The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Walpole as a Critic
Numerous instances might be given of the value of the letters in illustration of history; but, in spite of the popular notion as to the frivolity of a large part of their contents, it may safely be said that matters of moment are dealt with throughout the series, and sidelights are to be found on every page. There is, first, the Jacobite rising of 1745. Then, we have the trials of the Jacobites, and, for a time, there is peace, broken by the excitement of Wilkes’s publication of The North Briton and subsequent riots. Walpole was attacked in no. 2 of The North Briton; and Wilkes was annoyed that he did not seem to mind the attack. In a letter to Mann, Walpole laments the state of the nation, and, after giving instances of the grievous increase of gambling, he writes, “We are not a great age, but surely we are tending to some great revolution.” The American war was the next great event to supply Walpole with material for invective and complaints of bad government. At the end of his life came the great convulsion of the French revolution and, in September, 1789, he congratulated Hannah More on the demolition of the Bastille, the reform of which he related fourteen years before. The enormities of the revolutionaries changed his political views, as they did those of the majority of Englishmen, and he welcomed with enthusiasm Burke’s Reflections. He said that it painted the queen “exactly as she appeared to me the first time I saw her when Dauphiness.”
Many of Walpole’s anecdotes are valuable as illustrations of the manners of the time and contain information not to be found elsewhere; but the chief interest of his correspondence remains autobiographical. The first hundred pages of Mrs. Toynbee’s edition contain letters, from 1732 to 1741, to Charles Lyttelton, Gray, West, George Montagu, Thomas Ashton and Henry Conway, for the most part written during Walpole’s travels. The first letter to Mann was written on 11 September, 1741. From this time, the complete autobiography may be said to begin, and it continues to the end. Walpole wrote an interesting advertisement prefixed to the Letters to Mann, explaining his reasons for preserving them, which is too long to quote here, but will be found in a note to the first letter. For the incidents of his early life we must search elsewhere, and he has left us the main particulars in the Short Notes of My Life.
Walpole’s character may be easily understood by any one who studies his correspondence. In early life, he was not very different from a large number of the highbred men of the eighteenth century who took pride in their social position, for it is necessary to remember that there were two classes of men in the English society of this age—the jovial and the coarse, and the reserved and refined. Sir Robert Walpole belonged to the former, and his son Horace to the latter. Horace was never very young, and his father said of himself that he was the younger of the two. Horace adds: “Indeed I think so in spite of his forty years more.” The son began life with a character for frankness and enthusiasm; but, as he grew into the cynical man of the world, he became colder in manner to mere acquaintances, reserving his true self only for his bosom friends. He cultivated an extreme fastidiousness and severe refinement, which caused him to exhibit a distaste for a robust humour that he considered vulgar. This powerful prejudice caused him to propound much absurd criticism. He could not admire Fielding because he kept “low company,” and condemned the “vulgarity of his character.” For the beautiful and pathetic Voyage to Lisbon he could find no praise, and he refers to “Fielding’s Travels or rather an account of how his dropsy was treated,” and how he was teased by an innkeeper’s wife in the Isle of Wight. He could not appreciate the genius of Richardson and refers to
In considering Walpole’s affected remarks on his own literary character, we should bear in mind the expressed opinions of so aristocratic an author as Byron, at a much later date. Walpole thought it would disgrace him to be known as a learned author, although, in his heart, he was proud of his books. He discloses his true character with a fine instinct more frequently when writing to Mann than to any other correspondent. At a quite early date, he takes Mann to task for over-estimating his abilities.