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 Horace Walpole

[This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.]

Horace Walpole

The history of England, throughout a very large segment of the eighteenth century, is simply a synonym for the works of Horace Walpole. There are, indeed, some other books upon the subject. Some good stories are scattered up and down the 'Annual Register,' the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' and Nichols' 'Anecdotes.' There is a speech or two of Burke's not without merit, and a readable letter may be disinterred every now and then from beneath the piles of contemporary correspondence. When the history of the times comes to be finally written in the fashion now prevalent, in which some six portly octavos are allotted to a year, and an event takes longer to describe than to occur, the industrious will find ample mines of waste paper in which they may quarry to their heart's content. Though Hansard was not, and newspapers were in their infancy, the shelves of the British Museum and other repositories groan beneath mountains of State papers, law reports, pamphlets, and chaotic raw materials, from which some precious ore may be smelted down. But these amorphous masses are attractive chiefly to the philosophers who are too profound to care for individual character, or to those praiseworthy students who would think the labour of a year well rewarded by the discovery of a single fact tending to throw a shade of additional perplexity upon the secret of Junius. Walpole's writings belong to the good old-fashioned type of history, which aspires to be nothing more than the quintessence of contemporary gossip. If the opinion be pardonable in these days, history of that kind has not only its charm, but its serious value. If not very profound or comprehensive, it impresses upon us the fact—so often forgotten—that our grandfathers were human beings. The ordinary historian reduces them to mere mechanical mummies; in Walpole's pages they are still living flesh and blood. Turn over any of the proper decorous history books, mark every passage where, for a moment, we seem to be transported to the past—to the thunders of Chatham, the drivellings of Newcastle, or the prosings of George Grenville, as they sounded in contemporary ears—and it will be safe to say that, on counting them up, a good half will turn out to be reflections from the illuminating flashes of Walpole. Excise all that comes from him, and the history sinks towards the level of the solid Archdeacon Coxe; add his keen touches, and, as in the 'Castle of Otranto,' the portraits of our respectable old ancestors, which have been hanging in gloomy repose upon the wall, suddenly step from their frames, and, for some brief space, assume a spectral vitality.

It is only according to rule that a writer who has been so useful should have been a good deal abused. No one is so amusing and so generally unpopular as a clever retailer of gossip. Yet it does seem rather hard that Walpole should have received such hard measure from Macaulay, through whose pages so much of his light has been transfused. The explanation, perhaps, is easy. Macaulay dearly loved the paradox that a man wrote admirably precisely because he was a fool, and applied it to the two greatest portrait painters of the times—Walpole and Boswell. There is something which hurts our best feelings in the success of a man whom we heartily despise. It seems to imply, which is intolerable, that our penetration has been at fault, or that merit—that is to say, our own conspicuous quality—is liable to be out-stripped in this world by imposture. It is consoling if we can wrap ourselves in the belief that good work can be extracted from bad brains, and that shallowness, affectation, and levity can, by some strange chemistry, be transmuted into a substitute for genius. Do we not all, if we have reached middle age, remember some idiot (of course he was an idiot!) at school or college who has somehow managed to slip past us in the race of life, and revenge ourselves by swearing that he is an idiot still, and that idiocy is a qualification for good fortune? Swift somewhere says that a paper-cutter does its work all the better when it is blunt, and converts the fact into an allegory of human affairs showing that decorous dulness is an over-match for genius. Macaulay was incapable, both in a good and bad sense, of Swift's trenchant misanthropy. His dislike to Walpole was founded not so such upon posthumous jealousy—though that passion is not so rare as absurd—as on the singular contrast between the character and intellect of the two men. The typical Englishman, with his rough, strong sense, passing at times into the narrowest insular prejudice, detested the Frenchified fine gentleman who minced his mother tongue and piqued himself on cosmopolitan indifference to patriotic sentiment: the ambitious historian was irritated by the contempt which the dilettante dabbler in literature affected for their common art; and the thoroughgoing Whig was scandalised by the man who, whilst claiming that sacred name, and living face to face with Chatham and Burke and the great Revolution families in all their glory, ventured to intimate his opinion that they, like other idols, had a fair share of clay and rubbish in their composition, and who, after professing a kind of sham republicanism, was frightened by the French Revolution into a paroxysm of ultra-Toryism. 'You wretched fribble!' exclaims Macaulay; 'you shallow scorner of all that is noble! You are nothing but a heap of silly whims and conceited airs! Strip off one mask of affectation from your mind, and we are still as far as ever from the real man. The very highest faculty that can be conceded to you is a keen eye for oddities, whether in old curiosity shops or in Parliament; and to that you owe whatever just reputation you have acquired.' Macaulay's fervour of rebuke is amusing, though, by righteous Nemesis, it includes a species of blindness as gross as any that he attributes to Walpole. The summary decision that the chief use of France is to interpret England to Europe, is a typical example of that insular arrogance for which Matthew Arnold popularised the name of Philistinism.

