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Thomas Creevey:
The Creevey Papers


Vol. I. Contents
Ch. I: 1793-1804
Ch. II: 1805
Ch. III: 1805
Ch. IV: 1806-08
Ch. V: 1809
Ch. VI: 1810
Ch. VII: 1811
Ch. VIII: 1812
Ch. IX: 1813-14
Ch X: 1814-15
Ch XI: 1815-16
Ch XII: 1817-18
Ch XIII: 1819-20
Vol. II. Contents
Ch I: 1821
Ch. II: 1822
Ch. III: 1823-24
Ch. IV: 1825-26
Ch. V: 1827
Ch. VI: 1827-28
Ch. VII: 1828
Ch. VIII: 1829
Ch. IX: 1830-31
Ch. X: 1832-33
Ch. XI: 1833
Ch. XII: 1834
Ch XIII: 1835-36
Ch XIV: 1837-38

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Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) contemplated writing a history of his own times and to that end amassed a trunk full of letters addressed to his wife and step-daughter, supplemented with copies of letters by others to which he had privileged access. While there are large gaps, they often afford day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, reportage of important events—as a member of Parliament the writer had franking privileges. Creevey died unexpectedly and apparently never began the task, but he left instructions for his documents to be preserved, which they miraculously were. It is perhaps just as well that the book was never written for it could hardly have been as candid as the Creevey Papers as eventually published in 1903-04 by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1845-1937).
The work became a best-seller for the Murray publishing house and something of a minor classic, valuable for its contributions to the political record, but also as an entertaining witness to the manners of Regency England. The Creevey Papers is a variation on the Victorian life-and-letters genre, which is to say that the text is heavily edited and not reliable, but also that its documents have been cast into narrative form. Here is Creevey’s life, to be sure, though the first thirty years are largely missing since the letters only begin in earnest after the turn of the nineteenth century. Making a strength of a weakness, Maxwell skillfully uses his materials to assemble a collective biography of silver-fork society covering the interval between the death of Louis XVI to the advent of Queen Victoria.
Maxwell respects Creevey’s own sense of the relative importance of things. Creevey said that the three most significant events in his life had been the Battle of Waterloo, the trial of Queen Caroline, and the passage of the Reform Bill. These are all given due emphasis, though the reader’s attention is more likely to be drawn by the shifting parade of characters whose lives Creevey chronicled. Chief among these is George IV (“Prinney”), who had befriended Creevey and his Whig allies only to betray them upon assuming power. But the true villain of the piece is Henry Brougham (“Beelzebub”), whose betrayals were less obvious and more insidious. For comic relief, there is the incorrigible Lady Holland (“Madagascar”). The hero might have been the Duke of Wellington (“the beau”) who Creevey so admired, but he was a Tory so in the end the bloodless Lord Grey occupies that necessary position. There are many secondary threads involving “Og of Bashan,” “King Jog,” “King Tom,” “Niffy Naffy,” “Slice,” “Snip,” “Clunch,” and the rest.
Maxwell’s index fills thirty-five closely-printed pages but includes only a fraction of the names that turn up in the Creevey Papers. Most of these obscure hangers-on at court, parliament, and country-house gatherings it is now possible to identify, if not always with complete certainty. Their brief appearances add a little fallible flesh to the bare bones of information appearing in the Burke’s Peerage and the obituary columns of the Gentleman’s Magazine. That so many can be so identified is back-handed testimony to the narrowness of the writer’s fascination with status and power, as opposed to mere celebrity. He took little interest in the “lions” of the hour and very few names of writers and artists appear; rather, Creevey chronicles the social and political affairs of the aristocratic families eventually undone by the Reform he labored so hard to promote.
Creevey himself was a product of that society: his parliamentary seats were pocket-boroughs and his offices products of “old corruption.” He did not not look at things in that light—though regarding himself as a political economist he was poignantly naive—and for all he championed radical causes he was loyal to his patrons with an intensity Sir Walter Scott might admire. Creevey was the son of the Irish captain of a Liverpool slave-ship—or possibly the illegitimate brother of his primary patron Lord Sefton—but worked his way up through Cambridge and the Inns of Court to a parliamentary position. From there his ingratiating manners helped him to a wealthy widow and made him a welcome visitor at Holland House, the Brighton Pavilion, and the country houses of Whig magnates. After the death of his wife and loss of her fortune, he lived for twenty years on the favors of his friends, all the time denouncing the system that made him what he was.
Creevey's strongest term of approbation was “our,” and strongest terms of disapprobation were “dirty” and “filthy.” An egalitarian in the abstract, he was a careful observer of social boundaries. A hypocrite perhaps, but no toady he: Creevey has harsh words for social superiors and fellow Whigs when they stray from what he regarded as principle. People loved his acid remarks and he seems to have had an uncanny ability to tickle those he tortured, Lady Holland being the obvious case in point though the same seems to have held true even for political opponents. There is little compassion expressed in the Creevey Papers and much taunting of competitors, and yet Thomas Creevey, at least on his telling, seems to have enjoyed the good will of all. For all his wicked tongue and relish for political vengeance, he is unexpectedly gracious in accepting personal defeat.
It is a poignant story and lends insight into the personal politics which, quite as much as political philosophy, were driving the course of historical events. Creevey’s view of the world was largely that of Byron and the Holland-House Whigs: ideas were important, but chiefly as a means for engendering personal and social relationships. Creevey, no more than Byron, had any use for “German philosophers”; the object was to carry on the political legacy bequeathed by Charles James Fox to his quarreling disciples. Creevey was no man of genius and his unreflecting sentiments barefacedly betray the inconsistencies expressed more memorably if less immediately in Byron’s poetry and prose. While there is no evidence they ever met—Creevey was abroad in Belgium during Byron’s glory days in London—Creevey and Byron knew the same people, shared the same prejudices, and supported the same causes.
The Creevey Papers were successful enough that Murray issued a sequel in 1934, Creevey’s Life and Times: a further Selection from the Correspondence of Thomas Creevey, edited by John Gore, and then in 1948, Creevey, selected and re-edited by John Gore. Unfortunately, the “re-editing” did not extend to correcting the text from the original documents, or fixing the annotations, which while deftly done, are sometimes inaccurate. Some of the letters are mis-dated or have mistaken addressees (two letters concerning the death of Fox are addressed to John Currie who had himself died the year before). Creevey’s handwriting was poor, adding to the difficulty in identifying names: “Caton” appears as “Cator,” obscuring an interesting Liverpool-Baltimore connection; the name of the Irish jurist (Charles Kendal) “Bushe” is rendered as “Burke,” obscuring a marriage connection with the Broughams.
There is no doubt more work to be done in annotating the Creevey papers and a selection rendered according to modern scholarly stands would be a desirable thing. But Sir Herbert Maxwell’s edition has its own kind of integrity and literary value. If the digital format with its superior indexing facilitates searching and dipping, that manner of reading is no substitute for an end-to-end reading that would reward the reader with one of the better gone-with-the-wind chronicles of Regency England as perceived at the opposite end of Victoria’s long reign. There is something to be said for novelizing the epoch that perfected the novel of manners.

David Hill Radcliffe