Two hundred years ago, the Reverend Sydney Smith (1771–1845) wrote what is certainly the most famous private letter he ever composed. The date was February 16, 1820, and he was writing to Lady Georgiana Morpeth, the wife of a rising politician (as it happens, she was also the sister of one of Smith’s few contemporary equals as a letter-writer: Harriet Leveson-Gower, the Countess Granville). Smith’s subject that day was low spirits, or what we now might call, in a non-clinical way, depression.
His thoughts need almost no alteration for modern times and are still excellent advice, perhaps especially for a world in quarantine (with the exception of precepts 6 and 7; see below). But to savor the letter more fully, it’s worth knowing something about the man who wrote it. In February 1820, Smith was forty-eight years old and living, with his family, in rural Yorkshire, two hundred miles equidistant from the two places—London and Edinburgh—where he felt intellectually and socially at home. He wasn’t in exile; he was merely obliged, as a rector of the Church of England, to reside within the parish from which his income was derived.
Rural Yorkshire was a very strange place to find an urbane man like Sydney Smith. Before taking up residence there, he had helped to found the Edinburgh Review, the great periodical of his day, and he still contributed to it regularly. He had been a huge success as a lecturer in London and was well known as a wit. His anonymous public letters—attacking England’s harsh game laws and advocating Catholic emancipation—were famous. What matters here is that Smith rarely allowed himself to feel exiled, and he never allowed his feelings to interfere with his practical benevolence. Among his rural parishioners, he became something even more extraordinary than he already was: a farmer, a doctor, a man of diverse and pragmatic virtues, and a fount of good will and energetic activity. He is one of my heroes.
To Lady Georgiana, Smith wrote only a few letters, and they are more sober in tone than most of his correspondence, no doubt answering a similar sobriety in her letters to him. I want to point out a small deception in this letter of February 16th. “Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done,” Smith writes, and any reasonable person is likely to wonder whether this can be true. Surely someone, in all of 1820, suffered more from low spirits than Sydney Smith did. And, in fact, later that year, we find him writing to a friend, “My constitutional gaiety comes to my aid in all the difficulties of life…”
Ironic hyperbole was a form of badinage that came easily to Smith. There’s another fine example in a letter he wrote while visiting London in May 1818. “My dear Lady Grey,” he writes, “The most helpless of all beings is a poor parson, of an Evening, in London in Wet Weather—without a carriage.” It would have taken a very short search to find someone—even in Savile Row, where this letter was posted—more helpless than Sydney Smith.
When Smith indulges himself in this kind of humor, he violates his own precept number 10: “Compare your lot with that of other people.” Or, rather, he chooses—for the sake of the joke—to compare his lot only with the tiny subset of people to whom a carriage-less parson on a wet London evening is a pathetic figure. In life, rather than in letters, this is a mistake that Smith never made, or so the existing evidence suggests.
I notice that this problem of moral parallax is something we’re all encountering now. Sequestered, frustrated, a little bored, we begin to complain. And then, if we’re sensible, we quickly realize that our complaints can only sound like complaints to people who are similarly privileged, similarly discomfited. Day by day, I find myself adjusting my expectations, reminding myself again and again how relative the condition of suffering really is—something that should need no pandemic to be obvious. It helps to imagine myself in 1818, hurrying down Savile Row in the rain, without an umbrella, and coming upon a creature like the desolate Jo, from Bleak House, dressed in rags. He is looking in from the street at the Reverend Sydney Smith, who is seated before a good blazing fire, composing a letter in which he alludes to his helplessness with customary gaiety:
Dear Lady Georgiana,
…Nobody has sufferd more from low Spirits than I have done—so I feel for you. — 1st. Live as well and drink as much wine as you dare. — 2d. Go into the Shower bath—with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold—75 or 80°. — 3d. Amusing books. — 4th. Short views of human life not farther than dinner or Tea. — 5th. Be as busy as you can. — 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect, & like you. — 7th. And of those acquaintance who amuse you. — 8th. Make no secret about Low Spirits to your friends but talk of them fully—they are always worse for dignified Concealment. — 9th. Attend to the effects Tea and Coffee produce upon you. — 10th. Compare your Lot with that of other people. — 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life, a sorry business at the best. — 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except Comedy), Music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence. — 13th. Do good, & endeavor to please every body of every degree. — 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. — 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay & pleasant. — 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. — 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself—but do yourself Justice. — 18th. Keep good blazing fires. — 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. — 20th. Believe me dear Lady Georgiana very truly Yrs,