Records of a Girlhood
(click on an icon to download eBook)
A few years ago I received from a friend to whom they had been addressed a collection of my own letters, written during a period of forty years, and amounting to thousands—a history of my life.
The passion for universal history (i.e. any and every body's story) nowadays seems to render any thing in the shape of personal recollections good enough to be printed and read; and as the public appetite for gossip appears to be insatiable, and is not unlikely some time or other to be gratified at my expense, I have thought that my own gossip about myself may be as acceptable to it as gossip about me written by another.
I have come to the garrulous time of life—to the remembering days, which only by a little precede the forgetting ones. I have much leisure, and feel sure that it will amuse me to write my own reminiscences; perhaps reading them may amuse others who have no more to do than I have. To the idle, then, I offer these lightest of leaves gathered in the idle end of autumn days, which have succeeded years of labor often severe and sad enough, though its ostensible purpose was only that of affording recreation to the public.
There are two lives of my aunt Siddons: one by Boaden, and one by the poet Campbell. In these biographies due mention is made of my paternal grandfather and grandmother. To the latter, Mrs. Roger Kemble, I am proud to see, by Lawrence's portrait of her, I bear a personal resemblance; and I please myself with imagining that the likeness is more than "skin deep." She was an energetic, brave woman, who, in the humblest sphere of life and most difficult circumstances, together with her husband fought manfully a hard battle with poverty, in maintaining and, as well as they could, training a family of twelve children, of whom four died in childhood. But I am persuaded that whatever qualities of mind or character I inherit from my father's family, I am more strongly stamped with those which I derive from my mother, a woman who, possessing no specific gift in such perfection as the dramatic talent of the Kembles, had in a higher degree than any of them the peculiar organization of genius. To the fine senses of a savage rather than a civilized nature, she joined an acute instinct of correct criticism in all matters of art, and a general quickness and accuracy of perception, and brilliant vividness of expression, that made her conversation delightful. Had she possessed half the advantages of education which she and my father labored to bestow upon us, she would, I think, have been one of the most remarkable persons of her time.
My mother was the daughter of Captain Decamp, an officer in one of the armies that revolutionary France sent to invade republican Switzerland. He married the daughter of a farmer from the neighborhood of Berne. From my grandmother's home you could see the great Jungfrau range of the Alps, and I sometimes wonder whether it is her blood in my veins that so loves and longs for those supremely beautiful mountains.
Not long after his marriage my grandfather went to Vienna, where, on the anniversary of the birth of the great Empress-King, my mother was born, and named, after her, Maria Theresa. In Vienna, Captain Decamp made the acquaintance of a young English nobleman, Lord Monson (afterwards the Earl of Essex), who, with an enthusiasm more friendly than wise, eagerly urged the accomplished Frenchman to come and settle in London, where his talents as a draughtsman and musician, which were much above those of a mere amateur, combined with the protection of such friends as he could not fail to find, would easily enable him to maintain himself and his young wife and child.
In an evil hour my grandfather adopted this advice, and came to England. It was the time when the emigration of the French nobility had filled London with objects of sympathy, and society with sympathizers with their misfortunes. Among the means resorted to for assisting the many interesting victims of the Revolution, were representations, given under the direction of Le Texier, of Berquin's and Madame de Genlis's juvenile dramas, by young French children. These performances, combined with his own extraordinary readings, became one of the fashionable frenzies of the day. I quote from Walter Scott's review of Boaden's life of my uncle the following notice of Le Texier: "On one of these incidental topics we must pause for a moment, with delighted recollection. We mean the readings of the celebrated Le Texier, who, seated at a desk, and dressed in plain clothes, read French plays with such modulation of voice, and such exquisite point of dialogue, as to form a pleasure different from that of the theatre, but almost as great as we experience in listening to a first-rate actor....