Horace Walpole’s Correspondence
How splendid they look—thirty-one massive volumes so far, beautifully and expensively printed, large rich margins, print bold yet delectable, binding discreet but costly; an air of immense opulence hangs about these books. As they come out in twos and threes, praise, florid, scholarly, or ornate extols the labors of W. S. Lewis, who has dedicated life and fortune, one long, the other considerable, to the correspondence, journals, books, and bric à brac of Horace Walpole. The cost has been immense. Lewis has bought, whenever possible, every letter, every document, every book, almost every object associated with Horace Walpole, the dilettante son of Sir Robert, England’s great eighteenth-century Prime Minister. His assiduity has been remarkable: Ceylon, Canberra, Slough, the most unlikely places have yielded letters and books; the latter still flow steadily towards Farmington, where Horace Walpole’s library has been partially re-assembled. Treasures, of course, still elude Mr. Lewis: jealous bibliophiles hoard books and manuscripts out of envy; a few English families out of pride, indifference, or sheer obstinacy, have resisted the lure of Mr. Lewis’s dollars. And yet there is, one feels, almost an inevitability like Time itself about Mr. Lewis’s Horace Walpole collection: sooner or later, one feels, it will all be there at Farmington, Connecticut, even Strawberry Hill that once enshrined Horace and his collection and now is a Roman Catholic seminary. Although this enterprise in many ways is as odd, as fantastic, as detached from reality as the castles of Ludwig of Bavaria, it has achieved almost universal acceptance as a major contribution to eighteenth-century studies. What perhaps is stranger is that Mr. Lewis’s methods and techniques have spread among historical and literary scholars like measles among the Aztecs, and as disastrously. No one, as far as I know, has looked at this and allied enterprises critically, or considered their effects on eighteenth-century studies, or the influence they are having in creating a mischievous and distorting cultural attitude to eighteenth-century England, and one that is far too fashionable in academic society. Perhaps the reason for this is Mr. Lewis himself.
Mr. Lewis is a scholar of immense courtesy, charm, and generosity. As a rich man he has, of course, every right to spend his money as he pleases and few rich men have made such an enormous contribution to the detailed scholarship of a single human life. More details, exactly established, are now known about Horace Walpole than any human being who has ever lived. More is known about his daily life, his possessions, his thoughts about his life and times. Boswell’s life has great lacunae; so has Napoleon’s. Horace Walpole set about recording himself with great diligence, a diligence only matched by Mr. Lewis’s search for the records. Again there has been no departure in Mr. Lewis’s work from the highest standards of scholarly editing; indeed his assistants have at times taken the punctilios of precise reference almost to ludicrous extremes. True, perhaps better so; for never again in the history of mankind can so much time, effort, and money be lavished again on Horace; so if perfect, the better. The production has matched the dedicated scholarship, and the whole series is a monument to the finest standard of American editing which is now the best in the world. Indeed Mr. Lewis and his team have made significant contributions to its techniques. It needs to be stressed that the immense apparatus of scholarship which Mr. Lewis has created at Farmington—ancillary collections of manuscripts, a huge microfilm library of material in European libraries and museums, a superlative eighteenth-century reference library, and the most remarkable collection of eighteenth-century English prints in the world, the British Museum not excepted—all beautifully indexed and collated—all of these things are readily put at the disposal of scholars, young or old. It is necessary to stress this, because criticism is normally more eagerly seized on and remembered than praise. I, along with every other eighteenth-century scholar, owe a debt to Mr. Lewis. We shall use his volumes frequently, perhaps too frequently, yet the sense of his enterprise will haunt us like a memory of Neuschwanstein.
Most of my criticism has very little to do with Mr. Lewis or with those exceptionally able scholars who have given him years of devoted service. It is concerned primarily with the effects of his work, the distortion it has created and may continue to create in eighteenth-century studies. To scholars and readers alike the vast marmoreal pages of his edition create an air of immutable historical truth. Surely only an historical source of the highest value could be treated with such reverence This impression is aided by the editorial technique which explains references and rarely if ever evaluates: so, too, the Introductions, elegant and mercifully brief; they describe the various sorts of correspondence with a word or two on provenance, its nature and the recipient’s background. There is no attempt to evaluate the correspondence as an historical source: no indications are given of its limitations, pitfalls, inconsistencies, and the like. Mr. Lewis might argue that those who wish to do so, can do it for themselves, and they can find the necessary judgments with which to do it in his own assessment of Horace Walpole, printed elsewhere. The techniques, however, intensify the image Mr. Lewis has of Horace Walpole. He considers him a figure of great historical importance. Shrewd, observant, truthful, possessed of an exceptional memory as well as an elegant style, he decisively and carefully through his correspondence portrayed his age for posterity and the result is one of the most remarkable portraits of an age ever painted. And, to be fair to Mr. Lewis, this is how an ever-growing band of eighteenth-century students and historians accept him and use him. For me, this is a false estimate.
