*Chesterfield, Earl of
Chesterfield, Earl of
The essays of Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, comment on the politics and manners of his contemporaries from the lofty social, political, and intellectual positions available only to someone with Chesterfield’s lineage, connections, and talents.
The essays draw strength from a long and successful career in diplomacy and a lifetime of reading and writing. They exhibit wit, thought, style, integrity, and contempt— commodities of character and thought too rare to be ignored or forgotten, wherever they may be found. Like his notorious letters to his illegitimate son on how to succeed in the courts of Europe, his essays, several of which metamorphosed into separate political pamphlets, combine long experience in high places with thoughtful reading of classical
texts, and great powers of observation and discernment. They exercise a judgment sharpened, but not embittered, by an unsentimental assessment of human nature and its capacities. They also, it must be admitted, reflect, or rather magnify, the prejudices of party and class held by this eloquent earl.
Well-born, well-bred, well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, well connected, and exceedingly well-spoken, Chesterfield turned his polished hand to social and political essays at several points in his career. He had prepared himself as a writer by translating, memorizing, and emulating Cicero, Horace, Martial, and Ovid, and by reading and meeting all the best writers, French and English, of his own time. The contents of his elegant library resonate in his essays, his letters, and his speeches, proving again and again that this library was for use rather than ostentation.
None of Chesterfield’s essays was published under his name. Some 45 essays have been attributed to Chesterfield on the good authority of his first biographer and editor, Matthew Maty, who reprinted them in his Miscellaneous Works edition of 1777. The attributions are discussed by Roger Coxon (1925), who reprints II essays. The earliest essays (17, 24 January and 10 April 1736) appeared in Fog’s Journal, a weekly paper emanating from, and amplifying, the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole. In the first of them a self-congratulatory “projector” suggests that, based on a German (i.e. Hanoverian) model, the English army should be replaced with wax figures driven by clockwork. This contrivance would provide soldiers of a more uniform appearance and a fiercer demeanor, at great savings to the country, which had not, in any case, sent its army to battle for 25 years, “notwithstanding the almost uninterrupted disturbances that have been in Europe, in which our interests have been as nearly concerned as ever they are likely to be for these five and twenty years to come.” Being made of wax, these new soldiers will be more pliable to the demands of the politicians and less of a threat to English liberty than a “standing army.” This witty invention attacks the two military policies to which the Opposition most objected—that of maintaining a standing army and the failure to use any army to develop and maintain trade. The second essay deplores flattery as the tickling of the ear. Chesterfield had seen far too much, and practiced far too little, of this commodity in the course of his long diplomatic and short political career. The third essay draws on the same experience to ridicule the distortions of curiosity, vanity, and partiality in the guise of a survey of various optical instruments.
The 17 essays Chesterfield wrote for Common Sense from February 1737 through January 1739 discuss the rare and not very fashionable commodity named in its title and then apply it to such perennial topics of the essay as the balance of power, fashionable attire, misconceptions of honor, corrupt ministers (i.e. advisers such as Walpole), illadvised efforts to regulate plays, party zeal, country living, coxcombs, the witlessness and ignorance of his competitors, taste, a foolish preference for all things French (few Englishmen understood the French and their language better than Chesterfield), and foreign and military policy. Two of them compete with the Spectator on its own ground, but without notable success. One argues that it is in January, not May, that the virtue and state of mind of women is most threatened, while the other considers, without real regret, the decline of opera.
In two numbers of Old England, or the Constitutional Journal of February 1743 attributed to Chesterfield by Maty, “Jeffrey Broadbottom” defends constitutional opposition and deplores faction and foreign entanglements. These two essays fail noticeably—whether using wit or wisdom—to enlarge upon the issues they consider.
The 23 numbers Chesterfield wrote for the World from retirement between 1753 and 1756 discuss, sometimes at too much leisure, such concerns of the time as family expeditions to the continent in search of fashion and diversion, elegant handwriting, honor, foreign operas, make-up, duels, decorum, and restraint. Two numbers make a halfhearted effort to construct a club of caricatures like that which Sir Roger de Coverley made famous in the Spectator. Given the lineage and nature of their author, three essays on exaggerated notions of noble birth, mistaken ideas of rank and fortune, and good breeding are among the most interesting and surprising. The two most important papers are those of 28 November and 5 December 1754, commending Samuel Johnson’s forthcoming Dictionary. Johnson vigorously repudiated Chesterfield’s support as belated and condescending in one of the most famous letters of rejection ever written (7 February 1755). Nevertheless, Chesterfield’s essays show an admirable understanding of the nature and state of the English language and the power of the English state, as well as a strong sense of Johnson’s abilities and the difficulties facing him. The second essay is bold enough to comment on “the incontinency of female eloquence” and orthography.
The elegance, wit, and experience evident in these social and political essays blend nicely with malice and admiration in a series of 20 character sketches cum memoirs published posthumously as Characters of Eminent Personages of His Own Time (1777).
The portraits of George I and II, Queen Caroline, Walpole, and Newcastle are especially vivid, intimate, and severe. Those of Pope, Bolingbroke, and Scarborough are admiring and eloquent. Chesterfield’s life and temperament seem to have qualified him almost uniquely to contribute to this subgenre of the essay.
Many of the 400 surviving letters to his son for which Chesterfield is best known, indeed infamous, are, in effect, essays on the politics of politeness, written with a more specific audience and, sometimes, a more particularized occasion in mind than most essays. Like his political essays, they draw on his long career and studious habits, while exhibiting wit, judgment, discernment, and prejudices of class and culture—in short, the character of their author. Few writers were in a better position to comment on civility than this polite and practiced earl. These letters also exhibit a gift for maxim that would have looked good in the essays (e.g. “Whoever is in a hurry, shows that the thing he is about is too big for him”—10 August 1749).
