Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Leeson
'Tis not in Empires and in States alone
That Power enslaves th' attendants on a Throne;
In Families too oft we see its sway,
Where petty Tyrants will their Power display.
Intoxicated with a sudden rise,
They haughtily dissolve the dearest ties,
Wives, Children, Brothers, Sisters, all must bow,
To the imperious bending of the brow.
Kind Nature's tenderest feelings, stifled all,
Though ruin follows, still they will enthrall,
To satiate an arbitrary pride
And vent a spleen, Justice and Truth decide.
MANY WERE, doubtless, the opinions of the public, when the appearance of this work was first announced; and most of them will possibly be found groundless. The Voluptuary perhaps expected to find here constant food for his inordinate desires, and fresh excitements to his passions—The Prudish were fearful that my memoirs would be totally unfit to be read by any female of delicacy—The Gay thought they might contain nothing but musty morals, grave declamation, dolorous lamentations and puling penitence—The solemn Pedant, was sure a woman's writings must be so void of erudition as to be unworthy the notice of the Literati—The prudent Parent declared they should be kept out of sisters' nieces' and daughters' sight, lest they should prove infectious—Whilst the antiquated Maidens, frequenters of the Tea and Card-tables, hinted they might take a peep in private, for they were sure my Book must offer some nice tit bits, and delicious morsels of scandal.
I dare presume to say that each of these conjectures will appear unsubstantial. Whilst I am careful not to pen a single line or use a single expression that can excite a blush on the most refined and delicate cheek; I shall yet endeavour to dimple it into a smile. Moral sentences have now lost their desired effect. Whilst Vice and Folly are best attacked by Ridicule, I shall not be any wise sparing of it, and I promise that my gravity shall not be so great as to set my readers asleep.—As to my style and diction—why—I must e'en leave them to the mercy of the Critics; only observing that my frequent conversations with some of the most learned and scientific of the College, must have rendered it above contempt.
A Female, so much acquainted with men and manners as myself, and so often the subject of public and private conversation, cannot sit down to fill the ever-open ears, and feed the ever-gaping mouth of Curiosity without some reflections. If she intends to be candid, she must necessarily expose some characters to Censure—but then their own conduct has drawn it upon them, and she stands acquitted at the Bar of Justice. She must portray her own faults and condemn her own errors—but if thereby she cautions others against falling into the like, she extends a public benefit. The Mariner is really indebted to the publisher of the Chart which points out the rocks, shoals and sands on which others have been wrecked; as thereby he may steer his vessel clear of them all, and attain the desired harbour of peace and safety. These considerations, joined to a wish of preventing sundry falsehoods being propagated (perhaps published) concerning me, were the motives of setting forth the truth; and from it I shall not swerve one tittle.
CHASTITY I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one? Can the presence of that one, render all the others of no avail? Or can the absence of it, make a woman totally incapable of possessing one single good quality? How many females do we daily see, who on the mere retention of chastity, think themselves allowable in the constant exercise of every vice. One woman may indulge in frequent inebriation, she may ruin her husband, neglect, beggar, and set an evil example to all her children—but she arrogates to herself the character of a virtuous woman—truly, because she is chaste. A second female is a propagator of scandal, sets families together by the ears, destroys domestic peace, and breaks the nearest and dearest connections—but all this is but a trifle—She is chaste, and the most reputable and most pious will visit this virtuous woman. A third cheats at cards, robs her unsuspecting and dearest friends of their health and time by her midnight routs, and of their money by her frauds,—yet as she may be chaste, she is a virtuous woman, and the wife of the parson of the parish will take her by the arm and appear with her in public.
But, after all, it is more than possible that most females of the above-mentioned classes, may be only chaste by chance, and may be totally ignorant whether they are so, or not—What! some modern Lucretia may cry out, What! do I not know whether I am chaste or not? I answer, no!—Have you ever been tried? Have you resisted importunity and opportunity with a man you loved (for there can be no merit in resisting one you disliked) and resisted from principle? If you have, I will allow you a just claim to that appellation, but on no other terms—but enough of these reflections for the present—let me commence my narration.
I drew my first breath at Killough, in the county of Westmeath, where my father Matthew Plunket possessed a handsome property near Corbet's-town. My mother was Miss A. O'Reilly, of a family related to that of my father, and also of the Earl of Cavan. The fruits of their marriage were twenty-two children, of whom eight only survived, three brothers, four sisters and myself, who all received the best education the county could afford. Whilst I was yet young, my eldest sister was married to Mr. Smith of Kinnegad, who then established a Malt-house and Brewery at Tullamore, in the King's County; and my next eldest, married Mr. Beatty, who kept a China shop in Arran-street, Dublin. The family then consisted of only my father and mother, three brothers and as many sisters; and living in an elegant style, with every amusement of music, dancing, and rural diversions; happy in a close intimacy with the two sons and daughter of Mrs. Darcy, of Corbet's-town (our nearest neighbour) life glided on in the paths of innocence and content.
