LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries
Portraits—the Author's Mother.

Lord Byron.
Mr. Moore.
Mr. Shelley. With a Criticism on his Genius.
Mr. Keats. With a Criticism on his Writings.
Mr. Dubois. Mr. Campbell. Mr. Theodore Hook. Mr. Mathews. Messrs. James & Horace Smith.
Mr. Fuseli. Mr. Bonnycastle. Mr. Kinnaird.
Mr. Charles Lamb.
Mr. Coleridge.
Recollections of the Author’s Life.
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“It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.

“In the examples, which I here bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbid myself to dare to alter even the most light and indifferent circumstances. My conscience does not falsify one tittle. What my ignorance may do, I cannot say.”       Montaigne.


My grandfather, by my mother’s side, was Stephen Shewell, merchant of Philadelphia, who sent out his “argosies.” His mother was a quaker; and he himself, I believe, descended from a quaker stock. He had ships trading to England, Holland, and the West Indies, and used to put his sons and nephews in them as captains, probably to save charges; for, in every thing but stocking his cellars with provision, he was penurious. For sausages and “botargoes,” (first authors, perhaps, of the jaundice in our blood,) Friar John would have commended him. As Chaucer says,
“It snowèd, in his house of meat and drink.”
On that side of the family we seem all sailors and rough subjects, with a mitigation of quakerism; as, on the father’s, we are creoles and claret-drinkers, very polite and clerical.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Bickley. I believe her family came from Buckinghamshire. The coat of arms are three half moons; which I happen to recollect, because of a tradition we had, that an honourable augmentation was made to them of three wheat-sheaves, in reward of some gallant achievement performed in cutting off a convoy of provisions by Sir William Bickley, a partizan of the House of Orange, who was made a Banneret. My grandmother was an open-hearted, cheerful woman, of a good healthy blood, and as generous as her hus-
band was otherwise. The family consisted of five daughters and two sons. One of the daughters died unmarried: the three surviving ones are now wives, and mothers of families, in Philadelphia. They and their husbands, agreeably to the American law of equal division, are in the receipt of a pretty property in lands and houses; our due share of which, some inadvertence on our parts appears to have forfeited. I confess I often wish, at the close of a morning’s work, that people were not so excessively delicate on legal points, and so afraid of hurting the feelings of others, by supposing it possible for them to want a little of their grandfather’s money. But I believe I ought to blush, while I say this: and I do.—One of my uncles died in England, a mild, excellent creature, more fit for solitude than the sea. The other, my uncle Stephen, a fine handsome fellow of great good-nature and gallantry, was never heard of, after leaving the port of Philadelphia for the West Indies. He had a practice of crowding too much sail, which is supposed to have been his destruction. They said he did it “to get back to his ladies.” My uncle was the means of saving his namesake, my brother Stephen, from a singular destiny. Some Indians, who came into the city to traffic, had been observed to notice my brother a good deal. It is supposed they saw in his tall little person, dark face, and long black hair, a resemblance to themselves. One day they enticed him from my
grandfather’s house in Front Street, and taking him to the Delaware, which was close by, were carrying him off across the river, when his uncle descried them and gave the alarm. His threats induced them to come back; otherwise, it is thought, they intended to carry him into their own quarters, and bring him up as an Indian; so that instead of a rare character of another sort,—an attorney
who would rather compound a quarrel for his clients than get rich by it,—we might have had for a brother the Good Buffalo, Bloody Bear, or some such grim personage. I will indulge myself with the liberty of observing in this place, that with great diversity of character among us, with strong points of dispute even among ourselves, and with the usual amount, though not perhaps exactly the like nature, of infirmities common to other people,—some of us, may be, with greater,—we are all persons who inherit the power of making sacrifices for the sake of what we consider a principle.

My grandfather, though intimate with Dr. Franklin, was secretly on the British side of the question, when the American war broke out. He professed to be neutral, and to attend only to business; but his neutrality did not avail him. One of his most valuably laden ships was burnt in the Delaware by the Revolutionists, to prevent its getting into the hands of the British; and besides making free with his botargoes, they despatched every now and then a file of soldiers to rifle his house of every thing else that could be serviceable: linen, blankets, &c. And this, unfortunately, was only a taste of what he was to suffer; for, emptying his mercantile stores from time to time, they paid him with their continental currency, paper-money: the depreciation of which was so great as to leave him, at the close of the war, bankrupt of every thing but some houses, which his wife brought him; they amounted to a sufficiency for the family support: and thus, after all his cunning neutralities, and his preference of individual to public good, he owed all that he retained to a generous and unspeculating woman. His saving grace, however, was not on every possible occasion confined to his money. He gave a very strong instance (for him) of his partiality
to the British cause, by secreting in his house a gentleman of the name of
Slater, who commanded a small armed vessel on the Delaware, and who is now residing in London. Mr. Slater had been taken prisoner, and confined at some miles distance from Philadelphia. He contrived to make his escape, and astonished my grandfather’s family by appearing before them at night, drenched in the rain, which descends in torrents in that climate. They secreted him for several months, in a room at the top of the house.