Yet criticism of this one-sided kind has its value. At least it suggests a problem. What is the element left out of account? Folly is never the real secret of a literary reputation, or what noble harvests of genius we should produce! If we patiently take off all the masks we must come at last to the animating principle beneath. Even the great clothes philosophers did not hold that a mere Chinese puzzle of mask within mask could enclose sheer vacancy; there must be some kernel within, which may be discovered by sufficient patience. And in the first place, it may be asked, why did poor Walpole wear a mask at all? The answer seems to be obvious. The men of that age may be divided by a line which, to the philosophic eye, is of far more importance than that which separated Jacobites from loyal Whigs or Dissenters from High Churchmen. It separated the men who could drink two bottles of port after dinner from the men who could not. To men of delicate digestions the test imposed by the jovial party in ascendency must have been severer than those due to political or ecclesiastical bigotry. They had to choose between social disabilities on the one side, and on the other indigestion for themselves and gout for their descendants. Thackeray, in a truly pathetic passage, partly draws the veil from their sufferings. Almost all the wits of Queen Anne's reign, he observes, were fat: 'Swift was fat; Addison was fat; Gay and Thomson were preposterously fat; all that fuddling and punch-drinking, that club and coffee-house boosing, shortened the lives and enlarged the waistcoats of men of that age.' Think of the dinner described, though with intentional exaggeration, in Swift's 'Polite Conversation,' and compare the bill of fare with the menu of a modern London dinner. The very report of such conviviality—before which Christopher North's performances in the 'Noctes Ambrosianæ' sink into insignificance—is enough to produce nightmares in the men of our degenerate times, and may help us to understand the peevishness of feeble invalids such as Pope and Lord Hervey in the elder generation, or Walpole in that which was rising. Amongst these Gargantuan consumers, who combined in one the attributes of 'gorging Jack and guzzling Jemmy,' Sir Robert Walpole was celebrated for his powers, and seems to have owed to them no small share of his popularity. Horace writes piteously from the paternal mansion, to which he had returned in 1743, not long after his tour in Italy, to one of his artistic friends: 'Only imagine,' he exclaims, 'that I here every day see men who are mountains of roast beef, and only seem just roughly hewn out into outlines of human form, like the giant rock at Pratolino! I shudder when I see them brandish their knives in act to carve, and look on them as savages that devour one another. I should not stare at all more than I do if yonder alderman at the lower end of the table were to stick his fork into his neighbour's jolly cheek, and cut a brave slice of brown and fat. Why, I'll swear I see no difference between a country gentleman and a sirloin; whenever the first laughs or the second is cut, there run out just the same streams of gravy! Indeed, the sirloin does not ask quite so many questions.' What was the style of conversation at these tremendous entertainments had better be left to the imagination. Sir R. Walpole's theory on that subject is upon record; and we can dimly guess at the feelings of a delicate young gentleman who had just learnt to talk about Domenichinos and Guidos, and to buy ancient bronzes, when plunged into the coarse society of these mountains of roast beef. As he grew up manners became a trifle more refined, and the customs described so faithfully by Fielding and Smollett belonged to a lower social stratum. Yet we can fancy Walpole's occasional visit to his constituents, and imagine him forced to preside at one of those election feasts which still survive on Hogarth's canvas. Substitute him for the luckless fine gentleman in a laced coat, who represents the successful candidate in the first picture of the series. A drunken voter is dropping lighted pipe ashes upon his wig; a hideous old hag is picking his pockets; a boy is brewing oceans of punch in a mash-tub; a man is blowing bagpipes in his ear; a fat parson close by is gorging the remains of a haunch of venison; a butcher is pouring gin on his neighbour's broken head; an alderman—a very mountain of roast beef—is sinking back in a fit, whilst a barber is trying to bleed him; brickbats are flying in at the windows; the room reeks with the stale smell of heavy viands and the fresh vapours of punch and gin, whilst the very air is laden with discordant howls and thick with oaths and ribald songs. Only think of the smart young candidate's headache next morning in the days when soda-water was not invented! And remember too that the representatives were not entirely free from sympathy with the coarseness of their constituents. Just at the period of Hogarth's painting, Walpole, when speaking of the feeling excited by a Westminster election, has occasion to use this pleasing 'new fashionable proverb'—'We spit in his hat on Thursday, and wiped it off on Friday.' It owed its origin to a feat performed by Lord Cobham at an assembly given at his own house. For a bet of a guinea he came behind Lord Hervey, who was talking to some ladies, and made use of his hat as a spittoon. The point of the joke was that Lord Hervey—son of Pope's 'mere white curd of asses' milk,' and related, as the scandal went, rather too closely to Horace Walpole himself—was a person of effeminate appearance, and therefore considered unlikely—wrongly, as it turned out—to resent the insult. We may charitably hope that the assailants, who thus practically exemplified the proper mode of treating milksops, were drunk. The two-bottle men who lingered till our day were surviving relics of the type which then gave the tone to society. Within a short period there was a prime minister who always consoled himself under defeats and celebrated triumphs with his bottle; a chancellor who abolished evening sittings on the ground that he was always drunk in the evening; and even an archbishop—an Irish archbishop, it is true—whose jovial habits broke down his constitution. Scratch those jovial toping aristocrats, and you everywhere find the Squire Western. A man of squeamish tastes and excessive sensibility jostled amongst that thick-skinned, iron-nerved generation, was in a position with which anyone may sympathise who knows the sufferings of a delicate lad at a public school in the old (and not so very old) brutal days. The victim of that tyranny slunk away from the rough horseplay of his companions to muse, like Dobbin, over the 'Arabian Nights' in a corner, or find some amusement which his tormentors held to be only fit for girls. So Horace Walpole retired to Strawberry Hill and made toys of Gothic architecture, or heraldry, or dilettante antiquarianism. The great discovery had not then been made, we must remember, that excellence in field-sports deserved to be placed on a level with the Christian virtues. The fine gentlemen of the Chesterfield era speak of fox-hunting pretty much as we speak of prize-fighting and bull-baiting. When all manly exercises had an inseparable taint of coarseness, delicate people naturally mistook effeminacy for refinement. When you can only join in male society on pain of drinking yourself under the table, the safest plan is to retire to tea-tables and small talk. For many years, Walpole's greatest pleasure seems to have been drinking tea with Lady Suffolk, and carefully piecing together bits of scandal about the Courts of the first two Georges. He tells us, with all the triumph of a philosopher describing a brilliant scientific induction, how he was sometimes able, by adding his bits of gossip to hers, to unravel the secret of some wretched intrigue which had puzzled two generations of quidnuncs. The social triumphs on which he most piqued himself were of a congenial order. He sits down to write elaborate letters to Sir Horace Mann, at Florence, brimming over with irrepressible triumph when he has persuaded some titled ladies to visit his pet toy, the printing-press, at Strawberry Hill, and there, of course to their unspeakable surprise, his printer draws off a copy of verses composed in their honour in the most faded style of old-fashioned gallantry. He is intoxicated by his appointment to act as poet-laureate on the occasion of a visit of the Princess Amelia to Stowe. She is solemnly conducted to a temple of the Muses and Apollo, and there finds one of his admirable effusions,—

