Wednesday 23 March 2022

More Personal Thoughts on Horace Walpole's Selected Letters


While we had an interesting and full discussion of Horace Walpole, Selected Letters with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, we were only led to read a certain amount of the letters whereas I read all the ones in the selection.

One of the sections we weren’t required (though were suggested) to read was entitled ‘His Literary Criticism’. This was the section where Horace Walpole opined his opinions of modern literary figures in his letters. It is no secret that Walpole was not a fan of Johnson, describing his prose as ‘teeth crunching’ but in this section he goes fully into his dislike of our dear Sammy J. He says that his Journey to the Western Islands is ‘a heap of words to describe very little’. He describes Johnson as a ‘babbling old woman’ who ‘marshals words ridiculously’ and compares Johnson’s own elevated style to the failed elevation of Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson in his surprise hit Hurlothrumbo (which I have talked about in this blog). Indeed, Walpole made ‘a conscience of not buying’ the selections of poetry that included Johnson’s Lives, as he was not interested, and not convinced by what he would say, particularly about his dear friend Thomas Gray. 

it may be expected that I might be outraged or dismayed by Walpole’s lack of appreciation for Johnson as a writer, but I am not. For one thing, I am pleased and encouraged by Walpole’s understanding of Johnson’s character; “Although he was good-natured at bottom, he was ill-natured at top.” This is an insight which explains a lot of many of Johnson’s seemingly crass statements with his altruistic actions. I’m also delighted to see someone with a different opinion of Johnson’s writing. Now, we live in a time where Johnson and his writings are established part of the canon of literature and are regarded as pure truth by some people. I love to see someone from the period who is less than convinced, who provides a dissenting voice.

Walpole also provides a dissenting voice on the genius of the actor, David Garrick. Johnson himself criticises Garrick for being only an actor and for overstepping his bounds, especially during the ill-fated Shakespeare Jubilee, but Johnson felt he was the only person qualified to criticise Garrick as they were old friends and former teacher and pupil. Walpole reveals that he didn’t find Garrick’s acting all that. He liked him in some roles, some he was less praised for but found him a ‘jackanapes’ who didn’t pull off high status roles as completely as others thought. It’s lovely to see a contemporary opinion differing from the majority. He was also a big fan of the actress Mrs Pritchard, who played the main role in Johnson’s play Irene and who Johnson thought wasn’t all that good. The fact is that when a work of art comes out, especially a popular or relatively mass-media one, the reaction isn’t homogenous even if later reputation is.

His, slightly distant, view of Goldsmith is also interesting. it seems he appreciated Goldsmith’s writing most out of all of Johnson’s circle and it makes sense. Goldsmith had the most self-consciously smooth and polished style of them all. He reports on Goldsmith’s reputation as someone with ‘parts but little common sense’. Yet, Walpole is distressed at Goldsmith’s death and sees the whole Johnson set as abandoning him, that; “His numerous friends neglected him at last, as if they had no business with him when he was too serious to laugh.” Weirdly, he thought Goldsmith could have saved himself with even more of the James’s Powders that killed him.

I also loved how Walpole regarded Boswell as a strange little leech who forced himself on anybody famous and described him the ‘quintessence of busybodies’. This quintessence would lead Boswell to create a truly remarkable biography but I am always here for a little Boswell bashing.

One thing Johnson and Walpole agreed on was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Johnson thought the book was too strange to last, Walpole felt it was a fun notion to play around with in the pub but wasn’t a premise any sane man would write.

Finally, one of the things that most struck me about Walpole’s Letters was that I was reading a text that completely supported the action of Robert Walpole. The man who Eovaai cast as an evil wizard, enchanting the royal family and turning spurned lovers into baboons to be sexually tortured, who The Beggar’s Opera cast as an evil Jonathan Wilde figure, who countless eighteenth century texts cast as a money-grubbing, corrupt villain, is here, a good guy. In some ways this isn’t surprising, Horace was his son after all but in these letters he is always held up as a figure of wisdom and restraint. Horace makes repeated mention that in his father’s control of the country, the United Kingdom had a twenty-year period of economic growth, political stability and no war. One of Robert Walpole’s first acts was to end a war on a less-than generous treaty and he kept the country out of war his whole time as Prime Minister. as soon as he was engineered into retirement the country entered the Seven Years War, shortly afterwards the War of American Rebellion and then the Peninsular/Napoleonic Wars. As odd as it seems to have this notion of Robert Walpole, good statesman, Horace does make a fair argument for the stability and prosperity of his time.

Indeed, for me as a personal reader of the letters, I found they were most interesting when they presented opinions and points of view that don’t match the received wisdom we have now. Of course there were varying opinion at the time, it’s the same today, and it’s good to have them recorded. I’m still not sure Walpole would have been very fond of poor old me, however.

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