Solomon's love of nature - An old letter - Zola and fresh air - Old Harwich inn and curious specimen of Clematis Vitalba - Mesem-bryanthemums for cliff gardens - An old monastery fruit-wall - Three Pergolas - A long-wanted book on trees and shrubs- An old Suffolk breviary - Stories - Wild flowers for garden culture - Wellingtonias on a German hillside - Chrysanthemum culture - Mr. Morley's gift to Cambridge.
October 1st sees me once more on my dearly loved East Coast, with its splendid air, its open skies, its flat distances, its boundless seas, and, for me, its kind friends. This summer brought me back an old letter written in my middle age to a young niece during one of my first visits to Suffolk many years ago when out of health. At that time I had worldly ambitions, though rather for others than myself, and a simple, unartificial rural life would have been impossible to me in spite of my strong love of Nature. The only vocations which seem to combine creative work with the simplicity of an unworldly life, and yet give scope to great ambition, are those of the artist and the author, and as neither of these was for me my love of Nature found its main vent in admiration of those in whose lives it had played a dominant part. Let those who have this love of Nature never crush it, for did not the writer of old thus describe the wisdom of Solomon ? - 'For he was wiser than all men ; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about.And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssopthatspringeth out of the wall:he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creepingthings, and of fishes.' - 1 Kings iv. 31-33.
The finder of my letter writes: 'I have been all the morning in the attic, which is truly an Aladdin's palace of riches and surprises. We were choosing books to have in our London home, and out of a "Life of Benvenuto
Cellini" fell this fat human document.We have read it, and I send it to you, knowing it will be a thrillingly interesting memory to you.We have so loved reading it, and I feel tempted to shake all the books in the hopes of finding more !'
southwold, July 23, 1886.
. . . About friendship, dear, you can judge, about love - don't think me a horrid old thing coming over you with that odious thing experience - you must allow me to say you cannot judge, either its nature or its power, because you have not tried it. It will come some day, and you will be the first to admit it is different, and that the grasp of the smiling boy is all powerful.
I have come across here to-day one of those strange stories of life which are more moving than any novel. We went to see, M. and I, an old lady, a fisherman's widow. She was about seventy, strong and handsome, and weather-beaten, very rough at first, and then the intelligence, refinement, and talent came out in her talk, and you forgot the wild, even dirty exterior. As a girl, quite young, she had run away and married a handsome fisherman. Her family disowned her and cut her off. She was the daughter of a rich Liverpool citizen, brought up in every luxury, taught German, French, Italian, drawing, and natural history.She must have had a wild, strong nature, for she has been very happy. She had one son and she dearly loved her husband. She lived his life and for years sailed about with him, studying the stars and knowing every fish of the sea.Her brother,
S -by name, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a great naturalist, and she has beautiful books, something like my botanical ones, illustrated by him. She wanted to see me because of the Earle name - a well-known one in Liverpool. I wish I had known her sooner, it would have interested me, though I have tried here to know no one; I wanted to get away from humanity and its trials and temptations. The old lady has six cats, to all of which she is devoted. What is strange is that she should have kept up her French and been so proud of her intellectual gifts, yet that she should be content to live in so dirty a cottage and be so untidy in her person. She has the artistic temperament, and that, I am afraid, left to itself, does not care always for cleanliness. All about her was eminently picturesque and eminently untidy. She has for years written the letters of these villagers, and they talk of her, not as one of themselves, but as "a real lady." Is it not curious? As M. says, in another age she would have been called a witch. Her husband has been dead many years, but she talks with pleasure of the happiest days of her life, sailing on the wild ocean and coasting along the shores in his small open boat, and knowing all about the curious live things that came up in his nets. I shall probably never see her again, but I shall not forget my afternoon with her. . . . You must not think from what I said about Zola that I like him. I have always hated him, and can seldom read him; only with this book I was agreeably disappointed, as it has both power and truth. Some of the things you say about truths of some kind being put into a novel, many people would say of your friend "Tom Jones." There are things in that not much more pleasing to me than the butcher's work you describe. Perhaps you have forgotten. However, I think in books, as in life, even striving at truth has a great charm for me, and though gazing at corruption may be sickening, I doubt if it is as bad for one as the most beautiful of whitened sepulchres. However, you and I often mean the same thing, only we express it differently. I certainly do not call a doctor a brute for publishing his experience of the most horrible diseases and operations. Those who are not interested need not read; to those who are, the beauty of the facts effaces entirely the ugliness of the detail. And so in the description of the human heart, if the disease is possible and true, it has a distinct interest for those who study human nature, though it may not be beautiful at all. Zola's book deals with that terrible question - the very narrow line between genius and madness, which is one of the saddest problems of poor suffering humanity.'
As I was copying this old letter into my chapter came the news of Zola's death from bad air. The pathetic account of so slight a cause having so big a result is almost allegorical in its significance; for convinced as I have always been that the motive of his work was a noble seeking after truth, the work itself was yet full of the miasmatic atmosphere which rises from the lowest strata of human nature, and I think there is no bathos in saying that if he had habitually slept with open windows, he would not only have lived longer, but his work would have been much more wholesome. The French newspapers call it 'that stupid death which sends the literature of all countries into mourning and is deplored by the whole world.'