Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bret Harte in Devon

[Bret Harte to his Wife]

"The Molt," Salcombe, Kingsbridge,
Devonshire, Aug. 19, 1878.

My Dear Anna, . . . I wrote you from London a day or two ago. Since then I came down here to visit Froude (the historian), who has treated me with very particular kindness . . .

It is without exception, one of the most perfect country houses I ever beheld. Imagine, if you can, something between "Locksley Hall" and the "High Hall Garden," where Maud used to walk, and you have some idea of this graceful English home. I look from my windows down upon exquisite lawns and terraces all sloping towards the sea wall and then down upon the blue sea below. I walk out in the long high garden, past walls hanging with netted peaches and apricots, past terraces looking over the ruins of an old feudal castle, and I can scarcely believe I am not reading an English novel or that I am not myself a wandering ghost. To heighten the absurdity when I return to my room I am confronted by the inscription on the door, "Lord Devon" (for this is the property of the Earl of Devon, and I occupy his favorite room), and I seem to have died and to be resting under a gilded mausoleum that lies even more than the average tombstone does. Froude is a connection of the Earl's, and has hired the house for the summer.

He is a widower, with two daughters and a son. The eldest girl is not unlike a highly educated Boston girl, and the conversation sometimes reminds me of Boston. The youngest daughter, only ten years old, told her sister in reference to some conversation Froude and I had that "she feared" (this child) "that Mr. Bret Harte was inclined to be sceptical!" Doesn't this exceed any English story of the precocity of American children? The boy, scarcely fourteen, acts like a boy of eight (an American boy of eight) and talks like a man of thirty, as far as pure English and facility of expression goes. His manners are perfect, yet he is perfectly simple and boylike. The culture and breeding of some English children is really marvelous. But somehow--and here comes one of my "buts"--there's always a suggestion of some repression, some discipline that I don't like. Everybody is carefully trained to their station, and seldom bursts out beyond it. The respect always shown towards me is something fine--and depressing. I can easily feel how this deference to superiors is ingrained in all.

But Froude--dear old noble fellow--is splendid. I love him more than I ever did in America. He is great, broad, manly--democratic in the best sense of the word, scorning all sycophancy and meaness, accepting all that is around him, yet more proud of his literary profession than of his kinship with these people whom he quietly controls. There are only a few literary men like him here, but they are kings. I could not have had a better introduction to them than through Froude, who knows them all, who is Tennyson's best friend, and who is anxious to make my entree among them a success. I had forgotten that Canon Kingsley, whom you liked so much, is Froude's brother-in-law, until Froude reminded me of it. So it is like being among friends here.

So far I've avoided seeing any company here; but Froude and I walk and walk, and talk and talk . . . .
I'll write you from London. God bless you all.
Your affectionate

-from The Friendly Craft: A Collection of American Letters edited by Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (New York: Macmillan, 1908) p. 247-49.

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