• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Master of Letters

As a traveler, FitzGerald was disposed to think everywhere inferior to England. In June 1856 he was in France and Germany, but with very little pleasure:

Yesterday week we got to Paris; put up at a good inn fronting the Tuileries; wondered at the whole Palace of the Louvre, which is very wonderful; admired some of the Pictures within: drove about: walked about: dined about: and on Sunday went a journey of eight hours to Strasbourg; which is a quaint and diverting City enough. The famous Cathedral is, I think, a failure: looking not nearly so high as one hears it is; and the inside quite inferior (as are all the others I have seen) to half a dozen of our own in Grandeur and Solemnity…. On Monday we railed to Frankfurt: a fine opulent city on the Rhine: slept at Mayence, also a fine, lively, garrisoned City: and on Tuesday descended the famous Rhine: which is, I think, and as I expected, quite a failure: not a bit better in its best parts than parts of the River Dart, for instance: its color dirty; its banks inferior in Colour, both of Rock and Tree, to much in England. It is this drier Climate, I suppose, that does not clothe the Rock with many-coloured lichen and moss like ours; and the Rock itself is not varied by that metallic hue which gives so much colour to the Rocks at Tenby and Torquay. We at last got to Cologne, having a very pleasant Dinner on board, and wondering at the German Appetite: just stopped at Cologne to see the German Cathedral—also quite inferior to ours, I thought, in Depth and Solemnity; and slept at Aix-la-Chapelle, where there is another Cathedral one cares very little about; though it mainly consists of a barbarous Byzantine looking Temple-Church which I liked more than the Gothic Choir….

This largely calamitous journey was sweetened for FitzGerald by the company of William Kenworthy Browne, who for twenty-four years had been the object of his unbounded admiration. As to whether or not that admiration remained inactive, in sexual terms, the Terhunes do not venture and opinion. Browne was sixteen years old when FitzGerald met him on a coastal steam packet, and it is beyond question that, as our editors put it, “they later lodged at the same boarding house in Tenby.” FitzGerald was ever outspoken in his praises of Browne’s beauty, vivacity, high intelligence, and responsiveness to art and literature. In later years there was added his sterling quality as “Farmer, Magistrate, Militia Officer—father of a Family—of more use in a week than I in my life long.” But in this, as in later attachments of the same kind, there is no reason to suppose that FitzGerald ever attempted, or ever wished, to give sexual expression to his feelings. Like many other eminent Victorians, he had shut the door on that aspect of life and saw no need to open it.

Yet there is no doubt whatever that his feelings for his own sex went far beyond an everyday delight in companionship. After Browne died, for instance, FitzGerald found himself roaming the Suffolk foreshore by night and longing, by his own account, “for some fellow to accost me who might give some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart.” But all he asked of a fellow of that kind was that he should have a pretty and dutiful wife, with pretty and well-behaved children, in a pretty and well-kept house where FitzGerald could from time to time pay a decorous visit.

Meanwhile he had that other master trait of the eminent Victorian: the ability to give expression to grief. Not for him the stiff upper lip of legend: when Browne was dying of a fall from his horse, FitzGerald wrote to another friend as follows:

Saw him on Thursday—Death in his Face and Voice—the Blooming Lad and resolute Man I remembered now stretched out on a Bed for eight weeks—a mere shattered Carcase below; and above the Sheets, a Face like—something like—Charles I—after Death! And to hear the old familiar Words, so lightly spoken (yet so truly) for so many Years—“My dear Fitz—old Fel-low,” etc., now with difficulty articulated…. He read the 51st Psalm aloud at Midnight, his Nurse holding Book and Candle before him, a week ago: how could he have remembered there was that about the “broken bones” in it? But he was always observing, when no one gave him Credit for it. Once he had his Bed wheeled to the Window to look abroad: but he saw the Hawthornes coming into leaf, and he bid them take him back…. There was his new House all hung with the Pictures we had bought together for twenty years! So many Books too with “EFG to WKB” written within. Oh, the last words he wrote too were to me on Thursday morning—in the Hand of a Child’s First Attempt—to ask me to go to him. “I love you very—whenever—WKB.”

