Selected Letters of Horace Walpole
from the INTRODUCTION: HORACE WALPOLE AND THE ART OF LETTER-WRITING
The letters of Horace Walpole have always been recognized as one of the most outstanding collections of correspondence in English literature. Throughout his long life Walpole maintained an extensive correspondence with a wide circle of friends—it is estimated that he may have written over seven thousand letters, of which some three thousand survive, and those figures exclude notes and letters of business. His letters open a window onto the eighteenth century and allow the reader to engage with the panorama of contemporary life: to listen to the talk, to hear the scandal, to participate in the debates, and to watch the events of the day unfold. What Walpole offers is a sense of immediacy, an unrivalled ability to re-create a scene and to tell a story, and that gift the modern reader can share with the letters’ original recipients.
Walpole was insistent that letters should not be fine or studied, but should rather, as he explained to his friend Lady Ossory, be ‘‘extempore conversations upon paper’’. But he was so well placed and had such broad interests that those conversations are extremely wide-ranging. As the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, and a Member of Parliament himself for over twenty-five years, he knew and watched the politicians of the time and observed and participated in their schemes. As a young man on the Grand Tour he had thrown himself into ridottos and carnivals, and for the rest of his life he attended events of all kinds: from balls and routs to gatherings of the Bluestockings, and from the salons of Paris to Coronations and royal funerals and state trials. He moved freely through London society, meeting familiarly with statesmen, writers, artists, actors, scholars, historians, courtiers, and clerics. When he wrote about the unfolding dramas of his time, whether foreign wars or political upheavals, he did so with personal knowledge of many of the actors involved. We can hear from him the conversation of the wits and celebrities of the day, and observe its cultural life: as an historian and writer he was engaged with and had informed views on contemporary art and architecture, on the latest novel and the newest play. In addition, the letters reveal much of his own complex personality, of his friendships and achievements, and of the extraordinary house that he created at Strawberry Hill and filled with his collections.
The variety of Walpole’s various correspondents reflected the range of his contacts and activities, and each series of letters has its own centre of gravity and dynamic. The letters are as informal as any conversation with its asides and incidental digressions, but there are recurrent themes to individual correspondences, whether politics, or literature, or social life, or antiquarianism. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the largest of all Walpole’s series of letters, that written to Sir Horace Mann, the British plenipotentiary at Florence. From 1740 about two thousand letters passed between them. Walpole did not see Mann after staying with him in Florence in 1741, but they wrote to each other regularly until Mann’s death forty-five years later. Mann needed news of British politics and policy, and of world affairs that might impact on the court of the Duke of Tuscany. This Walpole supplied, interspersing it with incident and entertaining detail on the talking-points of the moment. Mann responded with a picture of evolving Florentine society, of the cares of his official duties (which included benignly overseeing the endless succession of young men passing through Florence on their Grand Tour) and the rigours of the gout to which, like Walpole, he was a martyr. Walpole knew the charm and value of anecdotal asides, and lamented that Mann’s residence abroad meant he could only employ them sparingly. He noted to Lady Ossory (herself isolated from London society after a scandalous divorce) that ‘‘Nothing is so pleasant as the occurrences of society in a letter. I am always regretting in my correspondence with Madame du Deffand and Sir Horace Mann, that I must not make use of them, as the one has never lived in England, and the other not these fifty years, and so any private stories would want notes as much as Petronius. Sir Horace and I have no acquaintance in common but the kings and queens of Europe.’’
Principally, however, Walpole provided Mann with news, and his ability to provide news, or frustration in its absence, is a leitmotif throughout their correspondence. On occasion he plays with his correspondents, as when he suggests to Lord and Lady Hertford (newly arrived in Paris on Hertford’s appointment as British Ambassador) in letter 207: ‘‘Consider you are in my power. You, by this time, are longing to hear from England, and depend upon me for the news of London. I shall not send you a tittle, if you are not very good, and do not (one of you, at least) write to me punctually.’’ Similar gestures as to the power of giving or withholding information can be seen in the opening of letter 277 to Mann on the victory of Culloden (‘‘You have bid me for some time to send you good news – well ! I think I will. How good would you have it?’’), and again in letter 293 to Hertford on the Wilkes riots, where Walpole opens his letter by asking ‘‘Well ! but we have had a prodigious riot: are you not impatient to know the particulars?’’ It is through his access to news that Walpole controlled his correspondences – hence his irritation when in later life he became dependent on newspapers that were as readily available to his recipient.
