In mid-April, I visited Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the former country home of author Horace Walpole, a new section of which has recently been opened to tours after an extensive restoration effort by the Strawberry Hill Trust. Walpole began building the rambling gothic mise-en-scène at the age of 30, purchasing a pair of small houses on a large swath of property along a fashionable section of the River Thames in 1747, which had become a sprawling spired and turret-topped bon-bon of a residence by the time he died in 1797, 50 years after he’d bought it.
One of my favorite rooms on the tour was the Green Closet, but not because it was the grandest room in the house—it wasn’t by far—it was because the tiny slice of the home was Walpole’s study where he wrote most of his letters, which have gained him as much renown as his fiction has since his death. Walpole was such a firm believer in legacy that he was known to annotate his letters to make them historically complete. He asked his friends to bundle them up from time to time and send them back to him so he could organize them and add anecdotal caveats to them. That is why there is currently four volumes of them between covers—quite an epistolary legacy if I say so myself.
An example of his desire to keep everything buttoned up is a missive he wrote while on his Grand Tour through Italy, which he undertook with the poet Thomas Gray, whom he had met at Eton. Written to his pal Richard West about the then recent discovery of the town of Herculaneum, which had been buried during one of the major eruptions of Vesuvius, his letter of 1740 predated the discovery of Pompeii so he felt compelled to add a footnote years later stating that eight years after he wrote the initial piece of correspondence the most famous Vesuvius carnage was discovered!
His notoriety as a pen pal led Carrie Frye, writing for Longreads, to call his letters “marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.” I agree with her and and I highly recommend the entire collection of Horace Walpole’s letters as a serious historic survey of the time in which he lived. And a quick FYI on Gray: the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth is coming up in 2016 so there will be some serious attention to his legacy in the coming months.
The other room at Strawberry Hill that knocked me out was the Library (for those of you who know me, there’s likely no surprise there). It was a sumptuous space that must have been a treasure-trove of knowledge when he was alive. Imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the largest collectors of Walpoliana was Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, a Yale graduate who bequeathed his collection to the university. He had amassed more than half of the traceable volumes in the Walpole library before his death. His cache of the books, which numbers 32,000, are housed in the Walpole Lewis Library in Farmington, Connecticut, along with other important artifacts from the Brit’s life and home. You can bet I will be paying the library a visit in the not-too-distant future to get a peek at this fragment of Walpole’s legacy!
Seeing the wall-to-wall shelves in the room at Strawberry Hill brought the question to mind, “How many books is too many?” I’m not sure it’s possible for a writer to go overboard, especially someone intent on bringing literary history into the present in some way. I’ve been in relationships with non-writers who don’t agree but I’m betting those of you who share my passion for the written word understand this point of view.
Text of Horace Walpole to the Letter © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.