Philip Wharton.

The Wits and Beaux of Society Volume 2 online

. (page 20 of 23)
Online LibraryPhilip WhartonThe Wits and Beaux of Society Volume 2 → online text (page 20 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


would have had a crowd daily at his table had he been left to himself.

The death of Lord Holland completely broke up the unrivalled dinners,
and the subsequent evenings in the 'gilded chamber.' Lady Holland, to
whom Holland House was left for her life-time, declined to live there.
With Holland House, the mingling of aristocracy with talent; the
blending ranks by force of intellect; the assembling not only of all the
celebrity that Europe could boast, but of all that could enhance private
enjoyment, had ceased. London, the most intelligent of capitals,
possesses not one single great house in which pomp and wealth are made
subsidiary to the true luxury of intellectual conversation.

On the morning of the day when Lord Holland's last illness began, these
lines were written by him, and found after his death on his
dressing-table: -

'Nephew of Fox, and Friend of Grey,
Sufficient for my fame,
If those who know me best shall say
I tarnished neither name.'

Of him his best friend, Sydney Smith, left a short but discriminative
character. 'There was never (amongst other things he says) a better
heart, or one more purified from all the bad passions - more abounding in
charity and compassion - or which seemed to be so created as a refuge to
the helpless and oppressed.'

Meantime Sydney Smith's circumstances were still limited; £50 a year as
evening preacher to the Foundling Hospital was esteemed as a great help
by him. The writer of this memoir remembers an amusing anecdote related
of him at the table of an eminent literary character by a member of Lord
Woodhouselee's family, who had been desirous to obtain for Sydney the
patronage of the godly. To this end she persuaded Robert Grant and
Charles Grant (afterwards Lord Glenelg) to go to the Foundling to hear
him, she hoped to advantage; to her consternation he broke forth into so
familiar a strain, couched in terms so bordering on the jocose, - though
no one had deeper religious convictions than he had, - that the two
saintly brothers listened in disgust. They forgot how South let loose
the powers of his wit and sarcasm; and how the lofty-minded Jeremy
Taylor applied the force of humour to lighten the prolixity of argument.
Sydney Smith became, nevertheless, a most popular preacher; but the man
who prevents people from sleeping once a week in their pews is sure to
be criticised.

Let us turn to him, however, as a member of society. His circle of
acquaintance was enlarged, not only by his visits to Holland House, but
by his lectures on moral philosophy at the Royal Institution. Sir Robert
Peel, not the most impressionable of men, but one whose cold shake of
the hand is said - as Sydney Smith said of Sir James Mackintosh - 'to have
come under the genus _Mortmain_' was a very young man at the time when
Albemarle Street was crowded with carriages from one end of the street
to the other, in consequence of Sydney Smith's lectures; yet he declared
that he had never forgotten the effect given to the speech of Logan, the
Indian chief, by Sydney's voice and manner.

His lectures produced a sum sufficient for Sydney to furnish a house in
Orchard Street. Doughty Street - raised to celebrity as having been the
residence, not only of Sydney Smith, but of Charles Dickens - was too far
for the _habitué_ of Holland House and the orator of Albemarle Street
long to sojourn there. In Orchard Street, Sydney enjoyed that domestic
comfort which he called 'the grammar of life;' delightful suppers, to
about twenty or thirty persons, who came and went as they pleased. A
great part of the same amusing and gifted set used to meet once a week
also at Sir James Mackintosh's, at a supper, which, though not exactly
Cowper's 'radish and an egg,' was simple, but plentiful - yet most
eagerly sought after. 'There are a few living,' writes Sydney Smith's
daughter, 'who can look back to them, and I have always found them do so
with a sigh of regret.'

One night, a country cousin of Sydney Smith's was present at a supper.
'Now, Sydney,' whispered the simple girl, 'I know all these are very
remarkable people; do tell me who they are.' - 'Oh, yes; there's
Hannibal,' pointing to a grave, dry, stern man, Mr. Whishaw; 'he lost
his leg in the Carthagenian war: there's Socrates,' pointing to
Luttrell: 'that,' he added, turning to Horner, 'is Solon.'

