Salons

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.

Self-conscious attempts to record talk only wreck its spontaneity. In Genius in the Drawing-Room Robert Rosenstone’s essay describes the New York salon of Mabel Dodge which ran (if that’s what salons do) from 1912 to 1914 and was ‘the most famous, and no doubt the most interesting salon in American history’. Mabel Dodge liked to assemble celebrities with common or overlapping interests, and she would even arrange their contributions around some topic likely to provoke a successful discussion. One day she tried to preserve what passed. The anarchist journalist Hutchins Hapgood was asked

to speak on what Mabel called ‘Sex Antagonism’, that war between man and woman that she so well understood, and a stenographer was hired to record the conversation. But Hutch was a little drunk when he rose to speak, and the stenographer was not used to his vocabulary or odd juxtapositions. The resulting typescript was a disjointed jumble of ideas about sex, men, women, Wobblies, revolution, love, art, democracy and anarchism that lurched between sharp insights and total nonsense. On reading it over [Lincoln] Steffens commented that it sounded much like the writing of Gertrude Stein.

Quite so; and how much more difficult it must be to recapture the character of talk before the 20th century. Most of the contributors to Mr Quennell’s volume grope around the problem and then turn to something else more tangible. Hilde Spiel writes on Rahel von Varnhagen and Fanny von Arnstein, but she slips into the problem of their Jewishness rather than what was said at their salons. Lady Gladwyn on Madame Récamier concentrates on that lady’s affair with Chateaubriand. Mr Quennell is most interested in Madame de Lieven’s autumnal love for Guizot. Joanna Richardson on Madame de Girardin is much fuller and captures something of the fascination of a famous literary coterie: but as its hostess, she ‘chose to talk her Lettres Parisiennes before she wrote them’, so even her talk comes to us (with who knows what other people’s contributions) refracted through the medium of prose. The English hostesses described here come across a little more vividly, perhaps because the gossip, scattered in innumerable minor memoirs and biographies, is more accessible to English writers. Prudence Hannay is acute and sensitive on Lady Holland and Lady Blessington in the early 19th century. Lord Egremont’s essay on Lady Desborough and ‘the Souls’ is delightful. Victoria Glendinning’s study of ‘Speranza’, Oscar Wilde’s mother, is a tour de force. But the talk itself, conversation as an art to be cultivated and passed on, eludes us. If there were conventions and styles which gave ‘the literary salon’ continuity as a social phenomenon, we learn about them only casually and by the way. If there were qualities which successful hostesses have shared down the ages, they are not explored. Editorial guidance has been minimal.

Holland House is a much more substantial work. The subject has had its share of nostalgic and gossipy writing, but most of this looks rather faded now. Lord Ilchester’s two books, Chronicles of Holland House and The Home of the Hollands, came out in 1937. They have great charm, but they are guides, not history books. They assume that the reader will see the house for himself and note the various relics of its owners’ lives and taste. Alas, within three years German bombing made that impossible. The physical appearance of the house is about as easy to envisage now as that of Nonsuch Palace. We do, however, know a great deal more about its occupants, especially the Lord and Lady Holland who in the first four decades of the 19th century made it the most important meeting place of the Whig Party. In 1960, the Holland House papers, wisely preserved but somewhat jealously guarded by Lord Ilchester, were given to the British Museum, and a thorough and scholarly assessment of the Hollands’ contribution to political life became possible. Letters from an amazing variety of people, English politicians aristocratic and plebeian, foreign statesmen, political refugees, artists and men of letters, now show, as casual gossip cannot, what a wide range of acquaintances the Hollands had.

If the effect of all this rich material on the accepted picture of early 19th-century political life has not exactly been dramatic, that is partly because it takes time to absorb, and partly because there is still in British historical writing a strong tradition which maintains that history is essentially the record of the decisions of men in power. For the first three decades of the century the Whig Party was hardly ever in power. When they came to power in 1830, they devised a reform of the representation which in a decade proved fatal to their own position. Frivolity in opposition and failure in office do not together command much respect, and the Whigs have often been dismissed as a party of frivolous aristocrats playing at politics, who took up various reforming causes only to drop them when they seriously threatened Whig interests. This is a rather harsh view, and one would expect Holland House to play a part in its refutation. For in a period when the landed aristocracy possessed vast political influence and patronage any house which enabled rank and talent to meet and mix would become a political recruiting ground. Holland House combined the advantages of a country house and a political club. It was luxurious but not grandiose, and close enough to London to serve as a political headquarters during the Parliamentary session. It was the ideal place at which grandees like the Duke of Bedford, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Grey could meet the clever men of the rank and file, like the Edinburgh Reviewers Jeffrey and Horner, and later Mackintosh and Macaulay. If there was a common political creed in Whiggism, Holland House was the soil on which it could flourish. Any historian who could show precisely what its contribution was to the Whig Party and more generally to 19th-century liberalism would have written an important book.

