Images de page
PDF
ePub

Among the various creatures with which he loved to surround himself, it is impossible to forget either the little black spaniel, Tony, that the wolf carried off near a wood in the Alps during his first travels, or the more imperious little dog, Tonton, which he has constantly to prevent from biting people at Madame du Deffand's, but which with Madame du Deffand herself "grows the greater favourite the more people he devours." "T'other night," writes Walpole, to whom Madame du Deffand afterwards bequeathed the dog in her will," he flew at Lady Barrymore's face, and I thought would have torn her eye out, but it ended in biting her finger. She was terrified; she fell into tears. Madame du Deffand, who has too much parts not to see everything in its true light, perceiving that she had not beaten Tonton half enough, immediately told us a story of a lady whose dog having bitten a piece out of a gentleman's leg, the tender dame, in a great fright, cried out, Won't it make him sick?'" In the most attractive accounts we possess of Walpole in his old age, we see him seated at the breakfasttable, drinking tea out of "most rare and precious ancient porcelain of Japan," and sharing the loaf and butter with Tonton (now grown almost too fat to move, and spread on a sofa beside him), and afterwards going to the window with a basin of bread and milk to throw to the squirrels in the garden.

Many people would be willing to admit, however, that Walpole was an excitable creature where small things were concerned-a parroquet or the prospect of being able to print original letters of Ninon de l'Enclos at Strawberry, or the discovery of a poem by the brother of Anne Boleyn, or Ranelagh, where "the floor is all of beaten princes." What is not generally realized is that he was also a highstrung and eager spectator of the greater things. I have already spoken of his enthusiasm for wild nature as shown in his letters from the Alps. It is true he grew weary of them. "Such uncouth rocks," he wrote, "and such uncomely inhabitants." "I am as surfeited with mountains and inns as if I had eat them," he groaned in a later letter.

But the enthusiasm was at least as genuine as the fatigue. His tergiversation of mood proves only that there were two Walpoles, not that the Walpole of the romantic enthusiasms was insincere. He was a devotee of romance, but it was romance under the control of the comic spirit. He was always amused to have romance brought down to reality, as when, writing of Mary Queen of Scots, he said: "I believe I have told you that, in a very old trial of her, which I bought for Lord Oxford's collection, it is said that she was a large lame woman. Take sentiments out of their pantoufles, and reduce them to the infirmities of mortality, what a falling off there is!" But see him in the picturegallery in his father's old house at Houghton, after an absence of sixteen years, and the romantic mood is uppermost. "In one respect," he writes, speaking of the pictures, "I am very young; I cannot satiate myself with looking, and he adds, "Not a picture here but calls a history; not one but I remember in Downing Street or Chelsea, where queens and crowds admired them." And, if he could not "satiate himself with looking" at the Italian and Flemish masters, he similarly preserved the heat of youth in his enthusiasm for Shakespeare. "When," he wrote, during his dispute with Voltaire on the point, "I think over all the great authors of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French and English (and I know no other languages), I set Shakespeare first and alone and then begin anew." One is astonished to find that he was contemptuous of Montaigne. "What signifies what a man thought," he wrote, "who never thought of anything but himself, and what signifies what a man did who never did anything?" This sentence might have served as a condemnation of Walpole himself, and indeed he meant it so. Walpole, however, was an egoist of an opposite kind to Montaigne. Walpole lived for his eyes, and saw the world as a masque of bright and amusing creatures. Montaigne studied the map of himself rather than the map of his neighbours' vanities. Walpole was a social being, and not finally self-centred. His chief purpose in life was not to know himself, but to give pleasure to his

friends. If he was bored by Montaigne, it was because he had little introspective curiosity. Like Montaigne himself, however, he was much the servant of whim in his literary tastes. That he was no sceptic but a disciple where Shakespeare and Milton and Pope were concerned suggests, on the other hand, how foolish it is to regard him as being critically a fashionable trifler.

