« PreviousContinue »
ART. XII. Corinne, ou L'Italie. Par Madame de Staël Holstein.
A Londres, chez M. Peltier. 1807.
The plan of this work, if not altogether new, is at least very
different from that of an ordinary novel. The object of Madáme de Staël has been, to intermix, with the incidents of a fictitious narrative, the description of whatever was to be found in Italy most worthy of attention, while that country remained in full enjoyment of the noble patrimony which it inherited from past ages. This attempt, therefore, is in some respects the same with that of Barthelemi, in the Travels of the Younger Anacharsis. It must, however, be admitted, that the union of the true with the imaginary is much more skilfully effected in the work before us than in that of the French academician. The story, by which he has endeavoured to connect together his descriptions of Greece, is, in itself, dull and uninteresting, and comes across the reader every now and then as an unseasonable interruption. The narrative of Madame de Staël is as lively and affecting as her descriptions are picturesque and beautiful ; so that each of them, by itself, could maintain a high place in the species of composition to which it belongs. The conception of the story is also in a high degree original; the difference of national character is the force that sets all in motion; and it is Great Britain and Italy, the extremes of civilized Europe, that are personified and contrasted in the hero and heroine of this romantic tale.
Oswald, Lord Nelvil, is a Scots nobleman of great promise and accomplishment, who, at the age of twenty-five, trayels into Italy on account of his health. The loss of a father, whom he loveit with more than filial affection, and absence at the moment of his father's death (which, though unavoidable, seemed, in his rigorous estimate of duty, to inyolve a degree of culpability), had produced a deep melancholy, that made him indifferent to life, and little concerned either about its pleasures or its pains. In the circuitous route which he was obliged to pursue (it was in 1794), he passed through Inspruck, and there made an acquaintance with the Count d'Erfeuil, a French emigranț, whom he carried with him into Italy. The gay, frivolous, and unstcady character of the Count, is well delineated throughout; and he finds in these qualities, as so many of his countrymen have lately done, a defence against misfortune, more effectual perhaps than the deepest thought and most unshaken constancy would have afforded.
As they passed through Ancona, a fire that happened in the town, and throw all the inhabitants into dismay, called forth the
activity of Lord Nelvil, and gave occasion for him to show, that, in proportion as he was regardless of his own sufferings, he was disposed to feel for the sufferings of others.
When they arrived in Rome, Lord Nelvil found that a journey through a country where he knew nobody, and was known to none, so far from removing the gloom that hung over his mind, had only rendered his insulation from the world more complete. On the day, however, after his arrival, the ringing of bells and the firing of cannon announced some great solemnity; and he was told, on inquiry, that CORINNA was going to be crowned in the Capitol. To the question, who is CORINNA ? he received for answer, that she was the most celebrated personage in all Italy, - an excellent poet,-an improvisatrice, and one of the most beautiful women in Rome. That her first work had appeared about five years before, -that she was a woman of fortune,—but that of her birth and family nothing certain was known. .
This mixture of mystery and celebrity excited the curiosity of the strangers, and they made haste to mingle in the crowd. Corinna appeared in a chariot drawn by four white horses; and was conveyed to the Capitol, amid the 'shouts and applauses of the Roman people. The Prince de Castel Forte pronounced a speech in her praise; she herself spoke an extempore poem in praise of Italy; and the Senator of Rome placed a crown of myrtle and of laurel on her head. "Nelvil felt himself interested in this extraordinary scene, and in the singular person who gave occasion to it. His appearance had also been remarked by Corinna ; and, as she descended the stairs of the Capitol, turning about to look at him, her crown fell on the ground; Nelvil, catching it up, presented it to her, with a suitable compliment; to which she replied in good English, without any trace of a foreign accent.
The novelty of the whole scene, and the surprise occasioned by this last circumstance, could not but produce in Nelvil the strongest desire to become acquainted with Corinna. While he was contriving in his own mind how this was to be brought about, he found that his wishes were anticipated by Count d'Erfeuil, who had already written a note to Corinna, requesting that he and his friend might be permitted to wait on her. The account of the first visit to Corinna,—the description of her house,-her person, her conversation,-are striking and beautiful in the highest degree. Nelvil began to feel more interest in, life than he had done for a long time. Their intercourse was kept up; and, after a little, Corinna, as Nelvil was yet an entire stranger to Rome, offered herself to become his guide and conductor to all the curiosities of the antient metropolis of the
world. Here a field is opened for the display of taste, learn, ing, and eloquence; and it is but justice to say, that Corinna is every where equal to her subject. The observations which Madame de Staël has put in the mouth of her accomplished heroine, are those of a person of taste and sentiment, who has strongly felt, and deeply studied, the impressions made by whatever is great or beautiful in nature or in art. In the mean time, the mutual passion of Nelvil and Corinna was fed by the display of so much talent, genius and feeling, and by the entire sympathy produced by the constant admiration of the same objects. The character of Corinna becomes more interesting as it develops. itself; all her powers and accomplishments are joined to an extreme simplicity and sincerity of mind, to that entire want of selfishness, that abandon de soi même, which is the charm of charms. Though the mind of Nelvil yielded to the force of those impressions, there were some elements in it more refractory than the rest, from the resistance of which was to be expected one of those struggles so consoling to the writers, and so distressing to the heroes of romance. As the citizen of a free country, he was passionately attached to it; he considered himself as called by his rank to take a share in active life ; and no consideration could have induced him to think of living any where but in Britain. The difficulty that a woman, accustomed like Corinna to the manners of Italy, and to the public admiration which she every day experienced, must feel in accommodating herself to the duties of domestic life, and to