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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

§ 4. His Letters and their qualities

The public came slowly into possession of Walpole’s great literary bequest. A series of Miscellaneous Letters was published in 1778 as the fifth volume of the collected edition of his Works. In 1818, Letters to George Montagu followed, and, in subsequent years, other series appeared. The first collected edition of Private Correspondence was published in 1820, and a fuller edition in 1840. But the reading world had to wait until 1857 for a fairly complete edition of the letters arranged in chronological order. This, edited in nine volumes by Peter Cunningham with valuable notes, held its own as the standard edition, until Mrs. Paget Toynbee’s largely augmented edition appeared. The supply of Walpole’s letters seems to be well-nigh inexhaustible, and a still fuller collection will, probably, appear in its turn.

We have here a body of important material which forms both an autobiography and a full history of sixty years of the eighteenth century. Although the letters contain Walpole’s opinions on events as they occurred day by day, he communicated them to his different correspondents from varied points of view. It is a remarkable fact, which proves the orderly and constructive character of the writer’s mind, that the entire collection of the letters, ranging over a very long period, forms a well connected whole, with all the appearance of having been systematically planned.

The first letter we possess is to “My dearest Charles” (C. Lyttelton), and was written when Walpole was fifteen years of age (7 August, 1732). In it he says:

  • I can reflect with great joy on the moments we passed together at Eton, and long to talk ’em over, as I think we could recollect a thousand passages which were something above the common rate of schoolboy’s diversions.
  • In the last known letter from his hand, written to the countess of Upper Ossory, to protest against her showing his “idle notes” to others, Walpole refers to his fourscore nephews and nieces of various ages, who are brought to him about once a year to stare at him “as the Methusalem of the family.” He wants no laurels:
  • I shall be quite content with a sprig of rosemary thrown after me, when the parson of the parish commits my dust to dust. Till then pray Madam accept the resignation of your ancient servant, Orford.
  • The same spirit runs through the entire correspondence. It constantly displays his affectionate feelings towards his friends and the lightness with which he is able to touch on his own misfortunes. Throughout his life, he was troubled by “invalidity”; yet he could repudiate any claim to patience, and ask Mann (8 January, 1786)

  • if people of easy fortunes cannot bear illness with temper what are the poor to do, who have none of our alleviations? The affluent, I fear, do not consider what a benefit ticket has fallen to their lot, out of millions not so fortunate; yet less do they reflect that chance, not merit, drew the prize out of the wheel.
  • He suffered from gout throughout his life; but he always made light of the affliction. He told Mason (Christmas day, 1779) that he had had a relapse, though a slight one, and “called it only a codicil to my gout. Mr. Gibbon said, ‘Very well; but I fancy it is not in consequence of your will.’” There was no mistake about the reality of his attacks; for chalk-stones were continually breaking out from his fingers, and he told Lady Ossory that, if he could not wait upon her, he hoped she would have the charity “to come and visit the chalk-pits in Berkeley Square.”

    Walpole studied letter-writing as an art and understood its distinctive features. There is no violent change in his style from beginning to end of his correspondence; but a gradual growth may be observed in his artistic treatment of his matter. He could criticise other letter-writers with judgment and good taste; but there was one, above all, who was only to be worshipped, and that was Madame de Sévigné. He tells Richard Bentley that

  • My Lady Hervey has made me most happy by bringing me from Paris an admirable copy of the very portrait [of Mme. de Sévigné] that was Madame de Simiane’s [her granddaughter]. I am going to build an altar for it, under the title of Notre Dame des Rochers!
  • Walpole addresses the same Lady Hervey from Paris (8 October, 1765) to the effect that he had called upon Madame Chabot.
  • She was not at home, but the Hotel de Carnavalet was; and I stopped on purpose to say an Ave Maria before it. It is a very singular building, not at all in the French style, and looks like an ex voto raised to her honour by some of her votaries [Mme. de Sévigné’s]. I don’t think her honoured half enough in her own country.
  • Mrs. Toynbee’s edition contains a total of three thousand and sixty-one letters, addressed by Walpole to one hundred and sixty correspondents, many of them men and women of mark. The number of letters to some of these personages are very few, but among them are seven, to each of whom over one hundred letters were written by him. Sir Horace Mann heads the list with 820, then comes the countess of Upper Ossory with 400. The other five have smaller numbers, as George Montagu 263, William Mason 217, William Cole 180, Henry Conway 179 and Mary Berry 159. The lifelong correspondence with Mann exhibits a unique instance of friendship, maintained without personal intercourse for forty-five years. Walpole might well say to his friend (4 December, 1785), “You and I have long out-friendshipped Orestes and Pylades.”