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A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith
Editor’s Preface

Author's Preface
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
‣ Editor’s Preface
Letters 1801
Letters 1802
Letters 1803
Letters 1804
Letters 1805
Letters 1806
Letters 1807
Letters 1808
Letters 1809
Letters 1810
Letters 1811
Letters 1812
Letters 1813
Letters 1814
Letters 1815
Letters 1816
Letters 1817
Letters 1818
Letters 1819
Letters 1820
Letters 1821
Letters 1822
Letters 1823
Letters 1824
Letters 1825
Letters 1826
Letters 1827
Letters 1828
Letters 1829
Letters 1830
Letters 1831
Letters 1832
Letters 1833
Letters 1834
Letters 1835
Letters 1836
Letters 1837
Letters 1838
Letters 1839
Letters 1840
Letters 1841
Letters 1842
Letters 1843
Letters 1844
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[The Author reserves the right of translating this Work.’]





It is, I think, necessary to offer some explanation of the part I have taken in the selection and arrangement of the following Letters for the press.

It was in compliance with the earnest desire and repeated solicitations of Mrs. Sydney Smith, that I undertook to edit the letters of her lamented husband, and to write a short Memoir, the materials for which she was to furnish. Flattered as I could not but be by her request, I was too sensible of my own incompetence to such a work to engage in it willingly; and it was not till I found that no more competent editor (or none whom she esteemed so) was willing and able to undertake the task, that I yielded to the affecting importunities of my revered friend.

Not long after I received the materials for the projected work, a dangerous illness left me in so shattered a state of health, that every exertion of mind or body was forbidden, and indeed impossible, to me; and I begged Mrs. Smith to receive back the papers she had
entrusted to my care. Still she urged me to wait. While I waited, she arrived before me at the goal which I had so nearly reached. Immediately after her death I sent the papers to
Lady Holland, to whom they had been bequeathed by her mother, telling her, that as I had no hope of such a return to health as would enable me to bear the anxiety I should feel in writing a Memoir of her honoured father, I must definitively decline so grave a responsibility. I added, that if my services in the business of selecting and arranging the letters for the press were of any value, she might command them. I ventured to believe that my veneration for Mr. Sydney Smith’s character, my earnest desire to set forth those high and solid qualities which the brilliancy of his wit had partly concealed from the dazzled eyes of the public, and my religious care not to make him do after his death that which he never did in life—inflict causeless or envenomed wounds,—might perhaps atone for deficiencies of which I was as sensible as any of his admirers could be.

I entirely concur with Lady Holland in the opinion, that the conditions which alone can justify the publication of private letters are, “that they shall neither hurt the living, injure the dead, nor impair the reputation of the writer.” Almost every contributor to this selection will therefore find that I have largely used my power (or rather fulfilled my duty) as Editor, and have omitted whatever I thought at variance with any
one of these conditions. It is hardly necessary to say that not a word has been added.

Not only is the tacit compact which used to protect the intercourses of society now continually violated by the unauthorized publication of conversations and letters, but there are not wanting pretended champions of truth, who assert the claims of the public to be put in possession of all the transient impressions, the secret thoughts, the personal concerns, which an eminent man may have imparted to his intimate friends. Such claims are too preposterous to be discussed. They deserve only to be met by a peremptory rejection. Without the most absolute power of suppressing whatever I thought it inexpedient to publish, I could not have meddled with anything so sacred as private letters. I am persuaded that no person of honour or delicacy will regret the amusement which might perhaps have been purchased by treachery to the dead, or indifference to the feelings of the living.

In insisting, however, on the canons which ought to govern all editors of letters, let me, by no means, be understood to apply them specially to the letters of Sydney Smith. Few editors to whom so large a mass of private papers have been submitted, can say, as I can, with the strictest truth, that I have found nothing for which those who loved and honoured the writer need to blush. My opinion of Sydney Smith’s great and noble qualities—his courage and magnanimity, his large humanity, his scorn of all meanness
and all imposture, his rigid obedience to duty—was very high before. It is much higher now, that his inward life has been laid bare before me. He lived, as he says, in a house of glass. He was brave and frank in every utterance of his thoughts and feelings; yet, though I have found opinions to which I could not assent, and tastes which are entirely opposed to my own, I have not found a sentiment unworthy a man of sense, honour, and humanity. I have found no trace of a mean, an unkind, or an equivocal action.

So many sketches of Mr. Sydney Smith’s character have been written, and its more intimate parts are so vividly portrayed in his daughter’s Memoir, that it would be worse than superfluous for me to attempt to add to them. I cannot however close a work which has long and anxiously engaged my attention, without adverting to a few of the points which have struck me during its progress.

