William Wells Brown – Impressions of Harriet Martineau and the English Lakes 1851

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William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown was a Kentucky-born fugitive slave touring the anti-slavery lecture circuit in the British Isles during 1849-1851. In two letters to Frederick Douglass, which are now included in Wells Brown’s memoirs “Three years in Europe”, he records his impressions of sociologist and political economist, Harriet Martineau. She was author of “The Hour and the Man”, a biography of Toussaint Louverture, the black Haitian rebel leader. William and Ellen Craft, Georgian fugitive slaves and abolitionist lecturers, are his companions. He mentions the much admired Liverpool-born romantic poet, the late Felicia Hemans, who was often a guest of Wordsworth at Rydal Mount or lodging overlooking Windermere.

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Sociologist and political economist, Harriet Martineau

In March 1851 Wells Brown arrived from Carlisle after a long journey on the top of a coach.

‘A cold ride of about fifty miles brought us to the foot of Lake Windermere, a beautiful sheet of water, surrounded by mountains that seemed to vie with each other which should approach nearest the sky. The margin of the lake is carved out and built up into terrace above terrace, until the slopes and windings are lost in the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. It is not surprising that such men as Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others, resorted to this region for inspiration. After a coach ride of five miles (passing on our journey the “Dove’s Nest,” home of the late Mrs. Hemans), we were put down at the door of the Salutation Hotel, Ambleside, and a few minutes after found ourselves under the roof of the authoress of “Society in America.” I know not how it is with others, but for my own part, I always form an opinion of the appearance of an author whose writings I am at all familiar with, or a statesman whose speeches I have read. I had pictured in my own mind a tall, stately-looking lady of about sixty years, as the authoress of “Travels in the East,” and for once I was right, with the single exception that I had added on too many years by twelve. The evening was spent in talking about the United States; and William Craft had to go through the narrative of his escape from slavery. When I retired for the night, I found it almost impossible to sleep. The idea that I was under the roof of the authoress of “The Hour and the Man,” and that I was on the banks of the sweetest lake in Great Britain, within half a mile of the residence of the late poet Wordsworth, drove sleep from my pillow…

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William Craft

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Ellen Craft

I had long had an invitation to visit this distinguished friend [Harriet Martineau] of our race, and as the invitation was renewed during my tour through the North, I did not feel disposed to decline it, and thereby lose so favourable an opportunity of meeting with one who had written so much in behalf of the oppressed of our land. About a mile from the head of Lake Windermere, and immediately under Wonsfell, and encircled by mountains on all sides, except the south-west, lies the picturesque little town of Ambleside, and the brightest spot in the place is “The Knoll,” the residence of Miss Martineau.

We reached “The Knoll” a little after nightfall, and a cordial shake of the hand by Miss M., who was waiting for us, soon assured us that we had met with a warm friend.

It is not my intention to lay open the scenes of domestic life at “The Knoll,” nor to describe the social parties of which my friends and I were partakers during our sojourn within the hospitable walls of this distinguished writer; but the name of Miss M. is so intimately connected with the Anti-slavery movement, by her early writings, and those have been so much admired by the friends of the slave in the United States, that I deem it not at all out of place for me to give the readers of the North Star some idea of the authoress of “Political Economy,” “Travels in the East,” “The Hour and the Man,” &c.

The dwelling is a cottage of moderate size, built after Miss M.’s own plan, upon a rise of land from which it derives the name of “The Knoll.” The Library is the largest room in the building, and upon the walls of it were hung some beautiful engravings and a continental map. On a long table which occupied the centre of the room, were the busts of Shakspere, Newton, Milton, and a few other literary characters of the past. One side of the room was taken up with a large case, filled with a choice collection of books, and everything indicated that it was the home of genius and of taste.

