OUR FIRST ACQUAINTANCE
THERE appeared in the Examiner, in the summer of 1873, together with a notice of a tale of Mrs. Kingsford’s, one of a tale of mine, with which, on reading it, she found herself so much in sympathy that she wrote to me proposing an interchange of ideas. We were entirely unacquainted with each other at this time; for although there was a connection between her husband’s family and my own, I had never met either him or her. Her letter bore date, “Hinton Hall, Pontesbury, Salop, July 25, 1873,” and was signed “Ninon Kingsford.” It bade me address her as Mrs. Algernon Kingsford, and was accompanied by a copy of her tale, In my Lady’s Chamber. The book of mine which had attracted her notice was By-and-By: an Historical Romance of the Future. Judged by the light of our subsequent history and work, this was a notable coincidence; for the book in question was a tale with a mystical import, representing an endeavour to think out the secret of the character of Jesus, with a view to the elucidation of the problem of Christianity, its hero’s name being Christmas Carol. And its concluding sentence was, “May it be that by the life and death of Christmas Carol, more than one Eastern Question will be advanced towards its final solution.” The coincidence consists in the circumstance that the result of the association thus initiated was precisely the solution in full of the greatest of all “Eastern Questions,” the question of Christianity.
My response to her letter was a simple acquiescence. In a second letter, dated August 4, she described herself as “one of those strong-minded women who believe in Liberal politics and natural religion.”
“I have been the editor,” she said, “of a woman’s paper, and have addressed public meetings from platforms. By adoption and profession I am a member of that most conservative of Churches, the
Roman Catholic, but by conviction I am rather a pantheist than anything else; and my mode of life is that of a fruit-eater. In other words, I have a horror of flesh as food, and belong to the Vegetarian Society. At present I am studying medicine with the view of ultimately entering the profession, – not for the sake of practice, but for scientific purposes. I do not think you will glean many of my thoughts from the pages of the book I send you, for I have not dared to unfold much of my mind in that production, because – being connected with many societies and committees in London – I desired rather to feel my way among my coadjutors than rudely to wound their (too) sensitive natures. Much, you know, is permitted to men which to women is forbidden. For which reason I usually write under some assumed name. Pardon, as you read, the many shortcomings of the volume I send you, which you are pleased to dignify by the name of ‘work.’ Alas! My ‘work,’ I fear me, would come under the ban of that pithy censure pronounced by the apologist of ‘rare Ben Jonson,’ – ‘Ben’s Plays are Works, but others’ Works are Plays.’
“NINON JOHANNA KINGSFORD.”
The following letter bore date ten days later: –
“I am glad that the opinion you have formed of my book is in so much favourable. You seem to be curious why I seek the study of medicine. I cannot better answer your question in this respect than by a quotation from your own work – words which, coinciding so singularly with my own conviction regarding the real basis of religion, first attracted me to you. They are these: – ‘The physical good of man must be the foundation of the moral. The grand mistake of the ancient world lay in its commencing at the wrong end. It inverted the pyramid. Placing religion first, it proceeded to morals, and then to physics. From the unknown they inferred the knowable.’ (1)
“Now, I have already told you my peculiar ideas respecting diet. These ideas are, I am very well persuaded, the future creed of a nobler and gentler race. I laugh when I hear folks talk hopefully of the coming age, which will decide all the quarrels of the world by means of international arbitration; and I have myself been scores of times invited to take part in ‘Women’s Peace Conventions’ and the like. These poor deluded creatures cannot see that universal peace is absolutely impossible to a carnivorous race! If men feed like lions and tigers, they will, by the necessity of things, retain the nature of lions and tigers. By the way, will you permit me to notice a slight anomaly in your last book? Objecting to the grant of the franchise to women, you say that they have no right to freedom because they cannot serve the country as soldiers. Elsewhere in the same volume you observe that the network of telegraphic wires covering the face of the globe could not have been preserved had not the people of your imaginary age abolished war. If, then, you suppose war to be abolished, where is the necessity for soldiers? And in what consists the reason and justice of excluding women from freedom because they are useless as soldiers?
“To return to my former explanation regarding physics. I want
to establish my theory about diet, and a few others belonging to the same category. Several physicians are on the same track, and all things appear to me to indicate that the real salvation of the human race lies in a return to its ancient obedience to Nature. This primitive condition is depicted in the Hebrew allegory about the Garden of Eden. Man has no carnivorous teeth. The whole formation of his internal organs plainly presupposes his subsistence on fruits, grains, and vegetables. He has the rudiment of the third intestine peculiar to the vegetable-eating creatures, and his saliva-producing glands are those of the same race. But he has degenerated it by his habits in regard to diet, and debased himself. Nevertheless, his moral instincts are still against the habit he has adopted. For what little child, what gentle woman, or even what noble man likes to see a sentient creature, full of health and life, immolated by knife or cord? Much less who, save a butcher, would care to do the murder necessary (?) for a single civilised dinner? I would like to force everyone who feeds on flesh to slay his or her own prey. I would like to oblige the fine lady to go and cut the throat of the innocent lamb or the pretty rabbit she wants to eat for her dinner. If she really had the nature she imitates, that would be a pleasant task to her. But she has it not; because she is by nature a being of higher race than the tiger or vulture.
