Historical Essays and Studies/The Life of Lord Houghton

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To the present generation the name of Lord Houghton represents, in the apt terms of his biographer, a social moderator and leisured literary expert. But the original Monckton Milnes was known as something more than this, as a serious and effective writer and a busy and apparently dissatisfied politician. Mr. Wemyss Reid renders full justice to him in his earlier character. Lingering survivors will prefer the anticipated judgment of posterity, and will be inclined to think less of his real success in literature or his supposed disappointment in politics than of those qualities which made him the centre of a vast circle of friends, and gave him a singular and brilliant position at the point where letters, politics, and society met.

He was the son of a country gentleman, who, having refused to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-five, lived to decline the offer of a peerage forty-seven years later. The remainder of his career does not maintain the level of his lofty abnegation. In early youth he convinced both friends and rivals that he was equal to the best of his contemporaries ; but he never afterwards cared to live up to that reputation. A remark of Lord Palmerston on his second speech in the House of Commons, a remark of his own, after following the army from Brussels to Paris, to the effect that the Prussians were of no use at all at Waterloo, make it doubtful whether his early fame or his later obscurity was better earned. He became a man of pleasure, seldom losing a thousand at a sitting, but thinking five hundred pounds a reasonable price for the waistcoats of the year. Mr. Wemyss Reid, who produces the father as a foil to the son, says, in allusion to this item of account, that Pemberton Milnes was " not altogether free from the spirit of dandyism." This felicity of understatement and sobriety of colour is one of his merits as a biographer. He used to be a guest at Fryston, and writes as a personal friend. His best act of friendship is the lucid good sense with which he assigns the just proportions to his hero, marking the limit and the drawback, and indulging in no word of praise that will not amply be confirmed by all who remember him.

The elder Milnes, who died in 1858, did not transmit his parliamentary talent to his son, and was disposed to look down on him for spoiling his political position with desultory literature. But there was a wayward instability and fastidiousness which seems to have run in the blood. The son never, threw away such a chance or deceived the expectation of others, as his father did. The family history, perhaps, influenced him at another point. They were Unitarians who, not long before his time, exchanged the meeting-house for at least an occasional conformity. In religion, as in other things, he showed not the zeal of a convert, but an impartial eclecticism, a vivid and inconstant curiosity, a semi-detached adhesiveness, which tended towards isolation.

His university life was active and useful to his mental development, if not positively studious ; but before Thirlwall and Niebuhr shaped him he began to display one quality which had much to do with the enmities and the friendships of later times. He treated his disreputable uncle like a schoolfellow, and his aunts as if they were his sisters ; and he told his respected father that he thought he must be insane. Before settling down to Pall Mall and Parliament he was so long abroad that he was a pretty good linguist, and could detect the English accent in our best French scholars. He always continued his connection with France, and many of his best friends and best stories were French. He went to Italy and Germany for curiosity and amusement ; but for the society of Paris he had a real preference. His Orleanist sympathies were one of the chief factors in his career. They were not interrupted by his acquaintance with his London comrade Napoleon, and neither of them suffered by his attachment to Lamartine, from whom, in despite of Lord Aberdeen, he raised a sum of money. There was no exaggeration in Disraeli's joke about his entertaining royalties and revolutionists. Once, walking away with one of his guests, I was stopped by a friend who asked me who the small boy was. The small boy was Louis Blanc, who was explaining his belief in the survival of Lewis the Seventeenth. For a man who loved varieties of character and cultivated the art of conversation, there could be no doubt of the pre-eminence of France.

When he was eighteen, Spurzheim drew his horoscope in terms which amounted to saying that he would never do much harm or much good. Aubrey de Vere, who remembers him in 1831, fills in the outline as follows: "He had not, as it seemed to me, much of solid ambition, nor did he value social distinction as much as intellectual excitement and ceaseless novelty." Houghton said of himself with much point and candour : "Having no duties to perform, I am obliged to put up with pleasures." When he appeared in London, the worldly sage of the day, Sam Rogers, seeing that he was a fine gentleman, but also a scholar and a wit, drew a shaft from his ancient experience which did not fall wide : "Get on by pleasing the women, the men will hate ye."

M. Taine, when he said that the English were dull talkers — "Ils ne savent pas s'amuser avec la parole" — can have known very little of Milnes. Others of his set talked as well or better, and had more of their own to say ; but there was no other man who made the pleasure of conversation the business of life. His philosophy of society was not fanciful or frivolous, as, in the outer circle, men supposed. He took a warm and intelligent interest in many things, in which conversation was the common denominator. He conceived that one who, having the time to surround himself constantly with the best, to spend his time with Macaulay and Carlyle, Tocqueville and Guizot, even with Sherman and Moltke, prefers the casuals of life, is mean and incompetent.

