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82: THE SMITH OF SMITHS

May 24, 2014

#82:  THE SMITH OF SMITHS.  It may satisfy one’s conscience to know of Sydney Smith that, having been thrown into the clergy by an uncaring father (or so the story goes) he applied himself to divinity and physic, to be of genuine use and comfort to his congregation; and that as cofounder of the famed Edinburgh Review, arguably the high point of British nineteenth century periodical publishing, he wrote with passion and animation on behalf of the poor and persecuted.  From there on out (if you were so terribly troubled) you are free to enjoy Smith, love him even, not so much for his accomplishments as for his spirit, which was a compound of good will, sociability and amicable wit.  He is the decent and genial side of the Anglican clergy so aptly savaged in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley; one pictures him at the sumptuous candlelit dinners of Holland House, purifying the air of privilege by sheer geniality and an ardent appetite (no writer ever sat down to a meal with more palpable satisfaction than Smith).  These are not the world’s highest virtues, but they should not be overlooked, and they made Smith one of the memorable characters of British history.  His political writings—there is an anthology edited by Auden, Selected Writings, Faber, 1937—may keep the interest of a student of the period; but his letters will endear him to anyone with an ear for elegance and a heart for good company.  The Selected Letters edited by Nowell C. Smith for the Oxford World’s Classics is a little gem and should be brought back into print.  And Smith’s benign spirits have been ably bottled in two excellent biographies:  Sydney Smith: A Biography by Alan Bell (Oxford, 1980) and, a piece of splendor, The Smith of Smiths (Random, 1984), the high point of Hesketh Pearson’s long career of biographizing.  “Madam,” Smith said once to a neighbor at dinner, “I have been looking for a person who dislikes gravy all my life.  Let us swear eternal friendship.”  Done.

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