Strawberry Hill forever - Horace Walpole

The forty-eight large volumes of the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence march along three open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Room of the British Library. They occupy a lot of space. Their indexes and footnotes are formidable. This monumental undertaking by W. S. Lewis, the great, wealthy and obsessed scholar and collector, was launched in 1937 and brought to completion after his death in 1979. Volume One contains correspondence between the Revd William Cole, an antiquarian, and Walpole. (The opening salvo from Cole is engagingly and somewhat informally described by Lewis as “incredibly dull”). Lewis justifies his decision to publish not chronologically, but by correspondent, by arguing that the vast collection of some thousands of letters fell naturally into divisions by subject matter, as Walpole “selected his correspondents with a subject more or less in mind”. So each individual correspondence, according to Lewis, tended to have its own theme – the social, the literary, the Gothic, the antiquarian, the political, the historical. When a correspondent died or “cooled off”, he or she would be replaced by another with similar interests, so a kind of coherence continued. On this principle Lewis gives us separate volumes dedicated to letters to and from such figures as the Florence-based diplomat Sir Horace Mann (eleven whole volumes to himself, in Lewis’s phrase a “great Andean range”), the Parisian hostess Madame du Deffand (six volumes, in French), the Countess of Upper Ossory (three volumes), while others, less attentive, less long-lived or less prolific (including the poet Thomas Gray and the writer-philanthropist Hannah More), are obliged to rub shoulders and share space.

This was one way of tackling a vast mass of letters, spanning many decades, but it did not solve all problems, and navigating the material is not easy. J. H. Plumb complained, in his broadly admiring review of the Miscellaneous Correspondence in the New York Times in 1981, that “if one wishes to savor, say, Walpole’s view of life in 1760 or 1776, one must consult a great number of Lewis’s volumes”. Even today, with the addition of a complete index (itself in several volumes) and an easily searchable online edition, readers can find themselves lost in Lewis, overwhelmed by detail and cross-references. Plumb went on to suggest that this “biographical monument – exquisitely designed and perfectly executed”, was “basically unreadable” and would cause Walpole to lose “all appeal for the general reader”.

A clear call, here, for a one-volume selection, to appeal to that general reader, and Everyman have obliged, with a 2017 reprint of their 1926 edition, originally edited by William Hadley and now re-edited by Stephen Clarke. And there are many attractive features to this offering. Clarke has added new critical and biographical material, and prevailed on the generosity of Yale to include updated and slightly expanded footnotes. The selection contains some of the very best of Walpole’s set pieces, as well as some impromptu and off-the-cuff explosions and asides, and it covers the great range of his interests.

Reading through these letters today, it is easy to see why Walpole has long been held up as a model of epistolary art. He had his eye on posterity, and polished his prose and his perceptions for our benefit. He saw himself as an informed witness to events, at court, in the House of Commons, in society, in the streets. He was a Member of Parliament for some years, but never even visited his first constituency, and rarely spoke, and then only when prompted to defend his father, the former and first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He was more a bystander in public affairs than an actor. His day-by-day accounts of the wars in America and the loss of the colonies, of the Scottish rebellion, of the Gordon Riots, have been invaluable source material for historians, as he knew they would be: writing in detail to Mann in 1768 about the violent disorder and civic unrest caused by the supporters of John Wilkes, he states that in London “We are glad if we can keep our windows whole, or pass and repass unmolested. I call it reading history as one goes along the streets”.

He read the history of the streets well, for somebody who was able to live on various sinecures in comfortable seclusion by the Thames at Strawberry Hill, with his goldfish, his dog and parrot. He had created a little retired Gothic fantasy domain for himself and his stream of cultured visitors (and in later years for paying tourists, whom he called his “customers”), but he was also insatiably curious about what was going on in the larger world, and over the water in France. He could not resist balls and dinners and entertainments, and although he inveighed against fashionably late hours, he was often to be found playing cards or gambling late into the night and on into the morning. (He disliked whist, but enjoyed faro and loo.) An amusing bachelor, with an endless supply of small talk and secondhand anecdotes and witticisms (some of which are now flat or incompre­hensible or both), he was showered with invitations.

