The King of Correspondence

The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence

edited by W.S. Lewis
Yale University Press, Vols. 44–48, $325.00 the set

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole; drawing by David Levine

Don’t be put off by the opulence of the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s letters. Pull down volume eighteen, open it as if you were Titian approaching a canvas, and read about the Duke of Beaufort’s private parts.

The Duke had a wife whose connection with Lord Talbot became scandalous. The Duke wished to break with her, but the Duchess disliked the consequences of a divorce. Therefore, she defended herself by blaming his grace for not consummating their marriage. The Duke had to offer legal proof of potency. Two physicians, three surgeons, and an ecclesiastical judge were the committee of inspection, at the home of one of the doctors. Walpole records the event, with the help of the actor-playwright Colley Cibber:

I should never have been potent again!—well, but he was. They offered to wait upon his Grace to any place of public resort—“no, no, he would only go behind the screen, and when he knocked, they were to come to him, but come that moment.” He was some time behind the scenes: at last he knocked, and the good old folks saw what amazed them—what they had not seen many a day!—Cibber says, “His grace’s p—k is in everybody’s mouth.” He is now upon his mettle, and will sue Lord Talbot for fourscore thousand pounds damages. [18:185; my letters p-k]

The satire on high life is, as usual with Walpole, sharp and cold. He had a contempt for the bestiality of English noblemen that sprang from intimate knowledge. “Half those who are proud of twenty thousand pounds a year,” he said, “will bear anything for a thousand more” (22:97). His own father was one of the most powerful, corrupt statesmen in British history. Walpole himself grew up at court; he played as a boy with children of George II; and his beloved niece Maria married a brother of George III. Before he was twenty, Walpole discovered that he had a singular talent for writing letters, and began asking friends to save his. He himself particularly admired those of Mme. de Sévigné and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. He had a handsome income and never married. Surprisingly soon, he came to think of himself as the epistolary chronicler of his age; and he even chose correspondents for their expert knowledge of the fields he wished to inform posterity about.

For literature and antiquities he had Thomas Gray and William Mason; for politics (and much else), Horace Mann, the English resident in Florence; for news of the court and society, his indolent friend, George Montagu—ultimately replaced by Lady Ossory (who had committed the blunder, while Duchess of Grafton, or bearing a child to the Earl of Upper Ossory); and so forth.

Of course, he did not restrict himself to the special topic with the chosen person; and both the categories and the correspondents might change. Letters on antiquities went to dozens…

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