Writing to educate his illegitimate and, evidently, unpromising and ungainly son for a diplomatic career and to instruct him in ways to prosper in the courts of Europe, Chesterfield provides devastating insights into the courts and the careerism of his era.
Many of the manners, morals, and political and economic devices that he exposes seem still to be practiced in courtly and other venues. Whole pages are given over to the discussion of such perennial essay topics as frivolity, dissimulation, handwriting, Italian literature, pedantry, domestic politics, Roman history, treaties, mercenary armies, French politics and manners (a letter of 25 December 1753 seems to predict the French Revolution), sexual liaisons (the eight letters that treat or mention this topic are what made the correspondence notorious), and paternal authority. To the extent that an essay is thoughtful prose by someone who knows what he or she is writing about, and why, most of these letters are essays.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield. Born 22 September 1694 in London.
Studied privately; Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 1711–14. Traveled on the continent, 1714– 15. Whig Member of Parliament for St. Germans, Cornwall, from 1715, and Lostwithiel, from 1722; gentleman of the bedchamber, from 1715, and lord of the bedchamber, from
1727, to George, Prince of Wales (George II from 1727); appointed captain of the gentlemenpensioners, 1723. Upon father’s death in 1726 became the fourth Earl of Chesterfield and a member of the House of Lords; appointed privy councillor, 1728, and lord steward of the king’s household, 1730. British Ambassador in The Hague, 1728–32, where he negotiated the marriage between William, prince of Orange, and Ann, princess royal of England, 1730. Made knight of the garter, 1730. Had one son, Philip Stanhope (died, 1768) by Elizabeth du Bouchet, 1732. Married Melusina de Schulemburg, Countess of Walsingham and Baroness of Aldeburgh, 1733. Began writing to his son, 1736 (over 400 letters extant), and to his godson, from 1761 (236 letters extant). Lord lieutenant of Ireland, 1745–46; secretary of state, 1746–48, then retired from politics.
Contributor to various journals, including Common Sense and the World. Died in London, 24 March 1773.
Essays and Related Prose
Letters to His Son Philip Stanhope, 2 vols., 1774; several revised, enlarged editions, 1776–1800; edited by Lord Mahon, 5 vols., 1845–53, John Bradshaw (with Characters), 3 vols., 1892, Charles Strachey and Annette Calthrop, 2 vols., 1901, and Bonamy Dobrée, 6 vols., 1932; selections, as The Art of Pleasing; or, Instructions for Youth in the First Stage of Life, 1783, Letters to His Son, edited by James Harding, 1973, Dear Boy: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, edited by Piers Dudgeon and Jonathan Jones, 1989, and Letters, edited by David Roberts, 1992
Miscellaneous Works, vols. 1–2 edited by Matthew Maty, 1777; vol. 3 edited by Benjamin Way, 1778
Characters of Eminent Personages of His Own Time, 1777; enlarged edition, 1778, reprinted 1990; edited by John Bradshaw (with Letters to His Son), 3 vols., 1892., and Colin Franklin, 1993
Letters to His Godson and Successor, edited by the Earl of Carnarvon, 1890
Some Unpublished Letters, edited by Sidney L.Gulick, Jr., 1937
Other writings: poetry, and letters to colleagues and friends (especially his friend Solomon Dayrolles).
Gulick, Sidney L., A Chesterfield Bibliography to 1800, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, revised edition, 1979 (original edition, 1935)
Todd, W.B., “The Number, Order and Authorship of the Hanover Pamphlets Attributed to Chesterfield,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 44 (1950)
Connely, Willard, The True Chesterfield: Manners—Women—Education, London: Cassell, 1939
Coxon, Roger, Chesterfield and His Critics, London: Routledge, 1925
Dobrée, Bonamy, “The Life of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield,” in The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, vol. 1, edited by Dobrée, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, and New York: Viking Press, 1932
Franklin, Colin, Lord Chesterfield: His Character and Characters, Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press, 1993
Fullen, Charles, “Lord Chesterfield and Eighteenth-Century Appearance and Reality,” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, 8 (1968):501–15
Korshin, Paul J., “The Johnson-Chesterfield Relationship: A New Hypothesis,” PMLA 85 (1970):247–59
Lucas, F.L., “Lord Chesterfield,” in his The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth- Century Characters: Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell and Goldsmith, London: Cassell, and New York: Macmillan, 1958
McKenzie, Alan T., Introduction to Characters by Chesterfield, Los Angeles: Clark Memorial Library, 1990:iii-xii
McKenzie, Alan T., “History, Genre and Insight in the Characters of Lord Chesterfield,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 21, edited by Patricia B.Craddock and Carla H.Hay, East Lansing, Michigan: Colleagues Press, 1991:159–76
McKenzie, Alan T., “Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield,” in British Prose Writers, 1660–1800, Second Series, edited by Donald T.Siebert, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 104, Detroit: Gale Research, 1991:61–77
Maty, Matthew, “Memoirs of Lord Chesterfield,” in Miscellaneous Works of the Late Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, vol. 1, edited by Maty, London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1777
Neumann, J.H., “Chesterfield and the Standard of Usage in English,” Modern Language Quarterly 7 (1946): 463–75
Shellabarger, Samuel, Lord Chesterfield and His World, 1935; Boston: Little Brown, 1951 (original edition, 1935)
Weinbrot, Howard, “Johnson’s ‘Dictionary’ and ‘The World’: The Papers of Lord Chesterfield and Richard Owen Cambridge,” Philological Quarterly 50 (1971):663–69
Willey, Basil, “Lord Chesterfield (1694–1773),” in his The English Moralists, New York: Norton, and London: Chatto and Windus, 1964:269–82
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