Horace Walpole Reread

Books and Men



FEW writers can have fluctuated more in critical esteem than Horace Walpole. To his own age he was a brilliant essayist and historian (the eighteenth century in general knew nothing of his letter-writing). In the nineteenth century, Byron stated that he was a greater writer than any man living “be he who he may.” Croker and Lord Liverpool, on the other hand, agreed that no more evil man had ever lived, because, they said, he had poisoned history at its source. Carlyle saw him as a light shining in darkness; to Macaulay he was a pâté de foie gras produced by an effete society.
In our own century we have had the praises of Saintsbury and Lytton Strachey. A distinguished scholar recently remarked to me that Walpole’s place had been moved many rungs higher since he was a graduate student twenty-odd years ago. Horace Walpole has been the object of hatred, adulation, condescension, and respect.
When I began reading Walpole’s letters twenty-one years ago, I had in mind the picture of a gossipy little dilettante, cold-blooded and sneering, which Macaulay gave the world. As I read, it became clear that something was wrong with the picture. Macaulay’s talk about Walpole’s wearing “mask within mask” beneath which was “the heart of a gentleman-usher” was untrue.
Walpole was witty and shrewd, but he was not a courtier; he was something of a fop; he was thinskinned and abnormally self-conscious, but he was not trivial. He had an unworthy fear of ridicule and was prone to ridicule people he feared, but no account seemed to have been taken of his generosity and devotion to his family and friends. The main charge against him — that his indifference had driven Chatterton to suicide — was absurd; he was no more responsible for Chatterton’s death than is any reader of this page. It seemed to me twenty-one years ago that posterity had misjudged Horace Walpole.
Saintsbury said Walpole was the key to the society of his time. Saintsbury meant that portion of society which ruled England from St. James’s Street and Whitehall; but as I continued to read, it seemed to me that Walpole was the key to more than that. I began collecting everything which had to do with him; and these objects — his works, letters, and the books and prints formerly in his library — disclosed the grand project of his life, which was nothing less than the deliberate and carefully planned transmission to posterity of a true picture of his time.
Horace Walpole felt the preoccupation with the future which was characteristic of many eighteenthcentury men. He was determined to be remembered by posterity, to have a reputation independent of that of his father, Sir Robert . He knew that he was not suited to an important political career. He saw from the beginning that he could best gain his end by writing.
His earliest attempts were in verse, in which he was encouraged by his Eton friends, Thomas Gray and Richard West. On his return from the Grand Tour he wrote political pamphlets and then essays for the World. He wrote a catalogue of his father’s pictures at Houghton — that great collection which his nephew, the third Lord Orford, sold to Catherine of Russia and which formed the foundation of the Hermitage. His five-volume Anecdotes of Painting in England is still the standard work on the subject. His Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors was to be found in every gentleman’s library for the next hundred years. He wrote the Castle of Otranto and the Mysterious Mother, “the first romance and the last tragedy of our language,”as Byron called them. The Castle of Otranto has passed into more than sixty editions, five of them within the past twenty-one years.
He wrote Historic Doubts Concerning the Reign of Richard the Third, a book as provocative as Strachey’s Queen Victoria, which precipitated a controversy that lasted twenty-five years. He secretly wrote the political memoirs of his time for forty years, from 1751 to 1791, within six years of his death. He wrote books throughout his long life. Many of them broke new ground. Although they were on subjects which are commonly called dull, no one ever called Walpole’s books dull. Still, as we know, he did not trust his posthumous fame to them.
In part, his preoccupation with the future rose from his preoccupation with the past. “The taste for anecdotes and historic papers,” he wrote, “for ancient letters that record affairs of state, illustrate characters of remarkable persons or preserve the memory of former manners and customs, was never more general than at present.” He was an amateur antiquary, a dedicated one. The days of the early Edwards and Henrys were magically restored at Strawberry Hill by pointed windows. The details of sepulchral monuments were carefully studied and introduced into its chimneypieces. The past was composed of “ages that do not disappoint.” “If I have amused you,” he wrote Cole, the antiquary, “by retracing with fidelity the manners of ancient days I am content, and give you leave to think me as idle as you please.”
If only, Walpole somewhere says, persons of the past who were at the center of affairs had written easily and naturally of what they saw, how much more interesting history would be! He was such a person; he knew everybody and went everywhere. His interests were wide — from the oratory of Pitt to landscape gardening, from Gothicism to the romantic savage. I once said that one can find every subject under the sun in Walpole except beekeeping, and the next unpublished letter of his that I found was all about the keeping of bees, how wasteful the English farmer was, how frugal the Spanish.
He was able to let himself go in his letters as though he were talking to his correspondent. Since his correspondents liked the way he put things down, no doubt there would be people in the future of kindred tastes who would also enjoy them. He would write for them and collect for them, he would annotate his books and prints and pictures for them, and he would be better known in the twentieth century than nine out of ten cabinet ministers of his own time.
He chose his correspondents with care — I am not speaking of his casual correspondents, but those to whom he sent what might be called his professional letters, the letters he intended us to see. These correspondents had to fulfill certain conditions: they had to live at a distance from London away from the springs of information; they had to be persons with whom Walpole could converse on the easiest terms; and they had to be persons to whom he could write on one of his four main subjects: politics, society, literature, and the arts — in which last were included antiquarianism and collecting. When one of these correspondents died or withered away under the blight of a “coolness,”Walpole took up a successor. Thus Montagu was succeeded by Lady Ossory, Gray by Mason, Mason by Hannah More, and so on.
At least two of his correspondents were asked to return his letters, and a third to preserve them. The letters to Sir Horace Mann, some eight hundred and fifty in number, came back periodically from Florence during the forty-five years when the two men wrote each other without meeting. Walpole copied out his own letters in six folio volumes, suppressing some passages, but not, I think, altering them. Many of Mann’s earlier letters to him contained bits in code on the movements of the Old Pretender and his sons and other high matters. Walpole decoded these for his future editors, an act of thoughtfulness for which they cannot be too grateful. That he was able to write so freely and easily with posterity not exactly looking over his shoulder, but in the next room, is proof of the friendly reception he believed we would give him.


I HAVE recently reread the letters after an interval of three years. I spent this interval in a far distant society and age, in wartime Washington, and I wondered how Walpole would appear to me when I returned to him. I was struck by many things which I had not taken in earlier. I found I was less charmed by the enamel and leaf-gold he spread over his letters, and more impressed by certain aspects of his life and character.
One of these was his passionate championship of underdogs. When Admiral Byng was court-martialed and condemned to death, Walpole moved heaven and earth to save him; when his cousin Henry Conway was deprived of his regiment, he worked in the same way to restore him to favor, and this time he was successful. He refused to testify against Maclean, the highwayman who had robbed him, even though Maclean’s pistol had gone off accidentally and the ball had so narrowly missed Walpole that his face was pockmarked with powder.
He raised money in a vain attempt to release King Theodore of Corsica from a debtors’ prison. He printed one book at the Strawberry Hill Press for the benefit of Mr. Hill, a learned but indigent tailor; he printed a second to allay the misfortunes of the Reverend Mr. Hoyland, the decline of whose body and mind prevented him from accepting a living and comfort in South Carolina; still other publications were printed for the benefit of the poor of Twickenham, to whom he left £300 in his will.
It is significant , I think, that Walpole did not become attached to his father until Sir Robert fell from power. Thereafter he was the aggressive champion of his father’s reputation and the apologist for every act of his life. One of Sir Robert’s natural daughters, Lady Mary Churchill, was Horace’s favorite close relation. He stood godfather to her children, opened his house to her and them, and left them all generous bequests.
When he discovered another of his father’s illegitimate daughters, a Mrs. Daye, he at once took her to Strawberry Hill, where she lived until her death. Cole describes her as being of a “squab, short, gummy appearance,” and with scarcely more agreeable qualities of mind. She could not have been a brilliant addition to Horace Walpole’s dinner table, but the man who has been frequently called a snob immediately made his home her own. Still another resident of Strawberry Hill was Mrs. Leneve, a gentlewoman who had been a governess in his father’s household.