But alas! a period was soon put to those Halcyon days, and sorrow, anxiety and death approached our door. My dear mother was attacked with a spotted fever, which carried her to the grave. At the first approach of this fatal disorder, my father, anxious for the lives of his children, sent us away from the infection, one of my sisters went to Mrs. Smith at Tullamore, another to Mrs. Beatty in Dublin, myself to an uncle in the county of Cavan, and my two dear youngest brothers were dispersed in the neighbourhood. My dear, worthy and tender eldest brother, preferring his duty to his safety, remained at home to attend his dying mother; but he caught the disorder, and died on the tenth day—Ah fatal death! the dire cause of all my wanderings, and the source of all my misfortunes.
After some months we all returned to our sorrowing father, our tears ceased to follow; we again lived in elegance, and a short-lived content; for my father was so desolate with the loss of his old partner, and his dearly loved eldest son; and so affected with the rheumatism, that finding himself unable to manage his affairs, he gave up the whole to his then eldest son, Christopher, on condition of his securing to his brother and sisters, the provisions that my father's paternal care had provided for each.
From that disastrous moment, what a change! the house having lost its mild and indulgent ruler by my father's surrender of his power, fell under the direction of one, who intoxicated with his newly acquired authority, knew not how to exercise it. Extravagant in the pursuit of his own pleasures, and penurious to the most innocent of those of his brother and sisters, he grudged them a shilling whilst he squandered pounds. The rein of parental control being taken from his neck, he became like a head-strong wild colt. And in short, sunk into a harsh, unfeeling cruel tyrant. My eldest unmarried sister, unable to bear his constant ill-usage, besought her father's permission to go to Dublin, and reside a while with her sister Beatty. The old gentleman whose greatest happiness consisted in procuring that of others consented, and she left a scene of discontent, oppression and misery. My brother Christopher thus lost one object, whereon to vent his tyrannic waspishness and over-bearing temper, but as the total sum of those ill qualities remained the same, he continued to exercise them on those who were left behind; so that each of us came in for a proportionably greater share than before.
It is highly probable that the ill-usage we all received from Christopher, did not arise merely from the natural, unrestrained badness of his temper; but sprung also from another source. He had been constantly so indulgent to his own irregularities that the honest income of the house, but barely sufficed for the expenses they drew upon him. His vices had made him extravagant, and his extravagance had rendered his receipts inadequate to his idle disbursements. When the property was made over to him, he was charged with certain provisions for his brother and sisters. The first was indeed, too young to become an immediate claimant, but he knew the girls were at, or nearly approaching to that period when a settlement in life might be required. When their marriage should take place, their portions must be paid, and this he studied to avoid; he having doubtless sunk deep into their property. He therefore artfully resolved to set his face against any proposal of that kind; and with a malignant cunning redouble his ill-treatment, in hopes it might drive them to a desperation, which might bring them to take steps, that might warrant his refusal of their property, that it might all centre in himself. At least his conduct demonstrated plainly that such a motive might be justly ascribed to him—of this we had soon a very striking instance.
Whilst my eldest unmarried sister resided in Dublin (whither his ill-usage had driven her) her accomplishments and person were too striking to be overlooked by several youths of equal, nay, superior rank. She had many admirers, amongst whom was a Mr. Brady, a citizen of fair character in trade, and in an affluent situation. As my sister had permitted Mr. Brady to make his proposals to my father, they came down to the country for that purpose. From every enquiry and examination, my father and all his neighbouring friends thought the match highly eligible; but Mr. Christopher could not be prevailed on by any means to give his consent; which, as he stood in the light of a Guardian, was necessary for the payment of her fortune. Mr. Brady quickly suspected the cause of his refusal was his wish to retain the property; and therefore to remove that obstacle, told him that her portion was no object to him; he wanted only an amiable woman for his wife, such as his heart approved, and with whom he might live happy and contented; he therefore would relinquish every pecuniary demand, and requested his consent to their union on those terms.
Mr. Christopher doubtless was inwardly rejoiced at a proposal that met his wishes: But he was too cunning to make his satisfaction apparent. Had he done so he would have stood unmasked to the public: he therefore persisted in his refusal, declared he had very strong objections to the match, and he would never sanction it by his approbation. His father and they might settle the matter how they pleased, but for himself, he washed his hands of the business.
My sister, justly irritated at her brother's conduct, took the opportunity of speaking to him with greater spirit and asperity than she had ever done before. She declared that from the cruel and tyrannical treatment she had experienced from him since her mother's death, and her father's surrender of his affairs in consequence of his illness, she was resolved rather to earn her support by her own industry, nay even by servitude, than remain any longer subjected to his savage behaviour, and therefore his reign over her was at an end. At the same time she cautioned him that if he did not change his conduct, her sisters would soon be of her mind, let the consequences be what they may. They were daily advancing to maturity, would, from ill-usage, imbibe a proper spirit, and neither would, nor ought to endure a twentieth part of what she had suffered. So saying, happy in her father's consent, and taught by Mr. Brady to disregard that of her brother, the nuptials took place, and now the happy couple returned the next day to Dublin, taking me with them, to my great satisfaction; as I knew my brother Christopher too well to entertain even a distant hope, that he would be in the least amended by the spirited rebuke my sister had given him.