T'other day with a beautiful frown on her brow,
To the rest of the gods said the Venus of Stowe:

and so on. 'She was really in Elysium,' he declares, and visited the arch erected in her honour three or four times a day.

It is not wonderful, we must confess, that burly ministers and jovial squires laughed horse-laughs at this mincing dandy, and tried in their clumsy fashion to avenge themselves for the sarcasms which, as they instinctively felt, lay hid beneath this mask of affectation. The enmity between the lapdog and the mastiff is an old story. Nor, as we must confess again, were these tastes redeemed by very amiable qualities beneath the smooth external surface. There was plenty of feminine spite as well as feminine delicacy. To the marked fear of ridicule natural to a sensitive man Walpole joined a very happy knack of quarrelling. He could protrude a feline set of claws from his velvet glove. He was a touchy companion and an intolerable superior. He set out by quarrelling with Gray, who, as it seems, could not stand his dandified airs of social impertinence, though it must be added in fairness that the bond which unites fellow travellers is, perhaps, the most trying known to humanity. He quarrelled with Mason after twelve years of intimate correspondence; he quarrelled with Montagu after a friendship of some forty years; he always thought that his dependants, such as Bentley, were angels for six months, and made their lives a burden to them afterwards; he had a long and complex series of quarrels with all his near relations. Sir Horace Mann escaped any quarrel during forty-five years of correspondence; but Sir Horace never left Florence and Walpole never reached it. Conway alone remained intimate and immaculate to the end, though there is a bitter remark or two in the Memoirs against the perfect Conway. With ladies, indeed, Walpole succeeded better; and perhaps we may accept, with due allowance for the artist's point of view, his own portrait of himself. He pronounces himself to be a 'boundless friend, a bitter but placable enemy.' Making the necessary corrections, we should translate this into 'a bitter enemy, a warm but irritable friend.' Tread on his toes, and he would let you feel his claws, though you were his oldest friend; but so long as you avoided his numerous tender points, he showed a genuine capacity for kindliness and even affection; and in his later years he mellowed down into an amiable purring old gentleman, responding with eager gratitude to the caresses of the charming Miss Berrys. Such a man, skinless and bilious, was ill qualified to join in the rough game of politics. He kept out of the arena where the hardest blows were given and taken, and confined his activity to lobbies and backstairs, where scandal was to be gathered and the hidden wires of intrigue to be delicately manipulated. He chuckles irrepressibly when he has confided a secret to a friend, who has let it out to a minister, who communicates it to a great personage, who explodes into inextinguishable wrath, and blows a whole elaborate plot into a thousand fragments. To expect deep and settled political principle from such a man would be to look for grapes from thorns and figs from thistles; but to do Walpole justice, we must add that it would be equally absurd to exact settled principle from any politician of that age. We are beginning to regard our ancestors with a strange mixture of contempt and envy. We despise them because they cared nothing for the thoughts which for the last century have been upheaving society into strange convulsions; we envy them because they enjoyed the delicious calm which was the product of that indifference. Wearied by the incessant tossing and boiling of the torrent which carries us away, we look back with fond regret to the little backwater so far above Niagara, where scarcely a ripple marks the approaching rapids. There is a charm in the great solid old eighteenth-century mansions, which London is so rapidly engulfing, and even about the old red brick churches with 'sleep-compelling' pews. We take imaginary naps amongst our grandfathers with no railways, no telegraphs, no mobs in Trafalgar Square, no discussions about ritualism or Dr. Colenso, and no reports of parliamentary debates. It is to our fancies an 'island valley of Avilion,' or, less magniloquently, a pleasant land of Cockaine, where we may sleep away the disturbance of battle, and even read through 'Clarissa Harlow.' We could put up with an occasional highwayman in Hyde Park, and perhaps do not think that our comfort would be seriously disturbed by a dozen executions in a morning at Tyburn. In such visionary glances through the centuries we have always the advantage of selecting our own position in life, and perhaps there are few that for such purposes we should prefer to Walpole's. We should lap ourselves against eating cares in the warm folds of a sinecure of 6,000l. a year bestowed because our father was a Prime Minister. There are many immaculate persons at the present day to whom truth would be truth even when seen through such a medium. There are—we have their own authority for believing it—men who would be republicans, though their niece was married to a royal duke. Walpole, we must admit, was not of the number. He was an aristocrat to the backbone. He was a gossip by nature and education, and had lived from infancy in the sacred atmosphere of court intrigue; every friend he possessed in his own rank either had a place, or had lost a place, or was in want of a place, and generally combined all three characters; professed indifference to place was only a cunning mode of angling for a place, and politics was a series of ingeniously-contrived manœuvres in which the moving power of the machinery was the desire of sharing the spoils. Walpole's talk about Magna Charta and the execution of Charles I. could, it is plain, imply but a skin-deep republicanism. He could not be seriously displeased with a state of things of which his own position was the natural out-growth. His republicanism was about as genuine as his boasted indifference to money—a virtue which is not rare in bachelors who have more than they can spend. So long as he could buy as much bric-a-brac, as many knicknacks, and old books and bronzes and curious portraits and odd gloves of celebrated characters as he pleased; add a new tower and a set of battlements to Strawberry Hill every few years; keep a comfortable house in London, and have a sufficiency of carriages and horses; treat himself to an occasional tour, and keep his press steadily at work; he was not the man to complain of poverty. He was a republican, too, as long as that word implied that he and his father and uncles and cousins and connections by marriage and their intimate friends were to have everything precisely their own way; but if a vision could have shown him the reformers of a coming generation who would inquire into civil lists and object to sinecures—to say nothing of cutting off the heads of the first families—he would have prayed to be removed before the evil day. Republicanism in his sense was a word exclusive of revolution. Was it, then, a mere meaningless mask intended only to conceal the real man? Before passing such a judgment we should remember that the names by which people classify their opinions are generally little more than arbitrary badges; and even in these days, when practice treads so closely on the heels of theory, some persons profess to know extreme