Friday, May 08, 2015


"...the chapter of myself."

I wonder how many posts I will end up writing about Horace Walpole.  Shall we find out together?  I just finished Volume I of his Letters.  400 pages of letters plus 150 pages of front-matter.  At the end of this volume he is only 29 years old.  It is January of 1746 and his letters are full of news of the Jacobite Rebellion.  His father has recently died, and so has his beloved dog Patapan.  On to Volume II shortly, and then perhaps on to the remaining six volumes after that.  But first, a few notes about readability.  I must say, for the hundredth time at least (forgive me), how much I love reading published diaries and collected letters, for their open-endedness and candor, their coverage of events both personal and historical as they arise, and their cumulative effect.  Reading them feels voyeuristic and yet not too much, because these letters were preserved and valued during the lifetimes of the correspondents, and often returned to the senders after the death of the recipients, or vice versa.  So, they were quite public, in a way, even at the time they were written.  I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to mention that these letters feel so full.  The opposite of edited.  Like life.  There is no paring down, in fact there is often padding, from not knowing what to say but wanting to write to a friend anyway, in spite of having no real news.  My patience for fiction in general has been thin lately, so I'm not surprised to find myself a maximalist when it comes to reading choice.  Life is so full and rich, even when nothing much is happening!  I love writers whose prose reflects that, and in nonfiction I have come to love writers who write a lot, over long lifetimes.  Among so many other things, they keep me from having to decide what to read next, because I can always just keep reading whatever it is I am reading right now.  Which is Horace Walpole.

On my mind after finishing this first volume:  when writing letters, does one say what one really wants to say?  Walpole is so good at tailoring his letters to please the recipients, that I often wonder.  But I do know, apropos of above - writing even when one has no news to share - that Walpole is a master at that (p.260):

"If I went by my last week's reason for not writing to you, I should miss this post too, for I have no more to tell you than I had then; but at that rate, there would be great vacuums in our correspondence."

Again (p.267):

"My letters are now at their ne plus ultra of nothingness; so you may hope they will grow better again."

And again (p.325):

"Does Decency insist upon one's writing within certain periods, when one has nothing to say? because, if she does, she is the most formal, ceremonious personage I know.  I shall not enter into a dispute with her.... I had rather write than have a dispute about it.... it is merely to avoid scolding that I set about this letter: I don't mean your scolding, for you are all goodness to me; but my own scolding of myself.... One can scold other people again, or smile and jog one's foot, and affect not to mind it; but those airs won't do with oneself; one always comes by the worst in a dispute with one's own conviction."

These are the times I love him best, when he veers off into self-reflection.  I wish he did it more often, but his main correspondent from this time period was living in Italy and so most of Walpole's writing to him encompasses politics and social tidbits he considered newsworthy or entertaining from afar.  Walpole will describe himself and his feelings from time to time, but only for short passages, and then a disclaimer usually follows (p.320):

"...I think I have pretty well exhausted the chapter of myself."

However, Volume I of the Letters does contain some extraordinary exceptions.  First, Walpole writes to his beloved cousin offering him a share of his worldly goods, if that is what it will take for the cousin to marry and be happy.  A beautiful letter.  Here it is, courtesy of Yale.  I love the last paragraph especially.  Second, two letters ably answer that question I mention above - He writes so well, but what was he really thinking?  In this particular case, we know exactly.  After the death of their father, one of Walpole's elder brothers sends him a terrible letter, about a parliamentary matter.  Cursory, insulting, truly awful.  Walpole writes a long reply, addressing his brother's statements one by one.  And doesn't send it.  In a masterful display of tact, he takes the high road and sends instead a single paragraph in reply.  Condensed, lovingly bitter.  Again, thanks to Yale, I point anyone interested to these very letters.  The terrible letter from his brother (see page two! the last sentence is a killer!).  The reply Walpole didn't send.  The reply he did send.  And not just the printed text, but also the handwritten letters themselves.  These, more than anything, make me want to read on.

I wish my aversion to reading a lot of text online wasn't so strong - I'd be reading all of the Horace Walpole letters on the Yale website (thousands more! to and from!) instead of just the selection in the printed volumes I have on hand.  But, as I found out last year with Samuel Clemens, when I read my way through his printed correspondence and gallantly tried to continue using the UC Mark Twain Project's online e-reader... I couldn't do it.  My heart belongs to real books.  No surprise there, I know.  

I have been reading your posts on Walpole's letters with eyes partly covered because of this feeling that you might tempt me into being submerged in yet another multi-volume series of letters. However, it might be too late - when last in the library I peeked into a volume of Walpole...
Oh, my sympathies... and also a sincere hurray! You may have noticed this already, but if you choose to read from the massive Yale set, the typography is particularly fine - I think Carl Purington Rollins was the printer in charge and he was so very good! However for sheer chronological readability the Toynbee set is supposed to be the best, although I've never seen it myself.

I feel as if I should say bon voyage -
Whoa! Quite a trio of letters!
Aren't they, Dan? I'm riveted...! Walpole seems to have gotten along well with his sister and first cousin, but certainly not with his two brothers or his uncle. More family trouble lies ahead, too. I read on, it's so absorbing, not to say addicting.
Yes, I see what you mean about the typography - the whole design layout works very nicely for all the information they are providing and gives some breathing room to the reader. I do have a soft spot for the Toynbee, something about the weight of the book, print biting into the paper, the deckle edge…be lovely to have both!

Wonder if I can use the letters as kind of a palate-cleaning sherbet? Little bites between projects and other books? Hmmm, should give it a try.
Julé, I know of what you speak. This old Peter Cunningham set I am reading (1906) is printed on laid paper which is very light but of good quality (no watermark that I can find) and has deckle edges. Letterpress/linotype? No colophon present except a very small "Printed by R.& R. Clark, Limited, Edinburgh" on the last page. The type is a bit small, and even smaller in the copious footnotes, so I do yearn for the big Yale set, which is so easy on the eyes. But those volumes are bigger, and heavier, so they might be physically more uncomfortable to read over the long term! It's a toss-up. I will forge ahead in Cunningham, until I get distracted by something else altogether (could happen). I like your sherbet idea. Thanks so much for your comments.
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