When it first appeared in 1918, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was a bracing tonic: an antidote to the bloated hagiographies of nineteenth-century heroes and heroines—those “mouthing bungling hypocrites,” as Strachey put it in a letter to Virginia Woolf. In this essay, published a year later, Strachey turned his gimlet eye to a peripheral figure of the prior century, British Member of Parliament Thomas Creevey, whose “life flowed rapidly, gaily, and unobtrusively through the fat pastures of high society.” Though Creevey did not have quite the prominence of some of Strachey’s other targets, the smallness of his subject was not misaligned with his larger project. “The History of the Victorian Age will never be written,” he stated in the preface to Eminent Victorians, “we know too much about it.” Instead, the historian should “shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hither-to undivined.” Almost a hundred years later, his sketches seem progenitors of an entire genre of unforgiving biography.
Clio is one of the most glorious of the Muses; but, as everyone knows, she (like her sister Melpomene) suffers from a sad defect: she is apt to be pompous. With her buskins, her robes, and her airs of importance she is at times, indeed, almost intolerable. But fortunately the Fates have provided a corrective. They have decreed that in her stately advances she should be accompanied by certain apish, impish creatures, who run round her tittering, pulling long noses, threatening to trip the good lady up, and even sometimes whisking to one side the corner of her drapery, and revealing her under garments in a most indecorous manner. They are the diarists and letter-writers, the gossips and journalists of the past, the Pepyses and Horace Walpoles and Saint Simons, whose function it is to reveal to us the littleness underlying great events and to remind us that history itself was once real life. Among them is Mr. Creevey. The Fates decided that Mr. Creevey should accompany Clio, with appropriate gestures, during that part of her progress which is measured by the thirty years preceding the accession of Victoria; and the little wretch did his job very well.
It might almost be said that Thomas Creevey was "born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something a round belly." At any rate, we know nothing of his youth, save that he was educated at Cambridge, and he presents himself to us in the early years of the nineteenth century as a middle-aged man, with a character and a habit of mind already fixed and an established position in the world. In 1803 we find him what he was to be for the rest of his life—a Member of Parliament, a familiar figure in high society, an insatiable gossip with a rattling tongue. That he should have reached and held the place he did is a proof of his talents, for he was a very poor man; for the greater part of his life his income was less than £200 a year. But those were the days of patrons and jobs, pocket-boroughs and sinecures; they were the days, too, of vigorous bold living, torrential talk, and splendid hospitality; and it was only natural that Mr. Creevey, penniless and immensely entertaining, should have been put into Parliament by a Duke and welcomed in every great Whig house in the country with open arms. It was also only natural that, spending his whole political life as an advanced Whig, bent upon the destruction of abuses, he should have begun that life as a member for a pocket-borough and ended it as the holder of a sinecure.
For a time his poverty was relieved by his marriage with a widow who had means of her own. But Mrs. Creevey died, her money went to her daughters by her previous husband, and Mr. Creevey reverted to a possessionless existence—without a house, without servants, without property of any sort—wandering from country mansion to country mansion, from dinner-party to dinner-party, until at last in his old age, on the triumph of the Whigs, he was rewarded with a pleasant little post which brought him in about £600 a year. Apart from these small ups and downs of fortune, Mr. Creevey's life was static—static spiritually, that is to say; for physically he was always on the move. His adventures were those of an observer, not of an actor; but he was an observer so very near the centre of things that he was by no means dispassionate; the rush of great events would whirl him round into the vortex, like a leaf in an eddy of wind; he would rave, he would gesticulate, with the fury of a complete partisan; and then, when the wind dropped, he would be found, like the leaf, very much where he was before. Luckily, too, he was not merely an agitated observer, but an observer who delighted in passing on his agitations, first with his tongue, and then—for so the Fates had decided—with his pen. He wrote easily, spicily, and persistently; he had a favorite step-daughter, with whom he corresponded for years, and so it happens that we have preserved to us, side by side with the majestic march of Clio (who, of course, paid not the slightest attention to him) Mr. Creevey's exhilarating pas de chat.
