Two Antiquaries: Walpole and Cole

Virginia Woolf

SINCE TO CRITICISE the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s letters to Cole is impossible, for there cannot in the whole universe exist a single human being whose praise or blame of such minute and monumental learning can be of any value—if such exists his knowledge has been tapped already—the only course for the reader is to say nothing about the learning and the industry, the devotion and the skill which have created these two huge volumes, and to record merely such fleeting thoughts as have formed in the mind from a single reading. To encourage ourselves, let us assert, though not with entire confidence, that books after all exist to be read—even the most learned of editors would to some extent at least agree with that. But how, the question immediately arises, can we read this magnificent instalment—for these are but the first two volumes of this edition in which Mr. Lewis will give us the complete correspondence—of our old friend Horace Walpole’s letters? Ought not the presses to have issued in a supplementary pocket a supplementary pair of eyes? Then, with the usual pair fixed upon the text, the additional pair could range the notes, thus sweeping together into one haul not only what Horace is saying to Cole and what Cole is saying to Horace, but a multitude of minor men and matters: for example, Thomas Farmer, who ran away and left two girls with child; Thomas Wood, who was never drunk but had a bad constitution and was therefore left fifty pounds and bed and furniture in Cole’s will; Cole’s broken leg, how it was broken, and why it was badly mended; Birch, who had (it is thought) an apoplectic fit riding the Hampstead Road, fell from his horse, and died; Thomas Western (1695-1754), who was one of the pallbearers at the funeral of Cole’s father; Cole’s niece, the daughter of a wholesale cheesemonger; John Woodyer, a man of placid disposition and great probity; Mrs. Allen Hopkins, who was born Mary Thornhill; and Lord Montfort, who—but if we want to know more about that nobleman, his lions and tigers and his “high-spirited and riotous behaviour,” we must look it up for ourselves in the Harwicke MSS. in the British Museum. There are limits even to Mr. Lewis.

This little haul, taken at random, is enough to show how great a strain the new method of editing lays upon the eye. But if the brain is at first inclined to jib at such perpetual solicitations, and to beg to be allowed to read the text in peace, it adjusts itself by degrees; grudgingly admits that many of these little facts are to the point; and finally becomes not merely a convert but a suppliant—asks not for less but for more and more and more. Why, to take one instance only, is not the name of Cole’s temporary cook’s sister divulged? Thomas Wood was his servant; Thomas was left fifty pounds and allowed Cole’s coach to run away; Thomas’s younger brother James, known as “Jem,” ran errands successfully and had a child ready to be sworn to him; their sister, Molly, was for one month at least a cook and helped in the kitchen. But there was another sister and, after learning all this about the Woods, it is positively painful not to know at least her Christian name.

Yet it may be asked, what has the name of Cole’s cook’s sister got to do with Horace Walpole? That is a question which it is impossible to answer briefly; but it is proof of the editor’s triumph, justification of his system, and a complete vindication of his immense labor that he has convinced us, long before the end, that somehow or other it all hangs together. The only way to read letters is to read them thus stereoscopically. Horace is partly Cole; Cole is partly Horace; Cole’s cook is partly Cole; therefore Horace Walpole is partly Cole’s cook’s sister. Horace, the whole Horace, is made up of innumerable facts and reflections of facts. Each is infinitely minute; yet each is essential to the other. To elicit them and relate them is out of the question. Let us, then, concentrate for a moment upon the two main figures, in outline.

We have here, then, in conjunction the Honorable Horace Walpole and the Reverend William Cole. But they were two very different people. Cole, it is true, had been at Eton with Horace, where he was called by the famous Walpole group “Tozhy,” but he was not a member of that group, and socially he was greatly Walpole’s inferior. His father was a farmer. Horace’s father was a Prime Minister. Cole’s niece was the daughter of a cheesemonger; Horace’s niece married a Prince of the Blood Royal. But Cole was a man of solid good sense who made no bones of this disparity, and, after leaving Eton and Cambridge, he had become, in his quiet frequently flooded parsonage, one of the first antiquaries of the time. It was this common passion that brought the two friends together again.

