Discovering Horace Walpole

Tony Pollock
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

In his book, Horace Walpole’s Letters: Masculinity and Friendship in the Eighteenth Century (Bucknell, 2011), George E. Haggerty begins by lamenting the scholarly impulse to discover a latent Horace Walpole (1717–97) behind the manifest image of him that emerges in his forty-eight-volume collected correspondence. As Haggerty explains, Walpole’s unconventional masculinity—impugned by contemporaries like Hester Lynch Piozzi as “finger-twirl[ing]” effeminacy (125)—has often produced among his biographers a desire to find a “lurid secret” about Walpole that would serve as an explanatory key to the rest of his complicated affective life (16).[1] Haggerty proceeds rather differently, attempting to “discover” Horace Walpole—in the eighteenth-century sense of that word—by simply revealing “what is there” in the “figure that [Walpole] created” of himself in the letters (161, 16). In “allowing [Walpole] to speak for himself,” Haggerty not only gives us a “richer Walpole than we have known before” (161), he also stakes out the ground for an important new methodological direction in the history of eighteenth-century sexualities: in a context where the “homo/hetero binary had no function whatsoever,” Haggerty suggests that instead of “trying to affix such an identity” to a figure like Walpole, scholars might more profitably “study the terms of masculinity itself,” as they emerge from the details presented in Walpole’s letters, as a way of “building [the history of sexuality] from within rather than imposing it from without” (3).[2]

One productive avenue Haggerty presents for constructing such a history from within the explicit terms of early modern discourse involves a return to Michel de Montaigne’s essay “De l’amitié”—recently translated as “On Affectionate Relationships,” rather than the more traditional English title, “On Friendship”—to expand our understanding of the complex formulations of male-male intimacy available to English writers from the Restoration forward.[3] Montaigne’s conception of “loving-friendship between men” describes that bond as a “perfect union and congruity” in which “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together” (6). As Haggerty points out, while Montaigne takes pains to distinguish his ideal from “the pederasty of the Greeks,” he does conceptualize male friendship in terms that recall contemporary discourses of heterosexual marriage: for Montaigne, the “perfect” male bond is “indivisible” and involves “each [man] giv[ing] himself so entirely to his friend that he has nothing left to share with another,” so that their “love takes possession of the soul and reigns there with full sovereign sway” (6).

Using Montaigne’s conception of affective relationships as an interpretive frame, chapter 1 explores several examples of same-sex intimacy Walpole developed in the course of his correspondence, focusing on four of Walpole’s friends in particular: the poet Thomas Gray (1716–71), whom Walpole met at Eton, and with whom he went on the Grand Tour between 1739 and 1741; Walpole’s cousin Henry Seymour Conway (1719–95), who had a distinguished military and political career; George Montagu (1713–80), another Eton friend, who ended up serving as secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer; and William Mason (1725–97), Gray’s literary executor, who sought Walpole’s advice during the course of preparing Gray’s papers for posthumous publication. Providing a wealth of detail from the letters themselves, Haggerty reveals the extent to which the private epistolarity of these male-male relationships—their constitution in and through the act of letter-writing—enables the same kinds of “erotic-seeming expressions of devotion” characteristic of more public-oriented, heroic models of friendship articulated both in antiquity and in appropriations of ancient Greek and Roman culture by Restoration and eighteenth-century writers (22).[4] The most emotionally profound of Walpole’s friendships in this category is unquestionably his bond with Conway, which Haggerty calls “the love affair of [Walpole’s] life”—based on their shared understanding of their relationship as “deeply virtuous, immensely moral, and intensely emotional”—regardless of “whether or not [their bond] was ever physically constituted” (35). What matters most about the Walpole-Conway correspondence, for Haggerty, is that it “offer[s] a model of friendship that defies the conventional limits on male-male relations” (35). Chapter 2 (“Horace Walpole on the Grand Tour”) extends the previous chapter’s analysis of Walpole and Gray. On Haggerty’s reading, perhaps the most important effect of the Grand Tour on Walpole involves his confrontation (among the Italians and the French) with what Walpole himself calls the “queerness” of the English—a conceptualization of queerness that Walpole develops, as Haggerty argues, in specific relation to the rhetorics and practices of “transgressive same-sex erotics” foregrounded by the Italian context in which Walpole immerses himself (60).

