William Thomas

  • Holland House by Leslie Mitchell
    Duckworth, 320 pp, £18.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1116 X
  • Genius in the Drawing-Room edited by Peter Quennell
    Weidenfeld, 188 pp, £8.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 297 77770 X

The first of these books is an academic study of the politics of the most famous political salon of early 19th-century England. The second is a collection of essays on famous literary salons, from that of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, held in Berlin in the 1820s, to Lady Cunard’s gatherings in the Dorchester which lasted into the 1940s. Both deal with an elusive subject-matter. The purpose of the salon was to promote good talk in good company, and neither the talk nor the social qualities needed to draw it out leave much permanent trace. The best talkers tend to lack the inclination to write, and there is no guarantee that the learned, who leave the largest tomes for posterity to ponder over, will not be heavy company. One of the great men of the Holland House circle was Macaulay: but Macaulay did not, apparently, converse. He overwhelmed his hearers with a tidal wave of learning which they were too stunned to check or divert. On the other hand, some of the wits, who gave the talk at Holland House its charm and sparkle, have left no record at all. Alvanley and Luttrell wrote nothing. The literary remains of ‘Conversation’ Sharp fill a small volume.

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