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REVIEWS OF LITERATURE,
FOR JANUARY, 1812.
FROM THE EDINBURGH REVIEW.
Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland: to which are added, translations from the Gælic, and Letters connected with those formerly published. By the author of " Letters from the Mountains." 2 vols. 12mo. London, 1811.
OUR neglect of this lady's former productions should acquit us, we think, for ever, of all imputation of nationality. Since the commencement of our labours, she has published various very popular and meritorious volumes; and, though the only Highlander, and almost the only Scotch woman, who has graced our native literature during this period, we have heroically abstained from all mention of her name; and allowed her to fight her own way to distinction, without any countenance from our compatriot fraternity. She is now, however, fairly entitled to a place among those who have attained a certain degree of celebrity,' and, of course, to our verdict upon the question of her having deserv ed it.'
Her Letters from the Mountains,' notwithstanding the repulsive affectation of the title, are among the most interesting collections of real letters that have lately been given to the public; and, being indebted for no part of their interest to the celebrity of the names they contain, or the importance of the events they narrate, afford, in their success, a more honourable testimony to the talents of the author. The great charm of the correspondence, indeed, is its perfect independence on artificial helps ; and the air of fearlessness and originality which it has consequently assumed. The earlier letters, in particular, breathe so fresh a spirit of youth and enthusiasm, and still carry on them so much of that bright bloom of the mind, which so seldom endures till the age of author
ship, that they could scarcely fail to make a powerful impression on all who value rarity, or sympathize with enjoyment. Strong feeling is always eloquent and original; and, therefore, even where they express only common and familiar feelings, these carly letters are uniformly animated and powerful: But many passages of them are interesting on higher considerations ;-and it is impossible to read the bold and characteristic sketches of natural scenery which they contain, or to observe the quick discrimination of character, and the acute and profound reflections upon life and manners, which are suggested to a girl of nineteen, by the narrow circle of society to which she had access, and the simple and unvarying way of living that she saw around her,without feeling how much more valuable the power of observation is, than the opportunity,-and from what a scanty selection of specimens a penetrating spirit can deduce the justest estimates of character, and the soundest maxims even of practical wisdom. The latter part of the collection scarcely keeps the promise of its commencement; and, in the more mature and elaborate efforts of this lady's pen, we miss some of the force and the spirit which characterize its earlier effusions. The whole correspondence, however, shows great richness and activity of fancy, and differs almost entirely from any published letters with which we are acquainted, both in the tone of unaffected enthusiasm which pervades every part of it, and in being drawn wholly from the stores of the writer's own intellect and imagination, and with scarcely any help from her own reading or adventures, or the observations and suggestions of her correspondents. It is pretty nearly made up, therefore, of sentiments and reflections that may be fairly called original; for though they frequently coincide with views that have long been familiar to all who live within the precincts of literature or study, they seem to have come to the author by a very different channel; and generally bear upon them the unequivocal marks of having been honestly worked out of her own experience and meditation.
After what we have just said, we might be expected to speak well of her Poetry,-but it is really not very good; and the most tedious, and certainly the least poetical volume which she has produced, is that which contains her verses. The longest piece, which she has entitled 'the Highlanders, '-is heavy and uninteresting; and there is a want of compression and finishá sort of loose, rambling, and indigested air in most of the others. Yet the whole collection is enlivened with the sparklings of a prolific fancy, and displays great command of language and facility of versification. When we write our article upon unsuccessful poetry, we shall endeavour to explain how these qualities may fail of success :-but in the mean time, we think there is an
elegy upon an humble friend, and an address from a fountain, and two or three other little pieces, which very fully deserve it; and are written with great beauty, tenderness, and delicacy, The Memoirs of an American lady, contain a very animated picture of that sort of simple, tranquil, patriarchal life, which was common enough within these hundred years in the central parts of England; but of which we are rather inclined to think, that there is now no specimen left in the world; and which is rendered more interesting in the present striking memorial, by the contrast of its sober and regulated tenor with the wildness of a settlement in the desert, and its combinations with some peculiarities in the structure of society, derived from the adopted usages of Switzerland and Germany.
