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Mme Du Deffand and Walpole

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Horace Walpole’s Correspondence with Madame Du Deffand. Edited by W. S. Lewis and Warren Huntington Smith. New Haven: Yale University Press. Six volumes. $45.00.

The magnificent Yale edition of the correspondence of Horace Walpole could not fail to include a special place for probably the most celebrated of all the letters written and received by that illustrious dilettante: those which, for more than fourteen years, were exchanged between Mme Du Deffand and Walpole. She was thoroughly disillusioned, “triste, malade, vaporeuse, ennuye’e” a sufferer from insomnia finding only emptiness in herself, hating idols and grieved to have as her own no others than her little dog and—perhaps—her disconcerting friend beyond the English Channel; hardly loving children and ready to admit it, withal “aussi faible que tendre” accused by her correspondent of pose and artifice even when her bitterly frank language reveals the anguish and distress of someone, as Mme Necker was to say with severity, who saw in society only social functions, and who betrayed the frailty of that which is based upon the world only. And he? The strutting lord of Strawberry Hill was probably simpler than he pretended to be: less liberal-spirited than he passionately wished to appear; easily offended, slack, personnel in the full force of the term, at a time when the rude Britannic image was supposed to give example of vigor and firmness in comparison to the worn imprint left by worldliness upon the French of both sexes; extravagant in the eyes of a Parisian woman somewhat settled in her tastes; cynical and protean to judge by no more than the changeability of his affections, but full of insular prejudices in spite of everything; and not able to learn to take quite seriously this old lady, so childlike, who would have given anything for a last attachment without reticence or disdain.

Since the comparative psychologies of the two principals have been so often examined and commented upon, one seems limited here to the above characterizations before turning to the edition itself: six handsome volumes inserted with proper numbering into the majestic total of the correspondence, illustrated with well chosen reproductions, portraits, facsimiles, et cetera, completed by appendices of unequal worth, but giving to the essential material an interesting documentary base, and with a painstaking index that will permit scholarly workers to correct themselves on many problems of genealogy and topography. These are French-English texts appropriate, one might say, to an epoch when, in spite of political disagreements, the cosmopolitanism of society made of the Channel a kind of interior lake which was easily crossed.

The typography is worthy of praise. Certain accents are missing (Remusat, I, xxv; mis a mort, V, 166), but this will hardly seem startling. Inversely, there is oil je ne comprends Hen (I, 52), encor is frequently supplied with an awkward final e (I, 142; II, 112, 175; III, 273, 274; VI, 126, etc.); likewise (VI, 155 and 156), some useless syllables are unfortunately added to verses known under a more correct form. Identifications, whenever a proper name or an allusion is brought into the text, are usually given without delay to the satisfaction of normal curiosity, and with a sufficient precision. However, “un M. Pezay” could have been presented to us as soon as he appears (IV, 71) instead of our having to wait until his reappearance (IV, 499). Mme Elie (de Beaumont) might likewise have been disclosed more plainly in IV, 284, and the Journal etranger of Suard might have been identified without hesitation at IV, 396. These are light flaws when one considers the immensity of the researches made necessary by the vast chronicle which issued from the writing stand of Mme Du Deffand. And what would it not have been had her correspondent—evidently through a kind of shame as much masculine as British—not have made an obedient friend destroy his own letters I

On the other hand there is much to be said of certain lacks which do not take away anything from the positive merits of the annotation, but which must be regretted by the historian of ideas and manners. Scrupulous, even painstakingly meticulous when it is a question, for example, of identifying the six children of some obscure nobody, the notes seem of little value as soon as it is a question of some great contemporary fact, some significant literary allusion—one of these “problems” which give their durable interest to an epoch otherwise rather neglected. The measure of this relative indifference seems to me indicated by a note concerning the sad remark of Mme Du Deffand to her friend: “Is my country not for you like China or Monomotapa”: we are learnedly informed that this latter country is situated on the east coast of the African province of Mozambique, but La Fontaine and his two friends are neglected for a ridiculous geographical reference. Likewise one must deplore the lack, among references by contrast so full of genealogical facts, of a hoped-for documentation of the events which the blind worlding in her tonneau nevertheless felt forced to mention—a matter which the commentator would have done well to treat with the importance it deserved. Neither the affaires de Gendve with their Versoix sequel, nor the Voltairean project of the Evasion des clercs, nor the Voltaire-Shakespeare dispute, nor the condemnation of Lally-Tolendal, not even the Hume-Rousseau struggle, nor American independence—not one of these major events in the republic of letters or of Western civilization receives the just part in the clarifications and the bibliographical material that the fate of some obscure person does. What service would not have been rendered to a comparative study of a growing romanticism by an exact summary of the contents of the Bibliotheque des Romans which the disabused Parisian sent to a fastidious reader across the Channel I

One must surely confess that however impassioning for the “amateur d’anies” may be the presentation of personalities in themselves or their reconstitution through inferences or inductions, there comes a moment when the true support in the past, the true reason for revitalization in the present of individuals is their connection with great events or with the general trends of their times. Mme Du Deffand had her first education from life under the Regency and kept a kind of inner emptiness from that sinister period; Horace Walpole belonged to a caste still uncertain of its true place in the British ensemble. However individual may be the actors in an epistolary chronicle which turns occasionally into drama, they serve to interest us at least as much by their reactions to contemporaneous things as by the concentrated originality of personalities—so much so that Mme Du Deffand, for example, always refused the comparison to Heloise and Abelard, to the Abbess of the Paraclet and her prolix and legendary lover.


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