3572. Robert Southey to John May, 1 December 1820-19 March 1821

3572. Robert Southey to John May, 1 December 1820–19 March 1821⁠* 

1 Dec. 1820

My mother was born in 1752. She was a remarkably beautiful infant, till when she was between one & two years old an abominable nursemaid [1]  carried her to Newgate of all places in the world, & there she took the smallpox in its most malignant form. She escaped (& it seemed almost miraculous, so dreadfully severe was the disease) with life & with eyesight, – but her eyebrows were almost destroyed, & the whole face seamed with scars. While she was very young she had a stroke of paralysis which deprived her of the use of one leg deadened one side from the hip joint downward, & this continued for about twelvemonths. Some person advised that she should be set in the sun, & one day when she had been carried out as usual into her little armd chair & placed in the fore court, to see her brothers at play, to the astonishment of the family she rose from her seat & walked into the house. The recovery was compleat. The fact is worthy of notice, because it may be xxxx by some persons who may derive hope from it in similar cases, & because it is by no means improbable that the sunshine <really> effected the cure. The theory <manner> by which I should explain this would lead to a speculation <theory> somewhat akin to that of Bp Berkeley xx upon the virtues of Tar water. [2] 

There are two portraits of my Mother, one in my brother Toms possession, & one which is now hanging opposite to me. They were both taken by the same artist [3]  in 1798, but neither of them would convey to a stranger the just idea of her countenance. Mine, which is a profile is very much the best, – it represents her as she then was with features care-worn & fallen away, & with a melancholy air which was not natural to her, for never was any human being blest with a sweeter temper, or a happier disposition. She had an excellent understanding, & a quickness <readiness> of apprehension which I have never known surpassed. In this quickness of capacity, in the kindness of her nature, & in that kind of moral magnetism which wins the affections of all within its reach, the best way by which I can make you comprehend her character is by comparing her to Mrs Gonne, who in these respects often reminds me of her. To strangers she must probably have appeared much disfigured by the small pox; I of course could not be sensible of this, her complexion was remarkably xxxx <good>, & nothing could be more expressive than her fine clear hazel eyes.

Female education was not much regarded in her childhood. The Ladies who kept boarding schools in those days did not consider it necessary to possess any other knowledge themselves than that of ornamental needle work. Two sisters [4]  who kept <had been mistresses> of the most fashionable school in Herefordshire used to say when they spake of a former pupil, “Her went to school to we,” – & the person mistress of xxx what then was xxxxxx thought the best school near Bristol some forty years ago (where Mrs Siddons [5]  sent her daughter) spoke much <such> English as this. My mother I believe never went to any but a dancing school, & her state was the more gracious. But her half sister Miss Tyler was placed at one in the neighbourhood, kept by <under> a Mrs Serjeant [6]  whom I mention because her history thxxx is characteristic of those times. Her husband [7]  carried on the agreable business of a butcher in Bristol, while she managed a school about a mile out of the town. His business would not necessarily have disqualified her for this occupation, (tho it would be no recommendation), Kirke Whites mother a truly admirable woman, [8]  being in this respect just under the same circumstances. But Mrs Serjeant had might with more propriety have been a blacksmiths wife, as in that case Vulcan [9]  would have served for a type of her husband, in his fate, but not in the complacency with which he submitted to it. She was a handsome woman, & her children were like the Harleian Miscellany, [10]  – by different authors, – this was notorious, & yet her school flourished notwithstanding, & she retired from it with a competent fortune. Wh This & what I have before said of Emanuel Collins, [11]  <may serve to> show a great improvement in the morals of middle life.

Two things concerning my mothers childhood & youth may be worthy of mention; – one is that she had for a fellow pupil <scholar> at the dancing school Mary Darby (I think her name was) then in her beauty & innocence, soon afterwards notorious as the Prince of Wales’s Perdita, & to be remembered hereafter, tho a poor Poetess, as having perhaps a finer ear for <feeling of> metre, & more command of it than any of her contemporaries. [12]  The other is that my mother who had a good ear for music was taught by her father [13]  to whistle, in which he succeeded so well, that it was his delight to place her upon his knee, & make her give <entertain> his visitors <with> a tune. This art she never lost, & she could whistle a tune <song-tune> as sweetly as a skilful player could have performed it upon the flute.

My Grandmother [14]  continued to live in the house at Bedminster which her husband had built, & which after his death had been purchased by Edward Tyler. [15]  It was about half an hours walk ενξωνω ανδρι  [16]  from Bristol, & my father having been introduced there became ere long a regular Sabbath-days guest. How long he had been acquainted with the family before he paid thought of connecting himself with it I do not know. But in the year 1772 being the 27th of his own age & the 20th of my mothers, they were married at Bedminster Church. He had previously left Brittons [17]  service & opened a shop for himself in the same business, & in the same street, three doors above. Cannon Southey [18]  had left him 100£, my Mother had a legacy to the same amount from her uncle Bradford; [19] my father went into partnership with his younger brother Thomas, who had the same bequest as himself; perhaps <also> he might have saved some thing during his years of service, & the business may have been begun with a capital of 500£, – I should think not more. Shop signs were general in those days, but the custom of swinging them from high posts over the street (as is still done at Inns in the country) was falling into disuse. My father true to his boyish feelings & his passion for field sports even in the uncongenial way of life in which his lot had fallen, took a hare for his device. It occupied <was painted on> a pane in the window on each side of the door, & was engraved in his shop-bills. This xxxxx became interesting when he told me of his shedding tears at the sight of the hare in the porters hand in London. & I often think of having one cut upon a seal in remembrance of Him & of the old shop. Bryan the Prophet told me in the days of Brothers that I was of the tribe of Judah,—a sort of nobility which those Prophets had the privilege of discovering without any assistance from the Heralds office. [20]  Had he derived me from Esau instead of Jacob, my fathers instincts might have induced me to lend a less incredulous ear. [21] 

