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   Chapter 12 ST. JOHN’S WOOD AND WIMBLEDON

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 23486

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Mary Lamb passed the later years of her life in a sort of nursing home at St. John's Wood, and in her happier intervals kept up a pleasant acquaintance with some of the notable circle of friends who had gathered about her and her brother aforetime; among others, with the Hoods, who were then living in the same locality. Crabb Robinson mentions in his Diary how he made a call on Mary Lamb, and finding her well over one of her periodical attacks, "quite in possession of her faculties and recollecting nearly everything," he accompanied her on a visit to the Hoods, who were lodging at 17 Elm Tree Road.

Perhaps one of the most graphic pictures we have of Hood's home life, and incidentally of Hood himself and his wife and of Charles and Mary Lamb, is contained in the account that has been left by Miss Mary Balmanno of an evening she spent with the Hoods when they were making their home in Robert Street, Adelphi: "Bound in the closest ties of friendship with the Hoods, with whom we also were in the habit of continually associating, we had the pleasure of meeting Charles Lamb at their house one evening, together with his sister, and several other friends.... In outward appearance Hood conveyed the idea of a clergyman. His figure slight, and invariably dressed in black; his face pallid; the complexion delicate, and features regular: his countenance bespeaking sympathy by its sweet expression of melancholy and suffering.

"Lamb was of a different mould and aspect. Of middle height, with brown and rather ruddy complexion, grey eyes expressive of sense and shrewdness, but neither large nor brilliant; his head and features well shaped, and the general expression of his countenance quiet, kind, and observant, undergoing rapid changes in conversation, as did his manner, variable as an April day, particularly to his sister, whose saint-like good humour and patience were as remarkable as his strange and whimsical modes of trying them. But the brother and sister perfectly understood each other, and 'Charles,' as she always called him, would not have been the Charles of her loving heart without the pranks and oddities which he was continually playing off upon her, and which were only outnumbered by the instances of affection and evidences of ever-watchful solicitude with which he surrounded her.

"Miss Lamb, although many years older than her brother, by no means looked so, but presented the pleasant appearance of a mild, rather stout and comely lady of middle age. Dressed with Quaker-like simplicity in dove-coloured silk, with a transparent kerchief of snow-white muslin folded across her bosom, she at once prepossessed the beholder in her favour by an aspect of serenity and peace. Her manners were very quiet and gentle, and her voice low. She smiled frequently, and seldom laughed, partaking of the courtesies and hospitalities of her merry host and hostess with all the cheerfulness and grace of a most mild and kindly nature. Her behaviour to her brother was like that of an admiring disciple; her eyes seldom absent from his face. And when apparently engrossed in conversation with others, she would, by supplying some word for which he was at a loss, even when talking in a distant part of the room, show how closely her mind waited upon his. Mr. Lamb was in high spirits, sauntering about the room with his hands crossed behind his back, conversing by fits and starts with those most familiarly known to him...."

She goes on to describe how Miss Kelly, the actress, amused them by impersonating a character she was taking in a new play, and "Mrs. Hood's eyes sparkled with joy, as she saw the effect it had produced upon her husband, whose pale face, like an illuminated comic mask, shone with fun and good humour. Never was a happier couple than the Hoods; 'mutual reliance and fond faith' seemed to be their motto. Mrs. Hood was a most amiable woman-of excellent manners, and full of sincerity and goodness. She perfectly adored her husband, tending him like a child, whilst he, with unbounded affection, seemed to delight to yield himself to her guidance. Nevertheless, true to his humorous nature, he loved to tease her with jokes and whimsical accusations, which were only responded to by, 'Hood, Hood, how can you run on so?'

"The evening was concluded by a supper, one of those elegant social repasts which Flemish artists delight to paint.... Mr. Lamb oddly walked round the table, looking closely at any dish that struck his fancy before he would decide where to sit, telling Mrs. Hood that he should by that means know how to select some dish that was difficult to carve and take the trouble off her hands; accordingly, having jested in this manner, he placed himself with great deliberation before a lobster salad, observing that was the thing.

