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Queen Victoria was amused! It may seem unlikely but the preface to this famous biography is given over to quotes from his contemporaries. Not all the quotes are favourable but the roll-call is dazzling: Byron, Macaulay, Walter Scott, George III and IV, Disraeli, Sheridan, Dickens etc. Queen Victoria herself is not actually quoted but ‘from various sources’ Hesketh Pearson records, ‘ Queen Victoria used to go into fits of laughter at the sayings of Sydney Smith, which were repeated to her by Lord Melbourne.’ From the same section we also learn, somewhat surprisingly, that Abraham Lincoln was an admirer, too, and that when Sarah Siddons,’who never jeopardized her deportment in society as a tragedy queen by lapsing into laughter’ first met Sydney Smith she ‘developed convulsions, and had to be helped from the table.’
Richard Ingrams has written, ‘that of all his (Hesketh Pearson’s) subjects Sydney Smith came closest to his own in character, and for that reason the book is probably his masterpiece.’ There is no reason to dissent from that, especially when one remembers writers of the calibre of Graham Greene, Max Beerbohm and P. G. Wodehouse were such enthusiasts for it.
And the title? Wishing to pay him the ultimate compliment, it was Macaulay who dubbed Sydney Smith, ‘The Smith of Smiths’.
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