My mother, at that time, was a brunette with fine eyes, a tall lady-like person, and hair blacker than is seen of English growth. It was supposed, that the Anglo-Americans already began to exhibit the influence of climate in their appearance. The late Mr. West told me, that if he had met myself or any of my brothers in the streets, he should have pronounced, without knowing us, that we were Americans. A likeness has been discovered between us and some of the Indians in his pictures. My mother had no accomplishments but the two best of all, a love of nature and of books. Dr. Franklin offered to teach her the guitar; but she was too bashful to become his pupil. She regretted this afterwards, partly no doubt for having missed so illustrious a master. Her first child, who died, was named after him. I know not whether the anecdote is new; but I have heard, that when Dr. Franklin invented the Harmonica, he concealed it from his wife, till the instrument was fit to play; and then woke her with it one night, when she took it for the music of angels. Among the visitors at my grandfather’s house, besides Franklin, was Thomas Paine; whom I have heard my mother speak of, as having a countenance that inspired her with terror. I believe his aspect was not captivating; but most likely his
political and religious opinions did it no good in the eyes of the fair loyalist.

My mother was diffident of her personal merit, but she had great energy of principle. When the troubles broke out, and my father took that violent part in favour of the King, a letter was received by her from a person high in authority, stating, that if her husband would desist from opposition to the general wishes of the Colonists, he should remain in security; but that if he thought fit to do otherwise, he must suffer the consequences which inevitably awaited him. The letter concluded with advising her, as she valued her husband’s and family’s happiness, to use her influence with him to act accordingly, To this, “in the spirit of old Rome and Greece,” as one of her sons has proudly and justly observed, (I will add, of Old England, and though contrary to her opinions then, of New America too) my mother replied, that she knew her husband’s mind too well, to suppose for a moment that he would so degrade himself; and that the writer, of the letter entirely mistook her, if he thought her capable of endeavouring to persuade him to any action contrary to the convictions of his heart, whatever the consequences threatened might be. Yet the heart of this excellent woman, strong as it was, was already beating with anxiety for what might occur; and on the day when my father was seized, she fell into a fit of the jaundice, so violent, as to affect her ever afterwards, and subject a previously fine constitution to every ill that came across it.

It was about two years before my mother could set off with her children for England. She embarked in the Earl of Effingham frigate, Captain Dempster; who from the moment she was drawn up the sides
of the vessel with her little boys, conceived a pity and respect for her, and paid her the most cordial attention. In truth, he felt more pity for her than he chose to express; for the vessel was old and battered, and he thought the voyage not without danger. Nor was it. They did very well till they came off the Scilly islands, when a storm arose which threatened to sink them. The ship was with difficulty kept above water. Here my mother again showed how courageous her heart could be, by the very strength of its tenderness. There was a lady in the vessel, who had betrayed weaknesses of various sorts during the voyage; and who even went so far as to resent the superior opinion, which the gallant Captain could not help entertaining of her fellow-passenger. My mother, instead of giving way to tears and lamentations, did all she could to keep up the spirits of her children. The lady in question did the reverse; and my mother, feeling the necessity of the case, and touched with pity for children in the same danger as her own, was at length moved to break through the delicacy she had observed, and expostulate strongly with her, to the increased admiration of the Captain, who congratulated himself on having a female passenger so truly worthy of the name of woman. Many years afterwards, near the same spot, and during a similar danger, her son, the writer of this book, with a wife and seven children around him, had occasion to call her to mind; and the example was of service, even to him, a man. It was thought a miracle that the Earl of Effingham was saved. It was driven into Swansea bay; and borne along, by the heaving might of the waves, into a shallow, where no vessel of so large a size ever appeared before; nor could it ever have got there, but by so unwonted an over-lifting.


Having been born nine years later than the youngest of my brothers, I have no recollection of my mother’s earlier aspect. Her eyes were always fine, and her person lady-like; her hair also retained its colour for a long period; but her brown complexion had been exchanged for a jaundiced one, which she retained through life; and her cheeks were sunken, and her mouth drawn down with sorrow at the corners. She retained the energy of her character on great occasions; but her spirit in ordinary was weakened, and she looked at the bustle and discord of the present state of society with a frightened aversion. My father’s danger, and the war-whoops of the Indians, which she heard in Philadelphia, had shaken her soul as well as frame. The sight of two men fighting in the streets would drive her in tears down another road; and I remember when we lived near the Park, she would take me a long circuit out of the way, rather than hazard time spectacle of the soldiers. Little did she think of the timidity into which she was thus inoculating me, and what difficulty I should have, when I went to school, to sustain all those fine theories, and that unbending resistance to oppression, which she inculcated upon me. However, perhaps it ultimately turned out for the best. One must feel more than usual for the sore places of humanity, even to fight properly in their behalf. Never shall I forget her face, as it used to appear to me coming lip the cloisters, with that weary hang of the head on one side, and that melancholy smile!