No two men were apparently more dissimilar than Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson. Actually, they held in common many opinions and qualities, not the least admirable of which was the willingness to share their houses with derelicts of society. The statement of a neighbor is a tribute not only to Walpole’s goodness of heart, but to his gifts as a housekeeper: “As a master, he was loved by all his domestics — a change in his establishment would have excited the wonder and curiosity of all Twickenham.”
Walpole took up traduced figures of history in the same way that he espoused contemporary underdogs. Algernon Sidney and Lord Russell were his heroes. In his Historic Doubts he attempted to prove that Richard III had been accused by Lancastrian historians of murders which, Walpole believed, he had not committed.
His sympathy for the underdog extended beyond individuals to groups and nations. He was one of the first Members of Parliament to come out against the slave trade on moral grounds. He did this in 1750, nine years before Wilberforce was born. “We, the British Senate, that temple of liberty, and bulwark of Protestant Christianity,” he wrote, “have this fortnight been pondering methods to make more effectual that horrid traffic of selling negroes. It has appeared to us that six-and-forty thousand of these wretches are sold every year to our plantations alone! — it chills one’s blood. . . . We reproach Spain, and yet do not even pretend the nonsense of butchering these poor creatures for the good of their souls!”
When the workmen at Strawberry Hill went on strike and left him “up to the knees in shavings,” his sympathies were with them against their masters. There was no more earnest supporter of the American Revolution. On the outbreak of the French Revolution he shifted his sympathy from the people to their victims. Macaulay cited this to prove the flimsiness of Walpole’s detestation of kings and oppressors. What Walpole’s shift proves is his detestation of violence and injustice whether the perpetrators of it were high or low; he had nothing against good kings and popes; quite the contrary.
One episode sharply contrasts his altruism with his rather dandified fear of being conspicuous and ridiculous. The occasion was a riot at Drury Lane over pantomimes. Fleetwood, the manager of the theater, wanted them; the pit did not. Fleetwood brought in some Bear-garden bruisers to knock down everybody who hissed. The pit threw them out.
“I was sitting,” writes Walpole, who was then just twenty-seven years of age, “very quietly in the side boxes, contemplating all this. On a sudden the curtain flew up, and discovered the whole stage filled with blackguards, armed with bludgeons and clubs, to menace the audience. This raised the greatest uproar; and among the rest, who flew into a passion but your friend? In short, one of the actors advancing to the front of the stage to make an apology for the manager, he had scarce begun to say, ‘Mr. Fleetwood —’ when your friend with a most audible voice and dignity of anger, called out, ‘He is an impudent rascal!’ The whole pit buzzed, and repeated the words. Only think of my being a popular orator!
“But what was still better, while my shadow of a person was dilating to the consistence of a hero, one of the chief ringleaders of the riot, coming under the box where I sat, and pulling off his hat, said, ‘Mr. Walpole, what would you please to have us do next?’
It is impossible to describe to you the confusion into which this apostrophe threw me. I sunk down into the box, and have never since ventured to set my foot into the playhouse.
“The next night, the uproar was repeated with greater violence, and nothing was heard but voices calling out, ‘Where’s Mr. Walpole? Where’s Mr. Walpole?’ In short, the whole town has been entertained with my prowess, and Mr. Conway has given me the name of Wat Tyler.”
Just before his twenty-fifth birthday he expressed his views upon the prevailing concept of honor. One wonders how many other young Englishmen of quality would have been capable in 1742 of so revolutionary a statement. “There is nothing, sure, so whimsical as modern honor!” he wrote Mann. “You may debauch a woman upon a promise of marriage, and not marry her; you may ruin your tailor’s or baker’s family by not paying them; you may make Mr. Mann maintain you for eighteen months, as a public minister, out of his own pocket, and still be a man of honor! But not to pay a common sharper, or not to murder a man that has trod upon your toe, is such a blot in your scutcheon, that you could never recover your honor, though you had in your veins all the blood of all the Howards!”