The room usually occupied by Miss M., and where we found her on the evening of our arrival, is rather small and lighted by two large windows. The walls of this room were also decorated with prints and pictures, and on the mantle-shelf were some models in terra cottia of Italian groups. On a circular table lay casts, medallions, and some very choice water-colour drawings. Under the south window stood a small table covered with newly opened letters, a portfolio and several new books, with here and there a page turned down, and one with a paper knife between its leaves as if it had only been half read. I took up the last mentioned, and it proved to be the “Life and Poetry of Hartly Coleridge,” son of S.T. Coleridge. It was just from the press, and had, a day or two before, been forwarded to her by the publisher. Miss M. is very deaf and always carries in her left hand a trumpet; and I was not a little surprised on learning from her that she had never enjoyed the sense of smell, and only on one occasion the sense of taste, and that for a single moment. Miss M. is loved with a sort of idolatry by the people of Ambleside, and especially the poor, to whom she gives a course of lectures every winter gratuitously. She finished her last course the day before our arrival. She was much pleased with Ellen Craft, and appeared delighted with the story of herself and husband’s escape from slavery, as related by the latter—during the recital of which I several times saw the silent tear stealing down her cheek, and which she tried in vain to hide from us.

When Craft had finished, she exclaimed, “I would that every woman in the British Empire, could hear that tale as I have, so that they might know how their own sex was treated in that boasted land of liberty.” It seems strange to the people of this county, that one so white and so lady-like as Mrs. Craft, should have been a slave and forced to leave the land of her nativity and seek an asylum in a foreign country. The morning after our arrival, I took a stroll by a circuitous pathway to the top of Loughrigg Fell.

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Loughrigg fell

At the foot of the mount I met a peasant, who very kindly offered to lend me his donkey, upon which to ascend the mountain. Never having been upon the back of one of these long eared animals, I felt some hesitation about trusting myself upon so diminutive looking a creature. But being assured that if I would only resign myself to his care and let him have his own way, I would be perfectly safe, I mounted, and off we set. We had, however, scarcely gone fifty rods, when, in passing over a narrow part of the path and overlooking a deep chasm, one of the hind feet of the donkey slipped, and with an involuntary shudder, I shut my eyes to meet my expected doom; but fortunately the little fellow gained his foothold, and in all probability saved us both from a premature death. After we had passed over this dangerous place, I dismounted, and as soon as my feet had once more gained terra firma, I resolved that I would never again yield my own judgment to that of any one, not even to a donkey.

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The Dove’s Nest, former haunt of Felicia Hemans.
Now The Samling Hotel.

It seems as if Nature has amused herself in throwing these mountains together. From the top of the Loughrigg Fell, the eye loses its power in gazing upon the objects below. On our left, lay Rydal Mount, the beautiful seat of the late poet Wordsworth. While to the right, and away in the dim distance, almost hidden by the native trees, was the cottage where once resided Mrs. Hemans. And below us lay Windermere, looking more like a river than a lake, and which, if placed by the side of our own Ontario, Erie or Huron, would be lost in the fog. But here it looks beautiful in the extreme, surrounded as it is by a range of mountains that have no parallel in the United States for beauty. Amid a sun of uncommon splendour, dazzling the eye with the reflection upon the water below, we descended into the valley, and I was soon again seated by the fireside of our hospitable hostess. In the afternoon of the same day, we took a drive to the “Dove’s Nest,” the home of the late Mrs. Hemans.

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Felicia Hemans

We did not see the inside of the house, on account of its being occupied by a very eccentric man, who will not permit a woman to enter the house, and it is said that he has been known to run when a female had unconsciously intruded herself upon his premises. And as our company was in part composed of ladies, we had to share their fate, and therefore were prevented from seeing the interior of the Dove’s Nest. The exhibitor of such a man would be almost sure of a prize at the great Exhibition.

