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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Glimpses of Noted People

By John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877)

[The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, D.C.L. Edited by George William Curtis. 1889.]


WHEN I called, Bismarck was at dinner; so I left my card and said I would come back in half an hour. As soon as my card had been carried to him (as I learned afterwards) he sent a servant after me to the hotel, but I had gone another way. When I came back I was received with open arms. I can’t express to you how cordially he received me. If I had been his brother, instead of an old friend, he could not have shown more warmth and affectionate delight in seeing me. I find I like him even better than I thought I did, and you know how high an opinion I always expressed of his talents and disposition. He is a man of very noble character, and of very great powers of mind. The prominent place which he now occupies as a statesman sought him. He did not seek it, or any other office. The stand which he took in the Assembly from conviction, on the occasion of the outbreak of 1848, marked him at once to all parties as one of the leading characters of Prussia. Of course I don’t now go into the rights and wrongs of the matter, but I listened with great interest, as you may suppose, to his detailed history of the revolutionary events of that year, and his share in them, which he narrated to me in a long conversation which we had last night. He wanted me to stay entirely in his house, but as he has his wife’s father and mother with him, and as I saw that it was necessary to put up a bed in a room where there was none, I decidedly begged off. I breakfasted there this morning, and am to dine there, with a party, to-day. To-morrow, I suppose, I shall dine there en famille. I am only afraid that the landlord here will turn me into the streets for being such a poor consommateur for him, and all I can do is to order vast quantities of seltzer water.

The principal change in Bismarck is that he has grown stouter, but, being over six feet, this is an improvement. His voice and manner are singularly unchanged. His wife I like very much indeed—very friendly, intelligent, and perfectly unaffected, and treats me like an old friend. In short, I can’t better describe the couple than by saying that they are as unlike M. and Mme. de ——— as it is possible to be.

In the summer of 1851, he told me that the Minister, Manteuffel, asked him one day abruptly if he would accept the post of Ambassador at Frankfort, to which (although the proposition was as unexpected a one to him as if I should hear by the next mail that I had been chosen Governor of Massachusetts) he answered, after a moment’s deliberation, yes, without another word. The King, the same day, sent for him, and asked him if he would accept the place, to which he made the same brief answer, “Ja.” His Majesty expressed a little surprise that he made no inquiries or conditions, when Bismarck replied that anything which the King felt strong enough to propose to him, he felt strong enough to accept. I only write these details that you may have an idea of the man. Strict integrity and courage of character, a high sense of honor, a firm religious belief, united with remarkable talents, make up necessarily a combination which cannot be found any day in any Court; and I have no doubt that he is destined to be Prime Minister, unless his obstinate truthfulness, which is apt to be a stumbling-block for politicians, stands in his way….

Well, he accepted the post and wrote to his wife next day, who was preparing for a summer’s residence in a small house they had taken on the sea-coast, that he could not come because he was already established in Frankfort as Minister. The result, he said, was three days of tears on her part. He had previously been leading the life of a plain country squire with a moderate income, had never held any position in the Government or in diplomacy, and had hardly ever been to Court. He went into the office with a holy horror of the mysterious nothings of diplomacy, but soon found how little there was in the whole “galimatias.” Of course my politics are very different from his, although not so antipodal as you might suppose, but I can talk with him as frankly as I could with you, and I am glad of an opportunity of hearing the other side put by a man whose talents and character I esteem, and who so well knows le dessous des cartes.


I believe you have never seen Thackeray. He has the appearance of a colossal infant, smooth, white, shiny ringlety hair, flaxen, alas, with advancing years, a roundish face, with a little dab of a nose upon which it is a perpetual wonder how he keeps his spectacles, a sweet but rather piping voice, with something of the childish treble about it, and a very tall, slightly stooping figure—such are the characteristics of the great “snob” of England. His manner is like that of everybody else in England—nothing original, all planed down into perfect uniformity with that of his fellow-creatures. There was not much more distinction in his talk than in his white choker or black coat and waistcoat. As you like detail, however, I shall endeavor to Boswellize him a little, but it is very hard work. Something was said of Carlyle the author. Thackeray said: “Carlyle hates everybody that has arrived; if they are on the road, he may perhaps treat them civilly.” Mackintosh praised, the description in the “French Revolution” of the flight of the King and Queen (which is certainly one of the most living pictures ever painted with ink), and Thackeray agreed with him, and spoke of the passages very heartily. Of the Cosmopolitan Club, Thackeray said: “Everybody is or is supposed to be a celebrity; nobody ever says anything worth hearing, and every one goes there with his white choker at midnight, to appear as if he had just been dining with the aristocracy. I have no doubt,” he added, “that half of us put on the white cravat after a solitary dinner at home or at our club, and so go down among the Cosmopolitans.”

I have strung these things together, not with the idea that the observations are worth sending (except for peculiar reasons, the last one), but because in your solitude I think that both you and Lily may be as easily amused as the friends of Mr. Peter Magnus were. This is what mainly occupies me when I go out; the thought that perhaps I may suck out something from the somewhat flat and gravelly soil of London society which may flower into a letter for your gratification is about the only one which gives me much satisfaction. Therefore I beg you to find the bouquets very fragrant and very brilliant, although they are in truth about as rare as dandelions….

