Strawberry Hill Forever ; Memoirs of the Reign of King George III by Horace Walpole Ed Derek Jarrett YALE (4 VOLS) Pounds 150

The Independent (London, England), June 4, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Strawberry Hill Forever ; Memoirs of the Reign of King George III by Horace Walpole Ed Derek Jarrett YALE (4 VOLS) Pounds 150


Some might say that, 63 years on, there is a less- than- celebratory sting to the price asked for this concluding part of the great Yale edition of the works of Horace Walpole. Others could contend that it is less than the cost of a Virgin train fare to see William Waldegrave, upon whom scholars have had to prevail should they wish to read the complete versions of these subversive, self- seeking memoirs which devolved upon his family by dint of Walpole's niece's marrying into it. This is one of the many teasing biographical details which any reader of Walpole has to keep somewhere in mind when contemplating the son sired by the Whig prime minister during an interval in his other sexual liaisons.

These four volumes of memoirs, together with three volumes of Memoirs of King George II and 48 volumes of correspondence, edited by Wilmarth Lewis, complete the monumental Yale Walpole. Walpole junior was witness to, and manipulator of, events which show that the worlds of politics, literature and tangled bedsheets have always overlapped. Such figures as Walpole, by delighting in so much, can frustrate their due claims upon a posterity which feels a compulsion to pigeon-hole the past. As Lytton Strachey remarked, "Walpole's activities were so numerous and so various that readers of his letters are a little apt to emphasise one side of his personality at the expense of the rest, in accordance with their own predilections."

Walpole was a political figure, a literary one, an antiquary who, not content to potter, created Strawberry Hill; and, all the while, combined a solitary temperament with a relish of grand society. Strachey, in whom one might see parallels, regularly lambasted the censored form in which the letters were published and did not live to see the first volume of Lewis's Yale edition, whose notes made Virginia Woolf long for a supplementary pair of eyes. By printing letters to each correspondent in separate volumes, the editor perpetuated the divisions of Walpole's life, while giving vent to his own prejudices: even with the emergence of the letters to Lord Lincoln, Lewis could not admit to himself that the subject to whom he had devoted such energies was homosexual.

The recent biography by Timothy Mowl is certainly not hidebound but tends to the wild and woolly; as such, it is the subject of quiet sport by Derek Jarrett, who uses a footnote to point to a page in Mowl which does not notice that a letter is in fact about the death of the Duke of Cumberland but claims that it "shows signs of the classic homosexual reaction to a public accusation".

Jarrett does not shirk the matter in his admirable editing of the Memoirs, whose pervasive spirit is less the King than Walpole, and not so much the reign but a sixth of it, the first decade, when, as an MP, he had most clout. Jarrett points, for example, to the passage in which Lord Lincoln gets more space, and more of a drubbing, than a minor player might warrant. Said Walpole, "his exceeding pride kept him secluded from the world, and rarely did he appear either at court or in Parliament ... Lord Lincoln's avarice was as unbounded as his haughtiness" - which included his spurning Walpole's renewed wooings when the fellow was widowed.

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