He once propounded a sublime and self-denying definition of a good dinner as civility without consumption. As to company he was less exacting. The severe orthodoxy which requires that a man shall prefer the topics and initiative of others to his own ; that he shall neither insist, nor repeat, nor contradict ; that he shall speak of things, not of persons, and never of himself; that he shall restrain the use of witticism and anecdote, would have been tiresome and ruinous in his eyes. He knew how to draw out of each guest what was in him, to make the talk general, and discourage the eddies and hole-and-corner whisperings which are the grave of good company. He sought not only talent but diversity ; and not only diversity but contrast. He loved the flavour of antagonism, and held that a gentleman is one who can live with adversaries. Vambéry once related at his table things since made public — his journey in disguise to the Mahometan centre of Asia, and the inscription of the Christian captive which nearly betrayed him. Another Eastern traveller chafed visibly under these revelations of the deceitful dervish, uttering gutturals which could be nothing else than Turkish imprecations. When a certain suave prelate, putting on to perfection the Bishop in Little Dorrit, asked the Hungarian by which road he meant to take his next journey, and was answered, "That, my lord, is my secret," everybody felt that Milnes had not lost a day.

He had known what it is to be over-sensitive, to have tender spaces and antipathies, and he knew that these things are to be overcome. Therefore, when you wrote a book, you went to him prepared to find your reviewer ; and if you were the reviewer, you found your victim. The man who shrank from facing a critic or a rival, the lion afraid of a louder roar, was a thing below par, and only fit to be improved away. At the risk of some annoyance, at the price of some mistakes, he very deliberately strove to raise and humanise the social tone, and his house was not only a school of colloquial art, but of proper self-control. He had the opportunities, the large acquaintance with men, the versatile interest in ideas, the international position. Above all, he had the purpose and the energy. In this sense it is not an exaggeration to say that the object he sought was influence.

The rare and subtle essence which constituted so much of the enjoyment of his life was evanescent. If Houghton was distinguished as a brilliant conversational centre and extractor of men's thoughts, it was a gift which has left no permanent trace behind. Sir George Trevelyan, in the life of the best English talker of his time, has little to record, and Mr. Wemyss Reid has no description of a Symposium — nothing as interesting as Hawthorne's breakfast on the 11th of July 1856, where he met Ticknor and the Brownings, Lord Lansdowne and Macaulay. Unfortunately Milnes, who heard so much, wrote down very little. He stays at Val Richer, but only tells us that Guizot's grandchild preferred jelly to hare. He pays a visit to Tocqueville and has nothing to report. His memory was better furnished than his correspondence. He used to relate that at Tocqueville somebody incautiously spoke of people who marry beneath their rank. There was a moment of chill silence, until the host, taking his wife's hand, said, "Moi aussi, j'ai fait une mésalliance ; et Dieu ! que cela m'a réussi." Milnes has written somewhere what he remembered of the man whom he complacently called his French double. The papers to which his biographer has had access leave all this to perish, and it is hard to believe that there were no notebooks left and forgotten under lock and key. For it is to the life of Houghton that Englishmen would look for something that they could compare to the dialogues of the dead preserved by Roederer and Villemain and Falloux.

His biographer knew him well in later life, and was drawn to the sturdy Yorkshire Liberal who was not always apparent behind the self-caricaturist of Brook Street. He thinks of him as a politician, of his want of success and happiness in politics, and affirms that he was a disappointed man. Milnes was at different times a candidate for public employment. As he spoke French and was a familiar friend of the House of Orleans and its chief adherents, he would have liked to be First Secretary at Paris. He was even more persuaded of his claim to represent the Foreign Office in the House of Commons, and there is no doubt that he was wounded when the place was given to a man who must be described as his personal enemy. Ten years later he got up Irish questions, expecting to be sent to Ireland, but Palmerston only offered him a junior lordship. Afterwards he thought that a blunder was committed when he was not made an Alabama Commissioner. Although he had neither the craving for office which comes from pride and greed, nor the legitimate ambition to carry measures and impress opinions, he thought it stupid of Peel to imagine that a poet is unfitted for politics. When Palmerston had few personal adherents Milnes was one of them, but by October i860 his liking for him "has very much gone off." He consoled himself for his American disappointment by administering much private advice to those who did not send him, and his Liberal feelings became tinged with Imperialism. On the day when Lord Derby, by taking his seat below the gangway, proclaimed his resignation, and there was the smell of gunpowder in the air, he could scarcely contain his exuberant delight. He was firmer in resisting the latter developments of Liberalism than his letters show, and his nightmare took the shape of Mr. Gladstone pursuing him in a hansom. His dread of Socialism and his contempt for the Greeks are recorded here ; but there was also a growing coolness towards the Poles which German sympathies may explain, but which was unexpected in a member of the Polish Committee. For a man whose views were influenced by foreign thought, he was a steady politician, and the wish to be an under-secretary was a modest aspiration in a life so rich and varied that, by common consent, two large volumes can hardly do justice to it.

