Four Figures by Virginia Woolf.

'Four Figures' by Virginia Woolf is a group of four short essays on four historical figures: the poet William Cowper (1731 - 1800) and his relationship with Lady Austen, Beau Brummell (1778 - 1840), a close friend of the then Prince Regent, the writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797), and Dorothy Wordswoth (1771 - 1855), the poet, diarist, and sister of William Wordsworth. The essays were collected under the heading of 'Four Figures' and first published as a collection in The Common Reader Second Series (1932).

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott (1792). 
The first essay is titled Cowper and Lady Austen and it describes his meeting and subsequent relationship with Lady Austen. The essay begins,
It  happened, of course, many years ago, but there must have been something remarkable about the meeting, since people still like to bring it before their eyes. An elderly gentleman was looking out of his window in a village street in the summer of 1781 when he saw two ladies go into a draper’s shop opposite. The look of one of them interested him very much, and he seems to have said so, for soon a meeting was arranged.
Woolf goes on to write about his life up until that point, an irresponsible young man who later fell in love with his cousin Theodora Cowper (he did not go on to marry her). He suffered from depression and attempted suicide more than once, but as Woolf writes, "Cowper was condemned to live." However he appeared to be calmed by living with Mary Unwin, a widow, but still he was plagued by depressive episodes and loneliness. Then one day, looking out of his window, he saw for the first time Lady Austen:
She was arch and sprightly, with dark hair and round dark eyes. Though a widow — she had been the wife of a Sir Robert Austen — she was far from old and not at all solemn. When she talked, for she and Cowper were soon drinking tea together, “she laughs and makes laugh, and keeps up a conversation without seeming to labour at it”. She was a lively, well-bred woman who had lived much in France, and, having seen much of the world, “accounts it a great simpleton as it is”. Such were Cowper’s first impressions of Ann Austen.
They grew to know each other and developed a close relationship, but Cowper never wanted to marry. He send her a letter to this effect and,
In her bitterness Ann burnt it. She left Olney and no word ever passed between them again. The friendship was over.
Though supported by his friends and acquaintances, Cowper suffered from this.
He sank from gloom to gloom, and died in misery. As for Lady Austen, she married a Frenchman. She was happy — so people said.
Beau Brummell
by Richard Dighton (1805). 
The second essay is on Beau Brummell and begins with a reference to Cowper's hatred of the Duchess of Devonshire (Georgiana Cavendish), who had herself been friends with Beau Brummell. The essay begins on a bleak tone,
An old man was sitting in his arm-chair at Caen. The door opened, and the servant announced, “The Duchess of Devonshire”. Beau Brummell at once rose, went to the door and made a bow that would have graced the Court of St. James’s. Only, unfortunately, there was nobody there. The cold air blew up the staircase of an Inn. The Duchess was long dead, and Beau Brummell, in his old age and imbecility, was dreaming that he was back in London again giving a party. Cowper’s curse had come true for both of them. The Duchess lay in her shroud, and Brummell, whose clothes had been the envy of kings, had now only one pair of much-mended trousers, which he hid as best he could under a tattered cloak. As for his hair, that had been shaved by order of the doctor.
But, as Woolf goes on, "both the Duchess and the dandy might claim that they had had their day". Brummell had rose from relatively obscure beginnings and was famous for his wit, insolence, independence, and his style:
 Everybody looked overdressed or badly dressed — some, indeed, looked positively dirty — beside him. His clothes seemed to melt into each other with the perfection of their cut and the quiet harmony of their colour. Without a single point of emphasis everything was distinguished — from his bow to the way he opened his snuff-box, with his left hand invariably. He was the personification of freshness and cleanliness and order. One could well believe that he had his chair brought into his dressing-room and was deposited at Almack’s without letting a puff of wind disturb his curls or a spot of mud stain his shoes.
"Handsome, heartless, and cynical", Woolf adds, and untouched by the wars of the time (the French Revolution, the Battle of Waterloo, for example), and he gambled away his small fortune, and furthermore lost his lucky sixpence. He left England for France and things began to deteriorate. He fell in love with Mademoiselle Ellen of Caen who did not reciprocate, and desperation lead to a lack of dignity,
His self-respect vanished. He would dine with anyone who would pay the bill. His memory weakened and he told the same story over and over again till even the burghers of Caen were bored. Then his manners degenerated. His extreme cleanliness lapsed into carelessness, and then into positive filth. People objected to his presence in the dining-room of the hotel. Then his mind went — he thought that the Duchess of Devonshire was coming up the stairs when it was only the wind.
He died, in the end, of syphilis without a penny to his name. The essay ends,
Still, one must remember that Byron, in his moments of dandyism, "always pronounced the name of Brummell with a mingled emotion of respect and jealousy".
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1790-91). 
The third essay, Mary Wollstonecraft, begins with a look of the effects (or lack of) of war on some of Wollstonecraft's contemporaries:
The French Revolution took some people and tore them asunder; others it passed over without disturbing a hair of their heads. Jane Austen, it is said, never mentioned it; Charles Lamb ignored it; Beau Brummell never gave the matter a thought. But to Wordsworth and to Godwin it was the dawn...
Wollstonecraft was not simply 'affected' by the French Revolution, Woolf writes that she practically embodied it:
She had been in revolt all her life — against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her. The outbreak of revolution in France expressed some of her deepest theories and convictions, and she dashed off in the heat of that extraordinary moment those two eloquent and daring books — the Reply to Burke and the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which are so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them — their originality has become our commonplace. 
That is not to say, however, that she enjoyed it. On the contrary, Woolf writes of her being greatly moved by the presence of the National Guards in France. And while in France Wollstonecraft fell in love with the American Gilbert Imlay,
But it was one of her theories that love should be free —“that mutual affection was marriage and that the marriage tie should not bind after the death of love, if love should die”. And yet at the same time that she wanted freedom she wanted certainty. “I like the word affection,” she wrote, “because it signifies something habitual.”
Imlay left her with child and broke her heart, but she eventually came to love William Godwin and with him had another child, a daughter - Mary Godwin, best known of course as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft remained idealistic and contradictory in nature, and, as Woolf writes, still today
... she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.
Dorothy Wordsworth by Samuel Crosthwaite (1835).
The final essay essay of the four is on Dorothy Wordsworth, one of my favourite diarists. and begins with a few points of contrast with Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft,
Dorothy never railed against “the cloven hoof of despotism”. Dorothy never asked “men’s questions” about exports and imports; Dorothy never confused her own soul with the sky. This “I so much alive” was ruthlessly subordinated to the trees and the grass. For if she let “I” and its rights and its wrongs and its passions and its suffering get between her and the object, she would be calling the moon “the Queen of the Night”; she would be talking of dawn’s “orient beams”; she would be soaring into reveries and rhapsodies and forgetting to find the exact phrase for the ripple of moonlight upon the lake. 
 Dorothy would methodically record what she had seen and experienced, and "Spring passed; summer came; summer turned to autumn; it was winter, and then again the sloes were in blossom and the hawthorns green and spring had come." After some times of hardship she came to live with her brother and they enjoyed a free and easier life,
Dorothy could ramble all day on the hills and sit up talking to Coleridge all night without being scolded by her aunt for unwomanly behaviour. The hours were theirs from sunrise to sunset, and could be altered to suit the season.
Woolf goes on to write about her diaries, which are fairly sparse and brief, yet, I suppose like Geoffrey Chaucer, a world meaning comes through relatively simple lines.
Even in such brief notes one feels the suggestive power which is the gift of the poet rather than of the naturalist, the power which, taking only the simplest facts, so orders them that the whole scene comes before us, heightened and composed, the lake in its quiet, the hills in their splendour. Yet she was no descriptive writer in the usual sense. Her first concern was to be truthful — grace and symmetry must be made subordinate to truth. But then truth is sought because to falsify the look of the stir of the breeze on the lake is to tamper with the spirit which inspires appearances. It is that spirit which goads her and urges her and keeps her faculties for ever on the stretch. A sight or a sound would not let her be till she had traced her perception along its course and fixed it in words, though they might be bald, or in an image, though it might be angular. 
Her relationship with her brother was exceptionally close; what Dorothy recorded in prose, Woolf writes, William word turn into poetry. Her perception was what made Dorothy, and, as Woolf concludes,
If, then, the passionate cry of Mary Wollstonecraft had reached her ears —“Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream”— she would have had no doubt whatever as to her answer. She would have said quite simply, “We looked about us, and felt that we were happy”.
These essays by Woolf have in common the theme of the relationships of some of the great figures of the 18th Century. As ever, Woolf is the master essayist in this collection, they are poignant, detailed, though concise, and with the distinctive Woolf charm. I think I was possibly biased towards the Dorothy Wordsworth essay - I do love her and enjoyed Woolf's essay all the more, but all the essays are very enlightening I thought!

And that was my 29th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.

Comments

  1. i really admire that picture of V.W. by roger fry; the more i look at it, the more it speaks... if you get a chance, you might like Dorothy's journal of her trip with William to Scotland; i thought it poignant and perceptive without being grandiose or overly meticulous...

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    1. I haven't read that and remember I did want to get it at some stage. I'll look out for it or else buy it online if I don't come across it. I do love her diaries :)

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