"Mr. Hood, with inexpressible gravity in the upper part of his face and his mouth twitching with smiles, sang his own comic song of 'If you go to France be sure you learn the lingo'; his pensive manner and feeble voice making it doubly ludicrous. Mr. Lamb, on being pressed to sing, excused himself in his own peculiar manner, but offered to pronounce a Latin eulogium instead. This was accepted, and he accordingly stammered forth a long stream of Latin words; among which, as the name of Mrs. Hood frequently occurred, we ladies thought it in praise of her. The delivery of this speech occupied about five minutes. On inquiring of a gentleman who sat next me whether Mr. Lamb was praising Mrs. Hood, he informed me that was by no means the case, the eulogium being on the lobster salad! Thus, in the gayest of moods, progressed and concluded a truly merry little social supper, worthy in all respects of the author of Whims and Oddities."

But all this, when the Hoods came to St. John's Wood, lay thirteen years behind them, and Lamb had been eight years dead. Quitting the Adelphi in 1829, Hood went to Winchmore Hill, then to Wanstead; then, after some five years of residence in Germany and Belgium, he returned to England, and made his home for a short time at Camberwell, and thence in 1842 removed to St. John's Wood-at first to rooms at 17 Elm Tree Road, and in 1844 to a house of his own, "Devonshire Lodge," in the Finchley Road-a house that the guide-books all tell us was demolished, but since I started to write this chapter the London County Council has identified as "Devonshire Lodge" the house that still stands in Finchley Road, immediately adjoining the Marlborough Road station of the Metropolitan Railway; and here it was that Hood died on the 3rd of May 1845.

TOM HOOD'S HOUSE. ST JOHN'S WOOD.

The room in which he worked at 17 Elm Tree Road gave him a view of Lord's Cricket Ground, and he complained that this was a drawback, because "when he was at work he could often see others at play." He caricatured the landlady of the house, who had "a large and personal love of flowers," and made her the heroine of his Mrs. Gardiner, A Horticultural Romance. From Elm Tree Road he went to attend the dinner at Greenwich that was given to Dickens on his second return from America; and describing this dissipation in a letter to a friend he says, "You will be pleased to hear that, in spite of my warnings and forebodings, I got better and betterer, till by dining, as the physicians did, on turtle soup, white-bait, and champagne, I seemed quite well." He was to have been chairman at the dinner, but excused himself on the score of ill-health, and Captain Marryat took his place. The diners included, in addition to Dickens himself, Moncton Milnes, Forster, Clarkson Stanfield, Ainsworth, Landseer (another St. John's Wood resident), Cruikshank, Cattermole, "Ingoldsby" Barham, and Barry Cornwall. Being called upon for a speech, Hood said he supposed they drank his health because he was a notorious invalid, but assured the company that the trembling of his hand was neither from palsy nor ague, but that their wishes had already so improved his circulation and filled him with genial warmth that his hand had a natural inclination to shake itself with every one present. Whereupon everybody within reach, and some who were not, insisted upon shaking hands with him. "Very gratifying, wasn't it?" he finishes his letter. "Though I cannot go quite so far as Jane, who wants me to have that hand chopped off, bottled, and preserved in spirits. She was sitting up for me, very anxiously, as usual when I go out, because I am so domestic and steady, and was down at the door before I could ring at the gate, to which Boz kindly sent me in his own carriage. Poor girl! what would she do if she had a wild husband instead of a tame one."

Dickens, at that date, lived at 1 Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone Road; they had probably driven up together from Greenwich, and the carriage had come the mile or so further on with Hood after leaving Dickens at his own door. Dickens was one of the many visitors who have helped to make Hood's St. John's Wood residence memorable; there is a record of his being there, with his wife and sister and Daniel Maclise, in December 1842. At Elm Tree Road, for all his broken health, Hood worked hard at editing and writing for the New Monthly Magazine, and, after resigning from that, for Hood's Monthly Magazine. One letter of his, dated from 17 Elm Tree Road, on the 18th July 1843, is headed "From my bed"; for he was frequently bedridden for days and weeks at a stretch, but sat propped up with pillows, writing and sketching with unabated industry. He was contributing also in these days to Punch, and to Douglas Jerrold's Illuminated Magazine. In November 1843 he wrote here, for Punch, his grim Drop of Gin:

"Gin! Gin! a drop of Gin!