One holiday, in a severe winter, as she was taking me home, she was petitioned for charity by a woman, sick and ill clothed. It was in Blackfriars’ Road; I think about midway. My mother, with the tears in her eyes, turned up a gate-way, or some such place, and beckoning the woman to follow, took off her flannel petticoat,
and gave it her. It is supposed that a cold which ensued, fixed the rheumatism upon her for life. Actions like these have doubtless been often performed, and do not of necessity imply any great virtue in the performer; but they do, if they are of a piece with the rest of the character. Saints have been made for actions no greater.

The reader will allow me to quote a passage out of a poem of mine, because it was suggested by a recollection I had upon me of this excellent woman. It is almost the only passage in that poem worth repeating: which I mention, in order that he may lay the quotation purely to its right account, and not suppose I am anxious to repeat my verses because I fancy I cannot write bad ones. In every thing but the word “happy,” the picture is from life. The bird spoken of is the nightingale,—the
“Bird of wakeful glow
Whose louder song is like the voice of life,
Triumphant o’er death’s image; but whose deep,
Low, lonelier note is like a gentle wife,
A poor, a pensive, yet a happy one,
Stealing, when day-light’s common tasks are done,
An hour for mother’s work; and singing low,
While her tired husband and her children sleep.”

I have spoken of my mother during my father’s troubles in England. She stood by him through them all; and in every thing did more honour to marriage, than marriage did good to either of them: for it brought little happiness to her, and too many children to both. Of his changes of opinion, as well as of fortune, she partook also. She became an Unitarian, an Universalist, a Republican: and in her new opinions, as in her old, was apt, I suspect, to be a little too peremp-
tory, and to wonder at those who could be of the other side. It was her only fault. I believe she would have mended it, had she lived till now. I have been thought, in my time, to speak in unwarrantable terms of kings and princes. I think I did, and that society is no longer to be bettered in that manner, but in a much calmer and nobler way. But I was witness, in my childhood, to a great deal of suffering; I heard of more all over the world; and kings and princes bore a great share in the causes to which they were traced. Some of those causes were not to be denied. It is now understood, on all hands, that the continuation of the American war was owing to the personal stubbornness of the
King. My mother, in her indignation at him, for being the cause of so much unnecessary bloodshed, thought that the unfortunate malady into which he fell, was a judgment on him from Providence. The truth is, it was owing to mal-organization, and to the diseases of his father and mother. Madness, indeed, considered as an overwrought state of the will, may be considered as the natural malady of kings. They are in a false position, with regard to the rest of society; and their marriages with none but each other’s families tend to give the race its last deterioration. But in the case of the late unhappy monarch, the causes were obvious. My mother would now have reasoned better. She would have increased her stock of experience and observation; and in addition to her excellent understanding, she would have had the light of modern philosophy, by which Christianity itself is better read. After all, her intolerance was only in theory. When any thing was to be done, charity in her always ran before faith. If she could have served and benefited the King himself personally, indignation would soon have given way to humanity. She had a high opinion of every
thing that was decorous and feminine on the part of a wife; yet when a poor violent woman, the wife of a very amiable and exemplary preacher, went so far on one occasion as to bite his hand in a fit of jealous rage as he was going to ascend his pulpit, (and he preached with it in great pain,) she was the only female of all her acquaintance that continued to visit her; alleging, that she wanted society and comfort so much the more. She had the highest notions of chastity; yet when a servant came to her, who could get no place because she had had a child, my mother took her into her family, upon the strength of her candour and her destitute condition, and was served with an affectionate gratitude.

My mother’s favourite books were “Dr. Young’s Night Thoughts,” (which was a pity,) and Mrs. Rowe’sDevout Exercises of the Heart.” She was very fond of poetry, and used to hoard my verses in her pocket-book, and encourage me to write, by showing them to the Wests, and the Thorntons; the latter, her dearest friends, loved and honoured her to the last: and I believe they retain their regard for the family, politics notwithstanding. My mother’s last illness was very long, and was tormented with rheumatism. I envy my brother Robert the recollection of the filial attentions he paid her; but they shall be as much known as I can make them, not because he is my brother, (which is nothing), but because he was a good son, which is much; and every good son and mother will be my warrant. My other brothers, who were married, were away with their families; and I, who ought to have attended more, was as giddy as I was young, or rather a great deal more so. I attended, but not enough. How often have we occasion to wish that we could be older or younger than we are,
according as we desire to have the benefit of gaiety or experience!—Her greatest pleasure during her decay was to lie on a sofa, looking at the setting sun. She used to liken it to the door of heaven; and fancy her lost children there, waiting for her. She died in the fifty-third year of her age, in a little miniature house which stands in a row behind the church that has been since built in Somers Town; and was buried, as she had always wished to be, in the church-yard of Hampstead.