LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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John Whishaw:
The “Pope” of Holland House


Chapter I: 1813
Chapter II: 1814
Chapter III: 1815
Chapter IV: 1816
Chapter V: 1817
Chapter VI: 1818
Chapter VII: 1819
Chapter VIII: 1820
Chapter IX: 1821
Chapter X: 1822
Chapter XI: 1824-33
Chapter XII: 1833-35
Chapter XIII: 1806-40
Chapter XIV: Appendix

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For the first three decades of the nineteenth century John Whishaw (1764c.-1840) was a privileged observer of the literary and political scene in London. A Cambridge-educated lawyer of independent means, he held a government position as commissioner for auditing the public accounts that brought him into contact with politicians and public officials. His duties permitted a busy social life as a member of London’s most elite institutions: the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Geographical Society, the King of Clubs, the University Club, the Athenaeum. Whishaw was the intimate friend of Sir Samuel Romilly and was on close terms with members of the Whig circles associated with Lord Landsdown and Lord Holland.
He was known to the public as a member of the African Institution and author of the biography prefixed to Mungo Park’s Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa (1815). But most of his writing seems to have been anonymous and collaboratory; his nephew James Whishaw (1808-1879) reported that “it is well known among his acquaintances that he contributed much to the merit and value of various pamphlets which were at different times published by his noble friends Lords Holland and King, and others” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Feb. 1841, p. 207). Those “others” likely included contributors to the Edinburgh Review: Whishaw was on close terms with Henry Brougham as well as Samuel Romilly and Sydney Smith and he reveals names of anonymous contributors in his correspondence.
Mungo Park’s Journal was a John Murray production; subsequent to its publication Whishaw became a regular at Murray’s shop and a conduit of information about Byron: his correspondence contains transcriptions from Byron’s letters and journals, and gossips about impending publications and sales of works by Byron and Scott. Murray wrote in 1815, “If your visit be about four o’clock or later, you will probably be rewarded by meeting with Scott or Byron and most likely with both” (p. 98). There is no indication that the meeting took place (Whishaw, who had an artificial leg, would have been fit company for the two lame poets). A few months later Whishaw was reporting on the separation, inclining to Lady Byron’s side. He relates that he had had “some conversation on the subject [of Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon] yesterday with Rogers, who talked very properly and rationally” (p. 151).
Like Byron’s, Whishaw’s letters were meant to be circulated. They take the form of news reports addressed to Thomas Smith (d. 1822) of Easton Grey in Wiltshire. Whishaw was a thoroughgoing Whig who followed elections and speeches in Parliament very closely. Like others in the Holland House circle he was obsessed with Napoleon, and after the Emperor ceased to be a topic of conversation, the divorce proceedings involving Queen Caroline. If Whishaw did not think much of the personal characters of Byron, Napoleon, and Caroline, he still delivers the party line with gusto. He takes an interest in Hobhouse whom he regards as a reckless if promising young radical. For the years from 1813 to 1822 the letters average one per month, appearing more or less frequently depending on political circumstances. After Thomas Smith’s death they continue sporadically, addressed to his wife Elizabeth (d. 1859).
In 1844 Elizabeth Smith bequeathed the correspondence to Charles Romilly, Whishaw’s ward following the deaths of Sir Samuel Romilly and his wife in 1818. The editor of The Pope of Holland House, Lady Elizabeth Mary Seymour (1853?-1950), was the daughter of Frederick Romilly, who was the brother of Charles. She was assisted by William Prideaux Courtney, who supplies a concluding chapter on membership in the King of Clubs taken from the Whishaw papers. Courtney was a formidable antiquary and one suspects that he was responsible for the lion’s share of the annotations—if not for the book itself, which, tending more to politics and history than to personalities, is chiefly to be valued for its information.
Yet the letters have their own kind of interest. Whishaw was nearing fifty in 1813, wise in the ways of the world but subject, for all his Benthamite confidence, to the pathos of events as college friends die and long-sought-for reforms produced disappointing results. He was enthusiastic about exploration and could not but approve of the expedition of Joseph Ritchie (met at Murray’s), and yet he remarks, “The parting was melancholy, as I could hardly expect to see him again” (p. 197)—the brilliant young man did indeed die in the Sahara. Where Richard Lovell Edgeworth writes of “the possibility of traversing a hostile country in balloons” (p. 109) Whishaw was more interested in the down-to-earth business of suppressing the slave trade. One admires the old bachelor’s commitment to Romilly’s stricken family so unexpectedly thrust upon him.
The Pope of Holland House is enlivened by the letters of Whishaw’s correspondents: Mackintosh, Smith, and the redoubtable Lady Holland, who having raced to the newly-opened Continent writes: “I have been much disappointed at your silence. So long an interval has never elapsed before between your letters. This reproach should have been made sooner, but my health has been wretched, nearly thirty days of severe bilious cholic, attended with the most excruciating pain, confined me chiefly to my fireside, couch, and sometimes bed. Unwarily we trusted my precious person to the skill of a Roman physician, who administered very strong acid extracted from tamarinds. I leave you to guess the torture they inflicted. However, opium and a change of habitation produced a salutary effect, and I am now beginning to crawl in my limited way to see the wonders of this great city” (p. 75). Such passages “catch the manners living as they rise.”

David Hill Radcliffe