« VorigeDoorgaan »
memorial of old times and old people, and Pall Mall is our Palmyra. Look! About this spot Tom of Ten Thousand was killed by Königsmarck's gang. In that great red house Gainsborough lived, and Culloden Cumberland, George III.'s uncle. Yonder is Sarah Marlborough's palace, just as it stood when that termagant occupied it. At 25, Walter Scott used to live ; at the house, now No. 79,* and occupied by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, resided Mrs. Eleanor Gwynn, comedian. How often has Queen Caroline's chair issued from under yonder arch! All the men of the Georges have passed up and down the street. It has seen Walpole's chariot and Chatham's sedan ; and Fox, Gibbon, Sheridan, on their way to Brookes's; and stately William Pitt stalking on the arm of Dundas; and Hanger and Tom Sheridan reeling out of . Raggett's; and Byron limping into Wattier's; and Swift striding out of Bury Street; and Mr. Addison and Dick Steele, both perhaps a little the better for liquor ; and the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York clattering over the pavement; and Johnson counting the posts along the streets, after dawdling before Dodsley's window; and Horry Walpole hobbling into his carriage, with a gimcrack just bought at Christie's; and George Selwyn sauntering into White's.
In the published letters to George Selwyn we get a mass of correspondence by no means so brilliant and witty as Walpole's, or so bitter and bright as Hervey's, but as interesting, and even more descriptive of the time, because the letters are the work of many hands. You hear more voices speaking, as it were, and more natural than Horace's dandified treble, and Sporus's malignant whisper. As one reads the Selwyn letters—as one looks at Reynolds's noble pictures illustrative of those magnificent times and voluptuous people -one almost hears the voice of the dead past ; the laughter and the chorus ; the toast called over the brimming cups; the shout at the racecourse or the gaming-table ; the merry joke frankly spoken to the laughing fine lady. How fine those ladies were, those ladies who heard and spoke such coarse jokes ; how grand those gentlemen !
I fancy that peculiar product of the past, the fine gentleman, has almost vanished off the face of the earth, and is disappearing like the beaver or the Red Indian We can't have fine gentlemen any more, because we can't have the society in which they lived. The people will not obey : the parasites will not be as obsequious as formerly : children do not go down on their knees to beg their parents' blessing: chaplains do not say grace and retire before the pudding: servants do not say “your honour” and “ your worship” at every moment : tradesmen do not stand hat in hand as the gentleman passes : authors do not wait for hours in gentlemen's anterooms with a fulsome dedication, for which they hope to get five guineas from his lordship. In the days when there were fine gentlemen, Mr. Secretary Pitt's undersecretaries did not dare to sit down before him ; but Mr. Pitt, in his turn, went down on his gouty knees to George II. ; and when George III. spoke a few kind words to him, Lord Chatham burst into tears of reverential joy and gratitude ; so awful was the idea of the monarch, and so great the distinctions of rank. Fancy Lord John Russell or Lord Palmerston on their knees whilst the Sovereign was reading a despatch, or beginning to cry because Prince Albert said something civil!
At the accession of George III., the patricians were yet at the height of their good fortune. Society recognized their superiority, which they themselves pretty calmly took for granted. They inherited not only titles and estates, and seats in the house of Peers, but seats in the House of Commons. There were a multitude of Government places, and not merely these, but bribes of actual 500l. notes, which members of the House took not much shame in receiving. Fox went into Parliament at 20: Pitt when just of age : his father when not much older. It was the good time for Patricians. Small blame to them if they took and enjoyed, and over-enjoyed. the prizes of politics, the pleasures of social life.
