28. Choice 17: Walpole’s Last Letter to Lady Ossory

28. Choice 17: Walpole’s Last Letter to Lady Ossory

by Wilmarth S. Lewis

“Walpole’s first letter to Lady Ossory that has survived is dated Sept. 12, 1761, just before the coronation of George III when she was still the Duchess of Grafton. ‘If anything could make me amends, Madam, for not seeing the finest figure in the world walk at the Coronation,’ Walpole wrote, ‘it would be the letter and the découpure the I have received from your Grace: I will carry the latter to that ceremony, to prevent the handsomest peeresses from gaining any advantage in my eyes by an absence that I fear they are all wicked enough to enjoy.’  The découpure of herself and her Grafton  white silhouette on black background showing a lady facing left with a baby behind

baby daughter, who is tossing up a chubby arm behind her, is at Farmington. It was cut by Huber of Geneva, according to Walpole’s note on it, and is the runner-up in this Choice to Walpole’s last letter to her, which he dictated to Kirgate 15 January 1797, six weeks before he died.

“The letter that went through the post is not at Farmington; what I am saving is Kirgate’s copy of it on which Walpole wrote the date, the last line, and his signature, ‘O.’ 

January 15, 1797

“My dear madam,

     “You distress me infinitely by showing my idle notes, which I cannot conceive can amuse anybody. My old-fashioned breeding impels me every now and then to reply to the letters you honour me with writing, but in truth very unwillingly, for I seldom can have anything particular to say; I scarce go out of my own house, and then only to two or three very private places, where I see nobody that really knows anything, and what I learn comes from newspapers, that collect intelligence from coffee-houses; consequently what I neither believe nor report. At home I see only a few charitable elders, except about fourscore nephews and nieces of various ages, who are each brought to me about once a year, to stare at me as the Methusalem of the family, and they can only speak of their own cotemporaries, which interest me no more than if they talked of their dolls, or bats and balls. Must not the result of all this, Madam, make me a very entertaining correspondent? And can such letters be worth showing? or can I have any spirit when so old and reduced to dictate? Oh, my good Madam, dispense with me from such a task, and think how it must add to it to apprehend such letters being shown. Pray send me no more such laurels, which I desire no more than their leaves when decked with a scrap of tinsel, and stuck on Twelfth-cakes that lie on the shop-boards of pastry-cooks at Christmas: I shall be quite content with a sprig of rosemary thrown after me, when the parson of the parish commits my dust to dust. Till then, pray, Madam, accept the resignation of

                                                                                                        “Your ancient servant,                                                                                                     “O.

“Walpole’s letters to Lady Ossory outnumber all others except those to Mann. There are 450 of them and they are the best, I think, he ever wrote. She was for him the ideal correspondent because, buried in the country with her kind but dull husband, she longed for news of the great world she had lost when divorced by Grafton for crim. con. with Ossory, and Walpole compassionately sent her the news in his most carefully composed and humourous style. If he kept her letters, they were returned to her on his death, as his will directed letters from living persons should be, but Vernon Smith couldn’t find them in 1848 when he brought out his edition of Walpole’s letters to her and I have found only one. While trying to identify Walpole’s letters at Farmington to and from unknown correspondents, I discovered one of a few lines in a large flowery hand that had been at Upton. Walpole (a paper-saver) wrote some notes for his Memoirs on the back of it and I filed it with them. That it was from Lady Ossory is proved by comparison with a letter of hers to George Selwyn in the Society of Antiquaries. Walpole’s use of her letter as scrap paper suggests that he did not keep her letters and that their destruction occurred more than a century before the fire in the muniment room at Euston, the Duke of Grafton’s house, where her letters would have gone on her death had they survived.”

Lewis then provides a biographical sketch of Lady Ossory, born Anne Liddell, married at eighteen to the Duke of Grafton with whom she had a daughter and two sons. Lewis recounts her estrangement from her husband and affair with Lord Ossory, to whom Walpole had commended her attention, her divorce from Grafton and exclusion from Court, and tells of the birth of her daughter Lady Anne Fitzpatrick and two further daughters and of her seclusion in the country. She died in 1804.

“Walpole sent her all the latest chit-chat, who was in, who out, who was marrying whom and how much was being settled on the young people, who was giving balls, who was dying. He amused her with accounts of the new books and plays, of Mr Herschel’s new planet, Captain Cook’s new islands, and Sir Joseph Banks’s new birds and beasts. He wrote verses for her and her youngest Ossory daughters. It can be imagined what Walpole’s letters meant to her. She showed them about and praised them to the skies. He scolded her for it; she would spoil everything by making him self-conscious. ‘You distress me infinitely by showing my idle notes,’ his last letter to her began, and there is no doubt he meant it. Posterity was in the back of his mind, but he didn’t want her talking about it. I think he was more in love with her than with any other woman in his life. In one of his early letters to her he might be thinking of her as a successor to the Grifona who had contributed to his education as a young man in Florence.

“Where, I wondered, were the originals of his letters? They were first printed in 1848, by Vernon Smith, Lord Lyveden, after which they vanished. . . .