His accounts of luxury and excess mingle admiration and disapproval. The descriptions of the lavish celebrations of the end of the Seven Years War at the recently opened Ranelagh (May 1749) glow with pleasure and enthusiasm: the tents, the gondolas, the illuminated orange trees and festoons of flowers and rustic music and masquerades enchanted him. “There were booths for tea and wine, gaming tables and dancing, and about two thousand persons. In short, it pleased me more than anything I ever saw.” (The fireworks the next day, however, “by no means answered the expense”.) It was an age, in his words, of extravagance and im­prudence, like decadent Rome, “and all the geniuses of the age are employed in designing new plans for desserts. The Duke of Newcastle’s last was a baby Vauxhall, illuminated with a million of little lamps of various colours”.

Walpole’s visits to France and to the court of Versailles (“a mixture of parade and poverty”), which began in 1765, elicited some of his most sparkling and unsparing portraits of the grandes dames of the ancien régime, by whom he was fascinated. (“The first step towards being in fashion is to lose an eye or a tooth.”) The English were popular in Paris at that period, and he unexpectedly found himself the toast of the town, welcomed everywhere and in particular by the blind, restless, insatiable and ancient Mme du Deffand, who was to become one of his most persistent correspondents. “Me voici à la mode”, he wrote proudly to his cousin Henry Conway. He thrived in the company of dowagers, at home as well as abroad.

His bachelor habits and male friendships inevitably give rise to speculation about his sexual orientation, a subject which Lewis tended, uneasily, to avoid. Walpole’s contemporaries were not so discreet. He was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of the notoriously bisexual Lord Hervey, an allegation which is usually now discounted, and he was attacked in a scurrilous Grub Street pamphlet in 1764, which alleged he was in love with his cousin Conway. Stephen Clarke as editor quotes what he rightly calls Walpole’s “disarming response”, which was to send the pamphlet to Conway, commenting:

They have nothing better to say, than that I am in love with you, have been so these twenty years, and am no giant. I am a very constant old swain: they might have made the years above thirty; it is so long I have had an unalterable friendship for you, independent of being near relations and bred up together.

This letter is not included in the Everyman selection, nor is another revealing letter written in 1766 by Walpole to another member of Mme du Deffand’s circle and of the Holland House set, the gambler John “Fish” Craufurd, who seems to have been making claims on Walpole’s more intimate friendship. Walpole writes in discouraging mode, asking him to restrain himself:
my heart is not like yours, young, warm, sincere, and impatient to bestow itself. Mine is worn with the baseness, treachery and mercinariness I have met with. It is suspicious, doubtful, and cooled . . . . I laugh, that I may not weep. I play with monkeys, dogs or cats that I may not be devoured by the beast of the Gevaudan . . . . I am not at all of Madame du Deffand’s opinion that one might as well be dead as not love somebody – I think one had better be dead than love anybody.
These are strong words, and, although they may be a pose assumed to deter the over-demanding Craufurd (whose letters to Walpole do not survive), they have a memorable resonance.

Walpole’s dilettante tittle-tattle about titled folk has amused and charmed generations of readers, but it has also provoked virulent attacks. Macaulay, in his notorious hatchet job in 1833 in the Edinburgh Review, called him a gentleman usher at heart, who, like foie gras, owed his excellences to his diseases: “none but an unhealthy and disorganised mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole”, a man who was “the embodiment of malice, affectation and trivi­ality”. Hazlitt credited him with an odd and quaint manner of thinking, but an “utter poverty of feeling”. Even his admirers wonder whether he is really first-rate. Yet Walpole’s name and his works live on. His eye may have been on posterity, but he also did good by stealth – as, for instance, in his care for his illegitimate half-sister, the “squab, short and gummy” Mrs Day. (Those are not his adjectives, but those of his friend Cole, who met her over dinner at Strawberry Hill.) Critics accused of him of shallowness and ignorance, but his comments on matters of the day, as diverse as the limited usefulness of the air balloon as a future means of transport, and the dangers of religious intolerance, show an alert intelligence that was far from disorganized. He and Dr Johnson (whom Walpole despised and derided as a tasteless pedant, a babbling old woman, a wig on stilts and a Tory) were agreed that ballooning would prove little more than a picturesque diversion, and Walpole, an early animal rights activist, deplored the practice of taking cats and dogs up into the sky: one has a right to venture one’s own neck, “but none to risk the poor cat’s”.

Walpole felt strongly about the slave trade, about which he corresponded with the campaigner Hannah More. He shrewdly predicted the future disasters of colonialism and of an over-extended Empire, although the Empire was to grow larger and last longer that he would have expected. His religion he kept largely to himself, although he disapproved of free thinking expressing itself before the servants, as it did in France. He distrusted the showmanship of Wesley, “as evidently an actor as Garrick”, and blamed Luther and Calvin for spilling “oceans of blood”.

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