Horace Walpole

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:207-13.

HORACE WALPOLE, the third son of Sir Robert Walpole, occupied from his birth a station in the eyes of the world which commanded immediate attention to every display of the faculties of his mind, and he may be said to have entered the world with that claim on its attention which less fortunate men have not acquired without delay, disappointment, and labour. He was born in the year 1718, and educated at Eton school, where he became acquainted with Gray. Both entered the university of Cambridge about the year 1734, and Walpole, who was a member of King's college, wrote on the 2d of February, 1738, the earliest of his avowed productions, verses in memory of King Henry VI. the founder of that institution, — a piece which may be ranked at the aggregate merit of university prize poems. At college he is said to have indulged in religious enthusiasm so far as to join his friend Ashton in praying with the prisoners in the castle. He soon, however, changed his opinions, and, with the natural reverse to overturned enthusiasm, did not limit himself to the scepticism which an argumentative or reflecting mind might have chosen. He is reported to have said: "Fontenelle's dialogues on the plurality of worlds, first rendered me an infidel. Christianity and a plurality of worlds are, in my opinion, irreconcilable.... Atheism I dislike. It is gloomy, uncomfortable and, in my eye, unnatural and irrational. It certainly requires more credulity to believe that there is no God, than to believe that there is. This fair creation, those magnificent Heavens, the fruit of matter and chance! O, impossible! I go to church sometimes in order to induce my servants to go to church. I am no hypocrite. I do not go in order to persuade them to believe what I do not believe myself. A good moral sermon may instruct and benefit them. I only set them an example of listening, not of believing."

In the summer of the year 1738, having arrived at majority, he was appointed inspector-general of the exports and imports, which office he afterwards exchanged for that of usher of the exchequer, a less troublesome duty, which required the appending of very few signatures excepting those required to draw the salary. His father being then at the height of power, and like a patriot resolved to throw his children on their country, was busy in procuring sinecures for his family. That portion of them which fell to the lot of Horace, consisting of five several offices, produced, according to calculations from his own admissions, 3,900, while the commissioners of inquiry reckoned them at 6,300, and his biographers, probably with a nearer approach to truth, generally name his income as amounting to about 5,000 a year. It is at all events known that all that was left him as a hereditary fortune by his father was 5,000, of which only 1,000 was ever paid, and that the elegant luxuries of Strawberry-hill were maintained from situations for which he has been lavish before the public in praise of the generosity and disinterestedness of his father. Walpole appears to have had no early desire to shine as a politician, and being called upon neither by ambition nor necessity to shape to himself a steady course through life, his pursuits were desultory, and the powers of his mind untried. He left his father during the most active period of his administration, proceeding to France in March 1739, when he was accompanied by Gray in a ramble over various parts of the continent. In May 1741, these uncongenial spirits had a dispute at Reggio, which terminated in a dissolution of their friendship, — a circumstance of which Walpole candidly accepts the blame, on the very complacent ground that he should have spared a weaker brother and allowed latitude to the peculiar temper of Gray. It is to his honour to add, that although no longer the friend, he did not condescend to become the enemy of the illustrious poet. On his return from the continent, Walpole entered the brief and unimportant theatre of his political existence, by being chosen in June, 1741, as representative of the borough of Callington in Cornwall: commencing his career in that parliament which overthrew the greatness of his father. The only active part which he undertook in the debates was a single act of filial propriety and affection, — an answer to the motion on the 23d March, 1742, for an inquiry into the conduct of Sir Robert Walpole.

