Friday, June 4, 2010

Windham’s love of Johnson

It’s two centuries to the day since the death of William Windham, a British statesman. He was a good friend of Edmund Burke, one of the 18th century’s leading political thinkers, and of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was probably responsible for Windham keeping a diary. Indeed, his diary entries at the time of Johnson’s death show a great affection for the man - and a love of ice skating!

Windham was born in 1750 at Felbrigg, near Cromer in Norfolk, an estate owned by his family for centuries, and he was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford. During the 1770s, he made several tours of European countries. In the first half of the 1780s, he went to Ireland as chief secretary to Lord Northington, and entered Parliament as MP for Norwich. He stood for the Whigs, and was one of those involved (along with his friend Edmund Burke) in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a Governor of India. On the outbreak of the French Revolution, Windham sided with William Pitt.

In 1794, Windham was appointed Secretary-at-War, and a privy councillor. In 1798, he married Cecelia Forest, but they had no children. The same year, he resigned with Pitt when the King prevented Catholic emancipation, and, in 1802, he lost his seat because of his opposition to peace with France. He was again returned to Parliament as member for St Mawes, Cornwall, in 1804, and again served as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies between 1806 and 1807. He died on 4 June 1810, two hundred years ago today. More biographical information is available from Wikipedia or History Home.

Windham wrote a diary for much of his adult life. It was passed down through the generations to another William Windham, who, shortly before his death, gave the manuscript to his sister Cecilia Anne Baring, nee Windham, the second wife of the founder of Barings Bank. She edited the manuscript and it was published in 1866 by Longmans, Green and Co as The Diary of the Right Hon. William Windham, 1784 to 1810. There have been many editions since then (see Amazon for recent prints), but the original is freely available at Internet Archive.

Mrs Henry Baring (the editor’s name as given on the book) writes in the preface that the diary ‘is in truth chiefly a record of Mr Windham’s health and feelings, made for himself alone, which can hardly be supposed to possess much general interest; but there are many passages interspersed in it, strongly indicative of his character, which I trust I shall be forgiven for wishing to rescue from oblivion. . . If therefore, after much consideration, I determine to submit these pages to the press, it is not with a view to enhance the fame of the writer, but to preserve some portions of a relic consigned to me, before time shall have obliterated all names and traces of the former possessors of Felbrigg [family home, now a National Trust property], and whilst there are still living those who cling with fondness to its memories. . . [Moreover,] it is possible that, by a comparison with other memoirs of the time, these papers may contribute to elucidate some of the important transactions of the age in which Mr Windham lived.’

She also quotes Earl Grey speaking about Windham in the House of Lords after his death: ‘He was a man of a great, original, and commanding genius, with a mind cultivated with the richest stores of intellectual wealth, and a fancy winged to the highest flights of a most captivating imagery, of sound and spotless integrity, with a warm spirit but a generous heart, and of a courage and determination so characteristic as to hold him forward as the strong example of what the old English heart could effect and endure. He had, indeed, his faults, but they seemed, like the skilful disposition of shade in works of art, to make the impression of his virtues more striking, and gave additional grandeur to the outline of his character.’

The book contains a second preface, one written much earlier by George Ellis who never finished a biography of Windham. In this preface, Ellis writes about how he believes Windham was encouraged to write a diary by his friend Samuel Johnson. The great thing to be recorded (said Johnson, according to Ellis) is ‘the state of your own mind, and you should write down everything that you remember; for you cannot judge at first what is good or bad: and write immediately, while the impression is fresh, for it will not be the same a week afterwards.’ He further quotes (from Boswell’s Life of Johnson) a conversation between Windham and Johnson, which concluded with Johnson’s advice: ‘Every day will improve another. Dies diem docet, by observing at night where you failed in the day and by resolving to fail so no more!’ This conversation took place in June 1783, and Windham began keeping his diary in July that year.

Moreover, Ellis argues, the diary itself is exactly conformable to Dr Johnson’s advice in being devoted to the purpose of self-examination: ‘the employment of time is punctually brought to account, and severely scrutinised; and many pages are filled with expressions of regret for the valuable hours unprofitably wasted; with lamentations over those habits of indolence from which neither the bustle of business nor the tranquillity of solitude was found to be a sufficient preservative; and with resolutions of future amendment; resolutions, however, which, when recorded, only served to awaken new remorse, because they were constantly succeeded by fresh avowals of repeated negligence.’

