Wednesday 19 February 2020

Margaret Fuller: A lady 'at once splendid and ridiculous'

Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics, which I'm dipping into from time to time 'when I'm so dispoged', is a strangely erratic book, veering in tone from the drily compendious (the book is, I believe, heavily reliant on John Timbs's two-volume English Eccentrics and Eccentricities) to the downright brilliant. To the latter category belongs the chapter titled 'Portrait of a Learned Lady'.
  The learned lady in question is not English, but she has a fair claim to being 'eccentric', and she certainly brings out the best in Sitwell, who is in this chapter fully engaged and at her sharpest. Margaret Fuller – 'this chaste, passionate and high-principled woman, at once splendid and ridiculous' – was an American intellectual, journalist, transcendentalist and advocate of women's rights, famous as the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. We first see her at a dinner party at Carlyle's house in Chelsea, a house 'filled always with a shaggy Highland-cattle-like odour of homespun materials and by a Scotch mist of tobacco smoke'. Here Miss Fuller, like so many of Carlyle's guests, sat waiting in ever fading hope for the opportunity to interrupt her host's torrential monologue – and this was a woman used to having the floor to herself in the salons of New England. 'The worst of hearing Carlyle,' she reported, 'is that you cannot interrupt him. I understand his habit of haranguing has increased very much upon him, so that you are a perfect prisoner when he has once got hold of you. To interrupt him is a physical impossibility.'
  Margaret Fuller, Sitwell supposes, 'was glad to be in Europe because her life in Boston must remind her of the imaginary being, clothed in actual flesh, whom she had lost'. This was one James Nathan, a work-shy young man of a most romantic aspect, with whom Miss Fuller had fallen head-over-heels in love two years earlier. The feeling was not reciprocated – and no wonder, if we are to believe Emerson's description of Margaret Fuller: 'Her extreme plainness, a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids, the nasal tone of her voice, all repelled.... Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most people ... to such an extent that they did not wish to stay in the same room as her.' However, Nathan was happy to spin her along, extracting money whenever he could and hanging on to her effusive love letters, before eventually marrying a younger woman.
  Before the deplorable Nathan, Miss Fuller had developed a similar hopeless pash for the equally unsuitable Mr Samuel Ward, whom she bombarded daily with bouquets of flowers. 'As a not unnatural result of this habit, Miss Fuller was rewarded by the sound of scampering feet, disappearing into the far distance.' Sitwell notes drily that this kind of thing showed 'that European culture, the Romance of the Middle Ages, and the Rights of Women, as inculcated by such teachers as Mary Wollstonecraft and the trousered and volatile George Sand, had wrought equal havoc with her life.' (Rather surprisingly, Margaret Fuller did eventually find happiness with a younger Italian husband and a  baby – only to die with them both in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.)
  'It is impossible not to feel an embarrassed sympathy, and a kind of affection for her,' Sitwell writes, 'since the whole record of her life leaves us with the impression of a certain nobility and uprightness, blurred over by an over-heated nervous sensibility masquerading as imagination.  She had a certain non-productive intellect, and considerable rectitude, but these qualities were balanced, to some degree, by her almost incomparable silliness.' A nice summing-up, as is this very fair estimate: 'She lived, indeed, a life full of noble ideals, Backfisch nonsense and moonshine, silly cloying over-emotionalised friendships and repressed loves ... extreme mental and moral courage, and magnificent loyalty to her ideals, friends, and loves.' 'Backfisch' – a new one on me – is a word for an immature adolescent girl.
  Carlyle, on a later occasion, spent some hours in rebuking Miss Fuller and her friend Mazzini for their 'rose-water imbecilities'.  This leads Sitwell into a splendid peroration: 'Scholars have, it seems, always despised this quality; but they are notoriously difficult to please; stupidity and flippancy in women, learning in women, all these offences may, at different times, prove equally unpalatable to them, though the last offence is usually the most unforgivable – largely, I imagine, because it is sometimes a little too readily assumed that heaven deems the charms of the mind to be sufficient of an endowment, and therefore bestows no other.'



  1. I was about to add a longer comment, but decided that it was getting too long, and so posted

    By the way, Hawthorne put her into A Blithedale Romance as "Zenobia": a not unsympathetic figure, but with a weakness for unsuitable men.

    1. Thanks George – clearly there's more to Fuller than Sitwell reports. And that's a nice characterisation of what's wrong with Transcendentalism!

    2. You're welcome.

      By the way, Chapman was a most interesting writer, and character. The Library of America or NYRB really should bring him back into print. I don't know that the English would find him quite as interesting as this American does; but he is very good on New England, and on much of what ailed America around 1900.