His subsequent political acts may here be briefly traced. If a mind so versatile and fickle can be said to have adopted any political principles, it is apparent that be was long opposed to the enemies of his father, although he finally became reconciled to and even on friendly terms with many of them, while he turned his chief wrath against those he looked upon as insidious friends. Among the former were Grenville and Pitt, and of the latter the two Pelhams and Lord Hardwicke: of Mr. Pelham he could frequently speak with calmness, even with a tinge of praise, — but his brother the duke of Newcastle never received anything at his hands but the most loathing contempt, expressed at every suiting opportunity with Protean variety of bitterness. He used to compare the respective merits of the two brothers with those of his father and his uncle Horace, as parallel cases, drawing the degree of eminence in favour of his father. His uncle he considered as one of those who had betrayed or deserted Sir Robert; and no other reason can be assigned for his enmity to the amiable Lord Hardwicke than the intimacy between that peer and his own relative. Family pride, one of the strongest guides of his conduct, has not prevented him from characterizing his epistles and memoirs with a fund of fractious abuse of his uncle and his family. "His mind," he says, "was a strange mixture of sense allayed by absurdity, wit by mimicry, knowledge by buffoonery, bravery by meanness, honesty by selfishness, impertinence by nothing." On another occasion he speaks of the family as follows: "I must now notify to you the approaching espousals of the most illustrious Prince Pigwiggin (so he termed his cousin) with Lady Rachel Cavendish, third daughter of the duke of Devonshire: the victim does not dislike it! My uncle makes great settlements, and the duke is to get a peerage for Pigwiggin, upon the foot that the father cannot be spared out of the house of commons. Can you bear this old buffoon making himself of consequence, and imitating my father!" The versatility of his political feelings is shown in his alternate abuse and praise of Fox, — abuse and praise, indeed, in which he has reached the highest flight of political wavering by making them simultaneous; for while he purposely prepared a supplementary number of The World, bestowing fulsome praise on that gentleman, his memoirs during the same period continually stamp his name with the brand of ridicule and censure. His relative, General Conway, was the only person to whom as a friend or a political supporter be remained steadfast. He publicly defended him in A Counter-address to the public on the late dismission of a general officer, and it has been maintained, not without justice, that the uninterrupted, and always affectionate correspondence between the cousins, from 1740 to 1784, proves that Horace Walpole was not entirely destitute of a feeling of friendship. That the sluices of his heart, however firmly they might have been shut to his rivals in literature and the arts, could be opened to a man of noble birth, his own relation, is indeed evident from several portions of this correspondence. "Nothing," he writes his friend in 1744, "could prevent my being unhappy at the smallness of your fortune, but its throwing it into my way to offer you to share mine. As mine is so precarious by depending on so precarious a constitution, I can only offer you the immediate use of it. I do that most sincerely. My places still (though my Lord W. has cut off three hundred pounds a year to save himself the trouble of signing his name ten times for once,) bring me in near two thousand pounds a year. I have no debts, no connections: indeed no way to dispose of it particularly. By living with my father, I have little real use for a quarter of it. I have always flung it away all in the most idle manner. But, my dear Harry, idle as I am, and thoughtless, I have sense enough to have real pleasure in denying myself baubles, and in saving a very good income to make a man happy, for whom I have a just esteem and most sincere friendship."

In 1747 he sat as member for his hereditary borough of Castle-Rising. In January, 1751, he was so far the friend of the minister as to move the address in the house of commons. In the April following he made an application to Mr. Pelham to extend the post of collectorship of the customs, which depended on the lives of his two brothers, to his own life; the request was refused, and the month of May found him, by the admission of his own memoirs, the opponent of the ministry. In 1753, when the education of the prince of Wales was a favourite handle to the opposition, he allows himself to have been the author of a fabricated memorial which bore to have been subscribed by several persons of high rank and influence, reprobating the dangerous method of education which was presumed to be pursued by the governors of the heir apparent. In 1757 he made use of his influence and powers of invective in defence of the unfortunate Admiral Byng, — a measure in which it has been questioned whether he was chiefly urged by a sense of justice, or a feeling of opposition to the enemies of the admiral; and during the same year he recommended to Fox a plan for destroying the influence of the duke of Newcastle, by procuring from the king a carte blanche to Pitt, for the disposal of the treasury-offices and dissolving the parliament. Much about the same period he accepted the Chiltern hundreds, in order to succeed his cousin, just become Lord Walpole, in the representation of Lynn Regis; the corporation of which had such reverence for his father's family, that they would not bear distant relations while he had sons living." In 1767 he voluntarily closed his political career by a letter addressed to the mayor of Lynn, announcing his resignation on account of his disgust at the progress of ministerial corruption, which the son of Sir Robert Walpole fears "will end in the ruin of this constitution and country."

