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NOTICE OF LADY HOLLAND'S MEMOIR OF
THE REV. SYDNEY SMITH.
Published in the Guardian, June 1855.
LADY HOLLAND, we think, has done well in publishing this book. It cannot but raise the reputation of her father, and vindicate it from the misconception which may still linger around it. It has never, indeed, been anything but a vulgar error, and that not a prevalent one, to suppose that Mr. Sydney Smith was a mere jester. But the nobler qualities which distinguished him are strongly set forth in these two volumes ; and their readers may cordially adopt the able summary of them given by Mrs. Austin (II. vii.) :-"My opinion of Sydney Smith's great and noble qualities—his courage and magnanimity, his large humanity, his scorn of all meanness and all imposture, his rigid obedience to duty—was very high before. It is much higher now, that his inward life has been laid bare before me. He lived, as he says, in a house of glass. He was brave and frank in every utterance of his thoughts and feelings ; yet, though I have found opinions to which I could not assent, and tastes which are certainly opposed to my own, I have not found a sentiment unworthy a man of sense, honour, and humanity. I have found no trace of a mean, an unkind, or an equivocal action."
Not, of course, that his religious views were such as most readers of this paper will sympathize with ; and it is amusing to see the humorous disgust with which, at the end of his life, he was filled by the apparition of "Puseyism.” But he seems hardly to have noticed it but in the most superficial manner (see especially II, 459, 470); and on the whole, we know no reason to question the truth of what he says of himself (I. 235, II. 399) :-“I defy -- to quote a single passage of my writing contrary to the doctrines of the Church of England.” We have, however, made the double reference to this passage, which is quoted in the Memoir, from the Letters, because the Memoir omits a significant sequel to the sentence—“ for I have always avoided speculative, and preached practical, religion.” There is a converse omission in another part of this quotation in the Letter compared with the Memoir, which explains the above blank in a manner easily understood by those who remember the period.
It would be out of place to dwell on his political or ecclesiastical writings. But it is indisputable that very many of the objects of the former have been attained, and were greatly promoted by his vigorous and independent advocacy (see I. 26-35); and with regard to his celebrated defence of Cathedrals, if carried on somewhat roughly, and not wholly from the loftiest motive, it at least showed a juster appreciation of the value of those institutions than was fashionable at the time. We remember his sketch of the uses to which they might be put (2d Letter to Archdeacon Singleton, Works, III. 100), being taken as the text of one of the speeches in Parliament against the Bill of 1840 ; and we shall be surprised if the present Cathedral Commissioners do not more or less recur to the substance of them.
It is well known that he was exemplary as a parochial minister, both at Foston and at Combe Florey, and the more creditably, as it was not according to the natural bent of his mind. There are some pleasant notices of this (1. 171, 352-3, 393-4), and we could have wished for more. There is, however, a curious qualification of this statement to be made, of which we shall say a word hereafter.
Literary taste was not his peculiar forte, yet his judgments of books seem almost always sound and sensible.
There is one great exception, which, as worshippers of Madame de Sévigné, we cannot pass over : his strange depreciation of that immortal letter-writer, and preference of Lady M. Wortley and (apparently) of Horace Walpole to her (I. 376 ; II. 131, 206, 452). We must console ourselves with the very different judgment of a still abler critic, Sir James Mackintosh (Life, II. 211-216). We have heard him express similar heterodoxy about Pascal's Letters.
His fame will rest on his combination of infinite wit and humour with the soundest sense and the clearest and most practical wisdom-yet more on the former than on the latter. Others have equalled and excelled him in these : in those, in pleasantry of every kind, in conversation, in letters, in books, we believe no one ever came up to him. Of his conversation we can speak from having known him familiarly; and feel strongly what is often said in these volumes (I. 270, &c.), and is indeed commonly true in such cases, that it needs to have been heard. The quantity of the fun—the suddenness, unpreparedness, unexpectedness of it—its harmlessness (for, though generally personal, and often concerning the