Here are several extracts from the diary, the first few largely concerning the death of Samuel Johnson, and the last two being the final entries in the diary before Windham’s own death.

7 December 1784
‘Ten minutes past two PM. After waiting some short time in the adjoining room, I was admitted to Dr Johnson in his bedchamber, where, after placing me next him on the chair, he sitting in his usual place on the east side of the room (and I on his right hand), he put into my hands two small volumes (an edition of the New Testament), as he afterwards told me, saying, ‘Extremum hoc munus morientis habeto.’ He then proceeded to observe that I was entering upon a life which would lead me deeply into all the business of the world; that he did not condemn civil employment, but that it was a state of great danger; and that he had therefore one piece of advice earnestly to impress upon me that I would set apart every seventh day for the care, of my soul; that one day, the seventh, should be employed in repenting what was amiss in the six preceding, and for fortifying my virtue for the six to come; that such a portion of time was surely little enough for the meditation of eternity. . . I then took occasion to say how much I felt, what I had long foreseen that I should feel, regret at having spent so little of my life in his company. I stated this as an instance where resolutions are deferred till the occasions are past. For some time past I had determined that such an occasion of self-reproach should no longer subsist, and had built upon the hope of passing in his society the chief part of my time, at the moment when it was to be apprehended we were about to lose him for ever! I had no difficulty of speaking to him thus of my apprehensions; I could not help, on the other hand, entertaining hopes; but with these I did not like to trouble him, lest he should conceive that I thought it necessary to flatter him. He answered hastily that he was sure I would not; and proceeded to make a compliment to the manliness of my mind, which, whether deserved or not, ought to be remembered that it may be deserved. . .’

11 December 1784
‘First day of skating; ice fine. Find I have lost nothing since last year. Between nine and ten went to Sir Joshua, whom I took up by the way to see Dr Johnson - Strachan and Langton there; no hopes, though a great discharge had taken place from the legs.’

13 December 1784
‘. . . While I was writing . . , received the fatal account, so long dreaded, that Dr Johnson was no more! May those prayers which he incessantly poured from a heart fraught with the deepest devotion, find that acceptance with Him to whom they were addressed, which piety so humble and so fervent may seem to promise!’

15 December 1784
‘The two days passed . . . afford a strong example how much more is sometimes done on supposed occasions of idleness than in times professedly devoted to study. Stopping at shop and looking into some things in Simson’s Algebra, I felt at that moment what an amazing difference would take place in my mind had I employed the years of leisure which had lapsed through my life in making myself master of the subjects then before me. To these reflections my practice so far conformed, that, after going home about eleven o’clock, I sat up till past two employed very diligently in reducing the formula which I had given in the morning. The work since that time has never been resumed; neither that nor any other kind of work has been done. I cannot, indeed, say that all the time has been misspent; much of it has been employed in performing the last duties of respect and affection to the great man [Johnson] that is gone. But two entire mornings have been taken up, I fear, with little utility of any sort, certainly with none to myself, in attendance on Indian business, and much the greater part of the time dissipated in such avocations as I fear will be for ever incident to a life in London.’

7 November 1790
‘On Thursday I conceive it was, that a material incident happened the arrival of Mr Burke’s pamphlet [Considerations on the French Revolution]. Never was there, I suppose, a work so valuable in its kind, or that displayed powers of so extraordinary a nature. It is a work that may seem capable of overturning the National Assembly, and turning the stream of opinion throughout Europe. One would think, that the author of such a work, would be called to the government of his country, by the combined voice of every man in it. What shall be said of the state of things when it is remembered that the writer is a man decried, persecuted and proscribed; not being much valued, even by his own party, and by half the nation considered as little better than an ingenious madman!’

12 May 1810
‘Walked out. Omitted foolishly to enquire at St James’s Church, otherwise should have learnt that there was to be an administration of the Sacrament at seven, which would just have suited me, as besides the privacy, I could have gone then before I took any physic.’

13 May 1810
‘Sorry that, for want of earlier enquiry, I had missed the Sacrament at St James’s at seven o’clock. Remedied the loss by writing to Fisher, and afterwards going, when I received it in his room in company only with Mrs Fisher. Blane in evening, and Wilson; which last dissuaded me the operation; Elliot afterwards. Not convinced by Wilson, as he has no hopes to give of evil stopping or being removed.’

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