LETTER 529: MISS HOWE TO JOHN BELFORD

Thursday, October 12.

Sir,
I am incapable of doing justice to the character of my beloved friend; and that not only from want of talents, but from grief; which, I think, rather increases than diminishes by time; and which will not let me sit down to a task that requires so much thought, and a greater degree of accuracy than I ever believed myself mistress of.

 

And yet I so well approve of your motion, that I will throw into your hands a few materials, that may serve by way of supplement, as I may say, to those you will be able to collect from the papers themselves, from Col. Morden’s letters to you, particularly that of Sept. 23. ( a ) ; and from the letters of the detestable wretch himself, who, I find, has done her justice, altho’ to his own condemnation: All these together will enable you, who seem to be so great an admirer of her virtues, to perform the task; and, I think, better than any person I know. But I make it my request, that if you do any-thing in this way, you will let me see it. —If I find it not to my mind, I will add or diminish, as justice shall require.

 

She was a wonderful creature from her infancy : But I suppose you intend to give a character of her at those years when she was qualified to be an example to other young ladies, rather than a history of her life.

 

Perhaps, nevertheless, you will choose to give a description of her person: And as you knew not the dear creature when her heart was easy, I will tell you, what yet, in part, you can confirm;

 

That her shape was so fine, her proportion so exact, her features so regular, her complexion so lovely, and her whole person and manner was so distinguishedly charming, that she could not move without being admired and followed by the eyes of every one, tho’ strangers, who never saw her before. Col. Morden’s letter, above referred to, will confirm this.

 

In her dress she was elegant beyond imitation.

 

Her stature rather tall than middling: In her whole aspect and air, a dignity, that bespoke the mind that animated all.

 

This native dignity, as I may call it, induced some superficial persons, who knew not how to account for the reverence which involuntarily filled their hearts on her appearance, to impute pride to her. But she knew not what pride, in the bad sense of the word, was.

 

You may throw in these sentences of hers, if you touch upon this subject:

 

‘Persons of accidental or shadowy merit may be proud: But inborn worth must be always as much above conceit as arrogance.’

 

‘Who can be better or more worthy than they should be? And, Who shall be proud of talents they give not to themselves?’

 

‘The darkest and most contemptible ignorance is that of not knowing one’s self; and that all we have, and all we excel in, is the gift of God.’

 

‘All human excellence is but comparative—There are persons who excel us, as much as we fancy we excel the meanest.’

 

‘In the general scale of beings, the lowest is as useful, and as much a link of the great chain, as the highest.’

 

‘There is but one Pride pardonable; That of being above doing a base or dishonourable action.’

 

Such were the sentiments by which this admirable young lady endeavoured to conduct herself, and to regulate her conduct to others.

 

And in truth, never were affability and complacency (graciousness, some have called it) more eminent in any person, man or woman, than in her, to those who put it in her power to oblige them: Insomuch that the benefited has sometimes not known which to prefer; the grace bestowed, or the manner in which it was conferred.

 

It has been observed, that what was said of Henry IV. of France, might be said of her manner of refusing a request; That she generally sent from her presence the person refused nearly as well satisfied, as if she had granted it.

 

Then she was so nobly sincere! —You cannot, Sir, expatiate too much upon her sincerity. I dare say, that in all her letters, in all the wretch’s letters, her sincerity will not be found to be once impeachable, altho’ her calamities were so heavy, the horrid wretch’s wiles so subtle, and her struggles to free herself from them so active.

 

Severe, as she always was, in her reprehensions of a wilful and studied vileness; yet no one accused her judgment, or thought her severe in a wrong place: For her charity was so great, that she always chose to defend or acquit, where the fault was not so flagrant, that it became a piece of justice to condemn it.

 

You must every-where insist upon it, that had it not been for the stupid persecutions of her relations, she never would have been in the power of this horrid profligate: And yet she was frank enough to acknowlege, that were person, and address, and alliance, to be allowably the principalattractives, it would not have been difficult for her eye to mislead her heart.

 

When she was last with me, three happy weeks together! in every visit he made her, he left her more dissatisfied with him than before.

 

In obedience to her friends commands on her coming to me, she never would see him out of my company; and would often say, when he was gone ( a ) , ‘O my Nancy, This is not THE man.’ —At other times, ‘Gay, giddy creature! he has always something to be forgiven for.’ At others, ‘This man will much sooner excite one’s Fears, than attract one’s Love:’ And then would she repeat, ‘This is not THE man. —All that the world says of him cannot be untrue. —But what title have I to charge him, who intend not to have him?’ —In short, had she been left to a judgment and discretion, which no-body ever questioned who had either, she would have discovered enough of him, to make her discard him for ever.