“I could bring forward endless proofs of my theory, proofs collected by dint of long and careful observation. And I know that in proportion as man abandons the diet of flesh and blood, and observes that of fruit and grain, his spirit becomes purer, higher, and diviner. So true is it that the Body makes the Soul.” (1)
A letter written a few days later
contained an invitation to the
“I send you a tiny volume of verses, published some years ago. Read them with mercy, for they were all written before I was seventeen, and many when I was but a child of ten or eleven. My very first published production was a poem (?) in a religious magazine, when I was but nine years old. I was so overjoyed at seeing my own lucubrations in print that I went into my own room and cried there for hours with sheer delight and anticipation of I know not what future glories. Alas, alas! How is the gold bedimmed and the laurel faded!
“We both like your ‘Pilgrim and the Shrine’ immensely. A. (my husband) reads it aloud to me every evening while I sew, and we always have a discussion after the reading. I wish you could be present in spirit! I have not yet finished the book, but my admiration of it grows with every line I hear. You have given expression to the thousand and one thoughts that have led me to stand where I now am. Not a single idea, not a solitary reverie of Herbert’s is strange to me. I am familiar with every thought he entertains. The whole book is like a mirror to me.”
The autumn brought a suspension of our correspondence. On its resumption I learnt that she had in the interval passed her preliminary examination at the Apothecary’s Hall, and gone through a severe illness. Some remarks in her letter, though in accordance with the prevailing thought of the day, struck me as indicative of a no less unhealthy state of mind – an impression which was confirmed by the letter which succeeded, dated November 24, which ran thus: –
things in your ‘Pilgrim’ appear to me, if I
may say it, a trifle too – poetic. For instance, your Herbert professes
himself satisfied that ‘God is Love.’ For myself, I see everywhere
in the universe inflexible, unchangeable Law; but Love I fail to see, unless the
Law involves it in its course. I see everywhere prevailing
the Rule of the Strong. In the depths of the sea, in the remote wilderness, in
the open air of heaven, the swift and the powerful gain the battle of life. The
dove is torn by the hawk, the fawn is murdered by the tiger, the tiny goldfish
is victimised by some voracious cannibal of the waters. I see everywhere
slaughter, suffering, and terror; and I score one to the theologians. For
throughout Nature Life is continued by means of Death. Is not the God who made
all this just the very God who would delight in the death of an innocent
victim? Is not the God who voluntarily surrounds Himself with carnage and
misery just the very God whom the sight of
Her next letter, which bears date December 4, took for text the following passage in one that I had sent her in the interval: –
“I suggest that – supposing the Supreme Cause to be intelligent and feeling in our sense – it is not unimaginable that He may totally disregard physical pain and death as of no consequence in themselves, and look solely to the evolution, through them, of the moral
nature. If the human conscience be the supremest result of the universe, and the sole end worth attaining, may it not be that such discipline as is inseparable from the idea of pain is essential to the production of that end?”
Her reply consisted mainly of a protest against the ascetic notion of inflicting or encouraging physical disease or pain as a means to grace. It was chiefly notable for a passage which reads like a foreshadowing of the doctrine finally restored by us, and was as follows: –
or twice I have fancied that the key to the secret of the universe might be
found in the Transmigration theory of wise old Pythagoras. It has long been my
serious and profound conviction that IF
men have immortal spirits, so also have all living creatures. We cannot
logically arrogate perpetuity of being to our own species. And it is just
possible that the germ of the soul, existing, perhaps, rudimentarily in the
lowest forms of vegetation, may gather strength to itself by passing upwards
through numberless modes of being, until it culminates in man (...) and at
length mounts into higher atmospheres, and departs to inhabit the ‘many
mansions’ of the Father among the starry spheres. But this, of course, is
the merest conjecture, avowedly set forth to account for the fact of earthly
suffering among men and other living creatures. I confess that observation and
science appear to me rather to indicate that men and animals alike are
soulless; that consciousness perishes with the body; and that, in fact, the
spirit is no separate existence, but merely the manifestation of the vital
forces. (...) As your son has a taste for medical study, it would be
interesting and useful to him to investigate the influences of diet upon the
system, and the relation of the human digestive organs to food. This is one of
the most important items of the ‘sublime science.’ I mean to study
it specially myself, and am going to
obstacle to our meeting arose from the great age and infirmity of my mother,
with whom I was living at
and contradictions. Tall, slender, and graceful in form, fair and exquisite in complexion, bright and sunny in expression, the hair long and golden, of the “Mary Magdalen” hue, but the brows and lashes dark, and the eyes deep-set and hazel, and by turns dreamy and penetrating; the mouth rich, full, and exquisitely formed; the brow broad, prominent, and sharply cut; the nose delicate, slightly curved, and just sufficiently prominent to give character to the face; and the dress somewhat fantastic, as became her looks, – Anna Kingsford seemed at first more fairy than human, and more child than woman – for though really twenty-seven, she appeared scarcely seventeen – and made expressly to be caressed, petted, and indulged, and by no means to be taken seriously; and the last characters to be assigned her were those of wife and mother, sufferer and student, while the bare idea of her studying medicine, or even taking a journey by herself, as she was then doing, shocked one by its incongruity.
