One of the best legacies which has come down to us from the eighteenth century is a large post bag, stuffed full of letters, grave and gay, long and short, into which we have only to put our hand, and we are sure to pull out something which we shall like to read.
We have already seen some of the reasons for this. During the foregoing fifty years the language had become less involved and more direct, and therefore more suited to informal writing. As communications improved people were able to move more freely about the world, and to see things which they liked to describe to their friends, and yet travel had not become so common as to make such narratives superfluous.
Good manners still demanded a certain amount of ceremony even between friends and relatives, and it would have been considered disrespectful to scribble off a few hurried lines which cost no trouble to write and gave little pleasure to read.
Posts were more frequent and more certain than they had ever been, but were not yet so common or so cheap as to make the writing and arrival of a letter a matter of indifference. No telegrams, telephones, or post-cards had been invented to spoil the art of letter-writing, and the people of Queen Anne's reign, busy as were their minds with public affairs, still had abundant leisure. When the business of the day was over they had no golf or motors or wireless or cinema to distract their attention, and the result is that we have our well-filled post bag.
We have already noticed some of these letters, those from Steele to Prue, from Swift to Stella, from Dorothy Osborne to Temple and Lady Mary's travel letters, but none are more famous than those of Horace Walpole. Upwards of three thousand of them have been published, and it is no exaggeration to say that Horace must have spent a good part of his eighty years quill in hand, writing to his friends.
He was the younger son of Sir Robert Walpole, and although he never played any part in politics he always cherished a great admiration for his father, and a hatred for all who opposed him. He was educated at Eton, and was then sent to travel for a year or two on the Continent. One of his earliest letters gives us a picture of what crossing the Alps meant in the days when the grand tour of Europe was made in private coaches.
"We were five days in crossing the Alps. Such uncouth rocks and such uncomely inhabitants! At the foot of Mont Cenis we were obliged to quit our chaise, which was taken all to pieces and loaded on mules; and we were carried in low armchairs on poles, swathed in beaver bonnets, beaver gloves, beaver stockings, muffs and bear-skins. When we came to the top, behold the snows fallen! Such quantities and conducted by such heavy clouds that hung glouting that I thought we could never have waded through them. The dexterity and nimbleness of the mountaineers are inconceivable. They run with you down steeps and frozen precipices, where no men as men are now, could possibly walk. We had twelve men and nine mules to carry us, our servants and baggage, and were about five hours in this agreeable jaunt.
"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' 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 by the side of the rock and carried him off. The postilion struck at him with the whip but in vain. The road was so narrow that the servants 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."
Safely over the Alps, Horace settled down for fifteen months in Florence, and there he formed a firm friendship with Sir Horace Mann, the British resident in Tuscany, and it is to this friendship that we owe a large number of the best of the three thousand letters. He did for Mann, what the professional news-letter writers had done earlier for their patrons. He kept him informed in all the news of the time, its political changes, its social gossip, its new books and plays, and there can have been very little happening in London for forty years that Sir Horace Mann did not know, thanks to his untiring and witty correspondent.
Most of the letters were written from Strawberry Hill, that villa on the Thames at Twickenham which Walpole took, and transformed into an imitation Gothic Castle. He thought himself a great authority on antiquities and loved to prowl about the country, looting stained glass and relics for the adornment of his home. There he had a private printing-press as one of his hobbies on which the Odes of his friend the poet Gray were first printed, and there his cat "Demurest of the tabby kind, the pensive Selima ", was drowned one day in a tub of goldfishes and had her requiem sung by Gray.
Devoted as was Walpole to Strawberry Hill, he hastened to London whenever he heard of anything agog there, and sometimes as he went and came he met with an adventure to fill his next letter to Florence. Sometimes the Thames was his waterway.
"Our gentle Thames was swelled in the morning to a very respectable magnitude, and we had thought of returning to Kew Bridge; however, I persuaded her to try if we could not ferry, and when we came to the foot of the hill, the bargeman told us the water was sunk. We embarked and had four men to push the ferry. The night was very dark, for though the moon was up, we could neither see her, nor she us.
The bargemen were drunk, the poles would scarce reach the bottom, and in five minutes the rapidity of the current turned the barge round, and in an instant we were at Isleworth. The drunkest of the bargemen cried out, 'She is gone, she is gone,' meaning they had lost the management. Lady Browne fell into an agony, began screaming and praying to every land and water goddess, and I, who expected not to stop till we should run against Kew Bridge, was contriving how I should get home; or what was worse, whether I must not step into mud up to my middle, be wet through and get the gout. With much ado they recovered the barge and turned it, but then we ran against the piles of the new bridge, which startled the horses which began kicking. You need not be uneasy, in ten minutes we landed very safely, and if we had been drowned, I am too exact not to have dated my letter from the bottom of the Thames."
But if Horace went by road he sometimes found it just as eventful.
"The night I had the honour of writing to your ladyship last I was robbed. Voici le fait. Lady Browne and I were as usual going to the Duchess of Montrose at five o'clock. The evening was very dark. In the close lane under her park and within twenty yards of the gate, a black figure on horseback pushed between the chaise and the hedge on my side. I suspected it was a highwayman, and so I found did Lady Browne, for she was speaking and stopped. To divert her fears I was just going to say, 'Is not that the apothecary going to the Duchess?' when I heard a voice cry 'Stop', and the figure came back to the chaise. I had the presence of mind before I let down the glass, to take out my watch and stuff it within my waistcoat under my arm. He said, 'Your purses and your watches.' I replied, 'I have no watch.' 'Then your purse.' I gave it him, it had five guineas. It was so dark that I could not see his hand but I felt him take it. He then asked for Lady Browne's purse, and said, 'Don't be frightened, I will not hurt you.' I said, 'No, you will not frighten the lady?' He replied, 'No, I give you my word, I will do you no hurt.' Lady Browne gave him her purse and was going to add her watch, but he said, 'I am much obliged to you. I wish you good-night,' pulled off his hat and rode away. ' Well,' I said, 'Lady Browne, you will not be afraid of being robbed another time, for you see there is nothing in it.' 'Oh, but I am,' said she, 'and now I am in terror lest he should return, for I have given him a purse with only bad money that I carry on purpose.' 'He certainly will not open it directly,' said I, 'and at worst he can only wait for us at our return, but I will send my servant for a horse and blunderbuss,' which I did."
When through such perils Horace reached London he always found plenty to interest him. From his letters we can see London waiting breathlessly for news of Prince Charlie's march south, London seething with angry mobs in the days when Wilkes was tried, London burning in the Gordon riots, London illuminated for the victories of Rodney, London flocking to the coronation of George III, London exulting over a fallen Minister.
Some of his quickly sketched portraits are full of life, like that of John Wesley, "A lean elderly man, fresh-coloured, his hair smoothly combed, but with a soupçon of curl at the ends, wondrous clean."
In almost every letter he passes on a bon-mot or the latest piece of coffee-house wit, and all with such good spirits and naturalness that we forget that the ink has been dry on his pages for two hundred years.
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