Mrs S. C. Hall (Anna Maria Fielding)

Author of "Lights and Shadows of Irish Life," &c. &c.

From The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 16, Number 92, January 1840

OUR readers may, perhaps, think we have hardly sustained the national character in introducing so long a series of men of genius without one of the other sex to adorn our Gallery, especially when among our countrywomen is found so large a proportion of the female talent of which the present age can boast. Our gallantry shall, however, be no longer called in question; and though the fair have been the fertile source of warfare among the male sex since the days of Helen--and before them--and there is no reason why critics should be an exception to the general rule--we are, nevertheless, determined, that no possible difference of opinion, religious, political, or literary, shall exist with respect to the first lady who appears in our Gallery. We, therefore, present to our readers, this month, the portrait of Mrs. S. C. Hall, a lady in whose commendation we believe all men of all parties can cordially unite.

Mrs. Hall is a native of Wexford, though by her mother's side she is of Swiss descent. Her maiden name was Fielding, by which, however, she was unknown in the literary world, as her first work was not published until after her marriage. She belongs to an old and excellent family in her native county. She first quitted Ireland at the early age of fifteen, to reside with her mother in England, and it was some time before she revisited this country--but the scenes which were familiar to her as a child have made such a vivid and lasting impression on her mind, and all her sketches evince so much freshness and vigour that her readers might easily imagine she had spent her life among the scenes she describes.

To her early absence from her native country is probably to be traced one strong characteristic of all her writings--the total absence of party feeling on subjects connected with politics or religion. We by no means intend to assert that this is necessarily, of itself, a merit--for no doubt political and religious truths may be most forcibly and usefully inculcated through the medium of works of fiction. But, unfortunately, many Irish writers, and some from whose genius better things were to have been hoped for, have utterly made shipwreck of their literary character on the dangerous quicksands of Irish politics; and productions of the Rory O'More and Manor of Glenmore class are unhappily too numerous. In the case of Mrs. Hall, however, it is impossible for the most irritable of sectarians to discover any sentiment, political or polemical, sufficiently violent to find fault with. This would, in all probability, not have been the case, had she continued at home till more advanced years had led her to observe and take an interest in public matters, which were far less attractive to her as a girl than the scenes and characters which she made such profitable use of her time in observing. Though the events of '98 were many years beyond the earliest period to which her own recollections could possibly reach, they were fresh in the memory of the elder members of her family, on some of whom they had made impressions too deep to be easily effaced or carefully concealed; and had she continued among those who were real actors in those bloody scenes, and heard them frequently spoken of in the strong language of Irish politics, it is unlikely that her pen would have drawn a sketch so perfectly free from either of the two tints, orange or green, which seem almost natural to an Irish picture.

During her residence in England, she became acquainted with and subsequently married her present husband, Mr. S. C. Hall--a gentleman well known in the literary world as the able editor of several leading periodicals and other works. The pursuits of her husband were an additional inducement to her to make her debut in the republic of letters, which she did in 1829, by the publication of some Irish sketches. She has not, however, confined herself exclusively to the style which she originally selected, though her first effort, and her last, also--but we trust not long to continue her last--have been Irish tales. Her success in the field in which she had originally started induced her to venture on new ground--and the scene of her first novel, "The Buccaneer," is laid in England. Although her first volume was not published till the year 1829, she had made rapid advances as a public favourite, and her literary reputation may be looked upon as established at the time of the publication of "The Buccaneer," A.D. 1832. The period chosen for this novel is the protectorate, and Cromwell is one of the principal characters throughout. Soon after it followed "The Outlaw," the scene of which is laid in A.D. 1688, during the struggle between the popish James and his successful competitor for the crown of England. Though in both of these novels the events and characters which figure in history are drawn with considerable truth and force, it is to the scenes which are taken from domestic life that they owe their chief charm. The subject chosen for a work which she published a short time previous to "The Outlaw," was more suited to her genius. "Tales of Woman's Trials" is a delightful volume, which met with perhaps more universal approbation than any other of the many successful efforts of her pen. They consist of a series of illustrations of character, the general nature of which is indicated by their title, and is written in the style in which Mrs. Hall most eminently excels. The two last novels which she has written, the scenes of which are laid in England, are "Uncle Horace" and "Marion, or a Young Maid's Fortunes." The former was published in 1835, and the latter appeared in the course of last year. They are both in a style different from her first contributions to this class of literary productions, being exclusively domestic, and the plots altogether unconnected with public characters or events.