In that life the main interest was not political loss and gain. Milnes was not easily irritated by opposition or satire, but he was extremely susceptible about anything like a want of regard or reciprocity, and above all suspicious of a disposition to take him as a mere ornament. He had deserved well of all men. He had made it a point of honour to be generous and helpful with very many, to be patient and good-humoured with everybody. As time passed and shadows lengthened, he found that there were some who repelled his advances and depreciated his merits. These were the failures which he felt, which he resented in private life quite as much as in public. There was more wounded good-nature than wounded ambition in his regrets. There were some, too, in a further circle, of whom he thought or experimentally found that he could make nothing, and who thought themselves just as good, or as bad, as his miscellaneous society. Certain feuds, such as those with George Smythe and Panizzi, are mentioned by Mr. VVemyss Reid. Those who shared his confidence could no doubt show a longer and more characteristic list of men who were not in harmony, who sneered at or obstructed him, and on whom he avenged himself by the perfect perspicacity of his spoken or written judgments. He speaks of Thackeray's occasional perversity, and thinks that Sidney Herbert ought to have prospered, because he had both wealth, grace, tact, and not too much principle. One of his gravest and probably most sincere utterances is this : "As one gets on in life, one of the most annoying reflections is the little good one has done by what people call benevolence ; in fact, how little man can be benefited by others."

It would be absurd to accept with Philistine gravity the extravagant sayings in which Houghton vented his dislike of the social enemy, of prejudices and idols, of impostors and bores, or to confound riotous paradox with explosions of genuine conviction. We often remember Lord Tennyson's warning : "Every fool will think he I meant it." It occurs to us where he speaks of the mendacity of Orleanist ministers, as well as in the passages where he says probably more than he thought of Cardinal Newman and the late Lord Derby. The most characteristic story is that of his saying to Lord Stanhope, in the severe dulness of the Lords, "You and I are the only men in this place who can read and write." To which Lord Stanhope replied, "Pardon me ; you forget Lord Lytton." There is an inevitable perplexity in determining his real thoughts ; and this very perplexity is the triumph of his many devices to startle and to bewilder. The concealment of lofty ideas and deep emotion beneath hyperbole and affected cynicism has made it a difficult task to lift the veil from his inner spiritual life.

Mr. Wemyss Reid insists much upon Lord Houghton's feeling towards Rome ; and even heard him say that he might have been a Catholic but for the Oxford Movement. It must have gratified him to think that he went the contrary way to other men, and that the XC. Tracts which led so many away from the Church of England were to the author of One Tract More the motive of his remaining in it. From early Bonn days he had many Catholic friends, here and abroad, and during the hottest No-Popery agitation he attended the Cardinal's receptions as if he had been in Italy, and bent over his ring with every mark of ceremonious respect. He was quite in his element at Rome during the Council, discussing policy and doctrine with the Princess Wittgenstein and the Archbishop of Tuam. He told his best friend that he had no right to find fault with Lord Ripon for adopting the faith held by nineteen-twentieths of the Christian world. Carlyle, who was not generally tolerant of such things, says that he talked dilettante Catholicism. When he had Catholic guests on Friday, he was scrupulous about the fish, and did not like his care to be vain. Perhaps irony sometimes mingled with his solicitude. Mérimée was settling down to a plate of turtle when Milnes exclaimed : "No, no ! give him the other ! M. Mérimée, il y a une soupe maigre pour vous!" The academician answered : "Merci! j'aime autant celle que j'ai."

With his large power of sympathy and inclusion he had neither head nor heart for strict denominational studies. Not to be in living touch with the immense phenomena of Catholicity, with the teaching of Wiseman, as with that of Guizot or Heine, would have seemed to him a lapse into ancestral sectarianism or national insulation. At Paris he would visit the veteran Chouan Rio, who was affectionately attached to him, and then go straight to another Breton, Renan. He was as intimate with Montalembert as with any foreigner ; but he resented his attitude towards the coup d'etat, and repeated the malicious stories spread from the Elysee. Neither Thirlwall nor Aubrey de Vere took his theological demonstrations very seriously, and he himself, when he was asked, used to say that he was a professed crypto-Catholic.

