AUTO-BIOGRAPHY is so attractive, that in whatever manner it is executed, it seldom fails both to entertain and instruct. The Memoirs of Margaret, Duchess at Newcastle, written by herself, appear to me very eminently to possess this double merit. Whether they confirm or refute the character of the literary and moral qualities of her Grace given by Lord Orford, I must leave the reader to judge. The simplicity by which they are marked will, in minds constituted like that of the noble critic, seem to approximate to folly: others, less inclined to sarcasm, and less infected with an artificial taste, will probably think far otherwise.
That the Duchess was deficient in a cultivated judgment; that her knowledge was more multifarious than exact; and that her powers of fancy and sentiment were more active than her powers of reasoning, I will. admit: but that her productions, mingled as they are, with great absurdities, are wanting either in talent, or in virtue, or even in genius, I cannot concede.
There is an ardent ambition, which may perhaps itself be considered to prove superiority of intellect. “I fear my ambition,’
says the Duchess, “inclines to vain-glory for I am very ambitious; yet ‘tis neither for beauty, wit, titles, wealth, or power, but as they are steps to raise me to Fancy’s Tower, which is to live by remembrance in after-ages “ In another place she exhibits traits of herself, such as generally accompany genius. “I was addicted,” her Grace observes, “from my childhood to contemplation, rather then conversation; to solitariness, rather then society ; to melancholy rather then mirth; to write with the pen then to work with the needle, passing my time with harmless fancies, their company being pleasing, their conversation innocent, in which I take such pleasure, as I neglect my health for it is as great a grief to neglect their society, as a joy to be in their company.” Again, she says: “my disposition is more inclining to melancholy then merry; but not crabbed or peevish melancholy, but soft, melting, solitary, and contemplating melancholy; and I am apt to weep rather than laugh.”
Perhaps, however, it will be impossible to acquit the Duchess of vanity, as well as ambition, if it be vanity to indulge a too general and indiscriminate love of distinction; and to expatiate with too much minuteness about oneself. Some of these minutiae now afford amusement, arising from other pretensions than those with which they were written.
Her Grace was the companion of the Duke’s misfortunes, the solace of his exile, the sharer of his poverty. In these gloomy days she had less opportunity of being
acquainted with the splendour of courts, and the characters and manners of men eminent on the theatre of practical life, than with the scenes and actions of her own lonely imagination. We do not, therefore, find this Memoir full of anecdote, or history, or political delineation. It is all domestic and this domestic painting is its charm.
If the Duchess herself were out of the question, it is not uninteresting to have such a circumstantial account of the rest of the noble family of Lucas. Whether their mode of life be considered as common to others of their rank, or peculiar to themselves, the picture is pleasing and instructive. The mother’s character excites respect and affection. The bursting of the storms of civil war upon those days of peace, and virtue, and plenty, which smiled so treacherously on the youth of the Duchess, is truly affecting. “In such misfortunes,” says her Grace, “my mother was of an heroick spirit, in suffering patiently where there is no remedy; or to be industrious where she thought she could help. She was of a grave behaviour, and had such a majestick grandeur, as it were continually hung about her, that it would strike a kind of awe to the beholders, and command respect from the rudest.” “ She lived to see the ruin of her children, in which was her ruin, and then died !”—“Not onely the family I am linked to is ruined, but the family from which I sprung, by these unhappy wars.”
At pp. 218 and 219, the Duchess has given with exquisite naïveté the account of her own
going into the world, as maid of honour to the Queen, when the Court was at Oxford, and her subsequent attachment and marriage to the Duke, then Marquis of Newcastle. Not long after their marriage, the loss of the battle of Marston-moor drove them into exile. They moved from Paris to Holland, whence necessity forced the Duchess to come to England to solicit relief out of the Duke’s immense estates, which the prevailing Powers had seized.
