Dancing Senator

Pat Rogers

  • 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II and the first 11 of his grandson’s. There are also more spasmodic Last Journals, published in 1859, and a still unpublished continuation taking the story up to 1791.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:

The Irish are not farther removed from the Italians by their situation and climate, than by their manners and the integrity of their amours. The clergy, nay the very bishops of Ireland, are buxom husbands, boon companions ... Yet in so Cyprian an isle was the metropolitan himself accused of wayward passions, more consonant to the life of a cardinal, than to the supremacy of so orthodox a flock. His friend Lord George was suspected of the same heresy.

Such Gibbonian flashes are rare, and it is good to have the text restored here – as indeed to have the fair copy which Walpole prepared so scrupulously transcribed. Both foul and fair copies remain at Chewton Mendip in the Waldegrave collection, the largest integral holding not to have been sucked into Lewis’s all-embracing library at Farmington, Connecticut.

On the whole, the textual issues prove to be smaller than discussion had suggested. Not so with the vexed and vexing question of the degree to which Walpole’s account can be trusted. Brooke has maintained a consistent position over the years, and it is not an unsympathetic one overall: he once commented that ‘one of the difficulties about appreciating Walpole is that his faults are all on the surface while his virtues are not so easily recognised.’ Still, distrust of the memoirs does tend to go hand in hand with repudiation of the Whig view of history, and it is Walpole’s alleged fabrication of a conspiracy between Bute and the Princess Dowager to inflate royal prerogative at the start of George Ill’s reign which has caused all the trouble. Brooke once called it ‘a Gothic romance with no foundation in fact’ (the image keeps recurring in relation to the author of Otranto). One can rest assured that this was Namier’s view, and it was certainly that of Romney Sedgwick, who wrote in 1937 that ‘the weakness of the memoirs lies in their author’s psychological and intellectual limitations ... in the absence of any attempt by his editors or his biographers at an analysis of his real motives, of which he himself was quite unconscious, a safe working rule ... is that his facts are first-class and his generalisations worthless.’ Sedgwick was one of many to look more favourably on the letters than the memoirs: ‘The more seriously he takes himself, the less sensible he becomes. When the dancing senator becomes historian he loses his wit without improving his judgment.’

The last observation is palpably false. One could fill several columns with shafts as barbed as anything in the letters. ‘The Bishop of Durham had been wafted to that see in a cloud of metaphysics, and remained absorbed in it’ (this is 1751). ‘The younger [Richard] Beck-ford, who had been announced for a genius, and had laid a foundation for being so, by studying magazines and historical registers ...’ Or this Tacitean thrust at the French: ‘While they were purchasing the instructions of our ambassador, attentive only to acquire the emptiest of their accomplishments, they employed at our court a man too empty to learn even the dullest of ours.’ He can occasionally seem to bit too slick and reductive: ‘They were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Jennings, a man formed for a hero, for he had great bravery and a small portion of sense.’ But that can happen in the letters, too, and more often Walpole keeps his cynicism within bounds: he says of the caricaturist George Townshend, a coadjutor of Wolfe at Quebec, that ‘he saw everything in an ill-natured and ridiculous light – a sure prevention of ever being seen himself in a great or favourable one.’ Generally even his sourest observations carry some ring of truth: ‘Sir Thomas [Robinson] had been bred in German courts, and was rather restored than naturalised to the genius of that country: he had German honour, loved German politics, and could explain himself as little as if he spoke only German. He might have remained in obscurity, if the Duke of Newcastle’s necessity of employing men of talents inferior even to his own, and his alacrity in discovering persons so qualified, had not dragged poor Sir Thomas into light and ridicule.’

Walpole may shape events too readily in terms of antithesis (as of the reverse at Fort Duquesne in 1755, when General Braddock, ‘finding his generalship exerted too late, pushed his valour to desperation’). More often, the feline wit serves purposes of acute understanding as well as malice:

Pitt, it was expected, would take advantage of illness and not appear [in Parliament]. But he refined on that old finesse; and pretending to waive the care of a broken constitution, when his country demanded his service ... he came to the discussion in all the studied apparatus of a theatric valetudinarian ... No aspiring cardinal ever coughed for the tiara with more specious debility.