Chapter 3 examines Strawberry Hill, the country house at Twickenham which Walpole purchased in 1748 and which he spent the better part of three decades remodeling and redecorating in Gothic fashion, as a means of illuminating several of Walpole’s male-male friendships, focusing particularly on what Haggerty calls the “erotics of collecting” (69). Noting the obsessive quality of Walpole’s fascination with antiquities, Haggerty frames the chapter by asking whether Walpole’s approach to collecting could properly be called fetishistic: building upon Susan Stewart’s work, Haggerty emphasizes how Walpole’s involvement of his closest friends in the act of collecting puts his potentially “gnarly fetishism”—an activity oriented toward accumulation and secrecy—in tension with the desire to classify and to display his treasured objects in a way that makes them “semipublic,” as the organizing nexus of “shared experience” (70).[5] By providing numerous occasions for exercising his own and his friends’ faculties of taste and judgment, Strawberry Hill serves as an “almost electrically charged joint project” that establishes, figures forth, and sustains the “love” Walpole shares with intimate male friends (72, 76). Citing John Beynon’s idea that there is an erotic quality to sophisticated, taste-centered projects like Strawberry Hill, Haggerty argues that what Joseph Litvak has called the “psychosexual dimension of taste” is “never far from the surface when we are dealing with Walpole and his [male] friends,” who, as a group, “maintain a standard of taste as a way of asserting their always-questionable masculinity” (73).[6]

Chapter 4 continues the theme of Walpole’s fascination with antiquities, mediated in this case through his longstanding friendship with the high-Anglican Rev. William Cole (1714–82)—one of the most esteemed antiquarians of the eighteenth century—whom Walpole had originally met at Eton in the 1720s. After several decades without contact—a hiatus conditioned, in part, by the fact that Cole, a farmer’s son, had nothing like Walpole’s social status—Cole initiated their correspondence by sending Walpole an extensive response to initial sections of the latter’s Anecdotes of Painting in England (4 vols., 1762–80). While previous scholarship has focused on the Walpole-Cole correspondence for its relevance to antiquarian studies, Haggerty reads these letters for the “distinctive kind of male-male relation” that gets constructed by the two aging friends through their engagement in eighteenth-century “male epistolarity”—indeed, given the problems of geography and illness that consistently kept Walpole and Cole from being able to see one another, their relation is almost exclusively epistolary (89).[7] Through their shared interest in Gothic architecture and their shared obsession with gout, Walpole and Cole articulate an “intense expression of [mutual] personal concern” that Haggerty calls “epistolary desire” (103), revealing their bond to be much more complicated than scholars have yet acknowledged.[8] Remaining faithful to the letter of the letters, Haggerty does not extrapolate from these details to say that Walpole and Cole are “lovers,” though “the quality of their epistolary relation suggests that they are more than friends” (109). Rather, Haggerty presents their bond—one that “defies our simple binaries for discussing male-male relations” (111)—as further evidence that we need to develop a subtler, more nuanced understanding of the “kinds of relations possible between two men in the later eighteenth century” (109).