 

Her ingenuity in acknowleging any error she was drawn into, you must also insist upon.

 

‘Next to not erring, she used to say, was the owning of an error: And that the offering at an excuse in a blameable matter, was the undoubted mark of a disingenuous or perverse mind.’

 

Yet one of her expressions upon a like subject deserves to be remembred: Being upbraided by a severe censurer, upon a person’s proving base, whom she had frequently defended; ‘You had more penetration, Madam, than such a young creature as I can pretend to have. But altho’ human depravity may, I doubt, oftener justify the person who judges harshly, than them who judge favourably, yet will I not part with my charity; altho’, for the future, I will endeavour to make it consistent with caution and prudence.’

 

If you mention the beauties and graces of her pen, you may take notice, that it was always matter of surprize to her, that the Sex are generally so averse as they are to writeing; since the Pen, next to the Needle, of all employments, is the most proper and best adapted to their genius’s; and this as well for improvement as amusement: ‘Who sees not, would she say, that those women who take delight in writing excel the men in all the graces of the familiar style? The gentleness of their minds, the delicacy of their sentiments (improved by the manner of their Education) and the liveliness of their imaginations, qualify them to a high degree of preference for this employment: While men of learning, as they are called (of mere learning, however) aiming to get above that natural ease and freedom which distinguish This (and indeed every other kind of writing) when they think they have best succeeded, are got above, or rather beneath, all natural beauty.’

 

And one hint you may give to the Sex, if you please, who are generally too careless in their orthography (a consciousness of a defect in which generally keeps them from writing)—She used to say, ‘It was a proof that a woman understood the derivation and sense of the words she used, and that she stop not at sound, when she spelt accurately.’

 

You may take notice of the admirable facility she had in learning languages: That she read with great ease both Italian and French, and could hold a conversation in either, tho’ she was not fond of doing so [And that she was not, be pleased to call it a fault]: That she had begun to apply herself to Latin.

 

But that, notwithstanding all her acquirements, she was an excellent Oeconomist and Housewife . And these qualifications, you must take notice, she was particularly fond of inculcating upon all her reading and writing companions of the Sex: For it was a maxim with her, ‘That a woman who neglects the Useful and the Elegant, which distinguish her own Sex, for the sake of obtaining the learning which is supposed more peculiar to theother, incurs more contempt by what she foregoes, than she gains credit by what she acquires .’

 

‘Let our Sex therefore (she used to say) seek to make themselves mistresses of all that is excellent, and not incongruous to their Sex, in the other ; but without losing any-thing commendable in their own .’

 

Perhaps you will not think it amiss further to observe on this head, as it will shew that precept and example always went hand in hand with her, That her Dairy at her grandfather’s was the delight of every one who saw it; and She, of all who saw her in it: For, in the same hour, whenever she pleased, she was the most elegant dairy-maid that ever was seen, or the finest lady that ever graced a circle.

 

Yet was this admirable creature mistress of all these domestic qualifications, without the least intermixture of Narrowness. She used to say, ‘That, to define true generosity, it must be called, The happy medium between parsimony and profusion.’

 

She was as much above Reserve as Disguise. So communicative, that no young lady could be in her company half an hour, and not carry away instruction with her, whatever was the topic. Yet all sweetly insinuated; nothing given with the air of prescription: So that while she seemed to ask a question for information-sake, she dropt in the needful instruction, and left the instructed unable to decide, whether the thought (which being started, she, the instructed, could improve) came primarily from herself, or from the sweet instructress.

 

The Goths and Vandals in those branches of science which she aimed at acquiring, she knew how to detect and expose; and all from Nature.

 

Propriety, another word for Nature, was her Law, as it is the foundation of all true judgment. 

 

Her skill in Needleworks you will find mentioned perhaps in some of the letters. That piece which she bequeaths to her cousin Morden, is indeed a capital piece; a performance so admirable, that gentleman’s father, who resided chiefly abroad, was (as is mentioned in her Will) very desirous to obtain it, in order to carry it to Italy with him, to shew the curious of other countries (as he used to say) for the honour of his own, that the cloister’d confinement was not necessary to make English women excel in any of those fine Arts, which Nuns and Recluses value themselves upon.

 

Her quickness at these sort of works was astonishing; and a great encouragement to herself to prosecute them.

 

Mr. Morden’s father would have been continually making her presents, would she have permitted him: And he used to call them, and so did her grandfather, tributes due to a merit so sovereign, and not presents.

 

I say nothing of her skill in music, and her charming voice when it accompanied her fingers, tho’ very extraordinary, because she had her equals in both.

 

If she could not avoid Cards without incurring the censure of particularity, she would play; but then she always declared against playing high. ‘Except for trifles, she used to say, she would not submit to Chance what she was already sure of.’