For some reason, obscurely hidden in the psychology of the human race, the middle years of that eighteenth century which seems now a haven of bright calm and serene civilization, affected some who actually lived in it with a longing to escape—from its politics, from its wars, from its follies, from its drabness and its dulness, to the superior charms of the Middle Ages. “I . . . hope,” wrote Cole in 1765, “by the latter end of the week to be among my admired friends of the twelfth or thirteenth century. Indeed you judge very right concerning my indifference about what is going forward in the world, where I live in it as though I was no way concerned about it except in paying, with my contemporaries, the usual taxes and impositions. In good truth I am very indifferent about my Lord Bute or Mr. Pitt, as I have long been convinced and satisfied in my own mind that all oppositions are from the ins and the outs, and that power and wealth and dignity are the things struggled for, not the good of the whole. . . . I hope what I have said will not be offensive.” Only one weekly newspaper, the “Cambridge Chronicle,” brought him news of the present moment. There at Bletchley or at Milton he sat secluded, wrapped up from the least draft, for he was terribly subject to sore throats; sometimes issuing forth to conduct a service, for he was, incidentally, a clergyman; driving occasionally to Cambridge to hobnob with his cronies; but always returning with delight to his study, where he copied maps, filled in coats of arms, and pored assiduously over those budgets of old manuscripts which were, as he said, “wife and children” to him. Now and again, it is true, he looked out of the window at the antics of his dog, for whose future he was careful to provide, or at those guinea fowl whose eggs he begged off Horace—for “I have so few amusements and can see these creatures from my study window when I can’t stir out of my room.”

But he had what Cole lacked—imagination, taste, style, in addition to a passion for the romantic past.

But neither dog nor guinea fowl seriously distracted him. The hundred and fourteen folio volumes left by him to the British Museum testify to his professional industry. And it was precisely that quality—his professional industry—that brought the two so dissimilar men together. For Horace Walpole was by temperament an amateur. He was not, Cole admitted, “a true, genuine antiquary”; nor did he think himself one. “Then I have a wicked quality in an antiquary, nay one that annihilates the essence; that is, I cannot bring myself to a habit of minute accuracy about very indifferent points,” Horace admitted. “. . . I bequeath free leave of correction to the microscopic intellects of my continuators.” But he had what Cole lacked—imagination, taste, style, in addition to a passion for the romantic past, so long as that romantic past was also a civilized past, for mere “bumps in the ground” or “barrows and tumuli and Roman camps,” bored him to death. Above all, he had a purse long enough to give visible and tangible expression—in prints, in gates, in Gothic temples, in bowers, in old manuscripts, in a thousand gimcracks and “brittle transitory relics” to the smoldering and inarticulate passion that drove the professional antiquary to delve like some indefatigable mole underground in the darkness of the past. Horace liked his brittle relics to be pretty, and to be authentic, and he was always eager to be put on the track of more.

The greater part of the correspondence thus is concerned with antiquaries’ gossip; with parish registers and cartularies; with coats of arms and the Christian names of bishops; with the marriages of kings’ daughters; skeletons and prints; old gold rings found in a field; dates and genealogies; antique chairs in Fen farmhouses; bits of stained glass and old Apostle spoons. For Horace was furnishing Strawberry Hill; and Cole was prodigiously adept at stuffing it, until there was scarcely room to stick another knife or fork, and the gorged owner of all this priceless lumber had to cry out: “I shudder when the bell rings at the gate. It is as bad as keeping an inn.” All the week he was plagued with staring crowds.

