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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 18. Halifax’s Miscellanies: The Character of a Trimmer; A Letter to a Dissenter

Halifax’s own Miscellanies, first collected in 1700, are, for the most part, political pamphlets, but a few words concerning them may, perhaps not inappropriately, find a place here. For his finest piece of writing is his praise of truth in The Character of a Trimmer—a passage worthy of Montaigne, whom Halifax also resembles in his bold and happy use of metaphor. Although this famous pamphlet, which, notwithstanding its substantial length, must have circulated largely between the date of its composition (early in 1685) and that of its first publication (April, 1688), was then ascribed on the title-page to Sir William Coventry, there can be no doubt that it was by Halifax, who “owned it to his friends.” The title was suggested to him by a paper by his subsequent adversary L’Estrange; but the use made of the term “trimmer, and the lesson read to the nation on the ever old and ever new truth that there are times when the ship of state has to be steadied against the excesses of each of “the two extremes,” must alike be placed to the credit of Halifax himself. Few publications of the kind, intended to allay, not to heighten or inflame, the changes of an important crisis, have exercised a more direct effect.

The death of Charles II put an end to the trimmer’s plan of inducing the king to free himself from an overbearing influence which had now become sovereign authority. Halifax appears to have consoled himself by composing his admirable Character of King Charles the Second, which was not published, with an appendix of Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections, till 1750. The literature of characters, which the circumstances of the times and the art of both historians and satirists had brought to a great height of perfection, received a notable addition in this admirable portrait, by a man of the world, of a prince whom he thoroughly understood and for whom he did not care to conceal a liking which was not all loyalty. “The thing called Sauntering is a stronger Temptation to Princes than it is to others.” In this vein of easy philosophy, he delivered a judgment far nearer the truth than many more incisive censures.

Halifax’s second political pamphlet of importance, A Letter to a Dissenter Upon Occasion of His Majesties late Gracious Declaration of Indulgence, was first printed, with the signature “J. W.,” in 1687. It is much shorter than The Character of a Trimmer, but not less notable; for it may unhesitatingly be described as one of the pithiest and most straightforward productions of its kind, abounding in home-thrusts and exhibiting throughout the clear candour of a writer sure of his ground and convinced of the necessity of his conclusions. It is wholly directed against the dangerous, indeed suicidal, policy of an alliance between nonconformity and an unlawful strain of the prerogative, and, on the face of it, is written by a loyal patriot possessed by complete distrust of Rome. The Anatomy of an Equivalent (probably printed without an author’s name in 1688, certainly in 1689) is a tract of considerable subtlety of argument on a cognate subject.

Of the collection of aphoristic Thoughts and Reflections, published with the Character of King Charles the Second, the political section is characterised by much wit, at times thoroughly cynical, as is shown by the trimmer’s assertion that “the best Party is but a kind of a Conspiracy against the rest of the Nation,” and by several of the aphorisms under the head “Religion.” But not a little wisdom as well as wit is to be found both in these, and in the “Moral” and “Miscellaneous” sayings; and, on the whole, there is no unfairness, though there is some severity, in the “reprisals” made by this shrewd philosopher upon the generation which had grown up under his observant eye.

More in the nature of an essay than any of his other productions, was Halifax’s A Lady’s Gift, or Advice to a Daughter (by which latter name it is generally known). First printed in 1688, it went through many editions. This little book, addressed to his own daughter (mother of lord Chesterfield, author of perhaps the most celebrated Letters ever addressed to a son), shows much knowledge of the human, especially of the feminine, heart, and much of it is still so appropriate that one may wonder why it has not been reprinted in modern times. Aphorisms like “Love is a passion that hath friends in the garrison,” and “You may love your children without living in the nursery,” and, of an “empty” woman, “such an one is seldom serious but with her tailor,” have lost none of their force. The chapter on vanity and affectation contains a character of a vain woman quite in the manner of La Bruyère. The chapter on a husband is full of worldly wisdom, and good sense, and is based on a frank recognition of the “inequality in the sexes,” and the imperfection of husbands. The treatment of religion is just what you might expect from a man who, in religion as well as in politics, had “his dwelling in the middle between the two extremes.” If it is a little cold and unspiritual, it is tolerant, cheerful and reasonable; it breathes the temper of his contemporaries Barrow and Tillotson. Halifax’s style is thoroughly individual. It is the style not of an essayist communing with his readers for his own pleasure in the seclusion of his study, but of a man of the world who takes up the pen for the practical purpose of convincing others. He had a great reputation as an orator, and this is easy to believe, for, in his written speech, he often rises to real eloquence.