I’ve always thought journals and letters among the best of bedside books. The entries, for one thing, are just long enough, usually, to end as drowsiness begins to be irresistible. I first came across one of Horace Walpole’s letters in an anthology, and thought it was as entertaining as one of Byron’s. I looked out more of them; they too were as entertaining as Byron’s – maybe even more so. I had recently given up buying, volume by volume as they came out, the great Murray edition of Byron’s letters, on the grounds that they had become too expensive; a decision I now regret with inexpressible bitterness. But maybe there was an affordable collected edition of Walpole’s.
There was indeed. It was published by Yale and edited by W. S. Lewis, who had worked on the project for 46 years, and published the final 48th volume in 1983. I don’t know whether it’s now possible to find a complete set; if one could, it would I guess be astronomically expensive. I gave up the idea. But fortunately single volumes pop up here and there on the Internet, as indeed do excellent selections – my own favourite, by my own bedside, came from a bookshop found on iLibris, published in 1930 and a good-looking book as well as a good anthology.
Most people, if they think of Walpole at all, remember him as the author of the Gothic horror story The Castle of Otranto – popular enough in its time, still readable and sometimes read. He’s also remembered for Strawberry Hill, the most famous house in Georgian England (open to the public now as it was in his own time, when he even set up an advance booking system). His Essay on Modern Gardening has its virtues. But the best of his life went into his letters. Sir Walter Scott called him ‘the best letter-writer in the English language’; Byron thought his letters ‘incomparable’ – and he knew something about writing a good letter.
The son of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister under t
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