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Michael Holroyd on Sydney Smith, The Smith of Smiths

Fired by a Canon

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The most popular and successful biographer in Britain from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s was Hesketh Pearson, who became well-known for his Lives of, among others, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. I got to know him in the late 1950s when writing my first book, a Life of his friend Hugh Kingsmill. To tempt publishers with a biography of a forgotten writer by an unknown author was not easy. But Pearson kept my spirits up with his encouragement and generosity. My Hugh Kingsmill was eventually published in 1964, the year in which Pearson died.

He had begun his career as an actor, but caused himself much damage by publishing a book in 1921 called Modern Men and Mummers that was insufficiently flattering about the contemporary theatre, its actors and actor-managers. In an attempt to make a living for himself, his wife and son, he began writing short stories for magazines and pen portraits of politicians for the press.

Then he had a devastating idea: why should he not combine fiction with non-fiction, adding instinct where facts were unobtainable through research, and producing a radical new narrative of Life Writing? The result of this experiment was a book called The Whispering Gallery published in 1926 which sold wonderfully well for a few weeks but unfortunately landed him in court charged with attempting to obtain money by false pretences. Though he was found Not Guilty (the jury having greatly enjoyed his humour in the witness box), no publisher wanted to risk publishing what he wrote. He had ruined his career as a biographer before it had begun.

The Reverend Sydney Smith, Canon of St Paul’s in the early nineteenth century, eventually came to his rescue. This unlikely clergyman turned out to be an ideal biographical subject. But it took Pearson seven difficult years to find him and then write The Smith of Smiths. It was published in 1934 when he was in his early forties. He had discovere

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The most popular and successful biographer in Britain from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s was Hesketh Pearson, who became well-known for his Lives of, among others, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. I got to know him in the late 1950s when writing my first book, a Life of his friend Hugh Kingsmill. To tempt publishers with a biography of a forgotten writer by an unknown author was not easy. But Pearson kept my spirits up with his encouragement and generosity. My Hugh Kingsmill was eventually published in 1964, the year in which Pearson died.

