“This world,” he said, “is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”19 So he learned to smile at the world, even to humor his gout. He chronicled his time, but washed his hands of it. He was son of a prime minister, but had no pleasure in politics. He loved women, from Fanny Burney to the grandest duchesses, but he would have none of them for a wife, nor (so far as we know) for a mistress. He studied philosophy, but thought the philosophers the bane and bore of the century. One author he admired without reserve for her fine manners and unaffected art—Mme. de Sévigné; her alone he sought to emulate; and if his letters did not catch her gay charm and grace, they became, far more than hers, a living daily history of an age. Though he called them annals of Bedlam,20 he wrote them with care, hoping that some of them would give him a nook in man’s remembrance; for even a philosopher who is reconciled to decay finds it hard to accept oblivion.
Horatio (so he was baptized in 1717) was the youngest of five children presented to Sir Robert Walpole, the doughty Premier who sacrificed his reputation by preferring peace to war, but hardly hurt it by preferring adultery to monogamy.21 Perhaps to avenge his first wife, gossipers for a time ascribed Horace’s paternity to Carr, Lord Hervey, brother to the effeminate John, Lord Hervey of Ickworth—who accused Sir Robert of attempting to seduce Lady Hervey.22 These matters are too intricate for present adjudication; we can only say that Horace was brought up with no imputation, by his relatives, of any undue origin. He was treated with busy indifference by the Prime Minister, and (he tells us) was “indulged” with “extreme fondness” by his mother.23 He was a very handsome boy, and was dressed like a prince, but he was frail and diffident, and as sensitive as a girl. When his mother died (1737) many feared that the twenty-year-old youth would die of grief. Sir Robert comforted him with governmental sinecures that paid for his son’s fine clothing, elegant living, and costly collection of art. Horace kept to the end of his life a latent hostility to his father, but always defended his politics.
At ten he was sent to Eton, where he learned Latin and French and formed a friendship with the poet Gray. At seventeen he entered King’s College, Cambridge; there he learned Italian, and imbibed deism from Conyers Middleton. At twenty-two, without taking a degree, he set out with Gray on a tour of Italy and France. After some wandering they settled for fifteen months in a Florentine villa as guests of the British chargé d’affaires, Sir Horace Mann. Walpole and Mann never met again, but they corresponded during the next forty-five years (1741-85). At Reggio Emilia Gray and Walpole quarreled, for Horace had paid all the bills, and the poet could not forgive the superior attentions received by the son of the man who was ruling England. In retrospect Horace took the blame: “I was too young, too fond of my own diversions, … too much intoxicated by indulgence, vanity, and the insolence of my situation, … not to have been inattentive and insensible to the feelings of one I thought below me; of one, I blush to say it, that I knew was obliged to me.”24 They parted; Walpole nearly died of remorse, or quinsy; he arranged for Gray’s passage home. They were reconciled in 1745, and most of Gray’s poems were printed by Walpole’s press at Strawberry Hill. Meanwhile, at Venice, Walpole posed for a lovely pastel portrait by Rosalba Camera.
Before reaching England (September 12, 1741), Walpole had been elected to Parliament. There he made a modest and futile speech against the opposition that was bringing to an end his father’s long and prosperous ministry. He was regularly re-elected till 1767, when he voluntarily withdrew from active politics. Generally he supported the liberal Whig program: he resisted extension of the royal power, recommended a compromise with Wilkes, and denounced slavery (1750) nine years before Wilberforce was born. He opposed the political emancipation of English Catholics on the ground that “papists and liberty are contradictions.”25 He rejected the American case against the Stamp Act,26 but he defended the claim of the American colonies to freedom, and prophesied that the next zenith of civilization would be in America.27 “Who but Machiavel,” he wrote (1786), “can pretend that we have a shadow of title to a foot of land in India?”28 He hated war, and when the Montgolfier brothers made their first balloon ascension (1783) he predicted with horror the extension of war to the skies. “I hope,” he wrote, “these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned or the idle, and not be converted into engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science.”29
Finding himself too often on the losing side, he decided to spend most of his time in the country. In 1747 he rented five acres and a small house near Twickenham. Two years later he bought the property, and transformed the building in neo-Gothic style—as we have seen. Into this medievalized castle he gathered a variety of objects distinguished by art or history; soon his home was a museum that required a catalogue. In one room he installed a printing press, where he published in elegant formats thirty-four books, including his own. Chiefly from Strawberry Hill he sent out the 3,601 letters that survive. He had a hundred friends, quarreled with nearly all of them, made up, and was as kind as his delicate irritability would allow. Every day he set out bread and milk for the squirrels who courted him. He guarded his sinecures and angled for more, but when his cousin Henry Conway was dismissed from office Walpole proposed to share his income with him.
He had a thousand faults, which Macaulay meticulously accumulated in a brilliant and ungenerous essay. Walpole was vain, fussy, secretive, capricious, proud of his ancestry, and disgusted with his relatives. His humor tended to satire with sharp teeth. He carried to his grave, and into his histories, his scorn of all who had shared in deposing his father. He was often wildly biased, as in his descriptions of Lady Pomfret30 or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.31 His fragile frame inclined him to be something of a dilettante. If Diderot, in Sainte-Beuve’s illuminating phrase, was the most German of all Frenchmen, Walpole was the most French of all Englishmen.
