LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Alfred Guy K. L'Estrange:
Literary Life of the Rev. William Harness


Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.

Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH
Lord Byron befriended William Harness at Harrow, a younger boy who was lame like himself; before departing on his eastern tour Byron had Harness’s portrait taken and upon returning invited him to Newstead and considered dedicating Childe Harold to him. Byron and Harness travelled in the same circles and exchanged letters down to the time the poet left for the Continent, after which they went separate ways.
If Byron was the quintessential liberal, Harness was his conservative counterpart. As a clergyman he engaged in the “Satanic Poetry” controversy, bewailing Byron’s bad example in The Wrath of Cain (1822). There was no personal animosity; Harness was simply orthodox. Like Fielding’s Thwackum he might conclude that “honour is not therefore manifold, because there are many absurd opinions about it; nor is religion manifold, because there are various sects and heresies in the world. When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.” Harness declares as much in his sermons.
Yet Harness was not exactly a bigot; like Fielding, or Byron for that matter, his opinions tended to be those of an unreconstructed country Whig. He despised canting religion and championed aristocratic virtue. Like Fielding and Byron he regarded the human condition as fundamentally corrupt but capable of amelioration through private charity, equality before the law, and the force of positive example. Harness the clergyman, like Byron the satirist, seemed to contemporaries a throwback to the eighteenth century. Though conservative, he had no use for Romanism or the Oxford Movement; when he built All Saints in Knightsbridge the fashionable gothic was rejected.
A believer in social subordination, Harness nonetheless valued personal liberty: “I never could be at the trouble of keeping up noble friendships, unless the coronet did two-thirds of the business” (p. 288) These words sound odd coming from the mouth of one who spent much of his long life being entertained by fashionable hostesses at dinner parties and country-house visits. But it does seem to have been the case: Byron was his one titled friend, and when the letters stopped coming he was content to let the relationship drop. Instead he cultivated literary relationships with his childhood friend Mary Russell Mitford, his college friend Henry Hart Milman, with the novelist and plutocrat Thomas Hope and later with Charles Dickens.
Harness’s paleolithic political and theological views seem not at all to have impeded friendships with writers across the political spectrum. One is struck by the friendly, confiding tone of the letter from Harriet Martineau. He took a lively and personal interest in people as such as one sees in the stories he relates to L’Estrange, who relished anecdotes and who would compile a book on humor, in enduring friendships with his curates, and in the tact with which he speaks of “old Mrs. Scott Waring, who died last year at the age of 102”—a parishioner with a questionable past (297). In person, Harness seems to have been less Reverend Thawkum than Parson Adams. He differed from Fielding and Byron in his predilection for bluestocking writers.
The life of Mary Russell Mitford (1870) undertaken with L’Estrange was, after the edition of Shakespeare (1825), the largest and most important literary project of his life. It was intended to be in six volumes, on the scale of Lockhart’s life of Scott. This was a labor of love, as was Memorials of Miss Catherine Maria Fanshawe (1865) a collection of poems by a long-deceased friend. He admired these women writers, as he did Jane Austen and George Eliot. He also undertook for John Murray a four-volume “family” Massinger on the model of Bowdler’s Shakespeare. Harness’s two dramatic poems were privately printed for distribution among friends. Though a respectable man of letters his belletristic pretensions were modest.
It was otherwise with professional writings that include his Boyle lectures, The Connexion of Christianity with Human Happiness (1823), Christian Education (1840) and The Image of God in Man (1841). In his sermons Harness was very much the practical Christian, which is perhaps what drew Dickens to him. Having spent almost his entire career in London parishes Harness seems to have had, like Dickens and Fielding, a clear-eyed view of the moral failings peculiar to the lower orders and their social betters. His anonymous pamphlet on misbegotten charity, Visiting Societies and Lay Readers (1844) was rejected by Lockhart at the Quarterly Review as too hot to handle. Rather than competing for a lucrative country rectory or a snug cathedral stall Harness raised funds to build a new London parish.
The Literary Life of William Harness is not a common book, probably because it is not a particularly good book. While all life and letters volumes are cut-and-paste constructions, L’Estrange’s effort is an egregious olio with awkward transitions like the one yoking Harness’s writings on Shakespeare to the Kembles’ letters on America. Long quotations begin to look like padding and selections can be perplexing. We are given the merest scraps of the Byron correspondence but thirty letters to L’Estrange. There is little of Mary Russell Mitford and nothing of Milman, Harness’s life-long friend and confidant. There are no letters to or from Alexander Dyce. Instead of such materials, surely available for the asking, we are given long pages reprinted from already-published volumes.
Since Harness and L’Estrange had just spent three years annotating Mitford’s correspondence one might think that L’Estrange would take care to identify Miss This or Mr. That, knowing that such names would soon become as obscure as those over which they had been laboring. But this is not the case. We are not told which Harness “my brother” refers to, or even how many brothers he had. Nor did L’Estrange take the trouble to compile an index. As such things go, The Literary Life of the Rev. William Harness is a shoddy piece of work. The author-compiler seems to have outlined twelve chapters, arranged his documents into twelve piles, and then lopped or padded merely to fit page requirements.
Nonetheless there are things of value and the work as a whole is better than it first appears. The absence of Byron correspondence is disappointing. But in the place it would have gone we have instead something of great interest, Harness’s account of the Byron marriage. This must of have been a late composition since it speaks of manners “forty years ago.’ It might conceivably have been written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated which Harness read just a few weeks before his death in 1869. Harness knew Lady Byron before her marriage and was friends with her friends such as Sarah Siddons and Joanna Baillie. He does not mince words: most of Miss Milbanke’s acquaintances “looked upon her as a reserved and frigid sort of being whom one would rather cross the room to avoid than be brought into conversation with unnecessarily” (24).
Harness was a privileged witness not only to the marriage but to what was said about it by those who ostracized the peccant poet: “The complaints, at first so trifling, gradually acquired a more serious character. ‘Poor Lady Byron was afraid of her life.’ ‘Her husband slept with loaded pistols by his bedside, and a dagger under his pillow.’ Then there came rumours of cruelty—no one knew of what kind, or how severe. Nothing was definitely stated. But it was on all hands allowed to be ‘very bad—very bad indeed.’ And as there was nothing to be known, everybody imagined what they pleased” (26). Given his moral realism, incipient feminism, and lack of empathy for Byron’s poetry and religious views, such bias is not what one would necessarily expect. Harness can find little positive to say about Lady Byron and little negative so say about his childhood friend.
In addition to what Harness relates about Byron, his well-filed anecdotes of other literary contemporaries lend value and interest. One can only wish there were more, or that Harness had written his own life. Yet L’Estrange’s book improves on acquaintance; reading it from end to end one comes away with the sense of having spent time with an interesting man. If much space is devoted to Harness’s sermons, the distribution does reflect the shape of a life in which Byron was less significant than Dean Milman. Even the two concluding chapters of desultory correspondence on the Mitford biography are not without interest: one observes a life-and-letters in the process of being made.
Of Harness’s collaborator and biographer very little is recorded. Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange was born in Ireland in 1832 and after taking his degrees from Exeter College, Oxford was Harness’s curate at All Saints. At the time the biographer’s parents were living as absentee landlords in Clifton near Bristol. One gathers that L’Estrange was not poor but published his life of Harness out of a sense of admiration for the man and a desire to preserve the stories he told. L’Estrange’s later books, which include the History of English Humor (1878), are all of a lighter character. He never married and seems to have returned to Ireland where he restored the spectacular castle at Conna which his father had purchased in 1851. Upon his death in 1915 he willed it to the nation.

David Hill Radcliffe