He had begun his career as an actor, but caused himself much damage by publishing a book in 1921 called Modern Men and Mummers that was insufficiently flattering about the contemporary theatre, its actors and actor-managers. In an attempt to make a living for himself, his wife and son, he began writing short stories for magazines and pen portraits of politicians for the press. Then he had a devastating idea: why should he not combine fiction with non-fiction, adding instinct where facts were unobtainable through research, and producing a radical new narrative of Life Writing? The result of this experiment was a book called The Whispering Gallery published in 1926 which sold wonderfully well for a few weeks but unfortunately landed him in court charged with attempting to obtain money by false pretences. Though he was found Not Guilty (the jury having greatly enjoyed his humour in the witness box), no publisher wanted to risk publishing what he wrote. He had ruined his career as a biographer before it had begun. The Reverend Sydney Smith, Canon of St Paul’s in the early nineteenth century, eventually came to his rescue. This unlikely clergyman turned out to be an ideal biographical subject. But it took Pearson seven difficult years to find him and then write The Smith of Smiths. It was published in 1934 when he was in his early forties. He had discovered an occupation that would absorb him for the remaining thirty years of his life. The book was soundly based on fact rather than guesswork and contained many quotations from the subject’s hitherto unpublished letters. It reads in places like an anthology of wit, but its true merit lies in the congenial atmosphere Pearson created and the perfect way in which he and his subject were attuned. Sydney Smith was a happy man and Pearson was to write a happy book. In the opinion of Richard Ingrams, who contributed an introduction to the Hogarth Press edition in 1984, ‘it is probably his masterpiece’. Certainly it turned out to be his most durable work. But it had not been an easy book to publish. Pearson was halfway through writing it when his money gave out. He sent the first six chapters to ten publishers, all of whom turned it down. The reasons they gave are the reasons publishers always give: that these were difficult times and the subject was not sufficiently well known; that there was too little love and sex interest in the story; that it was out of date and out of fashion, by which they meant it was not a copycat version of Lytton Strachey’s biographies which took down the mighty – Queens, Generals and Cardinals – from their high places in the British establishment. Pearson took part-time jobs and continued writing the book. When he had finished, Hamish Hamilton offered him a contract and promised him an advance on royalties of £100 on condition that he persuaded a leading literary figure to write a preface to the book. Pearson sent the typescript to G. M. Trevelyan, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, whose recent History of England he had admired. Though he did not like what he called the ‘playful’ title (which came from a quote by Lord Macaulay after whom he had been given his second name), Trevelyan did enjoy the book itself and sent him a foreword. Pearson, he wrote, ‘belongs to the class of honest biographer. He never tries to make a case by concealment. Here is Sydney in his habit as he walked – and talked . . . An honest Englishman is here honestly portrayed. One of the world’s most singular and gifted men is here allowed to stand and unfold himself.’ On the strength of Trevelyan’s foreword, Hamish Hamilton immediately gave Pearson a contract and the advance. Next week, however, Trevelyan wrote saying that, having discovered that a friend of his had been unpleasantly involved in The Whispering Gallery court case, he was obliged to withdraw what he had written. Pearson remembered seeing his wife (to whom the book was dedicated) in tears on reading this and he wrote back angrily reminding Trevelyan that he had been found not guilty. Taking the point, Trevelyan replied with generosity, enclosing a cheque for £300. Misfortune had turned out to be a blessing. But an introduction to The Smith of Smiths from some well-known writer was still needed by the publisher – and it was provided by G. K. Chesterton. He made a strength of what publishers had seen as a disadvantage. ‘It is remarkable how little satisfactory and sympathetic study has been made of Sydney Smith,’ he wrote. ‘Mr Hesketh Pearson has here fulfilled the need in its fullness . . . dealing vividly not with one aspect, but all aspects. Thus he shows us Sydney Smith in many mirrors . . . But the main impression is still that of a friend of freedom . . . of a bubbling and boiling fountain of fancies and fun, which played day and night . . . comic indeed, but of sheer creative power.’ ‘A friend of freedom’ was indeed how Pearson saw Sydney Smith. His own father, who had been a stern and somewhat uninviting churchwarden, was agreeably replaced in his imagination as an embodiment of the Church by this lively, warm-hearted comedian who wore a clerical collar and whose idea of heaven was ‘eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets’. Sydney Smith’s good nature and generous attitude to life also helped to free Pearson from the horrors of the First World War. He had been invalided from the army in 1915 with tuberculosis, but volunteered to re-join the following year. He was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in dispatches for acts of bravery, but almost died in Mesopotamia from a combination of dysentery, malaria, septic sores and a serious wound to his head. The doctors and surgeons did all they could, but it was Shakespeare (some of whose plays he knew by heart and recited from his bed to an audience of bewildered nurses) who, he felt, had really saved his life. After the war he was left with sudden moments of ‘seeing red’ – uncontrollable flashes of temper which sometimes punctuated his genial temperament. None of these episodes interrupted his writing on Sydney Smith. By immersing himself in the lives of people he loved and admired, he was to find a cure and a vocation. After Lytton Strachey had taken down his subjects from their high places in British culture, Pearson began replacing these peers, princes and politicians with a radical new team. Shakespeare and Sydney Smith headed it, and they were to be followed by the brilliant essayist and theatre critic William Hazlitt, the American revolutionary pamphleteer and philosopher Tom Paine, Johnson and Boswell, and two great admirers of Sydney Smith, Charles Dickens and Walter Scott. The narrative of The Smith of Smiths is subtly original. It takes readers back into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and shows them the brutality and iniquities of public school education with its absurd worship of ‘manly’ games ‘in which the greatest blockheads commonly excel the most’. Those who, like Sydney Smith, went on to university were often overwhelmed by ‘the tyranny of the lexicon’ and ‘suffocated with the nonsense of grammarians’. Only when eventually they were thrown into life and witnessed the appalling poverty of so many working people did their social education begin. But then, having taken us back in time, Pearson brings Sydney Smith forward into our own times so that we feel we know him as a close friend who has just left the room where we have been reading and who may come back at any memorable moment to entertain us. Among Sydney Smith’s achievements was helping to create The Edinburgh Review, an imposing, blue and buff critical quarterly, in which he ridiculed the aggressive opposition of Protestants to Catholic emancipation, supported the Reform Act and denounced the American slave trade. He preferred living in town rather than in the country and was in his element at Holland House in London, an enchanted place which became celebrated for its distinguished gatherings of writers, scientists, painters and liberal politicians. But more important to him than all this was the happiness of his wife and family. At home he invented all sorts of ingenious gadgets including air-tubes for the fire, speaking trumpets to communicate with people at a distance and a universal scratcher against which animals could luxuriously rub themselves. When alone, he would sometimes fall into low spirits. But though he experienced tragedies, such as the premature death of his son Douglas, he led for the most part a gregarious and enjoyable life. When the Whigs came to power many expected that he would be made a bishop. But he was too individual a character and had made fun of too many leaders of finance, politics and religion for such respectable advancement. ‘You and I are exceptions to the laws of nature,’ he told his highly successful brother Bobus. ‘You have risen by your gravity, and I have sunk by my levity.’ Despite the brutal and sometimes vindictive culture in which he lived, he remained an optimist about the world and was ‘thankful to Providence for the part allotted to me in it’. There was a similar pattern in Pearson’s career. He was indifferent to twentieth-century celebrities and although invited to write the Lives of a contemporary Prime Minister, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Chief Justice and Governor of the Bank of England, he continued to choose subjects for the joy of writing about them and without an eye on the book market. Sydney Smith would have approved of this attitude and celebrated the fact that, despite all those publishers’ rejections, The Smith of Smiths was to remain in print for seventy years.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 46 © Michael Holroyd 2015


About the contributor

Michael Holroyd suspects that his fondness for eccentricity comes from reading Hesketh Pearson’s biographies.

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