BOOK REVIEW / Life's all gas and gaiters: Sydney Smith - Peter Virgin: HarperCollins, pounds 22.50

'I AM a very ignorant, frivolous, half-inch person,' Sydney Smith once confessed. Peter Virgin's impeccable biography proves he was anything but. It can be read as a commentated catalogue of the witticisms for which Sydney Smith was and remains famous, and as the fairly arduous progress of a 19th-century English curate.

In an age before talk-show hosts and stand-up comedians, Sydney Smith was both, except that his slot was at the dinner-table or in the pulpit. He was a master of the bon mot in any number of comic shades. He could be delicate, as when he heard a lady lamenting that a certain sweet pea would never come to perfection, and took her by the hand, led her to the plant and exclaimed: 'Permit me, then, to lead perfection to the pea.' He could be epigramatic: 'Shyness looks like a virtue without being a virtue.' He had a gift for exact and absurd imagery: the Brighton Pavilion is as if 'St Paul's had come down and littered'. He could be risque: he imagined 'a certain Scotch lady' so fond of the scriptures that she had emblazoned on her garter 'Set your affections on things above.' He could be bold: 'Your review as I told Jeffrey is long and vigorous like the Penis of a Jackass.'

The story begins with a peripatetic childhood; the Smith family moved house no less than 19 times. His mother, of French Protestant stock, was a great beauty, harrowed by epileptic fits. His father, Robert Smith, was an obnoxious man, given to tantrums and bearing grudges. Sydney's three brothers inherited the worst attributes of their father; their sister Maria was cast in the role of the dutiful daughter who looked after the father and who, partly because of a spinal deformity, never married and never left home.

In 1782, at the age of 11, Sydney was sent to Winchester College, where the schooling was 'comatose', the food 'appalling' and the canings brutal. From there he graduated to New College, where he led, in contrast, an indolent life. Many years later, he tutored all his own children at home, helping them pursue their own interests, in the belief that 'we move most quickly to that point where we wish to go'. Yet, in the belief that suffering would strengthen the character of his son Douglas, Smith deliberately chose for him the notoriously savage Westminster College, 'the most brutal school in England', where the fragile boy was constantly bullied and almost lost an eye in a fight.

Peter Virgin chronicles Smith's career through a series of patrons and uninspiring posts. Most of the notable personages he met - Lord Holland, Lord Melbourne and others - were variously amused and alarmed by his manner and wit, but somehow not sufficiently impressed to set him up for life. Patronage was indispensable for a curate in Smith's time and, as a consequence of never quite becoming a lordly favourite, money was frequently scarce in the household and the bishopric he so much desired was never granted him. Nevertheless, from the pulpit and in the newspapers he fought against foolishness and the abuse of power, defending such notions as Catholic emancipation and attacking such institutions as the English Society for the Suppression of Vice, which condemned bear-baiting but not fox-hunting, and wished to impose a strict Sabbath on the poor.

Virgin associates Smith the satirist with Oscar Wilde, with Edward Lear (Chesterton called Sydney Smith 'the inventor of Nonsense'), with Jonathan Swift. Swift's 'Modest Proposal' of combating the Irish famine by having the Irish eat their offspring is echoed by Smith's denunciation of the practice of sending little children up chimneys: 'An excellent and well arranged dinner,' he wrote in the Edinburgh Review 'is a most pleasing occurrence, and a great triumph of civilised life . . . In the midst of all this, who knows that the kitchen chimney caught fire half an hour before dinner - and that a poor wretch, of six or seven years old, was sent up in the midst of the flames to put it out? . . . What is a toasted child, compared to the agonies of the mistress of the house with a deranged dinner?'

Throughout his life and his writings, Smith remained, so to speak, on the margins of history, although the high points of his career - the founding of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 or his defence of the Reform Bill in 1831 - are remembered, and his witty comments have been dutifully recorded in dictionaries of quotations. Virgin, however, manages to bring forth the complete man, using such details as his style of social intercourse, 'a sort of mental dram-drinking, rare as it was delightful add intoxicating', or the way he laughed, 'infectious without ever being disagreeable or grating'. Virgin gives us an inventory of the objects on Smith's desk; he peeps over Smith's shoulder and describes his writing methods: 'He rarely corrected anything he had written. As soon as he finished a manuscript he would fling it down - 'There, it is done; now Kate, do look it over, and put 'dots to the i's and strokes to the t's' ' - and go out for a brisk walk.' Through these snippets, each of them carefully documented, the reader can easily see the man come to jovial life.

Virgin calls his subject by his first name, Sydney, with agreeable familiarity. There is something warm and trustworthy in this man which, from across a century and a half, calls for chumminess. 'I wish you would tell Mr Sydney Smith that of all the men I ever heard of and never saw, I have the greatest curiosity to see and the greatest interest to know him,' wrote Dickens to his publisher. After finishing Virgin's book, the reader will echo Dickens's sentiment.

Smith died in 1845, at the age of 74, feeling that he had somehow failed in whatever task the Fates had allotted him, but still willing to laugh. 'If my lot be to crawl,' he explained to a friend, 'I will crawl contentedly; if to fly, I will fly with alacrity; but as long as I can possibly avoid it I will never be unhappy.'

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution