Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford

Once in a classroom discussion we came upon the name of Walpole, and I found that only one of the students present could identify it—as that of a Massachusetts town “about midway on the road to Providence”. I let the matter drop, fearing that one who did not know who Walpole was might not even (shudder!) know what Providence was, despite the very large role each played in eighteenth-century Britain. (Robert Walpole, usually regarded as the first Prime Minister, was a Whig politician of enormous influence. Providence, which plays a major role in the tale I am about to tell, was the name used for God Almighty by people who didn’t want to sound too religious).

For people with graduate degrees in English, a tribe more numerous than you might at first suspect, whose members are too often seen these days hanging around employment agencies or welfare offices, Walpole will more likely bring to mind Sir Robert’s literary son, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace has a credible claim to the title “the Goth Father”. He anticipated the Victorian medieval revival in two very important ways. First he built along “medieval” lines his own fantastic manor house, Strawberry Hill, with crypts, secret passages, and phony ruins galore. He is also the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first and one of the very best of the creepy genre that has come to be known as “the Gothic novel”.

Strawberry Hill: "a pile most fantastickal"

He invented something else: a word that has become naturalized in our English language. The word is serendipity. You know what serendipity is. In fact most educated people know and use this word--but try to translate it into some other tongue! Serendipity is, Walpole writes to his distant friend Sir Horace Mann, “a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip:’ as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right …”*

I first encountered Horace Walpole in 1962 in a graduate seminar on Victorian literature taught by Dudley Johnson (Edward Dudley Hume Johnson, 1911-1995). He assigned The Castle of Otranto as “background” reading. Dudley Johnson was a great man, the chairman of the English Department in my earliest years at Princeton. He was definitely Old Princeton. His elocution, gait, and wardrobe were emblems of a vanished elegance from the era he taught so brilliantly, still alive in the Oxford of the 1930s where he had studied as a Rhodes Scholar. If you see the film The King’s Speech—which I strongly recommend—you’ll get in certain scenes something of the vibe. He was an expert in Victorian literature, both poetry and prose; in retirement he wrote an important book about British painting. In speaking of the undergraduate dramatic performances mounted by Theatre Intime, he pronounced the first word in an elaborately Frenchified manner—teh-AT-ruh. He loved nature and the writings of the great naturalists. During the War he had been a naval officer. He was strikingly handsome in the manner often qualified as “Byronic” and had on occasion modeled clothes for a glossy magazine. Most days he took his lunch at Lahière’s, the local classy French restaurant, seldom without the prelude of a martini. He retired as the Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres in 1978. Always a private man, he virtually disappeared from the sight of his former colleagues during the last years of his life, which were clouded by domestic sorrow and serious illness.

My old colleague Dudley Johnson had virtually disappeared from my consciousness by the summer of 1990. I was then directing the Oxford summer session of the Bread Loaf School of English, resident in Lincoln College. Lincoln is in the Turl, catty-corner across from Jesus, my own old undergraduate college. (I was no stranger there. Lincoln College had been founded in 1427 by Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln. The grandest undergraduate dining club in Oxford, anciently housed in the college, was called the Fleming Society. The only “outsiders” ever invited to their feasts were people providentially—serendipitously?-- named Fleming). I was teaching two seminars, both in medieval literature; but I awoke one morning with a very strong urge to reread Fielding’s Tom Jones. You have your urges, and I have mine; but this is not one to be acted upon if you have anything else to do with your life for the next two weeks.

Ever since I first knew it the short block of commercial shops on the Turl has always included two antiquarian booksellers. Right after breakfast I stepped across the road. Prominent in the window of the bookshop almost directly in front of me were twelve small, blue volumes of Fielding’s novels, the first six of which were Tom Jones. I would not know whether this was divine encouragement or diabolical temptation until the shop opened two hours later. The answer was instant when I opened the cover of the first volume to find on its fly leaf, written in Dudley’s inimitable and elegant hand, the same hand that had once signed a letter informing me of my promotion to a tenured appointment, “E.D.H. Johnson Oxford 1936”. That was the year of my birth.

The books still had the discreet labels of Blackwell’s, where Dudley must have bought them. But they had had their adventures since. Tucked into the first volume was an old invoice documenting their sale on the 25th of May, 1954, by a Cambridge bookseller, to a probably clerical gentleman of Jesus College of that University. Mr. W. H. G. Stevenson had at the same time bought something listed as “Ramsey Glory of God”. That would be The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, the most impressive book written by Michael Ramsey, once Regius Professor of Theology and future Archbishop of Canterbury, a book I had consulted with profit while writing a study of Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis” in the Frick Collection.

Shortly before his death I had Dudley Johnson in my house for the first and only time. Over a glass of wine I surprised him with his old books, which he at least pretended to remember, and tried--without success, of course--to return to him. In one of his miscellaneous essays Gibbon had written of “our immortal Fielding…whose romance of Tom Jones will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of Austria.” Dudley Johnson was not the scoffer that old Gibbon was, but he was a long-lapsed Anglican who seemed to enjoy the fact that you could get a great archbishop for a mere twelve and sixpence but would have to pay a full thirty bob if you wanted a great novelist.

*Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. P. Cunningham (London, 1891), ii, pp. 365-366.