8 April 2014

'The Powers of language cannot express what he is': Pitt at Buckden in 1801

Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline, the Bishop of Lincoln's wife, recorded a detailed description of a visit Pitt made to their residence at Buckden Palace in her notebook of December 1801. Pitt was then out of office, and Henry Addington was head of the Treasury. I've transcribed her recollections of this visit as it illustrates Pitt in his private hours. His charm, wit, simplicity of character, and calm temper are all on display. I've transcribed her words exactly as written, so do forgive the repeated underlinings:

“Monday the 15th [Monday was actually the 14th] of Dec. 1801. The Bishop went with Mr Pitt to Cambridge from London, and they came to Buckden on Wednesday Evening [the 16th]. At Cambridge every description of persons seemed more than ordinarily anxious to shew [sic] him [Pitt] all possible respect and attention. The Dean of Norwich not being at Cambridge, they were at Trinity Lodge. On Thursday [the 17th] Dr Mansel & Dr Pearce came to dinner & staid till Saturday [the 19th], when they returned to Cambridge and Mr Pitt went to Town. On Friday [the 18th] a large Cambridge Party dined here. 
Mr Pitt is in excellent health & spirits and astonished Dr Mansel & Dr Pearce beyond expression by the various & copious funds of elegant & learned knowledge and brilliancy of talents which appeared in his [Pitt’s] Conversation. His memory and his wit (qualities falsely supposed to be almost incompatible in any great extent) exceed the conception of any who never saw him in private Society - all subjects exhibit his most extraordinary mind with such a natural charm that everything flows necessarily as it moves from the subject without anything like effort or a moment’s meditation. On Thursday Evening the Conversation was upon the English Poets. Mr Pitt repeated a great many beautiful passages of many of their poetry and these he cites with so much taste & sensibility that Dr. Mansel who excels in this sort of knowledge (and who respected a great deal also) was quite amazed. He [Dr Mansel] observed that “the mellifluous tenderness” with which Mr Pitt repeated [William] Collins’s “Fair Fidele” &c and other similar things “was [more] exquisitely touching” than any thing he had heard, - Mr Pitt had never happened to see [Thomas] Penrose’s “Madness” which I read to him the next morning after a walk while he was eating his Luncheon of Mutton Chops and with which he was exceptionally delighted.  I also read [Thomas] Penrose’s “Field of Battle” and Shaw’s Monody, neither of which he knew, and a beautiful Sonnet to Pope, all of which he liked very much. Mr Pitt thinks the Stanza [in William Collins’ poem “To Fair Fidele”] “when howling winds…” of Collins some of the most perfect, and most touching lines in the English Language.
After dinner he [Pitt] produced a Contract of Marriage between Abdullah Menon & an Egyptian woman which he afterwards copied. In the Evening when the Cambridge Party was gone, after one Rubber at Whist, I had a very very interesting Conversation with Mr Pitt upon several subjects, one of which was the origin of my writing [the] History [of] The Interpretation of Prophesy as an apology to apparent prescription. He [Pitt] expressed himself in the kindest manner possible, said he had heard it very highly spoken of - that at the Time it came into his hands his mind was pressed with other things, but that he certainly would read it again (he had not read it all) with great attention, and tell me really what he thought of it, as he was sure he might do so. - I then said, I had a marked Copy which I would order to be put into his Carriage if he would give me leave. He caught at this most eagerly and said he would read it immediately, and begin it as he went to Town. - I observed he would find I differ’d from him upon some points but accustomed as I ever was to conform my opinions to his from an almost uninhibited confidence in his judgement, I considered it as a strong argument for the truth of opinions that from the clearness of their ground forced me to differ from him, and that it was extraordinary that events should have justified me so compleatly.
He seemed struck with this, and what I said of the length of time I had held these opinions from examination previous to the events that had happened, and said with a feeling sigh  I shall never forget, his eyes suffused with tears of sensibility, “Perhaps if I had happened to study the subject I might have adopted more fortunate measures - I could only judge from what I saw to be the actual state of things, but if I had had your ideas relative to France I certainly should have considered ideas formed upon circumstances merely human as subservient to them. - As it was, I don’t know that I could not act otherwise than I did!” - This was said in a tone of regret and of feeling for his Country that I think no man but himself could have done. - I instantly replied “You surely could not Sir. - You considered the subject politically only, I considered it religiously. - “Just so.” “My only anxiety has long been that you would examine a subject of all others the most sublime and comprehensive, and so peculiarly suited to your comprehensive mind. - If you then had an objection to the Opinion which I did not, there the matter would have rested, and I perhaps might have seen reason to give up my ideas to what your superior position and judgement might have suggested - but if you had thought it impossible to check the progress of France you…"might have acted differently (said he, continuing my sentence). Most certainly.” When I mentioned that my dearest [W?] was in possession of the secret history of this work, he [Pitt] said “I am glad of that - for some years hence - it may not be of consequence to you that it should remain secret.” I mentioned Paley’s report - which led him to speak of Paley. - I told him he was writing more upon Natural Religion at the suggestion of the Bishop of Durham. - “Just the thing he should not write upon.” To which I said “The Bishop of Lincoln would not have recommended that subject to Paley in these times.” “Oh no! But one does not know what they mean by Natural Religion now - we must, we can look only to the Ancient Heathen writers for notions upon this subject. - They went as far as they could go. - There is so much encrypted from Revelation in what is written now that it is absurd to call it by the same name.” 