He was fearlessly candid about his uncommon tastes and views; he thought Virgil a bore, and a fortiori, Richardson and Sterne; he called Dante “a Methodist in Bedlam.”32 He affected to disdain all authors, and insisted, like Congreve, that he wrote as a gentleman for his own amusement, not as a literary laborer dependent upon the merchandizing of his words. So he wrote to Hume: “You know in England we read their works, but seldom or never take any notice of authors. We think them sufficiently paid if theirbooks sell, and of course leave them to their colleges and obscurity, by which means we are not troubled by their vanity and impertinence.... I, who am an author, must own this conduct very sensible; for in truth we are a most useless tribe.”33
But, as he admitted, he too was an author, vain and voluminous. Bored in his castle, he explored the past as if wishing to sink the roots of his mind into the richest seams. He drew up a Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England (1758)—their nobility would excuse their authorship, and first-rate men like Bacon and Clarendon could qualify. He had three hundred copies printed, and gave most of them away; Dodsley risked an edition of two thousand copies; they sold readily, and brought Walpole such fame as must have made him hang his head in shame. He compounded his indignity with five volumes of Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-71), an engaging compilation which won Gibbon’s praise.
As if in recreation from such laborious scholarship, Walpole composed a medieval romance, The Castle of Otranto (1764), which became the mother of a thousand stories of supernatural wonders and terrors. He combined mystery with history in Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III. He contended, like others after him, that Richard had been maligned by tradition and Shakespeare; Hume and Gibbon called his arguments unconvincing; Walpole repeated them till his death. Turning to events of which he had firsthand knowledge, he composed memoirs of the reigns of George II and George III; they are illuminating but partisan. Imprisoned in his prejudices, he took a dark view of his time: “treacherous ministers, mock patriots, complacent parliaments, fallible princes.”34 “I see my country going to ruin, and no man with brains enough to save it”;35 this was written in 1768, when Chatham had just created the British Empire. Fourteen years later, when the King and Lord North seemed to have ruined it, Walpole concluded: “We are totally degenerated in every respect, which I suppose is the case of all falling states”;36 a generation later the little island defeated Napoleon. All mankind seemed to Walpole a menagerie of “pigmy, short-lived, … comical animals.”37 He found no comfort in religion. He supported the Established Church, for it upheld the government that paid his sinecures, but he frankly termed himself an infidel.38 “I begin to think that folly is matter, and cannot be destroyed. Destroy its form, it takes another.”39
For a while he thought he could find stimulation in France (September, 1765). All doors were opened to him; Mme. du Deffand welcomed him as a replacement for d’Alembert. She was sixty-eight, Walpole was forty-eight, but the interval disappeared as their kindred souls met in an affectionate exchange of despair. She was pleased to find that Walpole agreed with most of what Voltaire said, but would have gone to the stake to prevent him from saying it; for he trembled to think what would happen to Europe’s governments if Christianity collapsed. He deprecated Voltaire, but he ridiculed Rousseau. It was on this trip to Paris that he wrote the letter, supposedly from Frederick the Great, inviting Rousseau to come to Berlin and enjoy more persecutions. “The copies have spread like wildfire,” and “behold me à la mode!”40—he succeeded Hume as the lion of the salons. He learned to love the gay and merciless excitement of Paris, but he was consoled to find “the French ten times more contemptible than we [English] are.”41
After reaching home (April 22, 1766) he began his long correspondence with Mme. du Deffand. We shall see later how he fretted lest her affection make him ridiculous; yet it was probably to see her again that he revisited Paris in 1767, 1769, 1771, 1775. Her love made him forget his age, but the death of Gray (July 30, 1771) reminded him of his own mortality. He surprised himself by surviving till 1797. He had no financial worries; he had in 1784 an income of £ 8,000 ($200,000?) a year;42 and in 1791 he succeeded to the title of Lord Orford. But his gout, which had begun when he was twenty-five, continued to be his tribulation till the end. Sometimes, we are told, accumulations of “chalk” broke out from his fingers.43 He grew parched and stiff in his final years, and occasionally he had to be carried by his servants from room to room; but he kept on working and writing, and when visitors came they marveled at the bright interest in his eyes, the alertness of his courtesy, the gaiety of his speech, the alacrity and clarity of his mind. Almost every day distinguished people came to see his famous home and varied collection; Hannah More in 1786, Queen Charlotte in 1795.
Yet it was not at Strawberry Hill, but at his town house in Berkeley Square that he passed away, March 2, 1797, in his eightieth year. As if regretting that his memoirs and letters contained so many lines with a sting, he ordered his manuscripts to be locked in a chest not to be opened “till the first Earl of Waldegrave that shall attain the age of thirty-five years shall demand it.”44 So the memoirs came to be published only in or after 1822, when all who might have taken offense would be dead. Some of the letters were published in 1778, more in 1818, 1820, 1840, 1857. … All over the English-reading world there are men and women who have read every word of those letters, and who treasure them as among the most delightful legacies of the illuminating century.