At the head of Grassmere Lake, and surrounded by a few cottages, stands an old gray, antique-looking Parish Church, venerable with the lapse of centuries, and the walls partly covered with ivy, and in the rear of which is the parish burial-ground. After leaving the Dove’s Nest, and having a pleasant ride over the hills and between the mountains, and just as the sun was disappearing behind them, we arrived at the gate of Grassmere Church; and alighting and following Miss M., we soon found ourselves standing over a grave, marked by a single stone, and that, too, very plain, with a name deeply cut. This announced to us that we were standing over the grave of William Wordsworth. He chose his own grave, and often visited the spot before his death. He lies in the most sequestered spot in the whole grounds, and the simplicity and beauty of the place was enough to make one in love with it, to be laid so far from the bustle of the world, and in so sweet a place. The more one becomes acquainted with the literature of the old world, the more he must love her poets. Among the teachers of men, none are more worthy of study than the poets; and, as teachers, they should receive far more credit than is yielded to them. No one can look back upon the lives of Dante, Shakspere, Milton, Goethe, Cowper, and many others that we might name, without being reminded of the sacrifices which they made for mankind, and which were not appreciated until long after their deaths. We need look no farther than our own country to find men and women wielding the pen practically and powerfully for the right. It is acknowledged on all hands in this country, that England has the greatest dead poets, and America the greatest living ones. The poet and the true Christian have alike a hidden life. Worship is the vital element of each. Poetry has in it that kind of utility which good men find in their Bible, rather than such convenience as bad men often profess to draw from it. It ennobles the sentiments, enlarges the affections, kindles the imagination, and gives to us the enjoyment of a life in the past, and in the future, as well as in the present. Under its light and warmth, we wake from our torpidity and coldness, to a sense of our capabilities. This impulse once given, a great object is gained. Schiller has truly said, “Poetry can be to a man, what love is to a hero. It can neither counsel him nor smite him, nor perform any labour for him, but it can bring him up to be a hero, can summon him to deeds, and arm him with strength for all he ought to be.” I have often read with pleasure the sweet poetry of our own Whitfield of Buffalo, which has appeared from time to time in the columns of the North Star. I have always felt ashamed of the fact that he should be compelled to wield the razor instead of the pen for a living. Meaner poets than James M. Whitfield, are now living by their compositions; and were he a white man he would occupy a different position.

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The Knoll, Ambleside
Home of Harriet Martineau

After remaining a short time, and reading the epitaphs of the departed, we again returned to “The Knoll.” Nothing can be more imposing than the beauty of English park scenery, and especially in the vicinity of the lakes. Magnificent lawns that extend like sheets of vivid green, with here and there a sprinkling of fine trees, heaping up rich piles of foliage, and then the forests with the hare, the deer, and the rabbit, bounding away to the covert, or the pheasant suddenly bursting upon the wing—the artificial stream, the brook taught to wind in natural meanderings, or expand into the glassy lake, with the yellow leaf sleeping upon its bright waters, and occasionally a rustic temple or sylvan statue grown green and dark with age, give an air of sanctity and picturesque beauty to English scenery that is unknown in the United States. The very labourer with his thatched cottage and narrow slip of ground-plot before the door, the little flower-bed, the woodbine trimmed against the wall, and hanging its blossoms about the windows, and the peasant seen trudging home at nightfall with the avails of the toil of the day upon his back—all this tells us of the happiness both of rich and poor in this country. And yet there are those who would have the world believe that the labourer of England is in a far worse condition than the slaves of America. Such persons know nothing of the real condition of the working classes of this country. At any rate, the poor here, as well as the rich, are upon a level, as far as the laws of the country are concerned. The more one becomes acquainted with the English people, the more one has to admire them. They are so different from the people of our own country. Hospitality, frankness, and good humour, are always to be found in an Englishman. After a ramble of three days about the lakes, we mounted the coach, bidding Miss Martineau farewell, and quitted the lake district.’

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Loughrigg fell

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About Lynn Steinson

Author of psychological thrillers "Deluded" and "Guilt" about members of The Sun pub quiz team.
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