In these letters to Selwyn, we are made acquainted with a whole society of these defunct fine gentlemen: and can watch with a curious interest a_life which the novel-writers of that time, I think, have scarce touched upon. To Smollett, to Fielding even, a lord was a lord : a gorgeous being with a blue ribbon, a coroneted chair, and an immense star on his bosom, to whom commoners paid reverence. Richardson, a man of humbler birth than either of the above two, owned that he was ignorant regarding the manners of the aristocracy, and besought Mrs. Donnellan, a lady who had lived in the great world, to examine a volume of Sir Charles Grandison, and point out any errors which she might see in this particular. Mrs. Donnellan found so many faults, that Richardson changed colour ; shut up the book; and muttered that it were best to throw it in the fire. Here, in Selwyn, we have the real original men and women of fashion of the early time of George III. We can follow them to the new club at Almack's: we can travel over Europe with them: we can accompany them not only to the public places, but to their country-houses and private society. Here is a whole company of them; wits and prodigals; some persevering in their bad ways : some repentant, but relapsing; beautiful ladies, parasites, humble chaplains, led captains. Those fair creatures whom we love in Reynolds's portraits, and who still look out on us from his canvases with their sweet calm faces and gracious smiles—those fine gentlemen who did us the honour to govern us; who inherited their boroughs; took their ease in their patent places; 'and slipped Lord North's bribes so elegantly under their ruffles—we make acquaintance with a hundred of these fine folks, hear their talk and laughter, read of their loves, quarrels, intrigues, debts, duels, divorces; can fancy them alive if we read the book long enough. We can attend at Duke Hamilton's wedding, and behold him marry his bride with the curtain-ring: we can peep into lher poor sister's death-bed : we can see Charles Fox cursing over the cards, or March bawling out the odds at Newmarket : we can imagine Burgoyne tripping off from St. James's Street to conquer the Americans, and slinking back into the club somewhat crestfallen after his beating ; we can see the young King dressing himself for the drawing-room and asking ten thousand questions regarding all the gentlemen : we can have high life or low, the struggle at the Opera to behold the Violetta or the Zamperini—the Macaronies and fine ladies in their chairs trooping to the masquerade or Madame Cornelys's—the crowd at Drury Lane to look at the body of Miss Ray, whom Parson Hackman has just pistolled-or we can peep into Newgate, where poor Mr. Rice the forger is waiting his fate and his supper. “You need not be particular about the sauce for his fowl,” says one turnkey to another : “for you know he is to be hanged in the morning.” “Yes,” replies the second janitor, “but the chaplain sups with him, and he is a terrible fellow for melted butter."
Selwyn has a chaplain and parasite, one Dr. Warner, than whom Plautus, or Ben Jonson, or Hogarth, never painted a better character. In letter after letter he adds fresh strokes to the portrait of himself, and completes a portrait not a little curious to look at now that the man has passed away; all the foul pleasures and gambols in which he revelled, played out; all the rouged faces into which he leered, worms and skulls; all the fine gentlemen whose shoebuckles he kissed, laid in their coffins. This worthy clergyman takes care to tell us that he does not believe in his religion, though, thank heaven, he is not so great a rogue as a lawyer. He goes on Mr. Selwyn's errands, any errands, and is proud, he says, to be that gentleman's proveditor. He waits upon the Duke of Queensberry-old Q.— and exchanges pretty stories with that aristocrat. He comes home “after a hard day's christening," as he says, and writes to his patron before sitting down to whist and partridges for supper. He revels in the thoughts of ox-cheek and burgundy-he is a boisterous, uproarious parasite, licks his master's shoes with explosions of laughter and cunning smack and gusto, and likes the taste of that blacking as much as the best claret in old Q.’s cellar. He has Rabelais and Horace at his greasy fingers' ends. He is inexpressibly mean, curiously jolly; kindly and good-natured in secret-a tender-hearted knave, not a venomous lickspittle. Jesse says, that at his chapel in Long Acre, “he attained a considerable popularity by the pleasing, anly, and eloquent style of his delivery.” Was infidelity endemic,
and corruption in the air? Around a young king, himself of the most exemplary life and undoubted piety, lived a court society as dissolute as our country ever knew. George II.'s bad morals bore their fruit in George III.'s early years; as I believe that a knowledge of that good man's example, his moderation, his frugal simplicity, and God-fearing life, tended infinitely to improve the morals of the country and purify the whole nation.
After Warner, the most interesting of Selwyn's correspondents is the Earl of Carlisle, grandfather of the amiable nobleman at present* Viceroy in Ireland. The grandfather, too, was Irish Viceroy, having previously been treasurer of the King's household ; and, in 1778, the principal commissioner for treating, consulting, and agreeing upon the means of quieting the divisions subsisting in his Majesty's colonies, plantations, and possessions in North America. You may read his lordship's manifestoes in the Royal New York Gazette. He returned to England, having by no means quieted the colonies; and speedily afterwards the Royal New York Gazette somehow ceased to be published.
This good, clever, kind, highly-bred Lord Carlisle was one of the English fine gentlemen who was well-nigh ruined by the awful debauchery and extravagance which prevailed in the great English society of those days. Its dissoluteness was awful : it had swarmed over Europe after the Peace ; it had danced, and raced, and gambled in all the courts. It had made its bow at Versailles; it had run its horses on the plain of Sablons, near Paris, and created the Anglomania there : it had exported vast quantities of pictures and marbles from Rome and Florence: it had ruined itself by building great galleries and palaces for the reception of the statues and pictures: it had brought over singing-women and dancing-women from all the operas of Europe, on whom my lords lavished their thousands, whilst they left their honest wives and honest children languishing in the lonely, deserted splendours of the castle and park at home. Besides the great London society of those days, there was