Beside contributing to the amusement of the old, Mrs. Hall's pen has been exercised for the improvement of the young. Those who undertake to write for young people generally fall into one of two faults--they either make their books so absurdly simple that children early grow too dignified to read them, or, in their earnest desire to improve, they forget to amuse, and become so terribly instructive that juvenile readers regard their book as a task, and take it up only as a lesson. Mrs. Hall contrives happily to steer clear of both these errors, and understands admirably the style that best suits both the capacity and inclination of children. Her first effort in this way was a little work called "Chronicles of a School-room," published in 1831.

Another style of composition to which her versatile genius has been turned, is writing for the stage; and she is the author of some minor dramas, which evince a very considerable degree of dramatic talent. She made her debut as a dramatic author with a little piece called "The French Refugee," which was brought out in London with the greatest success in 1837. Since that time, the first tale in her Lights and Shadows of Irish Life, "The Groves of Blarney," has been dramatized and acted also with great success the season before last in the English metropolis.

Periodical literature is indebted to her for numerous contributions, and she has found time, notwithstanding her many more serious undertakings, to delight the readers of magazines, reviews, and annuals, (our own among the rest,) with many a sketch in her own familiar and elegant style--so well adapted to the comparatively short limits to which magazine articles are, for the most part, necessarily confined.

But it is as an Irish writer that Mrs. Hall can support her chief claims to literary eminence. Her "Sketches of Irish Character" were first published in 1829, and the favourable reception which the first series met with from the public induced her soon afterwards to bring out a second. The success of these fascinating volumes is a fair test of their merits. In her "Lights and Shadows of Irish Life," published in 1838, she fully supported the high character she had already established as a true painter of Irish scenes and Irish people. Her last appearance as a national writer was as author of "Stories of the Irish Peasantry," which were published separately in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, and have since been given to the world in a collected form, in connection with Chambers's People's Editions.

Our object here is to introduce the fair subject of our portrait, and her works, to our readers, and not to criticize her labours. The latter is a pleasing task we have frequently performed already,[1] and so lately, that it is the more unnecessary to repeat it here. They, however, redound to her credit in other ways beside their merit as literary efforts of a high order. Throughout every thing she has written there is a spirit of gentleness and delicacy that constitute the principal charm of a feminine style. This is, indeed, the very peculiarity that distinguishes her from most others who have written upon the same subjects. In describing the fiercer and darker passions of the Irish peasant, she seems to work against her will--in dwelling on the milder and gentler feelings which enter into the composition of the same character, she seems quite at home. There is, also, in every thing she has published, the still higher merit--and without which all other pretensions to praise are often worse than indifferent --of belonging to the most unexceptionable school of morals. She never tries to enlist our sympathies on the side of vice, or strains at producing an effect, by dwelling upon exciting and irritating topics, the only tendency of which is to produce a most culpable discontent. Her writings, while calculated to awaken the most kindly sympathy for the sufferings of the Irish among English readers, have no tendency to produce the contrary effect upon the subject of them, by making him more discontented with his lot, without encouraging any attempt to improve it, or by representing its hardships to be due to his political situation rather than his own conduct. Even those who do not entirely agree with her very English notions upon some subjects, must freely admit that her aim and object has always been most philanthropic and most admirable--to correct faults--to soften prejudices--to promote universal harmony and good will--to please and instruct together, and ever to enlist the feelings of her readers in favour of what is honourable and good. In all that she has written, and she has written much as well as successfully, there is not one page--not one line--which is not devoted to the cause of morality and virtue.

A new work has been announced for publication from the pen of Mr. and Mrs. Hall, on the scenery and character of Ireland. Beside the claims on public attention which it will derive from the author's merits, it will have the additional attraction of being illustrated by the pencils of several eminent artists. It is to be neither a guide-book, a tale, a history, or a book of travels, but is, nevertheless, to contain instruction for the tourist, amusement for the novel reader, information for the student, and novelties for the curious. As so many illustrated works on strange countries have met with such a favourable reception, the intelligent authors of this one on our own island, may fairly anticipate a most liberal share of public favour for their undertaking.

NOTE

[1] See the University Magazine for February 1836, August 1838, and October 1839.