The letters to Mann evolved into a prospect of the eighteenth-century world, as seen from London and Strawberry Hill and delivered to Florence. Walpole was aware of their significance, and from as early as 1748 asked Mann to give him back his letters: the first set was returned the following year, the last following Mann’s death in 1786. From 1754 Walpole started to prepare transcripts of the letters, on occasion pruning some of the text, and adding explanatory footnotes. He then delegated the task of transcription to his secretary Thomas Kirgate (who also conducted the printing press Walpole had established at Strawberry Hill), and ultimately there were six folio volumes of transcripts: it is these, rather than his original letters to Mann, which have survived. To the first of these volumes Walpole attached the following Advertisement:
“The following collection of letters, written very carelessly by a young man, had been preserved by the person to whom they were addressed. The author, some years after the date of the first, borrowed them, on account of some anecdotes interspersed. On the perusal, among many trifling relations and stories which were only of consequence or amusing to the two persons concerned in the correspondence, he found some facts, characters and news, which, though below the dignity of history, might prove entertaining to many other people: and knowing how much pleasure, not only himself, but many other persons have often found in a series of private and familiar letters, he thought it worth his while to preserve these, as they contain something of the customs, fashions, politics, diversions and private history of several years; which, if worthy of any existence, can be properly transmitted to posterity, only in this manner.”
This introductory note is typically Walpolian in its familiar, relaxed tone and its underlying seriousness. Walpole’s letters were not studied, but neither were they ever careless. He employs a tone of self-deprecation, apologising for the trifling nature of some of the letters, but that self-deprecation was a mask he often wore when most earnest, and is a pose that appears recurrently in his correspondence. Compare, for example, the hauteur of his dismissal of authorship (‘‘there is nothing I hold so cheap as a learned man, except an unlearned one’’) in letter 242 to his assessment of his limitations as an author in letter 124 (‘‘I have learnt and have practised the humiliating task of comparing myself with great authors; and that comparison has annihilated all the flattery that self-love could suggest’’). Walpole scorned the trade of authorship, and claimed to regret having ventured his reputation in the marketplace, but was nonetheless fully aware of the value both of the works he published and the rich body of letters that he sent to his friends. He understood the significance of his correspondence with Mann and went to great trouble to preserve it, as he believed that ‘‘nothing gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal from them.’’ But he also held it ‘‘cruel to publish private letters, while the persons concerned in them are living.’’ Consequently none of his letters was published in his lifetime, but he clearly envisaged publication for the Mann letters and at least some of the others, and hoped that what he described in letter 134 as ‘‘that undutiful urchin, Posterity’’ would value the portrait of his age he provided. In the words of R. W. Ketton-Cremer, still after over seventy-five years Walpole’s finest and most sensitive biographer, ‘‘It is impossible to exaggerate either his solicitude for posterity, or the skill with which he ensured that his varied records should reach posterity in the most complete and attractive form.’’
Walpole left his papers to the father of his young friend Mary Berry, knowing that she would duly edit his collected Works
: five large quarto volumes appeared the year after his death. The last two volumes of the Works
included Walpole’s correspondence with Richard West and Thomas Gray, and his letters to his cousin Henry Conway, the artist Richard Bentley, the amateur architect John Chute, Lord Strafford, Lady Hervey, Lady Ailesbury, and Hannah More. With the exception of More, all these correspondents had already died, and Walpole’s letters to More, which respect her personal piety, were unexceptionable by any standards. The letters were lightly annotated by Berry as editor but also have a sprinkling of notes by Walpole, who clearly in old age planned their forming a part of his published Works
, the monument to his literary achievement.
But as a young man Walpole was not writing with publication in mind, and the charm of his letters lies in their unstudied informality and spontaneity. Walpole himself once admonished his friend George Montagu for praising his letters: ‘‘it sounds as if I wrote them to be fine and to have them printed, which might be very well for Mr. Pope who having wrote pieces carefully, which ought to be laboured, could carry off the affectation of having studied things that have no excuse but their being wrote flying.’’ Alexander Pope was known to have taken great trouble to prepare his literary correspondence for publication, and Walpole contrasts Pope’s artifice with letters that should be ‘‘wrote flying.’’ The minor adjustments he made in transcribing the Mann letters were modest indeed in comparison with the wholesale amendments undertaken not only by Pope, but also by other writers such as Anna Seward, a provincial author who left behind her carefully arranged correspondence in the vain hope that it would bolster her fading reputation, and Walpole’s friend the Reverend William Mason, who cut and even transferred text between letters when editing the correspondence of Thomas Gray. Such re-ordering was permissible by the standards of the day, but correspondence consciously prepared for publication inevitably loses the freshness of unguarded intimacy. Walpole celebrated that intimacy in a letter of 8 October 1777 to Lady Ossory, written at a time when he was distracted by the financial affairs of his nephew (see letters 185 to 188):
“I have time to write to nobody, but on business, or to a few that are used to my ways, and with whom I don’t mind whether I stand on my head or my heels – I beg your Honour’s pardon, for you are one to whom I can write comfortably . . . but since neither Aristotle nor Bossu have laid down rules for letters, and consequently have left them to their native wildness, I shall persist in saying whatever comes uppermost, and the less I am understood by anybody but the person I write to, so much the better.”