Whilst I was in Dublin, my time passed in pleasing scenes of delight; a constant round of company and amusements occupied the three months I stayed there, which appeared to me but as so many days. At the end of that period I received a summons to return home. I was forced to obey, but I leave the reader to judge with what reluctance. I called to mind my past ill-usage, which I foresaw was about to be renewed. I contrasted that with the tranquillity in which I had passed my time in town; and the result was a great and manifest depression of my spirits.
But I had another cause for my dejection, beside those above-mentioned. Young as I then was, I had attracted the notice of a gentleman who was frequently at Mr. Brady's, his person was quite unexceptionable, and I began to feel emotions in my youthful breast, to which I had been hitherto a total stranger. I was to leave behind me him who had engaged much of my attention, and the very idea was distressing. However, soon after Mr. O'Reilly (for that was his name) sent down proposals for me to my father; but they were rejected by prudent Mr. Christopher, whose chief argument was that I was too young by five years at least, to enter into such an engagement; though to say the truth, in my own mind, I was of a contrary opinion, and thought myself old enough to be married—few girls of fifteen think otherwise!—However here ended this affair, the gentleman did not renew the attack, and as the wound I had received had not penetrated very deep, absence and a little time so completely healed it, that it did not leave even a scar behind, and I soon forgot him.
But such is the frame of the female mind, that when it has once received an impression, though that it may be effaced, it becomes more susceptible of another. So it was with me. Whilst I was in Dublin, Mr. O'Reilly was not the only person who had beheld me with a favourable eye. Mr. L—y, an amiable young gentleman of an independent fortune of four hundred pounds a year, had entertained an affection for me. He did not think writing would be so effectual to obtain his wishes, as a personal application; therefore, soon after the former lover had received his final dismission, he followed me into the country, and applied to my father. His character and fortune were favourable motives in the old gentleman's sight, but not so in the jaundiced eye of my brother Christopher, who had a thousand objections, and seemed determined neither to let me be happy or make any other person so, and brought my father over to his sentiments. My lover stayed at my father's above a fortnight, and as he conceived a great and just dislike to my elder, he constantly attached himself to my younger brother, Garret, who was of a very opposite character. With him he frequently went on hunting and shooting parties; and in the latter I frequently joined. My presence was a spur of emulation to them, my lover wishing to please me and prove himself a good marksman; and my brother desirous of showing his superior skill.
Although I would have willingly consented to an union with this gentleman (who was really amiable, and had made considerable progress in my favour) yet there I was disappointed; my brother had artfully brought my father into his scheme of positive refusal; and Mr. L—y, finding it useless to make farther application, took his last leave, and I heard of him no more.
The effects of Christopher's tyrannic temper manifested themselves daily. It was natural to wish for every temporary relief from the sufferings we underwent, and therefore we gladly accepted every invitation of neighbouring friends to pass a few days with them. My brother indeed, as if unwilling to lose any opportunity of exercising his cruelty, constantly refused every effort of the worthy Darcys and Fetherstons of Dardistown, to get me and my sister with them. They therefore, addressed their invitations to my father, who never denied, and always sent us comfortably and genteely to the parties to which we were asked. But alas! we frequently paid dear for our pleasures on our return; for Christopher would seize every pretence to quarrel with us when we came back, and frequently horse-whipped and beat us in a most savage manner, so that our bodies were often covered with wheals and bruises; and I have been for days together confined to my bed from the exertions of his barbarity.
This treatment, constantly repeated, joined to the disappointment of every proposition of marriage, and the mocks, jeers and sarcasms cast upon me by my brother on that account, made me very low-spirited, I had no comfort in life but what arose from the melancholy, mutual condolements of my sister, and the tenderness of my good father: of that I could enjoy but little, as his age and infirmities generally confined him to his room, if not to his bed; and Christopher took care to keep us almost always employed. In this state of uneasiness, suffering, and discontent, I was lingering on; and my poor sister whose spirits were not so animated as mine, daily wasting away, when I happily got an invitation from my sister Smith, to spend some time in Tullamore with her. I eagerly embraced the opportunity of a temporary relief from ill-usage; and, having obtained permission, went to her. To this even, my tyrant Christopher was not then averse. Perhaps, he thought the time I should be from home would be something saved in the expense of my maintenance, little as it was; and here the passion of avarice (which was daily increasing in him) counteracted his passion for cruelty, and he suffered one of his constant victims to be a while out of his reach.