NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
The first woman who in this career fixed my regard, was a finished coquette, by which epithet I understand a woman whose ruling passion is her vanity, and whole invention is hourly on the rack for means of gratifying it. She was a lady of high rank, and married to a person of great figure at court. I first obtained her attention under favour of the epithet, by which the Parisian belles thought proper to distinguish me, of the handsome Englishman. Sir Charles, my introducer, was certainly of more established vogue than myself, and in this respect might have seemed a conquest still more flattering to a person of her character. But the marchioness easily discerned that he would have afforded her less occupation and amusement. Sir Charles would perhaps have equalled me in constancy and perseverance; but he had a calmness of temper in affairs of this sort, which to her taste would have been intolerable. Obedient, obsequious, patient of injuries, he would undoubtedly have shown himself; he was of a character unalterably obliging toward the fair; to violence he would have opposed no violence in return, but would have waited till the storm was dissipated, and then have fought to improve the lucky moment, when the bird of peace brooded over the subsiding billows, and the tumult of the bosom was ended.
My character was of an opposite sort. Sir Charles appeared to the animated and restless spirit of the marchioness more like a convenient instrument, or a respectable piece of furniture, than a living being whose passions were to mix, and shock, and contend, and combine with her own. She would have preferred a lap-dog who, when she pinched or slapped him, would ruffle his hairs, and snarl and bark in return, to such a lover. To vex the temper and alarm the fears of her admirer was her delight. She would not have thought him worth her care, if she did not ten times in the day make him curse himself, his mistress, and all the world. She desired no sympathy and love that were not ushered in by a prelude of something like hate. In a word she aspired to the character ascribed by Martial to one of his friends: "There was no living with him nor without him."
The singularities of this woman's temper particularly displayed themselves, in the gradations she introduced into the favours by which my attachment was ultimately crowned. I might describe the transport of my soul, when I first became assured that there was no mark of her good will which she was inclined to withhold from me. I might delineate the ravishing sweetness of the weather on the day which first gave me possession of her person, the delightful excursion we made on the water, the elegantly furnished cottage that received us, the very room, with all its furniture which witnessed the consummation of my joys. All these things live in my memory, and constitute a picture which will never be obliterated while this heart continues to beat. But I suppress these circumstances, at the risk of rendering my narrative flat and repulsive by its generalities. I write no book that shall tend to nourish the pruriency of the debauched, or that shall excite one painful emotion, one instant of debate, in the bosom of the virtuous and the chaste.
The marchioness tormented me with her flights and uncertainty, both before and after the completing my wishes. In the first of these periods I thought myself ten times at the summit of my desires, when again I was, in the most unexpected manner, baffled and thrown back by her caprices and frolics. Even after, as I have said, the first ceremonies were adjusted, and the treaty of offence was not only signed, but sealed,
Me of my yielded pleasure she beguil'd,
And taught me oft forbearance;
thought I cannot say, in the sense in which Shakespeare has imputed it to his heroine, that she did it, with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet look on't
Might well have warm'd old Saturn; that I thought
As chaste as unsunn'd snow.
It was in my nature to attach myself strongly, where I attached myself at all, and by parity of reason, to be anxious concerning propriety of conduct, and the minutenesses of behaviour, in the person I loved. This was exceedingly unfortunate for me in my affair with the marchioness. It was almost impossible to make her serious. At moments when all other human beings are grave, and even in allowing those freedoms which ought to be pledges of the soul, she could not put off an air of badinage and raillery. Her mind greatly resembled in its constitution the sleek and slippery form of the eel; it was never at rest, and, when I thought I possessed it most securely, it escaped me with the rapidity of lightning. No strength could detain it; no stratagem could hold it; no sobriety and seriousness of expostulation could fix it to any consistency of system.
Had this been the only characteristic of her mind, a person of my temper would soon have been worn out with the inexhaustibleness of her freaks and follies. But she had an ingenuousness of carriage by which I was for a long time deceived. She seemed, when I could gain her ear for a moment, to confess her faults and absurdities with a simplicity and unreserve that were inexpressibly charming: and she had in herself an equability of soul that nothing could destroy. Where other women would have been exasperated, she laughed; and, when by her flightiness she had driven her lover to the extremity of human bearing, she mollified him in a moment by a gentleness and defencelessness of concession that there was no resisting. Yet it often happened, that she had no sooner by this expedient won my forgiveness, than she flew off again with her customary wildness, and urged me almost to madness.
One passion which eminently distinguished the marchionesss, was the perpetual desire of doing something that should excite notice and astonishment. If in the privacy of the tete a tete she was not seldom in a singular degree provoking, in public and in society she was, if possible, still worse. The human being, who is perpetually stimulated with the wish to do what is extraordinary, will almost infallibly be often led into what is absurd, indelicate and unbecoming. It is incredible what excesses of this sort the marchioness committed. Her passion seemed particularly to prompt her to the bold, the intrepid and the masculine. An impudent and Amazonian stare, a smack of the whip, a slap on the back, a loud and unexpected accost that made the hearer start again, were expedients frequently employed by her to excite the admiration of those with whom she associated. In the theatre she would talk louder than the performers; in a dance, by some ridiculous caprice she would put out those with whom she was engaged; she was never satisfied unless the observation of all eyes were turned on her.
