Read CHAPTER VII - IMPRESSIONS OF ENGLAND of Mary Anderson, free online book, by J. M. Farrar, on

Almost every traveler from either side of the Atlantic, with the faintest pretensions to distinction, bursts forth on his return to his native shores in a volume of “Impressions.” Archaeologists and philosophers, novelists and divines, apostles of sweetness and light, and star actors, are accustomed thus to favor the public with volumes which the public could very often be well content to spare. It is but natural that we should wish to know what Mary Anderson thinks of the “fast-anchored isle” and the folk who dwell therein. I wish, indeed, that these “Impressions” could have been given in her own words. The work would have been much better done, and far more interesting; but failing this, I must endeavor, following a recent illustrious example, to give them at second hand. During the earlier months of her stay among us, she lived somewhat the life of a recluse. Shut up in a pretty villa under the shadow of the Hampstead Hills, she saw little society but that of a few fellow artists, who found their way to her on Sunday afternoons. Indeed, she almost shrank from the idea of entering general society. The English world she wished to know was a world of the past, peopled by the creations of genius; not the modern world, which crowds London drawing-rooms. She saw the English people from the stage, and they were to her little more than audiences which vanished from her life when the curtain descended. From her earliest years she had been, in common with many of her countrymen, a passionate admirer of the great English novelist, Dickens. Much of her leisure was spent in pilgrimages to the spots round London which he has made immortal. Now and then, with her brother for a protector, she would go to lunch at an ancient hostelry in the Borough, where one of the scenes of Dickens’ stories is laid, but which has degenerated now almost to the rank of a public-house. Here she would try to people the place in fancy with the characters of the novel. “To listen to the talk of the people at such places,” she once said to me, “was better than any play I ever saw.”

Stratford-on-Avon too, was, of course, revisited, and many days were spent in lingering lovingly over the memorials of her favorite Shakespeare. She soon became well known to the guardians of the spot, and many privileges were granted to her not accorded on her first visit, four years before, when she was regarded but as a unit in the crowd of passing visitors who throng to the shrine of the great master of English dramatic art. On one occasion when she was in the church of Stratford-on-Avon, the ancient clerk asked her if she would mind being locked in while he went home to his tea. Nothing loath she consented, and remained shut up in the still solemnity of the place. Kneeling down by the grave of Shakespeare, she took out a pocket “Romeo and Juliet” and recited Juliet’s death scene close to the spot where the great master, who created her, lay in his long sleep. But presently the wind rose to a storm, the branches of the surrounding trees dashed against the windows, darkness spread through the ghostly aisles, and terror-stricken, Mary fled to the door, glad enough to be released by the returning janitor.

Rural England with its moss-grown farmhouses, its gray steeples, its white cottages clustering under their shadow, its tiny fields, its green hedgerows, garrisoned by the mighty elms, charmed Mary Anderson beyond expression, contrasting so strongly with the vast prairies, the primeval forests, the mighty rivers of her own giant land. These were the boundaries of her horizon in the earlier months of her stay among us; she knew little but the England of the past, and the England as the stranger sees it, who passes on his travels through its smiling landscapes. But a change of residence to Kensington brought Mary Anderson more within reach of those whom she had so charmed upon the stage, and who longed to have the opportunity of knowing her personally. By degrees her drawing-rooms became the scene of an informal Sunday afternoon reception. Artists and novelists, poets and sculptors, statesmen and divines, journalists and people of fashion crowded to see her, and came away wondering at the skill and power with which this young girl, evidently fresh to society, could hold her own, and converse fluently and intelligently on almost any subject. If the verdict of London society was that Mary Anderson was as clever in the drawing-room as she was attractive on the stage, she, in her turn, was charmed to speak face to face with many whose names and whose works had long been familiar to her. It was a new world of art and intellect and genius to which she was suddenly introduced, and which seemed to her all the more brilliant after the somewhat prosaic uniformity of society in her own republican land. To say that she admires and loves England with all her heart may be safely asserted. To say that it has almost succeeded in stealing away her heart from the land of her birth, she would hardly like to hear said. But we think her mind is somewhat that of Captain Macheath, in the “Beggars’ Opera”

“How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away.”

One superiority, at least, she confesses England to have over America. The dreadful “interviewer” who has haunted her steps for the last eight years of her life with a dogged pertinacity which would take no denial, was here nowhere to be seen. He exists we know, but she failed to recognize the same genus in the quite harmless-looking gentleman, who, occasionally on the stage after a performance, or in her drawing-room, engaged her in conversation, when leading questions were skillfully disguised; and, then, much to her astonishment, afterward produced a picture of her in print with materials she was quite unconscious of having furnished. She failed, she admits now, to see the conventional “note-book,” so symbolical of the calling at home, and thus her fears and suspicions were disarmed.

One instance of Mary Anderson’s kind and womanly sympathy to some of the poorest of London’s waifs and strays should not be unrecorded here. It was represented to her at Christmas time that funds were needed for a dinner to a number of poor boys in Seven Dials. She willingly found them, and a good old-fashioned English dinner was given, at her expense, in the Board School Room to some three hundred hungry little fellows, who crowded through the snow of the wintry New Year’s Day to its hospitable roof. Though she is not of our faith, Mary Anderson was true to the precepts of that Christian Charity which, at such seasons, knows no distinction of creed; and of all the kind acts which she has done quietly and unostentatiously since she came among us, this is one which commends her perhaps most of all to our affection and regard.