In this volume will be found all the excellences to which we are accustomed in this justly popular writer—a sweet and genial temper, able to sympathise with whatever is simple and healthful, balanced by a quick sense of folly, pretension, or morbid action in character; admirable good sense, ennobled by generous desires; a cultivated taste, and great comic power. When to these qualifications for observing men is added a familiar love of nature, with uncommon talents for description, it must be confessed that the combination of claims is rare. And Mrs. Kirkland has yet one more, that will not be less felt by the American reading public; and this is that, though she has received sufficient influence from the literature of the old world to refine and expand her powers, she belongs, both by her topics and the structure of her mind, to the new. She has represented a particular period in our social existence with so much success, that her works, though slight in their fabric, and familiar in their tone, are likely to have a permanent existence and enforce a permanent interest. She is only a sketcher, but with so clear an eye and vigorous a touch as to afford just views of the present and valuable suggestions for the future. As a specimen of the reflective portion of the book, take the following:
ARISTOCRACY.—The great ones of the earth might learn many a lesson from the little. What has a certain dignity on a comparatively large scale, is so simply laughable when it is seen in miniature, (and, unlike most other things, perhaps, its real features are better distinguished in the small,) that it must be wholesome to observe how what we love appears in those whom we do not admire. The monkey and the magpie are imitators; and when the one makes a thousand superfluous bows and grimaces, and the other hoards what can be of no possible use to him, we may, even in those, see a far off reflex of certain things prevalent among ourselves. Next in order come little children; and the boy will put a napkin about his neck for a cravat, and the girl supply her ideal of a veil, by pinning a pocket handkerchief to her bonnet, while we laugh at the self-deception, and fancy that we value only realities. But what affords us most amusement, is the awkward attempt of the rustic, to copy the airs and graces which have caught his fancy as he saw them exhibited in town; or, still more naturally, those which have been displayed on purpose to dazzle him, during the stay of some “mould of fashion” in the country. How exquisitely funny are his efforts and their failure! How the true hugs himself in full belief that the gulf between himself and the pseudo is impassable! Little dreams he that his own ill-directed longings after the distingué in air or in position seems to some more fortunate individual as far from being accomplished as those of the rustic to himself, while both, perhaps, owe more to the tailor and milliner than to any more dignified source.
The country imitates the town, most sadly; and it is really melancholy, to one who loves his kind, to see how unfortunately people will throw away real comforts and advantages in the vain chase of what does not belong to solitude and freedom. The restraints necessary to city life are there compensated by many advantages resulting from close contact with others; while in the country those restraints are simply odious, curtailing the real advantages of the position, yet entirely incapable of substituting those which belong to the city.
Real refinement is as possible in the one case as in the other. Would it were more heartily sought in both!
In the palmy days of alchemy, when the nature and powers of occult and intangible agents were deemed worthy the study of princes, the art of sealing hermetically was an essential one; since many a precious elixir would necessarily become unmanageable and useless if allowed to wander in the common air. This art seems now to be among the lost, in spite of the anxious efforts of sunning projectors; and at the present time a subtle essence, more volatile than the elixir of life—more valuable than the philosopher’s stone,—an invisible and imponderable but most real agent, long bottled up for the enjoyment of a privileged few, has burst its bounds and become part of our daily atmosphere. Some mighty sages still contrive to retain within their own keeping important portions of this treasure; but there are regions of the earth where it is open to all, and, in the opinion of the exclusive, sadly desecrated by having become an object of pursuit to the vulgar. Where it is still under a degree of control, the seal of Hermes is variously represented. In Russia, the supreme will of the Autocrat regulates the distribution of the “airy good:” in other parts of the Continent, ancient prescription still had the power to keep it within its due reservoirs. In France, its uses and advantages have been publically denied and repudiated; yet it is said that practically every body stands open-mouthed where it is known to be floating in the air, hoping to inhale as much as possible without the odium of seeming to gasp at what has been decided to be worthless. In England we are told that the precious fluid is still kept with great solicitude in a dingy receptacle called Almack’s, watched ever by certain priestesses, who are self-consecrated to an attendance more onerous than that required for maintaining the Vestal fire, and who yet receive neither respect nor gratitude for their pains. Indeed, the fine spirit has become so much diffused in England that it reminds us of the riddle of Mother Goose—
But can’t catch a bowl-full.