The volumes before us, have the disadvantages of treating of the same general themes upon which Mrs. Grant had already delivered herself at large in her former publications. To illustrate the character and manners of men in remote situations, and in the earlier stages of civilization, may be said to be the object of all her writings; and in her letters, in particular, we are made so well acquainted with her favourite Highlanders, that we were a good deal at a loss to imagine where she was to find materials for an entire new book on the subject. The present work, accordingly, is not entirely free from the fault of repeating what had been already delivered in another form by the author; and a consciousness that she had, in a good measure, exhausted the great and attractive topic of Highland character, genius and manners, has led her, we suspect, to assign a larger portion than she would otherwise have done of the present work, to the less interesting subject of their Superstitions. The book, however, has its full share of novelty; and is marked by all the faults, and most of the merits, that characterize the style of the author-an active, ambitious, and somewhat ill-regulated fancy-a decidedly bad taste in jocularity, compliment, and studied writing an afflicting habit of trite and paltry quotationand an unfortunate affectation of oddity and irregularity-of being unable to resist digressions, or to reason upon ordinary things like ordinary mortals-that sometimes reminds us, rather disagreeably, of a very youthful imitation of the style of Tristram Shandy, or the German sentimentalists. If she would correct herself of these faults, however-most of which are obviously to be ascribed to her want of early intercourse with good literary society-we think she has talents to command a very high place among the female writers of her day. She has very great powers of description, both of character and scenery-much force of conception, acuteness, and reach of mind in reasoning-great Occasional brightness, and perpetual activity of fancy, and a fine
enthusiasm for virtue, simplicity,-and the Highlands. We must now introduce our readers to the miscellaneous volumes before us.
Their object is to describe the character, manners, and way of life of the Scotch Highlanders-to trace the origin of their pe. culiarities-and above all, as we take it, to vindicate and extol them, as a race equally noble, ingenuous, and fortunate. Of all the qualities, indeed, that distinguish this publication, the zeal of the author is by far the most remarkable; and half-converted as we ourselves have been by her proofs and her eloquence, we must not, in fairness to the reader, enter upon any abstract of her observations, without warning him of the suspicions we entertain of her partiality. Though it be difficult, however, to keep pace with her enthusiasm in behalf of this singular race, we agree perfectly in her censure of the incurious indifference with which they have been hitherto regarded by the very same philosophers, who think themselves well employed in collecting uncertain notices of far less interesting and less accessible nations. "Our own literati,' she observes, have bewildered themselves in endless and fruitless researches, regarding the ancient Scythians and modern Tartars, the Belgæ, the Gauls, the Goths, the more modern Danes. I speak at random, and merely repeat a string of names, of which I know very little, and they cannot know very much. In the mean time, their curiosity seems very moderately excited by the greatest of all possible curiositieseven by the remains of the most ancient, unmingled, and original people in Europe, of a people, who, surrounded by strangers, have preserved, for a series of ages which no records can trace, their national spirit, their national language, their national habits, their national poetry, and, above all, their national mode of thinking, and expressing their thoughts, their style of manners, and strain of conversation,-and, still more, their local traditions and family genealogies, in one uninterrupted series.'
The truth is, we believe, that the well informed part of the English public, know much more of the people of Otaheite or Ceylon, than they do of the people of Badenoch or Lochaber. They know that they wear a strange dress and speak a strange language, and have heard, perhaps, that they are divided into clans: But, for any thing beyond these outward characteristics, they take no concern; and are satisfied with regarding them as a kind of savages, more ferocious and illiterate than the peasantry of their own districts. To such readers, Mrs. Grant will probably appear to maintain a very dull and extravagant paradox, when she represents them as being (or at least as having been) far more uniformly polished in their manners and sentiments than the people of any other country-absolutely free from