Fredrika Bremer calls the subject of this sketch her “sweet Rose of Florida.” She certainly is a “Rose that all are praising.” It would require the scope of a full biography to change this rose into a bud, and then, petal by petal, to unfold the bud again to the rose; after all, we might not find the dew-drop at its heart, nor be able to trace out its blended tints and exhalations.
Only recently has Madame Le Vert appeared before the world as an author. Long before she accepted the idea, often suggested to her, of writing a book, she was, perhaps, more widely known than any woman of America. Nature evidently planned her, on a large, comprehensive scale, a social genius, and all her good gifts are cut and polished to this end.
Thoroughly cosmopolitan in spirit, she acquires with great facility the languages and idioms which make her at home with different nations. We have seen her the centre of a group made up of representatives from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and her own country, apparently not only in brilliant rapport with each, through the medium of his own vernacular, but putting the whole circle in sympathy—stringing all upon the thread of her own magnetism. With this rare faculty, she has twice flitted through the countries of the Old World, leaving her name playing like a sunbeam on every city and village, and in the hearts, alike, of the titled and the lowly. She was made up without antipathies, and, in place of them, has large adaptation and tolerance, which, together with her womanly graces, eminently fit her for the office of social harmonizer. There are few spheres so malignant as to repel her utterly, and, if repelled, her sunny soul does not seem to receive any positive shock. She is more electric than eclectic, and something better than either—she was never known to speak or act an unkindness.
It is interesting to note the different impressions which Madame Le Vert conveys to different minds; to see how hard it is for us to accept anything but a glaring extraneous cause for a fine effect. We had read many of the newspaper sketches of her, and listened to countless relations of her varied accomplishments, but had failed to recognize her specific charm, until a little child, who had been sitting, one day, in her presence, thinking a child’s “long, long thoughts,” came to whisper softly in our ear: “She isn’t a fine lady at all: she is just like me, and I love her!” The darling! Through all the eclat and circumstance of the famous, flush woman, this six-summered soul had discovered and paid tribute to its sweet counterpart.
We can, perhaps, have no better proof of the extended fame and popularity of Madame Le Vert, than the fact that, for many years, she has been the capital in trade of our rhymesters and penny-a-liners, and, like George Washington in the compositions of the school-children, subject to every variety of well-intentioned caricature. High critical authorities, even, emerging from the spell of her personal presence, have grown florid and rhapsodical, until we have sometimes thought that the spirit of this charming little woman must ache in every part, with its weight of “glittering generalities.” For her sake, we shall make this sketch, as far as possible, a thing of features and facts.
George Walton, the grandfather of Madame Le Vert, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a native of Prince Edward County, Va., but removed in early life to Georgia, where his fine gifts and chivalric character soon placed him in a distinguished position. He received his first wound in the service of his country, while leading on his regiment at the siege of Savannah; was a member of the first Congress, convened at Philadelphia, and afterward held successively the honorable offices of Governor of Georgia and Judge of the Supreme Court.
Not long before the Revolution, he married Miss Camber, the daughter of an English nobleman, to whom the crown had given large possessions in the colony of Georgia. When the American sky grew dark with the coming storm, her father insisted upon her return to England; but she refused to leave her rebel husband, and followed him with true womanly heroism through the perilous days which succeeded. Soon after the siege of Savannah, she was taken prisoner by the British and sent to one of the West India islands, where she remained until an exchange was effected. It was the great delight of our author, when a little child, to listen to her grandmother’s thrilling narrations of scenes as they then transpired. Reared as an English heiress, young, gifted and beautiful, her devotion to her adopted country should give her name an honorable place among the heroines of the Revolution.
Madame Le Vert has now in her possession many letters addressed to Colonel Walton by General Washington, Lafayette, the elder Adams, Jefferson, and other noted men of those days, in which his descendants are proud to trace assurances of their high confidence and regard. In 1808, he died at his country seat, near Augusta, Georgia, leaving two children, one of whom, the father of our author, still lives, and bears his honored name.