If such efforts in England amuse us, what shall we say of the agonized pursuit every where observable in our own country? We have denounced the fascinating gas as poisonous—we have staked our very existence upon excluding it from the land, yet it is the breath of our nostrils—the soul of our being—the one thing needful—for which we are willing to expend mind, body and estate. We exclaim against its operations in other lands, but in the purchaser descrying to others the treasure he would appropriate it to himself. We take much credit to ourselves for having renounced what all the rest of the world were pursuing, but our practice is like that of the toper who had forsworn drink, yet afterward perceiving the content’s of a brother sinner’s bottle to be spilt, could not further falling on his knees to drink the liquor from the frozen hoof-prints in the road; or that other votary indulgence, who, having once had the courage to pass a tavern, afterward turned back that he might “treat resolution.” We have satisfied our consciences by theory; we feel no compunction in making our practice just like that of the rest of the world.
This is true of the country generally; but it is nowhere so strikingly evident as in these remote regions which the noise of the great world reaches but at the rebound—as it were in faint echoes; and these very echoes changed from their original, as Paddy asserts of those of the Lake of Killarney. It would seem that our elixir vitæ—a strange anomaly—becomes stronger by dilution. Its power of fascination, at least, increases as it recedes from the fountain head. The Russian noble may refuse to let his daughter smile upon a suitor whose breast is not covered with orders; the German dignitary may insist on sixteen quarterings; the well-born Englishman may sigh to be admitted into a coterie not half as respectable or as elegant as the one to which he belongs—all this is consistent enough; but we must laugh when we see the managers of a clay ball admit the daughters of wholesale merchants who sell at retail; and still more when we come to the “new country” and observe that Mrs. Penniman, who takes in sewing, utterly refuses to associate with with her neighbor, Mrs. Clapp, because she goes out sewing by the day; and that our friend Mr. Diggins, being raised a step in the world by the last situation, signs all his letters of friendship, “D. Diggins, Sheriff.”
This is a specimen of the fun of a Western introduction. How happy it would make some of us who are not through a native love for gossip, forearmed with such particulars as to those to whom we are likely to be presented, if a similar full announcement was customary on “the seaboard.” It would save such a world of questioning and beating about the bush.
“Miss Wiggins, let me make you acquainted with an uncle of HIS’N, just come down from Ionia county, the town of Freemantle, village of Breadalbane—come away up here to mill, (they ha’n’t no mills yet, up there). Uncle, this is Miss Wiggins, John Wiggins’s wife, up yonder on the hill, t’other side o’ the mash—you can see the house from here. She s come down to meetin’.”
With regard to this same designation of His’n, we have seen it remarked by a celebrated French writer as a beautiful trait of the women of Brittany that, in speaking of their husbands, they always say He, or Him, only, thinking it unnecessary to name him, as if the other party must know there could be no other man in the world to them. Just so affectionately says the German woman, “My Man,” in speaking of her husband; and he, no less, “My Woman,” in speaking of her. The country women of New-England, as well as the Western States, share this trait of patriarchal tenderness with those of Brittany. What is to be inferred from adding the word Old to My Woman, and My Man, we do not know; one would not think “My Old Woman” a phrase of endearment, unless, indeed, it means that the parties are willing to grow old together.
The essay on “Idle People” is one of the most graceful in the book. The mode of making religious marriages spoken of in “Chances and Changes,” was new to us.*
“Western Clearings, by C.M. Kirkland . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 21 November 1845, p. 1.