At first sight, this seems to be what Leslie Mitchell has set out to do. His title suggests a book about the house and its role, not a mere biographical study of its two most famous occupants. He writes of the house as if it had views and opinions of its own. He prefers a thematic to a chronological treatment, devoting separate chapters to issues like slavery, the Catholic question, French politics and so on. But on closer inspection it turns out that he has been lured by his material into writing a biographical study in all but name. The book is not what the blurb claims, ‘a complete history of the house’s social and political ramifications’. Some of the ramifications are not explored at all. For instance, the contributions of the many Scottish Whigs like Holland’s librarian John Allen, or the historian Sir James Mackintosh, who were drawn into the circle, are left unanalysed. When he writes of ‘Holland House’ thinking this or disapproving of that, he mostly seems to mean Lord and Lady Holland. The book is essentially an exploration of their outlook, and especially of their political opinions.

One cannot blame him for this emphasis, for they were a fascinating pair. As host and hostess they had complementary qualities. As a divorcee, Lady Holland could not be received at Court, and respectable ladies avoided her house. In revenge, she made sure that the loss was theirs. She collected her guests with an exacting discrimination and blended them with skill. She entertained them with autocratic zest, ordering them about, changing the topic of conversation when it bored her, and issuing her own dogmatic judgments on literature and politics. These were always shrewd, often correct, occasionally very wide of the mark. She was an intelligent autodidact, and the very cosmopolitanism of her taste meant that areas of more conventional knowledge had eluded her. Discussing English usage with her, Macaulay discovered that she had never heard of the parable of the talents. She was a snob. She tried to dissuade Dickens from going to America wiih the advice: ‘Go down to Bristol and see some of the third or fourth-class people, and they’ll do just as well.’

Holland was by contrast kindly and genial, soothing the feelings which his wife had ruffled, drawing his guests out with an acute perception of their interests, and helping conversation flow with a fund of amusing anecdotes which improved with telling. Though as the nephew of Charles James Fox he felt himself the embodiment of what was best in the Whig tradition, he had very little of the Whig consciousness of caste. When his friend Granville asked to be made an earl, he commented: ‘Why one of the most sensible men I know should wish for so very foolish a thing I cannot guess.’ Everyone commented on his inexhaustible good humour. No one, as far as I know, credited him with great political influence. An intelligent man, his active usefulness was to some extent paralysed by the contradiction between his principles and his position. As Fox’s nephew, he felt he had to espouse reforming movements, but he was much too alert not to see that this could lead to a dangerous alliance with radical democrats. What to a Whig seemed an adequate reform of Parliament was to many radicals a mere palliative. Holland found two ways of escape from this dilemma. One was to lay heavy stress on the threat to popular liberty from a largely fictitious expansion of the influence of the Crown, something Whigs could say they had always opposed. The other was to patronise liberal movements abroad. But in the Napoleonic Wars this led to some absurd positions. As a friend of Spanish liberals, he had to approve French defeats in the Peninsula: as an opponent of autocracy, he had to deplore them in Germany. As one bewildered Whig lady put it in 1813, the Hollands ‘would defeat Bonaparte in Spain, but let him defeat the allies in Germany’. The other thing which reduced Holland’s political weigh was his notorious subjection to his wife. His characteristic response to her wayward decisions was an ineffectual irony. When Napoleon escaped from Elba, they were sightseeing in Italy, and Holland wrote home: ‘We are preparing for an excursion to Paestum but the escape of the hero has set Ldy Holland’s spirits in such a flurry & agitation that I suspect she will not be calm & sedate enough to enjoy the imposing gravity of Dorick Architectute.’ This is the stance of a man accustomed to being overruled and shrugging off the humiliation with a well-turned understatement.

Mitchell deals indulgently with these and other contradictions, and if he had confined himself to portraying the Hollands as they were, his feeling for his subject and his sympathy for their foibles would have made this a still more agreeable book. Superficiality and dilettantism, after all, need not be major faults in the host and hostess of a highly successful political salon. But as a serious academic, he has felt obliged to treat them with more gravity than they deserve, and this has led him into areas where his touch is less sure and serious errors have crept in. For example, Holland’s work for the abolition of slavery was complicated by the fact that he had become, through his wife’s Jamaica estates, a slave-owner. He seems to have behaved very creditably, but Mitchell’s treatment of the West Indian background is blurred, and he even calls Thomas Clarkson ‘the American abolitionist’. Again, his discussion of Holland’s for once quite important role in the short-lived Canning Ministry is marred by his assertion, which is made not once but three times, that Lord Liverpool died in 1827. There are many errors which show hasty proofreading. The Marquess of Anglesey called his biography of his ancestor One-Leg, not Peg-Leg, for example. And it would appear that the publisher has tried to cut costs by shortening words, suppressing the second ‘e’ in the plural of ‘echo’, ‘hero’ and ‘negro’. These things are trivial in themselves but they detract from one’s enjoyment of a rich subject and a learned book.