He [Pitt] said Dr. Mansel & Dr. Pearce had mentioned in the morning an idea of examining the young man in the Bishop of Lincoln’s Character of Theology instead of Paley’s [oe] - and he hoped it might be done, for certainly something of this kind was exceedingly wanted in the University and he wished it might be in that Book. - In this I cordially joined. He asked what I thought of Gisborne’s Answer to Paley which he had not read. - I said I thought it good as far as it went, but I did not think Gisborne a strong Writer. - “A little inclined to Methodism, is he not?” “Yes Sir, I think he is, and unfortunately when his idea is abroad the weight of what is written is much lessened - to instance Wilberforce’s work.” “Yes. And nothing can be more unfortunate - it really does infinite mischief - it makes people afraid of expressing sentiments they ought to express, and acting as they ought to act lest they should have some of those absurd [oe] attributed to them. - One of the strongest examples of this is the question of the Slave Trade - Really I believe the question could not but have been carried if it had not been for some Methodistical sentences that Wilberforce absurdly introduced into his speech which give such scope for those interested in the continuance of the Trade to try the force of ridicule & make a party against it. - But when Wilberforce supported in an Methodistical, and Fox on Jacobin principles, it certainly [oe] the measure - which now I am very much afraid will not early be brought back into so good a train.” - “It is not now the time to expect it,” - “No! It seems out for the present at least, and this is exceedingly to be lamented - certainly owing I do think (added he with much warmth) to the color thrown upon the question by those two circumstances.” - Here we were interrupted by the breaking up of a Card table and the Conversation became general. After Chapel Dr. Day (a Physician at Mr. Maltby’s house, and from Cambridge) who seemed to have come with the express design of shining at which he had laboured hard, but most unsuccessfully all day, introduced a philosophical subject in the perfect way possible as if on this to whew [sicsuperior knowledge. - But he was mistaken for Mr. Pitt was as much at home on this as on any other subject, to the surprise of most of the Company. However, the self-conceit and forwardness of this man, who talked at every thing with a most disgusting egotism and endeavor to engage Mr. Pitt in a dispute with him made Mr. Pitt more silent than he is when he likes his Company - yet his wit could not be wholly suppressed. Dr. Day, Mr. Mansel, and Mr. Maltby staid supper.
Saturday (yesterday) morning at breakfast the Conversation turned upon learned topics, niceties of the Greek language [oe] for the pronunciation of words etc. Here also Mr. Pitt displayed an exactness and a depth of learning that absolutely astonished Dr. Pearce & Dr. Mansel. He [Pitt] set them right in some points - quoting passages so promptly and aptly and naturally that as Dr. Mansel said “he [Pitt] seemed to have been doing nothing else all his life then studying Greek & Latin.” Mr. Pitt was particularly pleased with the manner as well as the knowledge & readiness with which my [oe] took a share in this Conversation. After he [Pitt] was gone, Dr. Mansel & Dr. Pearce expressed their gratitude for the opportunity the Bishop had afforded them of seeing this most extraordinary man in this private way. The only way as they said of knowing such a character. “The Powers of language cannot express what he is” said Dr. M[ansel]. 
Both had always had a high idea of his talents and his character, yet they confessed this visit had raised it far beyond what they could have conceived possible in man. Dr. Pearce said he once passed an Evening with [David] Garrick [the playwright], “that was the [most] pleasant Evening I ever passed in my life till the last - but this was nothing compared to this!” (meaning Thursday evening).
At dinner Mr. Pitt said General Moore and some other person whose name I forget, had positively assured him the anecdote of Buonaparte’s [sic] cruelly related by Mercier were strictly true - respecting the garrison at [oe], and the poisoning his own troops who were too ill to march. [scratched out] He showed the Company a Contract of Marriage between Abdullah Menon and an Egyptian woman which [oe] copied. [scratched out]
Mr. Pitt was probably more affected on Friday Evening when speaking of his Country from the knowledge that at this very time an immediate explosion is expected at Paris. The consequences of which to this Country is impossible to foresee.
While playing at Whist on Thursday Evening (the Duchess of Manchester, Mr. Pitt, the Dean of Ely, and myself the party), Dr. Mansel read out, at another table, some of the poetry of the Antijacobin, which drew his [Pitt’s] & my attention from Cards pretty compleatly; as Mr. Pitt commented upon the lines the whole time particularly the long poem of “New Morality.” He highly praised the description of Candor but objected to the Hymn to Lepeaux as being a parody upon what was too sound to be parodied with any propriety. 