Were this all it would be, and indeed it sometimes is, a little monotonous. But they were two very different men. They struck unexpected sparks in one another. Cole’s Walpole was not Conway’s Walpole; nor was Walpole’s Cole the good-natured old parson of the diary. Cole, of course, stressed the antiquary in Walpole; but he also brought out very clearly the limits of the antiquary in Walpole. Against Cole’s monolithic passion his own appears frivolous and flimsy. On the other hand, in contrast with Cole’s slow-plodding pen, his own shows its mettle. He cannot flash, it is true—the subject, say, the names of Edward the Fourth’s daughters, forbids it—yet how sweetly English sings on his side of the page, now in a colloquialism—"a more flannel climate”—that Cole would never have ventured; now in a strain of natural music—”Methinks as we grow old, our only business here is to adorn the graves of our friends or to dig our own.” That strain was called forth by the death of their common friend, Thomas Gray. It was a death that struck at Cole’s heart, too, but produced no such echo in that robust organ. At the mere threat of Conway’s death, Horace was all of a twitter—his nerves were “so aspen.” It was a threat only; “Still has it operated such a revolution in my mind, as no time, at my age, can efface. I have had dreams in which I thought I wished for fame—. . . I feel, I feel it was confined to the memory of those I love”—to which Cole replies: “For both your sakes I hope he will soon get well again. It is a misfortune to have so much sensibility in one’s nature as you are endued with: sufficient are one’s own distresses without the additional encumbrance of those of one’s friends.”

Cole’s obscure but bulky form revealed a side of Horace Walpole that was lost in the glitter of the great world.

Nevertheless, Cole was no means without distresses of his own. There was that terrible occasion when the horses ran away and his hat blew off and he sat with his legs in the air anticipating either death at the tollgate or a bad cold. Mercifully both were spared him. Again, he suffered tortures when, showing Dr. Gulston his prints, he begged him, as a matter of form, to take any he liked; whereupon Gulston—"that Algerine hog”—filled his portfolio with the most priceless. It is true that Cole made him pay for them in the end, but it was a most distressing business. And then what an agony it was when some fellow antiquaries dined with him, and, confined with the gout, he had to let them visit his study alone, to find next morning that an octavo volume, and a borrowed volume at that, was missing! “The Master is too honourable to take such a step,” but—he had his suspicions. And what was he to do? To confess the loss or to conceal it? To conceal it seemed better, and yet, if the owner found out, “I am undone.” Horace was all sympathy. He loathed the whole tribe of antiquaries—"numskulls” he called them mumbling manuscripts with their toothless jaws. “Their understandings seem as much in ruins as the things they describe,” he wrote. “I love antiquities, but I scarce ever knew an antiquary who knew how to write upon them.”

He had all the aristocrat’s contempt for the professional drudge, and no desire whatsoever to be included among the sacred band of professional authors. “They are always in earnest, and think their profession serious, and dwell upon trifles, and reverence learning,” he snapped out. And yet, when writing to Cole he could confess what to a man of his own class he would have concealed—that he, too, reverenced learning when it was real, and admired no one more than a poet if he were genuine. “A page in a great author humbles me to the dust,” he wrote. And after deriding his contemporaries added, “Don’t think me scornful. Recollect that I have seen Pope, and lived with Gray.”

Certainly Cole’s obscure but bulky form revealed a side of Horace Walpole that was lost in the glitter of the great world. With that solid man of no social gift but prodigious erudition Horace showed himself not an antiquary, not a poet, not an historian, but what he was—the aristocrat of letters, the born expert who knew the sham intellect from the genuine as surely as the antiquary knew the faked genealogy from the authentic. When Horace Walpole praised Pope and Gray he knew what he was saying and meant it; and his shame at being hoisted into such high society as theirs rings true. “I know not how others feel on such occasions, but if anyone happens to praise me, all my faults gush into my face, and make me turn my eyes inward and outward with horror. What am I but a poor old skeleton, tottering towards the grave, and conscious of ten thousand weaknesses, follies, and worse! And for talents, what are mine, but trifling and superficial; and, compared with those of men of real genius, most diminutive! . . . Does it become us, at past threescore each, to be saying fine things to one another? Consider how soon we shall both be nothing!” That is a tone of voice that he does not use in speaking—for his writing voice was a speaking voice—to his friends in the great world.