Let us now turn from his politics to his literature and the subjects in which he indulged his taste. In the earlier years of his manhood he wrote several fugitive morsels of poetry, which, though reprinted in his works, have fallen into deserved oblivion. In 1746 he wrote a Scheme for taxing Message-cards and Notes, a joint satire on fashion and legislation, which, along with many similar attempts from his pen, fails to please from the assumed gravity having too close a resemblance to reality. In 1747 he wrote a description of the mansion-house of Houghton, under the title Odes Walpolianae; and in 1753 commenced a series of articles in The World, which, though at the period of their appearance the subjects of conversation in the fashionable world, are not now likely to attract much attention. But in this portion of his memoirs we must not omit an event which occupies an important feature in his life — whether as a man of literature or of taste — the construction of his celebrated mansion of Strawberry-hill. In 1747 he purchased, at Twickenham, a small cottage which had been built by Mrs. Chenevix, the proprietor of a toyshop as celebrated in the fashionable world as the mansion of her noble successor afterwards became. He describes it himself "a little new farm that I have taken just out of Twickenham. The house is so small that I can send it you in a letter to look at: the prospect is as delightful as possible, commanding the river, the town, and Richmond park, and being situated on a hill, descends to the Thames through two or three little meadows, where I have some Turkish sheep and two cows, all studied in their colours for becoming the view." Here he amused himself for some time in planting wood, and in planning devices in Gothic architecture which might strike the attention without the addition of the massive profusion of the original Gothic, — a task in which he succeeded to a considerable extent. The library and dining-parlour were built in 1753; the gallery, round tower, great cloister, and cabinet, in 1760 and 1761. He filled this model with antiquities and works of art, not for the purpose of acquiring fame as a patronizer of artists, but to procure the much less admired reputation of being the proprietor of their labours.

But the chief event in the history of Strawberry-hill is the establishment of a private press, from which some of the odes of Gray, and almost all of Walpole's own works first issued. Here, in 1768, he printed and distributed among his chosen friends fifty copies of The Mysterious Mother; the solitary work in which he has shown the presence of a great intellect. That a person possessed of the taste, discernment, and desire of fame, which so amply characterized Horace Walpole, should have chosen a plot so laboriously redolent in all that is disgusting and revolting, is a problem not to be easily solved. The example of Ford, who deprived the world of his noblest effort by a crime against taste not so complicated, might have taught him to beware of an attempt which has effectually sealed up the better part of his fame: for few who know Horace Walpole, know him as the author of the noblest tragedy of the age. In almost every other portion of his writings he has struck the human passions, even the most absorbing of them, with a light though sometimes venomous weapon; but here he has called them up in all their terrors, and chosen their methods of operation with the energy and applicability of one who had made them the subject of his serious meditations, nor is he wanting in those nervous outpourings of the mind which seemed to have departed from English poetry since the days of the early dramatists. That a work so powerful and full of mind should have been the mere effect of imitation — as some who have compared it with the other works of the author have presumed — is a theory not easily to be believed. The limited number of copies of the Mysterious Mother excited considerable curiosity and anxiety to be acquainted with its contents. In 1783 some one possessed of a copy commenced a series of extracts from it in Woodfall's Public Advertiser. Walpole sent a letter to the publisher, earnestly requesting that the extracts might be discontinued, offering to remunerate the publisher for the supposed loss which might so be caused, and making his usual statement of carelessness of literary fame, and a wish that such a work might not be published to the world and known as his: he was at the very same period printing the Mysterious Mother for an edition of his works, which his death prevented him from completing. His avowed contempt of literary fame was one of the most curious parts of his very artificial character: he was everlastingly avowing it, and accompanying his avowals with new works.

His Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the III. is a work of some research, which has been the means of demolishing a few prejudices; but the references are in some cases erroneous, and he has endeavoured to show his contempt of the prejudices of others, by displaying counter-prejudices of his own. He gave this production to the world with an easy carelessness as to its reception, but he visited Hume with acrimony for having answered some portions, and was more unreasonably censorious on poor Guthrie, who had been so unfortunate as to anticipate the better parts of his argument. The Rev. Mr. Masters wrote some Remarks on this work, which were admitted into the transactions of the Antiquarians society. Walpole wrote Observations on these remarks, and ceased to have any connection with the society, of which he had been previously a zealous member. His many attempts to disclaim literary ambition have only served satisfactorily to prove that he was inordinately possessed of it; but his pride would not allow him to drudge for fame, — it was the ambition that Horace Walpole should be so great in all things that he could stoop to touch what others aspired to embrace. The catalogue of royal and noble authors stands as a species of apology for the son of a great prime minister defiling his hands with author's ink; and in the extreme barrenness of the field he has at least produced rational precedents for whatever is vapid, idle, and uninvestigated in his own productions. The Anecdotes of Painters and of Engravers present us with a richer field, both as to the method and the matter; but here he was preceded by a careful working literary man, and the finished touches of critical elegance, with a light sprinkling of acidity, were perhaps all he added to the investigations of Vertue. In a literary life of Walpole it is necessary to notice the Castle of Otranto, more on account of the popularity it achieved than the critical praise it deserves. This production he ushered into the world as a translation of an Italian romance. The imposture, we believe, was not detected; for, in presenting a plain and unexplained story of superstition, with no illustration of a moral truth, and no interesting picture of the human intellect working under the effects of some known national superstition, he did not exceed in literary merit the works of the middle ages. When preserving the mystery of its authorship he very aptly said of it himself, "It was fit for nothing but the age in which it was written." In a letter to his friend Cole he describes a dream on which he founded the general outline of the romance. He mentions that he finished it in less than two months. He is elsewhere made to say: "I wrote the Castle of Otranto in eight days, or rather eight nights; for my general hours of composition are from ten o clock at night till two in the morning, when I am sure not to be disturbed by visitants."

It remains for us now to notice two similar branches of his writings, which will be attached to his name as long as it exists — his Letters and his Memoirs. The former covering a considerable period, and addressed to numerous individuals, form a vast mass of literary matter. They are the pure emanations of his varying thoughts, and full of life. But these effervescences of his thoughts contain little feeling; all the passing events of the time hurry past each other without distinguishing marks — the death of his great father and of his dog Patapan are mentioned in the same letter in terms pretty similar. Had Chatterton seen the heartlessness of these productions, he would not have fallen into the mistake of applying to Walpole as the patron of genius. There is one point, however, in which the writer does enter with heart, both in the Memoirs and the Letters — the low scandal of the court; in this he indulges with indiscriminate luxuriance. Yet he could abstractly express very noble sentiments. Take the following specimen, where, speaking of the prospect of a war with France in 1744, he says: "As a man I feel my humanity more touched than my spirit. I feel myself more an universal man than an Englishman! We have already lost seven millions of money and thirty thousand men in the Spanish war; and all the fruit of all this blood and treasure is the glory of having Admiral Vernon's head on alehouse signs! For my part, I would not purchase another duke of Marlborough at the expense of one life. How I should be shocked, were I a hero, when I looked on my own laurelled head on a medal, the reverse of which would be widows and orphans! How many such will our patriots have made!" The Memoirs of the last ten years of the Reign of George II. were carefully concealed from those who might have detected and resented the falsehoods of the author, and thrown unchallenged on a later age. The memorandum, bearing date 19th August, 1790, forbidding them to be looked at until the son of Lady Waldegrave, who should be earl of Waldegrave, reached the age of 25 years, was duly attended to, and this receptacle of foul thoughts was not exposed to the light until 1822. The general character of this work much resembles that of his letters.

Towards the latter end of his days, Horace Walpole was afflicted with fits of an hereditary gout which a rigid temperance failed to remove. In 1791, by the death of his nephew, he succeeded to the title of Orford, at a period of his life when the pride of title, and the influence of increased fortune, bad no charms for him, and the toils of additional greatness overbalanced the pleasures. He died at Berkeley square, on the 2d of March, 1797, in the eightieth year of his age, leaving his printed works and manuscripts to his friend Mr. Berry and his two daughter, and the tenancy of his mansion of Strawberry-hill to Mrs. Damer.