If the interest of a life were proportioned to the traces it leaves behind, few would afford richer materials to the biographer than that of Sydney Smith. But the field on which the champions of truth have to do battle is often obscure, the conflict doubtful, the victory unperceived till long after the combatants have ceased to exist. The story of their lives is marked by none of the striking incidents which mark the career of men of action.

To understand the full significance of such a life as Sydney Smith’s, we must ask ourselves what he
accomplished. That he was the acknowledged projector of the
Edinburgh Review, one of the early guardians of its principles (as appears from some of his letters to Jeffrey), and one of its most distinguished and powerful contributors, would of itself afford a satisfactory answer to this question. It is clear that he himself, though no man was less inclined to overrate the value of his own productions, looked back with a just satisfaction on the influence of that journal on public opinion. In a letter to Lord Jeffrey, dated Foston, 1825, he says, “It must be to you, as I am sure it is to me, a great pleasure to see so many improvements taking place, and so many abuses destroyed;—abuses upon which you, with cannon and mortars, and I, with sparrow-shot, have been playing for so many years.” And again, in a letter to Mrs. Crowe (January 6, 1840): “I printed my reviews to show that I had not passed my life merely in making jokes, but had made use of what little powers of pleasantry I might be endowed with, to discountenance bad, and to encourage liberal and wise principles.”

This was his own view of his vocation. In order to estimate his success in it, to trace the operation of his mind on the public mind (and hence on the public affairs) of England, we ought to present a complete and accurate view of its state at the beginning of his career. Such a retrospect is out of the question here. But we may confidently affirm that every day more clearly shows the depth of stolid prejudices, stupid
and malignant antipathies, and time-honoured abuses, out of which we have emerged.

Many of the giants Sydney Smith combated are not only slain, but almost forgotten; and thus the very completeness of his success tends to efface from the minds of the present generation the extent of their obligations to him. But it ought never to be forgotten that, at the time he buckled on his armour, all these had nearly undisputed possession of the field. To combat them was then a service of real danger. The men who now float on the easy and rapid current of reform are apt, in the intoxication of their own facile triumphs, to forget the difficulties and the perils which their predecessors had to encounter. Those who now represent the most conservative opinions would then have passed for rash and dangerous innovators; reforms long since accomplished would then have been regarded as visionary or dangerous. The French Revolution—the fruitful parent of evils, of which no eye can yet discern the termination—had then utterly disordered the minds of men; agitated by the wildest expectations of good, or terrors of evil, to result from that explosion of undisciplined popular will. It was in the midst of this universal frenzy and panic, that Sydney Smith’s clear and sound understanding, neither dazzled by visions of impracticable good, nor alarmed by shadows of imaginary evil, seized upon those principles of which he was through life the dauntless and inflexible advocate.


Much has been said of the extraordinary faculties which he brought to this undertaking; yet the power which he exercised over the public mind, when his own powers were roused, has hardly been sufficiently insisted on. What other private gentleman of our day, unconnected with Parliament, without office, rank, or fortune, has been able, by a few pages from his pen, to electrify the country as he did by the publication of ‘Peter Plymley’s Letters’? Or to excite the feelings of two nations, as he did, by his letters to the Americans? Or to fight, single-handed, against the combined power of the Ministry and of the dignitaries of the Church, a battle in which he carried public opinion along with him? If such were the effects produced by one in so obscure a situation, what might he not have effected if placed in a position to exercise a more direct influence on the councils and affairs of the country?

He was a giant when roused, and the goad which roused him was Injustice. He was clear from envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness, and incapable of any littleness. He was ever ready to defend the weak. He showed as much zeal in saving a poor village boy, as in aiding a Minister of State. His hatred of every form of cant and affectation was only equalled by his prompt and unerring detection of it. Without admitting that the vice of hypocrisy is peculiarly English, we must confess that some of the forms which simulated virtue assumes in this country are not only,
in common with all simulations, offensive to the love of truth, but are peculiarly repulsive to good sense and good taste. And there never was a man in whom they were calculated to excite more disgust than the brave, frank, and high-spirited gentleman whose Letters are before us. For in him a passion for truth was enlightened by the utmost perspicacity of mind, and the most acute sense of the ludicrous and unseemly.

