Who's Horry now?
HORACE WALPOLE: THE GREAT OUTSIDER by Timothy Mowl John Murray, £19.99, pp. 274
You don't have to believe that Judge Jeffreys was a lovable old buffer to realise that Lord Macaulay maligned many histori- cal figures in his pen-portraits. Historians ever since have been busy scrubbing his graffiti off the statues.
A classic example of his technique is his hatchet-job on Samuel Crisp — that beloved 'Daddy' Crisp who taught Fanny Burney how to write. Macaulay's take on Crisp was that he had been so mortified by the reception of his tragedy Virginia at Drury Lane in 1754, that he retired to Chessington ('one of the wildest tracts of Surrey') and became a hermit:
He lost his temper and spirits and became a cynic and a hater of mankind . . . No road, not even a sheepwalk, connected his lonely dwelling with the abodes of men . . . He survived his failure about 30 years. A new generation sprang up around him. No memory of his bad verse remained among men. His very name was forgotten ... To the last, however, the unhappy man continued to brood over the injustice of the manager and the pit...
Today we know that in fact Crisp went to Chessington at a friend's invitation and for the sake of his health. And a letter of Tobias Smollett's has been published which shows Virginia being warmly applauded.
Macaulay was interested in Horace Walpole —'Horry' to his friends — as the connoisseur son of the 18th-century prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. In 1833 he was able to give him a doing-over when Horace's letters to Sir Horace Mann, British envoy at the court of Tuscany, were published. Dr Timothy Mowl is, of course, well aware of Macaulay's onslaught on Walpole, but he does not quote the most enjoyably damning part of it: After the labours of the print shop and the auction room, he unbent his mind in the House of Commons [Walpole was an MP for rotten boroughs]. And, having indulged in the recreation of making laws and voting mil- lions, he returned to more important pur- suits, to researches after Queen Mary's comb, Wolsey red hat, the pipe which Van Tromp smoked during his last sea fight, and the spur which King William stuck into the
flank of Sorrel.
Mowl does quote Macaulay's views that Walpole's writing, like pâté de foie Bras, owed its excellence to 'the diseases of the wretched animal which furnishes it' and that in building his Gothick castle of Straw- berry Hill, Twickenham, he decorated a 'grotesque house with pie-crust battle- ments'. Macaulay's Horry was a dilettante, a trifler, a fribble. In redressing this image, Mowl at times goes rather over the top. Few would disagree with him that Walpole was one of the great British taste-makers. But to suggest, as Mowl does, that 'Walpole is as commanding a figure in English literature as Proust is in French', is going it a hit.
The main basis of that high claim is the huge series of Walpole's admittedly capti- vating letters, edited in 48 volumes (1937- 83) by the American Walpole collector, Wilmarth S. Lewis. Lewis was perhaps the finest editor of any literary manuscripts anywhere — Theodore Besterman running him a close second with his work on Voltaire. As Mowl says, 'The footnotes are a monument in themselves.' Lewis devoted his life to Walpole and only shied away from writing a biography himself because he thought Walpole's letters had done the job so well as to make further comment superfluous.
Macaulay was playfully against Walpole; Lewis was seriously for him. Yet, paradoxi- cally, Walpole's champion did more than his denigrator to distort his image. Walpole was a bit of a cultural gadfly: Macaulay just exaggerated that side of him with brilliant malice. Lewis encountered another side of Walpole's nature which he could not, or would not, accept, and he covered it up. A Protestant horn in the 19th century and writing in New England. he could not hear to recognise that Walpole was homosexual. 'To that extent', Mowl writes, 'his scholar- ship was flawed, and he probably made certain that Wyndham Ketton-Cremer's Horace Walpole 1194(11 was flawed in exact- ly the same way.'
That Horace Walpole was homosexual is not a sensationally new idea. Coleridge (quoted by Mowl) thought Walpole's novel The Mysterious Mother 'detestable'. 'No one with a spark of true manliness, of which Horace Walpole had none, could have written it.' Macaulay did not deny himself an innuendo or two. Martin S. Briggs, in the chapter on Walpole in Men of Taste
(1947), which does not figure in Mowl's bibliography, wrote, 'It need hardly be said that he remained a bachelor to the end of his days.' And I myself, a pioneer unawares, used the h-word about Walpole in a book about pottery and porcelain, including collectors, in 1968:
Horace Walpole stands in relation to Sir Robert Walpole rather as the rococo to the baroque: the child that grows into the antithesis of its parent. Or one thinks of the delicate flower of a greatinistling cactus. He is what the 18th century calls a dilettante, the 19th an exquisite, and the 20th a homo- sexual.
