Selected Letters – Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith was a 19th century clergyman who is probably best known today, if he’s known at all, for his letters. He was born in 1771 & educated with his brother at Winchester College (two other brothers went to Eton). He became a clergyman & lived in Edinburgh for some years where he was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, an influential periodical on literature, politics & social issues. even after leaving Edinburgh, Smith continued to contribute reviews & articles. He then moved to London, becoming well-known as a preacher & in society. He held the living at Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire for many years, later moving to a living in Taunton near Bristol & later becoming a canon of St Paul’s. He was happily married to Catherine & was a fond father to his daughter, Saba & son, Douglas.

If I was trying to describe Sydney Smith, the words good humoured & liberal come to mind. He had a genius for friendship. He wrote regularly to Francis Jeffreys & John Murray in Edinburgh. When he moved to London, he was introduced by his brother, Robert (known as Bobus), to Lord & Lady Holland, the great Whig political couple, where he become a frequent guest. He kept up a correspondence with both after he moved to Yorkshire. His letters are always respectful but never obsequious or servile. He is honest in his opinions & always interested in their family & friends.

Smith never received the preferments his friends believed him entitled to. He was a liberal Whig in an age of conservative Tory government. Church appointments were a matter of patronage & influence & Smith’s friends never had the influence that would have helped him to high office. I don’t see him as a particularly ambitious man, though. When he went to Foston, there had been no resident clergyman there for 150 years. He set about rebuilding the vicarage, built up the farm that came with the living & was a much-loved pastor to his parishioners. He was allowed to spend a few weeks away from his parish every year & went to London where he revelled in society & enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that he missed at home. His personality is particularly attractive to modern readers because he espoused many causes that weren’t mainstream at the time but have become so. He was anti-slavery, he was in favour of Catholic emancipation & his inclinations were liberal in social matters while always being a devout Anglican.

In later life, he moved to a living near Taunton &, during a brief period of Tory government, he was appointed as a Canon of St Paul’s which meant he could spend more time in London.

I think Lord Grey will give me some preferment if he stays in long enough; but the Upper Parsons live vindictively, and evince their aversion to a Whigg ministry by an improved health. The Bishop of Ely has the rancor to recover after three paralytic strokes, and the Dean of Lichfield to be vigorous at 82 –  and yet these are the men who are called Christians. Letter to J A Murray January 24th 1831

His father & brother died, leaving him enough money to live comfortably. Apart from the usual ills of old age, & the death of his son, Douglas, in 1829, he was a contented man by the end of his life.

The best way to demonstrate Sydney Smith’s personality, though, is not to try to describe him but to quote his letters. This description of himself in 1805 held true throughout his life,

You ask me about my prospects. I think I shall long remain as I am. I have no powerful friends. I belong to no party, I do not cant, I abuse canting everywhere, I am not conciliating, and I have not talents enough to force my way without these laudable and illaudable auxiliaries. This is as true a picture of my situation as I can give you. In the mean time I lead not an unhappy life, much otherwise, and am thankful for my share of good. Letter to Francis Jeffrey July 4th 1805

Here he advises a friend how to improve her low spirits. I can only agree with all 20 of his precepts but here are just a few,

1st. Live as well as you dare. 3rd. Amusing books. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not likely to end in active benevolence. 15th. make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. Letter to Lady Georgiana Morpeth February 16th 1820

He was popular in literary as well as political circles.

Dear Moore,
I have a breakfast of philosophers tomorrow at ten punctually. Muffins and metaphysics; crumpets and contradiction. Will you come?
Letter to Thomas Moore November 12th 1841

My dear Dickens,
I accept your obliging invitation conditionally. If I am invited by any man of greater genius than yourself, or one by whose works I have been more completely interested, I will repudiate you and dine with the more splendid phenomenon of the two.
Ever yours sincerely,
Sydney Smith     Letter to Charles Dickens May 14th 1842

However, my favourite quote comes from his Memoirs,

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.

15 thoughts on “Selected Letters – Sydney Smith

  1. There's more about his social life than his clerical duties in the letters but it was still a fascinating read. I've become interested in the Holland House set thanks to Sydney so he's set me on to learning more about early 19th century politics.


  2. He's very witty & a liberal soul. His parishioners loved him so he wasn't just a social butterfly & he could be very funny. He comes across as a contented man.


  3. I only realised the other day that Dickens named one of his sons Sydney Smith Haldeman after SS so they were obviously great friends. I think that comes across in the letter.


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