The first child of this marriage was born on August 1. 1773 & christened John Cannon [22]  – he lived to be nine months old, & died (I believe) at nurse, where he had been sent because he was not strong enough to be weaned, & my mother could not nurse him. She had received serious injury from a blow on one of her breasts, & I was coming. The woman who nursed him & Harry afterwards, was the mother of Pierce, the Game Chicken, [23]  & worthy she was <for form strength & stature> to have such a son. She lived at Bedminster, & was so trusty & respectable a woman that I hope my poor brother suffered no real injury or sensible inconvenience <privation> on my account. He was singularly beautiful, – so much so xx that when I made my appearance on the 12 of August 1774, he was remembered I was sadly disparaged by comparison with him. My mother asking if it was a boy was answered by hers in a tone as little favourable to me as the opinion was flattering. Aye, – a great ugly boy; & she added when she told me this, God forgive me, I thought I should never be able when I saw what a great red creature it was, covered with rolls of fat I thought I should never be able to love him.

March. 19. 1821


* MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 19–24 [in part]. BACK

[1] Unidentified. BACK

[2] George Berkeley (1685–1753; DNB), Anglo-Irish philosopher, Bishop of Cloyne 1734–1753 and author of Siris, a Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries, Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (1744). BACK

[3] Robert Hancock (1730–1817). BACK

[4] Unidentified. BACK

[5] The actress Sarah Siddons (1755–1831; DNB); she had three daughters: Sarah Martha (‘Sally’; 1775–1803), Maria (1779–1798) and Cecilia (1794–1868). The youngest was sent to the school at Belvedere House, Bath, run by Siddons’s friends the dramatists and novelists Sophia (c. 1750–1824; DNB) and Harriet Lee (1757/8–1851; DNB), and their sister Anne (d. 1805). The Lee sisters gave up the school in 1803. BACK

[6] Unidentified beyond the information given here. BACK

[7] Unidentified beyond the information given here. BACK

[8] Mary White, née Neville (1755–1833), ran a Ladies’ Boarding and Day-School in Nottingham; her husband, John White (d. 1822), was a butcher. BACK

[9] Roman god of metalworking; his wife, Venus, had an affair with Mars, the god of war. Vulcan thus became the archetype of husbands whose wives were unfaithful. BACK

[10] The comparison is with the Harleian Miscellany (1744–1746), a collection of diversely authored material from the library of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1661–1724; DNB), edited by Samuel Johnson (1709–1784; DNB) and William Oldys (1696–1761; DNB). The term was also applied to the offspring of Harley’s wife, Jane Elizabeth Harley, Countess of Oxford and Mortimer (1774–1824), whose many lovers included Byron. BACK

[11] Emanuel Collins (fl. 1732–1762), clergyman, alehouse-keeper, poet and schoolmaster. He ran a school at Shannon Court, Corn Street, Bristol; see Southey to John May, 16 August–18 November 1820, Letter 3526. BACK

[12] The actress and writer Mary Robinson (1758–1800; DNB), née Darby, like Southey, was a native of Bristol. Perdita was the role she was playing in The Winter’s Tale when she attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, in 1780. BACK

[13] Edward Hill (1705–1765), a lawyer, of Bedminster, Somerset. BACK

[14] Margaret Bradford (1710–1782). BACK

[15] Edward Tyler (1744–1786), one of Margaret Bradford’s sons by her first husband, William Tyler (1709–1747), and stepson of Edward Hill. BACK

[16] ‘for a well-girt man’, a phrase used regularly in Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), Histories. BACK

[17] William Britten (dates unknown), linen draper of Wine Street, Bristol. BACK

[18] John Cannon Southey (d. 1768), Robert Southey’s wealthy cousin. BACK

[19] Herbert Bradford (1701–1768), Herefordshire clergyman; Curate of Shobdon 1728–1768, Rector of Cefyn-Llys 1748–1768, Vicar of Aymestry 1762–1768. BACK

[20] The copperplate engraver and religious visionary William Bryan (dates unknown), at one time a follower of the self-proclaimed prophet Richard Brothers (1757–1824; DNB). Bryan was probably introduced to Southey in 1794. The tribe of Judah was one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The comparison is between the religious nobility detected in Southey by Bryan and the patents of nobility that could be assigned to individuals by the College of Arms. BACK

[21] Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and nephew of Esau in Genesis. Esau was denied his birthright – as Southey felt he had been because he inherited nothing either from John Cannon Southey (d. 1768) or his wealthy uncles, John Southey and Thomas Southey. BACK

[22] John Cannon Southey (1773–1774). BACK

[23] Henry Pierce (1777–1809), bare-knuckle boxing champion of England 1804–1807. He was from Bristol. BACK