George Saintsbury: The Ultimate Man of Letters

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview

George Saintsbury: The Ultimate Man of Letters

Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review

PASSING along Bath's Royal Crescent in the first decades of the last century, one could, just within living memory, have caught a glimpse of a quaint old figure, straggling white-bearded, wearing small, oval, wire spectacles and a black skull-cap, plainly visible behind the ground-floor front window of the small house (No. 1A) attached to the side of Number One Royal Crescent. He was the 87-year-old--born 23rd October, 1845--George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, the celebrated literary critic, historian, and man of letters, reputedly the last to have read the entire corpus of English literature.

Saintsbury, whose literary output was massive--estimated at close on fifty books and more than 800 essays, introductions and reviews--was notoriously frugal in his dissemination of detail regarding his private life, and, like his admired Thackeray, anxious that no biography of him should ever be written--an embargo frequently associated with, and perhaps indicative of, the existence of, some secret domestic tragedy. He does, however, reveal that he was born in Southampton, 'in one of those houses, not infrequently encountered in the earlier nineteenth century, which had the name "Lottery Hall", because they had been built out of winnings under the system of public lotteries which our more intelligent and less canting forefathers permitted and utilised', fronting Queen's Park.

His father, also George, born in the City of London c. 1797, married Elizabeth Wright, born in Winchester c. 1808. She bore him six children: George, an elder brother, and four sisters. He was the secretary and superintendent of Southampton docks, but five years after his second son's birth the family moved to London, settling into 42 Pembridge Villas, Notting Hill, and moving later to No. 31. According to his entry in the 1851 Census, he appears to have retired and to be living on stockholder's interest, but The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that in 1850, ten years before his death in 1860, he became secretary of the East India and China Association.

After attending a dame-school in Norfolk Terrace, at one end of Westbourne Grove, and a small preparatory school at the other, young George entered King's College School in the Strand, in 1858.

In the spring of 1862, he failed a scholarship examination for Christ Church, Oxford, but, in 1863, was elected to a Classical Postmastership, as the scholarships at Merton College, Oxford, were called.

He made firm friends at Oxford, one of whom was William Minto, subsequently Professor of Logic and English at Aberdeen. Another, and his closest, was Mandell Creighton, who was to become the Bishop of London as well as a distinguished ecclesiastical historian. Saintsbury and his circle of intimates, their minds full of Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Morris and Swinburne, were nicknamed the 'Merton Popes', because of their meticulous observance of the fast days.

What manner of young man was he? Of mathematical turn, and shy and ungregarious temper, he was, as so many inward-turning people are, the conscientious keeper of a diary. Physically, he was extremely fit. He spoke in a rather high-pitched, southern-accented voice. He stood five feet eleven inches in his stockinged feet, and was known as a great walker. He thought nothing of covering 25 to 30 miles a day, and is recorded as having clocked up 43 miles in a single day, and a mile in twelve-and-a-half minutes. However, when he was in his forties, a slip on wet asphalt, a broken ankle bone, and its medical mistreatment, left him capable thereafter of only restricted walking. While still sound of wind and limb, he was powerfully addicted to waltzing.

In more sedentary mode, he enjoyed whist, He was also fond of piquet, loo and ecarte. He played a fair game of chess, but, like his father, from whom he inherited a quick temper, he was apt to lose it if things started to go against him. He was also fond of wine and horse-racing. …

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