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Lord Chesterfield Post by :pkahan Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :2627

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Lord Chesterfield

'Buy good books and read them; the best books are the commonest, and the last editions are always the best, if the editors are not blockheads.' So wrote Lord Chesterfield to his son, that highly-favoured and much bewritten youth, on March 19, 1750, and his words have been chosen with great cunning by Mr. Charles Strachey as a motto for his new edition of these famous letters.(A)
(Footnote A: Published by Methuen and Co. in 2 vols.)
The quotation is full of the practical wisdom, but is at the same time--so much, at least, an old book-collector may be allowed to say--a little suggestive of the too-well-defined limitations of their writer's genius and character. Lord Chesterfield is always clear and frequently convincing, yet his wisdom is that of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and not only never points in the direction of the Celestial City, but seldom displays sympathy with any generous emotion or liberal taste. Yet as we have nobody like him in the whole body of our literature, we can welcome even another edition--portable, complete, and cheap--of his letters to his son with as much enthusiasm as is compatible with the graces, and with the maxim, so dear to his lordship's heart, Nil admirari!

What, I have often wondered, induced Lord Chesterfield to write this enormously long and troublesome series of letters to a son who was not even his heir? Their sincerity cannot be called in question. William Wilberforce did not more fervently desire the conversion to God of his infant Samuel than apparently did Lord Chesterfield the transformation of his lumpish offspring into 'the all-accomplished man' he wished to have him.

'All this,' so the father writes in tones of fervent pleading--'all this you may compass if you please. You have the means, you have the opportunities; employ them, for God's sake, while you may, and make yourself the all-accomplished man I wish to have you. It entirely depends upon the next two years; they are the decisive ones' (Letter CLXXVII.).

It is the very language of an evangelical piety applied to the manufacture of a worldling. But what promoted the anxiety? Was it natural affection--a father's love? If it was, never before or since has that world-wide and homely emotion been so concealed. There is a detestable, a forbidding, an all-pervading harshness of tone throughout this correspondence that seems to banish affection, to murder love. Read Letter CLXXVIII., and judge for yourselves. I will quote a passage:

'The more I love you now from the good opinion I have of you, the greater will be my indignation if I should have reason to change it. Hitherto you have had every possible proof of my affection, because you have deserved it, but when you cease to deserve it you may expect every possible mark of my resentment. To leave nothing doubtful upon this important point, I will tell you fairly beforehand by what rule I shall judge of your conduct: by Mr. Harte's account.... If he complains you must be guilty, and I shall not have the least regard for anything you may allege in your own defence.'

Ugh! what a father! Lord Chesterfield despised the Gospels, and made little of St. Paul; yet the New Testament could have taught him something concerning the nature of a father's love. His language is repulsive, repugnant, and yet how few fathers have taken the trouble to write 400 educational letters of great length to their sons! All one can say is that Chesterfield's letters are without natural affection:


'If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, and no man ever loved.'


If affection did not dictate these letters, what did? Could it be ambition? So astute a man as Chesterfield, who was kept well informed as to the impression made by his son, could hardly suppose it likely that the boy would make a name for himself, and thereby confer distinction upon the family of which he was an irregular offshoot. A respectable diplomatic career, with an interval in the House of Commons, was the most that so clear-sighted a man could anticipate for the young Stanhope. Was it literary fame for himself? This, of course, assumes that subsequent publication was contemplated by the writer. The dodges and devices of authors are well-nigh infinite and quite beyond conjecture, and it is, of course, possible that Lord Chesterfield kept copies of these letters, which bear upon their faces evidence of care and elaboration. It is not to be supposed for a moment that he ever forgot he had written them. It is hard to believe he never inquired after them and their whereabouts. Great men have been known to write letters which, though they bore other addresses, were really intended for their biographers. It would not have been surprising if Lord Chesterfield wrote these letters intending some day to publish them, but not only is there no warrant for such an opinion, but the opposite is clearly established. It is, no doubt, odd that the son should have carefully preserved more than 400 letters written to him during a period beginning with his tenderest years and continuing whilst he was travelling on the Continent. It seems almost a miracle. What made the son treasure them so carefully? Did he look forward to being his father's biographer? Hardly so at the age of ten, or even twenty. Biographies were not then what they have since become. No doubt in the middle of the eighteenth century letters were more treasured than they are to-day, and young Stanhope's friends may also have thought it wise to encourage him to preserve documentary evidence of the great interest taken in him by his father. None the less, I think the preservation of this correspondence is in the circumstances a most extraordinary though well-established fact.