The Bishop followed Mr. Pitt to town in a few days for [his] Deanery Residence, and went the next day to breakfast with him [Pitt] in Park Place, and wrote to me the following account of their conversation respecting Hist[ory] [of] the Int[erpretation] of Prophecy.

“…We had scarcely begun breakfast when he entered upon Mr. Kell’s Book. - he [Pitt] said he read as long as there was any light in his way to town, and got through the first Chap[ter] - he said that he was “exceedingly pleased” and very much struck by the minuteness of the circumstances - that there was only one thing wanting to make it [a] compleat demonstration, namely, to prove that the Books containing the Prophecies existed in their present state prior to the Events, of which he added he had not the slightest doubt, - that then the argument from Prophecy would be the simplest and most convincing possible. - He did not mention this as a defect in the work, for he considered it as both fair and right for this point to be taken for granted in a work where it could not be properly placed, but only as the one thing wanting to make that Vol. [a] compleat demonstration. He called it “an admirable Work,” observed how very large a portion of it was written by you, treating Mr. Kell’s share as nothing, and noticed the extensive Reading necessary for the writing of it. -
He [Pitt] thought you right, considering your feelings, in remaining concealed, that you certainly did forego a great deal of credit, but you avoided an impression which though unjust would not be very pleasant to you. - He meant that of Authorship according to its general meaning when applied to women. I assure you, my dearest Love, he spoke of the subject, the execution & the Writer exactly as you and I could have wished.
He expressed himself determined to go on with it, and is aware that the latter part is more interesting even than the former - he seemed impatient to read what remains. He said he was tempted to begin at the second Chap[ter], but that he had not yielded to the temptation as thinking it not fair towards you.”


Pretyman MSS, Ipswich Record Office: HA119:562/608. Mrs Tomline's Notebook on Pitt's visit to Buckden in Dec 1801.

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