Certainly he was not over-given to the praise of famous men. There are no great names in his vocabulary—only nick-names: George III is "Old Nobs," the Regent " Prinney," Wellington "the Beau," Lord John Russell "Pie and Thimble." Brougham, with whom he was on very friendly terms, is sometimes Bruffam, sometimes Beelzebub, and sometimes Old Wickedshifts; and Lord Durham, who once remarked that one could "jog along on £40,000 a year," is King Jog. The latter was one of the great Whig potentates, and it was characteristic of Creevey that his scurrility should have been poured out with a special gusto over his own leaders. The Tories were villains of course—Canning was all perfidy and "infinite meanness," Huskisson a mass of "intellectual confusion and mental dirt," Castlereagh—but all that was obvious and hardly worth mentioning; what was really too exacerbating to be borne was the folly and vileness of the Whigs. King Jog, the Bogey, Mother Cole, and the rest of them—they were either knaves or imbeciles. Lord Grey was an exception; but then Lord Grey, besides passing the Reform Bill, presented Mr. Creevey with the Treasurership of the Ordnance, and in fact was altogether a most worthy man.
Another exception was the Duke of Wellington, whom, somehow or other, it was impossible not to admire. Creevey, throughout his life, had a trick of being "in at the death" on every important occasion; in the House, at Brooks's, at the Pavilion, he invariably popped up at the critical moment; and so one is not surprised to find him at Brussels during Waterloo. More than that, he was the first English civilian to see the Duke after the battle, and his report of the conversation is admirable; one can almost hear the "It has been a damned serious business. Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life," and the "By God! I don't think it would have done if I had not been there." On this occasion the Beau spoke, as was fitting, "with the greatest gravity all the time, and without the least approach to anything like triumph or joy." But at other times he was jocular—especially when Prinney was the subject. "By God! You never saw such a figure in your life as he is. Then he speaks and swears so like old Falstaff, that damn me if I was not ashamed to walk into the room with him."
When, a few years later, the trial of Queen Caroline came on, it was inevitable that Creevey should be there. He had an excellent seat in the front row and his descriptions of "Mrs. P.," as he preferred to call her Majesty, are characteristic‑
"Two folding doors within a few feet of me were suddenly thrown open, and in entered her Majesty. To describe to you her appearance and manner is far beyond my powers. I had been taught to believe she was as much improved in looks as in dignity of manners; it is therefore with much pain I am obliged to observe that the nearest resemblance I can recollect to this much injured Princess is a toy which you used to call Fanny Royds [a Dutch doll]. There is another toy of a rabbit or a cat, whose tail you squeeze under its body, and then out it jumps in half a minute off the ground into the air. The first of these toys you must suppose to represent the person of the Queen; the latter the manner by which she popped all at once into the House, made a duck at the throne, another to the Peers, and a concluding jump into the chair which was placed for her. Her dress was black figured gauze, with a good deal of trimming, lace, etc.—her sleeves white, and perfectly episcopal; a handsome white veil, so thick as to make it very difficult to me, who was as near to her as any one, to see her face ; such a back for variety and inequality of ground as you never beheld; with a few straggling ringlets on her neck, which I flatter myself from their appearance were not her Majesty's own property."
Mr. Creevey, it is obvious, was not the man to be abashed by the presence of Royalty.
But such public episodes were necessarily rare, and the main stream of his life flowed rapidly, gaily, and unobtrusively through the fat pastures of high society. Everywhere and always he enjoyed himself extremely, but his spirits and his happiness were at their highest during his long summer sojourns at those splendid country houses whose hospitality he chronicles with indefatigable verve. "This house," he says at Raby, "is itself by far the most magnificent and unique in several ways that I have ever seen. . . . As long as I have heard of anything, I have heard of being driven into the hall of this house in one's carriage, and being set down by the fire. You can have no idea of the magnificent perfection with which this is accomplished." At Knowsley "the new dining-room is opened; it is 53 feet by 37, and such a height that it destroys the effect of all the other apartments. . . . There are two fireplaces; and the day we dined there, there were 36 wax candles over the table, 14 on it, and ten great lamps on tall pedestals about the room." At Thorp Perrow "all the living rooms are on the ground floor, one a very handsome one about so feet long, with a great bow furnished with rose-colored satin, and the whole furniture of which cost £4000." At Goodwood the rooms were done up in "brightest yellow satin," and at Holkham the walls were covered with Genoa velvet, and there was gilding worth a fortune on "the roofs of all the rooms and the doors." The fare was as sumptuous as the furniture. Life passed amid a succession of juicy chops, gigantic sirloins, plump fowls, pheasants stuffed with pâté de foie gras, gorgeous Madeiras, ancient Ports. Wine had a double advantage; it made you drunk; it also made you sober: it was its own cure. On one occasion, when Sheridan, after 'days of riotous living, showed signs of exhaustion, Mr. and Mrs. Creevey pressed upon him "five or six glasses of light French wine," with excellent effect. Then, at midnight, when the talk began to flag and the spirits grew a little weary, what could be more rejuvenating than to ring the bell for a broiled bone? And one never rang in vain—except, to be sure, at King Jog's. There, while the host was guzzling, the guests starved. This was too much for Mr. Creevey, who, finding he could get nothing for breakfast while King Jog was "eating his own fish as comfortably as could be," fairly lost his temper.