In his fifth chapter, Haggerty examines Walpole’s eight-volume correspondence with Horace Mann (1706–86) as yet another form of male-male intimacy that undermines scholarly preconceptions about masculinity and sexuality in the eighteenth century. As Haggerty explains, Mann was a relative of the Walpole family who, estranged from his own father, became a protégé of Robert Walpole during his early adulthood: through the intercession of the Walpole family, Mann took up positions of increasing prominence in the office of the British envoy in Florence, finally becoming envoy himself in 1765. As was the case with Cole, Horace Walpole’s friendship with Mann was primarily epistolary in nature: the correspondence begins in 1740 and continues until Mann’s death in 1786, despite the fact that Mann never returned to England from Florence after 1738, and Walpole never returned to Italy after 1741. By temperament and experience, Walpole and Mann were extremely well matched: forty-six uninterrupted years of letters are carried forward energetically by their shared interest in political intrigue and public affairs, artists and collecting, and the complications of their overlapping social circles. To highlight the extent to which Walpole’s bond with Mann should be considered “something out of the ordinary” in relation to the conventional terms of male friendship in the eighteenth century, Haggerty points to a number of salient details in their letters: their often “bald statement[s] of affection” and even “love” for one another—a sentiment which Mann at one point says “employs every moment of [his] thoughts” (119); their evidently friendly and unabashed (though potentially “scandalous”) engagement with infamously “sodomitical contemporaries” like Baron Philipp von Stosch, a rival British diplomat in Florence, and Thomas Patch, the well-known caricaturist (120); and, finally, their tendency to describe what Walpole calls the “collateral comfort” of their intimacy in terms of heroic classical friendships (127).

Departing from the first five chapters’ focus on homosocial relations, the book’s closing chapter examines Walpole’s correspondence with two women in radically different social positions: Anne Liddell Fitzpatrick, Countess of Upper Ossory, Walpole’s letters to whom amount to a full three volumes in the collection, and Mary Berry, a much younger woman from a family of limited means whose “devotion to [Walpole’s] memory” led her to serve as a “literary executrix”—Haggerty credits her with having enabled Walpole’s work to “come to us in [a] remarkably intact and well-preserved way” (150). Haggerty analyzes the extent to which Walpole’s modes of address to women complicate the self-presentation that we have seen in the letters to his male friends. As Haggerty points out, for example, the Countess’s aristocratic status prompts Walpole to establish a “courtly relation” to her (137)—especially as he provides her with witty accounts of the latest events in the London social scene—a relation characterized by flattery and intimacy, but with a decidedly “anti-erotic valence” (139). Walpole achieves this tone with her largely through strategies of ironic indirection and self-mockery that enable him to express a “deeply caring but also unthreatening interest” in the Countess: in one letter, Walpole assures the Countess that she “may write [to him] as safely as to [her] great-grandfather,” a rhetorical gesture that subsequently allows Walpole, as Haggerty puts it, to “chide, advise, criticize, and mentor [the Countess] with abandon, as he does throughout the correspondence” (139).

By contrast, Walpole’s relationship to Mary Berry and her sister Agnes—two unmarried daughters of a man who had been wrongly disinherited by his uncle—gets insistently complicated by his emotionally excessive references to them as wives (and later as children) who should feel guilty about any prolonged absences from him, and who should take responsibility for looking after him in his declining years. Haggerty argues persuasively that the shift in Walpole’s affection for the Berry sisters from “connubial to paternal” reveals the dynamic of their correspondence as “a process of infantilization . . . as discipline,” one that ultimately “places [Walpole] in a position to demand even more” (154). Though the vulnerability Walpole expresses to them is moving—and rare elsewhere in his letters—Haggerty describes Walpole’s tone toward the sisters alternately as “unbalanced,” “nearly hysterical,” and “almost embarrassing” (155). Compared to the composed and self-assured personae Haggerty analyzes in previous chapters, the “possessive and demanding” Walpole revealed in this section of the book seems to “fill out the picture” of his extraordinary character “with contours we might never have expected” (158).

