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Saba Holland:
A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith


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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Sydney Smith (1771-1845) was sometimes compared to Jonathan Swift as a clerical wit. For all the differences in their politics and mode of humor the comparison remains suggestive. Both wrote in opposition to the court pretensions, centralized government, and British imperialism; both used wit and Christianity to champion to further the cause of liberty. Humor was not, however, conducive to professional advancement; Swift and Smith, who might otherwise have become bishops, were left to swallow their pride as intellectual mediocrities were promoted above them. Tory administration were no more likely to bestow a mitre on the author of Peter Plymley's Letters than Whig administrations on the author of A Tale of a Tub.
“His jokes were sermons, and his sermons jokes” wrote Byron—equivocally—of the “brilliant diner-out, though but a curate.” In Don Juan “Peter Pith” is posted to a “fat fen vicarage” far from the glittering tables where a wit might shine. One thinks of Swift. But the Yorkshire living Smith was given in 1806 was not so remote or so Boetian as Byron implied, being centrally located on the road between Edinburgh and London, and not so far from Castle Howard, Bishopthorpe Palace, and Howick, the stately homes of Smith's patrons. As a founder and principal writer for the Edinburgh Review Smith occupied an intellectual position equidistant from the Athens of the North and the seat of power in the South; he was a conduit for information passing between the two metropolises. Though far from Holland House the diner-out could still enjoy a good meal.
While the magnates among his friends could not, or would not, make Smith a bishop, he believed in the patronage system and used it effectively, rising from a lowly curate on Salisbury Plain to a Canon of St. Paul's, becoming one of the wealthiest clerics in Britain. Though a stout Whig, Smith was no democrat. A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith (1855) paints the portrait of an Old Whig. For as much as he mocked country ways, Smith's political outlook reflected the “fens” as much as Swift's did Dublin. Like many a west-country Whig, Sydney Smith, was habitually opposed to government corruption and foreign imperialism; he was less an advocate for the rights of man than for the rule of law—law as interpreted by just, intelligent, and patriotic country magistrates like himself.
Byron's pen-portrait in Don Juan echoes criticism of Smith's sermons in the Quarterly Review—that the fashionable preacher who complained about the dullness of pulpit oratory was himself a shallow, worldly man. This objection was less than just but not wholly wrong. Smith had very little to say about theology; he wrote critically about many things but Christian doctrine was not among them. He was a Christian moralist as opposed to a Christian theologian and adhered uncritically to contemporary Anglican doctrine. Smith objected strenuously, if privately, to the free-thinking characteristic of the Edinburgh Review, and publicly to the dogmatism of dissent and to what he regarded as the misguided enthusiasm of missionaries in India. Like Henry Fielding, Sydney Smith appealed to a worldly-wise, common-sense Christianity. He too had a soft spot for poachers.
When Saba Holland published A Memoir in 1855 she set about to challenge the received view of her father. In her pages he figures less as the fat Silenus of Holland House than as the slender Parson Adams of Fielding's Joseph Andrews, an impoverished scholar and firm yet loving shepherd of a rural flock. While Smith's poverty was not exactly of the Parson Adams variety (Mrs. Smith sold a pearl necklace for 1500 pounds to help her husband set up house) he was indeed poor in comparison to his brothers and fellow diners-out. Saba Holland dilates on the pride the rural parson took in inventing a back-scratching machine for the pleasure of his farm animals, a side of Sidney Smith the world had never seen before. Nor is it particularly difficult, in this account, to imagine Howarth as a kind of Paradise Hall, or Earl Grey as a version of Squire Allworthy. In A Memoir, Holland House, while not ignored, makes but occasional appearances.
Saba Holland's doting, amusing, life of her father is more memoir than biography; names and dates, titles and promotions are dutifully chronicled but it is Sydney Smith's conversation and domestic life that are emphasized. At a time when the private lives of public men were often regarded as off limits, her candid portrait was warmly received and the Memoir quickly ran through three editions. It is unusual in another respect, separating the life from the correspondence in contrast to the usual life-and-letters format. This was an accident of the book's gestation that requires comment since it has a bearing on how the story of Sydney Smith's life is presented.
