They talk much of Dr. Johnson’s Letter to Lord Chesterfield. Certainly, it is an amazing, a triumphant epistle. It is, perhaps, the palmary example of how agony long endured, shame, misery and humiliation can at last turn to flame and a sword, and rend and devour and hew asunder the wretched tormentor who is found at last to be but a Wig and buckram and a grin and a black heart. Listen to the phrases. They are well known, and yet I think that they cannot be too well known.
“When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address; and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre— that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found myself so little encouraged that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in publick, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could, and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.
“Seven years, my Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before . . . the notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.”
“Till I am solitary and cannot impart it.” Johnson’s wife had died in the interval between the beginning and the end of the Dictionary. An absurd woman, they say, many years older than Johnson, given to “cordials” somewhat too freely, given also to the extravagant use of paint as applied to the face; but yet the Doctor loved her dearly. It would have been an exquisite joy to tell his “Tetty” how the great Lord Chesterfield was the fervent friend of the poor, ragged, starving scholar, the approver of his work and his helper in it. But Tetty was dead, and it had never been possible to utter that comfortable word; and so, I say, agony turns to flaming fire, to this great letter of denunciation.
There is no letter that I know of worthy of being compared with it. But Johnson’s letter is tragedy; the spectacle of a soul on fire, while yet the tears rain down from the man’s eyes. There is no spectacle, I think, that can be paralleled with this. But if I were compiling an anthology of letters, I believe that I could find something on the comic side, worthy at least of being in the same volume.
A little way off the white limestone road that winds by the river from Newport to Caerleon-on-Usk, in Monmouthshire, there is, or was, an ancient dwelling called St. Julians. In this place lived, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, a certain Sir William Herbert, third son of the first Earl of Pembroke. This gentleman was once annoyed by a Mr. Morgan, who is only known as the object of Sir William’s fury. And thus we begin:
“Sir — Peruse this letter in God’s name. Be not disquieted. I reverence your hoary hair. Although in your son I find too much folly and lewdness, yet in you I expect gravity and wisdom. It hath pleased your son, late of Bristol, to deliver a challenge to a man of mine, on the behalf of a gentleman (as he said) ‘as good as myself’ who he was, he named not, neither do I know; but if he be as good as myself, it must be either for virtue, for birth, for ability, or for calling and dignity: for virtue, I think he meant not, for it is a thing which exceeds his judgment; if for birth, he must be the heir male of an Earl, the heir in blood of ten Earls, for in testimony thereof I bear their several coats. Besides, he must be of the blood royal, for by my grandmother Devereux, I am lineally and legitimately descended out of the body of Edward IV. If for ability, he must have a thousand pounds a year in possession, a thousand pounds more in expectation, and must have some thousands in substance besides. If for calling and dignity, he must be knight, or lord of several seignories, in several kingdoms; a lieutenant of his county; and a counsellor of a province.
“Now, to lay all circmnstances aside, be it known to your son, or to any man else, that if there be anyone who beareth the name of gentleman, and whose words are of reputation in his county, that doth say, or dare say, that I have done unjustly, spoken an untruth, stained my credit and reputation in this matter, or in any matter else, wherein your son is exasperated, I say he lieth in his throat, and my sword shall maintain my word upon him, in any place or province, wheresoever he dare, and where I stand not sworn to observe the peace. But if they be such as are within my governance, and over whom I have authority, I will, for their reformation, chastise them with justice, and for their malapert misdemeanour bind them to their good behaviour. Of this sort I account your son, and his like; against whom I will shortly issue my warrant, if this my warning doth not reform them. And so I thought fit to advertise you hereof, and leave you to God.”
How magnificent is “my grandmother Devereux!” The race of such grandmothers is, I am sure, extinct. No man can write such a letter now. No man dares in these days to think so nobly of himself and his ancestors. Sir Leicester Dedlock, even, would not have addressed Mr. Lawrence Boythorn in this superb and exalted manner. He would have instructed Mr. Tulkinghorn to take some kind of proceedings, and though Mr. Tulkinghorn was a great man in his way, after all he was but an attorney. And recourse to an attorney is but a shabby substitute for the resounding boasts and the terrific threats of “old Sir William Herbert of St. Gillyans,” as his age called him.
And now for an example of a very different school of letter-writing. We are to fall a little in the world. Our polite correspondent is neither a Georgian saint and sage, nor a high Elizabethan gentleman. He is Mr. Percy Mapleton, generally known as Lefroy, who is in Maidstone Gaol, awaiting his trial for the murder of Frederick Isaac Gold upon the 27th of June, 1881. He is addressing a lady who, I believe, was a relation of his:
“My Darling Annie,
“I am getting this posted secretly by a true and kind friend, and I trust you implicitly to do as I ask you. Dearest, should God permit a verdict of ‘Guilty’ to be returned, you know what my fate must be unless you prevent it, which you can do by assisting me in this way. Send me (concealed in a common meat pie, made in an oblong tin cheap dish), a saw file, six inches or so long, without a handle; place this at bottom of pie, embedded in under crust and gravy. And now, dearest, for the greater favour of the two. Send me, in centre of a small cake, like your half-crown one, a tiny bottle of prussic acid, the smaller the better; this last you could, I believe, obtain from either Drs. Green or Cressy for destroying a favourite cat. My darling, believe me when I say, as I hope for salvation, that this last should only be used the last night allowed me by the law to live, if it comes to that last extremity. Never while a chance of life remained would I use it, but only as a last resource. . . . By packing these, as I say, carefully, sending with them a tin of milk, etc no risk will be incurred as my things are, comparatively speaking, never examined. Get them yourself soon, and direct them in a feigned hand, without any accompanying note. If you receive this safely, and will aid me, by return send a postcard, saying; ‘Dear P., Captain Lefroy has returned.’”
It has been remarked, I believe, that the profuse use of the italic character is often a sign of a weak and confused mind. It is certainly evidence of such a state in this extraordinary letter of Lefroy’s. It will be noted that he italicises phrases which need no italics. “As I hope for salvation,” is quite clear in Roman type; “a chance of life,” “a favourite cat” are phrases which involve no obscurity. There are, indeed, phrases which the commentator might write in italics or mark with bracketed notes of exclamation, and chief of these is Lefroy’s remark that his things were, “comparatively speaking, never examined.” How do you “comparatively speaking,” never examine anything? Clearly, the man’s mind was a heap of foolishness and confusion; he doesn’t even understand how a meat pie is made, as appears by his idle talk about “under crust.” He has been reading silly fictions about prisoners escaping by means of hidden files, the kind of fiction with which Tom Sawyer embittered the life of the unfortunate Jim, who “mashed his teeth” by biting on a brass candlestick concealed by Tom in the negro’s prison fare. And the “feigned hand” of Lefroy is much on the level of the “nonnamous letters” which Tom insisted on writing to Jim’s gaolers. And it must be said that the poor woman to whom this extraordinary letter was addressed seems to have belonged to the crazy world which Lefroy himself inhabited. She replied. She did not say, as kindly as might be, “don’t talk nonsense.” She did not perceive that the file business was sheer idiocy, but:
“First I must tell you that the delay about what you mentioned has happened through our being told that only two shops in London make them, but trust before you have this it will have arrived safely; if so, say in your next: ‘The little basket with butter, etc., came safely.’”
And her letter, too, is full of italics, and many phrases are in “small caps.” Lefroy, clearly, was a man of confusion, and lived in a world of confusion. If he had avoided italics, he might have avoided Maidstone Gaol, the hangman and the rope.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53