On the periphery of literature exists a valuable and fascinating genre, the personal letter. Like the private diary, the personal letter reveals an individual and an age far more intimately than any other form of writing. Probably no era practiced the epistolary art more widely than the eighteenth century and no person more skillfully than the fourth earl of Chesterfield. Although the earl had served his country unimpeachably as a member of Parliament, lord lieutenant of Ireland, and ambassador to Holland, it is generally conceded that Lord Chesterfield would have remained an inconspicuous figure in the eighteenth century historical scene had it not been for the unintended publication of some four hundred letters he wrote to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope. No doubt the very fact that these letters were private, intended to develop the education and manners of a young man who was expected to take a significant place in government and cultivated society, endows them with a frankness and honesty that betrays the cultivated self-seeking and hypocritical morality of the upper-class society of the time. Eugenia Stanhope, whose secret marriage with young Philip was only one of the many disappointments Lord Chesterfield suffered at the hands of his intractable son, was so incensed at being excluded from the earl’s will that, against the family’s wishes, she sold the letters for a little more than fifteen hundred pounds, thus infuriating English society and securing for Lord Chesterfield minor but recognized importance in the history of English prose.
The early letters are charmingly didactic essays addressed to a preadolescent boy whom the writer hoped would become “not only the best scholar but the best bred boy in England of your age.” “Dear boy,” they all begin, and then proceed to shape little lessons on language, literature, geography, history, and good manners. They conclude with admonitions to obey his seventy-year-old tutor, Maittaire, and with promises of “very pretty things” to reward him for industrious study. There is irony in Lord Chesterfield’s explanation of irony—“Suppose that I were to commend you for your great attention to your book, and for your retaining and remembering what you have once learned; would you not plainly perceive the irony, and see that I laughed at you?” Reasons for such laughter were to come, but it was never bitter or audible (“there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred as audible laughter”). Lord Chesterfield’s optimism and faith in rationalism may have diminished somewhat, but it was never extinguished completely. After his failure in making an outstanding figure of young Philip, he began the whole process over again in 1761 with his godson, to whom he wrote almost three hundred letters in one decade, published posthumously as...
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