George Walton, the second, was educated at Princeton, New Jersey, and married Miss Sally Minge Walker, the daughter of an eminent lawyer of Georgia. To her brilliant gifts and accomplishments the world is, no doubt, indebted for many of the characteristics of her distinguished daughter.
In 1812, Colonel Walton became a member of the Legislature of Georgia, and held the position for many years with honor. In 1821, he was appointed Secretary of State under General Jackson, then Governor of Florida, and when the old chief retired to the “Hermitage,” succeeded him in office. In 1830, he was elected to the Legislature of Florida, and, in 1835, removed to Mobile, Alabama, where he held for two years the office of Mayor. Since then he has travelled much in this country and Europe, and filled various important positions. He is now, at sixty-nine years of age, in vigorous health, and one of the raciest conversationists of the day.
Octavia Walton was born at Belle Vue, near Augusta, Ga., but her parents removing soon after to Florida, her first memories are of the sunshine and flowers of Pensacola: in her own vivid words, “of the orange and live-oak trees, shading the broad veranda; of the fragrant acacia, oleander, and Cape Jasmin trees, which filled the parterre sloping down to the sea-beach; of merry races with my brother along the white sands, while the creamy waves broke over my feet, and the delicious breeze from the gulf played in my hair; of the pet mocking-birds in the giant oak by my window, whose songs called me each morning from dreamland.”
Pensacola, situated on a noble bay, was the rendezvous of the United States vessels of the Gulf station. It was a gala time when they returned from their cruises; balls and parties at the governor’s house—splendid entertainments on board the ships—moonlight excursions upon the bay, and pic-nics in the magnolia groves. The well-educated and chivalric officers were a large element in the society to which our author was thus early accustomed; and while yet a mere child, she had little to learn in the way of drawing-room ease and elegance.
Amid such scenes, her receptive nature seems to have absorbed that tropical exuberance of thought, feeling, language, and presence, which has made her name famous; while at the same time, an early and close relation with nature, in one of her most tender and bounteous aspects, preserved intact, amid all precocious tendencies, the naive simplicity of the child, which is to this day her crowning grace.
Before the age of twelve years, she could write and converse in three languages with facility. So unusual was her talent as a linguist, that it was the custom of her father to take her to his office to translate from the French or Spanish the most important letters connected with affairs of state. There, perched upon a high stool—she was too tiny in stature to be made available otherwise—she would interpret, with the greatest ease and correctness, the tenor and spirit of foreign dispatches, proving herself, thus early, quite worthy of her illustrious descent.
During her father’s administration, as Governor of Florida, he located the seat of government, and, at the earnest request of his little daughter, Octavia, called it by the Indian name of “Tallahassee.” Its signification (” beautiful land “) fell musically upon the ear of the imaginative child; she was greatly interested, too, in the old Seminole king, Neamathla, who, in the days of his power, struck his tent-pole in that ground, made it his resting-place, and called it first by this sweet name.
It was the custom of the Indians to go every year to Pensacola to receive presents from the governor. Neamathla grew very fond of the young Octavia, and when the temptations of civilized life induced any of his retinue to depart from his commands, they would always seek the intercession of the governor’s daughter, who was known among them as the “White Dove of Peace.”
Among many interesting incidents of her early life, Madame Le Vert remembers an interview with Lafayette, on the occasion of his last visit to the South. He had written to her grandmother, begging her, if possible, to meet him at Mobile, but the infirmities of age beginning at this time to weigh somewhat heavily upon her, she determined to send a worthy representative in the person of the graceful and versatile Octavia.