Walpole can catch Pitt’s greatness, but he seizes, too, on the ham actor who delivered the lines from Demosthenes. ‘Lord Chatham I have described in all the lights in which he appeared,’ he wrote later, ‘sometimes a capital statesman, sometimes an empiric [charlatan], sometimes a lunatic.’

Walpole was more aware of what he was doing than Sedgwick allows. The memoirs are full of sounding passages on the task of the historian, and of the role in which he had cast himself. Some are unconvincingly self-deprecating, as when he speaks of ‘a more exalted pen than mine’: though ‘suited perhaps to the trifling province of catching ridicules’, his was ‘unequal to the lofty compass of history’. In the same spirit, he writes: ‘I am no historian: I write casual memoirs, I draw characters; I preserve anecdotes, which my superiors the historians of Britain may enchase into their weighty annals, or pass over at their pleasure.’ Later commentators have accepted such ironies at face value. In fact, Walpole clearly set himself the goal of becoming the British Plutarch: it is from this source (not Clarendon or the French 17th-century memoirists) that his blend of narrative, discursive comment and set-piece portraiture derives. So, too, the elaborate parallels and contrasts: Robert Walpole and Bolingbroke, Walpole and Henry Pelham, and, pervasively, Pitt against Newcastle. Behind this lies an ancient literary decorum: when Brooke observes, ‘Walpole’s correspondence is a record of his friendships; his memoirs and journals, of his hatreds,’ he points to the Ciceronian province of the letter (philia) in contrast to the deliberative or forensic materials of public discourse.

In any case, he did have a consistent view of men and events. Fundamentally he sees life, in terms of his famous definition to Lady Ossory, as a comedy: like Johnson, he disliked a feeler. Throughout, Newcastle is described in terms of farce and buffoonery. The ‘burlesque Duke of Newcastle’ of the letters is fleshed out into a coherent and intelligible character: ‘He loved business immoderately, yet was only always doing it, never did it.’ Or, at the time of his resignation in 1756: ‘His grace retired to Claremont; where for about a fortnight he played at being a country gentleman. Guns and green frocks were bought, and at past sixty, he affected to turn sportsman; but getting wet in his feet, he hurried back to London in a fright, and his country was once more blessed with his assistance.’ ‘Thus far the debate was serious,’ he writes of a confrontation between Pitt and Newcastle’s ministry in 1756, just a year before the strange coalition between the two men: ‘will it be credited that the following speech was so? will not my narrative be sometimes thought a burlesque romance? as Don Quixote has his Sancho, and Hudibras his Ralph, may not some future commentator discover, that the Duke of Newcastle was my trembling hero, and Nugent his abandoned squire?’ With the lesser lights, Walpole can overdo the risibility (Nugent is always making a ‘buffoon’ speech, and of Lyttelton as Chancellor of the Exchequer Walpole notes that ‘a monkey in a banker’s shop would mimic the gravity of an arithmetician with more address’). But the absurdity of Newcastle is existential, not just behavioural, and even the Duke’s modern apologists must concede that psychological penetration isn’t wholly lacking in the more savage pages of the memoirs.

And Walpole has a remarkable sense of the wider sweep of history. This comes out in his letters, as in the thought expressed to Horace Mann in 1770, of entertaining himself ‘with the idea of a future senate in Carolina and Virginia, their future patriots will harangue on the austere and incorruptible virtue of the ancient English!’ Or his prediction in 1784, when he supposes ‘our seaports to become deserted villages; and Salisbury Plain, Newmarket Heath ... and all downs (but the Downs) arising into dockyards for aërial vessels ... In those days Old Sarum will again be a town and have houses in it. There will be fights in the air with wind-guns and bows and arrows.’ That was during the balloon mania: but this, from the Memoirs in 1754, predates the first Falk-lands imbroglio and the American revolution:

A sea captain first spying a rock in the 15th century; perhaps a cross, or a coat of arms set up to the view of a few miles of coast by an adventurer, or even by a ship-wrecked crew, gave the first claims to kings and arch-pirates over an unknown tract of country. This transitory seizure sometimes obtained the venerable confirmation of an old priest at Rome ... or of a still more politic, though not less interested Privy Council at home. Sometimes indeed, if the discoverers were conscientious, they made a legal purchase to all eternity, of empires and posterity from a parcel of naked natives for a handful of glass beads and baubles. Maryland, I think, was solemnly acquired at the extravagant rate of a quantity of vermilion and Jew’s harps. I don’t know whether the authentic instrument may not be recorded in that Christian depository the court of Chancery. By means so holy, a few princes, who would be puzzled to produce a legitimate title to their own dominions in Europe, were wafted into rights and prerogatives over the boundless regions of America.

