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

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 1. Horace Walpole as “the Prince of Letter-Writers”; His personal character vindicated

HORACE WALPOLE is generally acknowledged as “the prince of letter-writers,” and he is certainly entitled to this high literary rank in consideration of the extent and supreme value of his correspondence. Byron styled Walpole’s letters “incomparable,” and all who know them must agree in this high praise. English literature is particularly rich in the number and excellence of its letter-writers; but no other of the class has dealt with so great a variety of subjects as Walpole. His letters were, indeed, the chief work of his life.

As the beauty of the art largely depends on the spontaneity of the writers in the expression of their natural feelings, it would be futile to attempt to decide the relative merits of the great letter-writers in order to award the palm to the foremost or greatest of the class. We should be grateful for the treasures bequeathed to us and refrain from appraising their respective deserts. To weigh the golden words of such gracious spirits as Gray, Cowper or Charles Lamb, in order to decide which of them possesses the highest value, seems a labour unworthy of them all. Sincerity is the primary claim upon our respect and esteem for great writers of letters; and the lack of this rules out the letters of Pope from the place in literature to which they would otherwise be entitled. Now, in spite of the cruel criticism of Macaulay, we have no hesitation in claiming sincerity as a characteristic of Walpole’s letters.

Walpole lives now and always will live in public esteem as a great letter-writer; but he was also himself a distinguished figure during his lifetime. Thus, his name attained to a fame which, in later years, has been considerably dimmed, partly by the instability which reflects itself in his writings, and, also, by the virulent censure to which he has been subjected by some critics of distinction. Macaulay’s complete indictment of Horace Walpole as a man has left him with scarcely a rag of character. The charges brought against him are, however, so wholesale that the condemnation may be said to carry with it its own antidote; for it is not a mere caricature, but one almost entirely opposed to truth. To many of these unjust charges, any candid review of Walpole’s career in its many aspects, exhibiting him as a man of quality, a brilliant wit, both in conversation and in writing, an author of considerable mark, a connoisseur of distinction and a generous and ready friend, will form a sufficient answer. A fuller reply, however, is required to those accusations which touch his honour and social conduct through life. Macaulay speaks of Walpole’s “faults of head and heart,” of his “unhealthy and disorganised mind,” of his disguise from the world “by mask upon mask,” adding that “whatever was little seemed great to him, and whatever was great seemed to him little.” Now, Walpole placed himself so often at his reader’s mercy, and, occasionally, was so perverse in his actions as to make it necessary for those who admire his character to show that, though he had many transparent faults, his life was guided by honourable principles, and that, though not willing to stand forth as a censor of mankind, he could clearly distinguish between the great and little things of life and, when a duty was clear to him, had strength to follow the call. His affectation no one would wish to deny; but, although this is an objectionable quality, it can scarcely be treated as criminal. In fact, Walpole began life with youthful enthusiasm and with an eager love of friends, but soon adopted a shield of fine-gentlemanly pretence, in order to protect his own feelings.