After the arrival and grand reception of Lafayette at Mobile, Octavia and her mother were quietly presented by the committee of arrangements, and the little fair-haired envoy then placed in his hands the miniature of her grandfather, to which she bore striking resemblance. For some minutes he gazed upon both pictures in silence; then, bursting into tears, caught the child to his heart, exclaiming: “The living image of my brave and noble friend!” A long and interesting interview ensued, the young Octavia, seated upon the knee of the old hero, holding him spell-bound with her piquant and fluent use of his native tongue. He then folded her again to his heart and blessed her fervently, remarking to one of the committee, as she left the room: “A truly wonderful child! She has been convercing all this while with intelligence and tact in the purest French. I predict for her a brilliant career.” Oracular words, which the records of years have more than confirmed.
But Octavia Walton did not sit passively down to await the fulfillment of Lafayette’s prophecy. One great secret of her success lies in her indefatigable industry. Only by close application has she taken the true gauge of herself—brought into view every resource—into play every faculty; only thus has she become conversant with classical and scientific studies, made herself mistress of many languages, a proficient in music, an eloquent conversationist, and a ready writer; and, by a no less fine and careful culture, has she been able, in every phase of her life, to evolve only light and warmth from her large human heart; to bring to the surface the best qualities of all who came within her influence; to charm away detraction, and to preserve, apart from her world-woman aspect, a child-nature, as pure and undimmed as a pearl in the sea.
Octavia was never placed within the walls of a schoolroom. Her mother and grandmother, both women of intellect and cultivation, vied with each other in developing her earlier mental life, and private tutors were provided to meet the needs of her advance. She and her brother pursued their studies for years under the eye of an old Scotchman, a fine classic scholar and linguist, who had lived in the family since their birth, as devoted an adherent as was ever Dominie Sampson to the House of Bertram.
Soon after their removal to Mobile, Octavia, in company with her mother and brother, made the tour of the United States; and then commenced the remarkable career as a social genius, which gave to the name of Octavia Walton its world-wide celebrity. Possessing the entree of the most select circles in each city of the Union, she suddenly awoke to the fact that she held also a magic key to human hearts, and could sway at will the moods and emotions of those who surrounded her—a knowledge and position alike dangerous. She was crowned “reigning belle ” by acclamation: a title, which, worn as it so often is by the weak and frivolous, or the vain and heartless, has ever done injustice to the high-toned and comprehensive character of our author. That she was more than a mere belle is proved by the fact that her name was never spoken lightly, and of all who then offered her the highest tribute in the gift of man, she has never lost a friend.
These were the good old days of stage-coaches, when travellers, thrown together by the accident of sympathy in the “destined end or way,” had ample time to cultivate affinities or antipathies; and it so happened that our party became greatly interested in a strange gentleman, who took his seat among them each morning, as naturally as if included in the first arrangement. There was a pleasing mystery about him. He was in the meridian of life, of a most gracious presence: had evidently been the round world over: was possessed of a fund of humor and anecdote, and conversed with clearness and elegance, like one accustomed to write out impressions; he was certainly a distinguished somebody—and who?
There was too much good breeding on both sides to evince curiosity. The unknown continued to grow into favor, especially with the young Octavia, whose vivacious intelligence seemed very much to delight him. One day, as she was conversing with her brother in Spanish, the stranger, with a quiet grace, joined in the conversation; he had spent some years in Spain, and was at home in the language. While describing in his graphic way a bull-fight which he had witnessed, he dwelt particularly upon a singular incident that occurred in connection. Peculiar as the incident was to that one occasion, Octavia is certain she has heard it in some way before.
“It cannot be,” said the narrator, “for I am sure there is no record of it, and you have never been in Spain.”
But Octavia was never known to forget. With a moment’s thought her whole face brightened.
“You are Washington Irving.”
“And pray why am I Washington Irving?”