Without being a recluse, or even a strict economist of time, he had read widely, and possessed a very unusual knowledge of unusual things in literature and history. His studious curiosity and zeal in collecting rare books blossomed into a society of literary Epicureans called the Philobiblion Club, which was an enlarged edition of Monckton Milnes. He wished it to be looked upon as a society of idle men — of men so indifferent to the shortness of time that they would go out breakfasting, not only at each other's town houses, but, by preference, at Twickenham or Wimbledon, at Highgate or at least at St. Dunstan's. They were the owners of unique copies, of bindings bright with the arms of Mazarin, and titlepages defaced by priceless signatures. Though reputed enemies of profitable knowledge, in a luxurious way they issued volumes of recondite and exquisite matter ; but when one of them published a mere life of Shakespeare, stiff with the solidity of facts and dates, others felt like an epicure invited to dine on condensed egg. The unwritten law forbids profane intrusion into the life of clubs, but the Philobiblion exists no more, and Mr. Wemyss Reid was justified in pleasantly describing an association peculiarly characteristic of Lord Houghton's tastes, in which he spent many of his happiest hours, and where those who had the privilege of meeting him found him at his best. He also follows him to Grillion's, which was the occasion of some of his literary work, and he says with truth that no place suited him better. For it was originally a parliamentary club, founded on the practice of pairing for dinner ; so that men who had spoken at each other from five to eight might drink wine with each other between eight and ten. It was enriched by a very choice flavour of unparliamentary intellect. Lord Houghton was also a member of the club, but he was elected late in life so late that he was insensible to the compliment, and it contributed little to his pleasure.

Most of his early associates died before him, and he had not the faculty of attaching himself to new people. Sir Charles MacCarthy, his most trusted confidant and correspondent of his prime, died in 1864. At that time Lord Houghton had already become acquainted with a Liverpool merchant, of whom he writes, "I look on him as the last of my friends of mature life." Henry Bright was a man whose refined charm of manner and excellent attainments made him an invaluable companion, after the death of Sir William Stirling Maxwell, whom Houghton was with difficulty dissuaded from pronouncing, in the lifetime of Carlyle, the first of literary Scotsmen. He wrote to Bright : "He, I, and you were the only real men of letters in Great Britain." In spite of the habitual exaggeration, all those who knew the man to whom these words were addressed will recognise the truth that was in them. He was a more careful scholar than his friend, but he loved literature for its own sake, without profit or display, and not in quest of hard-working truths. He had not health for sustained effort, and he spent on reviews of the books of the day, and in running to ground topics cast up in familiar table-talk, knowledge sufficient for a considerable reputation. Four weeks before his death he dictated a letter informing Houghton that he was very seriously ill, and he added with his dying hand this postscript : "Should we not meet, let me here thank you for a friendship of nearly twenty-five years, which has added so greatly to the brightness and happiness of my life." This was the simple farewell which closed an intimacy that had done much to cheer and comfort Houghton when the loss of his wife, the marriage of his daughters, the burning of Fryston had turned his happy life to gloom.

At this time his own health was breaking, and he had received a warning which he perfectly understood. He had always felt deeply ; he was άρτίδακρνς, and was as easily moved by things great and good as by sorrow. But in regard to himself he was tranquil. Neither increasing infirmities, nor the certainty of impending death subdued his spirit. He insisted on writing my name on a book that he borrowed, and explained that he might, at any moment, be carried off in a fit. He became anxious not to be left alone, clinging to his friends, and especially to his sister, Lady Galway, who devoted herself to watching over him in the declining years. Mr. Wemyss Reid found him very ill one day, and asked what was the matter. "Death," he answered gravely ; "that is what is the matter with me. I am going to die." And then his face was illumined by a smile of serene resignation. The end for which he had been preparing came, as he I expected, swiftly, in August 1885.

He was accustomed to describe his career as an unsuccessful one, and loved to be thought a failure. But as a poet he attained his full stature very early, and turned away satisfied with his work.[2] He lived long enough to know that the one thing for which nils many faculties and virtues unfitted him was power. He had cultivated too attentively the art of being misunderstood, and it was not easy to defend effectively a man so easy to misrepresent. Drudgery, pretentious commonplace, dense prejudice, invincible dulness, which make up the larger half of average politics, were things which no middle-age training could ever render tolerable to a mind fed daily on every refinement and every exotic. If he wished for that which was denied him, he desired it as material for that which his life richly afforded, a position of almost unique social usefulness and enjoyment. He leaves a memory nobler and more enduring than that of the ordinary successful politician, as one who, having gifts and opportunities above almost all other men, employed them throughout a long life in personal service, striving far less for his own ends than for the happiness of others.


  1. "The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton. By T. Wemyss Reid, London, Cassell & Co., 1890." The Nineteenth Century, December 1890.
  2. I was once dining at a party with him and Tennyson, when, turning to me and pointing to the poet, he said, "Ah ! a great deal of him will live for ever, and so will some of me" (Ed., Nineteenth Century).