It must also be constantly borne in mind that Mr. Sydney Smith did not regard Christianity as an ascetic religion, but as a religion of peace, and joy, and comfort. We say this, not in justification of the view, which it would be wholly out of place to discuss here, but of the consistency of him who held it. It was in perfect conformity with this belief, that he encouraged every social pleasure and every taste for innocent enjoyment. These things he regarded not as lamentable concessions to the demands of a sinful nature, but as praiseworthy endeavours to mitigate the evils and sufferings of humanity, and hence in perfect harmony with the character and designs of a benevolent Creator.

It is needless to insist on the generous audacity with which he formed and held his opinions, or the gallantry with which he threw himself into the breach to assert an unpopular truth, which others were “too timid to express for themselves.”* All this is familiar. But we see also that the boldness and vigour with

* See letter to Mr. Bedford, of Bristol, January 13, 1829.

which he proclaimed his opinions were wholly without the tenacity or irritability of self-love: “You know that a short argument often convinces me,” he says to
Lord Grey. And, again, where he mentions Sir Robert Peel’s projected repeal of the Corn Laws, how candidly he avows his present disapprobation of that measure!—how open is his mind to arguments in its favour! There is something as magnanimous as it is rare in this union of fearless candour with openness to conviction.

When we consider the tremendous weapons with which he came armed into the world,—what powers he possessed of inflicting pain, and of adorning falsehood or immorality with the dazzling gems of his wit, we cannot withhold from him a feeling of gratitude for the generous and indulgent temper which led him to spare the weak, and for the high principle and taste which kept the precious talent entrusted to him pure, bright, and untainted. Never was wit so little addressed to the malignant, base, or impure passions of mankind. To this his Letters, poured forth out of the abundance of his fearless heart and high spirits, bear ample evidence.

Lastly, I have been much struck with the perfect arrangement and symmetry of his life. He is never the sport of circumstances; but throughout the battle of life we find him determined to do his duty in whatever circumstances it shall please God to place him. This determination he carried into the most
trifling details of domestic life. Whatever he did, he did it with all his might. Nothing was neglected, slurred over, or left to chance. The order in which he kept his accounts might serve as a model to any man of business; and we have seen with what energy he introduced the same order into the affairs of the Chapter of which he was a member.

This is no place for a dissertation on his literary merits. Yet I can hardly omit to remark how entirely they bore the stamp of his character. Never was the saying, “le style c’est l’homme,” more applicable. Prompt, fearless, natural and easy, going straightforward to the object, there is no laborious research or timorous hesitation as to the words in which falsehood shall be exposed, or truth uttered. He was little indebted to books. His vigorous mind and fertile imagination supplied him with all he wanted; and the manliness of his character gave force and freedom to all he wrote.

The following remarks on Mr. Sydney Smith’s style, by Sir Henry Holland, which were given to me by Mrs. Sydney Smith, are so just and discriminating, that I have begged permission to print them. They were called forth by these words, which I had quoted from the letter of a friend:—“If Mr. Sydney Smith had not been the greatest and most brilliant of wits, he would have been the most remarkable man of his time for a sound and vigorous understanding and great reasoning powers; and if he had not been dis-
tinguished for these, he would have been the most eminent and the purest writer of English.”

Mrs. Austin’s friend,” says Sir Henry Holland, “has admirably denoted the three eminent peculiarities of Mr. Sydney Smith’s writings—his vigorous sense, his wit, and the pure and masculine English of his style. The latter quality has scarcely been sufficiently noticed in comments on his works. Those higher qualities of reason and of humour have tended, it may be, to keep it out of sight.

“I should be inclined to note two other peculiarities of his writings, which have not been enough dwelt upon. One of these is, the suddenness with which he enters on his subject. No distant approaches by preface or dissertation. He plunges at once into his argument, and never loiters or lingers in it when he has compassed his conclusion. In no case does he drain a subject to the dregs, but always leaves his readers lamenting that he has come to an end.

“The other peculiarity (akin to the former, and often exceedingly happy in its effect) is what may be termed the unexpectedness of his manner of writing. He does not bind himself down to any servile rules of composition, or formal methods of argument. You always feel him to be a free and unshackled inquirer. He passes abruptly from one part of his subject to another, and, as suddenly, from exquisite wit to the gravest and most profound reason.

“He was in truth equally fearless in the manner
and method of his works, as in the opinions and conclusions it was his object to enforce.”

High as Mr. Sydney Smith’s reputation stood during his life, it has unquestionably risen since his death. If not more wide-spread, it is more just, and more worthy of his great moral and intellectual qualities. Still more perfect justice will, doubtless, be rendered to him by posterity. Admiration of his wit will become subordinate, as it ought to be, to respect for the purposes to which it was applied, and for the good sense by which it was guided.