radicals who could be converted very speedily by a bit of riband. Walpole has explained himself with unmistakable frankness, and his opinion was at least intelligible. He was not a republican after the fashion of Robespierre, or Jefferson, or M. Gambetta; but he had some meaning. When a duke in those days proposed annual parliaments and universal suffrage, we may assume that he did not realise the probable effect of those institutions upon dukes; and when Walpole applauded the regicides, he was not anxious to send George III. to the block. He meant, however, that he considered George III. to be a narrow-minded and obstinate fool. He meant, too, that the great Revolution families ought to distribute the plunder and the power without interference from the Elector of Hanover. He meant, again, that as a quick and cynical observer, he found the names of Brutus and Algernon Sidney very convenient covers for attacking the Duke of Newcastle and the Earl of Bute. But beyond all this, he meant something more, which gives the real spice to his writings. It was something not quite easy to put into formulas; but characteristic of the vague discomfort of the holders of sinecures in those halcyon days arising from the perception that the ground was hollow under their feet. To understand him we must remember that the period of his activity marks precisely the lowest ebb of political principle. Old issues had been settled, and the new ones were only just coming to the surface. He saw the end of the Jacobites and the rise of the demagogues. His early letters describe the advance of the Pretender to Derby; they tell us how the British public was on the whole inclined to look on and cry, 'Fight dog, fight bear;' how the Jacobites who had anything to lose left their battle to be fought by half-starved cattle-stealers, and contented themselves with drinking to the success of the cause; and how the Whig magnates, with admirable presence of mind, raised regiments, appointed officers, and got the expenses paid by the Crown. His later letters describe the amazing series of blunders by which we lost America in spite of the clearest warnings from almost every man of sense in the kingdom. The interval between these disgraceful epochs is filled—if we except the brief episode of Chatham—by a series of struggles between different connections—one cannot call them parties—which separate and combine, and fight and make peace, till the plot of the drama becomes too complicated for human ingenuity to unravel. Lads just crammed for a civil service examination might possibly bear in mind all the shifting combinations which resulted from the endless intrigues of Pelhams and Grenvilles and Bedfords and Rockinghams; yet even those omniscient persons could hardly give a plausible account of the principles which each party conceived itself to be maintaining. What, for example, were the politics of a Rigby, or a Bubb Dodington? The diary in which the last of these eminent persons reveals his inmost soul is perhaps the most curious specimen of unconscious self-analysis extant. His utter baseness and venality, his disgust at the 'low venal wretches' to whom he had to give bribes; his creeping and crawling before those from whom he sought to extract bribes; his utter incapacity to explain a great man except on the hypothesis of insanity; or to understand that there is such a thing as political morality, derive double piquancy from the profound conviction that he is an ornament to society, and from the pious aspirations which he utters with the utmost simplicity. Bubb wriggled himself into a peerage, and differed from innumerable competitors only by superior frankness. He is the fitting representative of an era from which political faith has disappeared, as Walpole is its fitting satirist. All political virtue, it is said, was confined, in Walpole's opinion, to Conway and the Marquis of Hertford. Was he wrong? or, if he was wrong, was it not rather in the exception than the rule? The dialect in which his sarcasms are expressed is affected, but the substance is hard to dispute. The world, he is fond of saying, is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think. He preferred the comedy view. 'I have never yet seen or heard,' he says, 'anything serious that was not ridiculous. Jesuits, Methodists, philosophers, politicians, the hypocrite Rousseau, the scoffer Voltaire, the encyclopædists, the Humes, the Lytteltons, the Grenvilles, the atheist tyrant of Prussia, and the mountebank of history, Mr. Pitt, are all to me but impostors in their various ways. Fame or interest is their object, and after all their parade, I think a ploughman who sows, reads his almanack, and believes that the stars are so many farthing candles created to prevent his falling into a ditch as he goes home at night, a wiser and more rational being, and I am sure an honester, than any of them. Oh! I am sick of visions and systems that shove one another aside, and come again like figures in a moving picture.' Probably Walpole's belief in the ploughman lasted till he saw the next smock-frock; but the bitterness clothed in the old-fashioned cant is serious and is justifiable enough. Here is a picture of English politics in the time of Wilkes. 'No government, no police, London and Middlesex distracted, the colonies in rebellion, Ireland ready to be so, and France arrogant and on the point of being hostile! Lord Bute accused of all, and dying in a panic; George Grenville wanting to make rage desperate; Lord Rockingham and the Cavendishes thinking we have no enemies but Lord Bute, and that five mutes and an epigram can set everything to rights; the Duke of Grafton (then Prime Minister) like an apprentice, thinking the world should be postponed to a horse-race; and the Bedfords not caring what disgraces we undergo while each of them has 3,000l. a year and three thousand bottles of claret and champagne!' And every word of this is true—at least, so far as epigrams need be true. It is difficult to put into more graphic language the symptoms of an era just ripe for revolution. If frivolous himself, Walpole can condemn the frivolity of others. 'Can one repeat common news with indifference,' he asks, just after the surrender of Yorktown, 'while our shame is writing for future history by the pens of all our numerous enemies? When did England see two whole armies lay down their arms and surrender themselves prisoners?... These are thoughts I cannot stifle at the moment that expresses them; and, though I do not doubt that the same dissipation that has swallowed up all our principles will reign again in ten days with its wonted sovereignty, I had rather be silent than vent my indignation. Yet I cannot talk, for I cannot think, on any other subject. It was not six days ago that, in the height of four raging wars (with America, France, Spain, and Holland), I saw in the papers an account of the opera and of the dresses of the company, and hence the town, and thence, of course, the whole nation, were informed that Mr. Fitzpatrick had very little powder in his hair.' Walpole sheltered himself behind the corner of a pension to sneer at the tragi-comedy of life; but if his feelings were not profound, they were quick and genuine, and, affectation for affectation, his cynical coxcombry seems preferable to the solemn coxcombry of the men who shamelessly wrangled for plunder, while they talked solemn platitudes about sacred Whig principles and the thrice blessed British Constitution.

