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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

§ 10. His Letters to his Son and to his Godson; Their actual nature

But Chesterfield’s fame as a letter-writer must rest on his Letters to his Son and those to his Godson. His devotion to these two young men is a very remarkable indication of his true character. From 1737 (when his age was forty-three years) to the year of his death, it became little less than an obsession. He began writing letters of advice to his illegitimate son Philip Stanhope when the child was only five years old. When he had reached twenty-five, another Philip Stanhope (of Mansfield Woodhouse) was born. This was Chesterfield’s godson and successor, whose education he undertook, and to whom he began to write educational letters when he was four years old. He, doubtless, was led to undertake these letters by the recollection of the neglect he had experienced from his own father, and his sense of its consequences.

When sitting in judgment on Chesterfield’s letters to his son, we should not omit to remember that they were never intended for any eye but that of the receiver. He wrote (21 January, 1751):

  • You and I must now write to each other as friends and without the least reserve; there will for the future be a thousand things in my letters which I would not have any mortal living but yourself see or know.
  • The Letters are written in English, Latin and French, and contain a large amount of valuable information on history, geography, and so forth, put in an easy and convenient form for the pupil. Philip Stanhope was censured for bad writing and bad spelling and for inattention. His father told him that nothing was too small for attentive consideration and that concentrated attention on one subject at a time was of paramount importance: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day if you do one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year if you will do two things at once.”

    Honour and morality, the need of which is strongly urged in the Letters, do not include sexual morality: the writer recommends his son to seek intimate association with married women of fashion, in order to improve his manners, which, by nature, were somewhat boorish. The general principles of good breeding continually urged in the Letters have been strangely misunderstood. The object of life is to be pleased, and, in order to attain this, we must please others; but it is quite evident that more than surface pleasing is here intended. Both respect for the feelings of others and sympathy with them are enjoined. The young man is told “never to be ashamed of doing what is right,” but to use his own judgment instead of blindly following others in what the fashionable world considers to be pleasure. Such is a sample of Chesterfield’s wise saws, many of which have become familiar quotations, and which show his recollection of his own bitterly repented mistakes in early life. When Philip Stanhope went out into the world and his early education was completed, his father continued to send him letters of advice; but, in 1768, the young man died, and the father learned that he had been married and had two sons. Chesterfield received this unexpected news with composure, and wrote kindly to the widow, Eugenia Stanhope, saying that he would undertake all the expenses connected with the bringing up of her boys. He did not remove them from her care, but took much interest in them, and became attached to them, observing their different characters and advising as to them.

    Chesterfield’s literary fame rests upon his Letters to his Son, which were never intended for publication; but, it has been augmented by his Letters to his Godson, which, also, were not intended to see the light of publicity. Fourteen of the letters on the art of pleasing, or, as the writer entitled them, “The Duty. Utility and Means of Pleasing,” were first published in in 1774 in four numbers of The Edinburgh Magazine and Review. In 1776, they were added to a Dublin edition of Letters to his Son, and were incorrectly described as written to the son—instead of to the godson. In 1778, they were reproduced as a supplement to Maty’s Memoirs of Lord Chesterfield. The complete series of Chesterfield’s Letters to his Godson was not printed until 1890, when it was edited by the fourth earl of Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon, by means of the charming Life which he prefixed to the Letters, placed Chesterfield’s good name on a more substantial basis than that upon which it had hitherto rested.

    These Letters follow very much the plan of their predecessors. They are sometimes in English, and more often in French. They contain the same form of instruction and anecdote, are written with the same mixture of wit and wisdom, and breathe the same affectionate interest of the writer in the doings of his correspondent. One of the letters may be specially mentioned, since it inculcates the spirit of two commandments, on which, according to the highest authority, “hang all the law and the prophets.” Chesterfield writes:

  • I must from time to time remind you of two much more important dutys, which I hope you will never forget nor neglect. I mean your duty to God and your duty to Man.… Your duty to Man is very short and clear, it is only to do to him whatever you would be willing that he should do to you. And remember in all business of your life to ask your conscience this question Should I be willing that this should be done to me? If your conscience which will always tell you truth answer No, do not do that thing.
  • Chesterfield took immense pains to show his two pupils how to live; and it evidently gave him great pleasure to watch over them, and to express to each of them his satisfaction in their progress. He must, however, have suffered disappointment when he found that, in point of manners, neither of them did justice to his intentions. His son, we learn from others, was “loutish,” and Fanny Burney says of his godson that “with much share of humour, and of good humour also, [he] has as little good breeding as any man I ever met with.”