Saturday, September 22, 2012

Philip Stanhope wrote Letters to his Son

Earl of Chesterfield
It is the birthday of Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694), a British statesman who is best remembered in literary circles for a volume he never intended to be published.

Letters to his Son (1774) is a collection of more than 400 letters Stanhope wrote to his illegitimate son over more than 30 years, as instruction on how to conduct himself as a gentleman. They were written in English and French, along with some in Latin. The letters deal with classical literature, history, geography and deportment. They were published by the son's widow after his death.

The volume is generally considered to be full of wit and elegance in style, though some readers find the advice for behaving in polite society in 18th century England a bit stifling. He suggests, for instance, that his son should be seen to smile often but never to laugh out loud (that being a sign of poorly mannered people).

Unfortunately, Chesterfield's worldly wisdom was apparently ignored. When his son died, the earl discovered that he had been married for a long time to a lower class woman, certainly not someone suitable for even the illegitimate son of the Earl of Chesterfield.

Though it has a better reputation these days, when the book came out it received the resounding disapproval of English author and literary critic Samuel Johnson, who wrote that Chesterfield's letters "teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master."

It's not surprising that Johnson might turn his considerable contempt on Chesterfield. Two decades earlier, when Samuel Johnson finally published his seminal work, A Dictionary of the English Language, Chesterfield praised it with two pieces published in The World periodical.

Too little and too late, as far as Johnson was concerned. Chesterfield served ostensibly as patron of the arts and a supporter of Johnson's plan to create a dictionary, but Chesterfield had given him only 10 pounds and no encouragement over the seven years it took to complete the project. So, by the time Chesterfield's praise came, Johnson, through his own efforts, was already well known and had used money from a group of booksellers to make ends meet and pay for publishing his dictionary.

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