Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Historical and Political Writings > James Howell’s Epistolae Ho-Elianae
  Correspondence of the Family of Hatton Howell’s other writings  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VIII. Historical and Political Writings.

§ 11. James Howell’s Epistolae Ho-Elianae.

Although James Howell earned his appointment by Charles II as historiographer royal of England by a long succession of publications to be classed as historical, his enduring title to literary fame rests on his Familiar Letters (Epistolae Ho-Elianae), which can only in part be described as historical writing. They occupy a place of their own in the literature of essays and tabletalk clothed in the mainly fictitious form of personal letters. Before he began his literary career, James Howell had led an active life, which had extended over some forty-five years since, to use his own phraseology, he “came tumbling into the world a grave Cadet, a true Cosmopolite; not born to Land, Lease, House or Office.” He had seen many cities and the dwellers therein beyond the limits of England and his native Wales; he had been engaged in commercial dealings in Venice and in diplomatic negotiations in Spain, besides being temporarily employed in foreign service in Denmark and in France; he had held an administrative post in York, and had thus come to sit for a time in parliament; and he had been sent on a confidential mission by Strafford from Dublin to Edinburgh and London. In 1642, before he had actually begun to perform the duties of clerk of the privy council, into which office he had been sworn, he was imprisoned in the Fleet—because of his loyalty or because of his debts, or for both reasons. During the eight or nine years of his imprisonment, he lived the laborious life of a man supporting himself by his pen, and produced a large proportion of his numerous writings. In these, he at first kept up a display of antagonism to presbyterianism, becoming, as a matter of course, involved in controversy with Prynne; but this attitude he modified, and, in 1651, he was released on bail. During the protectorate, he sought to secure the goodwill of Cromwell, advocating a compromise between him and the royal pretender. The restoration, naturally, he welcomed; but he obtained nothing from the crown beyond a small gift of money (£200) and the office aforesaid. Some ironical consolations addressed to him by disappointed cavaliers led to a controversy between him and Sir Roger L’Estrange, who had not much trouble in pointing out certain inconsistencies in Howell’s political profession. He died in 1666.  26    20
  Such a life might well provide abundant materials for the volume of Letters which Howell published from his prison in 1645, and which was succeeded by a second volume in 1647, and a new edition of both, with a third volume, in 1650. A fourth was added in a collected edition which appeared in 1655. The reader will not be long in discerning the fictitious character of many of these letters. Even so outspoken a writer as he was would hardly have cared actually to send to Buckingham, when at the height of his power, the “few advertisements” of the letter of advice (dated 13 February, 1626/7), “which I would not dare to present, had I not hopes that the Goodness which is concomitant with your Greatness would make them venial,” or have troubled Charles I, not long after Marston moor, with variations on the consolatory fact that, in the past, other kings had found themselves in an even worse plight. There is further internal evidence to support the same conclusion, besides the occasional great length of these letters, their sans gêne, remarkable even in an age not habituated to reticence, their excess of anecdotes (though often good in themselves, and always well told) and of verse, with which an experienced man of the world would scarcely have tired most of his correspondents. Moreover, as a matter of fact, the few letters from Howell actually preserved by those to whom they were sent are in a shorter and more businesslike form.   21
  Of the letters as we have them, some are lucid, as well as readable, summaries of the political condition and historical development of particular countries or communities—Venice, the united provinces of the Netherlands, the Hanseatic league and Spain (which he studied with particular curiosity); statements as to the distribution of different religions on the earth, of the Jews in Europe, and the like; accounts of the inquisition, and of particular episodes of recent or contemporary history. Others are practically nothing else than short essays—“middles,” as journalists would call them—on social or literary topics of divers kinds, especially problems of language—for Howell was a scholar by training as well as by instinct, and, in 1623, after some of his travels were over, was elected a fellow of his college (Jesus) at Oxford. His scientific interests appear to have been few, though he could speculate on the changes in the human body, and, in moral science, on the mysterious ways of Providence in its dealing with man,  27  and on demonology, for he was no exception to his generation in his belief in witchcraft. Occasionally, he turns to more material topics—the potations of the chief nations of the globe (from “whisky” to “cauphe”) and the virtues of tobacco, which even king James acknowledged in circumstances of stress.  28    22
  All these matters, and a great many others, Howell discusses in “these rambling Letters,” “which indeed,” he writes,  29  “are naught else than a Legend of the cumbersome Life and various Fortunes of a Cadet;” and he deprecates the assurances of his correspondent that
some of them are freighted with many excellent and quiet passages delivered in a masculine and solid style, adorn’d with much eloquence and stuck with the choicest flowers pick’d from the Muses garden.
But the praise was not, in all respects, undeserved. Howell combined instruction and entertainment with admirable effect, and possessed what was still the rare gift of imparting information that was not only to a large extent new, but, also, true so far as its purveyor could ascertain its truth. Accuracy of detail, in the matter of dates and places, was not his forte;  30  on the other hand, neither was a tendency to exaggeration, or a habit of garbling his facts so as to suit his point of view, among his foibles. And, above all, he said what he had to say clearly, often with not a little force, and with a humour usually apposite and sound. His anti-puritanism (as the later conduct of his life shows) was not very violent, and sometimes takes a rather ingenious turn;  31  his personal piety was quite unaffected, though his way of placing on record his religious habits may savour rather too much of what he calls “striking a talley in the Exchequer of Heaven.”  32  And if, on this and other occasions, he may seem to talk overmuch about himself “what subject,” as Thackeray asks in a passage where James Howell is honoured by being coupled with Montaigne,  33  “does a man know better?” Thus, his letters as a whole, and especially the earlier (for the later are not altogether exempt from the decline noticeable in most continuations) do not fall far short of his own description of “Familiar Letters” as
the Keys of the Mind; they open all the Boxes of one’s Breast, all the cells of the Brain, and truly set forth the inward Man; nor can the Pencil so lively represent the Face as the Pen can do the Fancy.  34 

Note 26. He was buried in the Temple church, where his monument is preserved, though not on its original site. [ back ]
Note 27. Letter 4 in book IV (Jacobs’s ed.), there can be little doubt, is the original of Parnell’s famous tale of the hermit. [ back ]
Note 28. When he found himself in a pigsty. [ back ]
Note 29. From the Fleet, 5 May, book II, letter 61. [ back ]
Note 30. “Syracuse, now Messina” (book I, sect. I, letter 27), is, perhaps, a rather out-of-the-way instance of looseness. [ back ]
Note 31. See the clever comparison (it hardly deserves a higher kind of commendation) between the advantages of prayer and those of praise (book II, letter 67). [ back ]
Note 32. Book I, sect. IV, letter 32. [ back ]
Note 33Roundabout Papers: On Two Children in Black. [ back ]
Note 34. Book II, letter 70. [ back ]

  Correspondence of the Family of Hatton Howell’s other writings  

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.