Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 54.djvu/41

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Stanhope
Stanhope
34

concerned in the keeping of any racehorse or pack of hounds, or visited Newmarket while the races were in progress there, or lost in any one day 500l. by gambling or betting. For Mile, du Bouchet, the mother of his son, who survived him, he had already made ample provision, but he left her 500l. 'as a small reparation for the injury I did her.' To such of his servants as had lived with him for five years or upwards he left two years' full wages, remarking that he regarded them as 'unfortunate friends, my equals by nature and my inferiors only by the difference of our fortunes.' One of Chesterfield's executors was his literary protegé, Matthew Maty [q. v.], who wrote his biography.

Chesterfield incurred the dislike of three of the most influential writers of his day—Dr. Johnson, Horace Walpole, and Lord Hervey (Queen Caroline's friend). Their hostile estimates have injured his posthumous reputation, and inspired Dickens's ruthless caricature of him as Sir John Chester in 'Barnaby Rudge.' Chesterfield's achievements betray a brilliance of intellectual gifts and graces which discourages in the critic any desire to exaggerate his deficiency in moral principle. In matter and manner—in delicate raillery and in refinement of gesture—his speeches in parliament were admitted to be admirable by his foes. Horace Walpole declared on 15 Dec. 1743 that the finest speech he ever listened to was one from Chesterfield. Lord Hervey expressed himself to similar effect, although he entered the caveat: 'As Lord Chesterfield never could, or at least never did, speak, but prepared, and from dissertations he had written down in his closet and got by heart, he never made any figure in a reply, nor was his manner of speaking like debating, but declaiming' (Hervey, ii. 341). His pointed enunciation of wise political principles made him a liberalising influence in English politics. Of his political sagacity his prophecy of the coming French revolution is a familiar example. On 15 April 1752 he wrote that he noticed a tendency in France 'to what we call here revolution principles.' At the end of 1753, after describing the condition of French society, he added: ' All the symptoms which I have ever met with in history previous to great changes and revolutions in government now exist and daily increase in France ' (Chesterfield, Letters, ii. 318, 319). Sainte-Beuve notes that Chesterfield's insight into French character has rarely been surpassed, and that he summarised the whole spirit of French political history when he told Montesquieu, 'Your parliaments can make barricades, but can never erect barriers' ('Vos parlements pourront bien faire encore des barricades, mais ils ne feront jamais de barriere,' Suard in Biographie Universelle). His apophthegms on English politics were no less to the purpose. 'If the people of England wish,' he said, 'to prevent the Pretender from obtaining the crown, they should make him elector of Hanover, for they would never fetch another king from there.' Johnson's censure of Chesterfield, that he thought him 'a lord among wits,' whereas he discovered him to be 'a wit among lords,' has no better warrant than his sneer in regard to Chesterfield's letters to his son, that 'they teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.'

Chesterfield embodied in rare completeness the characteristics of a shrewd man of the world of one who had 'been behind the scenes both of pleasure and business.' He avowed no rule of conduct outside the urbane conventions of polite society. The town alone had charm for him; the country and country pursuits were graceless superfluities. He argued that the real business of life was the subordination of natural instincts to those external refinements of manner which were recognised as good breeding in the capitals of civilised Europe, and especially in the Parisian salons. But the practice of his philosophy did not demand the repression of all individual tastes, as his confessed dislike of music, the opera, and fashionable field-sports abundantly proves. Chesterfield's worldliness was in point of fact tempered by native common-sense, by genuine parental affections, and by keen appreciation of, and capacity for, literature. Even in his unedifying treatment of the relations of the sexes his solemn warnings against acts which forfeit self-respect or provoke scandal destroyed most of the deleterious effect of the cynical principles on which he took his stand. Nowhere did Chesterfield inculcate an inconsiderate gratification of selfish desires. Very sternly did he rebuke pride of birth or insolence in the treatment of servants and dependents. His habitual text was the necessity from prudential motives of self-control and of respect for the feeling of others. As a writer he reached the highest levels of grace and perspicuity, and as a connoisseur of literature he was nearly always admirable. His critical taste was seen to best advantage in his notices of classical writers.

Despite the 'exquisitely elegant' manner which even Johnson detected in Chesterfield, his personal appearance was not attractive. In youth he was known from his short stature as 'the little Lord Stanhope.' ' He was a stunted giant,' wrote Lord Hervey,