January-September 1856

The Collected Letters, Volume 31


TC TO SIR WILLIAM NAPIER ; 12 May 1856; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18560512-TC-SWN-01; CL 31: 91-92


Chelsea, May 12, 1856.


I have read with attention, and with many feelings and reflections, your record of Sir C. Napier's Administration of Scinde. You must permit me to thank you, in the name of Britain at large, for writing such a book; and in my own poor name to acknowledge the great compliment and kindness implied in sending me a copy for myself.1

It is a book which every living Englishman would be the better for reading—for studying diligently till he saw into it, till he recognised and believed the high and tragic phenomenon set forth there! A book which may be called ‘profitable’ in the old Scripture sense; profitable for reproof, for correction and admonition, for great sorrow, yet for ‘building up in righteousness’ too—in heroic, manful endeavour to do well, and not ill, in one's time and place. One feels it a kind of possession to know that one has had such a fellow-citizen and contemporary in these evil days.

The fine and noble qualities of the man are very recognisable to me; his subtle, piercing intellect turned all to the practical, giving him just insight into men and into things; his inexhaustible adroit contrivances; his fiery valour; sharp promptitude to seize the good moment that will not return. A lynx-eyed, fiery man, with the spirit of an old knight in him; more of a hero than any modern I have seen for a long time.

A singular veracity one finds in him; not in his words alone—which, however, I like much for their fine rough naïveté—but in his actions, judgments, aims; in all that he thinks, and does, and says—which, indeed, I have observed is the root of all greatness or real worth in human creatures, and properly the first (and also the rarest) attribute of what we call genius among men.

The path of such a man through the foul jungle of this world—the struggle of Heaven's inspiration against the terrestrial fooleries, cupidities, and cowardices—cannot be other than tragical: but the man does tear out a bit of way for himself too; strives toward the good goal, inflexibly persistent till his long rest come: the man does leave his mark behind him, ineffaceable, beneficent to all good men, maleficent to none: and we must not complain. The British nation of this time, in India or elsewhere— God knows no nation ever had more need of such men, in every region of its affairs! But also perhaps no nation ever had a much worse chance to get hold of them, to recognise and loyally second them, even when they are there.

Anarchic stupidity is wide as the night; victorious wisdom is but as a lamp in it shining here and there. Contrast a Napier even in Scinde with, for example, a Lally at Pondicherry, or on the Place de Grève;2 one has to admit that it is the common lot, that it might have been far worse!

There is great talent in this book apart from its subject. The narrative moves on with strong, weighty step, like a marching phalanx, with the gleam of clear steel in it—sheers down the opponent objects and tramples them out of sight in a very potent manner. The writer, it is evident, had in him a lively, glowing image, complete in all its parts, of the transaction to be told; and that is his grand secret of giving the reader so lively a conception of it. I was surprised to find how much I had carried away with me, even of the Hill campaign and of Trukkee itself;3 though without a map the attempt to understand such a thing seemed to me desperate at first.

With many thanks, and gratified to have made this reflex acquaintance, which, if it should ever chance to become a direct one, might gratify me still more,4

I remain always yours sincerely,