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Letters from your father

By David Roberts


You’re a shy boy — inclined to blurt, shuffle and look at the floor — and you can tell from your father’s efforts on your behalf that he’s concerned. That makes things a lot worse.

From an early age, the private tutors crowd in. You’re sent away to study. When you’ve grown up a bit, the old man fixes you up with a grand tour of European capitals, opening doors into an old boys’ network of continental proportions. Reports of your improvement are, you suspect, inconsistently encouraging. You’re just too ill at ease to cope.

Still, with a quiet word here and less gentle persuasion there, he fixes you up with a seat in the Commons. Another lucky break, but it’s agony. When you give your maiden speech the other members can hardly believe it: an MP who can barely summon words for his big occasion. So father tries again, and a succession of German court appointments follows.

All this time, in fact for a period of over 30 years, he is pursuing another tack, desperate for you to attain the eminence of his own career as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Ambassador at The Hague, and His Majesty’s Secretary of State. His weapon? Letters: hundreds of them, full of worldly advice, suggestions about proper language, deportment, manners, diplomacy, politics, reading, society, relationships…

But for all their advice, the letters pray on your sense of inadequacy. He gets reports from friends of your conduct:

In company you were frequently most provokingly inattentive, absent, and distrait…you came into a room and presented yourself very awkwardly…at table you constantly threw down knives, forks, napkins, bread, etc., and…neglected your person and dress, to a degree unpardonable at any age, and much more so at yours.

His elegant comparisons tie you in knots of practical uncertainty:

Were you to converse with a King, you ought to be as easy and unembarrassed as with your own valet-de-chambre; but yet every look, word, and action, should imply the utmost respect.

Not content with an easy manner and confident knowledge, he demands a regime of exercise:

I hope you do not neglect your exercises of riding, fencing and dancing, but particularly the latter.

When he chooses, he can be straightforwardly brutal:

My object is to have you fit to live; which, if you are not, I do not desire that you should live at all.

What makes it all much worse is that you know you will never succeed not because your manner is gauche, your speech inelegant and your habits erratic. No: you are doomed to disappoint your father because of the way he fathered you. You are his son, but your mother is not his wife. Some opportunities are simply closed to you. He refuses to give up, of course. He may express sympathy with the villains of literature — with Turnus in The Aeneid or even Satan in Paradise Lost — but all the connections in Europe cannot unmake the prejudice against you. He is Sisyphus, pushing at the impossible boulder.

You have no choice but to make your own way in the world. Accept his fatherly patronage, his advice, his legion letters, but play your own game. Read his counsel about making a good match — as if the circumstances of your birth allowed — but make your own decisions. Do what he did to make you: fall in love. Find your own bride, regardless of station or convention. Have a family. Whatever you do, don’t tell him. You’re in Europe and he’s in London; he’ll never know.

But when you die young of a fever in Avignon, it turns out you underestimated him. Yes, he is shocked. No, he cannot believe that the son he had nurtured could have deceived him so, or married so far beneath the family dignity. He is alarmed to find he is, twice over, a grandfather. But his fatherly instinct revives. He provides generously for your grieving wife and begins his great project of education all over again with an allowance for your sons. Among all his words of advice, all his homilies to courtly conduct, perhaps the effortlessly civilised mind of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, keeps returning to the last sentence of the last letter he wrote to you:

God bless, and grant you a speedy recovery.

Professor David Roberts teaches English Literature at Birmingham City University. He has taught at the universities of Bristol, Oxford, Kyoto, Osaka, and Worcester, and in 2008/09 he was the inaugural holder of the John Henry Newman Chair at Newman University College, Birmingham. He has published extensively in the fields of seventeenth and eighteenth century drama and literature, and is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, as well as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. He has previously written about Daniel Defore in London and about disaster writing for OUPblog.

Praised in their day as a complete manual of education, and despised by Samuel Johnson for teaching `the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master’, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters reflect the political craft of a leading statesman and the urbane wit of a man who associated with Pope, Addison, and Swift. The letters reveal Chesterfield’s political cynicism and his belief that his country had `always been goverened by the only two or three people, out of two or three millions, totally incapable of governing’, as well as his views on good breeding. Not originally intended for publication, this entertaining correspondence illuminates fascinating aspects of eighteenth-century life and manners.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Portrait of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, by unknown artist [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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