 

At other times, ‘She should make her friends a very ill compliment, if she supposed they would wish to be possessed of what of right belonged to her; and she should be very unworthy, if she desired to make herself a title to what was theirs.’

 

‘High gaming, in short, she used to say, was a sordid vice; an immorality; the child of avarice; and a direct breach of that commandment which forbids us to covet what is our neighbour’s.’

 

You will have occasion to mention her Charities. Her Will gives you hints of the peculiar nature of those: Indeed, for the prudent distribution of them, she had neither example nor equal.

 

You may, if you desire to be particular in the account of them, consult Mrs. Norton upon this subject; and when I see what she will furnish, I shall perhaps make an addition to it.

 

In all her Readings, and in her Conversations upon them she was fonder of finding beauties than blemishes: Yet she used to lament, that certain writers of the first class, who were capable of exalting virtue, and of putting vice out of countenance, too generally employed themselves in works of imagination only, upon subjects merely speculative, disinteresting, and unedifying; from which no good moral or example could be drawn.

 

All she said, and all she did, was accompanied with a natural ease and dignity, which set her above affectation, or the suspicion of it. For, with all her excellencies, she was forwarder to hear than speak ; and hence no doubt derived no small part of her improvement.

 

 

You are curious to know the particular distribution of her Time; which you suppose will help you to account for what you own yourself surprised at, to wit, how so young a Lady could make herself mistress of so many accomplishments.

 

I will premise, that she was from infancy inured to rise early in a morning, by an excellent, and, as I may say, a learned woman, Mrs. Norton, to whose care, wisdom, and example, she was beholden for the groundwork of her taste and acquirements, which meeting with such a genius, made it the less wonder that she surpassed most of her Age and Sex.

 

She used to say, ‘It was incredible to think what might be done by early rising, and by long days well filled up.’

 

It may be added, That had she calculated according to the practice of too many, she had actually lived more years at Sixteen, than they had atTwenty-six .

 

She used to say, ‘That no one could spend their time properly, who did not live by some Rule: Who did not appropriate the hours, as near as might be, to particular purposes and employments.’

 

In conformity to this self-Lesson, the usual distribution of the twenty-four hours, when left to her own choice, was as follows: For REST she allotted SIX hours only.

 

She thought herself not so well, and so clear in her intellects (so much alive, she used to say) if she exceeded this proportion. If she slept not, she chose to rise sooner. And in winter had her fire laid, and a taper ready burning to light it; not loving to give trouble to servants, ‘whose harder work, and later hours of going to bed, she used to say, required consideration.’

 

I have blamed her for her greater regard to them, than to herself: But this was her answer: ‘I have my choice: Who can wish for more? Why should I oppress others, to gratify myself? You see what free-will enables one to do; while imposition would make a light burden heavy.’

 

Her First THREE Morning Hours: Were generally passed in her Study, and in her Closet-duties: And were occasionally augmented by those she saved from Rest: And in these passed her epistolary amusements.

 

TWO Hours she generally allotted to Domestic Management.

 

These at different times of the day, as occasions required, all the housekeeper’s bills, in ease of her mother, passing thro’ her hands. For she was a perfect mistress of the four principal rules of arithmetic.

 

FIVE Hours to her Needle, Drawings, Music, &c.

 

In these she included the assistance and inspection she gave to her own servants, and to her sister’s servants, in the needleworks required for the family: For her sister is a Modern . In these she also included Dr. Lewen’s conversation-visits; with whom likewise she held a correspondence by letters. That reverend gentleman delighted himself and her, twice or thrice a week, if his health permitted, with these visits: And she always preferred his company to any other engagement.

 

TWO Hours she allotted to her Two first Meals.

 

But if conversation, or the desire of friends, or the falling in of company or guests, required it to be otherwise, she never scrupled to oblige; and would borrow, as she called it, from other distributions. And as she found it very hard not to exceed in this appropriation, she put down.

 

ONE Hour more to Dinner-time Conversation,

 

To be added or subtracted, as occasions offered, or the desire of her friends required: And yet found it difficult, as she often said, to keep this account even; especially if Dr. Lewen obliged them with his company at their table: Which however he seldom did; for, being a valetudinarian, and in a regimen, he generally made his visits in the afternoon.

 

ONE Hour to Visits to the neighbouring Poor;

 

To a select number of whom, and to their children, she used to give brief instructions, and good books: And as this happened not every day, and seldom above twice a week, she had two or three hours at a time to bestow in this benevolent employment.

