“My Dear Sir”, Maria Bicknell began, “His only objection would be on the score of that necessary article Cash”. But her father’s reservation, though merely financial, was fundamental.
“What can we do? To live without it is impossible. It would be involving ourselves in misery instead of felicity. Could we but find this golden treasure we might yet be happy, you say it is not impossible.
“I wish I had it, but wishes are vain — we must be wise, and leave off a correspondence that is not calculated to make us think less of each other, we have many painful trials required of us in this life, and we must learn to bear them with resignation.” They could still, she added – like innumerable young women through the ages – be friends.
She was writing on November 4th 1811 while staying at the house of the house of her half-sister, Mrs Sarah Skey, outside Bewdley in Worcestershire.
The house, a mansion named Spring Grove, had been built by Mrs Skey’s father-in-law. It had a porch with Ionic pilasters and, within, a handsome curving staircase with domed octagon above. Outside there was a conservatory where oranges and lemons grew in profusion and from which rare specimens were sent to the botanic gardens at Kew. Beyond were 270 acres of grounds, landscaped in the style of Capability Brown, with a lake, adroitly-placed clumps of trees and serpentine paths.
Altogether, Spring Grove was striking evidence of the wealth and comfort that a good marriage could bring: Mrs Skey lived in this delightful place because it had belonged to her late husband. The evidence was visible all around: Mrs Skey had married very well indeed.
Maria’s letter concerned the opposite state of affairs: the difficulty of marrying without money. She was replying to a suitor, a little-known painter with whom she had fallen in love: John Constable. He had been courting her for two years, with the only result that her parents had sent her to stay here in Worcestershire, safely out of his way.
Recently, a letter had arrived from Constable, whom she had not seen for months and never corresponded at all. This was a clear invitation to resume their relationship, and indeed, to move it decisively forward. To exchange letters with a man was, as everyone knew, implicitly to accept him as a lover. It was a step on the path to the altar. Maria’s dilemma was clear. Her hear urged her to write back, and keep on writing; but prudence and her sense of duty to her parents – who were firmly against this attachment – argued that she should not.