Walpole, in fact, represents a common creed amongst comfortable but clear-headed men of his time. It was the strange mixture of scepticism and conservatism which is exemplified in such men as Hume and Gibbon. He was at heart a Voltairian, and, like his teacher, confounded all religions and political beliefs under the name of superstition. Voltaire himself did not anticipate the Revolution to which he, more than any man, had contributed. Walpole, with stronger personal reasons than Voltaire for disliking a catastrophe, was as furious as Burke when the volcano burst forth. He was a republican so far as he disbelieved in the divine right of kings, and hated enthusiasm and loyalty generally. He wished the form to survive and the spirit to disappear. Things were rotten, and he wished them to stay rotten. The ideal to which he is constantly recurring was the pleasant reign of his father, when nobody made a fuss or went to war, or kept principles except for sale. He foresaw, however, far better than most men, the coming crash. If political sagacity be fairly tested by a prophetic vision of the French Revolution, Walpole's name should stand high. He visited Paris in 1765, and remarks that laughing is out of fashion. 'Good folks, they have no time to laugh. There is God and the King to be pulled down first, and men and women, one and all, are devoutly employed in the demolition. They think me quite profane for having any belief left.' Do you know, he asks presently, who are the philosophers? 'In the first place, it comprehends almost everybody, and in the next it means men who, avowing war against Papacy, aim, many of them, at the destruction of regal power. The philosophers,' he goes on, 'are insupportable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatic. They preach incessantly, and their avowed doctrine is atheism—you could not believe how openly. Don't wonder, therefore, if I should return a Jesuit. Voltaire himself does not satisfy them. One of their lady devotees said of him, "Il est bigot, c'est un déiste!"' French politics, he professes a few years afterwards, must end in 'despotism, a civil war, or assassination,' and he remarks that the age will not, as he had always thought, be an age of abortion, but rather 'the age of seeds that are to produce strange crops hereafter.' The next century, he says at a later period, 'will probably exhibit a very new era, which the close of this has been, and is, preparing.' If these sentences had been uttered by Burke, they would have been quoted as proofs of remarkable sagacity. As it is, we may surely call them shrewd glances for a frivolous coxcomb.

Walpole regarded these symptoms in the true epicurean spirit, and would have joined in the sentiment, après moi le déluge. He was on the whole for remedying grievances, and is put rather out of temper by cruelties which cannot be kept out of his sight. He talks with disgust of the old habit of stringing up criminals by the dozen; he denounces the slave-trade with genuine fervour; there is apparent sincerity in his platitudes against war; and he never took so active a part in politics as in the endeavour to prevent the judicial murder of Byng. His conscience generally discharged itself more easily by a few pungent epigrams, and though he wished the reign of reason and humanity to dawn, he would rather that it should not come at all than be ushered in by a tempest. His whole theory is given forcibly and compactly in an answer which he once made to the republican Mrs. Macaulay, and was fond of repeating:—'Madam, if I had been Luther, and could have known that for the chance of saving a million of souls I should be the cause of a million of lives, at least, being sacrificed before my doctrines could be established, it must have been a most palpable angel, and in a most heavenly livery, before he should have set me at work.' We will not ask what angel would have induced him to make the minor sacrifice of six thousand a year to establish any conceivable doctrine. Whatever may be the merit of these opinions, they contain Walpole's whole theory of life. I know, he seems to have said to himself, that loyalty is folly, that rank is contemptible, that the old society in which I live is rotten to the core, and that explosive matter is accumulating beneath our feet. Well! I am not made of the stuff for a reformer: I am a bit of a snob, though, like other snobs, I despise both parties to the bargain. I will take the sinecures the gods provide me, amuse myself with my toys at Strawberry Hill, despise kings and ministers, without endangering my head by attacking them, and be over-polite to a royal duke when he visits me on condition of laughing at him behind his back when he is gone. Walpole does not deserve a statue; he was not a Wilberforce or a Howard, and as little of a Burke or a Chatham. But his faults, as well as his virtues, qualified him to be the keenest of all observers of a society unconsciously approaching a period of tremendous convulsions.