the retirement and privacy in which an English woman passes her time, appeared to him an insurmountable obstacle to their union. He knew, too, that it had been the wish of his father that he should marry Lucilia, the daughter of his friend Lord Edgermond; and, though no formal proposal had ever been made to that effect, yet Nelvil was accustomed to regard the slightest intimation of his father's will as a law, which his death had only rendered more binding. It is here, however, that, combined with those high principles of honour and of filial piety, the faulty part of Lord Nelvil's character comes in sight. If he could not think of devoting himself to Corinna; if he could not reconcile his doing so with his ideas of duty or of happiness, he should have tied himself, like Ulysses, to the mast, and fled from a Syren, who charmed, as Homer's did, with the voice of wisdom. But he was irresolute, and yielded to present impressions : though, in matters of mere opinion, he seemed abundantly decided, his active principles were not equally firm; and, without any settled plan, he continued to pass his time in the society of Corinna. The explanation of her story was necessary, at all events, to enable him to determine what line of conduct he must pursue; and though
she she promised to give that explanation, she constantly excused herself, and put it off to a time more distant. Nelvil fell ill; and Corinna, waving an etiquette that could be set aside in Italy, but that could not have been dispensed with in England, went to his lodgings, and attended him, during a tedious sickness, with the utmost tenderness and assiduity. On his conyalescence, they travel together to Naples, where a new field of observation opens, hardly less interesting than that which Rome had afforded." On the eve of their departure from Naples, she put into the hands of Lord Nelvil, a paper, containing the explanation he had been so impatient to receive. Nothing can be more unexpected than the discovery now made. Corinna is no other than the daughter of Lord Edgermond, by his first wife, an Italian lady, and so is the half-sister of Lucilia Edgermond, whom we have just mentioned. Her education, till she was fifteen, had been in Italy ; she was about ten years old when her mother died; her father leaving her to the care of an aunt, returned to England, where he married again, and where he brought his daughter, about five years after her mother's death. Here abundant room is given for description and contrast, both of manners and situation. Think of a young girl of fifteen, taken from the centre of Italy, with all the fire of genius just beginning to warm her, which had burst forth with such splendour in her maturer years ;-think of her taken from the sun and climate of that favoured region, and transplanted at once to a land of strangers, to a village in the bleak climate and among the tame hills of Northumberland. The feeling description which she gives of this change, the satyre, and at the same time the insight into the human character and manners, displayed in this part of the story, will be read here with peculiar interest. Miss Edgermoud found herself under the dominion of a step-mother, cold, haughty and reserved ; and her father, governed by his wife, transformed from the gay and fashionable man that she had seen him a few years before, to a grave and stiff personage, bending under the leaden mantle which Mediocrity, according to DANTE, throws over the shoulders of all who pass under his yoke. The formal manners and cloudy sky of this country, were intolerable to Miss Edgermond; and her only pleasure was in attending to the education of her young sister.
She had, in her father's houss, an opportunity of seeing the late Lord Nelvil, who made a visit to Edgermond Hall, and who had signified to her father a wish that she might be married to his son. Whatever the impression was that the manner and character of Miss Edgermond had 'made on him was unknown; but, on his return home, he wrote to Lord Edgermond, that he thought her two young for his son. Lord Edgermond died soon after; and when she herself came of age, being put in
merits ophtal, thoudheidmi her nigry whe
possession of her mother's fortune, and also of what her father had left her, she returned to the country whose remembrance was so deeply impressed upon her inind ; assumed the name of Corinna, and became the admiration and the boast of Italy.
In this recital, though there was nothing that detracted from the merits of Corinna, there was suflicient to unsettle the mind of Lord Nelvil, fluctuating between love, and a vague or indistinct idea of duty. He proposed to return to England, to learn if possible what the circumstances were that had disinclined his father to the proposed match between Miss Edgermond and himself. He did not consider that the time was past for giving way to such considerations; and that his obligation never to forsake Corinna, but to unite his destiny to hers, had now become paramount to all other duties,-Corinna, to whom his faith had been so often pledged, who had so entirely devoted herself to him, had nursed him in his sickness, and had sacrificed for him the admiration of the world.
She was overwhelmed by Nelvil's determination, but recovered sufficient spirits to return with him to Rome, and afterwards to proceed to Venice. The description of Venice is here introduced with great effect; and this spot, more soibre and triste than the rest of Italy, is judiciously chosen for the parting scene between Nelvil and Corinna. She had been prevailed on to act the part of Juliet (in a translation of Shakespeare's Romeo), and had performed it with the greatest applause, when Lord Nelvil received despatches from England, informing him that his regia ment was ordered to the West Indies. He must set out immediately, and Corinna must remain in Italy. The parting in the midst of the night, surrounded by the silence and mystery of the Venetian capital, is highly pathetic, and worked up with all the adventitious circumstances that can be supposed to aggravate the pain of separation,
From this point the conduct of the story evidently declines : probability is too often disregarded; the objects, though still interesting, are less agreeable; and the circumstances of distress are too much accumulated. Lard Nelvil remains in the West Indies for four years: the state of bis mind makes him careless of life, and he distinguishes himself greatly as a soldier. Corinna lives retired and disconsolate in the neighbourhood of Venice all that time, her mind in a state of pcrpe. tual agitation, the brilliancy of her imagination impaired, and the powers of her mind all going to decline. She resolves, haying heard nothing for a long time from Nelvil, to visit England, and arrives in London nearly about the time that he returns from the West Indies. She witnesses, unknown to him, the review of his regiment in Hyde Park. Her doubts about his sen