Mowl brings Walpole's sexuality to the fore. He suggests that he had a physical affair with the young Lord Lincoln (later second Duke of Newcastle) — the son of one prime minister bedding the nephew of another. A pedant might say the evidence is circumstantial: Horace's having his and Lincoln's pastel portraits done as companion pieces while they holidayed in Venice; Horace's bribing Lincoln's tutor with a pension to make himself scarce, and so on. Lincoln was later robustly heterosexual: Mowl's description of him as a 'bedspring-bouncer' suggests that he knows, though he does not quote, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams's ribald ode to Lord Lincoln, replete with four-letter words.
Was Lincoln Walpole's physical lover a young man in a Horry, no to speak? Mowl thinks he was. It is unprovable, but he is convincing. He also goes into Walpole's affection for his cousin, Henry Seymour Conway, a soldier whom Walpole helped to propel to high Government office. The great trauma of Walpole's life was the exposé of that love by a pamphleteer named Guthrie. Guthrie sneered at a pamphlet Walpole wrote defending
The passionate fondness with which the personal qualities of the officer in question arc continually dwelt on would almost tempt me to imagine that this arrow came forth from a female quiver ...
Guthrie's attack gave Walpole something close to a nervous breakdown, So Wilmarth Lewis was wrong when he suggested Walpole had said it all. In Mowl's skilful Horatio ohliqua a very different — and much more human — figure appears. The work revises Ketton-Cremer's portrait of Walpole, rather as Robert Skidelsky's book on Maynard Keynes revised Roy Harrod's portrait of the economist. In both cases, the earlier hook brushes out the subject's homosexuality, the later bbok paints it in with Day-Glo.
Mowl begins his hook by quoting a dirty joke that Walpole told Horace Mann in a letter of 1752. Mowl booms, with righteous indignation: 'Anyone who supposes that Horace Walpole was, in any normal sense, a pleasant and amiable person' should consider the anecdote. I understand his wish not to begin by baldly stating Walpole's date of birth (though it would have been helpful to some readers if he had given at least the year, somewhere early on, to indicate into which stretch of history Walpole fits.) But in pillorying Walpole, Mowl misses the point. The story about buggery is crude; what amused Walpole, however, was not the story itself but the effect it had in shocking a pompous alderman. Not so reprehensible if you accept Mowl's thesis that Walpole's homo- sexuality — still punishable by death at the time, in strict law — made him an outsider, 'a potent rebel in the heart of a nation's establishment'.
Heterosexuals can write good books on homosexuals, as Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey proved once and for all in the 1960s. Mowl declares his intention to write of Walpole's sexual nature not in any sense of moral shock or horror nor with any bias of sexual approval'. Rather defen- sively, he adds:
If readers suspect that a writer like myself, happily married to a second wife and the experienced father of a school-age son, has no business analysing the subtleties of homosexual attitudes in the 18th century, then they are probably unaware how much homosexual activity and internecine conflict is commonplace in the world of architectural historians. My profession has been a perfect preparation Later in the book you begin to wonder whether some of those homosexual colleagues have not, as it were, rubbed him up the wrong way. From time to time, apparently quite unconsciously, he betrays an anti-homosexual bias, as when he writes, 'Accused of many faults in his time, George II was never known to fancy any- one of his own sex'. In a comparable way, A. J. P. Taylor, so notoriously liberal on everything from the death penalty to CND, could write of his Magdalen, Oxford, col- league, K. B. McFarlane, the great mediae- valist, 'Like most homosexuals, he was neurotic, easily involved with his pupils, for or against, and often emotional over col- lege business.' In that, as in some of Mowl's comments, one discerns the 'They're all the same' syndrome which characterises racism too; exasperation with an irritating colleague has led to a blanket
judgment. In the middle of describing Walpole's holiday with Lincoln, Mowl writes:
If the impression has been given that Horace Walpole was a thoughtless, arrogant homo- sexual in pursuit of a typical `queer's victim' — a much younger, frail, handsome youth, unaware of the perils of seduction and help- less in the coils of a predatory schemer then that impression needs to be corrected.