To claim for him that, even at his best, he is a profound observer of character, or that he gives any consistent account of his greatest contemporaries, would be too much. He is full of whims, and moreover, full of spite. He cannot be decently fair to anyone who deserted his father, or stood in Conway's light. He reflects at all times the irreverent gossip current behind the scenes. To know the best and the worst that can be said of any great man, the best plan is to read the leading article of his party newspaper, and then to converse in private with its writer. The eulogy and the sarcasm may both be sincere enough; only it is pleasant, after puffing one's wares to the public, to glance at their seamy side in private. Walpole has a decided taste for that last point of view. The littleness of the great, the hypocrisy of the virtuous, and the selfishness of statesmen in general, is his ruling theme, illustrated by an infinite variety of brilliant caricatures struck off at the moment with a quick eye and a sure hand. Though he elaborates no grand historical portrait, like Burke or Clarendon, he has a whole gallery of telling vignettes which are often as significant as far more pretentious works. Nowhere, for example, can we find more graphic sketches of the great man who stands a head and shoulders above the whole generation of dealers in power and place. Most of Chatham's contemporaries repaid his contempt with intense dislike. Some of them pronounced him mad, and others thought him a knave. Walpole, who at times calls him a mountebank and an impostor, does not go further than Burke, who, in a curious comment, speaks of him as the 'grand artificer of fraud,' who never conversed but with 'a parcel of low toad-eaters;' and asks whether all this 'theatrical stuffing' and these 'raised heels' could be necessary to the character of a great man. Walpole, of course, has a keen eye to the theatrical stuffing. He takes the least complimentary view of the grand problem, which still puzzles some historians, as to the genuineness of Chatham's gout. He smiles complacently when the great actor forgets that his right arm ought to be lying helpless in a sling and flourishes it with his accustomed vigour. But Walpole, in spite of his sneers and sarcasms, can recognise the genuine power of the man. He is the describer of the striking scene which occurred when the House of Commons was giggling over some delicious story of bribery and corruption—the House of Commons was frivolous in those benighted days; he tells how Pitt suddenly stalked down from the gallery and administered his thundering reproof; how Murray, then Attorney-General, 'crouched, silent and terrified,' and the Chancellor of the Exchequer faltered out an humble apology for the unseemly levity. It is Walpole who best describes the great debate when Pitt, 'haughty, defiant, conscious of injury and supreme abilities,' burst out in that tremendous speech—tremendous if we may believe the contemporary reports, of which the only tolerably preserved fragment is the celebrated metaphor about the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône. Alas! Chatham's eloquence has all gone to rags and tatters; though, to say the truth, it has only gone the way of nine-tenths of our contemporary eloquence. We have, indeed, what are called accurate reports of spoken pamphlets, dried specimens of rhetoric from which the life has departed as completely as it is strained out of the specimens in a botanical collection. If there is no Walpole amongst us, we shall know what our greatest living orator has said; but how he said it, and how it moved his audience, will be as obscure as if the reporters' gallery were still unknown. Walpole—when he was not affecting philosophy, or smarting from the failure of an intrigue, or worried by the gout, or disappointed of a bargain at a sale—could throw electric flashes of light on the figure he describes which reveal the true man. He errs from petulancy, but not from stupidity. He can appreciate great qualities by fits, though he cannot be steadily loyal to their possessor. And if he wrote down most of our rulers as knaves and fools, we have only to lower those epithets to selfish and blundering, to get a very fair estimate of their characters. To the picturesque historian his services are invaluable; though no single statement can be accepted without careful correction.

Walpole's social, as distinguished from his political, anecdotes do in one sense what Leech's drawings have done for this generation. But the keen old man of the world puts a far bitterer and deeper meaning into his apparently superficial scratches than the kindly modern artist, whose satire was narrowed, if purified, by the decencies of modern manners. Walpole reflects in a thousand places that strange combination of brutality and polish which marked the little circle of fine ladies and gentlemen who then constituted society, and played such queer pranks in quiet unconsciousness of the revolutionary elements that were seething below. He is the best of commentators on Hogarth, and gives us 'Gin Lane' on one side and the 'Marriage à la mode' on the other. As we turn over the well-known pages we come at every turn upon characteristic scenes of the great tragi-comedy that was being played out. In one page a highwayman puts a bullet through his hat, and on the next we read how three thousand ladies and gentlemen visited the criminal in his cell, on the Sunday before his execution, till he fainted away twice from the heat; then we hear how Lord Lovat's buffooneries made the whole brilliant circle laugh as he was being sentenced to death; and how Balmerino pleaded 'not guilty,' in order that the ladies might not be deprived of their sport; how the House of Commons adjourned to see a play acted by persons of quality, and the gallery was hung round with blue ribands; how the Gunnings had a guard to protect them in the park; what strange pranks were played by the bigamous Miss Chudleigh; what jokes—now, alas! very faded and dreary—were made by George Selwyn, and how that amiable favourite of society went to Paris in order to see the cruel tortures inflicted upon Damiens, and was introduced to the chief performer on the scaffold as a distinguished amateur in executions. One of the best of all these vignettes portrays the funeral of George II., and is a worthy pendant to Lord Hervey's classic account of the Queen's death. It opens with the solemn procession to the torch-lighted Abbey, whose 'long-drawn aisles and fretted vault' excite the imagination of the author of the 'Castle of Otranto.' Then the comic element begins to intrude; the procession jostles and falls into disorder at the entrance of Henry the Seventh's Chapel; the bearers stagger under the heavy coffin and cry for help; the bishop blunders in the prayers, and the anthem, as fit, says Walpole, for a wedding as a funeral, becomes immeasurably tedious. Against this tragi-comic background are relieved two characteristic figures. The 'butcher' Duke of Cumberland, the hero of Culloden, stands with the obstinate courage of his race gazing into the vault where his father is being buried, and into which he is soon to descend. His face is distorted by a recent stroke of paralysis, and he is forced to stand for two hours on a bad leg. To him enters the burlesque Duke of Newcastle, who begins by bursting into tears and throwing himself back in a stall whilst the Archbishop 'hovers over him with a smelling-bottle.' Then curiosity overcomes him, and he runs about the chapel with a spyglass in one hand to peer into the faces of the company, and mopping his eyes with the other. 'Then returned the fear of catching cold; and the Duke of Cumberland, who was sinking with heat, felt himself weighed down, and turning round found it was the Duke of Newcastle standing upon his train to avoid the chill of the marble.' What a perch to select! Imagine the contrast of the two men, and remember that the Duke of Newcastle was for an unprecedented time the great dispenser of patronage, and so far the most important personage in the government. Walpole had reason for some of his sneers.

