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HOW I TRACED
CHARLES LAMB IN HERTFORDSHIRE.
BY THE REV. CANON AINGER.
DURING an excursion to Widford on one of the few fine days in the dreary October of last year, Canon Ainger made a promise, of which his illness prevented the fulfilment, to revise for the pages of CORNHILL a lecture written some nine years before, in which he had told the story of his first visit to the Hertfordshire village. Canon Ainger's executors have now most kindly put the lecture at the service of the readers of the Magazine.-ED.
SINCE the day, in 1882, when I published my memoir of Charles Lamb in the 'Men of Letters' series I have had many invitations to speak of him. But, especially after editing Lamb's writings, with the many prefaces and notes thereto appropriate, I have always felt, and pleaded, that for better or worse I had said my say about Lamb, and that those who loved that most lovable of writers knew by this time all that I thought and felt about him; and that in a lecture I should be only going over old ground. But when this latest application came to me, made in the most flattering terms, I bethought me of one very interesting day in my life connected with the work which Mr. John Morley first encouraged me to undertake for the series he edited-a day the details of which I had never yet imparted in print or in lecture—the day on which I first visited that village and its surroundings in 'pleasant Hertfordshire' with which Lamb's childhood and indeed his youth and early manhood were so closely bound up; and, visiting them, was thrown into most unexpected touch with persons not remotely connected with Lamb's early history. Now there are many characters in literature concerning whom I should hesitate to confess my enthusiasm for such details as I am going to communicate this evening. But it is otherwise with Charles Lamb. In the first place, you invited me to speak about him; and this in itself tells me that there is an audience in this neighbourhood interested to hear even something more about him than I have necessarily supplied in annotating his works. In the next place, I have noticed (and it is an almost unique bond uniting the readers
of Charles Lamb) that those who love him do not love him (as the saying goes) by halves,' but are content to be fanatical in their attachment, and not to be ashamed of it. And in that light, ladies and gentlemen, I propose to regard you this evening, as sharers in this fanaticism with myself, so that I shall not fear your scorn at the end for having been a chronicler' of too 'small beer;' or your contemptuous criticism that little things are great to little men.' What I may indeed feel that I have to fear is a charge of egotism; for from the nature of the case I shall have to tell you a good deal about myself. But I know I shall have, in any case, your kind indulgence.
When first I was asked to contribute the volume on Lamb to the Men of Letters' series it was because (I may be allowed to say) that writer was known to be a favourite of mine, and that the labour would indeed be a labour of love. I had, indeed, read and delighted in him from my childhood almost, long before, of course, I could appreciate a tithe of his humour and his critical power. When I thus became intimate with him, the sole guide and clue to his career and character, apart from his own writings, was in the well-known memoirs by Talfourd-the 'Life and Letters,' and the Final Memorials' that followed. And when I had undertaken the task of telling Lamb's story afresh, it became my duty to endeavour to supplement Talfourd's work by any and every fresh light that I could discover upon portions of Lamb's history which Talfourd had passed lightly over, and such portions belonged to the childhood and youth of Lamb. From the time he came of age his history is told for us by himself, in his letters and in his Essays,' with a fulness that leaves little for the acute reader to seek elsewhere. I say advisedly the acute reader, for Lamb's love of practical joking and of gratuitous mystification have often put the seeker upon wrong scents. The first anxiety, then, that I had was to arrive at facts about Lamb's earlier years, and especially his connection with Hertfordshire. As to his schooldays at Christ's Hospital, he has himself, in two famous essays, told us everything; but as to his holiday seasons which he spent with his grandmother in the country, as to the country-house which he denominated 'Blakesmoor,' as to the allusions scattered through his writings to a certain fair-haired maid whom he had loved in these youthful days-loved, but failed to win-over all this there hung a mist of uncertainty and perplexity which Talfourd had not the will or the means to disperse. Doubtless he had not the means;
for when he made Lamb's acquaintance he was young, and Lamb was not one who cared to discuss with his friends a past that was to him full of sorrows. Hence, one looks in vain in Talfourd's pages for any definite information about the incidents of Lamb's life, or about his family relationships, other than those which were to be found in Letters and Essays. He tells us, indeed, that Lamb's grandmother was housekeeper to the Plumers in Hertfordshire; but does not mention where the house was; he mentions briefly 'a youthful passion' of Lamb's which inspired a few sonnets of delicate feeling, but that is all. To find out, if possible, therefore, something more about Lamb in Hertfordshire became my immediate duty.
