—the quantity of needlework alone which I accomplished in the shape of chaircovers sofa-covers all sorts of covers—was enough to put Penelope4 for ever out of peoples heads as the model of industry and to set up Mrs Thomas Carlyle in her place.— And to be sure for three days the man was in “a certain” admiration over the improved state of things especially over his new-papered newcarpeted—new-everythinged Library—but on the fourth day the young Lady of next house took one of her fits of practising—whereupon he started up and declared in a peremptory manner to the Universe that “he neither would nor could write, or think, or live anylonger, alongside of that accursed thing”!— In pursuance of which resolution the Carpenter (the last man on earth I was wishing to see in a hurry again) was summoned to hold deep consultation on all the possibilities and impossibilities of the case—and the practical result thereof was a new household earthquake, little inferior in awfulness to that which I had just got so thankfully to the end of! up went all the carpets which my own hands had nailed down for twelve months at least—in rushed the troop of incarnate demons—bricklayers, joiners, whitewashers &c whose noise and dirt and dawdling had so lately driven me to despair—down went a partition in one room up went a new chimney in another— Helen instead of exerting herself to stem the torrent of confusion seemed to be struck (no wonder) with a temporary idiocy—and my husband himself at sight of the uproar he had raised was all but wringing his hands and tearing his hair—like the German Wizards servant who had learnt magic enough to make the broomstick carry water for him but had not the counter-spell to stop it!— Myself would have sat down and cried—so little strength or spirit I had left to front the pressure of my circumstances— —but crying makes no way,—so I went about sweeping and dusting as an example to Helen—and held my peace as an example to my husband—who verily as Mazzini says of him “loves silence somewhat platonically5— It was got thro in the end—this new hubbub—but when my husband proceeded to occupy his new study he found that Devil a bit he could write in it any more than beside the piano— “it was all so strange to him”! The fact is the thing he has got to write—his long projected life of Cromwell—is no joke—and no sort of room can make it easy— And so he has been ever since shifting about in the saddest way from one room to another like a sort of domestic wandering Jew!— He has now a fair chance however at getting a settlement effected in the original Library—the young Lady next door having promised to abstain religiously from playing till two 'oclock, when the worst of his day's work is over—generous young Lady! but it must be confessed, the seductive letter he wrote to her the other day was enough to have gained the heart of a stone— Alas! one can make fun of all this on paper but in practice it is anything but fun I can assure you—there is no help for it however— A man cannot hold his genius as a sinecure———

He was much touched with your observation of him thro' the telescope!6—and it was not his fault that he did not manage better about seeing you— He had not made up his mind about going to Dundee in time for me to warn you and he thought to have had all the Tuesday to see you in but it so happened that Mr Erskines horses were sent away that day to fetch home some carriage and he could not walk the distance short tho' it was, having hurt his ancle by a fall from a horse at Kircaldy— It was a pity that he did not see you in your own house—as much in this world is!

Where was I at with my Mudies when you left London?— Had I got the two disposable girls places at Manchester?— First the one and then the other I took to the Railway myself and sent off with a nice outfitting and my blessing——— Well! the last sent is back already—having prefered to return and starve here—or do worse—to conducting herself in a reasonable way where she was— She was lazy, heedless and dirty to a degree—and when her mistress tried to remonstrate with her she lay down on the floor and kicked and screamed!— So she was dismissed and when my kind Geraldine Jewsbury had found a home for her till she should get her one more trial in a place—but the young lady informed her that her Mother wished her to return “if we pleased”—and that she expected to be companion to a Captains widow”!—we fear it was rather to a Captains self—for Juliet had told me of some officer that was in love with her Sister— The Mother I fear is quite lost to all right feelings if ever she had any—

Juliet the one you saw is behaving herself excellently well— I had a letter from her mistress to tell me so the other day— I wash my hands of all the rest—they are unhelpable—the last curse that can befall humanity—

Old Sterling has come in to take me a drive—so I must stop sooner than I was meaning— God bless you Dear Susan— I love you always— Remember me to your husband kindly

Ever your affectionate


Love to Mr Jeffrey and your Sister7

[TC's Notes]8

I had sent out ‘Past and Present’ I think in the early part of this summer,9 and then gone on a lengthened tour of expected ‘recreation’ into Wales (to my poor friend Redwood at Llandough, Cowbridge, there), thence to Carmarthen (three days) to the Bishop of St. David's there, days mostly wet; thence by Malvern to Liverpool; met my brother, and with him to North Wales (top of Snowdon cloaked in thick mist on our arrival there)—at Bethgellert and Tremadoc deluges of rain, &c, &c.—back to Liverpool, and thence to Annandale for three weeks; after all which home to Chelsea, as noticed in this letter; all the subsequent details of which rise gradually into clearness, generally of a painful nature to me. The fittings and refittings for me full of loving ingenuity, the musical young lady other side the wall; the general dreary and chaotic state of inward man while struggling to get ‘Cromwell’ started, all this and the bright ever-cheering presence in it, literally the only cheering element there was, comes back into my heart with a mournful gratitude at this moment.

‘The Mudies’ were two grown daughters of a Mr. Mudie whom I recollect hearing of about 1818 as a restless, somewhat reckless, and supreme schoolmaster at Dundee. He had thrown up his function there in about 1820, and marched off to London as a literary adventurer. Here for above twenty years he did manage to subsist and float about in the ‘mother of dead dogs,’10 had even considerable success of a kind; wrote a great many miscellaneous volumes mostly about natural history, I think, which were said to display diligence and merit, and to have brought him considerable sums. But by this time the poor fellow had broken down, had died and left a family, mostly daughters, with a foolish widow, and next to no provision whatever for them. The case was abundantly piteous, but it was not by encouragement from me, to whom it seemed from the first hopeless, that my dear one entered into it with such zeal and determination. Her plans were, I believe, the wisest that could be formed, and the trouble she took was very great. I remember these Mudies—flary, staring, and conceited, stolid-looking girls, thinking themselves handsome, being brought to live with us here, to get out of the maternal element, while ‘places’ were being prepared for them; but no amount of trouble was, or could be, of the least avail. The wretched stalking blockheads stalked fatefully, in spite of all that could be done or said, steadily downwards toward perdition, and sank altogether out of view. There was no want of pity in this house. I never knew a heart more open to the sufferings of others, and to the last she persisted in attempts at little operations for behoof of such; but had to admit that except in one or two small instances she had done no good to the unfortunate objects she attempted to aid.— T. C., March 1873.