"My blood beginning to boil, I said:—'Lambton, I wish you could tell me what quarter I am to apply to for some fish.' To which he replied in the most impertinent manner:—'The servant, I suppose.' I turned to Mills and said pretty loud:—‘Now, if it was not for the fuss and jaw of the thing, I would leave the room and the house this instant'; and dwelt on the damned outrage. Mills said:—‘He hears every word you say': to which I said: ‘I hope he does.' It was a regular scene."
A few days later, however, Mr. Creevey was consoled by finding himself in a very different establishment, where "everything is of a piece—excellent and plentiful dinners, a fat service of plate, a fat butler, a table with a barrel of oysters and a hot pheasant, etc., wheeled into the drawingroom every night at 1/2 past ten."
It is difficult to remember that this was the England of the Six Acts, of Peterloo, and of the Industrial Revolution. Mr. Creevey, indeed, could hardly be expected to remember it, for he was utterly unconscious of the existence—of the possibility—of any mode of living other than his own. For him, dining-rooms so feet long, bottles of Madeira, broiled bones, and the brightest yellow satin were as necessary and obvious a part of the constitution of the universe as the light of the sun and the law of gravity. Only once in his life was he seriously ruffled; only once did a public question present itself to him as something alarming, something portentous, something more than a personal affair. The occasion is significant. On March 16, 1825, he writes:
"I have come to the conclusion that our Ferguson is insane. He quite foamed at the mouth with rage in our Railway Committee in support of this infernal nuisance—the locomotive Monster, carrying eighty tons of goods, and navigated by a tail of smoke and sulphur, coming thro' every man's grounds between Manchester and Liverpool."
His perturbation grew. He attended the committee assiduously, but in spite of his efforts it seemed that the railway bill would pass. The loco-motive was more than a joke. He sat every day from 12 to 4; he led the opposition, with long speeches. "This railway," he explains on May 31st, "is the devil's own." Next day, he is in triumph: he had killed the Monster.
"Well—this devil of a railway is strangled at last. . . . Today we had a clear majority in committee in our favor, and the promoters of the Bill withdrew it, and took their leave of us.”
With a sigh of relief he whisked off to Ascot, for the festivities of which he was delighted to note that Prinney had prepared "by having 12 oz. of blood taken from him by cupping."
Old age hardly troubled Mr. Creevey. He grew a trifle deaf, and he discovered that it was possible to wear woollen stockings under his silk ones; but his activity, his high spirits, his popularity, only seemed to increase. At the end of a party ladies would crowd round him. "Oh, Mr. Creevey, how agreeable you have been!" "Oh, thank you, Mr. Creevey; how useful you have been." "Dear Mr. Creevey, I laughed out loud last night in bed at one of your stories." One would like to add (rather late in the day, perhaps) one's own praises. One feels almost affectionate; a certain sincerity, a certain immediacy in his response to stimuli, are endearing qualities; one quite understands that it was natural, on the pretext of changing house, to send him a dozen of wine. Above all, one wants him to go on. Why should he stop? Why should he not continue indefinitely, telling us about Old Salisbury and Old Madagascar? But it could not be.
"Le temps s'en va, le temps s'en va, Madame;
Las! Le temps non, mais nous, nous en allons."
It was fitting that, after fulfilling his seventy years, he should catch a glimpse of "little Vic" as Queen of England, laughing, eating, and showing her gums too much at the Pavilion. But that was enough: the piece was over; the curtain had gone down; and, on the new stage that was preparing for very different characters, and with a very different style of decoration, there would be no place for Mr. Creevey.