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WEBSTER FREE LIBRARY,
A NEW edition of Lord Chesterfield's LETTERS TO HIS SON not only justifies but requires an introduction. The publication, without apology or explanation, of what was not intended for the press is on the face of it unfair, yet it might have been supposed that a sufficient time had elapsed to condone such an offence in the case of these Letters; or that, at most, it would be unnecessary to do more than mention that they were written at dates which cover a period of thirty years, that they were not meant for publication, that they were published after their writer's death without his sanction. and, of course, without his revision-in fact that he may even have been unaware of the continued existence of the literary work by which his name is best known to posterity. But, as it happens, a double duty is imposed upon the modern editor of these Letters. Not only must he, give some account of the circumstances in which they were written, and how they came to be made public, but, he ought to take the opportunity to remove some at least of the misconceptions which have grown up in regard to these famous Letters and their writer. Macaulay, in his essay on Horace Walpole, says that Lord Chesterfield "stands much lower in the estimation of posterity than he would have done if his letters had never been published". This remark was made in order to discredit the critical judgment of Walpole in admiring Chesterfield's literary work, and is a good example of that form of reasoning known as muddying the waters. But although it has no point in the argument of which it forms a part, it is interesting
as an admission that the popular conception of Chesterfield -the clever and heartless dissembler, the odious apostle of profligacy-has been the result of inferences drawn from the contents of the Letters. Lord Chesterfield, as one of his kindlier critics has observed, has been misrepresented almost as persistently as Machiavelli.
Recent commentators have, it is true, done a good deal to destroy what may be called the legendary Chesterfield. It has been shown that the letters are not so very immoral after all; and that, apart from them, the case against their writer rests mainly on gossip or the assertions of his personal enemies. But it is no easy task to re-establish a lost reputation: the public must have bogies to detest as well as heroes to worship, and the Chesterfield legend has a vitality as yet but little impaired by criticism. It is all the fault of the Letters: they have been stigmatised as immoral and frivolous, and in spite of this-dare I say because of this?—they have had thousands of readers who have never cared to rectify their impression of the writer by a consideration of his other works and of his life. The mistake is one of perspective: the LETTERS TO His SON have put all his other writings and doings into the background; and it is therefore a duty both to literature and history to attempt a rectification of the popular conception by giving prominence to what has been overlooked—the known facts of Lord Chesterfield's life, and such evidence of his character and opinions as may be found in the speeches, essays and letters-other than those to his son--that have been preserved. That Chesterfield's life in particular, should be read as a corrective has not, I think, been sufficiently insisted
Historians seem sadly timid and inclined to follow in each other's footsteps. When, for instance, Lord Mahon says that Chesterfield carried dissimulation "beyond justifiable bounds," the reader would naturally gather that some wellattested instances of duplicity were in the writer's mind. I am sure that this is not so: the historian is simply attributing
to the unfortunate statesman some of that accretion of traditional characteristics which has gathered round his name. Not that an unprejudiced perusal of the Letters justifies the conventional view of the man who wrote them-far from it, as I hope to show in due course. But if it can be demonstrated that Lord Chesterfield was in fact distinguished by the possession of many of those qualities in which the legendary Chesterfield is notoriously deficient, and by the lack of the more objectionable peculiarities which have been so often attributed to him, we shall approach the Letters with a fresh conception of their writer's character, drawn from a survey of the man as a whole, instead of from a one-sided examination of what was, after all, but a partial manifestation of his personality. So equipped, the student will, I believe, be prepared to agree with those whose judgment has already acquitted the Letters of the more serious of the charges which have been brought against them. Perhaps he may even, after reading the Letters, approve of a wider application being given to that judgment, until the legendary Chesterfield-a discredited bogey-is finally bundled out of court.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was born on the 22nd of September, 1694, a member of an ancient and illustrious family. His grandfather was known as "The Handsome Earl,” and might (it is said) have married Oliver Cromwell's daughter had he been so minded: he appears to have annoyed the Protector by not taking advantage of the opportunity. He was, however, a staunch adherent of the Stuarts. He was also a noted duellist, and figures in the pages of Pepys and De Grammont. His son, the third earl, was a morose man of Jacobite tendencies. 'My father was neither desirous nor able to advise me," writes Chesterfield to his son; and his mother, a daughter of the first and most famous Marquess of Halifax, died when he was still a
child. Lady Halifax, the boy's maternal grandmother, was, like her husband, renowned for wit as well as for good-nature. She undertook his education, and it was to her training that he owed his early mastery of the French language and of the arts of behaviour. He had good tutors, and when he went to Cambridge at the age of eighteen was a fair classical scholar. Perhaps this grandmotherly bringing up was not without some drawbacks, for young Stanhope, when in his teens, seems to have been somewhat of a prig. Dr. Maty, his first biographer, relates an incident, supported by the testimony of one of the letters, which shows at any rate that he acquired early in life one excellent habit—that of early rising. The story is worth repeating here, for it throws light on the character of the man as well as of the boy. Lord Galway, “a man of uncommon penetration and merit," was accustomed to visit Lady Halifax, and having noted the young nobleman's talents and tastes, which included "some tincture of laziness," addressed him on one occasion thus: "If you intend to be a man of business, you must be an early riser. In the distinguished posts your parts, rank and fortune will entitle you to fill, you will be liable to have visitors at every hour of the day, and unless you will rise constantly at an early hour, you will never have any leisure to yourself."
It appears from the letter of December 26, 1749, that this advice was consistently followed :—
"If by chance your business or your pleasures should keep you up till four or five o'clock in the morning, I would advise you, however, to rise exactly at your usual time, that you may not lose the precious morning hours; and that the want of sleep may force you to go to bed earlier the next night. This is what I was advised to do, when very young, by a very wise man; and what, I assure you, I always did in the most dissipated part of my life. I have very often gone to bed at six in the morning, and rose, notwithstanding, at eight.
To this method I owe the greatest part of my reading; for from twenty to forty I should certainly have read very little if I had not been up while my acquaintances were in bed." At Trinity Hall the future Lord Chesterfield was a reading his tutor told Dr. Maty that he used to work until six o'clock in the evening. Priggishness peeps out, I fear, in a letter written from Cambridge in 1712, though there is humour in the last words quoted :
"I find the college, where I am, infinitely the best in the university; for it is the smallest, and it is filled with lawyers, who have lived in the world, and know how to behave. Whatever may be said to the contrary, there is certainly very little debauchery in this university, especially amongst people of fashion, for a man must have the inclinations of a porter to endure it here."
By his own account (letter of June 24, 1751) he was "an absolute pedant" when he left Cambridge, at the age of nineteen, to complete his education by making the tour of Europe. But his letters written from the Hague and Paris to his old French tutor, M. Jouneau, show that he had none of the insular spirit which so often converts foreign travel into an English review of one's Maker's grotesques. At Antwerp he was the guest of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. At the Hague he unfortunately acquired a taste for gaming which remained with him all his life. He frequently warns his son not to follow him in this respect, and is perfectly outspoken on the subject. In his letter of October 12, 1748, he relates how he became a gambler, maintaining, oddly enough, that it was the result of his aiming at perfection, and his notion (discovered afterwards to be a mistaken one) that gaming "was a necessary step to it". He was notorious for his high play, but it may at least be said for him that he did not, by indulgence in this failing, seriously embarrass his fortune, or leave an impoverished estate to his successor. His advice on the subject was never in more marked contrast