Another evening, Mackintosh brought a raw Scotch cousin - an ensign in a
Highland regiment - with him. The young man's head could carry no idea of
glory except in regimentals. Suddenly, nudging Sir James, he whispered,
'Is that the great Sir Sydney Smith?' - 'Yes, yes,' answered Sir James;
and instantly telling Sydney who he was supposed to be, the grave
evening preacher at the Foundling immediately assumed the character
ascribed to him, and acted the hero of Acre to perfection, fighting his
battles over again - even charging the Turks - whilst the young Scot was
so enchanted by the great Sir Sydney's condescension, that he wanted to
fetch the pipers of his regiment, and pipe to the great Sir Sydney, who
had never enjoyed the agonizing strains of the bagpipe. Upon this the
party broke up, and Sir James carried the Highlander off, lest he should
find out his mistake, and cut his throat from shame and vexation. One
may readily conceive Sydney Smith's enjoying this joke, for his spirits
were those of a boy: his gaiety was irresistible; his ringing laugh,
infectious; but it is difficult for those who knew Mackintosh in his
later years - the quiet, almost pensive invalid to realize in that
remembrance any trace of the Mackintosh of Doughty Street and Orchard
Street days.

One day Sydney Smith came home with two hackney coaches full of
pictures, which he had picked up at an auction. His daughter thus tells
the story: 'Another day he came home with two hackney-coach loads of
pictures, which he had met with at an auction, having found it
impossible to resist so many yards of brown-looking figures and faded
landscapes going for "absolutely nothing, unheard of sacrifices." "Kate"
hardly knew whether to laugh or cry when she saw these horribly
dingy-looking objects enter her pretty little drawing-room, and looked
at him as if she thought him half mad; and half mad he was, but with
delight at his purchase. He kept walking up and down the room, waving
his arms, putting them in fresh lights, declaring they were exquisite
specimens of art, and if not by the very best masters, merited to be so.
He invited his friends, and displayed his pictures; discovered fresh
beauties for each new comer; and for three or four days, under the magic
influence of his wit and imagination, these gloomy old pictures were a
perpetual source of amusement and fun.'

At last, finding that he was considered no authority for the fine arts,
off went the pictures to another auction, but all re-christened by
himself, with unheard-of names. 'One, I remember,' says Lady Holland,
'was a beautiful landscape, by Nicholas de Falda, a pupil of Valdezzio,
the only painting by that eminent artist. The pictures sold, I believe,
for rather less than he gave for them under their original names, which
were probably as real as their assumed ones.'

Sydney Smith had long been styled by his friends the 'Bishop of
Mickleham,' in allusion to his visits to, and influence in, the house of
his friend, Richard Sharp, who had a cottage at that place. A piece of
real preferment was now his. This was the living of Foston-le-Clay, in
Yorkshire, given him by Lord Erskine, then Chancellor. Lady Holland
never rested till she had prevailed on Erskine to give Sydney Smith a
living. Smith, as Rogers relates, went to thank his lordship. 'Oh,' said
Erskine, 'don't thank me, Mr. Smith; I gave you the living because Lady
Holland insisted on my doing so; and if she had desired me to give it to
the devil, _he_ must have had it.'

Notwithstanding the prediction of the saints, Sydney Smith proved an
excellent parish priest. Even his most admiring friends did not expect
this result. The general impression was, that he was infinitely better
fitted for the bar than for the church. 'Ah! Mr. Smith,' Lord Stowell
used to say to him, 'you would be in a far better situation, and a far
richer man, had you belonged to us.'

One _jeu d'esprit_ more, and Smith hastened to take possession of his
living, and to enter upon duties of which no one better knew the mighty
importance than he did.

Among the Mackintosh set was Richard Sharp, to whom we have already
referred, termed, from his great knowledge and ready memory,
'Conversation Sharp.' Many people may think that this did not imply an
agreeable man, and they were, perhaps, right. Sharp was a plain,
ungainly man. One evening, a literary lady, now living, being at Sir
James Mackintosh's, in company with Sharp, Sismondi, and the late Lord
Denman, then a man of middle age. Sir James was not only particularly
partial to Denman, but admired him personally. 'Do you not think Denman
handsome?' he inquired of the lady after the guests were gone. 'No? Then
you must think Mr. Sharp handsome,' he rejoined; meaning that a taste so
perverted as not to admire Denman must be smitten with Sharp. Sharp is
said to have studied all the morning before he went out to dinner, to
get up his wit and anecdote, as an actor does his part. Sydney Smith
having one day received an invitation from him to dine at Fishmongers'
Hall, sent the following reply: -

'Much do I love
The monsters of the deep to eat;
To see the rosy salmon lying,
By smelts encircled, born for frying;
And from the china boat to pour
On flaky cod the flavoured shower.
Thee above all, I much regard,
Flatter than Longman's flattest bard,
Much-honour'd turbot! sore I grieve
Thee and thy dainty friends to leave.
Far from ye all, in snuggest corner,
I go to dine with little Horner;
He who with philosophic eye
Sat brooding o'er his Christmas pie;
Then firm resolved, with either thumb,
Tore forth the crust-enveloped plum;
And mad with youthful dreams of deathless fame,
Proclaimed the deathless glories of his name.'