It might seem at first sight that a demeanour of this sort would excite general disapprobation, and make every one her enemy. On the contrary the marchioness was an universal favourite, at least with the male sex. Her countenance was exquisitely beautiful; in her eye was combined a feminine softness with vivacity and fire; her figure, which a little exceeded the middle size, seemed moulded by the graces, and every thing she did was done with an ease and elegance that dazzled the beholders. What would have been absurd and indecorous in most women, became pleasing and ornamental in her. Though the substance of the action was wrong, the manner seemed to change its nature, and render it brilliant and beautiful. She did impudent things without assumption and arrogance; and what in another would have been beyond endurance, seemed in her an emanation of the purest artlessness and innocence. Besides, that such was the rapidity and quickness of her nature, she did not allow to ordinary observers the time to disapprove. She never dwelt upon any thing; nothing was done with slowness and deliberation; and she passed so incessantly from one object of attention and mode of action to another, that everything seemed obliterated as soon as seen, and nothing was left in the common mind but a general impression of wonder and delight.
This however was not the effect upon me. I often took upon myself to censure the improprieties of the marchioness. My murmurs, as I have said, never put her out of temper. Sometimes she would rally me upon my severity, and vow that, instead of a young and agreeable lover, she had by some chance fallen upon a morose philosopher, who wanted nothing but a long gown and a beard, to make him the worthy successor of Diogenes. Sometimes she would play off her usual arts, and, by some agreeable tale, or amusing sally of wit, force my attention to another subject. At other times she would put the woman upon me, display her charms, assume the attitudes, the gestures, and expression of features, allied to voluptuousness, and make it impossible for a young and susceptible admirer as I was, to give breath to another word of harsh and ungentle signification. On a few occasions, she would personate a seriousness, responsive to my seriousness, promise to be very good, and to conduct herself hereafter in a manner that should command my approbation. Her most ordinary method however was to ridicule my advices, and exasperate me by pertinacious and incorrigible folly; and it was never till she had exercised my patience to the utmost, that she condescended to soothe me with blandishments and promises of amendment.
Inconsistency was the very element in which she moved; and accordingly, whatever was the penitence she displayed, and the amendment she promised, this one feature constantly attended her, that these little expiations never produced any effect upon her conduct, and that the fault she professed most solemnly to abjure, was sure to be the fault she would be the earliest to commit.
The torment which this species of character in a mistress inflicted on me is undescribable. The pain I suffered from the excesses she fell into was vehement: when she frankly confessed how much she had been to blame, I became almost angry with myself for the gravity of my censure: and when again I saw her repeat the same unbecoming folly without reflection or hesitation, I was confounded at so unexpected an event, and cursed my own infatuation; at the same time that, in spite of myself, I could not help admiring the artless and simple grace, which even up on such occasions did not desert her. One thing that contributed, perhaps more than all the rest, to make this woman of so much importance to me, was the perpetual occupation she afforded to my thoughts. Abroad or at home, in company or alone, she for ever engaged my attention, and kept my soul in a tumult, sometimes, though rarely, of pleasure, frequently of apprehension, alarm, jealousy, displeasure and condemnation.
One question continually haunted my thoughts. This woman, so frivolous, so fickle, so uncertain, could she love? If not, was it not beneath the character of a man, to be so perpetually occupied about a person whom I felt to be of so little genuine worth, and by whom I was continually deluded? These doubts, this self-questioning and compunction incessantly haunted me. Yet, in the midst of all my struggles, one inviting wave of her hand, one encouraging glance of her eye, brought me in a moment to her feet.
Never satisfied in this point, I however gratuitously ascribed to her a thousand virtues. Grace has something in it so nearly akin to moral rectitude and truth, that the uninitiated observer can scarcely disjoin them even in imagination, or persuade himself to believe that, where the former is, the latter is not. True, unaffected grace seems the very reflection of a candour and sincerity, which, knowing no wrong, has nothing to disguise. It is free from perplexity and effort; the heart appears to be on the lips, the soul to beam from the countenance. Was not so perfect an ingenuousness sufficient to atone for innumerable errors? I know not whether the rest of my species are framed to receive so pure a delight as I originally did from the very sight of a serene and composed human countenance. A thousand times, when my heart has burned with anger, the smile of him who had offended me, even though a common acquaintance, has disarmed me. I have said, "That calm expression, that unwrinkled physiognomy, that quiet, unruffled eye, can never be the cloak of a mind which deserves my hate; I feel in it, as it were, the precept of God speaking to my eye, and commanding me to cherish, assist and love my fellow-man." When absent from him who had awakened my resentment, I could feel aversion, and recollect many severe and bitter remarks with which I was desirous to taunt him; when present, his voice, his countenance changed the whole tenour of my thoughts, and tamed me in a moment. If this were the case in reference to my own sex, and an ordinary acquaintance, it may easily be supposed how I felt toward a mistress, who had excited in me, under some of its forms, the passion of love.