From the time of her husband's death in 1845, if not before, Caroline Pybus Smith (1768-1852) planned a life-and-letters volume to commemorate his memory. After retrieving a substantial body of letters she approached Thomas Moore, Francis Jeffrey, and Sarah Austin with offers of the correspondence but the potential biographers declined the potentially lucrative commission. In her will she again declared her desire for a biography to be published, and the obligation fell to her elder daughter, Saba (1802-1866), wife of Sir Henry Holland, resident physician of Holland House. Lady Holland, a reluctant biographer, was able to persuade Sarah Austin (1793-1867), her father's friend and correspondent as well as a professional woman of letters, to edit the second volume. This division of labor accounts for the unusual format of the work, and may account from some of its other peculiarities.
While I have not undertaken a collation of the three editions, it appears that decisions about what to include and what not to include were being made even as the book was in press. While the first volume is awkwardly shorter than the second, some of its letters are printed in a smaller font to save space. What was obviously intended as an afterward to the second volume appended, somewhat nonsensically, to its preface. At least one letter (number 113) was added in the second edition (it includes a Byron reference and is reproduced here with the second edition of the second volume) and other letters were renumbered. The text of the letters, not to put too fine a point on the matter, is utterly corrupt, even by nineteenth-century standards. Reader, beware!
Sarah Austin is very frank about her obligations as selector and censor (the nonagenarian Samuel Rogers was still alive, barely, and so most of the many references to him were silently excised). She says, “I have generally omitted not only the usual formulae at the conclusion of letters, but many continually recurring expressions of kindness and affection, friendly greetings, domestic news sought and communicated” (2:xvii-xviii). But when she continues, “It is hardly necessary to say that not a word has been added” she says what is not true, as a comparison with Nowell C. Smith's 1953 edition of the Letters of Sydney Smith makes manifest. For example, where Smith writes to Francis Jeffrey, 18 November 1807, “Your notions of the English Constitution delight the Tories beyond all belief; and you have now nearly atoned for Drummond's atheism” (1953, 1:126) Sarah Austin has “you have now nearly atoned for D——’s opinions” (my emphasis). Elisions and substitutions sometimes make nonsense of what Smith wrote.
The question arises of the extent to which Lady Holland was involved with editing the letters. Sarah Austin says “It was she [Saba Holland] who collected, transcribed, and arranged the mass of letters out of which I had to choose” (2:xix-xx, my emphasis). The chronological sequence is often faulty and the dates assigned to letters—printed without comment as datelines—are sheer invention. It would not have been difficult to ascertain the year in which Lord Holland died or when Sydney Smith's articles appeared in the Edinburgh Review, but this was not done. What is worse, passages from letters of different dates are conflated, making further nonsense of chronology. For example, in a letter dated June 1810 Smith supposedly writes to Lady Holland, “If I could envy any man for successful ill-nature, I should envy Lord Byron for his skill in satirical nomenclature” (2:74). But since this letter also contains material from 1818 and the sentence in question is not to be found in Nowell C. Smith's edition, there is really no telling to what it refers.
Perhaps what Sarah Austin was given to edit was a partially completed life-and-letters—transcribed letters without the connective tissue, arranged and edited as they would have appeared in the biography Saba Holland decided not to write. Certain it is that excisions in the printed correspondence reinforce a “Parson Adams” view of Sydney Smith: acerbic remarks are thoroughly scrubbed, as are all references to payments for contributions to the Edinburgh Review and most passages in which Sydney Smith expresses his hopes and schemes for professional advancement. The cumulative effect of the many small omissions is not inconsiderable. If this was done by design, it must be said that the design was entirely successful: reviewers from across the political spectrum hailed the transformation of the former regency wit into an idealized pastor and parent.
This is pointed out not to suggest that A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith is a deliberate attempt at falsification, but that it needs to be read in context, and especially to be read in conjunction with Nowell C. Smith's admirable edition of the correspondence which doubles the number of letters, restores omitted passages where letters have survived (some of the tarter items may have been destroyed after the castrated versions were published), and which does a superb job of identifying obscure references to persons and events. In very few instances has this edition, made with the benefit of internet research, been able to improve on what he accomplished. There is, however, one peculiarity of Smith's otherwise exemplary edition: only the names of Britons are indexed. That deficiency is rectified here.

David Hill Radcliffe