The literary power implied in these brilliant sketches is remarkable, and even if Walpole's style is more Gallicised than is evident to me, it must be confessed that with a few French idioms he has caught something of that unrivalled dexterity and neatness of touch in which the French are our undisputed masters. His literary character is of course marked by an affectation analogous to that which debases his politics. Walpole was always declaring with doubtful sincerity—(that is one of the matters in which a man is scarcely bound to be quite sincere)—that he has no ambition for literary fame, and that he utterly repudiates the title of 'learned gentleman.' There is too much truth in his disavowals to allow us to write them down as mere mock-modesty; but doubtless his principal motive was a dislike to entering the arena of open criticism. He has much of the feeling which drove Pope into paroxysms of unworthy fury on every mention of Grub Street. The anxiety of men in that day to disavow the character of professional authors must be taken with the fact that professional authors were then an unscrupulous, scurrilous, and venal race. Walpole feared collision with them as he feared collision with the 'mountains of roast beef.' Though literature was emerging from the back lanes and alleys, the two greatest potentates of the day, Johnson and Warburton, had both a decided cross of the bear in their composition. Walpole was nervously anxious to keep out of their jurisdiction, and to sit at the feet of such refined lawgivers as Mason and Gray, or the feebler critics of polite society. In such courts there naturally passes a good deal of very flimsy flattery between persons who are alternately at the bar or on the bench. We do not quite believe that Lady Di Beauclerk's drawings were unsurpassable by 'Salvator Rosa and Guido,' or that Lady Ailesbury's 'landscape in worsteds' was a work of high art; and we doubt whether Walpole believed it; nor do we fancy that he expected Sir Horace Mann to believe that when sitting in his room at Strawberry Hill, he was in the habit of apostrophising the setting sun in such terms as these: 'Look at yon sinking beams! His gaudy reign is over; but the silver moon above that elm succeeds to a tranquil horizon,' &c. Sweeping aside all this superficial rubbish, as a mere concession to the faded taste of the age of hoops and wigs, Walpole has something to say for himself. He has been condemned for the absurdity of his criticisms, and it is undeniable that he sometimes blunders strangely. It would, indeed, be easy to show, were it worth while, that he is by no means so silly in his contemporary verdicts as might be supposed from scattered passages in his letters. But what are we to say to a man who compares Dante to 'a Methodist parson in Bedlam'? The first answer is that, in this instance, Walpole was countenanced by greater men. Voltaire, with all his faults the most consummate literary artist of the century, says with obvious disgust that there are people to be found who force themselves to admire 'feats of imagination as stupidly extravagant and barbarous' as those of the 'Divina Commedia.' Walpole must be reckoned as belonging both in his faults and his merits to the Voltairian school of literature, and amongst other peculiarities common to the master and his disciple, may be counted an incapacity for reverence and an intense dislike to being bored. For these reasons he hates all epic poets, from Dante to Blackmore; he detests all didactic poems, including those of Thomson and Akenside; and he is utterly scandalised by the French enthusiasm for Richardson. In these last judgments, at least nine-tenths of the existing race of mankind agree with him; though few people have the courage to express their agreement in print. We may be thankful that Walpole is as incapable of boring as of enduring bores. He is one of the few Englishmen who share the quality sometimes ascribed to the French as a nation, and certainly enjoyed by his teacher, Voltaire; namely, that though they may be frivolous, blasphemous, indecent, and faulty in every other way, they can never for a single moment be dull. His letters show that crisp, sparkling quality of style which accompanies this power, and which is so unattainable to most of his countrymen. The quality is less conspicuous in the rest of his works, and the light verses and essays in which we might expect him to succeed are disappointingly weak. Xoho's letter to his countrymen is now as dull as the work of most imaginary travellers, and the essays in 'The World' are remarkably inferior to the 'Spectator,' to say nothing of the 'Rambler.' Yet Walpole's place in literature is unmistakable, if of equivocal merit. Byron called him the author of the last tragedy and the first romance in our language. The tragedy, with Byron's leave, is revolting (perhaps the reason why Byron admired it), and the romance passes the borders of the burlesque. And yet the remark hits off a singular point in Walpole's history. A thorough child of the eighteenth century, we might have expected him to share Voltaire's indiscriminating contempt for the Middle Ages. One would have supposed that in his lips, as in those of all his generation, Gothic would have been synonymous with barbaric, and the admiration of an ancient abbey as ridiculous as admiration of Dante. So far from which, Walpole is almost the first modern Englishman who found out that our old cathedrals were really beautiful. He discovered that a most charming toy might be made of mediævalism. Strawberry Hill, with all its gimcracks, its pasteboard battlements, and stained-paper carvings, was the lineal ancestor of the new law-courts. The restorers of churches, the manufacturers of stained glass, the modern decorators and architects of all vanities, the Ritualists and the High Church party, should think of him with kindness. It cannot be said that they should give him a place in their calendar, for he was not of the stuff of which saints are made. It was a very thin veneering of mediævalism which covered his modern creed; and the mixture is not particularly edifying. Still he undoubtedly found out that charming plaything which, in other hands, has been elaborated and industriously constructed till it is all but indistinguishable from the genuine article. We must hold, indeed, that it is merely a plaything, when all has been said and done, and maintain that when the root has once been severed, the tree can never again be made to grow. Walpole is so far better than some of his successors, that he did not make a religion out of these flimsy materials. However that may be, Walpole's trifling was the first forerunner of much that has occupied the minds of much greater artists ever since. And thus his initiative in literature has been as fruitful as his initiative in art. The 'Castle of Otranto' and the 'Mysterious Mother' were the progenitors of Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, and probably had a strong influence upon the author of 'Ivanhoe.' Frowning castles and gloomy monasteries, knights in armour, and ladies in distress, and monks and nuns and hermits, all the scenery and the characters that have peopled the imagination of the romantic school, may be said to have had their origin on the night when Walpole lay down to sleep, his head crammed full of Wardour Street curiosities, and dreamt that he saw a gigantic hand in armour resting on the banister of his staircase. In three months from that time he had elaborated a story, the object of which, as defined by himself, was to combine the charms of the old romance and the modern novel, and which, to say the least, strikes us now like an exaggerated caricature of the later school. Scott criticises 'The Castle of Otranto' seriously, and even Macaulay speaks of it with a certain respect. Absurd as the burlesque seems, our ancestors found it amusing, and, what is stranger, awe-inspiring. Excitable readers shuddered when a helmet of more than gigantic size fell from the clouds, in the first chapter, and crushed the young baron to atoms on the eve of his wedding, as a trap smashes a mouse. This, however, was merely a foretaste of a series of unprecedented phenomena. At one moment the portrait of Manfred's grandfather, without the least premonitory warning, utters a deep sigh, and heaves its breast, after which it descends to the floor with a grave and melancholy air. Presently the menials catch sight of a leg and foot in armour to match the helmet, and apparently belonging to a ghost which has lain down promiscuously in the picture gallery. Most appalling, however, of all is the adventure which happened to Count Frederick in the oratory. Kneeling before the altar was a tall figure in a long cloak. As he approached it rose, and, turning round, disclosed to him the fleshless jaws and empty eye-sockets of a skeleton. The ghost disappeared, as ghosts generally do, after giving a perfectly unnecessary warning and the catastrophe is soon reached by the final appearance of the whole suit of armour with the ghost inside it, who bursts the castle to bits like an egg-shell, and, towering towards the sky, exclaims, 'Theodore is the true heir of Alphonso!' This proceeding fortunately made a lawsuit unnecessary, and if the castle was ruined at once, it is not quite impossible that the same result might have been attained more slowly by litigation. The whole machinery strikes us as simply babyish, unless we charitably assume the whole to be intentionally burlesque. The intention is pretty evident in the solemn scene in the chapel, which closes thus:—'As he spake these words, three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alphonso's statue' (Alphonso is the spectre in armour). 'Manfred turned pale, and the princess sank on her knees. "Behold!" said the friar, "mark this miraculous indication that the blood of Alphonso will never mix with that of Manfred!"' Nor can we think that the story is rendered much more interesting by Walpole's simple expedient of introducing into the midst of these portents a set of waiting-maids and peasants, who talk in the familiar style of the smart valets in Congreve's or Sheridan's comedies.