“Because now I remember that Mr. S____ of N. O., told me of this identical incident, and added that Washington Irving stood by his side when he witnessed it.”‘
So here was revealed the genial writer of the “Sketch Book,” no stranger after all, but an old and dear friend, whose name was a household word. The stage-coach party became at once a fireside circle, unrestrained, harmonious, warmed and lighted by the glow of a common sympathy. Impressed more and more with the quick retentive quality of Octavia’s mind, her large observation and racy expression, Mr. Irving advised her to commence a journal, dating from this, her first experience as a traveller; adding that she would be sure some day to find it an invaluable resource. From that time to the present her life has been journalized; a mine indeed of rich material for the autobiography which it is hoped she will yet give to the world. Thus began a friendship which was only interrupted by the death of Mr. Irving. He became her faithful correspondent, and watched her career from that period with true fatherly interest. During her last visit to New York, he sought her more than once in the crowded saloons of the St. Nicholas, and twice claimed her as his guest. Their last interview at” Sunny Side” was filled with reminiscent chat, in which the stagecoach party was vividly pictured, and the genial host dwelt in his happiest vein upon all the incidents of the journey. At parting, he said softly: “I feel as if the sunshine was all going away with you, my child.” It was their last meeting on earth, and this beautiful tribute has now a sacred value.
During the administration of Jackson, in those memorable times, when, with a daring hand, he removed the deposits, Octavia Walton was each day an earnest listener to the debates in Congress, and transferred at once to the pages of her diary the speeches of Calhoun, Clay, and “Webster. These three were her warm personal friends, especially Mr. Clay, to whose memory she has since offered a glowing and affectionate testimonial.
In 1836, she married Dr. Henry Le Vert, of Mobile, a man equally noted for his professional skill and high moral worth. His father, Dr. Claude Le Vert, who was a native of France, came to America with Lafayette, as fleet surgeon under Rochambeau, and was present at the taking of Yorktown. In the palace of Versailles there is a large painting representing the reception of Rochambeau and his officers by Washington; conspicuous, on the left, may be seen the fine head and commanding person of Dr. Claude Le Vert. After peace was proclaimed, he left the French navy and settled in Virginia, where he married Miss Metcalf, the niece of Admiral Vernon, in honor of whom Lawrence Washington, who had served under him in South America, named his country seat “Mount Vernon.” After his death his widow removed with her two children to Alabama. The youngest son, Henry Le Vert, then adopted the profession of his father, graduated at Philadelphia, and established himself in Mobile, where he has since resided, a leading physician of the State. Many a noble act of his, performed secretly in the lowliest walks of his profession, has been recorded, and will yet appear. In these generous ministrations he has ever found a willing coadjutor in Madame Le Vert. The “Belle of the Union” could preside with equal grace and effectiveness in the crowded drawing-rooms of fashion, and by the bedside of the suffering poor. Most of all was she happy in her home and children. But clouds were gathering.
Her first sorrow came in 1849, with the death of her only brother, a man of rare personal and intellectual graces, to whom her very soul was knitted. Six weeks after, two sweet children were taken. Prostrated in body and spirit by these bereavements, she secluded herself for three years from society. Most opportune and beneficent, then, was a visit from the Lady Emeline Stuart Wortley, among whose writings may be found a glowing tribute to our author, and to the memory of the departed.
In the summer of 1853, yielding to the solicitations of friends, she accepted an invitation from the Duke, of Rutland, and in company with her father and daughter, sailed for England. It is not necessary to follow her there. All are familiar with the details of her reception in London and tour through Europe. As one has said, ” There probably was never a more signal success in the way of access to foreign society, friendly attentions from the nobility and notice from royalty, than fell to the share of Madame Le Vert.” She undoubtedly owed to the Lady Emeline Wortley the empressement of her first reception, but to her own magnetic personality is due the rest. It is our pride that prestige of presence, and not of title, was her key to the most imposing court of Europe; while we dwell with something better than pride upon traces of her influence, glowing not in printed columns, but written ever in the grateful hearts of a foreign peasantry.
