The Farington Diary

These reviews of recent books of unusual value are based upon lists furnished through the courteous coöperation of such trained judges as the following: American Library Association Book List, Wisconsin Free Library Commission, and the staffs of the public libraries in Springfield (Massachusetts), Newark, Cleveland, Kansas City, and St. Louis.
by Joseph Farington, R. A. Edited by James Greig. Vol. I. (July 13, 1793, to August 24, 1802.) New York: George H. Doran Co. 1923. 8vo. xx+398 pp. $7.50.
THERE is something incurably romantic about diaries. For more than a hundred years Samuel Pepys’s cipher lay virtually undisturbed in the library which he bequeathed to his Cambridge college, while his fame declined to oblivion, till, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century it was revived so suddenly and so unexpectedly — and in such different form — that it became as eminent as that of Tut-Ankh-Amen. In some such fashion the work and reputation of Joseph Farington has astonished this generation as much as that of Pepys amazed the reading world almost exactly a hundred years ago. The circumstances of the discovery and publication of this diary are not, perhaps, quite so romantic as those of Pepys, but they are comparable. The contents, and especially the form, of these memories are not so picturesque as those of its great predecessor, but they are not far behind. And we are peculiarly fortunate in having a first-hand picture of the great days of the Revolution and Napoleon from the pen of one who, artist as he was, had an acquaintance and interest which brought him into touch with almost every kind of man and every side of life of his generation. Not even Horace Walpole, scarcely even Pepys, had so many contacts, or managed to record them more vividly than did this newly discovered diarist.
It is not surprising that the publication of this diary has created a certain sensation in England. A man who knew Burns and Burke, who visited Arkwright’s factory, who chats of the leaders of the French Revolution, through whose pages runs not merely the gossip of the Royal Academy, of royalty and the court, of ministers and politicians, but of the Radicals of the day, of Jacobin and anti-Jacobin, brings us a breath of the past beside which the most vivid history seems musty. One may not be interested in why Milman was preferred to Gillies as the successor of Gibbon in the Royal Society — let him then turn to the cost of men-of-war at the end of the eighteenth century. He may not care for a description of the great oak twenty feet in diameter — let him be amused with Burke and Mirabeau discussing with vigor, not to say violence, the great issues of government, each ignorant of the other’s language, but not less excited for that. For if you want to know how George III hated his son. or what were the manners and tastes of the king and his consort; if you want to be made envious of the fact that Gainsborough’s Blue Boy sold for thirty-five guineas in 1796 (£170,000 in 1922); if you want to know how men lived and dressed and ate and amused themselves, and thought and acted in public and private, here is your opportunity. The ‘member of the Morning Post staff’ who persuaded the editor of that enterprising journal to purchase and publish the diary deserves our thanks — nay more, he deserves to have his name printed in the Introduction!
And perhaps Farington, who was so confident of being remembered, who, fortunately for that confidence, refrained from destroying his diaries as he first intended, could not have found a better time than this to have them discovered and printed. For there is one characteristic of this fascinating volume which will make its appeal not only to the student of history and the lover of art but to the so-called ‘general reader.’ It is the sense of ’modernness’ — by which wo mean resemblance to ourselves — in these pages. It is as if we opened our windows and looked out upon the world passing by us a hundred years ago. More than that; it is as if we somehow came to know the men and women of that earlier age, so like our own, and yet so different. Nor is that interest confined to England, nor even to the Continent. For here we find some of the most interesting and instructive comments on America and Americans after the Revolution which have found their way to print, gossip brought by West and Trumbull, notes of Washington and his contemporaries, of public opinion here, and English opinion of America; most of all the sentiments of George III regarding his late subjects.