The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf

The Humane Art *

* Written in April 1940.

If at this moment there is little chance of re-reading the sixteen volumes of the Paget Toynbee edition of Walpole’s letters, while the prospect of possessing the magnificent Yale edition, where all the letters are to be printed with all the answers, becomes remote, this sound and sober biography of Horace Walpole by Mr. Ketton–Cremer may serve at least to inspire some random thoughts about Walpole and the humane art which owes its origin to the love of friends.

But, according to his latest biographer, Horace Walpole’s letters were inspired not by the love of friends but by the love of posterity. He had meant to write the history of his own times. After twenty years he gave it up, and decided to write another kind of history — a history ostensibly inspired by friends but in fact written for posterity. Thus Mann stood for politics; Gray for literature; Montagu and Lady Ossory for society. They were pegs, not friends, each chosen because he was “particularly connected . . . with one of the subjects about which he wished to enlighten and inform posterity.” But if we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give. And Horace Walpole was no exception. There is the correspondence with Cole to prove it. We can see, in Mr. Lewis’s edition, how the Tory parson develops the radical and the free-thinker in Walpole, how the middle-class professional man brings to the surface the aristocrat and the amateur. If Cole had been nothing but a peg there would have been none of this echo, none of this mingling of voices. It is true that Walpole had an attitude and a style, and that his letters have a fine hard glaze upon them that preserves them, like the teeth of which he was so proud, from the little dents and rubs of familiarity. And of course — did he not insist that his letters must be kept? — he sometimes looked over his page at the distant horizon, as Madame de Sévigné, whom he worshipped, did too, and imagined other people in times to come reading him. But that he allowed the featureless face of posterity to stand between him and the very voice and dress of his friends, how they looked and how they thought, the letters themselves with their perpetual variety deny. Open them at random. He is writing about politics — about Wilkes and Chatham and the signs of coming revolution in France; but also about a snuffbox; and a red riband; and about two very small black dogs. Voices upon the stairs interrupt him; more sightseers have come to see Caligula with his silver eyes; a spark from the fire has burnt the page he was writing; he cannot keep the pompous, style any longer, nor mend a careless phrase, and so, flexible as an eel, he winds from high politics to living faces and the past and its memories ——“I tell you we should get together, and comfort ourselves with the brave days that we have known. . . . I wished for you; the same scenes strike us both, and the same kind of visions has amused us both ever since we were born.” It is not thus that a man writes when his correspondent is a peg and he is thinking of posterity.

Nor again was he thinking of the great public, which, in a very few years, would have paid him handsomely for the brilliant pages that he lavished upon his friends. Was it, then, the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art? Friendship flourished, nor was there any lack of gift. Who could have described a party more brilliantly than Macaulay or a landscape more exquisitely than Tennyson? But there, looking them full in the face was the present moment — the great gluttonous public; and how can a writer turn at will from that impersonal stare to the little circle in the fire-lit room? Macaulay, writing to his sister, can no more drop his public manner than an actress can scrub her cheeks clean of paint and take her place naturally at the tea table. And Tennyson with his fear of publicity —“While I live the owls, when I die the ghouls”— left nothing more succulent for the ghoul to feed upon than a handful of dry little notes that anybody could read, or print or put under glass in a museum. News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes! We long that Keats even should cease to talk about Fanny, and that Elizabeth and Robert Browning should slam the door of the sick room and take a breath of fresh air in an omnibus. Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks, like M. Gide’s — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Horace Walpole suffered none of these drawbacks. If he was the greatest of English letter writers it was not only thanks to his gifts but to his immense good fortune. He had his places to begin with — an income of £2,500 dropped yearly into his mouth from Collectorships and Usherships and was swallowed without a pang. “ . . . nor can I think myself,” he wrote serenely, “as a placeman a more useless or a less legal engrosser of part of the wealth of the nation than deans and prebendaries”— indeed the money was well invested. But besides those places, there was the other — his place in the very centre of the audience, facing the stage. There he could sit and see without being seen; contemplate without being called upon to act. Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. As an historian he would have stagnated among historians. But as a letter writer he buffets his way among the crowd, holding out a hand to each generation in turn — laughed at, criticized, despised, admired, but always in touch with the living. When Macaulay met him in October 1833, he struck that hand away in a burst of righteous indignation. “His mind was a bundle of inconstant whims and affectations. His features were covered by mask within mask.” His letters, like PATÉ DE FOIE GRAS, owed their excellence “to the diseases of the wretched animal which furnishes it”— such was Macaulay’s greeting. And what greater boon can any writer ask than to be trounced by Lord Macaulay? We take the reputation he has gored, repair it and give it another spin and another direction — another lease of life. Opinion, as Mr. Ketton–Cremer says, is always changing about Walpole. “The present age looks upon him with a more friendly eye” than the last. Is it that the present age is deafened with boom and blatancy? Does it hear in Walpole’s low tones things that are more interesting, more penetrating, more true than can be said by the loud speakers? Certainly there is something wonderful to the present age in the sight of a whole human being — of a man so blessed that he could unfold every gift, every foible, whose long life spreads like a great lake reflecting houses and friends and wars and snuff boxes and revolutions and lap dogs, the great and the little, all intermingled, and behind them a stretch of the serene blue sky. “Nor will [death] I think see me very unwilling to go with him, though I have no disappointments, but I came into the world so early, and have seen so much that I am satisfied.” Satisfied with his life in the flesh, he could be still more satisfied with his life in the spirit. Even now he is being collected and pieced together, letter and answer, himself and the reflections of himself, so that whoever else may die, Horace Walpole is immortal. Whatever ruin may befall the map of Europe in years to come, there will still be people, it is consoling to reflect, to hang absorbed over the map of one human face.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter9.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 11:53