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The dangers of relying on 19th century printed sources

Still going through my MSS notes, and in doing so I found the following letter from Lord Mornington (later Marquis Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington) to Henry Addington, Speaker of the House of Commons. The letter, dated 14 October 1797 (Devon RO Sidmouth MSS, 152M C1797 OZ 38), refers to Pitt’s ill health following the death of his brother-in-law Eliot (for which see more here):

“I trust you are now quite recovered, it was rather too much that you & Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, & still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot; he did not disguise to me the state of his health, & I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, I also took care that Farquhar should be apprised (without Pitt’s knowledge) of some leading defects in his system of life; this enabled Farquhar to form a much more accurate judgment of the case. Since Farquhar has seen him & put him upon a course of medicine, he is evidently much better, & has greatly recovered his appetite, & spirits. He went to Walmer quite a different man but he has not yet quite reformed his bad habit of drinking too much at supper.”

I quote the passage in its entirety, not only because it is interesting in itself but also and primarily because it demonstrates a phenomenon I have identified: the habit of 19th century biographers to (for want of a better word) bowdlerise the letters of their subjects.

You will note that in the letter above, Mornington makes no bones about the “leading defects in [Pitt’s] system of life” that he (and Addington, and presumably most of Pitt’s other friends) believed partially responsible for the breakdown in Pitt’s health, namely Pitt’s drinking— “his bad habit of drinking too much at supper”.

Alas this view of Pitt, famous and undeniable though it is, did not sit well with George Pellew, Henry Addington’s Victorian biographer. So … he just decided to leave out the bits of Mornington’s letter he didn’t like. The following is the same passage as the above, only taken from Pellew’s Life of Lord Sidmouth, volume 1, 196:

“I trust you are now quite recovered: it was rather too much that you and Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, and still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot. He did not disguise to me the state of his health, and I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, who has put him upon a course of medicine from which he has derived much improvement, and he went to Walmer quite a different man.”

(Spot the difference!)

This trend has ensnared at least one of Pitt’s biographers: Robin Reilly, who cited the Sidmouth Papers in his bibliography but evidently decided Pellew was to be trusted on this occasion. In his biography of Pitt (p. 276) Reilly quotes Pellew’s version of Mornington’s letter. I can’t help feeling that Reilly, whose aim in writing his biography of Pitt was to flesh out “three important influences in his life: his health, his alcoholism and his sexuality” (p. 2), would have kicked himself to know what he was missing by not going back to the source.

Thus ends my cautionary tale for all 18th century historians. 😉

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