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 of recipients. But Walpole often reclaimed batches of his letters, assembled them, and retouched many as if for publication. About four thousand (or something like two-fifths of the number he probably wrote) appear in the Yale edition. A standard feature of most is the author’s character as a moral critic of the classes governing Britain.

When Walpole was not recoiling from the sexual idiocies of the rich and great, he denounced their idleness and luxury. In his time, a family could live decently on a couple of hundred pounds a year; but the three Damer brothers, sons of Lord Milton, contracted a debt of seventy thousand pounds, mainly from gambling (24:230–231). John, or “Mr. Damer,” the eldest, was thirty-two years old and heir to a vast fortune; he had married a daughter of Walpole’s favorite cousin. We learn from Walpole what happened when Lord Milton discovered his sons’ exploits:

The proud Lord, for once in the right, refused to pay the debt or see them. The two eldest were to retire to France, and Mrs. Damer was to accompany them—without a murmur, and with the approbation, though to the great grief, Mr. Conway and Lady Ailesbury [her parents]. She was luckily gone to take her leave of them, and to return to town last Friday morning. On Thursday Mr. Damer supped at the Bedford Arms in Covent Garden, with four common women, a blind fiddler and no other man. At three in the morning he dismissed his seraglio, bidding each receive her guinea at the bar, and ordering Orpheus to come up again in half an hour. When he returned, he found a dead silence and smelt gunpowder. He called, the master of the house came up, and found Mr. Damer sitting in his chair, dead, with a pistol by him, and another in his pocket…. Lord Milton, whom anything can petrify and nothing soften, will not only not see his remaining sons, but wreaks his fury on Mrs. Damer, though she deserves only pity, and shows no resentment. He insists on selling her jewels, which are magnificent, for discharge of just debts. [24:234–235]

On the contrary, Walpole sympathized with humble people, with the poor and the victims of oppressive governments. As an MP, he opposed the slave trade. When carpenters went on strike and the remodeling of his celebrated house had to stop, Walpole said, “How can one complain? The poor fellows, whose all the labour is, see their masters advance their prices every day, and think it reasonable to touch their share” (22:49).


When there were rent riots in the north of Ireland, he said, “Poor souls! they have had thorough provocation; reduced to starve, to be shot, or to be hanged” (23:391). He hated war and was congenitally anti-imperialist:

I pray for an end to the woes of mankind; in one word I have no public spirit, and don’t care a farthing for the interests of the merchants. Soldiers and sailors who are knocked on the head, and peasants plundered or butchered, are to my eyes as valuable, as a lazy luxurious set of men, who hire others to acquire riches for them; who would embroil all the earth, that they may heap or squander. [22:39]

British mistreatment of India horrified him:

The groans of India have mounted to heaven…we have outdone the Spaniards in Peru! They were at least butchers on a religious principle, however diabolical their zeal. We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped—nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of the provisions by the servants [i.e., employees] of the East India Company? [23:387]

The indifference of the French court to the sufferings of the peasants enraged him. For Walpole, as for Swift and Pope, the higher one’s rank, the more contemptible one’s vice; and his judgment of kings was often ferocious. “I like to see these haughty sovereigns obliged to draw in their talons,” he said (23:311). He could hardly mention Louis XV—“the besotted old Bien-aimé“—and Mme. Du Barry without heaping insults on them: “the people curse the king, the chancellor, the mistress; and starve” (23:320). Catherine the Great seemed to Walpole something between a murderess and a whore.

But he did have the habits of a great gentleman. A neighbor of his in Walpole’s middle years tells us, “He always entered a room in that style of affected delicacy, which fashion had then made almost natural; chapeau bas [hat off] between his hands as if he wished to compress it, or under his arm—knees bent, and feet on tip-toe, as if afraid of a wet floor”; he wore silk stockings, gold buckles, ruffles and frill of lace.1

Walpole’s powers of generous appreciation did not extend to social bizarreries. The writings of noble authors interested him mainly because of the titles behind the titles. Obscure persons might fatigue him merely because they lacked connections. His friend Thomas Gray may have had an undistinguished origin, but he was a genius, had gone to Eton with Walpole, and mingled with the elite. Boswell, though sufficiently wellborn, had alarming manners; and Samuel Johnson was neither blue-blooded nor polite. The consequent failures of taste are notorious:

Johnson’s blind Toryism and known brutality kept me aloof, nor did I ever exchange a syllable with him; nay, I do not think I ever was in a room with him six times in my days. The first time I think was at the Royal Academy. Sir Joshua [Reynolds] said, “Let me present Dr. Goldsmith to you.” He did. “Now I will present Dr. Johnson to you.”—“No,” said I, “Sir Joshua, for Dr. Goldsmith, pass—but you shall not present Dr. Johnson to me.” [11:276]

Walpole, who prided himself on not invoking the dignities of his station, is hardly at his best when speaking of Johnson, who was impulsively tactless and had maligned Gray. The Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson by Mrs. Piozzi (formerly Mrs. Thrale) enraged Walpole. At the same time, his effort to deliver a balanced judgment is characteristic:

Her panegyric is loud in praise of her hero—and almost every fact she relates disgraces him. She allows and proves he was arrogant, yet affirms he was not proud—as if arrogance were not the flower of pride…. She and all Johnson’s disciples seem to have taken his brutal contradictions for bons mots—Some of his own works show that he had at times strong, excellent sense; and that he had the virtue of charity to a high degree is indubitable—but his friends (of whom he made woeful choice) have taken care to let the world know that in behaviour he was an ill-natured bear, and in opinions as senseless a bigot as an old washerwoman…. [25:636]

It is obvious that Johnson’s piety did not command Walpole’s respect. Devout gloom was never a virtue that Walpole cherished, and he was quick to point out greed or ambition in churchmen. Yet he held to natural religion, and valued the institution and morality of Christianity, even as he valued the institution of monarchy while condemning kings. The American Revolution inspired him with sympathy for the colonists and indignation over British policy:


I see no prospect of good. Seeds of the last inveteracy sown, a whole continent to be reconquered, what lives, what money to be squandered, what damages, what breaches to be repaired! and reconciliation how to be effected? by victories on our side, or on theirs? [24:162]

The French Revolution had the opposite effect, although Walpole’s voice here lacks power; for his rhetoric cannot handle some emotions properly:

It remained for the enlightened eighteenth century to baffle language and invent horrors that can be found in no vocabulary. What tongue could be prepared to paint a nation that should avow atheism, profess assassination, and practice massacres on massacres for four years together; and who, as if they had destroyed God as well as their king, and established incredulity by law, give no symptom of repentance! [34:177–178]

Walpole’s style of ironic recoil demands a generalized vocabulary when his emotions call for concrete vividness. It was Burke who had the force to convey Walpole’s sentiments.

But with recreations and pastimes he could be particular enough. Walpole hated to be bored: “I literally seem to have murdered a man whose name was Ennui, for his ghost is ever before me” (35:43). While he did not like to drink or gamble, all sorts of parties amused him; and his style is lovingly adapted to recording for us the public and private entertainments of his day. The account of the Handel jubilee of 1786—640 musicians, double kettledrums, double double-basses, four-hour concerts—is brief (25:647–648). But the 1749 masquerade in the pleasure garden of Ranelagh received full treatment. One can tell that the reporter admired Watteau:

When you entered, you found the whole garden filled with masks, and spread with tents, which remained all night very commodely [i.e., for privies]. In one quarter was a Maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music, that were disposed in different parts of the garden, some like huntsmen with French horns, some like peasants, and a troop of harlequins and scaramouches, in the little open temple on the mount. On the canal was a sort of gondola, adorned with flags and streamers, and filled with music, rowing about. All round the outside of the amphitheatre were shops filled with Dresden china, japan [i.e., lacquered objects], etc., and all the shopkeepers in mask. The amphitheatre was illuminated, and in the middle was a circular bower, composed of all kinds of firs in tubs, from twenty to thirty feet high: under them orange trees, with small lamps in each orange, and below them all sorts of the finest auriculas in pots; and festoons of natural flowers hanging from tree to tree. Between the arches too were firs, and smaller ones in the balconies above. There were booths for tea and wine, gaming tables and dancing, and about two thousand persons. [20:47]

Walpole’s wit does better with sexual scandals and human follies than with his exemplary taste in the arts. Speaking about medals, paintings, and sculpture, his style is deliberately unpedantic and sometimes unpersuasive. If we bring historical knowledge to bear, we can appreciate the importance of his work in literature, printing, or architecture. But he himself, determined not to sound pretentious, often omits data we need to establish his dazzling position as a connoisseur, an author, and a builder. Here is a modest first view of the place he was to remake as Strawberry Hill:

The house is so small, that I can send it you in a letter to look at: the prospect is as delightful as possible, commanding the river, the town and Richmond Park; and being situated on a hill descends to the Thames through two or three little meadows, where I have some Turkish sheep and two cows, all studied in their colours for becoming the view. [19:414]

(A detailed catalog, six years later, was to make up for this brevity—20:379–382.)

When detailing the absurdities of a royal duke, however, he was prepared to tell most of what we want to know. The Duke of Cumberland, brother of George III, suddenly married an unsuitable woman with more beauty than reputation. It would be hard to say which of the pair was the sillier. Walpole comments:

The new princess of the blood is a young widow of twenty-four, extremely pretty, not handsome, very well made, with the most amorous eyes in the world, and eyelashes a yard long. Coquette beyond measure, artful as Cleopatra, and completely mistress of all her passions and projects. Indeed, eyelashes three quarters of a yard shorter would have served to conquer such a head as she has turned. [23:345]

Walpole always meant to illustrate the true abilities and weaknesses not of a class or nation but of men in general. He was perfectly willing to use his own character as a field for observation; and when he shows his inner self to a close friend, we easily accept his rationalist principle that the elements of human nature change little over the centuries. Reading Walpole’s response to the death of Thomas Gray, who will not feel that the experience of loss is now what it was in 1771?

‘Tis an hour that makes one forget any subjects of complaint, especially towards one with whom I lived in friendship from thirteen years old. As self lies so rooted in self, no doubt the nearness of our ages made the stroke recoil to my own breast; and having so little expected his death, it is plain how little I expect my own. Yet to you, who of all men living are the most forgiving, I need not excuse the concern I feel. I fear, most men ought to apologize for their want of feeling, instead of palliating that sensation when they have it. I thought that what I had seen of the world had hardened my heart; but I find that it had formed my language, not extinguished my tenderness. In short, I am really shocked—nay, I am hurt at my own weakness, as I perceive that when I love anybody, it is for my life; and I have had too much reason not to wish that such a disposition may very seldom be put to the trial. [35:127–128]

Reading such letters, we win a miraculous access to a testing ground of humanity. Here is a complete civilization, brought back for us as an anthropologist brings back primitive rituals—so different from ours, so much the same. The large scale of Walpole’s vision gives depth to the minutiae of his reportage. It is not only intelligence and wit that make his scenes vivid, but the frame in which he displays them.

Directing his work to posterity, he points out the features we are to dwell on, and supplies the values by which we are to judge them; for he knew how much guidance would be needed: “The times immediately preceding their own are what all men are least acquainted with. A young man knows Romulus better than George the Second” (23:350). Familiar with ancient and modern politics and with the courts of Europe, he examined the mores of his strange countrymen. He made many errors; his prophecies were often unfulfilled. But from his privileged position he could secure inside information about a stunning range of persons and events. His facts can let us down and his rationalism is sometimes intolerant, but he compensates with self-deprecation, humor, and spontaneity. Invariably, he strives to hold his letter-reader’s interest and our own.

The Yale edition of Walpole, published over a period of forty-six years and in forty-eight large volumes, is incomparably more comprehensive and accurate, with fuller annotation and more legible type, than previous collections. Simply the list of extant letters to and from Walpole fills more than two hundred pages. Apart from the quantity never before published, there are endless corrections of and additions to familiar passages.

The volumes are cleverly illustrated, and the indispensable indexes are copious—three thousand pages of index to the full set. One could enumerate faults—above all, the arrangement by correspondents (i.e., the decision to group together all letters to and from the same person) rather than strict chronology. Yet these are trifles compared with the accomplishment.

Obviously, the work is a blessing to many forms of historical scholarship. It is also, however, an opportunity to non-specialist readers. If you like anecdotes and aphorisms, contrasts in manners—if you want to see, close up, some basic but hidden aspects of the sociable, rational beast—you will benefit from Walpole. Start with the Montagu correspondence (volumes 9 and 10). When you dip in, be sure to have a friend within hearing, because you will not turn three pages without wishing to read something aloud.2

This Issue

April 26, 1984