Recollections of Writers (1878) reprints a series of biographical essays written by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, a pair of literary veterans as the phrase then was. Charles (1787–1877), had been a teacher in his father's school at Enfield (where Keats had been a pupil) and afterwards was a publisher, contributor to Leigh Hunt's periodicals, and a professional lecturer. Mary (1809–1898) was the eldest daughter of the musician Edward Novello who was a friend of Leigh Hunt and many of the musicians, writers, and painters of the era. She married Cowden Clarke in 1828. The marriage produced no children but was fruitful in publications: essays, poems, criticism, biography, novels, books for children, works of reference. Of all of this the Recollections is alone remembered.
Most of the content of the Recollections originally appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine; the original essays were collected and edited by Mary shortly after the death of her husband. Her editorial labors do not seem to have extended much beyond arrangement, though the unusually good index is likely her work. The first part of the volume consists of a joint autobiographical memoir that is more of a chronological series of anecdotes than a continuous narrative. This is followed by the memoir of Keats by Charles, and character sketches of Charles and Mary Lamb. Then comes a collection of sixty letters by Leigh Hunt occupying nearly half the volume, which concludes with a character sketch of the playwright Douglas Jerrold and Mary's account of her theatrical adventures and correspondence with Charles Dickens.
The book was published in London and Boston in 1878 and reprinted only once in a 1969 facsimile edited by Robert Gittings. If it is chiefly known for the fine memoir of John Keats, the Recollections is replete with anecdotes of interest about dozens of nineteenth-century writers down to the 1850s, and it prints over two hundred letters to and from the Clarkes and Novellos. Like Leigh Hunt's Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) which it resembles in more ways than one, the Recollections is a made-up publication consisting of a very imperfect autobiography with appended character sketches. Like Hunt's work it strives to be chatty, informal, and entertaining.
In one respect it is rather different: Lord Byron is mentioned by the Clarkes exactly once. Byron's digs at John Keats and Leigh Hunt's aversion to Byron after the failure of The Liberal doubtless had something to do with this. Nor is Byron the only topic avoided; the Clarkes steer clear of controversial matters and avoid speaking ill of anyone or anything—the brief discussion of the attacks on Keats (where Byron is mentioned) is almost the only exception. Like their mentor Hunt, the amiable Clarkes cultivate a studiously cheerful and beneficent tone, going him one better by refusing to belabor politics or settle personal scores. The failure of the publishing firm of Hunt and Clarke (1825-29) is not mentioned nor do we hear anything of Charles Cowden Clarke's partner, Henry Leigh Hunt, nephew of the poet.
As a result the Recollections has little to say about the motives, controversies, and anxieties involved with nineteenth-century authorship. The absence of unpleasantness imparts to the memoirs something of a holiday character, a pastoral otium at once pleasing and revelatory. In the Clarkes' account suburban Hampstead and Cockney London are warm, inviting places abounding in creature comforts and aesthetic stimulation; public matters are invoked just often enough to give savor to the innocence of domestic pleasures. Stories are selected and told in ways that make it authorship seem like a leisurely business. Reading between the lines however one can detect the business relationships underlying the friendly exchanges and personal tributes.
Even if the Clarkes were to place economic realities front and center the book could not be otherwise than a domestic history: the Cowden Clarkes, the Hunts, the Lambs, the Novellos were working families in which husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children labored as partners. In the memoirs we see them attending galleries rather than painting pictures, performing at family gatherings rather than at public concerts, reading books rather than writing or selling books. There are occasional exceptions, as when we see young Mary (Novello—later Cowden Clarke) having her Latin lesson interrupted by young William (Hazlitt—son of the critic); the instructor is Mary Lamb, presumably earning a pittance by taking in the children of family friends. In the Hunt circle economic, social, and literary activities were inseparable from domestic arrangements; distinctions between amateur and professional are blurred.
As with many another pastoral the pleasing illusion is sustained not merely through exclusions but through repetitions of familiar matter related with a peculiar quaintness of diction (readers will recognize Hunt's Cockneyisms) and a sustained uniformity of tone. In the succession of anecdotes and letters there is no progress towards a goal, no sudden, disastrous, or life-changing events; deaths are sometimes recorded but never dwelt upon. The remote loss of Keats and Shelley seems to have left no yawning gulf in the circle. The passing of Charles Lamb is not even noted; in the place where it would go appear a set of pathetic verses by Charles Lamb. The very correspondents sustain the illusion: the missives of the boisterous Douglas Jerrold and energetic Charles Dickens exude boyishness. Nor do the Clarkes themselves suffer the indignities of age; instead they decamp for the south of France where summer is presumably perpetual.
The notable exception to the illusion of stasis appears in the depiction of Leigh Hunt, the Pan-figure who dominates the proceedings and holds both Clarkes in his erotic sway. Hunt by rights should be the perpetual boy, yet with him alone are the ravages of time recorded: his raven-hair turns grey, he grieves for the loss of children, he toils continually to keep his family afloat by means of his pen. This lends poignance and power to an otherwise idealizing memoir, as in its way does the depiction of John Keats whose fisticuffs belie the moony poet readers might have expected. The intrusion of such things complicates the relation of art to life; Et in Arcadia ego. When the aging Hunt drops out of the narrative with the concluding sketch his place is quickly taken up by the youthful Dickens: another came.
Which is not to suggest that Charles and Mary Clarke strain after or achieve a higher literariness in their memoirs; far from it. The pot had to be boiled and the treasured letters and memories converted into ready money. Still, the stories and images linger in the memory: there was more to Hunt's Cockney Arcadia than the tinsel and sordidness his detractors were wont to deplore. In the Clarkes' memoir one observes the Hunt ethos of beneficent pleasure as it was lived and presented as it was meant to be understood—as a joyful union of art and life. In her made-for-market arrangement of recycled magazine pieces Mary Cowden Clarke preserved not merely memories of things seen but the ways of seeing characteristic of a remarkable group of writers and artists.
David Hill Radcliffe