Lives of the Wits

Hesketh Pearson
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ISBN 9780571255825 Format Paperback
Published 05/11/2009 Length 368 pages

About Book

'No pecuniary embarrassments equal to the embarrassments of a professed wit; an eternal demand upon him for pleasantry, and a consciousness on his part of a limited income of the facetious; the disappointment of his creditors - the importunity of duns - the tricks, forgeries and false coin he is forced to pay instead of gold. Pity a wit . . .'

That was Sydney Smith feeling the strain. But he needn't have worried, he was possessed of an amplitude of this quality as, indeed, were the other thirteen subjects featured in Hesketh Pearson's survey. Come to think of it, Hesketh Pearson himself had no deficiency either. This was a singularly congenial subject for him as he conveys with verve in chapters on: Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, R. B. Sheridan, Sydney Smith, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Labouchere, James McNeill Whistler, W. S. Gilbert, Beerbohm Tree, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, Max Beerbohm and G. K. Chesterton.

Can we think of a group term for a gathering of wits? A 'laughter' perhaps? Here we have it.

  • About Hesketh Pearson

    Hesketh Pearson (1887-1964) is best remembered as a biographer and not as a dutiful one. He once said, 'I love people who blow respectability and the Establishment to bits. Hence my portrait gallery.' He wrote over twenty biographies which, in addition to Sydney Smith, included ones on Hazlitt (The Fool of Love), Tom Paine, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Dickens and Disraeli. Before finding his true vocation, Hesketh Pearson had been an actor with Sir Beerbohm Tree's company. Notoriety fell on him in 1926 with the anonymous publication of The Whispering Gallery: Leaves from a Diplomat's Diary. In the words of the Daily Mail the book was 'a scandalous fake' and a series of 'monstrous attacks on public men.' Pearson was unmasked as the author. He was put on trial for obtaining money under false pretences. When asked why he had pretended to be a diplomat he answered disarmingly, 'because I was mad.' He was acquitted.

    When he died his great friend Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in the Times, 'Pearson loved the English countryside and bells sounding across it: the English Language and all who tried in however a humble capacity to use it worthily.'

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