October 1, 2010

Willis: I should like to marry in England

Nathaniel Parker Willis was traveling overseas when he wrote to a friend, "I should like to marry in England." He worried that "my best years and best affections are running to waste." He implies that he would really like to find a woman with a trust fund. Shortly after, he met Mary Stace, the daughter of the Royal Ordinance Keeper at Woolwich Arsenal. They were married about a month later on October 1, 1835; her father granted her £300 a year allowance.

The couple spent a two-week honeymoon in Paris. Shortly before leaving, Willis arranged for the publication of Pencillings by the Way, a book commenting on his European travels and meetings with famous Europeans (including royalty). Yet, he confided in his wife, "I have lived the last ten years in gay society, and I am sick at heart of it." The couple moved to England, but Willis's interactions with high society did not stop (nor would they ever, really); they soon befriended Charles Dickens in London, for example.

One of Willis's sketches, "Beware of Dogs and Waltzing," seems to refer to Willis and Mary Stace through a character named Mabel Brown. The name was too plain for her, Willis wrote, and many wanted to change it for her. The male protagonist, a representation of Willis himself, is Mr. Lindsay Maud — "a gentleman whom I wish you to take for more than his outer seeming." With one look, he appears to show he "cares nothing for your opinion." His face is quite Willis-like:

His eyes are like the surface of a very deep well. Curling brown hair, broad and calm forehead, merry chin with a dimple in it, and mouth expressive of great good humour, and quite enough of fastidiousness. If this is not your beau ideal, I am very sorry.

By the end of the story, Mabel Brown is successfully wooed by Lindsay Maud, when he "poured out the fervent passion of his heart" to her. Their love softens his previous off-putting personality and they almost certainly live happily ever after — the last line of the short story reveals that Miss Brown (the future Mrs. Maud) has inherited a substantial fortune.

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