Already this appreciation has begun. And it is worthy of remark that the hasty and unregarded productions of his pen which were only saved from the flames by the pious hand of affection, have tended greatly to raise his reputation as a sound and original thinker.

There is one other point upon which I feel bound by gratitude to touch. Within our times, no man has done so much to obtain for women toleration for the exercise of their understandings and for the culture of their talents, as Sydney Smith. Others have uttered louder complaints, and have put forward loftier claims, on their behalf. But in this, as in all his demands for reform, Sydney Smith kept within the bounds of the safe and the possible. To those who knew him it is unnecessary to declare that he had no desire to convert women into pedants, to divest them of any of the attributes or attractions of their sex, or to engage in
the vain attempt to create for them a new and independent position in society.

What he asked for women was, opportunity and encouragement to make themselves the intelligent companions of men of sense; or to furnish themselves with ideas and pursuits which might give interest to lives otherwise insipid and barren. These demands, consonant with nature and reason, he urged in a way to disarm opposition and vanquish prejudice. Sydney Smith was too completely above cant and imposture to deny the influence and the value of youth and beauty. But he laboured to induce women to acquire some substitutes for beauty, some resources against old-age, some power of commanding attention and respect when the victorious charms of youth have fled. A new era in the moral and intellectual condition of women dates from his Lectures at the Royal Institution. And though it is to be regretted that a task which might have worthily employed the most vigorous pen has devolved on female hands, it is by them, perhaps, that this tribute of respect, affection, and gratitude is most fitly paid.

Sarah Austin.
Cromer, October, 1854.

P.S.—I have generally omitted not only the usual formulæ at the conclusion of letters, but many continually recurring expressions of kindness and affection, friendly greetings, domestic news sought and
xviii PREFACE.
communicated. They show his kindly recollections of great and small, but their repetition would occupy much space, and might become wearisome to the reader.

It is not pretended that the following Letters are of equal merit and importance. They are, on the contrary, very unequal. The great object I had in view in their selection was, to present a true and complete picture of the writer under his various aspects; to show that the formidable critic, the admired wit, the earnest and intrepid champion of truth and freedom, the man in whom honour, sincerity, and principle were paramount, was also full of kindly affections and generous indulgence; and did not think it a waste of time and wit to delight the weaker part of mankind—women and children—with his playful sallies. The Letters are intended as illustrations of a thoroughly genuine, unaffected, and many-sided character; and they bear the impress of the peculiar mood of the writer’s mind, the peculiar circumstances by which he was surrounded, or the peculiar character and position of the person to whom they are addressed.

This was the view taken by Mrs. Sydney Smith. “Enough there is,” she says, in a letter to me, “to
show the affectionate playfulness of his nature, his manly wisdom and goodness, and the calm and right-minded view he takes of politics and of human affairs in general. His honesty and his candour are also on every suitable occasion displayed, so we want nothing more for his just portraiture.”

If, in my ignorance of facts or persons referred to in these Letters, I have suffered any allusion to pass which can give the slightest pain, I can only say it is not alone unintentional, but completely at variance with my intentions. Whatever be the faults of the selection, I beg that it may be distinctly understood that they are to be imputed to me; and that no portion of the responsibility rests on Lady Holland. She has been so good as to continue to me the confidence which her mother was pleased to repose in me, and my choice (out of the materials furnished to me) has been free.

Lady Holland has most appropriately dedicated her Memoir to the memory of her Mother. Be it permitted to me to add my respectful tribute to that faithful and devoted spirit which has inspired and directed my humble labours. To me, the foregoing selection will always appear her work. But for her entire confidence in the claims of him she had loved and revered through life,—a confidence which no discouragements could shake,—this volume would probably never have existed. It was she who collected, transcribed, and arranged the mass of letters out of
which I had to choose, and who never could be brought to believe that the public would be indifferent (as many thought) to such a life, or unimproved by such an example. If I have anything to congratulate myself upon, it is, that I never, for a moment, doubted that she was right.

Not that I was blind to the difficulties. Mr. Sydney Smith had long enjoyed a reputation perfectly unmatched for a gift the most dazzling, and the most evanescent of all intellectual gifts. Those who had heard him talk, felt with a sort of despair, how pale a shadow of the reality, any description of him must inevitably be. Many, if not most, of his surviving friends and associates looked coldly on the project; and it seemed to be the general opinion that there was “nothing to tell,” and that any attempt to draw an enduring portrait of the most brilliant of conversers would be a failure.

