Sunday, November 20, 2005

Early Impressions of Celebrated Men - Pitt, Fox, Lord Wellesley and Windham

I have often thought, in reading Lord Orford's 'Reminiscences,' that almost anybody might make, by writing down theirs, a book which would at least be sure of giving entertainment to the writer when the recollections it records becomes less vivid. Upon that hint I write, and first I mean to record those sights which are gone and past, and which never can greet my eyes again.

Without ever having read Lavater or any one else who has written on physiognomy, I have, as most people probably have, delight in tracing character in countenance, and therefore there are few recollections I love better than those of the faces of the great men whom I have seen at various periods. I can now laugh at the recollection of my excessive disappointment in the first great man I remember seeing—in society at least. I was about sixteen or seventeen when, at Dropmore where I was with Lord and Lady Grenville only — Mr.Pitt arrived for a visit of two days.

First, I was disappointed in that turned-up nose, and in that countenance, in which it was so impossible to find any indication of the mind, and in that person which was so deficient in dignity that he had hardly the air of a gentleman. After this first disappointment my every faculty seemed to me to be absorbed in listening.

If not tropes, I fully expected the dictums of wisdom each time that he opened his mouth. From what I then heard and saw, I should say that mouth was made for eating; as to speaking, there was very little, and that little was totally uninteresting to me, and I believe would have been so to everybody.

I was certainly not capable of a very accurate judgment, but I was as certainly in a mood very much to overrate instead of underrating what fell from the great man, and to be quite sure that what I did not understand must be mighty fine.

On the second day arrived Lord Wellesley,* whom I thought very agreeable ; partly, I fancy, from his high-bred manners, and still more from his occasionally saying a few words to me, and thus making me feel treated as a reasonable creature.

After we had retired for the night, I heard from the library, which was under my room, the most extraordinary noises — barking, mewing, hissing, howling, interspersed with violent shouts of laughter. I settled that the servants had come into the room, and had got drunk and riotous; and I turned to sleep when the noise had ceased. Never can I forget my dismay (it was more than astonishment) when next day at breakfast I heard that my wise uncle and his two wise guests, whom we had left talking, as I supposed, of the fate of Europe, had spyed in the room a little bird; they did not wish it to be shut up there all night: therefore, after having opened every window, these great wise men tried every variety of noise they could make to frighten out the poor bird.

At a later period, in the year 1805, I found myself for nearly a week at Stowe, with Mr. Fox; but as there were above fifty others in the house, with the Prince Regent ** at their head, the whole thing was a formal crowd, and I could only gaze at the countenance of the one whom I should most have liked to hear talk. Certainly in this mixed society he hardly ever was heard to speak, but occasionally with some one individual one saw him entering into an animated whispered conversation; and it was curious to watch the sudden illumination of a countenance which, when silent, had to my fancy a heavy, sullen look.

How far it might even then have been altered by malady, I cannot judge; but I know that the next time I beheld Mr. Fox, not six months after, at Lord Melville's trial, I thought I never had seen the ravages of illness so strongly marked in any human countenance. All its animation had disappeared, the leaden eyes were almost lost under the heavy eyebrow, even that appeared to partake in the extraordinary change which all the colouring seemed to have undergone, the pallid or rather livid hue of the complexion deepened the sable line of the dark brow, and the whole countenance assumed a lethargic expression. He lived scarcely three months after the time I mention.***

In my recollection, no person appears to have possessed the power of making conversation delightful as much as Mr. Windham. His peculiar charm seems to me to have been that sort of gay openness which I should call the very reverse of what the French term morgue. To all, this must be agreeable, and it is peculiarly delightful to a young person who is conscious of her own inferiority to the person who condescends to put her perfectly at ease. During the party at
Stowe to which I have alluded, I found myself embarked for the morning's or rather day's amusement, in a carriage with Lady King, Lord Braybrooke, and
Mr. Windham. My mother was in some other carriage, my two sisters in a third.

When we all met in our own rooms, they with one accord voted they were a little tired and very much bored. I, though much more liable to both these complaints than any of the party, could only say I had been highly amused the whole day.
The fact was, they had no Mr. Windham to listen to, and I had; and yet, truth to say, when I was asked how he had contrived to amuse me so much, I had very little to tell even then; and now after so many years that little has passed away.

I do recollect, however, one singular circumstance. Junius happened to be mentioned, and on that old subject Mr. Windham ventured what was to me at least a quite new guess. Gibbon was the person he mentioned as the only man of high talents living at that period in obscurity which might effectually have concealed him. Soon afterwards I mentioned this conjecture to Charles (the late Eight Hon. Charles Wynn), whose accurate memory immediately produced a proof of its fallacy.

He said, 'I cannot help thinking that, at the period of the publication of Junius, Gibbon was not in England.' Upon referring to the letters of Gibbon, it proved that he was in Switzerland during the greater part, if not the whole, of the appearance of Junius. It seems most singular that Mr. Windham should even mention a conjecture which he had not brought to this obvious test.****

Editor's Notes
* It appears from Lord Wellesley's Correspondence, that the then Earl of Mornington) spent some days at Dropmore in the spring of 1797, and this must have been the visit in question. He left England for India in the November of that year, and did not return till January 1806, when Pitt was dying.
**Not Regent till 1811
***This account of Fox's appearance in his latter years is confirmed, by contemporaries. But, according to Sir William Napier, Pitt retained till within a year and a half of his death a boyish love.
* Miss Wynn and her brother must have been under a mistaken impression as to the period during which the Letters of Junius appeared. The letters under that signature began in January 1769, and ended in January 1772. Gibbon returned to England in 1765, and did not leave it again to reside acroad till 1783; but his habits and turn of mind, as developed in his autobiography, to say nothing of his political opinions or his style, completely preclude the notion of his being the author of Junius. He had been often stated as a candidate.


Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I have, I think, identified the seductive gentleman on whom the young Miss Frances had what looks, in modern terms, distinctly like a "crush".

1:47 AM  

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