Walpole was proud of his personal disinterestedness, and justly so. According to custom, his father had provided his sons with public sinecures. The value of Horace’s rose as high as £4200 a year. He had opportunities to raise them still higher, but he never lifted a finger to do so or even to secure them to himself when they were in jeopardy. Characteristically, he wrote a careful account of his conduct regarding these places for anyone in the future who might be interested in it. “I have declined every opportunity of enlarging or securing my fortune,” he wrote, “because I would not be bound to serve any minister contrary to my principles.”
Although he was of considerable help to his friends, the Rockingham Whigs, in 1764, Walpole did not ask for the office which might have been his for the asking. In a world where personal power carried large emoluments, this abstention was as remarkable as it was unusual; and he did not give up opportunities to have more money with the conscious joy of an ascetic, for he liked having money to spend on Strawberry Hill and its contents.


FINALLY, I have been struck, in my rereading, by the zest for life which Walpole preserved to the end, in spite of his enduring ever greater tortures from the gout. It is this gusto which gives freshness to the pictures he tossed off so gayly. At the funeral of George II we see the Duke of Newcastle, who was obsessed by fear of catching cold, stepping on the train of the paralytic Duke of Cumberland to escape the chill of the marble. We see Princess Amelia and the house party at Stowe leaning on the balustrade as they hobbled down the vast flight of steps to sup in the grotto in the cold and damp and semi-darkness while a crowd from the neighboring villages stared and “an ancient militia-man played cruelly on a squeaking tabor and pipe.”
The eighteenth century runs its course from the peaceful days of Sir Robert Walpole to the troubled days of the younger Pitt. “Life,” wrote Walpole, “seems to me as if we were dancing on a sunny plain on the edge of a gloomy forest, where we pass in a moment from glare to gloom and darkness.” It was Horace Walpole’s self-imposed task not only to paint the great figures of his time in action and in repose, but to catch the movement and the light and the changes of the very air itself.
He did all this with thought and preparation. I have at Farmington scores of little slips of paper on which he wrote the notes for his memoirs and letters. They include records of conversations, lists of new appointments and peerages, bon mots, “detached thoughts.” He collected plays, pamphlets, and poems as they appeared and had them bound up with a “List of Pieces in this volume,” supplied in his own hand inside the front cover.
He read his books and annotated them, perhaps merely filling in the blanks in a man’s name or adding the date of a play’s or pamphlet’s publication on its title page. The margins of books which he particularly liked — biographies and county histories — were crowded with notes and anecdotes. These frequently ran over onto additional leaves which were bound in at the front or back of the book. He annotated his prints, thousands upon thousands of them, in the same careful way. The grand project was carried out with infinite pains.
Like Boswell, Walpole realized that all would be in vain if, when posterity came to examine his facts, he was found to be inaccurate. This is why he repeatedly informs his correspondents, when he is sending them only a rumor, that he has not yet “heard the echo.” In the past decade his statements of fact have undergone the clearest scrutiny. They have withstood the test. They have not only been borne out by firsthand accounts and materials which Walpole had access to — newspapers, Parliamentary Reports, directories, and the whole library of contemporary documentation — but by manuscript accounts unknown to him which have floated down to us from the past.
Horace Walpole is not an historian as Gibbon and Macaulay were historians. To find a closer parallel I think we must go to an historian whose works are listed in the libraries under quite a different classification. I mean Anthony Trollope. “The novel,” Henry James reminds us, “is history.” No two men were more unlike than Horace Walpole and Trollope: the one a small man to whom the words “elegant” and “ingenious” were applied by his contemporaries, a man who enjoyed such unmasculine tastes as iced water, pots of tuberoses, and the society of old ladies; the other a big-fisted man who rode to hounds and slaved away his life in the Post Office.
But both of them gave posterity a host of men and women who are more real to their readers than most people those readers have known. Mrs. Lookaloft and Mrs. Greenacre in the ha-ha at Ullathorne are the descendants of the respectable housewives of Walpole’s Norfolk; Lady Glencora Palliser is a nineteenth-century Lady Caroline Petersham; Mrs. Proudie grasping her bedpost in death is no less real than the Duchess of Buckingham, who, as death neared, angrily ordered her funeral canopy to be sent at once even though the tassels on it were not finished.
March 2 was the 148th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s death. Few men have planned their engagement with posterity so carefully and with such success.