Our correspondence for some weeks was such, as, while it furnished an almost incessant occupation for my own thoughts, left me, I believed, little reason to apprehend that the marchioness was less engrossed by me. But I was mistaken. I was at present wholly new to the world of gallantry. I had led a life of dissipation at Oxford. But hardened and brutalised, as to a certain degree I was, by the associates of my excesses, and having never encountered in these pursuits a woman of distinction, of interesting story, or engaging manners, I had scarcely ever felt a single flutter of the heart in these idle and degrading engagements. It was far different now. My vanity was stimulated by a success so flattering as that of my amour with the marchioness appeared in my eye. Often I trod in air; often I felt the quick pants of my bosom, and walked with head erect, as if respiring a sublimer element; even when in solitude I reflected on the homage which this proud beauty paid to the attractions of my person, and the persuasion of my tongue.
Of all the trophies which vain mortals boast,
By wit, by valour, or by wisdom won,
The first and fairest in a young man's eye,
Is woman's captive heart.
I was therefore in the wrong to measure the modes of thinking or of sensation in my mistress's bosom by my own. She had long been inured to those things which were new and interesting to me, and she felt them not less coldly than she expressed them. I was willing to impute a contrast between her language and her sentiments; but in this respect I did the marchioness wrong; she was no hypocrite here.
At length Sir Charles Gleed removed the film which had grown over my eyes, and cured me of my infatuation. Sir Charles was a man who in many points, observations of detail, saw the world more truly than I did. I have often remarked, though I will not affirm how far it is to be taken as a general rule, this difference between men of imagination, and those whom I will call men of simple perception. It is something like a poet and a cultivator of the soil, ascending one of the Welsh mountains, or tracing together the tracts of land, meadow by meadow, which might be discovered from the top of it. The farmer sees the nature of the fields, the character of their soil, and what species of vegetation is most adapted to grow in them. If he looks upward, he can tell the configuration of the clouds, the quarter from which the wind blows, and the prognostications of the weather. When he comes home, he can count up the plots of ground over which he has passed, the regions to the right and left, and enumerate the wheat, the barley, the oats, the rye, the clover and the grass, which grew in each. The poet, during the progress we are supposing, saw much less, though his mind was more active and at work than that of the farmer. The farmer's were perceptions; his were feelings. He saw things in masses, not in detail. He annexed a little romance to each. In the clouds, he discerned a passage, through which he passed, and beyond which he plunged in imagination into the world unknown. It was not green and blue, ripe and immature, fertile and barren, that he saw; it was beauty and harmony and life, accompanied with a silent eloquence which spoke to his soul. The universe was to him a living scene, animated by a mysterious power, whose operations he contemplated with admiration and reverence. To express the difference in one word; what the farmer saw was external and in the things themselves; what the poet saw was the growth and painting of his own mind.
The difference between Sir Charles Gleed and myself was parallel to this, when we mingled in the scenes of human society. While he saw only those things in character and action which formed the substance of what was seen by every beholder, he was led astray by no prepossessions or partialities, and drew a great number of just conclusions from the indications before him. I on the contrary entered into every scene with certain expectations, and with a little system of my own forming ready digested in my mind. If I repaired to Notre Dame at Paris to assist at the celebration of the high mass solemnized on the eve of the Nativity, my thoughts were full of the wonderful efficacy which religion exercises over my species, and my memory stored with the sublime emotions which altars and crucifixes and tapers had excited in the souls of saints and martyrs. If I entered the walls of the British house of commons, and waited to hear an important debate, the scenes of past ages revolved before the eyes of my fancy, and that parliament again filled the benches in which Penn and Hambden, and Falkland and Selden, and Cromwell and Vane sat together, to decide, perhaps forever, on the civil and intellectual liberties of my country. These are only instances. But in reality scarcely any character of the smallest importance came before me, in whom, by retrospect or anticipation, by associations of pride, or instruction, or of honour, I did not make to myself a lively interest, and whom I did not involuntarily surround with an atmosphere of my own creating, which refracted the rays of light, and changed the appearances of the scene. These causes rendered me a less dispassionate, and therefore in many instances a less exact, though a much more earnest, observer than Sir Charles Gleed.
When Sir Charles Gleed told me what he had remarked, I was struck with inexpressible astonishment. I could not at first believe the report he made, and reproached him in my thoughts for that vulgarity of mind, which made him always see in the actions of others something allied to his own. I asked him a thousand questions; I demanded from him a thousand proofs; and it was not till he had given me evidences amounting to demonstration, that I consented to part with a delusion which had been so delightful to my mind. That the marchioness, whom I had so entirely loved, in whose partiality I had so much prided myself, whose smallest errors had afflicted me as spots upon the lustre of her qualities, should be a woman of abandoned character, disengaged from all restraints of decency and shame, that, when I thought I possessed her whole, I really divided her favours with every comer,--a music-maker--an artisan--a valet,--it is impossible to express how sudden and terrible a revolution this discovery produced within me!
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