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Garrick Gaieties

The Letters of David Garrick

edited by David M. Little, edited by George M. Kahrl
Harvard, 3 vols., 1500 pp., $30.00

It is volumes such as these that fill an English scholar with despair. I hesitate to think of what they cost—nearly fifteen hundred beautifully printed, meticulously proof-read pages: excellent paper, fine binding, and although the price is not cheap, it cannot be regarded as anything but reasonable. Yet production must represent but a fraction, the tiny peak of an iceberg, of the total cost. The long years of two scholars’ labor, the associates, the secretaries, the journeys, the mountain of bibliographical paraphernalia that is required by all great co-operative works of definitive scholarship, this factory method which American scholars have brought to such perfection must have been prodigiously expensive.

Factory scholarship began in America with W. S. Lewis’s monumental edition of Horace Walpole, the most meticulous work of editing done this century. His methods had been adopted for the papers and correspondence of Boswell, Burke, Johnson, and a dozen others and there are now factories of scholars scattered throughout American Universities. Only a very rich, scholarly society could afford such lavish methods: in England they do not exist. Almost every great collection of eighteenth-century British correspondence has been edited by an American scholar. In the great co-operative enterprises British scholars occasionally assist: but they neither initiate nor direct. Nor do they choose the subjects. Indeed who does? Some, of course, choose themselves—Boswell, Johnson, Walpole, Burke. After all they left hoards of papers and their roles in literature are so well established that definitive editions of their works are immensely desirable and well worth the money that an affluent society can lavish on them.

Such men, however, are rare; and the few others like them, as yet unprojected, are rapidly being claimed: Fielding is now under way, Fanny Burney too. Will scholars hungry for a project soon be casting a thoughtful glance at Garth or Arkenside or Dyer? And the quaint thing is that there exists no definitive edition of the letters and papers of any British statesman except Oliver Cromwell; no definitive edition of the letters and works of any major British philosopher, except Burke. What would one not give to have the same lavish attention, the same devoted years of scholarship dedicated to an edition of Thomas Hobbes or Francis Bacon or John Locke that are here given to David Garrick. This may seem churlish, for Garrick is a central figure not only in the history of the British theater and of Shakespearian promotion but also in eighteenth-century literary society. After all he was the life-long friend of Samuel Johnson, and the intimate of the entire Johnsonian circle: and better still, he was a close friend of the Duke of Devonshire who played a large role in British politics in the mid-eighteenth century. David Garrick’s letters could be a treasure trove.

They are, but for completely different reasons. There is practically nothing here that one might expect—no revelations about Johnson, Boswell, Wilkes; no insights into literary life, no gossip about high politics: nothing much, even, about the theater—except the mechanics of it, who should be hired or fired, what was to be acted, or not—but for reflections on the complex nature of acting, production, or writing of plays, there are scarcely any of value in these massive volumes. Indeed the recipient of the largest group of Garrick’s letters—Peter Fountain—is almost completely unknown and had Garrick’s letters followed Fountain into limbo, eighteenth-century studies would not have lost a single iota of any importance. Yet it would be quite wrong to think that the editors have labored long years in vain.

They have brought to life a delightful human being—impulsive, gay, responsive to all that his success brought him. Garrick’s letters to the Marquess of Hartington and his wife or to the Earl and Countess of Burlington possess a sparkling, infectious gaiety that makes their reading—purely for their own sake—a delight. The same quality of human warmth radiates from Garrick’s letters to his brothers Peter and George. To the latter he was exceptionally tolerant and constantly kind. After reading these letters, one realizes what a happiness it must be for some human temperaments just to be alive. Of course, clouds scuttle across the beaming skies: so ebullient a character was bound to have contretemps, misunderstandings, and moments of folly. Yet they rarely lasted; Garrick forgot and forgave easily, and he was soon rattling on in his impetuous warm-hearted way.

Although the major value of these letters lies in their demonstration of Garrick’s character, no one can read them without deepening his sense of what life was like in eighteenth-century England. Perhaps the most significant feature of these letters is the ease and familiarity that Garrick enjoyed at all levels of society. He was as relaxed in the mansions of duchesses and marchionesses as he was in the homes of his boyhood friends at Lichfield. That a mere actor, born and bred in humble circumstances in the provinces, could be accepted on terms of intimate friendship by the Devonshires and Portlands argues an openness of social intercourse that would have shocked most other countries in Europe. Actresses were, after all, still denied a Christian burial in France.

Yet sparkling, moving, readable as these letters are—a wonderful bedside book for addicts of eighteenth-century life—I cannot help but feel that the admirable and laborious scholarship of this edition has been misplaced. Garrick, true, is an important and significant figure; but his correspondence illuminates only the private facets of his life and character and one is left wishing that so much patient and precise scholarship, so many years of labor, and such quantities of dollars might have been lavished on one of the giants of our culture and not on a mere entertainer. Although the performance deserves all praise, the concept shows a want of judgment.

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