Not that it is possible to represent him as a man with anything Dionysiac in his temperament. The furthest that one can go is to say that he was a man of sincere strong sentiment with quivering nerves. Capricious in little things, he was faithful in great. His warmth of nature as a son, as a friend, as a humanitarian, as a believer in tolerance and liberty, is so unfailing that it is curious it should ever have been brought in question by any reader of the letters. His quarrels are negligible when put beside his ceaseless extravagance of good humour to his friends. His letters alone were golden gifts, but we also find him offering his fortune to Conway when the latter was in difficulties. "I have sense enough," he wrote, " to have real pleasure in denying myself baubles, and in saving a very good income to make a man happy for whom I have a just esteem and most sincere friendship." "Blameable in ten thousand other respects,' he wrote to Conway seventeen years later, "may not I almost say I am perfect with regard to you? Since I was fifteen have I not loved you unalterably?" "I am," he claimed towards the end of his life, "very constant and sincere to friends of above forty years." In his friendships he was more eager to give than to receive. Madame du Deffand was only dissuaded from making him her heir by his threat that if she did so he would never visit her again. Ever since his boyhood he was noted for his love of giving pleasure and for his thoughtfulness regarding those he loved. The earliest of his published letters was until last year one written at the age of fourteen. But Dr. Paget Toynbee, in his supplementary volumes of Walpole letters, recently published, has been able to print one to Lady Walpole written at the age of eight, which suggests that

Walpole was a delightful sort of child, incapable of forgetting a parent, a friend, or a pet :

Dear mama, I hop you are wall, and I am very wall, and I hop papa is wal, and I begin to slaap, and I hop al wall and my cosens like there pla things vary wall

and I hop Doly phillips is wall and pray give my Duty to papa.

HORACE WALPOLE.

and I am very glad to hear by Tom that all my cruatuars are all wall. and Mrs. Selwyn has sprand her Fot and gvis her Sarves to you and I dind ther yester Day.

At Eton later on he was a member of two leagues of friendship-the "Triumvirate," as it was called, which included the two Montagus, and the "Quadruple Alliance," in which one of his fellows was Gray. The truth is, Walpole was always a person who depended greatly on being loved. "One loves to find people care for one," he wrote to Conway, "when they can have no view in it." His friendship in his old age for the Misses Berry-his "twin wives," his "dear Both "-to each of whom he left an annuity of £400, was but a continuation of that kindliness which ran like a stream (ruffled and sparkling with malice, no doubt) through his long life. And his kindness was not limited to his friends, but was at the call of children and, as we have seen, of animals. "You know," he explains to Conway, apologizing for not being able to visit him on account of the presence of a "poor little sick girl" at Strawberry Hill, "how courteous a knight I am to distrest virgins of five years old, and that my castle gates are always open to them." One does not think of Walpole primarily as a squire of children, and certainly, though he loved on occasion to romp with the young, there was little in him of a Dickens character. But he was what is called "sympathetic." He was sufficient of a man of imagination to wish to see an end put to the sufferings of "those poor victims, chimney-sweepers." So far from being a heartless person, as he has been at times portrayed, he had a heart as sensitive as an anti-vivisectionist. This was shown in his attitude to animals. In 1760, when there was a great terror of mad

dogs in London, and an order was issued that all dogs found in the streets were to be killed, he wrote to the Earl of Strafford :

In London there is a more cruel campaign than that waged by the Russians: the streets are a very picture of the murder of the innocents—one drives over nothing but poor dead dogs! The dear, good-natured, honest, sensible creatures! Christ! how can anybody hurt them? Nobody could but those Cherokees the English, who desire no better than to be halloo'd to blood-one day Admiral Byng, the next Lord George Sackville, and to-day the poor dogs!

As for Walpole's interest in politics, we are told by writer after writer that he never took them seriously, but was interested in them mainly for gossip's sake. It cannot be denied that he made no great fight for good causes while he sat in the House of Commons. Nor had he the temper of a ruler of men. But as a commentator on politics, and a spreader of opinion in private, he showed himself to be a politician at once sagacious, humane, and sensitive to the meaning of events. His detestation of the arbitrary use of power had almost the heat of a passion. He detested it alike in a Government and in a mob. He loathed the violence that compassed the death of Admiral Byng and the violence that made war on America. He raged against a public world that he believed was going to the devil. "I am not surprised," he wrote in 1776, "at the idea of the devil being always at our elbows. They who invented him no doubt could not conceive how men could be so atrocious to one another, without the intervention of a fiend. Don't you think, if he had never been heard of before, that he would have been invented on the late partition of Poland ?" "Philosophy has a poor chance with me," he wrote a little later in regard to America, "when my warmth is stirredand yet I know that an angry old man out of Parliament, and that can do nothing but be angry, is a ridiculous animal." The war against America he described as "a wretched farce of fear daubed over with airs of bullying." War at any time was, in his eyes, all but the unforgivable sin. In 1781, however, his hatred had lightened into con

« PrécédentContinuer »