That is the man who had said of himself that he had merely, “what Goethe calls the ‘Barber’s talent’ of easy narrative of easy things—can tell of Barton, and of Chesterton Inn, but not of Atreus, and the Alps.” In reality, FitzGerald could give to everyday things an intensity of expression that fixes them once and for all; and in writing of music, art, literature, and the theater he could bring the subject alive with phrase after phrase that we recognize as definitive. He was a champion rememberer, and all the more so as he got older. On London, for instance:

I always remember the “shady side” of the long well-watered Streets, and the smell of Mignonette and Roses in the Balconies—in the days when “Medea in Corinto” with Pasta figured out into the dear old “King’s Theatre,” and Edmund Kean could yet totter on to the stage as Othello—never to be forgotten in his last Decay.

He had very high standards, and saw no reason to adjust them downward. Alfred Tennyson was one of his oldest friends, but FitzGerald never hesitated to say that what he wrote in later life might as well be trashed. His stage adaptation of Boccaccio’s The Falcon, for instance: “What reads lightly and gracefully in Boccaccio’s Prose would surely not do well when drawn out into dramatic Detail: two People reconciled to Love over a roasted Hawk, about as unsavoury a Bird to eat as an Owl. No doubt there was a Chicken substitute at the St. James’s….”

Altogether, he was an exacting audience at the theater. In his seventieth year he did not hesitate to interrupt Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the day, when he thought that his Hamlet was not up to snuff. (“When he got to ‘Something too much of this,’ I called out from the Pit door where I stood, ‘A great deal too much,’ and not long after returned to my solitary inn.”) Though tempted by a performance of Mozart’s Figaro at that same period, he turned it down: “I should probably only have got out of tune with the performance, so much altered from my remembrances of Sontag and Malibran. I think that it is now best to attend these Operas as given in the Theatre of one’s own recollections.”1

FitzGerald’s was fundamentally a fiery and demanding nature. He enjoyed corresponding with Fanny Kemble, for instance, and went so far as to ask for her photograph,2 but when she was on the stage he found her activities embarrassing. (Less so, however, when she threw off the characteristics of her sex and gave a spirited reading of one of Shakespeare’s more forthright masculine roles.) He thought that most of the women authors of the day (George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning not excepted) were ridiculous. (“Trollope I can read for ever—though I generally forget what I read: but I do think he is much profounder in Character than that dreadful Evans [George Eliot], only he goes along so easily that people think him shallow.”) His loyalties were fixed and firm: Homer (the Odyssey only), Montaigne, Cervantes, Madame de Sévigné, Thackeray, the young Alfred Tennyson, and Dryden: “Dryden’s prose, quoad prose, is the finest Style of all.” To these should be added Charles Lamb. “I am told,” FitzGerald wrote in 1878, “that the present Generation ‘sneers’ at C. Lamb. But his turn will come again, I feel sure—his Letters. ‘Saint Charles!’ said old Thackeray to me in a third floor in Charlotte Street thirty years ago, putting one of C.L.’s letters to his forehead.”

FitzGerald’s outward bearing did not announce the ferocity of his tastes and distastes. As William Plomer describes him, he would “walk into Woodbridge wearing an old Inverness cape and a flowered satin waistcoat, with slippers on his feet and a handkerchief tied over his hat; in cold weather trailing a plaid shawl, or in hot weather walking barefoot with his boots slung on a stick. At home he generally wore an Oblomov dressing gown, slippers, and a top hat, and he seldom took off his hat except when he wanted his handkerchief, which he kept inside it.”

His were disorderly ways. “It was the oddest melange,” one friend wrote of his hospitality. “Tea, porter, ale, wine, brandy, cigars, cold lamb, salad, cucumber, bread and cheese; no precise line of demarcation between tea and supper. It was one continuous spread, something coming on fresh every ten minutes till we wondered whence they came and whither they could be put. ‘Gentlemen, the resources of the cottage are exhaustless,’ shouted our host.” FitzGerald at that time was already in his middle thirties, but in his notion of a good time he was back on King’s Parade in Cambridge.

