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ART. I. - FRANCES POWER COBBE.
An Essay on Intuitive Morals: being an Attempt to Popularize Ethical
Science. First American edition, with additions and corrections by the Author. Boston : Crosby, Nichols, & Co., 117, Washington
Street; 1859. Religious Duty. By FRANCES POWER COBBE. Boston: William
V. Spencer, 203, Washington Street; 1865. The Cities of the Past. By FRANCES Power COBBE. London :
Trübner & Co., 60, Paternoster Row; 1864. Broken Lights : an Inquiry into the Present Condition and Future
Prospects of Religious Faith. By FRANCES Power Cobbe.
Boston: J. E. Tilton & Co.; 1864. Italics. By FRANCES Power COBBE. London: Trübner & Co., 60,
Paternoster Row; 1864. Studies, New and Old, of Ethical and Social Subjects. By FRANCES
Power COBBE. Boston: William V. Spencer; 1866. Hours of Work and Play. By FRANCES POWER COBBE. Philadel
phia : J. B. Lippincott & Co.; 1867.
JUDGED as mere work, not as mere woman's work,” the volumes above named must claim a goodly share of interest and sympathy from every thoughtful man. They embrace in their treatment a wide range of subjects, — subjects of vast importance, which, as such, have enlisted the attention of multitudes of earnest people on both sides of the Atlantic, during
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the last few years. They are at least the record of a faithful and vigorous attempt to solve some of the weightiest problems of the time, - problems that press upon us just in proportion as we are alive to the significance of the motion and upheaval that is everywhere apparent in matters of theology and faith. The smallest contribution to the solution of these problems will be highly valued by all those who are engaged in sounding them. So large a contribution as is presented in these volumes must waken admiration for their author in no small degree, - admiration that will deepen into love when all that she has done and tried to do is better known; when to our knowledge of the author we can add acquaintance with a woman who deserves to rank among the noblest of her time. Such acquaintance can be gathered largely from a comprehensive view of all that she has written. From first to last, her many-sided life has found a fair expression in her books. But one need not go outside of them to be aware that she has never yet attained to perfect utterance. We read between the lines the story of a woman, of whom the authoress is but a fragment, after all. And what we read in this way is abundantly confirmed by all whose pleasure it has been to make her personal acquaintance.
Frances Power Cobbe was born in Dublin, in the autumn of 1822. Her future leader and inspirer, Theodore Parker, was at that time a boy of twelve, wonderfully studious, making the most of the Latin dictionary he had purchased with the proceeds of his huckleberries, the August previous, – the firstling of that flock of books he shepherded so well. We fancied once that we discovered in her books a certain Celtic warmth and fire. The fact is, that she is not of Celtic origin, to which her yellow Saxon locks bear witness as emphatically as the parish register. Her father, Charles Cobbe, had good estates in the vicinity of Dublin, descended to him from a great-grandfather, Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin, the first of the family who came to Ireland. Were one's ancestry a thing to boast of, Miss Cobbe could trace hers back, by several lines, to the time of Edward I., with a great deal of satisfaction. Nor is she by any means the first radical of her
- a fact
house: for one of her ancestors was a knight in Cromwell's parliament; and another - father-in-law of the knight -- was one of the judges of Charles I. Her mother was an Englishwoman, Conway by name. Frances was the youngest of five children; the rest were all boys, the eldest of whom, Charles, is now, of course, - his parents being dead,-owner of the family estates. This bigh-born maiden had to pay the penalties of rank, not the least heavy of which was to be educated by gov. ernesses until she was fourteen, and afterward to spend year or two at a fashionable school at Brighton; learning French, German, and Italian in a style that no Frenchman, German, or Italian could ever comprehend, and to play on the harp and piano after a fashion not the most perfect. Had she been spoilable, this treatment would have spoiled her to perfection; but a genuine nature is not spoiled so easily. By degrees she woke to the conviction, that she was utterly and absolutely ignorant of every thing in the world that could really be called knowledge; and so went to work heroically, and spent the next ten years in trying to make up this deficiency,– partly with the help of an old Dublin-College tutor, who let her into Plato's Greek a little, and gave her a fair bit of geometry. Religiously, she was taught by her parents a moderate form of evangelical Christianity, — not Calvinism, as one might argue from the energy with which she battles with it, as often as it crosses her path, in her “ Intuitive Morals” and “Religious Duty." All her people belonged to the Church of England. Such a thing as dissent had never been known in the family.
