No student, not even a general reader, interested in the eighteenth century and its culture in England can afford to overlook Horace Walpole and his works. Walpole’s life spanned eighty years of that century, and the man himself engaged in most of the activities of the times in one way or another. His interests lay in many areas—political, literary, artistic, antiquarian, horticultural, architectural, and social. He was novelist, playwright, historian, member of Parliament, the son of a prime minister, an arbiter of artistic excellence, a publisher, a collector, and, among other things, an inveterate letter writer. It is anticipated that the monumental collected edition of the letters, the Yale edition now in progress, will eventually reach a total of fifty volumes.
In the realm of literature alone, Walpole had an amazing record of production, even for an age notorious for its prolific writers. Walpole wrote a novel, a comedy, a tragedy, some poetry, memoirs of the eighteenth-century Hanoverian kings of England, a volume on the career of the infamous Richard III, a catalogue of royal and noble English authors, a work on painting in England, and other writings. Although his novel, THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO, has always had some vogue, his letters have received more attention in the past hundred years. Walpole would probably approve, for he himself said that letters were the best key to the history of an age. Indeed, it seems that he wrote his correspondence with posterity in mind and according to something resembling a plan. That the letters have had continued popularity is due to their intrinsic worth, as well as their historical significance. Walpole had a pleasant style, and it must have been a pleasure to have been a recipient of his letters, as Horace Mann was, for example, over a period of more than forty years.
The language of Walpole’s letters seems modern, for the idiom is attractive and anything but dated. And they are never boring. One reason for their effect is the fact that the letters are seldom about the author himself. Walpole wrote, rather, about the world, its main outlines as he knew them and its details as he observed them. He saw the world in its larger relationships, but he also had an eye and mind that were cognizant of little things. A chronic victim of the gout in later life, he seldom used his letters to indulge in self-pity. Though a thoughtful man, he did not inject into the letters a mass of subjective philosophizing; though an active man, he did not expatiate upon his activities from a personal point of view. There is always a conversational tone to the letters. They read much the same way that an eighteenth-century salon conversation probably sounded. Occasional improprieties, slight bursts of anger, the gossip, the wit, even the diction, are those which one probably would have heard among the well-bred people with whom Walpole was familiar.
The subject matter of the letters is almost universal, though centered in the strata of the world that Walpole knew, the world of the Whig aristocracy of eighteenth-century England, a...
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