That is Voltaire without the rictus: a control of cadence, and a mastery of English prose unequalled in the century, even by Addison.

Finally, Walpole’s prejudices are not all that important: we can set the Hardwicke correspondence now against his unjust strictures, we can shift whole cartloads of Newcastle papers to the foot of Walpole’s page in corrective zeal. His republicanism is too florid to be convincing: ‘I have ever found that such grave personages as affect to authenticate our liberties by history and precedent, are no better than their foppish tools the heralds, who hoard long rolls of nobility, but are ready to forge a pedigree for the first pretender to birth.’ One is not surprised that Walpole should have found his Whiggery sensibly abated by the events in France after 1789. And his paranoia about the education of the future George III, especially when it concerns not just the Princess Dowager but also Murray, the future Lord Mansfield, is wildly disproportionate to the occasion (’a Scotchman of a most disaffected family, and allied in the nearest manner to the Pretender’s first minister’).

Herbert Butterfield was right, a long time ago now, to say that it was a mistake to view Walpole ‘as a sort of bantam-cock in an era of important history-making’. Walpole, he observed, ‘has a way of surprising us to attention at times’. Butterfield thought this was when he ‘seems to take a look at the structure of things, and to write as a more serious historian’. I am not sure that this definition of seriousness in historiography will do. As Butterfield perceived, Walpole ‘knew how to flavour his account with a wealth of imagination’. The term ‘flavour’, however, may suggest too external a quality. There is a remarkable section on Admiral Byng which breathes the human sympathy usually denied to Walpole: it is bitter, as many people were bitter about the case: ‘Lord Hardwicke had forgot to make the clergy declare murder innocent, as the lawyers had been induced to find law in what no man else could find sense.’ But there is nothing superficial or adolescent about its judgments, any more than there is any failure in tone when Walpole moves from the disasters of the mid-1750s (notably the Rochefort expedition, in which his friend Conway took a leading though reluctant part) to the triumphs of 1759. His claims for objectivity are exaggerated: ‘Posterity, this is an impartial picture. I am neither dazzled by the blaze of the times in which I have lived; nor, if there are spots in the sun, do I deny that I see them. It is a man [Pitt] I am describing, and one, whose greatness will bear to have his blemishes fairly delivered to you.’ But he was sometimes less corrupted by his private likes and dislikes than is generally assumed: for example, he gives a decently balanced picture of the conduct of Henry Fox, and makes reasonable sense of the difficult character of the Duke of Cumberland. The Princess Dowager and all other women are more indistinct: Walpole wrote some wonderful letters to women, especially in his later years, but at first hand his dealings were inhibited by a mixture of shy sympathy and repressed hostility that is fairly common among certain kinds of homosexual.

All in all, this edition must put back Walpole high on the historical agenda, even if the squabbles over George III and the historians, which last called out his testimony, are looking a bit faded now. The editing is discreetly efficient, though the first student of Shakespeare whom Brooke met in the street could have told him that the quotation under 1755 and misattributed by Walpole to Measure for Measure is in fact a bad memorial reconstruction of the King’s prayer speech in Act Three of Hamlet, And one might wish the editor had located quotations, from sources such as the Ars Poetica, which Walpole indents for effect, when every pelting officer and piddling bailiff is given a name. But these are matters of convention, and secondary in every sense: the primary matter is the provision of the text itself, and that is what Walpole would have enjoyed: ‘Probably these anecdotes will amuse for some years, till they are lost in the mass of books, and when the affairs of this little spot, which we call Britain, shall appear of no more importance than our island itself in a geographic picture.’