Even when he was an old man, and his bones creaked, he was faithful to a dream of untrammeled first youth that we may situate somewhere between Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest and an Anglicized Three Musketeers. In their various ways Tennyson, Thackeray, and Carlyle were all devoted to him—Carlyle spoke of him as a “peaceable, affectionate and ultra-modest man, with an innocent, fa niente life”—but we may suspect that among his lifelong friends none amused him more than Alfred Tennyson’s older brother Frederick. Frederick Tennyson (described by one of his family as “sinister in aspect and terrific in manner”) was the archetypal English expatriate in Italy. In a great hall reputedly designed by Michelangelo he had forty violinists to amuse him after dinner; and FitzGerald delighted in the fact that when Her Majesty’s Ship Bellerophon was anchored off the Italian coast Frederick Tennyson and a party of English friends “fought a cricket match with the crew of the ‘Bellerophon’ on the Parthenopoean Hills and sacked the sailors by ninety runs. Is not this pleasant?—the notion of good English blood striving in wornout Italy—I like that such men as Frederick should be abroad: so strong, haughty, and passionate.”

What FitzGerald admired in Frederick Tennyson was precisely what he himself lacked: the ability to take life by the scruff of its neck and shake it. Yet FitzGerald had a headlong sense of honor—it was for that reason that he committed himself to a brief and monumentally miscalculated marriage—and he had powers of industry that were none the less real for being so carefully concealed. When Carlyle asked him to look into the battle of Naseby (which had been fought on ground which at the time belonged to FitzGerald’s mother) he did it with a thoroughness that in later times would have earned him a PhD. When he translated the Rubáiyát he applied himself to his Persian studies with a momentum that quite belied his languid and pernickety account of himself. (In the course of his work he said of the Rubáiyát, “What is the use of Good Advice? Here is a Book of Capital Wisdom as current as a Proverb for near 1000 years in a Nation which yet has been [has it not?] about as cruel and degraded as any?”) In making his translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, late in life, he once again displayed an intellectual energy that does not at all bear out his portrait of himself as someone who had long before settled for an inactive existence and the pleasure of looking at “anemones steeped in Tyrian dyes and Irises of a newer and more brilliant prism than Noah saw in the clouds.”

It would be a pleasure to say that when he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton and James Russell Lowell he was at his best. But in his letters to these eminent Americans he edited and recycled his material until we sense a self-consciousness and a wish to shine that were normally quite foreign to his nature. Nor did his comments on American literature do him justice, for he comes across in them as both hasty and pert. But in general his was an exemplary old age. He saw the point of “the Phonograph, which goest to realize our old Munchausen’s Horn,” and of “the Photograph, which is revealing new Secrets of the old Sun.” He recognized in the Russia of the late 1870s “a country that has all her History before her.” He read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in the 1870s, though he didn’t much care for it, and he saw through the kind of magazine that “dishes up old things in new ways for a new Generation of Readers, who will read only Epitome and Abstract.” As for music, he gave up both piano and organ in the end, but still “went over some of the old Immortals in my head, especially when wrapt up in the bedclothes.”

And it was under the bedclothes, in the house of an old friend, that he died, soundlessly and without warning, after having led one of the most blameless of recorded lives. He little knew, nor would have cared to boast, that a hundred years later he would rank with “St. Charles Lamb” as one of the best letter-writers in the English language.

  1. 1

    Not surprisingly, if we may judge by the Così fan tutte which he went to in January, 1873. “The Singing was inferior: but the Music itself! Between the Acts a Man sang a song of Verdi’s: which was a strange Contrast, to be sure: one of Verdi’s heavy Airs, however: for he has a true Genius of his own, though not Mozart’s.”

  2. 2

    She is to sit for her Photo at my express Desire, and I have given her Instructions how to sit, derived from my own successful Experience. One rule is to sit in a dirty Shirt (to avoid dangerous White) and another is not to sit on a Sunshiny Day: which we must leave to the Young.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print