Yet, babyish as this mass of nursery tales may appear to us, it is curious that the theory which Walpole advocated has been exactly carried out. He wished to relieve the prosaic realism of the school of Fielding and Smollett by making use of romantic associations, without altogether taking leave of the language of common life. He sought to make real men and women out of mediæval knights and ladies, or, in other words, he made a first experimental trip into the province afterwards occupied by Scott. The 'Mysterious Mother' is in the same taste; and his interest in Ossian, in Chatterton, and in Percy's Relics, is another proof of his anticipation of the coming change of sentiment. He was an arrant trifler, it is true; too delicately constituted for real work in literature and politics, and inclined to take a cynical view of his contemporaries generally, he turned for amusement to antiquarianism, and was the first to set modern art and literature masquerading in the antique dresses. That he was quite conscious of the necessity for more serious study, appears in his letters, in one of which, for example, he proposes a systematic history of Gothic architecture, such as has since been often enough executed. It does not, it may be said, require any great intellect, or even any exquisite taste, for a fine gentleman to strike out a new line of dilettante amusement. In truth Walpole has no pretensions whatever to be regarded as a great original creator, or even as one of the few infallible critics. The only man of his time who had some claim to that last title was his friend Gray, who shared his Gothic tastes with greatly superior knowledge. But he was indefinitely superior to the great mass of commonplace writers, who attain a kind of bastard infallibility by always accepting the average verdict of the time; which, on the principle of the vox populi, is more often right than that of any dissenter. There is an intermediate class of men who are useful as sensitive barometers to foretell coming changes of opinion. Their intellects are mobile if shallow; and, perhaps, their want of serious interest in contemporary intellects renders them more accessible to the earliest symptoms of superficial shiftings of taste. They are anxious to be at the head of the fashions in thought as well as in dress, and pure love of novelty serves to some extent in place of genuine originality. Amongst such men Walpole deserves a high place; and it is not easy to obtain a high place even amongst such men. The people who succeed best at trifles are those who are capable of something better. In spite of Johnson's aphorism, it is the colossus who, when he tries, can cut the best heads upon cherry-stones, as well as hew statues out of rock. Walpole was no colossus; but his peevish anxiety to affect even more frivolity than was really natural to him, has blinded his critics to the real power of a remarkably acute, versatile, and original intellect. We cannot regard him with much respect, and still less with much affection; but the more we examine his work, the more we shall admire his extreme cleverness.








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