What magnified monsters circle therein!

Ragged, and stained with filth and mud,

Some plague-spotted, and some with blood!

Shapes of misery, shame, and sin!

Figures that make us loathe and tremble,

Creatures scarce human, that more resemble

Broods of diabolical kin,

Ghost and vampyre, demon and Jin!..."

But a far greater poem than this, The Song of the Shirt, was also written at Elm Tree Road. "Now mind, Hood, mark my words," said Mrs. Hood, when he was putting up the manuscript for the post, "this will tell wonderfully. It is one of the best things you ever did." And the results justified her. The verses appeared in the Christmas Number of Punch for 1843, and not only trebled the circulation of that paper, but within a very short time had at least doubled Hood's reputation, though Eugene Aram, The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, and Lycus the Centaur, had long preceded it. Probably no poem ever stirred the national conscience more deeply or created a profounder sensation. Shortly after its appearance Cowden Clarke met Hood, and has left a vivid description of his personal appearance in those last months of his life. His worn, pallid look, he says, "strangely belied the effect of jocularity and high spirits conveyed by his writings. He punned incessantly, but languidly, almost as if unable to think in any other way than in play upon words. His smile was attractively sweet; it bespoke the affectionate-natured man which his serious verses-those especially addressed to his wife or his children-show him to be, and it also revealed the depth of pathos in his soul that inspired his Bridge of Sighs, Song of the Shirt, and Eugene Aram."

THOMAS HOOD

There are many interesting points of resemblance between Hood and Lamb. Both were inveterate punsters; each had known poverty, and had come through hard experiences that had left their marks upon them, yet had never soured them or warped their sympathies. You may use the same epithets for both: they were homely, kindly, gentle, g

iven to freakish moods and whimsical jesting; the one was as unselfishly devoted to his sister as the other was to his wife and children; and in descriptions of Hood, as of Lamb, stress is laid on the peculiar wistfulness and sweetness of his smile. But after the East India Company had handsomely pensioned him off, Lamb had no further financial anxieties; whilst Hood had to suppress his finer gifts, and to the end of his days turn his hand to all manner of inferior but more popular work, that would enable him to keep the family pot boiling. And he was all the while fighting against disease as well as poverty. He could not afford to go into exile, like Stevenson, and lengthen his days and foster his wasting strength in a healthfuller climate. He was never rich enough to have any choice but to die in the place where he had to earn his living, and no man ever worked more manfully, or died at his post bravelier or with a more cheery philosophy.

Read the humorous preface he wrote for the volume of Hood's Own, whilst he lay ill abed there in his St. John's Wood house: it is the sort of humour that makes your heart ache, for you cannot forget that he was racked with pain and slowly dying whilst he wrote it. He jests about the aristocratic, ghastly slenderness of his fingers; his body, he says, may cry craven, but luckily his mind has no mind to give in. "'Things may take a turn,' as the pig said on the spit.... As to health? it's the weather of the body-it rains, it hails, it blows, it snows at present, but it may clear up by-and-by"; and in conclusion he mentions that the doctor tells him, "anatomically my heart is lower hung than usual, but what of that? The more need to keep it up!" Raised up in bed, with an improvised desk across his knees, he was hard at work, writing prose and verse and knocking off grotesque little drawings, and remained, as he said, "a lively Hood to get a livelihood," almost to his last hour. When, towards the end, his wife was trying to relieve his sufferings by putting a poultice on his emaciated body, he laughed up at her quizzically, and asked if she didn't think "it seemed a deal of mustard for such a little meat." He had moved into Devonshire Lodge, and was within sixteen months of his death when he wrote The Haunted House, and The Bridge of Sighs. "I fear that so far as I myself am concerned," he writes to Thackeray in August 1844, "King Death will claim me ere many months elapse. However, there's a good time coming, if not in this world, most assuredly in the next." When he was invited next month to attend a soirée at the Manchester Athen?um, he had to decline, and added, "For me all long journeys are over save one"; but a couple of months later he had written the Lay of the Labourer, for his magazine, and writing to Lord Lytton remarked that though the doctor had ordered him not to work he was compelled to do so, and "so it will be to the end. I must die in harness, like a hero-or a horse."

