Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
James Howell (c. 15941666)
[The author of the Familiar Letters, which have made one of the most popular books of English literature, was born about 1594. His pedigree loses itself in the usual mists of Welsh royalty or chieftaincy, after the fashion to be expected in a country where surnames were a late and doubtful importation; but his father was the parson of Abernant, in Carmarthenshire, and his relationship to good Welsh families seems indisputable. His school was Hereford, his college Jesus, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1613. Howell, however, was pre-eminently a man of affairs. He obtained a recommendation to his countryman Sir Robert Mansel, who with others had obtained a patent for the manufacture of glass, and was anxious to procure workmen from abroad. Howell was sent to Venice and elsewhere on this business, as he was later to Spain in hopes of recovering sums due to English merchants, at the favourable moment of the Prince of Waless intended marriage to the Infanta. During the reign of Charles the First he had many public and semi-public employments, and at last, just at the outbreak of the civil war, was made Clerk to the Council. The employment brought him little but imprisonment at the hands of the Parliament, and he lay in the Fleet till the war was over. At the Restoration (though Howells royalism, for all his imprisonment, was not of a very thorough-going character) he was made Historiographer-Royal. He survived that date six years and died in 1666. His Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ or Familiar Letters, in four books, appeared at intervals from 1645 to 1655. He was also the author of a vast number of separate works, some of which will be noticed below. The Letters were extremely popular, and after their collection went into ten editions in about three-quarters of a century, while they have had a considerable modern revival of popularity, and have never been neglected by students and literary men. The most complete and careful modern edition is that of Mr. Jacobs in 1890. The older ones are easily accessible, and may have greater charms for some readers. Howells Instructions for Foreign Travel was reprinted by Mr. Arber.]
IT has been observed more than once, and certainly with great truth, of Howell, that he was a journalist born before his time; and it may be added that he was not only this, but even, by anticipation, that peculiar and late kind of journalist known as the special correspondent. He had a considerable knowledge of literature, and, it would seem, a real, if not a very critical, love of books; but his bent was neither towards original production nor towards pure study. To be active in affairs and to write about them; to make popular summaries of history, politics, all manner of matters, especially those of passing interestthese were the tasks for which he was most inclined: and in undertaking and discharging them he was aided by a restless and rather adventurous temperament and a very considerable linguistic faculty. Hardly any kind of writing came amiss to him, prose, verse, or dictionary-making; but of all his forty or fifty books or pamphlets there is no doubt that the Familiar Letters bear the bell. The four books of which they are composed are of very unequal value and, so to speak, genuineness. It has been suspected, and with great reason, that even in the earlier instalments Howell frequently patched and wrote up his old letters, and may sometimes have invented them whole. But there can be little doubt that many, if not most of the later epistles, are pure literary exercises, popular tractates or pamphlets in the guise of letters. Even these however are mostly readable; and the earlier pieces are delightful. Howell has been accused of being a prig, which is harsh, and of being a coxcomb, which is true enough; and he has other qualities which are not in themselves gifts or graces. But his pedantry, his egotism, his adroit, if seldom quite abject flattery of the great, his spice of ill-nature now and then, his self-seeking and intriguing, present, as they are reflected in his style and matter, a spectacle by no means ugly, and very decidedly lively. And in this distinct and lively style he has abundance of interesting things to tell. His scraps and doles of book-learning are constantly contrasted with, and thrown up by, passages of sheer reporting, but reporting which is almost that of genius. In his travels and affairs he always had his eyes open, and could always describe what he saw. We may not attach strict credence to what he tells us of Raleighs fate and Ben Jonsons foibles, of his own activity and ability, and of other peoples mishaps or peccadilloes. But whether he is talking of these things, or of the manufacture of barillia, or of the Oxenham white bird, or of the shocking adventure of Lieutenant Jaquette, with a much earlier and more mischievous Lady of Lyons, or of almost anything but the subjects of his later vamped-up essays and sometimes even of thesethere is the attraction of the best light or miscellaneous writing. The thing is not specially edifying, but it is almost always amusing: if there is no great profit or any very exquisite pleasure in the reading, it is always an agreeable pastime. Howell had had more predecessors than is generally thought in the attempt to furnish pastime of this kind; but no one had yet acquired the perfect knack of furnishing it. He has something of the Boswellian touch in him, of the faculty of making us despise himself a little, but take an almost increased interest in his work, by reason of the way in which we look down on him. And much of his effect is due to pure matters of style and treatment, to his perfect clearness, to his mixture of the vernacular and the pedantic, nay to his very tags of mostly bad verse. A great writer he was not, but an extraordinarily clever and amusing one, with abundant distinction and idiosyncrasy, he was, and after more than two centuries, still is.