Now, if Talfourd had been the only available source of information it is likely that I might have followed up the clues he supplies very quickly, and to a successful issue. The family of the Plumers, the name Blakesmoor, any county history, you will well remark, would have at once enlightened me. Especially as Lamb, in an exquisite passage of a letter to Bernard Barton, writes: "You have well described your old-fashioned paternal hall. Is it not odd that every one's recollections are of some such place? I had my Blakesware (Blakesmoor in the "London"). That is to say, he had called it by the other slightly altered name in his well-known essay in the London Magazine.' Here, surely (you will say), the clue was actually placed in my hands-how could I fail at once to follow it up? Well, I had my excuse. Many years after Talfourd's 'Memorials,' in 1854, a certain Mr. P. G. Patmore, father of the wellknown and living poet of 'The Angel in the House,' published some volumes of recollections, entitled 'My Friends and Acquaintances.' Among these was Charles Lamb, and also a certain Mr. Ward, who had married the widow of Mr. Plumer, of Hertfordshire, and taken her name, becoming Mr. Plumer Ward. Mr. and Mrs. Plumer Ward resided at Gilston, another seat of the Plumers, in the same county; and in his essay on Mr. Plumer Ward, Patmore first informed the world that this later residence of the Plumers was where the family lived in Lamb's childhood, and where his grandmother was so long housekeeper. Blakesmoor' was, in fact, according to Mr. Patmore, Gilston, and he proceeded to enumerate all those features of the house described by Lamb in his essay, the 'Marble Hall,' the Twelve Caesars,' and the rest, as interesting confirmation still existing of the beautiful essay and of Lamb's childish recollections; the simple fact being that all these things
had been removed, some thirty years before Patmore wrote, from the other, earlier, abode of the Plumer family. Patmore was him. self, of course, led astray by these apparent coincidences.
Time went on. I am not aware that Patmore's account was anywhere challenged. Other editors of Lamb followed, and adopted his version of matters without a doubt, one of them; indeed, furnishing his pages with a woodcut of the Gilston House. And fortified by this accumulation of authority I proceeded at first to follow suit. This was my excuse-I cannot plead justification. I ought not to have been content with second-hand evidence. You have heard the instructive story, of the famous Dr. Routh, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, who lived to within a few months of completing his hundredth year. When a very old man, already in the nineties, a young and enthusiastic Oxford student was allowed to converse with him, and at parting asked with much diffidence what he (the President), so old a man, would select from his vast experience as the one maxim above all others to be taken to heart by a young man starting on his career. The old scholar did not hesitate a moment. Always verify your references,' he replied, which is as much as to say never take evidence except at first hand.' And it is, though ethically less valuable, of first-rate importance to the scholar in whatever field he is engaged. Well, I had neglected this sound advice. I wrote my early chapters of the 'Memoir of Lamb,' and happily I placed them, for correction or suggestion, in the hands of a wise friend, the late Mr. E. J. Davis, Standing Counsel to the Police, a criminal lawyer of eminence and a true antiquary and scholar. He returned them to me with the query, 'Are you sure you are right about Lamb and Gilston? Turn to the article on Ware, in Mr. Murray's handbook, "Twenty Miles round London," which I send herewith for your acceptance.' I turned to the indicated page, and read as follows. After mentioning other gentlemen's seats near Ware, the writer proceeds:
The manor house of Blakesware-the seat of the Featherstones, Leventhorpes, Clutterbucks, and Plumers-has won a lasting place in our literature. It is the Blakesmoor Hall of Charles Lamb's delightful essay, 'Blakesmoor in Hertfordshire.' Of the fine old mansion, which stood directly opposite the road from the neighbouring village of Widford, not a vestige is left. It was pulled down in 1822 by Mrs. Plumer, then Lady of the Manor. Close by it stood the cottage in which dwelt Lamb's Rosamund Gray. This too has been swept away.
This was startling, and I resolved that this time, at all events, I would 'verify my references.' I daresay we have all noticed
that as soon as a bit of unexpected information on a subject has come from any quarter, other supporting evidence is sure, as if by mere chance, quickly to follow. The mention of the village of Widford reminded me that the father of the late Archbishop Whately, of Dublin, was rector of that parish, and I turned in haste to the 'Memoir of the Archbishop' by his daughter, and lo! she told the same story of Blakesware being adjacent, and of its being the home of Lamb's grandam. And lastly, happening to mention my approaching visit to the place to a clergyman friend at Enfield, 'Oh!' he said, 'the rector of Widford was an old curate of mine, and I will give you an introduction to him! I will write and tell him he may expect a call from you.'
Here was a piece of luck! And I proceeded promptly to take advantage of it. My friend Davis and myself arranged for an early excursion to Ware, en route for Widford, a village some three or four miles distant. Though the persons Lamb knew there in his boyhood must have been long in their graves, surely (I thought) there would linger traditions of some worth among oldest inhabitants' and the like. I wished, if possible, to find the actual name, if nothing else, of the blue-eyed, fair-haired girl, the 'Anna' of the sonnets, the 'Alice' of the Essays. It was fairly well known among Lamb students that she married and became a Mrs. Bartram, and that a daughter of hers married William Coulson, the eminent surgeon, who had died in 1877. And by inquiry among relations of the Coulsons I had acquired one solitary fact, that Mrs. Bartram's Christian name was Ann. Furnished with these clues, I prepared for our day in the country.
It was a lovely day, in June or July, 1881, that we arrived in Ware, and, having ordered dinner on our return at the inn, chartered a conveyance and drove through the rural Hertfordshire landscape, so sweetly and characteristically English, and were deposited at the gate of Widford rectory, close by the church. The rector was from home, but his wife and her sister gave us warmest welcome, and listened to my simple request that I might see the church and churchyard and be informed of any facts or traditions as to Blakesware and the past inhabitants of the village. Mrs. Lockwood and her sister conferred a moment, and then one of them said, 'I think Mr. Ainger might like to see Mrs. Tween!' Mrs. Tween! I thought what a strange name, and who can she be? I suppose I looked perplexed, and my kind hostesses went on to say that Mrs. Arthur Tween was a very elderly lady, who like her husband was an old