Again, Cole’s High Church and Tory convictions when they touched a very different vein in Walpole sometimes caused explosions. Once or twice the friends almost came to blows over religion. The Church of England had a substantial place in Cole’s esteem. But to Walpole, “Church and presbytery are human nonsense invented by knaves to govern fools. Exalted notions of church matters are contradictions in terms to the lowliness and humility of the gospel. There is nothing sublime but the Divinity. Nothing is sacred but as His work. A tree or a brute stone is more respectable as such, than a mortal called an archbishop, or an edifice called a church, which are the puny and perishable productions of men. . . . A Gothic church or convent fill one with romantic dreams—but for the mysterious, the Church in the abstract, it is a jargon that means nothing or a great deal too much, and I reject it and its apostles from Athanasius to Bishop Keene.” Those were outspoken words to a friend who wore a black coat. Yet they were not suffered to break up an intimacy of forty years. Cole, to whom Walpole’s little weaknesses were not unknown, contented himself by commenting sardonically at the end of the letter upon the lowliness and humility of the aristocracy, observed that “Mr. Walpole is piqued, I can see, at my reflections on Abbot’s flattery”; but in his reply to Mr. Walpole he referred only to the weather, Mr. Tyson, and the gout.

He fribbled away his time collecting bric-a-brac and drinking tea with old ladies; yet wrote the best letters in the language.

Horace’s politics were equally detestable to Cole. He was, in writing at least, a red-hot republican, the bitter enemy of all those Tory principles that Cole revered. That, again, was a difference that sometimes raised the temperature of the letters to fever heat—happily for us, for it allows us, reading over their shoulders, to see Horace Walpole roused—the dilettante become a man of action, chafing at his own inactivity “sitting with one’s arms folded” in a chair; deploring his country’s danger; remembering that if Cole is a country clergyman, he is a Walpole; the son of a Prime Minister; that his father’s son might have done more than fill Strawberry Hill with Gothic ornaments; and that his father’s reputation is extremely dear to him. And yet did not gossip whisper that he was not his father’s son, and was there not, somewhere deep within him, an uneasy suspicion that there was a blot on his scutcheon, a freakish strain in his clear Norfolk blood?

Whoever his father may have been, his mother nature had somehow queered the pitch of that very complex human being who was called Horace Walpole. He was not simple; he was not single. As Cole noted with antiquarian particularity, Mr. Walpole’s letter of Friday, May 21, 1762, was sealed with a “seal of red wax, a cupid with a large mask of a monkey’s face. An antique. Oval.” The cupid and the monkey had each set their stamp on Horace Walpole’s wax. He was mischievous and obscene; he gibbered and mocked and pelted the holy shrines with nutshells. And yet with what a grace he did it—with what ease and brilliancy and wit! In body, too, he was a contradiction—lean as a grasshopper, yet tough as steel. He was lapped in luxury, yet never wore a great-coat, ate and drank as little as a fasting friar, and walked on wet grass in slippers. He fribbled away his time collecting bric-a-brac and drinking tea with old ladies; yet wrote the best letters in the language in the midst of the chatter; knew everyone; went everywhere; and, as he said, “lived post.” He seemed sometimes as heartless as a monkey; drove Chatterton, so people said, to suicide, and allowed old Madame du Deffand to die alone in despair. And yet who but Cupid wrote when Gray was dead, “I treated him insolently; he loved me and I did not think he did”? Or again, “One loves to find people care for one, when they can have no view in it”? But it is futile to make such contradictions clash. There were a thousand subtler impressions stamped on the wax of Horace Walpole, and it is only posterity, for whom he had a great affection, who will be able, when they have read all that he wrote to Mann and Conway and Gray and the sisters Berry and Madame du Deffand and a score of others; and what they wrote to him; and the innumerable notes at the bottom of the page about cooks and scullions and gardeners and old women in inns—it is only they who will be able, when Mr. Lewis has brought his magnificent work to an end, to say what indeed Horace Walpole was. Meanwhile, we, who only catch a fleeting glimpse and set down hastily what we make of it, can testify that he is the best company in the world—the most amusing, the most intriguing—the strangest mixture of ape and Cupid that ever was.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
March 1, 1939


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