Dorothy Osborne's fragrant personality exhales from her letters like the perfume from a flower. As revealed to us she is entirely lovable. Her portrait shows a fine, delicate, thoughtful face, with sad, courageous eves and firm lips.
She seems the human embodiment of the spirit of some noble old manor in some lost corner of England, with its dignity, reserve, repose, and dream-like beauty, its placid gardens and long, green walks, where peacocks trail their heavy plumage between yew hedges. The keynote to her character was a sweet reasonableness, and to this all her days were attuned. Born in 1627 of a Royalist family, her life was uneventful enough, simple in its absorption in one great love.
She lived quietly with her father and brother at Chicksands, the home of the Osbornes in Oxfordshire, and it is of her life in these surroundings that her letters are a record. She had sadness enough, however, in spite of the evenness of her days, since her marriage with Sir William Temple was bitterly opposed by her relations, and a period full of discouragement had to be lived through before the lovers ultimately had their will. There can be no question as to the profundity of Dorothy's feelings, but it is in this her reasonableness chiefly shows itself, that where a woman of more passionate temperament might have defied her family and all other obstacles, and rushed headlong into marriage, she was content to wait. But the word passion is inappropriate as applied to Dorothy - she is too much like a bunch of roses with the early morning dew upon them. Temple was more reckless, and had it not been for Dorothy's cool, guiding hand their story might have ended less happily.
Many of Dorothy's letters can scarcely be described as love-letters at all - they are charming, delicate impressions of her daily life. She had the power of capturing on the wing the most evanescent moments, and of preserving them uninjured for ever. From time to time the smooth, gracious surface is broken by a sudden upheaval from the depths beneath, which changes the brave note in her voice to one of acute weariness.
But women of Dorothy's type, whatever they may have to endure, are too much interested in the details and incongruities of daily life - in their friends, in all the subtleties and shades of existence - ever to grow morbid. Dorothy was too essentially a creature of sunlight to linger longer than she need among shadows. To women like Heloise life without large emotions is meaningless; but women like Dorothy, find consolation in all things. Between them a great gulf of temperament is fixed, but alike they possess the gift of loving.
The following extract shows Dorothy in one of her playful moods, describing her reception of one of Temple's letters:
"Your last letter came like a pardon to one upon the block. I had given over the hopes on't, having received my letters by the other carrier, who was always wont to be last. The loss put me hugely out of order, and you would have both pitied and laughed at me if you could have seen how woodenly I entertained the widow, who came hither the day before, and surprised me very much. Not being able to say anything, I got her to cards, and there, with a great deal of patience, lost my money to her - or rather I gave it as my ransom. In the midst of our play in comes my blessed boy with your letter, and, in earnest, I was not able to disguise the joy it gave me, though one was by who is not much your friend, and took notice of a blush that, for my life, I could not keep back. I put up the letter in my pocket, and made what haste I could to lose the money I had left, that I might take occasion to go and fetch some more; but I did not make so much haste back again, I can assure you. I took time enough to have coined myself some money, if I had the art on't, and left my brother enough to make all his addresses to her, if he were so disposed. I know not whether he was pleased or not, but I am sure I was."
Here is an account by Dorothy of how she spent her days:
" You ask me how I pass my time here. I can give you a perfect account not only of what I do for the present, but of what I am likely to do these seven years, if I stay here so long. I rise in the morning reasonably early, and, before I am ready, I go round the house till I am weary of that, and then into the garden till it grows too hot for me.
" About ten o'clock I think of making me ready, and when that's done I go into my father's chamber, from whence to dinner, where my cousin Mollie and I sit in great state in a room and at a table which would hold a great many more. After dinner we sit and talk till Mr. B. comes in question, and then I am gone. The heat of the day is spent in reading or working, and about six or seven o'clock I walk out into a common that lies hard by the house, where a great many young wenches keep sheep and cows, and sit in the shade singing of ballads. I go to them and compare their voices and beauties to some ancient shepherdesses that I have read of, and find a vast difference there; but, trust me, I think these are as innocent as those could be. I talk to them, and find they want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world but the knowledge that they are so."