TO ROBERT SOUTHEY, ESQ.
March 25th, 1831.
My Dear Sir,
When you so kindly advised me to collect for a local history “those short and simple annals of the poor, which ought not to be forgotten,” how little did I think that within a few days, as it were, after receiving your letter, I should have so many particulars to relate to you respecting Mary Colling! and as little did I expect, when I made that communication, that it would so soon be followed with a relation of other circumstances concerning her family, certainly possessing a more than ordinary interest; and, probably, in early life, having an influence on the remarkable genius of this poet of nature: for such, and a genius of a superior order, I am much inclined to believe you will consider her, when you have read one of her poems, “The Birth of Envy”, that will be found in this letter before I bring it to a close.
Since I had last the pleasure of writing to Keswick, Mr. Hughes, the worthy master of this worthy girl, and for whom she seems to feel that sort of grateful respect and regard which Louise did for Oberlin, has obliged me with some interesting particulars concerning her family; and from the girl herself I have also derived additional information. I now take up my pen to relate the little tale to you, in whose bosom lowly virtue and luckless talent are sure to meet with generous sympathy and regard.
Mary Colling, when not more than five years old, lost her maternal grandmother, a person whose strong affection for the child made so powerful an impression on her young and artless feelings, that it is to this day fresh and vigorous. The character and history, especially in regard to her marriage, of this deceased relative, appear to have been remarkable, and considering, also, how much she influenced the early feelings of our Mary, that they must not be passed in silence when stating the particulars of her story. Much of the narrative I have now to relate will appear like a romance, since it has an abundance of the misfortune, and not a little of the mystery, that adds so much interest to works of fiction in the drama or the novel.
Mary’s maternal grandfather, George Philp, was a native of Tavistock, respectably born, though, by various mischances, his friends were so reduced in the world that they caused George to follow the business of a tailor. Mr. Hughes was assured by a lady of this place, now dead, a Mrs. Murray, who knew him well, that Philp was one of the handsomest young men she had ever beheld. His education had been better than his fortunes; he had a high spirit, and longed for manly enterprize. His business of a tailor, therefore, became a subject of discontent to him, and the good town of Plymouth (only fourteen miles off), with its port and fine shipping, was for ever in his mind, and he, like Robinson Crusoe, would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea; though, also, like the hero of De Foe, he was not wanting in friends who assured him that if he did so, “God would not bless him.” But youth, ardour, and ambition have each a voice more powerful that that of prudence; so away went George Philp, and leaving his shears and his thimble, and Tavistock, and all care behind him, he became as gay and as gallant a sailor as ever ploughed the wild ocean in the service of the king.
For some few years nothing was heard of him; till at length, to the wonder of all Tavistock, George Philp suddenly appeared in his native town, bringing with him a young and beautiful bride, whose manners, appearance, and the possession of several rings, &c. all proclaimed her to be of a rank much above that of the handsome sailor to whom she was wedded.
Philp and his bride were universally admitted to be the finest couple that had ever been seen in Tavistock; and on the Sunday after his return, it was with evident delight and pride that George carried her to church, to attend divine service. Every body admired her, and every body enquired who she might be, and nobody could answer, since nothing was known to satisfy such enquiries; the bride and bridegroom maintaining the utmost reserve on all that related to the subject of their marriage. Whatever might have been the family of the bride, or the worth of her jewels, it appeared she had no money; for George Philp, whose spirit of enterprize had yielded, perhaps, to one of a tenderer nature, in order to maintain himself and his wife, instead of mounting the deck, was once more obliged to mount the shop-board at his old business in Tavistock. For awhile curiosity and rumour busied themselves to the full in endeavouring to “pluck out the heart of his mystery;” but these, unsatisfied, gradually died away, and the people were content to say, that “Mrs. Philp was for certain a gentlewoman born, but a very wisht* sort of a body.”
*Wisht is a favourite expression in Devonshire, meaning melancholy, dull, &c.; it is most probably a corruption of wistful.
Her character and her manners, from all I can learn at this distance of time, were marked and peculiar. She did not seem happy, but she never complained. She had a high independent spirit, but refused no employment, however mean, to earn bread for her children. She was ardently fond of her husband, but kept aloof from his connections. She was well-bred to all persons, but associated with no one; and though in her way of life, in her dress and her industry, she entirely suited herself to her condition (and that was truly a poor one), yet she never parted from her few jewels till, long after, absolute want compelled her to do so. To all enquiries relative to her own family, for many years she remained totally silent. However, after her severe misfortunes – which I shall presently have occasion to relate – something of her history became known, though, even to her own children, and to the day of her death, she was never very communicative upon the subject. The following particulars will not be read without interest.
It appears that Mrs. Philp’s maiden name was *Domville, and that she had been left an orphan at an early age, both her parents dying of small-pox. Her maternal uncle, whose name was White, lived near Arundel in Sussex; and after the death of her parents he took her home, treated her with every kindness, and gave her, when she was old enough to know their use, valuable clothes, and some jewels that had belonged to her mother. Mary Domville grew up a beautiful girl, and though a favourite, was nevertheless so high-spirited, that not wishing to be obliged to her relative for support, she left the comfortable asylum his house had afforded her, and fled to the Isle of Wight. If she took offence at any thing in her uncle’s conduct towards her, it does not appear. To whom she fled, or by what means, is likewise unknown. She acknowledged having there entered into the service of two sisters, as a sort of attendant or upper servant; but these ladies, seeing how much she was above her condition, treated her as a friend and companion, and become exceedingly attached to her. The uncle traced her out; and, at various times, endeavoured to prevail with her to return to his protection: but all his solicitations proved vain; she would never live with him again.
*Mary Colling tells me, she does not know if the name Domville or Donville, as she never saw it written. Might it not have been D’Enville?
Whilst in the Isle of Wight she first saw George Philp, the young and handsome sailor. A mutual attachment followed, and the same rash spirit that had tempted her, perhaps, to quit the asylum of her uncle’s roof, might now have induced her to enter upon a hasty and unadvised marriage. Be this as it may, married she was; and whatever had been the rashness of her former conduct, her wedded life was beyond reproach. She bore her change of fortune with resignation; made a tender mother, and an industrious, affectionate wife.
For some years George Philp continued in business; but it is most likely he still entertained a lingering regard for his late profession, and would much rather have plied the oar on the broad ocean, than the needle and shears on the shop-board of a country town. However, he had made a resolution to abandon the seafaring life for ever. But his resolution, may be, was something like Benedict’s, who, when he determined to die single, thought he should never live to be married; for, on the first temptation, it melted away like ice before the sun. A fine frigate, the Vestal, was launched at Plymouth, and fitted out for a particular service in the formation of a settlement in some far-distant and foreign land. The crew were all picked men; and the gallantry and spirit of George Philp being well known to the late Admiral Vincent, he was recommended by this gentleman to the officer in command, and speedily nominated to a confidential appointment, with an offer of support, likewise, for his youthful son, would he join his father in the enterprize. George Philp, full of golden dreams of success and ambition, in the same buoyancy of spirit with which he had first gone to sea so many years before, now accepted this new offer of service; and his son, a fine lad of fourteen years old, gladly consented to join his father in the voyage.
To be continued…