Sunday, 15 December 2013

Penguin no. 669: The Smith of Smiths
by Hesketh Pearson

"I wish you would tell Mr Sydney Smith that of all the men I ever heard of and never saw, I have the greatest curiosity to see and the greatest interest to know him." - Charles Dickens

Sydney Smith (1771-1845) was christened 'the Smith of Smiths' by the Whig politician Macaulay. Advised that a Mr Smith was paying him a visit, and wondering which of the Mr Smiths of his wide acquaintanceship it could be, Macauley was surprised to find himself facing one he had never met yet whom he immediately recognised as 'the greatest master of ridicule who [had] appeared in England since Swift'.

The two men were to some extent contrasts: the younger took himself very seriously, the elder was renowned for his sense of fun and his entertaining conversation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sydney Smith's wit was spontaneous and his delivery unrehearsed; accounts of his conversation suggest it as a series of witticisms often accompanied by actions which amplified the effect. Chesterton notes that although he is known as a wit, Sydney Smith is more correctly considered an exponent of nonsense, a precursor of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. His critics derided him as a buffoon, but their descriptions must be measured against account after account of the sheer pleasure of an evening in his company.

But as the quote from Macaulay implies, Sydney Smith's legacy rests upon far more than his reputation as an entertaining dinner guest. He is portrayed here as a man who believed in liberty without reservation, and one willing to argue against every imposition, instance of corruption and vested interest he encountered, and to call out hypocrisy when he recognised it. He was guided only by a belief in what was right and reasonable, and was unconstrained by the likely cost of speaking his mind. Chesterton notes that he not only believed in freedom, but he recognised himself as free, and he took from this a licence to express his opinion without self-censorship, irrespective of the consequences. His speech was never tempered to suit the fashion of the moment or the views of his audience; his targets were not chosen to serve his own interests but only to extend the franchise of freedom.

An example can be found in is his championing of Catholic emancipation even though he had little sympathy for the rituals of Catholicism and no sympathy at all for the concerns of Dissenters. He considered the historical grievances used to justify the restrictions imposed on Catholics as an unsupportable and self-serving argument which cloaked the real intent of safeguarding influence; the call of 'No Popery' served to disenfranchise a section of the population, limit competition and ensure that power was retained by those presently in control. He also saw a double-standard in the Protestants' actions:
Our conduct to Ireland, during the whole of this war, has been that of a man who subscribes to hospitals, weeps at charity sermons, carries out broth and blankets to beggars, and then comes home and beats his wife and children. We had compassion for the victims of all other oppression and justice, except our own.
Sydney Smith was so effective in his ridicule of contemporary Protestant attitudes with regard to the question of Catholic emancipation that the opposition broke down during his lifetime and reform became possible.

When he was a young man living in Edinburgh, Sydney Smith had suggested to three fellow underemployed and liberally-minded friends, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Brougham and Francis Horner, that they should join together to establish a quarterly journal devoted not only to reviewing books, but to detailed discussions of the questions the books raised; this was brought to fruition as the Edinburgh Review.  Hesketh Pearson describes the venture as 'a daring and dangerous experiment', and one which had to be undertaken in the strictest secrecy.
If [a man] so much as hinted that the Catholics should be allowed to sit in Parliament, if he breathed a syllable against the senseless bigotry of the King, or suggested that the Slave Trade was iniquitous, he was assailed with all the Billingsgate of the French Revolution - Jacobin, Athiest, Incendiary, Regicide. Not a murmur against any abuse was permitted; to raise your voice against the monstrous punishments of the Game Laws, or against any injustice inflicted upon the poor by the rich, was enough to wreck your career and stamp you as blasphemous and seditious. 
It was an age of patronage, and so an ambitious man had to be wary of speaking out against the status quo. And journalism was not a career choice which was liable to induce anyone's admiration; it was considered a disreputable profession and journalists themselves were viewed as lowly figures best avoided. The Edinburgh Review was an immediate success, and Sydney Smith continued as a contributor for the next twenty-five years. It brought him renown, but he paid a price in terms of advancement in his chosen profession.

It seems to rile Hesketh Pearson (one hundred years later) that Sydney Smith was not better-rewarded during his lifetime. Despite his reputation and his achievements, despite paving the way for many of the Whig's reforming policies, despite his friendship with prime ministers and others with influence, Sydney Smith spent most of his working life as a country clergyman; he was never offered a bishopric, and never rose higher than Canon of St Paul's. And he carried on this humble profession even though he had little affinity with the countryside - he believed that almost everything worthwhile was to be found within the Golden Parallelogram, which he defined to be the portion of London enclosed by Oxford St, Piccadilly, Regent St and Hyde Park. At first he installed a curate in his living and continued his dining out in London, but the advent of the Clergy Residence Bill meant that he was required to spend most of his life exiled from the places he loved.

How wonderful to be able to take down a book at random from a book shelf and discover the story of this admirable man, and through it to also learn something of the history, mores and personalities of 19th Century England. Hesketh Pearson's admiration for the subject of this biography is evident on every page of this interesting book; if Sydney Smith had any faults Pearson clearly considered them insignificant when compared with his character and his integrity. And I share his regret, manifest throughout, of all the conversations which weren't recorded, all the witticisms no one thought to write down and for the fact that such a remarkable man can now only be known through the accounts of his contemporaries.

First published in January 1934. Published in Penguin Books 1948.

Read online: The Works of Sydney Smith: including his contributions to the Edinburgh Review
Introduction to Selected Writings of Sydney Smith (an essay)
Ina Ferris: The Debut of the Edinburgh Review, 1802
Sydney Smith Association

By the same author:
Penguin no. 791: Gilbert and Sullivan


  1. Interesting! Wonder if this is where The Smiths got their name from?

  2. The Gutenberg Project ( has at least Peter Plymley's letters.

    It seems to me unlikely that Smith himself made such headway for Catholic emancipation; certainly he wrote ably in favor of it, and not that long after the Gordon riots had wrecked stretches of London. Bagehot's essay on the first Edinburgh Reviewers is very readable, and does Smith justice; but Bagehot thinks it just as well Smith never became a bishop.



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