In the evening I dined at Thackeray’s. There were fifteen or sixteen people. I do not know any of their names. I sat between Thackeray’s two daughters. They are both intelligent and agreeable. The youngest told me she liked “Esmond” better than any of her father’s books. Thackeray, by the way, evidently considers that kind of thing his forte. He told me that he hated the “Book of Snobs,” and could not read a word of it. The “Virginians,” he said, was devilish stupid, but at the same time most admirable; but that he intended to write a novel of the time of Henry V., which would be his capo d’opera, in which the ancestors of all his present characters, Warringtons, Pendennises, and the rest, should be introduced. It would be a most magnificent performance, he said, and nobody would read it. After the ladies had left the house, we went downstairs and smoked cigars till into the small hours.


On Monday I dined with the Mackintoshes. Macaulay, Dean Milman, and Mr. and Mrs. Farrar composed the party. Of course you would like a photograph of Macaulay, as faithfully as I can give it. He impressed me on the whole agreeably. To me, personally, he spoke courteously, respectfully; showed by allusion to the subject in various ways that he was quite aware of my book and its subject, although I doubt whether he had read it. He may have done so, but he manifested no special interest in me. I believe that he is troubled about his health (having a kind of bronchial or asthmatic cough), and that he rarely dines out nowadays, so that it is perhaps a good deal of a compliment that he came on this occasion on purpose to meet me. His general appearance is singularly commonplace. I cannot describe him better than by saying he has exactly that kind of face and figure which by no possibility would be selected, out of even a very small number of persons, as those of a remarkable personage. He is of the middle height, neither above nor below it. The outline of his face in profile is rather good. The nose, very slightly aquiline, is well cut, and the expression of the mouth and chin agreeable. His hair is thin and silvery, and he looks a good deal older than many men of his years; for, if I am not mistaken, he is just as old as his century, like Cromwell, Balzac, Charles V., and other notorious individuals. Now those two impostors, so far as appearances go, Prescott and Mignet, who are sixty-two, look young enough, in comparison, to be Macaulay’s sons. The face, to resume my description, seen in front, is blank, and as it were badly lighted. There is nothing luminous in the eye, nothing impressive in the brow. The forehead is spacious, but it is scooped entirely away in the region where benevolence ought to be, while beyond rise reverence, firmness, and self-esteem, like Alps on Alps. The under eyelids are so swollen as almost to close the eyes, and it would be quite impossible to tell the color of those orbs, and equally so, from the neutral tint of his hair and face, to say of what complexion he had originally been. His voice is agreeable, and its intonations delightful, although that is so common a gift with Englishmen as to be almost a national characteristic.

As usual, he took up the ribands of the conversation, and kept them in his own hand, driving wherever it suited him. I believe he is thought by many people a bore, and you remember that Sydney Smith spoke of him as “our Tom, the greatest engine of social oppression in England.” I should think he might be to those who wanted to talk also. I can imagine no better fun than to have Carlyle and himself meet accidentally at the same dinner-table with a small company. It would be like two locomotives, each with a long train, coming against each other at express speed. Both, I have no doubt, could be smashed into silence at the first collision. Macaulay, however, is not so dogmatic or so outrageously absurd as Carlyle often is, neither is he half so grotesque or amusing. His whole manner has the smoothness and polished surface of the man of the world, the politician, and the new peer, spread over the man of letters within. I do not know that I can repeat any of his conversation, for there was nothing to excite very particular attention in its even flow. There was not a touch of Holmes’s ever-bubbling wit, imagination, enthusiasm, and arabesqueness. It is the perfection of the commonplace, without sparkle or flash, but at the same time always interesting and agreeable. I could listen to him with pleasure for an hour or two every day, and I have no doubt I should thence grow wiser every day, for his brain is full, as hardly any man’s ever was, and his way of delivering himself is easy and fluent.


I was introduced to Lord Brougham before dinner. He shook hands cordially, and expressed himself as glad to make my acquaintance, but he did not seem to “pant” so much as might have been expected. We soon went to dinner, and his place was at the opposite end of the table from mine, so that our acquaintance for the present is limited. I have no doubt I shall see more of him, but to tell you the truth I fear he is a mere wreck. Let me give you a photograph, while his grotesque image still lingers in the camera-obscura of my brain. He is exactly like the pictures in “Punch,” only “Punch” flatters him. The common pictures of Palmerston and Lord John are not like at all to my mind, but Brougham is always hit exactly. His face, like his tongue and his mind, is shrewd, sharp, humorous. His hair is thick and snow-white and shiny; his head is large and knobby and bumpy, with all kinds of phrenological developments, which I did not have a chance fairly to study. The rugged outlines or headlands of his face are wild and bleak, but not forbidding. Deep furrows of age and thought and toil, perhaps of sorrow, run all over it, while his vast mouth, with a ripple of humor ever playing around it, expands like a placid bay under the huge promontory of his fantastic and incredible nose. His eye is dim and could never have been brilliant, but his voice is rather shrill, with an unmistakable Northern intonation; his manner of speech is fluent, not garrulous, but obviously touched by time; his figure is tall, slender, shambling, awkward, but of course perfectly self-possessed. Such is what remains at eighty of the famous Henry Brougham….

There certainly never was a great statesman and author who so irresistibly suggested the man who does the comic business at a small theatre as Brougham. You are compelled to laugh when you see him, as much as at Keeley or Warren. Yet there is absolutely nothing comic in his mind. On the contrary, he is always earnest, vigorous, impressive; but there is no resisting his nose. It is not merely the configuration of that wonderful feature which surprises you, but its mobility. It has the litheness and almost the length of the elephant’s proboscis, and I have no doubt he can pick up pins or scratch his back with it as easily as he could take a pinch of snuff. He is always twisting it about in quite a fabulous manner.