The artist Richard Bentley described both Walpole’s ease and familiarity of tone, and his care to recover his original letters: “Mr. Bentley said that Walpole was the best letter-writer that ever took pen in hand; that he wrote with the greatest ease imaginable, with company in the room, and even talking to other people at the time: that he had a great loss when, some time ago, he demanded all his letters of him, which were sent to him, and refused returning those of his writing.”
Montagu, who lived in the depths of the country and rarely put himself to the trouble of travelling to London, similarly praised Walpole’s correspondence, claiming: “Your last letter is always the best and most charming; if you would promise me to write every week I would never come to town as long as I lived. Think that I have a box full of them of above twenty years old; think what a treasure they will be a hundred years hence . . . Look you, Sir, they are my property; you may burn your own works but you shall as soon burn me as make me burn them.”
Montagu was charming and witty, and Walpole was very fond of him, but he was also idle. His enthusiasm for receiving Walpole’s effervescent dispatches of news and gossip faded, and his replies became more irregular (the opening of letter 111 and the conclusion of letter 122 show Walpole’s mounting frustration) and eventually in 1770 died away. This does raise the question of what it must have been like to receive a steady flow of sparkling letters from Walpole: how could one compete? Dr. Johnson in his correspondence repeatedly lamented that the pleasure of receiving a letter was qualified by the sense of obligation that one must compose a letter in reply. The letters of some of Walpole’s correspondents, particularly those who were writers or scholars, are of real interest, but it has never been suggested that figures such as Lady Ossory, secluded in the Bedfordshire countryside, could even begin to match him for matter or manner.
Montagu and Ossory were both isolated in the provinces, and Walpole’s letters provided them with news of the social life of London that they were denied. Walpole’s correspondence with Lady Ossory only takes off in 1771, at least ten years after he had met her, but the year after his letters to Montagu finally dried up. It has been suggested that Walpole consciously chose his correspondents with a view to whatever aspect of his age his letters to them could display: when he lost Montagu, he found a replacement in Lady Ossory, so the record of contemporary life could be maintained. Beneath all this was an element of tension between Walpole’s desire to record the incidents of the day, and his concern that the freedom of his letters would be curtailed if he felt that his letters were preserved and shown: ‘‘Can I say everything, that comes into
my head, to Lady Ossory, if Posterity stands behind my chair and peeps over my shoulder?’’
It is true that his major series of letters do have distinct personalities: for example, he wrote to the Reverend William Cole predominantly on antiquarian matters (as well as their shared sufferings from gout); and to the poet Gray, and after Gray’s death to his editor and biographer Mason, he wrote on the world of literature. But it would be simplistic to see the disposition of the content of Walpole’s letters in such mechanistic terms. A better approach is to see his letters as reflections of his varied interests, and those of his correspondents. There are many other antiquarians apart from Cole to whom he wrote on historical subjects, and his literary opinions are scattered widely. Any one letter may move from politics to a society wedding, from a painting bought for his collection to an anecdote or witticism heard and preserved, from foreign affairs to some example of domestic injustice. The letters to Mann appear more frequently in this selection not because this selection is focused on politics and world affairs, or even because more letters to Mann survive than to any other correspondent, but rather because their subject matter is so diverse, and their quality so high.
Bruce Redford has noted that letters are essentially performances, theatrical events in which the writer compensates for physical absence by a series of rhetorical gestures and stylistic inflections. Walpole certainly employs variety of manner, phrasing and tempi, and there is no question that the purpose of a Walpole letter is to engage and entertain, but the concept of performance suggests perhaps more premeditation than he would have recognised. His pose of familiar ease, of unstudied immediacy expressed in crystalline prose, is a performance of a very special kind, but not theatrical in the staged or histrionic sense. It is a conversation, brilliantly managed.