The Collected Letters, Volume 2


JBW TO ELIZA STODART; 20 February 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18220220-JBW-EA-01; CL 2:45-50.


Haddington 3d March [20? February 1822]

My Dear Eliza

You have payed the price of my story so you shall have it, though I fear that like other good things it will lose sadly in the telling.

Somedays before I last wrote to you, I received a letter addressed to me in a copper-plate hand, folded with mathematical exactness, and sealed with the most scrupulous nicety— As the hand was new to me I turned the letter round, and round, and thought on every possible quarter whence it could have come; till at length it struck me all of a heap that by breaking the seal I might penetrate into the interior and satisfy my curiosity— Within an envelope I found the following card—

“Mr George —— Cunningham presents his most respectful
“compliments to Miss Welsh, and will do himself the honour
“of waiting upon her, at any time she may appoint; for the
“purpose of holding some conversation respecting a projected
“literary work, in which the young Lady's assistance would be
“peculiarly useful.[”]

This Billet puzzeled me exceedingly, its writer being a person with whom I was not even on bowing terms.—Mr George Cunningham is an orphan, who has been brought up in Haddington with his Uncle Mr Ainsley1—a good looking man without an arm who sits in the Chapel, has a bald head that shines like glass, lives very retiredly, and once poisoned all Mrs Cunningham the thread-woman's hens, for which misdemeanour he was fined twenty pounds to the School—of Industry.—The said George was when a very young boy in the mathematical class with me; but during the latter part of his existence which has (I understand) been spent in Mr Davidson's2 office he had quite worn out of my acquaintance, and almost out of my recollection. After various musings I came to this decision that the Creature (who was really clever at school, and won a prize from me) had written some mathematical work for which he wanted Subscribers; and thought to engage my interest by submitting his labours to my criticism or else said the Imp of Vanity within (not to be silenced, it would seem, by the most humiliating rebuffs) or else he has, like James Baird,3 fallen in love with me from hear-say and takes this extraordinary method of getting himself introduced into my presence. The card however required an answer; so I forthwith wrote—

“Miss Welsh will be at home all this evening, and glad to
“hear from Mr Cunningham of any project which may, in its
“results, prove advantageous to an old school-fellow, though
“she is greatly at a loss to conjecture what assistance towards
“any ‘Literary work’ can lie with her, an individual utterly
“unknown in the literary world and little qualified to attain
“any distinction there”—

This last clause was put in merely for modesty's sake, for even then I was planning the immortalizing of old maids.

After sitting in expectation for some hours (my Mother ever and anon repeating that I was really a very great character) it came into my head, that the card was probably a quiz written by some of his companions— My Mother and I fell into fits of laughter, at the idea of the effect my answer would produce upon the poor lad if he was unconscious of having said or written any thing to call it forth; and just when our mirth was at the loudest the door opened and the said George, in propria persona, stood before us— The terrible agitation visible in his deportment at his entrance strengthened my suspicions of his heart— I held out my hand to him with a most winning smile of condescension—but even my [my underscored twice] smile did not restore him to composure. He seated himself with his eyes most religiously fixed upon the carpet; and there was silence— My Mother vouchsafed a remark upon the weather—the unfortunate Creature replied in a quavering voice and again there was silence— At length my Mother compassionating the deplorable stagnation of his intellect withdrew— The door closed on us— The literary man looked into the fire; and I looked at the literary man, and a q[u]eer, little, odd shaped man it was!— He coughed sundry times and at length began. “You, no doubt, expect Madam [underscored twice], that I am going to produce a novel, or Tragedy of my own composition, for your perusal but,—but really I have no such thing—” So! (thought I) It is as I suspected! This odd Thing is really in love with me! “The subject” he continued “which I wish to mention to you is—it is—a Magazine” — The last word came out of his throat, bolt, as if a bullet had been at its back and the Creature seemed much relieved— “A Magazine?” I repeated with surprise the intelligence conveyed by this important word not being so luminous as he seemed to have anticipated, “A Magazine here?—in Haddington?— Do you mean to write a Magazine?”— “I mean to assist,” He replied somewhat peevishly, “and I am of opinion, that this County affords local interest sufficient to render a work of that sort published by Mr Tait extremely acceptable— All that is wanting is people to write it.” (What a desideratum!!) “I do not doubt,” I replied, “if you can find people to write it and people to read it, “Taits' Magazine” will do just as well as “Blackwoods” or “Waugh's” or “any body else's[.]” “If you and those who are qualified would only step forward!” said the George. “But really Sir I do not feel myself qualified to engage in such a[n] undertaking.—

“Ah! Miss Welsh” exclaimed the Creature growing very bold, “you must not tell that here; we all know well (with a sigh) for what You are qualified

I had nothing to reply to such a compliment— The solemn Thing twinkeled its eyes, rolled its head about like a China Mandarin and when it seemed firmly balanced on its shoulders continued with a smile of ineffable self-complacency “You are thinking who are the Editors?—” Really I was thinking no such thing but he looked so well pleased I had not the heart to contradict him—

“And pray Sir who are they?”

“We do not wish ourselves to be known,” said he, “but I may mention to you that Peter Dodds and I are to be the principal Editors—”

“And who is Peter Dodds?”

“Provost Dodd's son.”

“Indeed! I thought I had been at school with all his family— I did not know he had a son of that name![”]

“Oh—Peter went to school long after you left it—”

“What! You do not mean that the Boy who is in Mr Davidsons office is going to be Editor of a Magazine?[”]

[“]The same! He is a very clever Young man[.”]

