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 …
Literary Industry October 28, 1965