Back when I was an undergrad living in student housing, I knew a girl of the name Walpole who once told me with great pride and solemnity that she was a descendent of Sir Robert Walpole. I had only a vague idea who he was at the time and I am afraid I was not suitably impressed which left this latter day Walpole a bit disappointed. Still, I had at least heard of the man which was more than most people, apparently, so she continued to regale me with her personal stories of disaster. And believe me, there were many. It seemed once a month she spent a day at the emergency room for something so weird that if she didn’t have the bandages to prove it I would have thought she was making it all up. One of the weirdest accidents had to be the day she was attacked by a squirrel while riding her bike across campus. It bit her leg and she had to have rabies shots. But she was so accident prone she took it all in stride and was even a little boastful about it.
I hadn’t thought about her in years until I started reading The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 1 and I haven’t been able to get her out of my head for the duration. Now that I am done with the letters, perhaps she will fade back into my memory.
Horace was Robert Walpole’s youngest son. You might know him as the author of The Castle of Otranto, the 1764 novel generally considered the first gothic novel. It is the only novel he ever wrote. His literary reputation, however, rests upon his letters. He has been called a “prince of epistolary writers.” His letters span the years 1735-1797. In volume one of his letters the time period covered is 1735-1748. The introduction in my Project Gutenberg edition declares,
Nothing that transpired in the great world escaped his knowledge, nor the trenchant sallies of his wit, rendered the more cutting by his unrivalled talent as a raconteur. Whatever he observed found its way into his letters.
And it is true. Walpole has an easy and light style that trips along. He is very witty and relays all the news and gossip to his chief correspondents. In this volume those men are his cousin Henry Conway, friend George Montagu, and distant relation and good friend Sir Horace Mann. Most of the letters are to Mann who was living in Florence as a British ambassador. Before the letters get underway though, there is a long reminiscence about the reigns of King George one and two that were mildly interesting.
But the letters, once I finally got there, were fun. To be sure there were lots of people talked about I didn’t know and while there are lots of footnotes I didn’t bother reading most of them. If you are interested in British history though, you will find a treasure trove here. What was most important to me was just enjoying the letters and the way they were written.
The first three years of letters in the volume come from his grand tour, most of it spent in Italy. He talks about the food, the people, the art, waiting in Rome in hopes to see the conclave to choose a new pope, and traveling from place to place. Travel was not easy and sometimes didn’t go as planned:
The day before, I had a cruel accident, and so extraordinary an one, that it seems to touch upon the traveller. I had brought with me a little black spaniel of King Charles’s breed; but the prettiest, fattest, dearest creature! I had let it out of the chaise for the air, and it was waddling along close to the head of the horses, on the top of the highest Alps, by the side of a wood of firs. There darted out a young wolf, seized poor dear Tory by the throat, and, before we could possibly prevent it, sprung up the side of the rock and carried him off. The postilion jumped off and struck at him with his whip, but in vain. I saw it and screamed, but in vain; for the road was so narrow, that the servants that were behind could not get by the chaise to shoot him. What is the extraordinary part is, that it was but two o’clock, and broad sunshine. It was shocking to see anything one loved run away with.
Shocking indeed but I couldn’t help but both gasp and laugh.
Then there are his descriptions of the Italy:
In Italy they seem to have found out how hot their climate is, but not how cold; for there are scarce any chimneys, and most of the apartments painted in fresco so that one has the additional horror of freezing with imaginary marble. The men hang little earthen pans of coals upon their wrists, and the women have portable stoves under their petticoats to warm their nakedness, and carry silver shovels in their pockets, with which their Cicisbeos stir them-Hush! by them, I mean their stoves.
As you see both witty and racy!
There are astute observations of people and society:
My Lady Townsende was reckoning up the other day the several things that have cured them [women of her set]; such a doctor so many, such a medicine, so many; but of all, the greatest number have found relief from the sudden deaths of their husbands.
Back in London his letters turn to politics, the opera, war, society, and gossip, always gossip. In his circle whist suddenly becomes very popular and he writes to Horace Mann he has nothing interesting to tell him because:
The only token of this new kingdom is a woman riding on a beast, which is the mother of abominations, and the name in the forehead is whist: and the four-and-twenty elders, and the woman, and the whole town, do nothing but play with this beast. Scandal itself is dead, or confined to a pack of cards; for the only malicious whisper I have heard this fortnight, is of an intrigue between the Queen of hearts and the Knave of clubs.
In fact, Walpole often begs forgiveness for having not written in a long time because he had nothing to write about. He even manages to write almost an entire letter about not having anything to write. And even when it is only a short complaint, he is very amusing:
Don’t reproach me in your own Mind for not writing, but reproach the world for doing nothing; for making peace as slowly as they made war. When any body commits an event, I am ready enough to tell it you; but I have always declared against inventing news; when I do, I will set up a newspaper.
Towards the end of the volume he has bought Strawberry Hill and turns his amusing eye to making fun of himself and his attempts at gardening:
I have made great progress, and talk very learnedly with the nurserymen, except that now and then a lettuce run to seed overturns all my botany, as I have more than once taken it for a curious West-Indian flowering shrub.
I could go on throwing quotes at you but I think we have all probably had enough. As charming as the letters are, they do not read fast and there were long boring stretches. Overall, however, I enjoyed them though I wouldn’t recommend them unless you love reading letters or are interested in the history of the period. There are, I believe, four or five more volumes of letters. I am not certain I will ever read them, but I am glad I read at least one of them.