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Lord Chesterfield's Letters (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 11 Sep 2008
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Top customer reviews
Chesterfield was an important stateman, who wrote these letters only for the eyes of his son, not for the general public, so he did express in stark terms what he truly thought about many controversial themes. It is, in my opinion, very interesting to read what he considered to be general truths, and to get to know his conception of life, society and politics. Whether you agree or not with his opinions, you cannot remain indifferent to this controversial book.
Lord Chesterfield places great value on appearances. He tells Philip that "If your air and address are vulgar, awkward, and gauche, you may be esteemed indeed, if you have great intrinsic merit; but you will never please; and without pleasing you will rise but heavily". The author is, evidently, a cynic who doesn't believe that the world can be improved. He points out that "The world is taken by the outside of things, and we must take the world as it is". Chesterfields profession is fairly evident at all times, for example when he advises his son "...to be upon your own guard, and yet, by a seeming natural openness, to put people off theirs".
"Lord Chesterfield's Letters" has been considered a noteworthy classic by many, but it has also been strongly criticized. For example, Samuel Johnson said that it taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master". I really don't agree with Johnson: I happen to like this book, and a lot. It is not only very easy to read, but also informative.
The reader of "Lord Chesterfield's Letters" feels as if he were talking with an old but very experienced person, who played an active part in an enormous number of significant events, and who wants to transmit his knowledge not only on diplomatic affairs, but also about life and education. He often displays great insight, for example when he says that "You must look into people, as well as at them. Almost all people are born with all the passions, to a certain degree; but almost every man has a prevailing one, to which the others are subordinate".
All in all, I strongly recommend this book. It includes a high number of subjects, and I think you are highly likely to find it very appealing. If more is needed to convince you, I'll just leave you with one of the phrases written by the author, and I'll let its excellence to speak for itself: "Mind, not only what people say, but how they say it; and, if you have any sagacity, you may discover more truth by your eyes than by your ears. People can say what they will, but they cannot look just as they will; and their looks frequently discover, what their words are calculated to conceal". What else can I say?... Enjoy this book!.
As you can imagine, the "advice" in these letters (from this statesmen and politician who - like most statesmen and politicians - was as bent as a nine bob note) deal mainly with how to read mankind, how to get one over the next person, how to get what you want by dissembling and flattery, and how to treat women (who are, after all, according to this chap "just children of a larger growth").
When one reads the letters and charts Chesterfield's relationship with his son through them, one gets the sense that this poor lad must have literally dreaded the postman arriving. Whilst reading them, my overriding sensation was one of relief that my own father is a retired tax inspector (and not Lord Chesterfield). Chesterfield, during the early years of his son's life, alternately cajoles and threatens him into shape - wanting, it soon becomes clear, the impossible from the poor lad ("I fear the want of that amiable and engaging je ne sçais quoi"). Indeed, from the excellent introductory notes to this book, the poor boy did not enjoy that "engaging je ne scais quoi"). By all accounts, he was awkward and shy (or possibly just terrified of making a false step - his father had spies EVERYWHERE watching his every move). His son married in secret and spent most of his life trying to live as an ordinary chap. His maiden speech as a politician was a disaster. And this is where it gets interesting; because as everyone else was condemning him for this, at this point in time, Chesterfield defends him. His letter, consoling him over this disastrous speech, is almost kind. Then there is the relationship with his grandsons (when he finds out he has them that is - after his own son's death). He clearly dotes on them - not such a bad chap then?
I really recommend reading these letters for the fascinating insight into familial relationships of the upper-classes in the eighteenth-century; and also to make your own mind up about the relationship between this cold-hearted (?) man and his son.