1698. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1809

1698. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick. Oct 20. 1809.

My dear friend

It is so long since I have written to you that my conscience would rise up in judgement against me, – if the silence on your part had not been longer than mine. During this interval one or two things have occurred to me which you will not be displeased to hear. – For two or three years past I have occasionally interchanged letters with Walter Scott, – originating in an interchange of books. Some three months ago he wrote to tell me that Canning had a great desire to serve me, – that he talked the matter over with him (W Scott) & Ellis, – that he would have offered me the situation of precis-writer in his own office, but on considerations its emoluments were not thought equivalent to the sacrifice of time & the change of abode required, – & that he left it to Scott to find out by consulting me in what manner I could be served most conformably to my own wishes & pursuits. Diplomatic situations, or professorships at the Universities were mentioned. – Concerning the former my reply was, that the time in which such a situation was desirable was gone by. (My Uncle being in England & I myself settled with my books about me.) – concerning the latter, – they are fenced round about with tests, – I cannot go thro the door, & will not leap over the hedge. Moreover my way of life was determined, – it was my deliberate & unrepented choice, & no prospects however flattering could induce me to change it. I asked however to have the office of Historiographer created for me, with a respectable salary. – While things were in this state I learnt that the Stewardship of the Derwentwater Estates was likely soon to be vacated, & I was advised to ask for this. Accordingly I wrote to Scott, & at the same time to Wynn (my constant privy Counsellor) asking his advice. [1]  Both thought it the best thing that could be sought for, – & both urged me to obtain Lord Lonsdales recommendation for it, as paramount . – Well – behold me place-hunting, – I write my plain story to my twenty-mile-off-neighbour Humphrey Senhouse (the only friend whom I have made in the county) – requesting him to apply to Ld Lonsdale, – & I write also to Sir G. Beaumont to the same effect. [2]  Both take the matter up warmly, – Ld Lonsdale enters very handsomely into my views, – & formal application is made for it xxx by Sir G Beaumont, sanctioned by his name, to Ld Mulgrave, [3]  in whose gift it is to be, & with whom Sir G. is very intimate. The answer under a plea that very peculiar qualifications are required for the situation, implied that he meant to give it to one of his own relations or immediate dependants, – x xxx other information tended to corroborate the first part of his statement, & I declined soliciting farther, as Lord L. would have had me do.

So ended this quest. With respect to the Historiographers place Canning said there was a great objection to creating any new place, however just the occasion; – when lo! to the great surprize of all parties I discovered that the place already existed & was held by <of> all men in the world by Dutens the Frenchman. [4]  So C. promised all his influence for it whenever the said Dutens should go to Heaven, – & you know the least thing you can to be expected from a Frenchman is that he should go there to oblige you one. – The topsy-turvy changes in Administration which have just taken place, put an end to the story.

Meantime the Ballantynes, who projected some twelve months ago an Edinburgh Annual Register with their Magnus Apollo [5]  W Scott, applied to me to write the history of Spanish affairs for the year (1808) – this, liking the subject, I undertook. They found themselves woefully disappointed in the sample of the other part of the history which was sent them, – so much so that they cancelled it, & applied to me to undertake the whole, – for which they offered me 400 £ a year. I have accepted it for one year on trial, – hoping & indeed expecting to continue it, – less in love with the employment than with the ‘sweet remuneration’ that awaits it. [6]  – My books do not sell, & leave me behind hand with Longman, – tho the property in his hands when sold would give a balance in my favour. But if in this Register I should suit Ballantyne’s purpose, – as well as the his terms suit mine, I shall very speedily get above the world. 100 £ of the first years payment shall be remitted to you. As yet there is but little progress made, – one sheet printed, & not above four written, but they are in haste, & so am I, & the volume will be published in the spring, the second will follow as speedily as possible, & I have good <hope> of paying you a second hundred in the course of the ensuing <next> year.

You need not be told that what I write will be done with perfect sincerity & perfect freedom. Aloof from all parties & thoroughly despising all, my two x main principles are, the necessity of reform at home, & the necessity of continuing the war as long as Buonaparte & his system are in existence. My first chapter has astonished Ballantyne. He is exceedingly delighted with it, – looking bookseller-like to its effect upon the sale of his work, – & submits to see his own party censured because there is a heavier condemnation of the Talents. [7]  Some passages he requested might be expunged, – I copied them fairly out to reinsert hereafter, – & whenever you visit me at the Lakes (which I hope & trust you will one day do, & Mrs May with you) you will be amused at seeing the Castrations.

There will be nothing of mine in the fourth Quarterly, except Holmes’s American Annals, which were post-poned in the last number. [8] 

My first volume will be thicker than I wish it to be. [9]  496 pages are printed & I think it will not be comprized in less than 700. The whole copy is at the printers, except the supplementary notes. These contain a great deal of very curious matter. – I want to transmit your some questions to your brother William, [10]  when I have time to write them, chiefly respecting the mixture of languages & races which has taken place. My second volume will be more interesting than the first, [11]  but this first is a good book, & whatever be its immediate reception (of which I augur very little) will x do me honour hereafter.

Remember us to Mrs May & believe me

yours very affectionately

R Southey.

Should you in the course of the next ten days or fortnight be near New Cavendish Street, you may see at Miss Bethams No 14, – the pictures of your god-daughter, her mother & brother, – all good likenesses, & the children most remarkably so, – together with one of myself, which is not so fortunate. [12] 


* Address: To/ John May Esqr / Richmond/ Surry./ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ OCT23/ 1809; [partial] 10o’Clock/ OC.2[MS torn]/ 1809[MS torn]
Watermark: 1808
Endorsements: No 144 1809/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 20th October/ recd. 23d do/ ansd. 29th do.
MS: Morgan Library, Call Number: Bound MA 4500 0045, Record ID 221063: Accession Number MA 4500 (45). ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] For these letters, see Southey to Walter Scott, 6 July 1809 (Letter 1648) and Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 8 July 1809 (Letter 1651). BACK

[2] For Southey’s letters to Beaumont and Senhouse, see Southey to Sir George Beaumont, 17 July 1809 (Letter 1656) and Southey to Humphrey Senhouse, 25 July 1809 (Letter 1659). BACK

[3] Henry Phipps, 1st Earl of Mulgrave (1755–1831; DNB): diplomatist and politician who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1807. BACK

[4] Louis Dutens (1730–1812; DNB), a French Protestant, held the post of Historiographer Royal until his death on 23 May 1812. Southey’s campaign for the post proved unsuccessful and it went to one of his particular bêtes noires, James Stanier Clarke (c. 1765–1834; DNB). BACK

[5] Meaning his mentor or luminary. BACK

[6] From 1810 to 1812 Southey contributed to the ‘History of Europe’ for 1808–1810 in James Ballantyne’s Edinburgh Annual Register. BACK

[7] The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ was in government during 1806–1807. BACK

[8] Southey reviewed Abiel Holmes (1763–1837), American Annals; or, a Chronological History of America, from its Discovery in 1492 to 1806 in the Quarterly Review, 2 (November 1809), 319–337. BACK

[9] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil was published in 1810. BACK

[10] William Henry May (1785–1849), John May’s youngest brother and business partner in Brazil. BACK

[11] The second volume of his History of Brazil was published in 1817. BACK

[12] The postscript is inserted at the top of the first page of the letter. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)