Divorce, Penury, and Family Feuds—Rare Coleridge Letters at Bonhams

A cache of very personal and, at times, ill-tempered letters between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his brother George are to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs sale in London on 12 November.

According to Bonhams Head of Books in the UK, Matthew Haley, these are among the last Coleridge letters available in private hands. “Most of Coleridge’s correspondence is held in museums and libraries and this is probably the last opportunity to acquire some of the poet’s most revealing letters providing an insight into his personality at a crucial time in his life.”

Coleridge and George—who was the vicar of Ottery St Mary in Devon where both brothers had been born—had been close in their youth. In adulthood, however, they were sometimes painfully frank with each other and their relationship frequently descended into acrimony. For long periods they did not communicate at all.   

One flash point was Samuel proposed separation from his wife Sara in 1807. Coleridge’s marriage had been unhappy for many years—in his own words, ‘incompatible with even an endurable life’—and the decision to part was mutual. Nevertheless, as a clergyman George condemned divorce outright and treated Coleridge’s proposal to move his family to Devon in order to conclude the separation away from prying eyes with characteristic bluntness. “As you are going to Bristol… make your own arrangements there.”

This caused Coleridge huge offence and it was not until May 1808, prompted by the need for a copy of his birth certificate, that he replied taking the opportunity to pour out his pent-up bitterness and self-pity. “...even the Errors of my Youth have been most grossly exaggerated, and wanderings attributed to want of principle which proceeded from excess of sensibility.” This survives as a transcript as does George’s immediate and unsympathetic reply, seeming to cut off further communication with the words, “I cannot find time to write to those who love me and it is not probable that I should be anxious to count an intercourse with one who from his expressions must hate me.” These exchanges are estimated at £4,000-6,000. 

The following year Coleridge was writing to George on 9 October about his ambitions for his magazine The Friend and reflecting on his literary career, his writing and his financial problems ending in an appeal for a loan. This important handwritten letter is estimated at £3,000-4,000.

George not only failed to respond to the plea for financial help he wrote accusing Coleridge of using The Friend to grasp for money. Coleridge’s reply (£2,000-3,000) is an extended attempt to heal the breach painting himself as an unworldly innocent, habitually careless of money with never a spare guinea to his name but despite that never in debt and never before reduced to asking for help. The appeal seemed to have been successful and Coleridge was able to report a change in his brother’s attitude “softened by my very gentle answer to his former one”.

The letters are part of 28 lots associated with Coleridge and his family in the sale. Also included is the poet’s writing slope (£6,000-8,000); a pair of Wedding Spoons (£2,000-4,000); and the only known portrait of Coleridge's wife Sara, drawn in the summer of 1809 at Greta Hall, Grasmere, where she and her daughter—also called Sara—were living with her sister, Robert Southey's wife Edith, and their family, following her final separation from Coleridge the year before. It is estimated at £8,000-10,000.

Auction Guide