These impressions, however, were considerably modified when she spoke, so musical, rich, sympathetic, and natural were the tones of her voice. And when, as was presently the case – for there was no barrier of strangeness to be overcome, so ready had been the mutual recognition – she warmed to her favourite themes, her whole being radiant with a spiritual light which seemed to flow as from a luminous fountain within, her utterances were in turn those of a savant, a sage, and a child, each part suiting her as well as if it were her one and only character. Never had I seen anyone so completely and intensely alive, or comprising so many diverse and incompatible personalities.
On my remarking on the number of the natures which seemed to belong to her, and to correspond with the number of the names by which already she had called herself, whether in her letters or in her books, and expressing curiosity as to which of all these personalities she really was – we were sitting and conversing in a picture gallery at the time – she frankly admitted that she was as much puzzled to find an answer to the question as anyone else could be, for she seemed to herself to be so many different persons, and to have so many different aptitudes and tendencies, that it was most difficult for her to decide either about her nature or her work; and the result had been the disastrous one of inducing her to do a great many things indifferently instead of some one thing well. She had it in her equally to be artist,
poet, orator, musician, singer, scholar, savant, preacher, apostle, reformer, and prophet. “And now,” she went on, “I am completing my education by studying medicine. Not that I believe it will really be complete even when I have my diploma; for the subject is limitless, and really leads to other subjects. For all things are related.” She further told me that, though she had ceased to take an active part in the “Women’s Rights” movement, she was none the less in sympathy with it, as founded in essential justice, and justice was the ruling principle of her nature. Could she only do something to restore the just balance of the sexes, she would not have been born under Libra for nothing. Justice as between men and women, human and animal, – these were her foremost aims. For all injustice was cruelty, and cruelty was, for her, the one unpardonable sin. It was their cruelty that more than anything else made her own kind hateful to her. For she was not a lover of humanity if by that word be meant men and women. Her love was all for principles, not for persons. To my suggestion, in reference to her remark about women’s rights, that one reason for men objecting to change the condition of women might be that they liked them so much as they are, she replied –
“I do not admit their preference as entitled to any weight in the matter. They do not consider whether we like them as they are, but follow their own likings and fulfil their own nature as they will. And we claim the right to do the same. Let us fulfil our natures and be our own utmost, and then it will be time to see whether or not they like us. As it is, we are so artificial that they do not know what womanhood really is in its proper development; and not only are we shams, we are dwarfs, cripples, and deformities, compared with what we might and ought to be. Ah! And the men lose too, and in a twofold way. They lose by having inferior women for their mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters, and they lose by being stunted themselves. For one sex cannot be kept back without the other suffering.”
“But your precise remedy, what is it exactly?” I asked.
“Equal rights and equal experiences.”
“Considering that at present society requires of its women the innocence that comes of ignorance, and reserves for its men the virtue that comes of knowledge, would not your system bring about a complete subversion?” I asked.
“Even so, it is as much a need of ours as of yours to seek perfection through suffering, which is what experience means.”
I found myself pledged at parting to visit the Shropshire parsonage at the earliest opportunity, and, besides improving my acquaintance with herself, make that of her husband, whom she warmly extolled, as well also of her little girl and four-footed pets, her guinea-pigs, who, it was easy to see, were a very important element in the family. In reviewing the situation I found myself conscious of a feeling that I had, somehow, contracted a responsibility of no ordinary kind towards her. For I foresaw that, while we should become great friends, there was that in her which rendered her peculiarly amenable to personal influences, notwithstanding her claim to independence of character. I felt, too, that thus far it was altogether uncertain how or to what extent her revolt against conventional ideas would find expression. Intensely feminine of aspect, fragile of frame, and delicate of constitution, she was evidently endowed with energy and talents sufficient to ensure conspicuous results. Of her possession of the other qualities essential to high achievement, patience, perseverance, discretion, and judgment, I was less confident. She struck me as one so liable to be possessed and mastered by her ideas, rather than to possess and master them, as to be in danger of losing sight of all collateral considerations.
(27: 1) It may be well to remark that maturer thought by no means confirmed for either of us this view as thus expressed. – E.M.
(28:1) This she subsequently recognised as true only in the limited sense that they act and react on each other, the soul being the real maker of the body, but able to make it only out of the materials supplied to it. – E.M.