THE latest section of Horace Walpole’s “Correspondence” virtually completes a publishing venture that has been under way for about forty years. Still to come are a volume or two of miscellaneous letters and a massive collected index, which will extend the edition to about fifty volumes. Since 1937, when the initial correspondence was published—its list of subscribers headed by H. M. King George VI—the edition has moved ahead with due deliberation and majesty. Wilmarth Lewis, the architect of this imposing monument, drafted his editorial principles at the beginning, and these have consistently been followed in the “Walpole factory” (as it is jokingly called). Altogether, nearly eight thousand letters have been processed, more than half written by Walpole himself ; and the factory has annotated all of them with a prodigality of erudition and space almost unmatched in modern scholarship. The Lewis Walpole edition has, in other words, given us not only the text (complete and unexpurgated) of one of the eighteenth century’s great letter writers-—a man conspicuous in its literature, art, history, politics, and gossip—but also, through the ample footnotes, a running commentary on almost every aspect of the life and thought of that century. The edition is as much historical encyclopedia as literary document.
Readers normally expect a writer’s correspondence to be arranged in chronological order, for obvious reasons, just as his biography would be. They can thus follow in sequence the gradual unfolding of the writer’s mind and experience, though—a disadvantage—this tends to obliterate the discriminations that sensitive letter writers instinctively make. The Lewis edition of Walpole prints each correspondence separately, presenting all the surviving letters that he sent to or received from one person (or, as in these volumes, several closely connected). This arrangement, which can be justified by the fact that such a large number of letters to Walpole have been preserved, allows readers to enter more intimately into particular friendships, for Walpole thoughtfully modulated his letters to the interests of his friends. Since none of his correspondents except Thomas Gray could match his wit and virtuosity a fair amount of uninspired writing has thus been committed to print. Yet it is surprising how often his friends, perhaps inspired by his letters, rose to his level. And when a dull letter cannot be justified for literary merit it can for historical utility.
Mr. Lewis has waited until now to print, as the last section in the entire series, the letters that Walpole exchanged with his cousin and closest friend, Henry Seymour Conway. The reason for waiting, as the introduction explains, is that he hoped new letters would turn up. Almost two hundred of Walpole’s letters to Conway were first printed in the 1798 edition of Walpole’s “Works,” in an incomplete and heavily bowdlerized text ; and now only three previously unpublished letters are added. After such a disappointment an editor can only sigh, reprint the early text, and be grateful that any version at all exists. But fortunately many new letters to Walpole from Conway and his wife, Lady Ailesbury, and from Con way’s brother Lord Hertford have come to light; they give these volumes a freshness they would otherwise have lacked, for those to Conway, which are among Waipole’s best, have often been quoted and reprinted.
Their high quality is not unexpected. If anyone could win Walpole’s love, Conway seems to have been the most successful. Walpole’s devotion to him was complete; he defended him, championed him, offered him half his fortune, made him his heir. Through these letters we follow Conway’s career in the army (he eventually rose to the rank of field marshal) and in Parliament. When he became a cabinet member, a post he held for five years, he never offered any appointment to Walpole, who though deeply hurt buried his disappointment, and in his memoirs generously explained away his cousin’s ingratitude. Conway, on his side, was a man of great charm and polish, and the letters exchanged by “Dear Harry” and “Dear Horry” convey the easy elegance that the cousins shared. From Dublin, when he was stationed there, Conway apologizes for being “a miserable correspondent, having neither time to write, nor matter to write upon, nor wit to invent, as you may imagine when I am reduced to retail your own wit back to you, which I believe does not improve, like Madeira, by the voyage.” Like Walpole, he could brighten even such a dull subject as the weather: “I heartily wish you joy of the charming, plentiful rain that is falling at this minute; I have been watching it like a child half the morning and can now scarce keep my eyes off it. We wanted it at least as much as you could and a good many teacups of it ; for besides our usual dryness and tawniness we have been new turfing and new planting just before our windows and new sowing with grass seed. . . .” On more solid matters such as his military campaign in Flanders and in Scotland during the Jacobite invasion he is keen and incisive; these substantial letters are full of interest.