One word before we enter on the subject of Sydney Smith's ministry. In
this biography of a great Wit, we touch but lightly upon the graver
features of his character, yet they cannot wholly be passed over. Stanch
in his devotion to the Church of England, he was liberal to others. The
world in the present day is afraid of liberality. Let it not be
forgotten that it has been the fanatic and the intolerant, not the mild
and practical, among us who have gone from the Protestant to the Romish
faith. Sydney Smith, in common with other great men, had no predilection
for dealing damnation round the land. How noble, how true, are
Mackintosh's reflections on religious sects! 'It is impossible, I think,
to look into the interior of any religious sect, without thinking better
of it. I ought, indeed, to confine myself to those of Christian Europe,
but with that limitation it seems to me the remark is true; whether I
look at the Jansenists of Port Royal, or the Quakers in Clarkson, or the
Methodists in these journals. All these sects, which appear dangerous or
ridiculous at a distance, assume a much more amicable character on
nearer inspection. They all inculcate pure virtue, and practise mutual
kindness; and they exert great force of reason in rescuing their
doctrines from the absurd or pernicious consequences which naturally
flow from them. Much of this arises from the general nature of religious
principle - much also from the genius of the Gospel.'

Nothing could present a greater contrast with the comforts of Orchard
Street than the place on which Sydney Smith's 'lines' had now 'fallen.'
Owing to the non-residence of the clergy, one-third of the parsonage
houses in England had fallen into decay, but that of Foston-le-Clay was
pre-eminently wretched. A hovel represented what was still called the
parsonage-house: it stood on a glebe of three hundred acres of the
stiffest clay in Yorkshire: a brick-floored kitchen, with a room above
it, both in a ruinous condition was the residence which, for a hundred
and fifty years, had never been inhabited by an incumbent. It will not
be a matter of surprise that for some time, until 1808, Sydney Smith,
with the permission of the Archbishop of York, continued to reside in
London, after having appointed a curate at Foston-le-Clay.

The first visit to his living was by no means promising. Picture to
yourself, my reader, Sydney Smith in a carriage, in his superfine black
coat, driving into the remote village, and parleying with the old parish
clerk, who after some conversation, observed, emphatically, shaking his
stick on the ground, 'Master Smith, it stroikes me that people as comes
froe London is such _fools_. - 'I see _you_ are no fool,' was the prompt
answer; and the parson and the clerk parted mutually satisfied.

The profits, arising from the sale of two volumes of sermons, carried
Sydney Smith, his family, and his furniture, to Foston-le-Clay in the
summer of 1809, and he took up his abode in a pleasant house about two
miles from York, at Heslington.

[Illustration: SYDNEY SMITH'S WITTY ANSWER TO THE OLD PARISH CLERK.]

Let us now, for a time, forget the wit, the editor of the 'Edinburgh
Review,' the diner out, the evening preacher at the Foundling, and
glance at the peaceful and useful life of a country clergyman. His
spirits, his wit, all his social qualities, never deserted Sydney Smith,
even in the retreat to which he was destined. Let us see him driving in
his second-hand carriage, his horse, 'Peter the Cruel,' with Mrs. Smith
by his side, summer and winter, from Heslington to Foston-le-Clay. Mrs.
Smith, at first, trembled at the inexperience of her charioteer; but
'she soon,' said Sydney, 'raised my wages, and considered me an
excellent Jehu.' 'Mr. Brown,' said Sydney to one of the tradesmen of
York, through the streets of which he found it difficult to drive, 'your
streets are the narrowest, in Europe,' - 'Narrow, sir? there's plenty of
room for two carriages to pass each other, and an inch and a half to
spare!'