With defenders like that, who needs detractors?
Holding an Oxford doctorate in architec- tural studies, Mowl is more at ease in writ- ing of Walpole as a trend-setter in building; though, as with the Proust comparison, he may perhaps be guilty of overselling Horsy when he claims that Strawberry Hill was 'the source-spring of all that great out- pouring of eclectic design which is called 'Victorian'. In 19th-century France, Viollet-Le-Duc went in for whole-hogging Gothic with no nudge from Walpole; and in Victorian Gothic the Oxford Movement and the great mediaeval cathedrals of England were surely inspirations at least as significant as Walpole's suburban castle, which even Mowl's sympathetic description represents as something of a folly.
There is room for one more biography of Horace Walpole — a fully fleshed two- volume job. Mowl covers some important aspects of Walpole only sketchily. For example, Walpole the connoisseur, collector of pictures and porcelain — the Great Walpole of China. Again, Mowl gives fascinating glimpses of Walpole's political intrigues and king-making. Not for nothing was Horsy the son of the greatest wheeler-dealer of his time. But this is a side of Horace that needs much fuller investigation, ideally by a political histori- an, not an art historian. (Perhaps the big book on Walpole should be a symposium, like the splendid one on Sir Hans Sloane edited by Arthur MacGregor in 1994.) The section on Walpole as politician would include an appraisal of his political prophe- cies. As Mowl points out, this supposed dabbler in gew-gaws foresaw both the American Revolution and the French Revolution long before either broke out. Any biographer of Horace Walpole has his raw material handed to him on a plate in Wilmarth Lewis's 48 volumes. But the apparent asset is also a drawback. It tempts the biographer to stay within the palisade Lewis built, and not to read around his sub- ject. Mowl suffers a little from this tenden- cy. He describes the humane and courageous way Walpole tried to save the doomed Admiral Byng: but because Mowl has studied only Walpole's story, not Byng's, he fails to note that Byng was also a china collector who, like Walpole, was accused of effeminacy. He misses other tricks by reading not enough letters and memoirs of Walpole's friends and enemies. For example, Jesse's George Selwyn and his Contemporaries would have given him George Williams's letter to Selwyn of 1763:
Horry is gone a progress into Northampton- shire to Lady Betty Germain's. Is it not sur- prising how he moves from old [Lady] Suffolk on the Thames to another old goody on the Tyne; and does not see the ridicule which he would no strongly paint in any other character?
Lewis gives us, over and over again, Walpole as seen by Walpole; here is the Walpole others saw.
Because of its limitations, Timothy Mowl's book gets an alpha rather than an alpha-plus; but this is still a surpassingly fine study which deserves to be ranked with Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats and Richard Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, both published in 1994. All three authors break open ampoules of history that people had taken care to keep sealed. All three books are bravura quasi-biographies in which tenacious research underlies a winning lightness of touch. In general, Mowl writes delightfully, and there are witticisms that Horry himself would relish. (Where Christianity was concerned, Horace was determined to have his cake but not to eat it.')
My only reservation is about the collo- quialisms with which Mowl spatters his prose — 'a Dominican friar chatted him up', 'It was not Horace's usual scene', 'spin- off, 'mid-life crisis of identity', 'supportive', tut reaction'. Perhaps I am a fuddy-duddy, and these jargonish terms have been absorbed into the rich tilth of English; but my feeling about them is that which Maya Angelou describes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When her brother Bailey made friends with some 'slick street boys', she writes, 'His language changed. He was forever dropping slangy terms into his sentences like dumplings in a pot.' However, Mowl's use of the modern term `outing' for Guthrie's nasty pamphlet about Walpole is acceptable because there is no established word that means quite the same thing. 'Exposure' carries unfortunate echoes of Nodl Coward -
We've been done in By that mortgage foreclosure And Father went out on a blind, He got run in For indecent exposure And ever so heavily fined.