“My first move was a failure. The current Lord Lyveden, the great-grandson of the letters’ first editor, was the most obvious person to approach, but no one, not even the Peerage, knew what had become of him. His sister did not answer my letter. the Peerage showed several collaterals and there was always Somerset House and its wills, but I had become skeptical of wills and collaterals as a means of finding missing family papers. Then English friends persuaded me to use the ‘Agony Column’ of the Times. I had heard that its ‘Personals,’ ‘Come home, I love you, Alice,’ really meant, ‘It is safe to land the opium at Hull on Tuesday, ‘ and believed that it was not the place for the Yale Walpole; but, No, I was assured, ‘everybody’ used the Personal Column.

“R. W. Chapman and Dudley Massey helped me with my advertisement: ‘HORACE WALPOLE. Mr W. S. Lewis, Brown’s Hotel, Dover Street, W.1., is anxious to secure information of the whereabouts of letters to and from Horace Walpole for use in the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence.’ This appeared for three consecutive days with prompt results. I heard from owners of old laces and second-hand Rolls-Royces; two young women offered their companionship. A lady in Belgrave Square wrote that she had hundreds of Walpole’s letters, but they turned out to be the printed volumes of the 1848 edition. I was about to cross off the Agony Column as another failure when this letter arrived:

“Bishop’s Lydeard House

“Taunton

“Aug. 4 1935

“Dear Sir,

“I notice an advertisement in The Times for correspondence of Horace Walpole. I have thirty years between him and his cousin Lady Ossory–these were all published by my grandfather the Rt Honble Vernon Smith, the first Lord Lyveden: so it is possible they may be of no use to you.

“Yrs faithfully,

“R. Vernon

“Lady Ossory was not Walpole’s cousin, but that was a small error. I called Mr Vernon on the telephone because we were sailing soon and there was no time for the gavotte of correspondence. Were these the originals of Wapole’s letters, I asked with the Belgrave Square lady in mind, or was he referring to the edition of them his grandfather published in 1848? These were the manuscripts, Vernon replied; at least they were written in ink on paper. That sounded like manuscript, all right. Might I go down that afternoon to see them? No, he was just about to have a week’s yachting at Cowes.”

Lewis recounts the later visit to the Vernons at Bishop’s Lydeard House and subsequent acquisition of the letters for a year. He brought the letters to America and had them repaired and photostated. Fifty of the letters, he discovered, were unpublished.

“On Lady Ossory’s death the letters went to her son by the Duke of Grafton, the little boy who pounded on her door and called for his mamma while she was with Lord Ossory. His son, the 5th Duke, turned them over to Vernon Smith, who published 400 of them. A generation saw the letters lying about unwanted in the library and took them. They had been copied by a clerk at Bentley’s for £16 (Mrs Vernon kindly gave me the Account of Publication and Sale of the book). The clerk’s heart was not in his work, for he overlooked fifty lettes. Thirty of them were written in 1778 when Walpole was at the height of his epistolary powers. We read of Dr Franklin and General Washington and the hatefulness of a war in which Englishmen fought Englishmen, but world events remain where they belong in an intimate correspondence, in the background. Of more concern to Walpole and Lady Ossory was the news brought to him one day when, as he was about to set off on a visit, the postman handed him a letter that told of the imminent death of Lord Ossory’s sister, Lady Holland. ‘It was,’ Walpole wrote Lady Ossory, ‘one of those moments in which nothing is left to us but resignation and silence. . . .Life seems to me as if we were dancing on a sunny plain on the edge of a gloomy forest when we pass in a moment from glare to gloom and darkness.’

“And a month later:

I have fallen into a taste that I never had in my life, that of music. The swan, you know, Madam, is drawing towards its end, when it thinks of warbling. . . . I am quite enchanted with Mr Gammon, the Duke of Grafton’s brother-in-law. It is the most melodious voice I ever heard. . . . I was strolling in the gardens [of Hampton Court] in the evening with my nieces, who joined Lady Schaub and Lady Fitzroy, and the former asked Mr Gammon to sing. His taste is equal to his voice, and his deep notes, the part I prefer, are calculated for the solemnity of Purcell’s music, and for what I love particularly, his mad songs and the songs of sailors. It was moonlight and late, and very hot, and the lofty façade of the palace, and the trimmed yews and canal, made me fancy myself of a party in Grammont’s time–so you don’t wonder that by the help of imagination I never passed an evening more deliciously. When by the aid of some historic vision and local circumstance I can romance myself into pleasure, I know nothing transports me so much. . . . I sometimes dream, that one day or another somebody will stroll about poor Strawberry and talk of Lady Ossory–but alas! I am no poet, and my castle is of paper, and my castle and my attachments and I shall soon vanish and be forgotten together!”

Lewis, Wilmarth S. Rescuing Horace Walpole. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

To see the full chapter from Rescuing Horace Walpole called “Choice 17: Walpole’s Last Letter to Lady Ossory” download or expand the link here:

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