 

The remaining FOUR Hours,

 

Were occasionally allotted to supper, to conversation, or to reading after supper to the family. This allotment she called Her Fund, upon which she use to draw, to satisfy her other debits: And in this she included visits received and returned, shews, spectacles, &c. which, in a country-life, not occurring every-day, she used to think a great allowance, no less than two artificial days in six, for amusements only: And she was wont to say, that it was hard if she could not steal time out of such a fund as this, for an excursion of even two or three days in a month.

 

If it be said, that her relations, or the young neighbouring ladies, had but little of her time, it will be considered, that besides these four hours in the twenty-four, great part of the time she was employed in her needle-works, she used to converse as she worked: And it was a custom she had introduced among her acquaintance, that the young ladies in their visits used frequently, in a neighbourly way (in the winter evenings especially) to bring their work with them; and one of half a dozen of her select aquaintance used by turns to read to the rest as they were at work.

 

This was her usual method, when at her own command, for Six days in the week.

 

The SEVENTH DAY She kept, as it ought to be kept: And as some part of it was frequently employed in works of mercy, the hour she allotted to visiting the neighbouring poor, was occasionally supplied from this day, and added to her fund.

 

But I must observe, that when in her grandfather’s life-time she was three or four weeks at a time his housekeeper and guest, as also at either of her uncles, her usual distribution of time was varied: But still she had an eye to it as nearly as circumstances would admit.

 

When I had the happiness of having her for my guest, for a fortnight or so, she likewise dispensed with her rules. In her account-book, since her ever-to-be-lamented death, I have found this memorandum: —‘From such a day, to such a day, all holidays, at my dear Miss Howe’s.’ At her return: —‘Account resumed such a day, ‘ naming it; and then she proceeded regularly, as before.

 

Once a week she used to reckon with herself; when, if within the 144 hours contained in the six days she had made her account even, she noted it accordingly: If otherwise, she carried the debit to the next week’s account; as thus: Debtor to the article of benevolent visits, so many hours. And so of the rest.

 

But it was always an especial part of her care, that, whether visiting or visited, she shewed in all companies an intire ease, satisfaction, and chearfulness, as if she kept no such particular account, and as if she did not make herself answerable to herself for her occasional exceedings.

 

This method, which to others will appear perplexing and unnecessary, her early hours, and custom, had made easy and pleasant to her.

 

And indeed, as I used to tell her, greatly as I admired her in all her methods, I could not bring myself to this (tho’ I had to early hours, and find the benefit of it) might I have had the world for my reward.

 

She used to answer: ‘I do not think All I do necessary for another to do: Nor even for myself: But when it is more pleasant to me to keep such an account, than to let it alone; why may I not proceed in my supererogatories? —There can be no harm in it. It keep up my attention to accounts; which one day may be of use to me in more material instances. Those who will not keep a strict account, seldom long keep any . I neglect not more useful employments for it. And it teaches me to be covetous of time; the only thing of which we can be allowablycovetous; since we live but once in this world; and when gone, are gone from it for ever.’

 

O Mr. Belford! I can write no further on this subject. For, looking into the account-book for other particulars, I met with a most affecting memorandum; which, being written on the extreme edge of the paper, with a fine pen, and in the dear creature’s smallest hand, I saw not before. —This it is; written, I suppose, at some calamitous period after the day named in it—Help me to a curse to blast the monster who gave occasion for it!–‘April 10. The account concluded!—

 

‘And with it, all my worldly hopes and prospects!!!’

 

I take up my pen; but not to apologize for my execration. —Once more I pray to God to avenge me of him! — Me I say—For mine is the loss—Hers the gain.

 

O Sir! You did not, you could not know her, as I knew her! Never was such an excellence! —So warm, yet so cool a friend! —So much what I wish to be, but never shall be! —For, alas! my Stay, my Adviser, my Monitress, my Directress, is gone! for ever gone!

 

She honoured me with the title of The sister of her heart : But I was only so in the Love I bore her (A Love beyond a sister’s—infinitely beyond hersister’s!); in the hatred I have to every mean and sordid action; and in my Love of Virtue: —For, otherwise, I am of a high and haughty temper, as I have acknowleged before, and very violent in my passions.

 

In short, she was the nearest perfection of any creature I ever knew. She never preached to me lessons she practised not. She lived the life she taught. All humility, meekness, self-accusing, others-acquitting, tho’ the shadow of the fault hardly hers, the substance theirs whose only honour was their relation to her.

 

To lose such a Friend, such a Guide—If ever my violence was justifiable, it is upon this recollection! —For she only lived to make me sensible of my failings, but not long enough to enable me to conquer them; as I was resolved to endeavour to do.

 

Once more then let me execrate—But now violence and passion again predominate! —And how can it be otherwise?

 

But I force myself from the subject, having lost the purpose for which I resumed my pen.

 

 

A. Howe.

 

 

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