The son died in 1768 of a dropsy at Avignon, and the news was communicated to the Earl by his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Eugenia Stanhope, of whose existence he was previously unaware. Two grandsons accompanied her. It was a shock; but 'les manieres nobles et aisees, la tournure d'un homme de condition, le ton de la bonne compagnie, les graces le je ne scais quoi qui plait,' came to Lord Chesterfield's assistance, and he received his son's widow, who was not a pleasing person, and her two boys with kindness and good feeling, and provided for them quite handsomely by his will. The Earl died in 1773, in his seventy-ninth year, and thereupon Mrs. Stanhope, who was in possession of all the original letters addressed to her late husband, carried her wares to market, and made a bargain with Mr. Dodsley for their publication, she to receive L1,575. Mr. Dodsley advertised the forthcoming work, and on that the Earl's executors, relying upon the well-known case of Pope v. Curl, decided by Lord Hardwicke in 1741, filed their bill against Mrs. Stanhope, seeking an injunction to restrain publication. The widow put in her sworn Answer, in which she averred that she had, on more occasions than one, mentioned publication to the Earl, and that he, though recovering from her certain written characters of eminent contemporaries, had seemed quite content to let her do what she liked with the letters, only remarking that there was too much Latin in them. The executors seem to have moved for what is called an interim injunction--that is, an injunction until trial of the cause, and, from the report in Ambler, it appears that Lord Apsley (a feeble creature) granted such an injunction, but recommended the executors to permit the publication if, on seeing a copy of the correspondence, they saw no objection to it. In the result the executors gave their consent, and the publication became an authorized one, so much so that Dodsley was able to obtain an interdict in the Scotch Court preventing a certain Scotch bookseller, caller McFarquhar, from reprinting the letters in Edinburgh. Whether the executors believed Mrs. Stanhope's story, or saw no reason to object to the publication of the letters, I do not know, but it is clear that the opposition was a half-hearted one.

It would be hasty to assume that Lord Chesterfield wrote these letters with any intention of publication, and I am therefore left without being able to suggest any strong reason for their existence. A restless, itching pen, perhaps, accounts for them. Some men find a pleasure in writing, even at great length; others, of whom Carlyle was one, though they hate the labour, are yet compelled by some fierce necessity to blacken paper.

At all events, we have Lord Chesterfield's letters, and, having them, they will always have readers, for they are readable.

That the letters are full of wit and wisdom and sound advice is certain. Mr. Strachey, in his preface, seems to be under the impression that in the popular estimate Chesterfield is reckoned an elegant trifler, a man of no serious account. What the popular or vulgar estimate of Chesterfield may be it would be hard to determine, nor is it of the least importance, for no one who knows about Lord Chesterfield can possibly entertain any such opinion. How it came about that so able and ambitious a man made so poor a thing out of life, and failed so completely, is puzzling at first, though a little study would, I think, make the reasons of Chesterfield's failure plain enough.

To prove by extracts from the Letters how wise a man Chesterfield was would be easy, but tiresome; to exhibit him in a repulsive character would be equally easy, but spiteful. I prefer to leave him alone, and to content myself with but one quotation, which has a touch of both wisdom and repulsiveness:

'Consult your reason betimes. I do not say it will always prove an unerring guide, for human reason is not infallible, but it will prove the least erring guide that you can follow. Books and conversation may assist it, but adopt neither blindly and implicitly; try both by that best rule God has given to direct us--reason. Of all the truths do not decline that of thinking. The host of mankind can hardly be said to think; their prejudices are almost all adoptive; and in general I believe it is better that it should be so, as such common prejudices contribute more to order and quiet than their own separate reasonings would do, uncultivated as they are. We have many of these useful prejudices in this country which I should be very sorry to see removed. The good Protestant conviction that the Pope is both Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon is a more effectual preservative against Popery than all the solid and unanswerable arguments of Chillingworth.'



(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Lord Chesterfield

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