But all this was no answer to one who rested his claims to the admiration and respect of mankind on far higher qualities. To convey to others her own conviction of his eminent virtues, was the one remaining deep and earnest purpose of her life. Nothing could be more affecting and more venerable than this resolute struggle of a loving heart with the difficulties in the way of the accomplishment of its pious wishes. Her pride in her husband was only equalled by her humility about herself; and nothing could persuade her that she was competent to do what she so intensely longed to see done. I may, I hope, be excused for quoting a few sentences from
the many touching letters I received from
Mrs. Sydney Smith, while this struggle was going on.

I am encouraged to do this by some words from one of the few surviving early friends of Mr. Sydney Smith; one whose opinion is entitled to the utmost deference—Lord Murray. “If,” he says, “you could add anything to what you have already said in your Preface* respecting Mrs. Sydney Smith’s urgent desire that some account of her husband’s life should be written, you would no way exceed the truth; for it was a matter constantly weighing on her mind during the last years of her life. Lady Holland must therefore have felt herself bound, as a matter of duty, to do what she has done.”

In December, 1845, Mrs. Sydney Smith wrote to me:—“Most persons, of whose good sense and discretion I have a high estimate, think that any little Memoir, illustrated by genuine letters, it would be yet too soon to publish. I confess it is foregoing the last gratification that remains to me—the hope of seeing that published of him, which to me far exceeds all the brilliancy of head that the world took cognizance of, but which I least valued; well knowing what the world knew not, the perfection of his heart, and his fearless love of truth. If delayed, I can never hope to see it; but I am not so selfish as for an instant to

* To the unpublished edition.

oppose my own gratification to that which is deemed expedient for his sake. Much did I wish
Lord Jeffrey to have done this, but his age and infirmities press too hardly upon him now.”

In March, 1846, she writes:—“I shall never see the completion of the Memoir it would have been such an unspeakable satisfaction to me to see perfected. Some, the best judging perhaps, say, it is too soon, as the letters and incidents relate to many living persons. I have therefore yielded up the great and now only remaining delight I could have felt, at the suggestion of the wiser and more fastidious of my friends; in the meantime I go on collecting.”

In June, 1849, I received the following letter:—

“My dear Mrs. Austin,

“I hardly know how to make my request, so sensible am I to the liberty I am about to take with you; but to waste no more of your time in words, I will at once state my earnest desire.

“Much more that is excellent of my dear husband is deserving of notice than is derivable from his ‘Works;’ yet who will record it? Of his great talents, he has himself taken care; of these, no one doubts. Of the far more admirable qualities of his mind and heart, the world knows nothing! His playfellows are almost all gone. Who that well knew him, and is capable of appreciating him, will undertake the task? * * * * *

PREFACE. xxiii

“I prefer writing, rather than saying my wishes to you, because it will be less painful to you to write ‘No’ than to speak it, should ray anxious desire prove objectionable to you.”

After repeated endeavours on my part to induce Mrs. Sydney to seek some more competent Editor, I received a letter containing these words:—“My days, I suspect, cannot be many, and thence my urgency. Pray attribute it to the real motive—the desire to see that done which shall fill up the measure of my wishes. I have arranged his letters by the years and months, so that he indirectly tells the incidents of his own life. But now comes my own incapacity. I think every word he ever wrote so precious, that my better judgment is blinded, and I should not be able to erase a line or a thought. Here I greatly want one on whose just perception, on whose right feelings of affectionate regard not only for him, but for his fame, I can implicitly rely.”

But though she speaks of her incapacity, the following passage from a subsequent letter shows what a just and distinct conception she had formed of what ought to be attempted:—

“An eventless life must be made up of character, of comments by friends, of a narrative of the immense difficulties through which, without interest, without connections, with the heavy weight of poverty on his shoulders, he dared bravely and honestly, and
at all hazards, to struggle against bigotry, and every kind of abuse that militated against human happiness, but which struggle was sure to lessen his own chance of success.

“Such mixed materials cannot come up to the magnitude of his deserts; yet if it be the only thing that remains to his survivors to do, that the memory of so much that was admirable and affectionate in private life, as well as great and noble in the wider range of human interests (which he ever strenuously advocated) may not perish, it is surely expedient that it should be done. It is only in the fullness and freshness of familiar correspondence that are illustrated the genuine feelings and character.”

Such were the influences under which I undertook my task. Fortunately for the public, ill health prevented my attempting the more important part of it, which has thus fallen into the only hands competent to do it justice. The humbler portion which I retained has been executed with a constant reference to the wishes and opinions of her from whom I received my commission, and to whom, though departed, I have never ceased to consider myself responsible.

Sarah Austin.
Weybridge, May 21st, 1855.