- Memoirs of King George II: Vols I, II and III by Horace Walpole, edited by John Brooke
Yale, 248 pp, £65.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 300 03197 1
With the irrelevant tidiness of an obsessive, Horace Walpole started his main series of memoirs in January 1751 – by one reckoning, the exact mid-point of the century. Actually he had already made one abortive stab with Memoirs from the Declaration of the War with Spain’, begun in 1746, now first published by John Brooke as an appendix to his edition. The title is misleading, for these are annals of the Hanoverian accession, and don’t get anywhere within hailing distance of Jenkins Ear. The date is significant: Robert Walpole had died in 1745, and a year later his son’s arrested political development brings him back to the quarrels of a previous generation. Many people are liberated by the death of a dominant parent: Horace felt the full burden of his past only when his father had departed.
The main series was kept up for 21 years, the last ten of the reign of George II and the first 11 of his grandson’s. There are also more spasmodic Last Journals, published in 1859, and a still unpublished continuation taking the story up to 1791. The Memoirs of George III, as ordinarily understood, refer to the published series which stops at 1771. These are the best-known of Walpole’s annals, occasioning a scornful review by John Wilson Croker on their publication in 1845, and much criticised (though much quarried) by later historians. This leaves the set devoted to the 1750s: the Memoirs of George II, first published in 1822 and now rendered canonical by receipt of (almost) the full Yale treatment.
‘Almost’, because Brooke is a more abstemious editor than W.S. Lewis and the team responsible for the Yale edition of Walpole’s Correspondence: indeed, he makes the specific assumption that ‘the student of these volumes will have [that edition] readily available.’ Student, not reader, mark you: and we are told also that ‘it is to students of the 18th century that this edition is addressed.’ A mite forbidding: and perhaps Brooke undersells his goods when he remarks: ‘The memoirs ... were written for posterity, and for a posterity which would be interested in the convolutions of 18th-century politics. Walpole did not aim to please his readers but to enlighten them, and it seems safe to say that few consult the memoirs today except scholars.’ One ground for reservation on this score is the existence of the only other separate edition of the memoirs not yet mentioned: the selection of Memoirs and Portraits made by Matthew Hodgart in 1963. Brooke never once refers to this excellent sampling, the first to use some of the new materials assembled by W.S. Lewis. Almost every truly significant passage or sustained characterisation in the George II memoirs is represented in Hodgart’s volume, and within its necessarily limited scope it has given the work a continuing currency.
What Brooke has aimed to do is ‘to provide for the first time a full and accurate text, and to indicate where and to what extent Walpole is reliable as a source of historical information’. Let us take these two issues separately. The Memoirs as previously available have derived from what is generally agreed to be a bad and corrupt text, put out by the third Lord Holland in 1822. Carlyle, in a note to Frederick the Great, was one of the first to heap opprobrium on Holland: ‘a book unedited; little but long ignorances of a hopeless type’.
Matters were not made easier by Walpole’s complicated instructions from beyond the grave on how the work should be published. In a forthcoming essay on Walpole as an historian, Peter Sabor comments on the way that ‘the preposterously Gothic arrangements by which Walpole preserved his history unread until generations after his death played into the hands of expurgators, conflators, and hostile commentators.’ Yet the passages now restored are not all that exciting, and whilst for scholarly purposes it is good to have an uncensored text at last, this will not do much for the standing of the work as history or literature. A couple of the more graphic omissions concern the Princess Dowager’s alleged tendresse for Lord Bute (but only a few phrases concerning a softening of her German accent when she spoke to him, and a swimming in the eyes, were excised), and a bolder suggestion which was physically removed from the manuscript, either by Lord Holland or the Sixth Earl Waldegrave (owner of Strawberry Hill and its contents in the 1820s). This concerns the alleged sexual tastes of Archbishop Stone of Armagh and of Lord George Sackville, the future martyr of Minden, then chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Walpole admits it to be ‘mere matter of suspicion’, but does not hold back on the innuendo: