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William Field:
Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel Parr


Ch. I. 1747-1752
Ch. II. 1752-1761
Ch. III. 1761-1765
Ch. IV. 1765-1766
Ch. V. 1767-1771
Ch. VI. 1771
Ch. VII. 1771-1776
Ch. VIII. 1771-1776
Ch. IX. 1776-1777
Ch. X. 1779-1786
Ch. XI. 1779-1786
Ch. XII. 1779-1786
Ch. XIII. 1780-1782
Ch. XIV. 1786-1789
Ch. XV. 1786-1790
Ch. XVI. 1776-1790
Ch. XVII. 1787
Ch. XVIII. 1789
Ch. XIX. 1790-1792
Ch. XX. 1791-1792
Ch. XXI. 1791-1796
Ch. XXII. 1794-1795
Ch. XXIII. 1794
Ch. XXIV. 1794-1800
Ch. XXV. 1794-1800
Ch. XXVI. 1800-1803
Ch. XXVII. 1801-1803
Ch. XXVIII. 1800-1807
Vol. II Contents
Ch I. 1800-1807
Ch II. 1807-1810
Ch III. 1809
Ch IV. 1809-1812
Ch V. 1810-1813
Ch VI. 1811-1815
Ch VII. 1812-1815
Ch VIII. 1816-1820
Ch IX. 1816-1820
Ch X. 1816-1820
Ch XI. 1816-1820
Ch XII. 1816-1820
Ch XIII. 1816-1820
Ch XIV. 1819
Ch XV. 1820-1821
Ch XVI. 1816-1820
Ch XVII. 1820-1824
Ch XVIII. 1820-1824
Ch XIX. 1820-1824
Ch XX. 1820-1825

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Samuel Parr (1747-1825) was a celebrity in Regency England. Born in humble circumstances, he rose to prominence as a schoolmaster, first at Harrow, then at Stanmore, Colchester, and Norwich. From 1785 to 1800 he took private pupils at Hatton in Warwickshire where he resided as a country parson to the end of his life. A year after his death the literary magazines were still running memoirs of Parr; in 1828 appeared the William Field biography reproduced here, John Johnstone’s substantial biography in Parr’s collected works, and the first installment of the two-volume Parriana collected by E. H. Barker. This material amounted to something like 3,500 pages of memoirs: short of Scott and Byron it would be difficult to find another writer who received so much posthumous attention.
Parr’s reputation has not worn well. His prose, modeled on Samuel Johnson’s, was not calculated to please later readers, nor his pedantry, belligerency, and tendency to ramble. For all his considerable learning, Parr never published a scholarly work, nor did his sermons, pamphlets, reviews, and biography of Fox long survive the occasions that gave rise to them. He was known as a conversationalist, though nothing he said, any more than anything he wrote, made its way into anthologies of quotations. While Parr was regarded as something of an oracle, there was nothing particularly novel or startling about his opinions. His Latin epitaphs, however, were reprinted and admired throughout the nineteenth century.
The striking thing about Parr was his personality—it would seem that no one who met him could ever forget him, and that no one who had not met him could share the enthusiasm (or disgust) of those who did. He was a small man, an ill-dressed, unprepossessing personage who spoke with a lisp. He insisted on smoking on all occasions and in all companies, a habit that coincided with what his general rudeness; he loved an argument, courted controversy, and strove for attention. Parr had known Samuel Johnson in his youth and may have modeled his manners as well as his prose on that formidable model. But Parr was the Whig Samuel Johnson—a man whose sharp-tongued remarks warmed the hearts, or at least heated the passions, of partisans of all stripes.
The fascination with Parr derived in part from his long memory—he was fifteen years older even than Samuel Rogers. Parr became engaged with politics in the heady times of Wilkes and Liberty—he had opposed not just the French wars, but the American war. He had been personally acquainted with Fox and Burke, indeed with three generations of Whig politicians. He had a tenacious memory and a fund of useful knowledge he was more than willing to share with any who would listen. Despite his pomposity and contentiousness he was welcome in polite society. A life-long defender of radicalism, Parr himself was no radical: he was a vigorous defender of what to Foxite Whigs seemed like prudent common sense.
While he had a reputation as a flogger, Parr took a deep interest in the careers of his students, many of whom became lifelong friends. Parr could also be a domestic tyrant, and having married a woman a strong-willed as himself, did not enjoy much domestic peace. He did love his family, as his letters and epitaphs attest. Parr seems to have got on well with his parishioners, and with persons from across the political and theological spectrum willing to put up with his character. He could be generous with money and was quick to side with the oppressed. For all his vanity there were things he obviously cared about more than himself—classical scholarship, political liberty, and Christian morality. Contemporaries were fascinated by his odd mixture of truculence and benevolence.
Byron was among the admirers of Parr, not least for the Harrow connection. Parr was born in Harrow, studied at Harrow, taught at Harrow, and following his failure to obtain the post of headmaster, opened Stanmore in rivalry to Harrow. At their first meeting (in 1813?) Byron held aloof: “I listened to him with admiring ignorance, and respectful silence,” he recalled to Moore, 19 September 1818. Parr at first interpreted this behavior as haughtiness, though he was soon writing to Hannah Edwards in an undated letter, “Yesterday I was in company with Lord Byron: his manners are amiable, and his genius is exquisite” (Field, 2:158). No great admirer of contemporary poetry, Parr later professed that Byron “excites my feelings more strongly than any poet I ever read; except ... the chorusses of Æschylus, and they make me mad” (2:156).
Samuel Parr took a keen interest in biography and gathered materials and arranged for his own life to be written. When the designated biographer failed to undertake the work the task fell to two rivals. Parr’s literary executor, the physician John Johnstone (1768-1836), had access to Parr’s documents but no skill as a biographer, while the schoolmaster William Field (1768-1851), the more competent biographer, lacked access to Parr’s papers. Both Johnstone and Field produced hagiographies, leaving the more colorful matter for Edmund Henry Barker (1788–1839), whose Parriana was biographical but not a biography.
Field’s Memoir is an unconventional life and letters. A friend and neighbor of Parr for thirty-five years, Field solicited letters and recollections, and brought to the project an intimate familiarity with Parr’s published writings. But Field makes scant use even of such letters as he had, preferring Parr’s public voice as recorded in his printed works. Since these were often scarce of access and difficult to read, Field no doubt believed that he was performing a service by organizing and preserving Parr’s scattered but invaluable opinions on men and books.
As reviewers noted, Field was no Boswell. He was a Unitarian minister with little interest in gossip or humor. But he was very like Boswell in writing the life of a mentor he held in awe. Field strives to write the biography as Parr would have written it—which is to say, laden with information and argument as opposed to narrative and scene-painting. Field, however, does what Parr did not do, which was to arrange his copious antiquarian matter into something like a meaningful order. His intention was to produce an intellectual biography by setting the events of Parr’s life in the context of his reading and book-collecting. To Field, Parr’s opinions about church fathers and dissenting divines, about pedagogy and Latin style, were of greater interest than his domestic broils or literary quarrels.
The other notable thing about Field’s biography, which again derives from Parr himself, is its desire to record the lives and characters of all the persons with whom the schoolmaster came into contact over the course of his long life: teachers and students, patrons and parishioners, even physicians and apothecaries. Cambridge University intellectual traditions and social networks figure very prominently in the Memoir. Field concludes what amounts to a collective biography with an appendix consisting of lives of Parr’s students—most of whom he outlived—and a collection of epitaphs.
Field’s great theme is liberty of conscience, a ticklish subject given Parr’s tendency to partisanship and dogmatism. One of many catalogues in the Memoir enumerates the portraits hanging in the breakfast-room at Hatton: “Thomas Twining, Thomas and Joseph Warton, Fox, Sheridan, General Washington, General Green, Paine, Buonaparte, Gibbon, Paley, Gilbert Wakefield, George Walker, the celebrated Porson, the highly-distinguished Sir Samuel Romilly, and the deeply-lamented Francis Horner” (1:186). The apostate Burke had once belonged to this august company but his image, after hanging inverted for a period, was eventually entirely removed. William Paley, after suffering a similar indignity, had been restored to the upright position.
In this connection it is worth recalling a passage from Thomas De Quincey about Parr and his portraits: “one anecdote, illustrating his intemperance, we can add ourselves. On one occasion, rising up from table, in the middle of a fierce discussion with Mrs Parr, he took a carving knife, and applying it to a portrait of that lady hanging upon the wall, he drew it sharply across the jugular, and cut the throat of the picture from ear to ear, thus murdering her in effigy” Blackwood’s (January 1831) 76. This was the kind of anecdote readers expected but which William Field, in deliberate censorship, refused to supply.
The first volume of Field’s biography appeared in January 1828, the second in August. While there was a sympathetic notice in the politically friendly New Monthly Magazine, the Literary Gazette was palpably disappointed by the lack of extractable anecdotage. Religious journals debated whether Parr inclined more towards orthodoxy or Unitarianism, and there was a savage response by a Tory reviewer in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The Monthly Review expresses the consensus view: “It contains little more than a plain detail of facts, few of which are new to the public, illustrated by plentiful quotations from the Doctor’s printed works, and by a few occasional reflections, generally of a very slight and common-place tissue, from the biographer himself, who appears to be a well-meaning, and tolerably well-informed man, but not very strikingly gifted with any higher powers. The book, as a literary production, indeed, has little or no merit, and derives all its interest merely from its subject” (February 1828) 207.

David Hill Radcliffe