Michael Dirda on 'American Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier'

  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 16, 2009


The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier

Edited by John Lukacs

ISI. 354 pp. $25

The title of this collection of essays -- superb essays, by the way -- is something of a misnomer. Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) resembles Jane Austen in her intelligence and shrewd insight into human interaction, but Repplier never wrote fiction, and love wasn't the chief focus of her attention. Instead, she produced, over the course of a 70-year career, hundreds of magazine articles and a handful of popular histories.

She was, in essence, a literary journalist, though she doesn't seem to have done much reviewing. As historian John Lukacs points out in his elegant and affectionate introduction to her life and work, Repplier established herself as a "moraliste in the French tradition," commenting on a wide variety of subjects with discrimination and understated wit. (She summed up early Quaker life by observing that one stern preacher "came to make a dull world duller.") Moreover, being deeply read in history and literature, Repplier could always illustrate her points with an apt quotation or telling anecdote. And so she supplied the Atlantic and other periodicals with bookish reflections on the American character, the development of the novel, the drinking of tea, the virtues of city life, the drawings of Thackeray, the nature of enthusiasm, the comic spirit and, not least, the history of Philadelphia.

Repplier passed her life almost entirely in that city of brotherly love, never married, and supported herself and her sister and mother through essay-writing. She was much acclaimed from the end of the 19th century to the late 1930s, but after her death at the age of 95, she was rapidly forgotten. Until recently, her works -- in particular, "Eight Decades," "In Pursuit of Laughter" and "To Think of TEA!" -- were easily found on the shelves of used bookshops. To at least one fairly omnivorous reader, in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul's adventures among the masterpieces. An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era -- Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.

In truth, Repplier is old-fashioned, approaching her subjects with an armchair leisureliness: "There is a short paragraph in Hazlitt's Conduct of Life that I read very often, and always with fresh delight." Such an opening sentence -- to a piece regrettably entitled "Our Friends, the Books" -- could have been written by any number of the era's genteel belletrists. But Repplier isn't really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness. "Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. . . . Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending." Of a scholar from Cambridge she concludes that he possessed "a natural gift for aridity." Discussing the exploits of five brothers who turned to Robin Hood-like crime in early America, she observes, "Women, with their customary disregard for dull integrity, looked upon the five brothers as heroes of romance; and children, listening eagerly to tales of their intrepid exploits, resolved to be highwaymen themselves as soon as ever they were grown."

While Repplier admires aspects of Puritan culture, she has no illusions about its fanaticism: "Just as the Celt and the Latin have small compunction in ill-treating animals, because they have no souls, so the Puritan had small compunction in ill-treating heathens, because their souls were lost." In general, Repplier interleaves personal reminiscence, striking literary and historical allusions and sharp thinking. She is a writer, like our contemporary Joseph Epstein, who quotes brilliantly from others. For instance, she notes that the carpenter who built the stocks for the Plymouth colonists overcharged for his work and was the first person to be clapped into them. Thackeray, she says, enthusiastically described the life of an art student in Paris as "the easiest, merriest, dirtiest existence possible." But short citations don't do her justice. Here is a longish paragraph that ends with an ominously up-to-date shiver:

"Mr. Henry James once told me that the only reading of which he never tired was history. 'The least significant footnote of history,' he said, 'stirs me more than the most thrilling and passionate fiction. Nothing that has ever happened in the world finds me indifferent.' I used to think that ignorance of history meant only a lack of cultivation and a loss of pleasure. Now I am sure that such ignorance impairs our judgment by impairing our understanding, by depriving us of standards, of the power to contrast and the right to estimate. We can know nothing of any nation unless we know its history; and we can know nothing of the history of any nation unless we know something of the history of all nations. The book of the world is full of knowledge we need to acquire, of lessons we need to learn, of wisdom we need to assimilate. Consider only this brief sentence of Polybius, quoted by Plutarch: 'In Carthage no one is blamed, however he may have gained his wealth.' A pleasant place, no doubt, for business enterprise; a place where young men were taught how to get on, and extravagance kept pace with shrewd finance. A self-satisfied, self-confident, money-getting, money-loving people, honoring success and hugging their fancied security, while in far-off Rome Cato pronounced their doom."

Cato the Elder, as Repplier expects her reader to remember, habitually concluded his speeches to the Roman Senate with some variant of the hammerlike phrase "Carthago delenda est" -- Carthage must be destroyed. And, in due course, it was.

Throughout "American Austen" one pauses over sentences worth copying into a notebook. For example, Repplier critiques Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" for dwelling unduly on the personal failings and foibles of people like Cardinal Manning and Florence Nightingale: "Men and women who have a pressing job on hand (Florence Nightingale was all job) cannot afford to cultivate the minor virtues." Discussing the New England Pilgrims, she notes that, in his will, a John Bacon bequeathed a slave-woman named Dinah to his wife, adding this codicil: "If, at the death of my wife, Dinah be still living, I desire my executors to sell her, and to use and improve the money for which she is sold in the purchase of Bibles, and distribute them equally among my said wife's and my grandchildren." Repplier acidly comments: "There are fashions in goodness and badness as in all things else; but the selling of a worn-out woman for Bibles goes a step beyond Mrs. Stowe's most vivid imaginings."

In his introduction to these selected essays, John Lukacs observes that Repplier's life was "solitary, vexatious, and long." Yet she never repined. In her reflections on the poet Horace, she notes that he "saw life as a whole, and this educational process taught him that it is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and that it is not possible to find it elsewhere." Repplier adds that while undue cheerfulness and melancholy may be "equally odious," people with "a sad heart and a gay temper hold us in thrall." They certainly do.

Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com -- writes each Thursday.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company