Let us see him in his busy peaceful life, digging an hour or two every
day in his garden to avoid sudden death, by preventing corpulency; then
galloping through a book, and when his family laughed at him for so soon
dismissing a quarto, saying, 'Cross-examine me, then,' and going well
through the ordeal. Hear him, after finishing his morning's writing,
saying to his wife, 'There, Kate, it's done: do look over it; put the
dots to the i's, and cross the t's:' and off he went to his walk,
surrounded by his children, who were his companions and confidants. See
him in the lane, talking to an old woman whom he had taken into his gig
as she was returning from market, and picking up all sorts of knowledge
from her; or administering medicine to the poor, or to his horses and
animals, sometimes committing mistakes next to fatal. One day he
declared he found all his pigs intoxicated, grunting 'God save the King'
about the sty. He nearly poisoned his red cow by an over-dose of
castor-oil; and Peter the Cruel, so called because the groom once said
he had a cruel face, took two boxes of opium pills (boxes and all) in
his mash, without ill consequences.

See him, too, rushing out after dinner - for he had a horror of long
sittings after that meal - to look at his 'scratcher.'

He used to say, Lady Holland (his daughter) relates, 'I am all for cheap
luxuries, even for animals; now all animals have a passion for
scratching their backbones; they break down your gates and palings to
effect this. Look! there is my universal scratcher, a sharp-edged pole,
resting on a high and a low post, adapted to every height, from a horse
to a lamb. Even the Edinburgh Reviewer can take his turn: you have no
idea how popular it is; I have not had a gate broken since I put it up;
I have it in all my fields.'

Then his experiments were numerous. Mutton fat was to be burned instead
of candles; and working-people were brought in and fed with broth, or
with rice, or with porridge, to see which was the most satisfying diet.
Economy was made amusing, benevolence almost absurd, but the humorous
man, the kind man, shone forth in all things. He was one of the first,
if not the first, who introduced allotment-gardens for the poor: he was
one who could truly say at the last, when he had lived sixty-six years,
'I have done but very little harm in the world, and I have brought up my
family.'

We have taken a glimpse - and a glimpse merely - of the 'wise Wit' in
London, among congenial society, where every intellectual power was
daily called forth in combative force. See him now in the provincial
circles of the remote county of York. 'Did you ever,' he once asked,
'dine out in the country? What misery do human beings inflict on each
other under the name of pleasure!' Then he describes driving in a
broiling sun through a dusty road, to eat a haunch of venison at the
house of a neighbouring parson. Assembled in a small house, 'redolent of
frying,' talked of roads, weather, and turnips; began, that done, to be
hungry. A stripling, caught up for the occasion, calls the master of the
house out of the room, and announces that the cook has mistaken the soup
for dirty water, and has thrown it away. No help for it - agreed; they
must do without it; perhaps as well they should. Dinner announced; they
enter the dining-room: heavens! what a gale! the venison is high!

Various other adverse incidents occur, and the party return home,
grateful to the post-boys for not being drunk, and thankful to
Providence for not being thrown into a wet ditch.

In addition to these troubles and risks, there was an enemy at hand to
apprehend - prejudice. The Squire of Heslington - 'the last of the
Squires' - regarded Mr. Smith as a Jacobin; and his lady, 'who looked as
if she had walked straight out of the Ark, or had been the wife of
Enoch,' used to turn aside as he passed. When, however, the squire found
'the peace of the village undisturbed, harvests as usual, his dogs
uninjured, he first bowed, then called, and ended by a pitch of
confidence;' actually discovered that Sydney Smith had made a joke;
nearly went into convulsions of laughter, and finished by inviting the
'dangerous fellow,' as he had once thought him, to see his dogs.

In 1813 Sydney Smith removed, as he thought it his duty to do, to
Foston-le-Clay, and, 'not knowing a turnip from a carrot,' began to farm
three hundred acres, and not having any money, to build a
parsonage-house.

It was a model parsonage, he thought, the plan being formed by himself
and 'Kate.' Being advised by his neighbours to purchase oxen, he bought
(and christened) four oxen, 'Tug and Lug,' 'Crawl and Haul.' But Tug and
Lug took to fainting, Haul and Crawl to lie down in the mud, so he was
compelled to sell them, and to purchase a team of horses.

The house plunged him into debt for twenty years; and a man-servant
being too expensive, the 'wise Wit' caught up a country girl, made like
a mile-stone, and christened her 'Bunch,' and Bunch became the best
butler in the county.

He next set up a carriage, which he christened the 'Immortal,' for it
grew, from being only an ancient green chariot, supposed to have been
the earliest invention of the kind, to be known by all the neighbours;
the village dogs barked at it, the village boys cheered it, and 'we had
no false shame.'