Macaulay’s savage attack, vitriolic as it is, lies nearer to the truth about Horace Walpole. Macaulay in a passage of superlative rhetoric accused Walpole of making everything that was little great and diminishing everything that was great to triviality. There is something incurably mannered and irrelevant about Horace Walpole. His vast correspondence touches practically no aspect of eighteenth-century life at a serious level. The most valuable parts are his narration of political events in his early correspondence with Mann. Otherwise he is useful only to provide ornaments, decorations, furbelows to an historian’s prose. He is of little importance even in the history of taste, even there, as in his archaeological interests, incurably dilettante and uncritical, a magpie of whimsy. Detached from life by his own egoism, he observed it only in the distorting mirrors of his own self-indulgent quiddities. He was rarely honest with himself and even more rarely detached and honest about others. Every statement that he makes needs to be assessed and interpreted with the utmost care. And, unlike Boswell or Burke or Johnson or even John Lord Henry, Horace Walpole lived at the heart of nothing important for the eighteenth century. He was central only to a small sector of aristocratic social life, for the rest his interests were peripheral, the preoccupation of a rich, unscholarly amateur of little judgment. As a source for the professional historian he is, apart from the last years of his father’s life, of very minor importance. But, even here, historians have not been aided by Mr. Lewis’s decision not to deal with Horace Walpole’s political memories but his correspondence. Carefully edited from the original manuscript, Walpole’s memoirs would add in a small way to our knowledge of the political maneuverings, the in-fighting and jealousies of the politics of the mid-eighteenth century. What we have in print was so skillfully and at times so mendaciously presented by Walpole that it becomes a difficult source to use. From a historian’s point of view there was enough correspondence of Walpole in print in Mr. Toynbee’s edition, whereas the memoirs only exist in appalling editions. However, the needs of history are scarcely a consideration in this type of enterprise.
Walpole’s weakness and the one which vitiates the value of so much that he wrote was that he was writing as a creative, literary artist for posterity. He was writing to amuse, to surprise, to convince, and to present his image of people and of events; and he allowed himself all the freedom, all the excesses of a creative writer, so that in many ways his correspondence comes nearer to imaginative literature than historical record. Yet by the sheer mass of the labors expended on him this effete, spinsterish dilettante with his wayward tastes and mannered prose has been built up to be regarded as one of the great literary figures of eighteenth-century England, and one of its major historical sources.
But Mr. Lewis has done more than put Horace Walpole in seven-league boots: he has started, one might say created, a new and dangerous form of historical activity. To publish every scrap of writing committed to paper by one man requires, if he is reasonably prolific, the services of more than one scholar; it also requires space and a great deal of money. On the other hand results can be achieved quickly yet stretched over a life-time. The method calls for little more than industry and accuracy: the edition must, by definition, be the standard work for all time; libraries, therefore, are doomed to the volumes no matter how expensive or how numerous. Scholarly reputations can be acquired with minimum effort. Worse, vast editorial projects are easy to sell to foundations and universities. So now we have proliferating editorial factories; every scrap that Boswell wrote is to be immortalized in print, all the unpublished manuscripts, millions of words of them, of Jeremy Bentham will keep a band of scholars happy for a generation or so. And the factory method is spreading. Monsieur Besterman has been working away on Voltaire for years and now Jean-Jacques Rousseau is to have the treatment. Millions of dollars, soon perhaps millions of francs will be poured into such enterprises.
In a world dedicated to a mandarin perfection in scholarship, these enterprises would be, perhaps, worthwhile. At present they are a waste of money required elsewhere. There is plenty of room for cooperative history, plenty of problems for factory history, but it is high time that foundations and universities took a more critical view of their editing. How ludicrous it must seem that nowhere in the western world is there an institute dedicated to Industrial history—the very basis not of our world but of the world’s future—but that billions of dollars are to be spent printing trillions of words that add next to nothing to the study of history. Mr. Lewis’s enterprise is self-supporting and there can be no quibble with that, but too many of his imitators are soaking up funds, and scholarly energies, that could be better used elsewhere.
These enterprises can create sinister distortions; inflate reputations as well as diminish, by implication, others. The views of Burke, Johnson, Boswell, and Horace Walpole are beginning to dominate the cultural and intellectual history of eighteenth-century England, which creates a massive distortion of the historical truth. The conservatives and the aristocrats always seem to come off best, the radicals worst. Tom Paine, in some ways a more vital and effective figure in political thought than Burke, is neglected. For the seventeenth century we have no decent edition of the works or letters of Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, or John Harrington, or a score of other philosophers whose significance goes far beyond these eighteenth-century literary dilettantes whose most trivial jottings are recorded like tablets from Mount Sinai. The obsessions of collectors have spread like viruses in literary and historical scholarship without anyone noticing the damage. Instead heads are bowed in reverence to the monstrous deformities of reputation that they create.
It is time to stop: to hail, to salute, Mr. Lewis for creating his pyramid in letters rather than in stone, but to ask his imitators to consider just what they think they are doing. If it were their own money they were spending, there could be no criticism. But for every ten thousand dollars they take, a more important historical project (and almost all are more important) is starved. It is high time the foundations set up a commission to investigate the cost and aims of cooperative editorial projects in history and literature; otherwise we shall soon be offered the collected works of Akenside, or the complete correspondence of the 2nd Duke of Grafton, in twenty or thirty volumes, the life work of ten scholars of professorial standing. And in the end someone will be left with Stephen Dack. But even then, I bet Tom Paine doesn’t get the treatment.
P. S. The correspondence with the Countess of Upper Ossory is right up to standard, all i’s dotted, all t’s crossed. Too heavy to read, the volumes look beautiful on the shelves, and they are quite wonderful for reference.
Literary Industry October 28, 1965