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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford (1717–1797)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
HORACE WALPOLE might be called the Beau Brummel of English men of letters; yet the criticism which takes account chiefly of his elegances is in danger of overlooking his substantial literary merits. These are well established, and singular in their class and degree: their limitations perhaps add to their worth rather than detract from it. Walpole’s writings have the distinctive little beauties of a Watteau landscape, whose artificiality is part of its charm. They bear about them, moreover, an attractive atmosphere of irresponsibility, as emanating from one who disavowed the serious claims of authorship, making of literature always a gentlemanly diversion,—over which it was permissible to wax serious, however, as over the laying out of a garden maze, or the construction of a lath-and-plaster Gothic tower.  1
  The life of Horace Walpole stretches over the greater part of the eighteenth century, of which century he was an organic part; reflecting its admirable good sense, its complete materialism, its cleverness, and its wit. Born in 1717, the son of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, the fashionable world of the day was his by inheritance. Between the beef-eating, coarse-living statesman, and his elegant little son, there could not have been much sympathy; but the child accepted readily enough the advantages which his father’s position brought to him. The fascination which royalty always exercised over him was early shown by his insisting, at the age of ten years, upon a presentation to George I. He was sent in the same year to Eton, a place forever memorable to him by reason of the lifelong friendships which he formed there,—with his cousins Henry Conway and Lord Hertford, with George Selwyn, with George and Charles Montagu, with Thomas Gray the poet, with Richard West and Thomas Ashton. In 1734 he left Eton, without having specially distinguished himself. In 1735 he entered King’s College, Cambridge, although his mathematical attainments were summed up in an insecure knowledge of the multiplication table; at Cambridge, however, he broadened his knowledge of the modern tongues, thus preparing himself for a Continental residence. In 1739, in company with Gray, he left the University to make the conventional grand tour. From the Continent he wrote many of the letters for which he is famous. The two young men arrived at length in Florence, where they took up their residence with Sir Horace Mann, the British minister plenipotentiary to Tuscany, who afterwards became one of Walpole’s chief correspondents. At Florence, Walpole was drawn more and more into fashionable society; Gray more and more into the scholar’s life, under the stimulus of Italy’s antiquities. The separation between the two friends, inevitable under the circumstances, soon came. In after years Walpole assumed all the blame of the quarrel which was the apparent cause of their parting.  2
  In September 1741 he himself returned to England, where the ministry of Sir Robert was tottering to its fall. He took his seat in the House as representative from the borough of Callington, making at this time strong speeches in defense of his father. Sir Robert, however, resigned in 1742, was created Earl of Orford, and immediately retired to Houghton, the seat of the family. His son joined him there; but this residence in Norfolk, among the hunting gentry of the county, was a weary exile to Horace. “Only imagine,” he writes, “that I here every day see men who are mountains of roast beef, and only seem just roughly hewn out into outlines of human form, like the giant rock of Pratolino. I shudder when I see them brandish their knives in act to carve, and look on them as savages that devour one another.”  3
  In 1745 Sir Robert Walpole died. Two years after his death his son purchased the villa at Twickenham, which was to become one of the famous houses of Europe under the name of Strawberry Hill. The original villa was the nucleus of a fantastic Gothic structure, which grew year after year, until it became not unlike a miniature castle. Walpole, through his father’s influence, had come into the possession of several lucrative sinecures, and had also wealth by inheritance. He could gratify his tastes to the utmost; it was at Strawberry Hill that his life as an English man of letters, and as a dilettante, really commences. His house became, more than the houses of the majority of men, the expression of his mind. Its ancient stained glass, its armor, its rare china, its rare prints, its old masters, its curious relics of departed greatness, its strange architecture following no known rules, seemed the outward symbols of certain qualities of Walpole’s mind,—his love of the choicest gossip, his self-conscious aristocracy, his ingenuity, his frank insincerity. At Strawberry Hill he set up a printing-press,—as necessary a part of a cultured gentleman’s establishment as his library or his art gallery. His old friendship with Gray having been resumed, he edited and printed the works of the poet, with illustrations by Bentley. Among other famous books which were issued from this press were the ‘Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury,’ Heutzner’s ‘Journey into England,’ and not a few of Walpole’s own works. During his long residence at Twickenham, he wrote the majority of those letters which stand in the highest rank of their class. Among his correspondents were Robert Jephson the playwright, the poet Mason, the Countess of Ossory, his cousin Henry Conway, Sir Horace Mann, George Montagu, and Madame du Deffand. With the last his friendship was long and close. It was natural that the France of the latter half of the eighteenth century should have peculiar attractions for a man of Walpole’s temperament. Moreover, he was always fond of women’s society: perhaps they understood his temperament better than men,—he himself, at least, possessing many lady-like tastes and qualities. The two women who were nearest and dearest to him in his old age were Mary and Agnes Berry, of whom he has left a charming description in a letter to a friend. They lived near him until his death; and he bequeathed to them Strawberry Hill, besides a considerable sum of money. He died in 1797.  4
  The reputation of Walpole as an author rests upon his letters. His romantic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ and his dreadful tragedy ‘The Mysterious Mother,’ are famous only in their oblivion. His ‘Anecdotes of Painting in England,’ his ‘Memoirs of the Last Ten Years of King George II.,’ his ‘Journal of the Reign of George III.,’ have greater claims to remembrance. It is in his letters, however, that he fully expresses his individuality. They are among the most entertaining letters that were ever written: full of high-toned gossip, of the fruits of keen observation of men and things, displaying a genuine love of the beautiful and the picturesque,—they are, in the fullest sense, readable. They give the impression moreover of reserve force, as if their writer might accomplish great things if he chose. Subsequent generations have given the benefit of the doubt to the elegant creator of Strawberry Hill. A man who does a small thing to perfection, is generally suspected of having other, unknown powers at his command. What Horace Walpole might have done is almost as prominent an element in his reputation as what he did do.  5

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