One could linger over the annals of Sydney Smith's useful, happy life at
Foston-le-Clay, visited there indeed by Mackintosh, and each day
achieving a higher and higher reputation in literature. We see him as a
magistrate, 'no friend to game,' as a country squire in Suffolk solemnly
said of a neighbour, but a friend to man; with a pitying heart, that
forbade him to commit young delinquents to gaol, though he would lecture
them severely, and call out, in bad cases, 'John, bring me out my
_private gallows_,' which brought the poor boys on their knees. We
behold him making visits, and even tours, in the 'Immortal,' and
receiving Lord and Lady Carlisle in their coach and four, which had
stuck in the middle of a ploughed field, there being scarcely any road,
only a lane up to the house. Behold him receiving his poor friend,
Francis Homer, who came to take his last leave of him, and died at Pisa,
in 1817, after earning honours, paid, as Sir James Mackintosh remarked,
to intrinsic claims alone - 'a man of obscure birth, who never filled an
office.' See Sydney Smith, in 1816, from the failure of the harvest (he
who was in London 'a walking patty'), sitting down with his family to
repast without bread, thin, unleavened cakes being the substitute. See
his cheerfulness, his submission to many privations: picture him to
ourselves trying to ride, but falling off incessantly; but obliged to
leave off riding 'for the good of his family, and the peace of his
parish' (he had christened his horse, 'Calamity'). See him suddenly
prostrate from that steed in the midst of the streets of York, 'to the
great joy of Dissenters,' he declares: another time flung as if he had
been a shuttlecock, into a neighbouring parish, very glad that it was
not a neighbouring planet, for somehow or other his horse and he had a
'trick of parting company.' 'I used,' he wrote, 'to think a fall from a
horse dangerous, but much experience has convinced me to the contrary. I
have had six falls in two years, and just behaved like the Three per
Cents., when they fell - I got up again, and am not a bit the worse for
it, any more than the stock in question.'

This country life was varied by many visits. In 1820 he went to visit
Lord Grey, then to Edinburgh, to Jeffrey travelling by the coach, a
gentleman, with whom he had been talking, said, 'There is a very clever
fellow lives near here, Sydney Smith, I believe; a devilish odd
fellow.' - 'He may be an odd fellow,' cried Sydney, taking off his hat,
'but here he is, odd as he is, at your service.'

Sydney Smith found great changes in Edinburgh - changes, however, in many
respects for the better. The society of Edinburgh was then in its
greatest perfection. 'Its brilliancy, Lord Cockburn remarks, 'was owing
to a variety of peculiar circumstances, which only operated during this
period. The principal of these were the survivance of several of the
eminent men of the preceding age, and of curious old habits, which the
modern flood had not yet obliterated; the rise of a powerful community
of young men of ability; the exclusion of the British from the
Continent, which made this place, both for education and for residence,
a favourite resort of strangers; the war, which maintained a constant
excitement of military preparation and of military idleness: the blaze
of that popular literature which made this the second city in the empire
for learning and science; and the extent and the ease with which
literature and society embellished each other, without rivalry, and
without pedantry.

Among the 'best young' as his lordship styles them, were Lord Webb
Seymour and Francis Horner; whilst those of the 'interesting old' most
noted were Elizabeth Hamilton and Mrs. Grant of Laggan, who had
'unfolded herself,' to borrow Lord Cockburn's words, in the 'Letters
from the Mountains,' 'an interesting treasury of good solitary
thoughts.' Of these two ladies, Lord Cockburn says, 'They were excellent
women, and not _too_ blue. Their sense covered the colour.' It was to
Mrs. Hamilton that Jeffrey said, 'That there was no objection to the
blue stocking, provided the petticoat came low enough to cover it.'
Neither of these ladies possessed personal attractions. Mrs. Hamilton
had the plain face proper to literary women; Mrs. Grant was a tall dark
woman, with much dignity of manner: in spite of her life of misfortune,
she had a great flow of spirits. Beautifully, indeed, does Lord Cockburn
render justice to her character: 'She was always under the influence of
an affectionate and delightful enthusiasm, which, unquenched by time and
sorrow, survived the wreck of many domestic attachments, and shed a glow
over the close of a very protracted life.'

Both she and Mrs. Hamilton succeeded in drawing to their
_conversazioni_, in small rooms of unpretending style, men of the
highest order, as well as attractive women of intelligence. Society in
Edinburgh took the form of Parisian _soirées_, and although much divided
into parties, was sufficiently general to be varied. It is amusing to
find that Mrs. Grant was at one time one of the supposed 'Authors of
"Waverley,"' until the disclosure of the mystery silenced reports. It


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22 23

Online LibraryPhilip WhartonThe Wits and Beaux of Society Volume 2 → online text (page 20 of 23)