Her people were steadily religious people, after the fashion of the English Church. From her earliest years, Frances seems to have been very sensitive to religious impressions, and soon became dimly conscious, that they were sources to her of different feelings than the dutiful attention she saw others give them. Left much to herself by the necessities of her position as the only daughter of the house, robbed by her mother's sickness of the great benefits of her society, she had ample time for meditation, — time which she did not fail to improve. The Bible and the “ Pilgrim's Progress" peopled
the vast rooms of the grand old house with saintly and angelic company. Anon the child's brain exercised itself over “ The Whole Duty of Man,” — not just the sort of food a child's brain generally needs, but in this case not failing of digestion; mak. ing some nutriment that did not come amiss in after years, when from that brain another and far better theory of duty sprang, full armed. Doubts, too, she had -- what child that thinks at all does not have them ? - about the miracles: the feeding of the five thousand, and subsequent filling of the baskets, was especially a nut that she desired to crack, but could not, and only hurt herself in trying. The reader may have noticed, that no nuts are so hard to crack as those which have nothing in them.
Miss Cobbe is sometimes spoken of as if she were merely a follower of Theodore Parker, - a sort of spiritual valet to that hero in the lists of thought. But, had this been her relation to him, she would not have understood him,- would not have been, as she has been thus far, the best of his interpreters. For, as Hegel has well told us, it is not the hero's but the valet's fault that the former does not seem heroic to the latter. It takes a hero to comprehend a hero. Miss Cobbe is not a mere follower of Parker, but a contemporary growth, and for this very reason she has comprehended him so well, or rather apprehended him; for who, as yet, has comprehended the breadth and altitude of that great-bearted man? Miss Cobbe became a Theist, before knowing any thing of Parker's views,– in fact, before they had been definitely shaped in his own mind.
Four years of alternate scepticism and violent returns to Christianity had left her terribly exhausted by the struggle, when, one day in spring, as she was dreaming over her favorite Shelley, it came into her to say to herself, that, though she knew nothing of God or heaven, or any law beyond that of her own soul, she would be true to that, — she would deserve her own esteem; and this resolution brought, almost immediately, by its own power as it were, a fresh kind of faith in God, - a sense that, somehow, such an effort must be pleasing to her Creator, who had given that inner law. From that hour she was a Theist; though, at the time, she felt her
self alone in all the world. But no one likes to be the sole possessor of a glorious thought; and so she went about among the Deists of the eighteenth century,— Tindal, Collins, Gibbon, Hume, Voltaire (writers with whom Dr. Miner, in his recent bull against all heretics, delights to class the Theists of today), – but of course discovered that Deism and Theism are two very different things; as different as levelling down and levelling up. But in the “Life of Blanco White” she found a spirit kindred with her own; and, best of all, reading in the “ Athenæum" a critique on Parker's “Discourse," she sent for it and read it, with what joy need not be told. It was not long after that her mother's death opened up to her, in all its depth, the question of the future life; and she wrote to Parker, asking him why he believed in immortality. His “Sermon of the Immortal Life," which has been food to many a hungry soul, was his reply; written, no doubt, as the best sermons always are, in answer to some crying need.
The ten years after her mother's death were years of solitary work. How wide her reading must have been during these years, her books bear witness, especially the richly-laden notes that crowd the foot of almost every page. In these years, "Intuitive Morals” and “ Religious Duty" were both written, though not published at once. Meanwhile, her definite rupture with the Church had taken place; and how hard it must have been for her and all concerned, the readers of her article in the July “Examiner” can imagine for themselves. Of the mantle of charity which she there so generously spreads over the conduct of others, she needs no corner for herself. She chose at once the most direct and obvious method of delivering her own soul from the net of a most difficult and complicated position. But it was not as if she could not feel as well as think. The grand old Church that cherished her ancestors' names and virtues on its walls, their sacred dust in its mysterious vaults, must have possessed strange charms for one so sensitive to such impressions. But they were not strong enough to shake the steadfast purpose of ber soul.
About ten years ago, her father died; and soon after, bidding farewell to her old home, she went to Italy, and remained there