Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths
Alan Bell, Sydney Smith: A Biography

The Rev. Sydney Smith would seem a good potential subject for a biography. No need to speculate about his views, as (like the reviewer, but more eloquently) he loved to shoot his mouth off on any subject on which he had an opinion. And he knew a lot of famous and influential people. The drawbacks are that his natural environment was the dining table, so any account of him risks reading like being an onlooker at another’s party, and his life was not in fact very eventful.

Hesketh Pearson (shown thoughtfully smoking a pipe on the back cover) wrote biographies by the yard in the mid-20th century, and the one of Smith is among his earliest. As someone from a clerical family and immersed in the world of letters, he must have found him an appealing subject. Unfortunately he managed something almost impossible – a biography of him that is dull to read. Apart from going and looking up Smith’s will in Somerset House, he appears to have done no original research, just ordered the details of Smith’s life from other sources, interspersed with appropriate quotes from his writings. He contradicts himself on such matters as whether Smith had ambitions to be a bishop and his attitude to music. Perhaps Smith’s views changed, in which case it would have been good to have had some discussion about this.

I hoped Alan Bell’s biography might be a lighter read, but it wasn’t. (It’s briefly dealt with in this obituary). It has a slightly different emphasis and though it draws on letters and documents that Pearson didn’t have (with considerably more research), inevitably there’s a lot of overlap with Hesketh in quotations from Smith’s writings. But I’m afraid I gave up after a couple of chapters. I think Bell, who like Pearson was not a practised biographer when he wrote the work, might have done better to have completed his edition of Smith’s letters (he only published one of a projected four volumes of them) before writing his biography. Perhaps he thought that the biography would whet readers’ appetites for the letters.

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