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THE REV. SYDNEY SMITH:
HIS LIFE, CHARACTER, AND WRITINGS.
(FROM THE EDINBURGH REVIEW, JULY, 1855.)
A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. By his Daughter,
LADY HOLLAND. With Selections from his Letters. Edited by Mrs. Austin. In 2 vols. London : 1855.
The publication of this book affords us the opportunity for which we have been anxiously watching, which we must ere long have found or made for ourselves had it not presented itself. We should be guilty of an unpardonable neglect of duty were we to allow Sydney Smith to be definitively placed amongst the illustrious band of English worthies in the Temple of Fame at the risk of seeing too low a pedestal assigned to him, without urging on the attention of contemporaries, and recording for the instruction of posterity, his claims to rank as a great public benefactor, as well as his admitted superiority in what we must make bold to call his incidental and subordinate character of “wit. It was in this Journal that he commenced his brilliant and eminently useful career as a social, moral, and poli
tical reformer. He persevered in that career through good and evil report, with unabated vigour and vivacity, both in writing and conversation, until the greater part of his original objects had been attained ; and the simplest recapitulation of these would be sufficient to show that his countrymen have durable benefits and solid services, as well as pleasant thoughts and lively images, to tbank him for.
With, perhaps, the single exception of Lord Brougham, no one man within living memory has done more to promote the improvement and well-being of mankind, by waging continual war, with pen and tongue, against ignorance and prejudice in all their modifications and varieties; nor should it be forgotten, that, although he wielded weapons very like those which had been employed in the immediately preceding age to undermine law, order, and religion, his exquisite humour was uniformly exerted on the side of justice, virtue, and rational freedom. Indeed, it would hardly have been possible to pervert or misapply so rare and distinctive a gift, being, as it notoriously was, the intense expression, the flower, the cream, the quintessence, of reason and good sense. We will not say that, like Goldsmith, he adorned everything he touched, but he compelled everything he touched to appear in its natural shape and genuine colours. In his hands the logical process called the reductio ad absurdum operated like the spear of Ithuriel. No form of sophistry or phase of bigotry could help throwing off its disguise at his approach ; and the dogma which has been deemed questionable touching ridicule in general, may be confidently predicated of his, namely, that it was literally and emphatically the test of truth.
Sydney Smith's Life: he who opens this book under the expectation of reading in it curious adventures, important transactions, or public events, had better close the volume, for none of these things will he find therein.'
So stands the first sentence of Lady Holland's preface, and such an announcement at starting must be admitted to be the reverse of a temptation or a lure.
Nothing,' she proceeds, can be more thoroughly private and eventless than the narrative I am about to give; yet I feel myself, and I have reason to believe there are many who will feel with me, that this Life is not, therefore, uninteresting or unimportant; for, though circumstances over which my father bad no control forbade his taking that active share in the affairs of his country for which his talents and bis character so eminently fitted him, yet neither circumstances nor power could suppress these talents, or subdue and enfeeble that character; and I believe I may assert, without danger of contradiction, that by them, and the use he has made of them, he has earned for himself a place amongst the great men of his time and country.
Such being the case, however, his talents, and the employment of them, are alone before the world. This is but half the picture, and I believe few who have known so much do not wish to know more.
The mode of life, the heart, the habits, the thoughts and feelings, the conversation, the home, the occupations of such a man,-all, in short, which can give life and reality to the picture,-are as yet wanting; and it is to endeavour to supply this want that I have ventured to undertake this task.'
The task was a labour of love, and, like almost all such labours, it has been efficiently as well as conscientiously performed. This monument erected by filial piety to our revered and lamented friend's memory, will at once compel unhesitating and universal assent to what might otherwise be thought an exaggerated estimate of his genius and his worth. It was a theory of Lavater that we insensibly contract a certain degree of physical resemblance, especially as regards expression, to those with whom we live much in domestic intimacy. Be this as it may, there can be little doubt that a master mind exercises a powerful influence on the feelings, understandings, and modes of thought of those who are brought into hourly contact with it through a series of years. When the head of a family, besides bearing the indelible stamp of intellectual superiority, is of a genial, affectionate, and communicative disposition, the other members commonly contract a habit of looking at objects from the same point of view or through the same medium, adopt similar models of excellence, and square their conduct by analogous standards of propriety.
It is upon this principle that we account for what, under the circumstances, may be termed the fortunate agreement of tone, taste, and turn of mind between Sydney Smith and his biographer. No one but an admiring, sympathising, and cordially co-operating daughter, or helpmate, could or would have supplied the most suggestive, illustrative, and consequently most valuable portions of the work; those, for example, descriptive of the Parsonage of Foston, his house, his furniture, his equipages, his establishment, and his way of life there. The earnestness and singleness of purpose with which these passages are written, actually impart some of the paternal force and colouring to the language, thereby compensating for the occasional negligence of the composition and a want of polish in the style.
Mrs. Austin, who has edited the second volume containing a selection from the Letters, was also well qualified by a friendship of many years, by reciprocated esteem, and by intellectual accomplishments, to form a just and adequate conception of her undertaking. She has executed it, as might have been anticipated, with irreproachable discretion and discrimination; and altogether, although it may sound strange that the delineation of a character so essentially masculine as Sydney Smith's should have been reserved for female pens, we believe that any disappointment which may be felt after a patient perusal of these volumes, may be mainly attributable to incorrect and illusory notions of the scope and capabilities of such a biography. The life of a writer, or artist, is in his works. Their original charm and influence cannot be reproduced by any vividness of description or eloquence of narrative: the excitement of surprise or novelty is unattainable; and the utmost that can reasonably be expected from a "Memoir like the one before us is, that it shall revive agreeable reminiscences, awaken elevating associations, stimulate honourable ambition, supply fresh beacons for our guidance, and enable us, for the edification of the living, to arrive at a just estimate of the merits and demerits of the dead.
The leading incidents of Sydney Smith's career are soon told, and a brief summary of these will form a