In 1854, she returned to America; but after spending one year in the quiet of her own home was persuaded to revisit Europe in company with her husband and daughter. Out of these tours grew the “Souvenirs of Travel,” to which we are indebted for such impressions of European life as could have come to us through no other medium. Made up of familiar letters to her mother, the book has all the freshness and vivacity of the author’s own effluent presence. It is like nothing we ever read, unless we except a description (which it contains) of the play of the “Fountains at Versailles.” Over and around all, like an atmosphere, floats the couleur de rose, which belongs not to the belle of many seasons, not to the cool and cautions world-woman, but to the simple-hearted and impressionable child. We feel as if some good fairy had spirited us away over the sea, and was leading us by the hand through fairyland. All irregularities, clouds, and waste places—all sad and fearful things, are softened and tinted till they become simply picturesque; while all culture and beauty, all graces and courtesies, are so glorified in amber and rose, we say, “Surely the face of the old world is more bonnie than the face of the new!” But we have been looking through the eyes of our fairy—a medium which accepts no shadows. In this book Madame Le Vert has sent forth a true type of herself; the upturned disc of her soul meets always the broad disc of the sun.
To us there is something very beautiful in the enthusiasm which has outlived adulation and every other corrosive influence, and can walk abroad each day under its own rainbows. Pens dipped in a fountain of perennial youth are the exception among us; while there is no lack of homilies, croakings, curtness, causticity, and phleghm. It is refreshing to come upon a writer who knows not, and so fears not, the hard, cynical side of life.
Our author does not use the skill which she really possesses in delineating character. It does not consist with her abounding charity to be nicely critical; she gleans from the surface whatever seems fair, and leaves the rest for those who have a taste for uncomfortable discoveries; so her portraits sometimes lack the strong lines and salient points of the analyst. But there are channels, aside from the deep and winding one of human nature, where her descriptive power courses with strength and impressiveness. “The way over the Simplon,” “The Ascent and Eruption of Vesuvius,” “Moonlight in Venice,” and “The Golden and Silver Illuminations,” and other ceremonies of holy week, are a few among many scenes described in a graphic and felicitous manner. “We should as soon think,” says, most happily, a woman of fine genius and critical acumen, “of sitting down to dissect the bird whose song had charmed us, as to break upon the wheel of criticism a book springing so much from the heart-side of the author.” Says another—a southern poet—whose sketch forms a part of this volume, and whose noble discriminating review of the “Souvenirs” circulated widely in this country and Europe: “She writes as the flower blooms, because it is bathed in dew, fanned by the breeze, and kindled up by the sunshine, till it bursts its inclosing petals, and lavishes its fragrance and sweet life upon the air. She receives, as it were by intuition, the idea of the ancient Greeks, that the whole universe is a ‘ Kosmos’ of beauty and order, and this she presents to the reader not as a pleasant theory, but a sublime truth. And yet at times, as if to prove how truly she is woman, a faint shadow lies upon her heart, and is reflected upon the page—telling that she has entered the temple of memory, and, passing by little graves at the thereshold still guarded by love and sorrow, her spirit treads silently the hallowed chamber of tears.”
In entering the field of authorship, Madame Le Vert would seem, at last, to have tested the ore of every vein of her versatile genius. To watch the play of manifold graces—to listen to the something new always unfolding from a well-stored mind, is a pleasure which the crowd appreciates, and this fair daughter of the land was in danger of frittering herself away. Now she has written a book; and to do this requires the solitude which brings one face to face with one’s self—the introversion which deepens—the reserve which fortifies; while a book that contains, in any sort, the soul and sinew of the writer, is something i-lucked from the hurrying tide; something to be taken tenderly down from its nook in the old library, through many generations. In this light especially these “Souvenirs” are invaluable.
Laimartine, it is said, first suggested the book, and gave it a name. It happened in this wise. Madame Le Vert had been describing to him, in her own way, a recent sojourn in Spain; as she paused, he said earnestly, his poet-eye beaming with the conviction: “Madame, you have one gift of which you yourself are unaware. You are a natural improvisatrice. Now, because you are not an Italian, you cannot be an improvisatrice, but you can be a writer; you can fill with pleasure the hearts of your nation by describing what you have seen to them as you are now delighting me. When the excitements of your tour are over, and you are once more quietly at home, will you not remember, madame, what I have said, and employ your leisure in giving to the world a few souvenirs of your European life?”
