Selected Letters – Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith was a 19th century clergyman who is probably best known today, if he’s known at all, for his letters. He was born in 1771 & educated with his brother at Winchester College (two other brothers went to Eton). He became a clergyman & lived in Edinburgh for some years where he was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, an influential periodical on literature, politics & social issues. even after leaving Edinburgh, Smith continued to contribute reviews & articles. He then moved to London, becoming well-known as a preacher & in society. He held the living at Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire for many years, later moving to a living in Taunton near Bristol & later becoming a canon of St Paul’s. He was happily married to Catherine & was a fond father to his daughter, Saba & son, Douglas.

If I was trying to describe Sydney Smith, the words good humoured & liberal come to mind. He had a genius for friendship. He wrote regularly to Francis Jeffreys & John Murray in Edinburgh. When he moved to London, he was introduced by his brother, Robert (known as Bobus), to Lord & Lady Holland, the great Whig political couple, where he become a frequent guest. He kept up a correspondence with both after he moved to Yorkshire. His letters are always respectful but never obsequious or servile. He is honest in his opinions & always interested in their family & friends.

Smith never received the preferments his friends believed him entitled to. He was a liberal Whig in an age of conservative Tory government. Church appointments were a matter of patronage & influence & Smith’s friends never had the influence that would have helped him to high office. I don’t see him as a particularly ambitious man, though. When he went to Foston, there had been no resident clergyman there for 150 years. He set about rebuilding the vicarage, built up the farm that came with the living & was a much-loved pastor to his parishioners. He was allowed to spend a few weeks away from his parish every year & went to London where he revelled in society & enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that he missed at home. His personality is particularly attractive to modern readers because he espoused many causes that weren’t mainstream at the time but have become so. He was anti-slavery, he was in favour of Catholic emancipation & his inclinations were liberal in social matters while always being a devout Anglican.

In later life, he moved to a living near Taunton &, during a brief period of Tory government, he was appointed as a Canon of St Paul’s which meant he could spend more time in London.

I think Lord Grey will give me some preferment if he stays in long enough; but the Upper Parsons live vindictively, and evince their aversion to a Whigg ministry by an improved health. The Bishop of Ely has the rancor to recover after three paralytic strokes, and the Dean of Lichfield to be vigorous at 82 –  and yet these are the men who are called Christians. Letter to J A Murray January 24th 1831

His father & brother died, leaving him enough money to live comfortably. Apart from the usual ills of old age, & the death of his son, Douglas, in 1829, he was a contented man by the end of his life.

The best way to demonstrate Sydney Smith’s personality, though, is not to try to describe him but to quote his letters. This description of himself in 1805 held true throughout his life,

You ask me about my prospects. I think I shall long remain as I am. I have no powerful friends. I belong to no party, I do not cant, I abuse canting everywhere, I am not conciliating, and I have not talents enough to force my way without these laudable and illaudable auxiliaries. This is as true a picture of my situation as I can give you. In the mean time I lead not an unhappy life, much otherwise, and am thankful for my share of good. Letter to Francis Jeffrey July 4th 1805

Here he advises a friend how to improve her low spirits. I can only agree with all 20 of his precepts but here are just a few,

1st. Live as well as you dare. 3rd. Amusing books. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not likely to end in active benevolence. 15th. make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. Letter to Lady Georgiana Morpeth February 16th 1820

He was popular in literary as well as political circles.

Dear Moore,
I have a breakfast of philosophers tomorrow at ten punctually. Muffins and metaphysics; crumpets and contradiction. Will you come?
Letter to Thomas Moore November 12th 1841

My dear Dickens,
I accept your obliging invitation conditionally. If I am invited by any man of greater genius than yourself, or one by whose works I have been more completely interested, I will repudiate you and dine with the more splendid phenomenon of the two.
Ever yours sincerely,
Sydney Smith     Letter to Charles Dickens May 14th 1842

However, my favourite quote comes from his Memoirs,

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.

My Husband Next Door – Catherine Alliott

I hadn’t read any of Catherine Alliott’s novels before so when I saw a copy of My Husband Next Door on NetGalley, I thought I would give it a go. The cover of this book is very chick lit, maybe with an older heroine in the vein of Katie Fforde. It looked like the humorous story of a woman whose husband is now living next door through some silly misunderstanding & the book would be about them overcoming their problems with humour & lots of pratfalls & comic misunderstandings, set in a tranquil English village. There’s certainly humour in this book & it is set in a village but My Husband Next Door has a much harder edge than the average chick lit romance.