Her Grace remained a year and half in England, during which she wrote her “Poems,” and her “Philosophical Fancies;” to which she made large additions after she returned abroad. After her return also she wrote the volume from which this “Life” is extracted; and another book. Her “World’s Quo” was, for the most part, written before she went to England.
In this exile, and under the disappointment of her ineffectual efforts for relief, she says, “Heaven hitherto hath kept us, and though Fortune hath been cross, yet we do submit, and are both content with what is, and cannot be mended; and are so prepared, that the worst of fortunes shall not afflict our minds, so as to make us unhappy, howsoever it doth pinch our lives with poverty; for, if tranquillity lives in an honest mind, the mind lives in peace, although the body suffer.”
What can be more amiable and virtuous, than a resort to the consolations of literature in such a state? After the enjoyment of high and flattering rank, and splendid for-
tune, noble is the spirit that will not be broken by the gripe of Poverty, the expulsion from home, and kindred, and friends, and the desertion of the world Under the blighting gloom of such oppression to create wealth and a kingdom “within the mind,” shews an intellectual energy, which ought not to be defrauded of its praise.
After the Restoration, peace and affluence once more shone upon them amid the long-lost domains of the Duke’s vast hereditary property. Welbeck opened her gates to her Lord; and the castles of the North received with joy their heroic chieftain, whose maternal ancestors, the baronial house of Ogle had ruled over them for centuries in Northumberland. But Age had now made the Duke desirous only of repose; and her Grace, the faithful companion of his fallen fortunes, was little disposed to quit the luxurious quiet of rural grandeur, which was as soothing to her disposition, as it was concordant with her duty. To such a pair the noisy and intoxicated joy of a profligate court would probably have been a thousand times more painful than all the wants of their late chilling, but calm, poverty. They came not, therefore, to palaces and levees ; but amused themselves in the country with literature and the arts. This solitary state, this innocent magnificence, seems to have afforded contempt and jests to the sophisticated mob of dissolute wits, who crowded round King Charles I These momentary buzzers in the artificial sunshine of the regal presence, probably thought that they, who
having the power to mix with superior wealth, in the busy scenes of high life, could prefer the insipid charms of lonely Nature, were only fit to be the butt of their ridicule! It is probable that the memory of these witticisms might not have entirely faded before the early years of the late Lord Orford, who might have caught the mantle of these spritely oracles, and have pronounced on the poor Duchess’s character and amusements in a similar tone.
Still I must not permit myself to be so far heated by my subject, as to surrender the advantages of a just but candid discrimination. Her Grace bad, as I conceive, talents, as well as virtues, which raised her above the multitude, much higher than her rank. Her powers, with the aid of a little more arrangement, of something more of scholastic polish, and of a moderate exertion of maturer judgment, might have produced writings, which posterity would have esteemed both for their instruction and amusement. But I must admit that she wanted the primary qualities of genius. She was neither sublime nor pathetic. She had not the talent of seizing that selection of circumstances, of touching by a few single strokes those chords, which, through the force of association in our ideas, calls up at once whole pictures! Imitators, and they whose poetical faculties are not genuine, multiply images, by which, while they think they are excelling their models, destroy the whole charm.
Her Grace wanted taste; she knew not what to obtrude, and what to leave out She
pours forth every thing with an undistinguishing hand, and mixes the serious, the colloquial, and even the vulgar, in a manner which cannot be defended. in the “Life,” however, now reprinted, this great fault is less apparent than in any other of her compositions.
But we must not compare these compositions with the more refined exactness of later times. In those days what female writer was there, who could endure the critical acumen of the present period ? Who now reads Mrs. Katharine Phillips, better known by her poetical name of Orinda? And Mrs. Behn, who lived somewhat later, is more remarkable for her licentiousness than for any better quality. Even of Mrs. Killegrew, the encomium bestowed by Dr. Johnson is generally thought to be undeserved. The Countess of Pembroke, Lady Carew, Lady Wrothe, and a few others succeeded; but their productions are now unnoticed, except by a few black-letter literati.