Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Quick Review

Horace Walpole A Biographical StudyHorace Walpole A Biographical Study by Lewis Melville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before even addressing the very good biography he wrote, it is worth making note of the biographer, Lewis Melville (1874 - 1932.)  I don't know much about him, but the little I do is, I think, interesting.  A perfectly respectable Englishman, meaning educated, middle-class and by date at least Victorian, Lewis Melville nonetheless made his first career on the stage.  Not, I hasten to point out, an entirely respectable choice, even so late as the glory days of Sir Henry Irving, when Melville went "on the boards."  Melville must have been pretty good, as he made his living in the theatre -- no easy task to this day -- for a number of years and, despite what I've just read online, would seem to have maintained his connection to the theatre world for the rest of his life (an assumption I feel safe in making from various references made in more than one of his books, though none that I know of is actually set in the theatrical world, other than a novel called, In the World of Mimes: A Theatrical Novel, (1902) which I admit I've never seen.)  My interest in this aspect of the writer's life has less to do with his autobiographical experience, or any attempt at seeing into his mind or personality, than a confidence that his time in the nearer Bohemia of the London playhouses gave him greater sympathy with the less buttoned-up 18th Century, about which he wrote frequently and without all the more usual, and boring reserve of his own time.  I can't know that, but it seems a fair guess.  Also, he has the actor's eye for staging and character, as well as an appreciation for gossip and the revealing anecdote whispered, as it were, backstage.  That Melville made himself, or as we would say nowadays, remade himself into a proper Man of Letters indicates his very real devotion to literature, and biography in particular.  He writes easily and well -- not always the same thing, obviously.  I've now read three of his books; this, his Life & Letters of Sterne, and his book on Thackeray.  All were charming, well organized and seemed perfectly competent as to research and veracity.  (What none of them has been is scholarly in the modern sense, thankfully.  There's no cumbersome academic apparatus beyond a serviceable index and such notes as might be necessary for sense, and no overweening theoretical agenda to be met.  Lewis Melville represents an earlier, more elegant and straightforwardly entertaining school of narrative biography.)

In Horace Walpole, biographer and subject seem well matched.  The great problem with books about Walpole generally is in how the question of "Which Walpole?" is answered. There's Walpole the parliamentarian, and son of the Prime Minister.  There's Walpole the maker of Strawberry Hill, collector, antiquarian,and champion of architectural and publishing innovation.  And there is, of course, Horace Walpole the great letter writer, perhaps the greatest of the greatest age of English letters.  I've tried to read, in whole or in parts, more than one stultifying book on one or more of these.  Melville's is the first book I've read other than Walpole's Letters that brought the little gentleman himself to life.  While touching on seemingly every aspect of Walpole's career and hobbies, Melville's life focuses on what it was that made this rather minor historical figure into one of the best remembered and most representative personalities of his age.

Melville's Walpole; curious, generous, self-deprecating, vain, and above all amusing, is the soul of wit. "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think," as Walpole himself perhaps most famously said.  While perfectly respectful of Walpole's rather stunted emotional life, Melville quite rightly indulges his own enthusiasm for what might best be encapsulated in the two words, Walpole's Brain.  There wasn't much to Horace as a specimen of either spirit or flesh, but what a fascinating Mind!  And what's more, what an almost perfect record of it he quite consciously left, primarily in his letters!  (Melville himself argues gently and convincingly that nearly every aspect of Walpole, from his house, to his press, to his enormous correspondence was both an expression of his joie de vivre and paradoxically, his loneliness.)

As both an appreciation of and a spur to reading Walpole, I can think of few books better suited to introduce the common reader to this most uncommon and fascinating figure.

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