That she did remember, literally and religiously, is proved by the book and its title.
At one period of our author’s life, during an illness which confined her to the house without prostrating her energies, she translated in the most faithful and spirited manner, Dumas’ “Musketeers;” and a few months since, there appeared in the columns of the “Mobile Register” a translation by her of the pamphlet, “The Pope and the Congress.” This is pronounced by French scholars the most admirable rendering which has yet appeared. Entirely at home in the French, Spanish, and Italian languages, she cannot fail to do justice to them in translation.
Among all her occupations, no one has labored more zealously than herself in the cause of securing Mount Vernon. She was one of the first to advocate the project, and as Vice-Regent of the Association for Alabama, has not only succeeded in raising by personal efforts an unexpected amount, but has herself contributed substantially to the common fund. It is a fitting tribute from the grandchild of George Walton to the manes of George Washington.
Among many sketches of “Madame Le Vert at home,” we make brief extracts from one or two, which we select for their distinct features and comparative freedom from extravagance. A popular writer, whose essays upon art and humanity evince much discrimination, and who says he
“Would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Nor Jove for his power to thunder,”
thus writes of our author:
“Her residence is on Government street, in the most convenient and central part of Mobile. It is a plain, substantial mansion, combining taste, elegance, and comfort. She has an immense library, and rare works of art. A genuine republican in her feelings, she respects and cherishes all genius and merit, however humble its condition or origin. Whoever has talent and moral worth has a claim upon her. She is kind and hospitable simply for the pleasure of doing good, because it is her nature to be so. No human being has ever been pained by an unkind or ungenerous act of hers. In conversation she never flags, yet never utters a commonplace.”
Fredrika Bremer says of her:
“It is so strange that that little worldly lady, whom I had heard spoken of as a belle, and as the most splendid ornament of society wherever she went, has yet become almost as dear to me as a young sister! But she has become so from being so very excellent, because she has suffered much, and because under a worldly exterior there is an unusually sound an intellect, and a heart full of affection, which can cast aside all the vanities of the world for the power of gratifying those whom she loves. This fair daughter of Florida is surrounded by a circle of relatives who seem to regard her as the apple of their eye; and if you would see the ideal of the relationship between a lady and her female slave, you should see Octavia Le Vert and her clever, handsome, mulatto attendant, Betsey. Betsey seems really not to live for anything else than for her mistress, Octavia.”
A good Catholic editor flows out in the following tribute to her conversational powers:
“I defy anybody to spend an hour in her company without rising up a wiser and better man, having a sense of musical joyance in his heart, because of her words, which
“‘Did all burst forth in choral minstrelsy,
As if some sudden gale had swept at once
A hundred airy harps.'”
In enumerating the ruling characteristics of Madame Le Vert, we must not forget one which stands out perhaps more prominently than any other—her devotion to her mother. We do not remember ever to have seen the filial relation more fully realized. The mother is worthy of the daughter; a thorough gentlewoman of large heart, and brilliant, versatile gifts; indeed, we have heard it said that when the two have appeared together in society, the former has sometimes been obliged to “look to her laurels.” It is frequently the case, that mother, daughter and grand-daughter attend the same party, dance in the same quadrille, and attract their, own separate cornercoteries.
Prevented, by a painful accident, from prosecuting the work, “Souvenirs of Distinguished People,” long since announced by her publishers—Madame Le Vert has spent the last year quietly at home in a state of patient receptivity. As soon as she is sufficiently recovered to endure the fatigue of travelling her faithful physician, Dr. Le Vert—prescribes a tour to the Holy Land. This most interesting journey accomplished, we shall look confidently, not only for another hook of travels, hut for the postponed work, whose material is all ready to her hand in the affluent pages of her diary.