‘Mr Cunningham’—said I with all the gravity I could muster— “Mr Tait is a decent, industrious Lad and I am of opinion that the first step to be taken in this business is to secure him against being ruined.”

“Oh—Peter Dodds and I mean to do that— There is no fear of Mr Tait—”

I next proceeded to exercise all my powers of argument in trying to convince this candidate for literary fame, that it would be more adviseable for the hitherto latent Genius of Haddington to distribute itself among the various Periodical works in the Metropolis, when, if not admired, the strength of others would sustain their weakness and they might hope to pass unobserved, instead of by uniting in a Body rendering “darkness visible”4

And the Creature, on his side, used every argument he was Master of to induce Me to take an active part in this most unpromising Magazine—which however I positively declined, at least till I was assured by the success of the first number that it would not go to the Devil—

We parted mutually amused (I believe) after an interview of more than an hours length. And here ends my story— It may not seem to you so laughable as I led you to expect for words cannot do it justice—but to me who saw the Creature's pompous absurdity in all the vividness of reality; and who am moreover gifted with a somewhat too lively perception of the Ridiculous, it was more than laughable—it was really overpow[e]ring.—One night when it was very stormy, I lay awake till four o'clock in the Morning thinking on the Perils of such a night at sea, and then the George & his Magazine came into my head, and the multitude of odd conceits my imagination suggested, operating on the nervousness occasioned by want of sleep, threw me into the most ungovernable fit of Mirth I ever, in my life, experienced. The noise I made awoke my Mother, who finding me lying at her side in a state of utter helplessness, sending forth loud and repeated ‘shouts of joy,’ fancied first I was dreaming and then that I had gone mad—and she was really in a state of serious alarm before I could compose myself sufficiently to explain the occasion of my illtimed transports. A tolerably well expressed, printed plan of the work has been distributed among the inhabitants— I am sorry I have lost my copy— Mr C promised me a sight of the manuscript papers from which I anticipate great delight— If the first Number (which I dare swear will be the last) ever gets out I will send it you.5— What dreadful weather this is!— The very elements seem to have leagued withthat Wretch6 against me—for it is impossible to hear such winds and not to think of him— God grant he may not be drowned! and that he may return to Scotland alive! Were he dead, you know I should forget his faults— And that—that would be dreadful! Could I ever forget his faults [!] He might then indeed have the glory of having made the proudest heart in Britain break.— But do not—for mercy's sake do not “pity” me. I would almost as soon that people should hate as pity [underscored twice] me. And I shall not be revenged?— My revenge shall be great as his fault is great—and noble as his fault is base.

I forgot to mention one instance of his effrontery at our last Meeting. Thinking that Janet Ewart might remark my silence I summoned forth my fortitude, and enquired for Margaret.7 ‘She is very unwell,’ said he, [“]and wearying exceedingly to see you. We have been expecting you at Phantassie for a long time— I wish you would go to day— The carriage is up— I brought it for a Miss Wilson who has come from Edinr—so you had best just go with us”— Oh the Devil incarnate!— I have been once at Phantassie since he left it— It was trying—but I went through it bravely. Poor Margaret is now confined to bed—to all appearances dying.— How could he leave her at such a time? his favorite she was too! And yet perhaps it was to save his feelings from the melancholy—but he has no feeling—none—

I have sacrificed a German lesson to you to day so I may perhaps be excused if I require a little of your time in return. Now my dear dear Angel Bessy (God help thee) will you take the trouble to go to Browns8 and purchase for me a pair of very handsome crystal Jelly glasses!!! as the Comb is rather beyond the demensions of my purse, or rather of my Mother's (for you know I never carry one) I mean to ornament my head with these [underscored twice]— (How could you suppose I could be so extravagant as to buy a Coronet for myself?) My Mother got beautiful jelly glasses from him for Mrs W (who by the way has not written me one word since she got married) perhaps Mr Brown may remember them— —And will you also my ever adored Bessy (This is further off) go to Gall & Spurzheim—no—Gall and Leckky9 or some such thing and prevail on them to give you two modest little flowers or a little wreath of white in exchange for this Monster— Janet Ewart heard me complaining of having nothing to put on my head at a party here one night and when she returned to town very attentively sent me this but it is far too fashionable for me—my head is quite lost in it— If you take one a little higher they may perhaps be more willing to exchange it.— And when all this is done my good Bessy send me the amount of my debt and Aggy's. I would enclose money if I had it but my Mother's notes “be all done”!— I send you some lines I got lately, give them to Mr. Aitken— they are more in his way than the Cheese, return him also my thanks for the fun he procured me—Ask David Ritchy,10 if within reach of oracular communication, what Treatise on punctuation it was, which was recommended to him— Mr. Irving is making a horrible noise in London, where he has got a church— He tells me, in his last, that his head is quite turned with the admiration he has received—and really I believe him— The boys Mr. Carlyle is attending are Bullers (or some such name) with Dr. Fleming— They are great Boys—singularly great—but I will tell you all about my two learned friends in my next for I am beginning to feel some remorse for having consumed such a quantity of vellum paper— Kiss Maggy and your Uncle for me. Give my compliments to Mr. Mc'Leroth11 (I like him much better since I saw how his name is spelled) and tell him he is a person of no enterprise. 12—Mr. Gordon13 is to preach to us on Wednesday our fast-day[.] I have fished much for an invitation to Dinner at the Dr['s], but I am begginning [sic] to despair— I dreamt of Dr. Chalmers all last night.

Yours very Affectionately, /

Jane Welsh

You will be very ungrateful if you do not write me soon & long.