3276. Robert Southey to Neville White, 26 March 1819

3276. Robert Southey to Neville White, 26 March 1819 ⁠* 

Keswick, March 26. 1819

My dear Neville,

I had long entertained the hope of one day seeing you in that situation which was so worthily filled in old times by Sir Richard Whittington, of delightful memory, and of going by your special invitation to the Lord Mayor’s dinner, there to be dieted upon turtle and venison, with all the exquisite &c.’s of the city. [1]  And now I must be content with turkey and tithe-pig in the county of Norfolk! [2]  See from what a height of expectation your letter has thrown me down. Seriously, my dear Neville, it seems to me like a dream, – and that, perhaps, because when the conduct of the lady’s father is looked at in the true point of view, there is more good feeling in it, and good sense also, than are usually met with in real life. [3]  It evinces a proper disregard of money, and a right judgment of your principles and disposition. On your part I can easily understand the repugnance you would feel at giving up the fair establishment which you had formed for yourself, and in which you had the reasonable prospect of acquiring an honourable fortune. The sacrifice of pride (I use the word in a good sense) which you have thus made is, I doubt not, properly appreciated. Upon any other point you should have a cheap dispensation for your samples, if I were a Pope, and put such things to sale.

The change in the pursuits and habits of your life will be very great, but you are not too old for it. [4]  But when you enter upon your new studies, take heed that you do not pursue them too closely, nor with too much anxiety. You may, without much difficulty, acquire as much as is necessary for your purpose. Do not be anxious for going beyond this, lest you should injure your health. You may push your studies afterwards quietly, and at leisure; but be contented at first with acquiring merely what is needful.

I send you half a letter rather than not write by return of post. The child is going on well, – the mother not altogether as I could wish; but a little time, we trust, will set everything to rights. I am closely employed, and yet shall not be able to reach London before the beginning of May. When do you leave it? and in what part of the land of turkeys are you to be fixed? and at what college do you propose to enter?

God bless you, my dear Neville.

Your affectionate friend,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 127–128. BACK

[1] White had abandoned his career as a London-based merchant in the hosiery trade and decided to become a clergyman. Southey here creates a good-natured fantasy around the idea that White might have become Lord Mayor of London, a post famously occupied by the merchant Sir Richard (‘Dick’) Whittington (c. 1350–1423; DNB), whose life was the subject of many ballads, chapbooks, puppet plays and even an opera. No doubt the prominent role of Whittington’s cat in these legends appealed to the cat-loving Southey. BACK

[2] A tithe-pig was traditionally held back as a payment for tithe, or church-rate. Norfolk, the county to which White was moving, was associated with the rearing of turkeys. By 1720 it was estimated that c. 250,000 turkeys per annum were walked from the county to markets in London, their feet dipped in tar or shod in leather boots to protect them. Turkeys are still reared there today, though transport links between the county and the capital have improved a little. BACK

[3] White married Charlotte Sewell (1799–1873) on 12 January 1820. She was the daughter of Joseph Sewell (1772–1844), a wealthy Norwich solicitor. The marriage occasioned White’s move to Norfolk and his new father-in-law was supportive of White’s decision to change careers and become a clergyman, despite the loss of income this would involve. BACK

[4] White enrolled at Peterhouse, Cambridge on 26 June 1819 to study for a Bachelor of Divinity degree as a ‘ten-year man’, i.e. a part-time, mature student (he graduated in 1829). He was ordained as a Deacon on 12 December 1819 and became a Curate at St Edmund the King, Norwich. BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)