Conway’s elder brother, Lord Hertford, was a less attractive character, stiff and priggish, who achieved a career of grander scope—ambassador to France, viceroy in Ireland, and Lord Chamberlain to George III. His letters from the French court are particularly interesting, his subject matter not only diplomacy and court life but the British he knew— David Hume, who was his secretary, David Garrick, on a visit to Paris, and John Wilkes, the demagogue or political reformer (depending on one’s point of view), who was dallying on the continent to avoid arrest at home. As Lord Chamberlain, later, one of Hertford’s duties was to issue licenses for plays to be staged at the patent theatres, and for this he asked Walpole to read them and advise him. But there is not much of literary interest in Walpole’s correspondence with his cousins. After reading “Emile, ou de l’éducation” Walpole offers his opinion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Sure he has writ more sense and more nonsense than any man did of both!” Boswell’s journal of his Hebrides tour with Samuel Johnson aroused only contempt: “the story of a mountebank and his zany.” (Has there ever been a more wrong-headed epithet for Johnson?)
In general Walpole channeled his main interests among different correspondents—literature, social gossip, antiquarianism, and politics. His most extended political correspondence is that with Horace Mann—forty-seven years, in nine volumes of this edition—and it adds up to a lively history of his time, as he intended it to be. The Conway-Hertford correspondence can also be classified as mainly political, but of more immediate dramatic force since both brothers were prominent in political circles while Mann was distant (in Florence) and uninvolved. In telling Conway how William Pitt has betrayed his cause by accepting a pension, Walpole exclaims: “Oh, my dear Harry! I beg you on my knees, keep your virtue : do let me think there is still one man upon earth who despises money.” The rise and fall of Lord Bute, George Ill’s short-lived prime minister, and the fall and rise of John Wilkes aroused his spirited comments. His historical writing is not a dry chronicle but a breathing human drama. From his gothicized country villa at Strawberry Hill he writes: “I do not love great folks till they have pulled off their buskins and put on their slippers, because I do not care sixpence for what they would be thought, but for what they are.” That attitude explains why his historical writing comes alive.
It is difficult to believe that these volumes are the last in this edition. The stately format, the blue buckram binding, the magisterial documentation have become as familiar as Mrs. Paget Toynbee’s pale green edition, more modest in several ways. Although the Lewis edition is now completed, it is still not complete. Where, for example, are the letters that Walpole sent to George Keppel, Lord Albemarle, whom he described as “a great friend”? The editors tell us that this correspondence has not been recovered. Fifteen years ago, in a footnote to his Mellon Lectures on Walpole, Mr. Lewis lamented the loss of four important correspondences. One of them was that of Lord and Lady Hertford, yet here they are before us. (They turned up in Ceylon. ) Is it too sanguine to hope that other lost correspondences will be discovered, and that we may have supplementary volumes?
Since Walpole was a great collector of anecdotes it is perhaps proper to relate one about him and his editor in our own day. Whether or not it is authentic—and not all of his were— it has never, so far as I know, been in print, and so if for no other reason is worth recording. The story concerns the late Dr. Martin Bodmer, an eminent Swiss bibliophile who collected what is called Weltliteratur—such writers as Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe. He was brought to Farmington to see its collections and to meet Mr. Lewis, and then conducted on a grand tour of the house and library, which contain an immense gathering of Walpole’s books, pictures, prints, objects of virtu, and memorabilia of Strawberry Hill (including the lantern that had hung in its hallway). Afterwards he was asked for his impression of the visit. “Mr. Lewis is a very charming man,” he replied. “But tell me, who is this Horace Walpole?” In a real sense that question, whether based on ignorance or humor, is no longer possible. Mr. Lewis’s single-minded devotion to Walpole, particularly as embodied in the great edition of his correspondence, has elevated that writer into a world figure in eighteenth-century culture and literary art.