Author Topic: Divagations

« on: June 09, 2021 »
A Discourse on Modern Sibyls

Some time ago, borrowing a title from a well-known Elizabethan collection of histories, I wrote a little volume called A Book of Sibyls. It did not concern classical beings, with flying robes and tripods, uttering incoherent rhymes and oracles at Delphi and elsewhere, but it related to certain women leading notable lives in mob-caps and hobble-skirts. Jane Austen, then as now, was supreme among them, although some sapient critics of her own time considered her "commonplace," and not to compare to the Edgeworths, Barboulds, and Opies of the day.

When it was first suggested that I should speak to the English Association of yet another generation of Sibyls nearer to my own experience, I could but feel, unlike Miss Repplier, that I had been fortunate indeed in the time of my birth.

I do not know whether others will agree with a friend of mine who declares that people reach their complement at from ten to twelve years old, and that they never really change after that time, though they may learn more facts. As the years go by, and alas, the hour for forgetting may begin, the same observer still exists throughout the different stages.

Mrs. Gaskell and Mrs. Oliphant were my torch-bearers in youth as afterwards. The Brontës were magicians, flashing romance in the little Kensington street in which we dwelt. George Eliot followed. I do not here attempt to speak of all the great masters of the craft then living, but of certain women with whom I have had the privilege of being in some relation.

These ladies were dressed not in flying draperies nor in mob-caps and hobble-skirts, but in crinolines – though it seems almost desecration to mention the fact, or to suggest that George Eliot ever wore one. They put on lop-eared bonnets when they went abroad; their parasols were the size of half-crowns; they had sandalled shoes, or odd flat elastic brodequins. Whatever their dress may have been in 1850, they were true Sibyls nevertheless. Their voices were direct and outspoken, they went straight to the heart of things.

From the porch, #24