These practical problems Margaret had to entertain and to solve the best way she could. She says truly, there was none to take up her burden whilst she slept. But she was formed for action, and addressed herself quite simply to her part. She was a woman, an orphan, without beauty, without money; and these negatives will suggest what difficulties were to be surmounted where the tasks dictated by her talents required the good-will of “good society,” in the town where she was to teach and write. But she was even-tempered and erect, and, if her journals are sometimes mournful, her mind was made up, her countenance beamed courage and cheerfulness around her. Of personal influence, speaking strictly,—an efflux, that is, purely of mind and character, excluding all effects of power, wealth, fashion, beauty, or literary fame,—she had an extraordinary degree; I think more than any person I have known. An interview with her was a joyful event. Worthy men and women, who had conversed with her, could not forget her, but worked bravely on in the remembrance that this heroic approver had recognized their aims. She spoke so earnestly, that the depth of the sentiment prevailed, and not the accidental expression, which might chance to be common. Thus I learned, the other day, that, in a copy of Mrs. Jameson’s Italian Painters, against a passage describing Correggio as a true servant of God in his art, above sordid ambition, devoted to truth, “one of those superior beings of whom there are so few;” Margaret wrote on the margin, ‘And yet all might be such.’ The book lay long on the table of the owner, in Florence, and chanced to be read there by a young artist of much talent. “These words,” said he, months afterwards, “struck out a new strength in me. They revived resolutions long fallen away, and made me set my face like a flint.”
But Margaret’s courage was thoroughly sweet in its temper. She accused herself in her youth of unamiable traits, but, in all the later years of her life, it is difficult to recall a moment of malevolence. The friends whom her strength of mind drew to her, her good heart held fast; and few persons were ever the objects of more persevering kindness. Many hundreds of her letters remain, and they are alive with proofs of generous friendship given and received.
Among her early friends, Mrs. Farrar, of Cambridge, appears to have discovered, at a critical moment in her career, the extraordinary promise of the young girl, and some false social position into which her pride and petulance, and the mistakes of others, had combined to bring her, and she set herself, with equal kindness and address, to make a second home for Margaret in her own house, and to put her on the best footing in the agreeable society of Cambridge. She busied herself, also, as she could, in removing all superficial blemishes from the gem. In a well-chosen travelling party, made up by Mrs. Farrar, and which turned out to be the beginning of much happiness by the friendships then formed’, Margaret visited, in the summer of 1835, Newport, New, York, and Trenton Falls; and, in the autumn, made the acquaintance, at Mrs. F.’s house, of Miss Martineau, whose friendship, at that moment, was an important stimulus to her mind.
Mrs. Farrar performed for her, thenceforward, all the offices of an almost maternal friendship. She admired her genius, and wished that all should admire it. She counselled and encouraged her, brought to her side the else unsuppliable aid of a matron and a lady, sheltered her in sickness, forwarded her plans with tenderness and constancy, to the last. I read all this in the tone of uniform gratitude and love with which this lady is mentioned in Margaret’s letters. Friendships like this praise both parties; and the security with which people of a noble disposition approached Margaret, indicated the quality of her own infinite tenderness. A very intelligent woman applied to her what Stilling said of Goethe: “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew;” and added, that, “in character, Margaret was, of all she had beheld, the largest woman, and not a woman who wished to be a man.” Another lady added, “She never disappointed you. To any one whose confidence she had once drawn out, she was thereafter faithful. She could talk of persons, and never gossip; for she had a fine instinct that kept her from any reality, and from any effect of treachery.” I was still more struck with the remark that followed. “Her life, since she went abroad, is wholly unknown to me; but I have an unshaken trust that what Margaret did she can defend.”
She was a right brave and heroic woman. She shrunk from no duty, because of feeble nerves. Although, after her father died, the disappointment of not going to Europe with Miss Martineau and Mrs. Farrar was extreme, and her mother and sister wished her to take her portion of the estate and go; and, on her refusal, entreated the interference of friends to overcome her objections; Margaret would not hear of it, and devoted herself to the education of her brothers and sisters, and then to the making a home for the family. She was exact and punctual in money matters, and maintained herself, and made her full contribution to the support of her family, by the reward of her labors as a teacher, and in her conversation classes. I have a letter from her at Jamaica Plain, dated November, 1840, which begins,—
‘This day I write you from my own hired house, and am full of the dignity of citizenship. Really, it is almost happiness. I retain, indeed, some cares and responsibilities; but these will sit light as feathers, for I can take my own time for them. Can it be that this peace will be mine for five whole months? At any rate, five days have already been enjoyed.’
Here is another, written in the same year:—
‘I do not wish to talk to you of my ill-health, except that I like you should know when it makes me do anything badly, since I wish you to excuse and esteem me. But let me say, once for all, in reply to your letter, that you are mistaken if you think I ever wantonly sacrifice my health. I have learned that we cannot injure ourselves without injuring others; and besides, that we have no right; for ourselves are all we know of heaven. I do not try to domineer over myself. But, unless I were sure of dying, I cannot dispense with making some exertion, both for the present and the future. There is no mortal, who, if I laid down my burden, would take care of it while I slept. Do not think me weakly disinterested, or, indeed, disinterested at all.’
Every one of her friends knew assuredly that her sympathy and aid would not fail them when required. She went, from the most joyful of all bridals, to attend a near relative during a formidable surgical operation. She was here to help others. As one of her friends writes, ‘She helped whoever knew her.’ She adopted the interests of humble persons, within her circle, with heart-cheering warmth, and her ardor in the cause of suffering and degraded women, at Sing-Sing, was as irresistible as her love of books. She had, many years afterwards, scope for the exercise of all her love and devotion, in Italy, but she came to it as if it had been her habit and her natural sphere. The friends who knew her in that country, relate, with much surprise, that she, who had all her lifetime drawn people by her wit, should recommend herself so highly, in Italy, by her tenderness and large affection. Yet the tenderness was only a face of the wit; as before, the wit was raised above all other wit by the affection behind it. And, truly, there was an ocean of tears always, in her atmosphere, ready to fall.
There was, at New York, a poor adventurer, half patriot, half author, a miserable man, always in such depths of distress, with such squadrons of enemies, that no charity could relieve, and no intervention save him. He believed Europe banded for his destruction, and America corrupted to connive at it. Margaret listened to these woes with such patience and mercy, that she drew five hundred dollars, which had been invested for her in a safe place, and put them in those hapless hands, where, of course, the money was only the prey of new rapacity, to be bewailed by new reproaches. When one of her friends had occasion to allude to this, long afterwards, she replied:—
‘In answer to what you say of ——, I wish, indeed the little effort I made for him had been wiselier applied. Yet these are not the things one regrets. It will not do to calculate too closely with the affectionate human impulse. We must consent to make many mistakes, or we should move too slow to help our brothers much. I am sure you do not regret what you spent on Miani, and other worthless people. As things looked then, it would have been wrong not to have risked the loss.’
All Sub-Works of Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.