Ella met Sebastian Montclair when she was an art student living away from home for the first time. He was older, charismatic & already on his way to becoming one of the outstanding artists of his generation. They fall in love & marry when Ella becomes pregnant. Ella’s mother & sister, Ginnie, are disapproving, her father is easier to persuade as he just wants her to be happy. Life is wonderful. Two children are born; Sebastian’s career is booming & Ella combines her art with her family & a social life attending glamorous gallery openings & parties.

The good life doesn’t last. Sebastian loses confidence in his talent & the pressure to keep painting & exhibiting leads to artist’s block & drinking. The money dries up & they leave London for a farmhouse in the country owned by Sebastian’s aunt, Ottoline. Ottoline sells them the farm & assorted outbuildings, one of which she continues living in. Sebastian turns the old Granary into a studio & eventually moves in there entirely as he & Ella become estranged. Their children, Josh & Tabitha, are now teenagers & drift between the house & the Granary while Ella makes some money by converting the other farm buildings into holiday lets. Ella does Sebastian’s shopping & laundry but their relationship has been almost destroyed by his drinking & infidelity & Ella’s guilt about her own painting. She gives up her own art almost entirely (except for occasional bouts in the middle of the night) & works as a freelance illustrator which she hates just for the money. This only adds to the guilt & resentment on both sides that keeps her apart from Sebastian.

In this curious marriage that isn’t quite a marriage, Ella has become attracted to Ludo, a landscape architect working as a gardener as the financial downturn makes his skills less marketable. Ludo is a romantic & his brittle, ambitious wife, Eliza, hasn’t taken kindly to their sudden drop in income. Ludo & Ella have a romantic relationship with lots of hand holding & longing looks but that doesn’t look likely to ever progress to an affair.

Ella is shocked when her father, who has lived for years as an amiable doormat to his formidably organised wife, suddenly breaks loose. He takes up with a local woman who introduces him to another circle of friends, neighbours that Ella’s mother, Sylvia, would never have socialised with. Sylvia’s humiliation is such that she leaves home & moves into one of Ella’s holiday lets. Ella & her mother aren’t close. Sylvia approves of Ginnie’s well-ordered life but only really approved of Ella’s marriage when she could boast to her friends about her famous son-in-law. Now, with Ella’s unconventional living arrangements right outside her own front door, Sylvia’s brittle manner & obvious disapproval makes it impossible for Ella to do anything but clash with her. The fact that Ella’s father seems to be loving his new, more relaxed lifestyle means that Ella faces having her mother on her doorstep for quite a while.

My Husband Next Door is a darker story than it first appears. There are no obvious heroes & villains. Sebastian’s behaviour to Ella is horrible but she’s not an entirely sympathetic character. Ella’s father, Angus, seems to be the proverbial worm who turned after years of subservience but both he & Sylvia are complex characters. The reader feels a lot more sympathy for Sylvia as she gets over her hurt & anger &, encouraged by Ottoline (my favourite character) reassesses her life & future. There is humour & romance in My Husband Next Door but don’t be misled by the sunny cover. This is an absorbing story of family relationships & the difficult decisions that have to be made to keep love & respect alive.

I read My Husband Next Door courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday Poetry – John Keats

I’ve decided to take up that idea from last week about quotations in books & movies. Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale has two quotations in it that are familiar to me from other contexts. One of my favourite scenes in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is when the vicar, Julian Malory, visits Mildred one evening after an emotionally upsetting scene (I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers). They’re standing in front of the electric fire & he’s just put a pair of ping pong bats down on the table,

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,’ said Julian softly.
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, I continued to myself, feeling the quotation had gone wrong somewhere and it was not really quite what Julian had intended.
‘That’s Keats, isn’t it?’ I asked rather bluntly. ‘I always think Nor What Soft Incense would be a splendid title for a novel. Perhaps about a village where there were two rival churches, one High and one Low. I wonder if it has ever been used?’

Mildred cuts through the sentimentality in a very Pymish way.

I’ll leave you to speculate about the other quotation. It’s from a movie about a widow & a ghost in a house by the sea.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O for a draught of vintage, that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Clustered around by all her starry fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?