Haggerty’s treatment of Walpole’s correspondence with his male friends is convincing and thorough, so perhaps the one major question left unanswered at the book’s close has to do with the significance of Walpole’s heterosocial relations—his occasionally vexed modes of address to the women in his circle—to the construction of the non-normative masculinity articulated across the decades of his letter writing. Haggerty makes it quite clear, for example, how Walpole’s letters to Conway, Mann, and company reveal a “bachelorism, amicability, intimacy, and wit” that defy easy categorization within the conventional terms of eighteenth-century masculinity (15). In his affectionate relationships with other men (to return to Montaigne), Walpole certainly does eschew the “aggressive” and “rigid” masculinities of his “more normative contemporaries” (159). What, then, are we to make of the often controlling, critical, and condescending tone Walpole feels free to take with the female correspondents treated in this study? What relation does this tone bear, moreover, to the view of women suggested by the “deeply misogynist satires” against female adornment that Walpole penned to Montagu in the 1750s (37)? Haggerty addresses this issue by describing Walpole as “a creature of his time” (37), but this seems a bit unsatisfying—particularly when Haggerty’s own analysis gives us a Walpole who can be viewed as a transformative figure, someone whose ability to imagine “a kind of alternative gender” seems consistently to gesture “beyond the eighteenth century” (159, 111), and to provide us with affective “analogies” that we can find “in our own queer world” (85). Indeed, if Walpole’s masculinity is constituted as much through his potentially judgmental, “possessive and demanding” address to women as through his more consistently generous and amicable relations to other men (158), then making sense of the historical and ideological terms of this bifurcation would be one way of following Haggerty’s methodological suggestion that we “consider . . . carefully” the contradictions and complexities with which Walpole’s idiosyncratic masculinity presents us (61).[9] In any case, eighteenth-century gender studies—and the history of sexuality more generally—have been greatly enriched by Professor Haggerty’s impeccably well-researched and thought-provoking monograph on Horace Walpole. If, as Haggerty asserts, “our real work” in understanding the rich contours of eighteenth-century masculine identity “has just begun” (16), then his study will be an indispensable resource for those engaged in that ongoing research.



[1]. As the historical bookends for this line of commentary, George E. Haggerty names especially Lytton Strachey’s essay on Walpole in the Independent Review (May 1904), 2:641–45; and Timothy Mowl, Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider (London, 1996).

[2]. Haggerty includes some of his own previous work on Walpole’s sexuality in his methodological critique; see, for example, his essay, “Queering Horace Walpole,” Studies in English Literature 46 (2006): 543–62.

[3]. For this translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essay, see “On Affectionate Relationships,” in The Complete Essays, trans. and ed. M. A. Screech (London, 2003), 205–19

[4]. For more expansive treatment of this issue, see Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1999).

[5]. See Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, 1993).

[6]. See John Beynon’s chapter, “Tea and Sodomy: Perverting Taste, Tasting Perversion,” (in “Men of Mode: Taste, Effeminacy, and Male Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century England” [Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 2001]); and Joseph Litvak, Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel (Durham, 1997), 8.

[7]. For studies informing Haggerty’s discussion of eighteenth-century epistolarity, see Clare Brant, Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture (New York, 2006); Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters (Stanford, 1996); Mary Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge, 1993); Amanda Gillroy and W. M. Verhoeven, eds. Epsitolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture (Charlottesville, 2000); Claudio Guillén, “On the Edge of Literariness: The Writing of Letters,” Comparative Literature Studies 31, no. 1 (1994): 1–24; Robert Halsband, “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as Letter-Writer,” PMLA 80 (1965): 155–63; and Bruce Redford, The Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the Eighteenth-Century Familiar Letter (Chicago, 1986).

[8]. For further discussion of the cultural context within which the Rev. William Cole and Walpole experienced their illness, see Roy Porter and G. S. Rousseau, Gout: The Patrician Malady (New Haven, 1998).

[9]. One might begin by determining how representative Walpole’s bearing toward the Berry sisters actually is in relation to his correspondence with the dozens of other women included in the collected forty-eight volume edition; this is undoubtedly a rich avenue for further interpretation.