CHARLES DIBDIN. 34 ARLINGTON ROAD.

His dying hours were made easy by the pension of a hundred pounds that Sir Robert Peel kindly and tactfully settled on Mrs. Hood, and one of the last things he wrote on his lingering deathbed was a valediction that breathed all of resignation and hope:

"Farewell, Life! My senses swim

And the world is growing dim;

Thronging shadows cloud the light,

Like the advent of the night,-

Colder, colder, colder still

Upwards steals a vapour chill-

Strong the earthy odour grows-

I smell the Mould above the Rose!

Welcome, Life! The Spirit strives!

Strength returns, and hope revives;

Cloudy fears and shapes forlorn

Fly like shadows at the morn,-

O'er the earth there comes a bloom-

Sunny light for sullen gloom,

Warm perfume for vapour cold-

I smell the Rose above the Mould!"

Herbert Spencer lived in St. John's Wood for many years, at 7 Marlborough Gardens, 13 Loudon Road, and 64 Avenue Road successively. Within an easy walk of Avenue Road, at 34 Arlington Road, Camden Town, Charles Dibdin, whose memory survives in Tom Bowling, passed the last years of his life. And, back in St. John's Wood, at the Priory, 21 North Bank, in one of the numerous houses that were swept away when the Great Central Railway came to Marylebone, George Eliot lived from 1864 until 1880, when she removed to Chelsea. Before that, from 1860 till 1863, lived in a house in Blandford Square, which has also been demolished; but for nearly two years before going there she resided at Holly Lodge, which still survives, in the Wimbledon Park Road.

There is an entry in her Diary dated 6th February 1859: "Yesterday we went to take possession of Holly Lodge, which is to be our dwelling, we expect, for years to come. It was a deliciously fresh, bright day. I will accept the omen. A letter came from Blackwood telling me the result of the subscription to Adam Bede, which was published on the 1st: 730 copies, Mudie having taken 500 on the publisher's terms-10 per cent. off the sale price. At first he had stood out for a larger reduction, and would only take 50, but at last he came round. In this letter Blackwood tells me the first ab extra opinion of the book, which happened to be precisely what I most desired. A cabinetmaker (brother to Blackwood's managing clerk) had read the sheets, and declared the writer must have been brought up to the business, or at least had listened to the workmen in their workshop." She wrote that month to Miss Sara Hennell, "We are tolerably settled now, except that we have only a temporary servant; and I shall not be quite at ease until I have a trustworthy woman who will manage without incessant dogging. Our home is very comfortable, with far more vulgar indulgences in it than I ever expected to have again; but you must not imagine it a snug place, just peeping above the holly bushes. Imagine it rather as a tall cake, with a low garnish of holly and laurel. As it is, we are very well off, with glorious breezy walks, and wide horizons, well-ventilated rooms, and abundant water. If I allowed myself to have any longings beyond what is given, they would be for a nook quite in the country, far away from palaces-Crystal or otherwise-with an orchard behind me full of old trees, and rough grass and hedgerow paths among the endless fields where you meet nobody. We talk of such things sometimes, along with old age and dim faculties, and a small independence to save us from writing drivel for dishonest money."

GEORGE ELIOT. WIMBLEDON PARK.

The "we" in these entries means, of course, herself and George Henry Lewes; they formed an irregular union in 1854, and lived as husband and wife until his death in 1878. In George Eliot's Journal and letters are a good many other references to her life at Holly Lodge, of which the most interesting are perhaps the following:

April 29th, 1859 (from the Journal): "Finished a story, The Lifted Veil, which I began one morning at Richmond as a resource when my head was too stupid for more important work. Resumed my new novel" (this was The Mill on the Floss), "of which I am going to rewrite the two first chapters. I shall call it provisionally The Tullivers, or perhaps St. Ogg's on the Floss."

May 6th (from a letter to Major Blackwood): "Yes I am assured now that Adam Bede was worth writing-worth living through long years to write. But now it seems impossible to me that I shall ever write anything so good and true again. I have arrived at faith in the past but not faith in the future."

May 19th (from Journal): "A letter from Blackwood, in which he proposes to give me another £400 at the end of the year, making in all £1200, as an acknowledgment of Adam Bede's success."

June 8th (from a letter to Mrs. Congreve): "I want to get rid of this house-cut cable and drift about. I dislike Wandsworth, and should think with unmitigated regret of our coming here if it were not for you."

July 21st (from the Journal, on returning after a holiday in Switzerland): "Found a charming letter from Dickens, and pleasant letters from Blackwood-nothing to annoy us."

November 10th (from the Journal): "Dickens dined with us to-day for the first time."

December 15th (from the Journal): "Blackwood proposes to give me for The Mill on the Floss, £2000 for 4000 copies of an edition at 31s. 6d., and afterwards the same rate for any more copies printed at the same price; £150 for 1000 at 12s.; and £60 for 1000 at 6s. I have accepted."

January 3rd, 1860 (from a letter to John Blackwood): "We are demurring about the title. Mr. Lewes is beginning to prefer The House of Tulliver, or Life on the Floss, to our old notion of Sister Maggie. The Tullivers, or Life on the Floss has the advantage of slipping easily off the lazy English tongue, but it is after too common a fashion (The Newcomes, The Bertrams, &c., &c.). Then there is The Tulliver Family, or Life on the Floss. Pray meditate and give us your opinion."

January 16th, 1860 (from the Journal): "Finished my second volume this morning, and am going to send off the MS. of the first volume to-morrow. We have decided that the title shall be The Mill on the Floss."

February 23rd (from a letter to John Blackwood): "Sir Edward Lytton called on us yesterday. The conversation lapsed chiefly into monologue, from the difficulty I found in making him hear, but under all disadvantages I had an agreeable impression of his kindness and sincerity. He thinks the two defects of Adam Bede are the dialect and Adam's marriage with Dinah, but of course I would have my teeth drawn rather than give up either."

GEORGE ELIOT'S HOUSE. CHELSEA.

July 1st (from a letter to Madame Bodichon, on returning to Holly Lodge after a two months' holiday in Italy): "We are preparing to renounce the delights of roving, and to settle down quietly, as old folks should do.... We have let our present house."

One interesting memorial of the life at Holly Lodge is the MS. of The Mill on the Floss, on which is inscribed in George Eliot's handwriting: "To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21st March 1860."

The publication of The Mill on the Floss, and, in the three succeeding years, of Silas Marner and Romola, carried George Eliot to the height of her fame, and by the time she was living in North Bank, St. John's Wood, she had her little circle of adoring worshippers, who, like George Henry Lewes, took her very seriously indeed. That sort of hero-worship was customary in those days, unless the worshipped one had too strong a sense of humour to put up with it. There is a passage in the Autobiography of Mr. Alfred Austin giving a brief account of a visit he paid to George Eliot. "We took the first opportunity," he says, "of going to call on her at her request in St. John's Wood. But there I found pervading her house an attitude of adoration, not to say an atmosphere almost of awe, thoroughly alien to my idea that persons of genius, save in their works, should resemble other people as much as possible, and not allow any special fuss to be made about them. I do not say the fault lay with her." But you find the same circumstance spoken to elsewhere, and the general notion you gather is that George Eliot rather enjoyed this being pedestalled, and accepted the incense of her reverent little circle with a good deal of complacency.

In 1878 Lewes died, and in March 1880 George Eliot was married to John Cross. They left St. John's Wood on the 3rd of the following December and went to 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where George Eliot died on the 22nd of the same month.

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