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23 June 2021

Sydney Smith, the irreverent reverend

How a cleric famous for his punchlines helped to shape liberal England. 

By Matthew Engel

Back in the good old days of the New Statesman’s Weekend Competition, the task one week was to recast a biblical passage in the style of a humorous writer. Naomi Marks, one of the contest’s stalwarts, came up with the following:

There was an old man with a beard

Who said, “I demand to be feared!

Address me as God,

And love me, you sod!”

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And Man did just that, which is weird.

This was certainly better crafted than the Edward Lear original and could constitute a starting point for a discussion about faith and observance far more productive than anything allowed as part of my religious education. But even today, when I have friends in dog-collars who can be treated as equals, I would not be wholly confident in quoting this in conversation until at least the fourth glass of ecclesiastical sherry.

But there was someone I never met who would surely have laughed uproariously and instantly come back with something just as clever and thought-provoking. He was born in 1771, 250 years ago this month, and died, aged 73, in 1845. His name was the Reverend Sydney Smith.

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As his simple title implies, he did not reach high office in the profession to which he was, in effect, conscripted by his father. This was partly because he was so witty and thus not seen as serious by the church hierarchy. He was the man who described heaven as “eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. Also: “What bishops like best in their clergy is a dropping-down-deadness of manner.” And his musing on episcopal romance: “How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is: ‘I will see you in the vestry after service.’” These were not lines calculated to win preferment.

GK Chesterton called him “a bubbling and boiling fountain of fancies and fun”. But it was not his flippancy that was the real problem, it was his underlying seriousness. Smith was an ardent, eloquent, influential and annoying campaigner for reform on a whole variety of subjects. He was invariably ahead of his time (on slavery, prison conditions, electoral reform, mental illness, Catholic emancipation, five-year-old chimney sweeps…) and sometimes a long way ahead (female education, legal aid, and the treatment of Ireland).

He was also, and this is not quite the same thing, almost always right. Throughout the first 59 years of Smith’s life, the Tories were the dominant party. After the French Revolution radical reformers were very suspect, and after Waterloo, government would turn infamously reactionary. In Smith’s time, senior ecclesiastical appointments were as politicised as modern US Supreme Court nominations. Smith was not overlooked; he was effectively blacklisted.

***

Sydney Smith was one of five children of a fidgety, eccentric and evidently disagreeable businessman and his very put-upon wife, whom he left for years immediately after marriage to make money in America. This would include property in the West Indies (bang goes the statue!), though Sydney got almost nothing from his father. The boy was sent to Winchester, where he excelled while hating it. The uselessness of the brutal and classics-obsessed public schools would become another of his causes. He disliked Oxford too because he was too poor to be sociable and too proud to scrounge or borrow.

He wanted to join his older brother at the bar but that required parental investment, which was refused. He was told to be a college tutor or a parson. Neither appealed. But Sydney found himself as curate of the remote and dirt-poor village of Netheravon on Salisbury Plain, where he characteristically did his best to alleviate the general poverty, while reading and walking to alleviate his own loneliness.

However, the intermittently resident squires, the Hicks-Beach family, took a shine to this engaging curate and employed him as tutor and companion to their eldest son, who was being sent from Eton to university in Weimar. But it was 1798 and Europe was at war, so the pair ended up in Edinburgh instead. The boy flourished, though, as Sydney had to tell his parents, more at music and dancing than Latin.

And the tutor also thrived. The Hicks-Beaches were so pleased they sent him their next son, and he acquired another pupil besides, so he was in funds. He became friends with every literate young man in the city, including the very Tory Walter Scott, and they drank and they roistered and laughed at Sydney’s jokes. And when some of them started a literary quarterly, the Edinburgh Review, which would become a national institution for 127 years, until 1929, Smith edited the first issue. He also got married, to Catherine Pybus. These would both be crucial in the trying years ahead: Catherine was his rock, the Review his outlet to the world.

Then London called, as it does. He made more friends, becoming a valued member of the great Whig salon “the Holland House set”, preached a little, and briefly became a wildly popular lecturer. What he failed to do was find a steady job. But the death of William Pitt the Younger provided a small window of Whig influence; Lady Holland, imperious queen of the set, demanded something for Sydney and he was given the living of Foston-le-Clay near York. But not that near: it was, in another of his best-known lines, “12 miles from a lemon”.

At first, this was no problem. Foston was not used to resident parsons and he found a surrogate to take services. He was able to stay in the south and write Peter Plymley’s Letters, a series of tracts ridiculing Catholic “nonsense” but pleading for tolerance.

But the clock was ticking. An act of 1803 insisted that clergy lived in their parishes. The old Archbishop of York turned a blind eye, but his successor did not: Smith had to choose between £600 a year and easy access to friends and lemons. And in 1809 he took his family north.

***

Sydney was not a natural countryman any more than he was a natural clergyman – he once described the countryside as “a healthy grave”. But once there, he hurled himself into Foston. He farmed, imaginatively, built a rectory which became a home filled with laughter, and set about infusing the village with his own practical version of Christianity. This meant renting land to the poor very cheaply, feeding them in hard times and learning enough medicine to cure some of their maladies. He also became a magistrate, infuriating his colleagues with his leniency to poachers.

He continued to write for the Review: for instance, 15 years before the law was changed, he wrote a devastating indictment of the use of the chimney boys. The village was not far from the stagecoach route and friends did come by. But ambition still gnawed at him. He was in internal exile and, on bad days, it felt like Siberia.

His money worries began to ease eventually thanks to a legacy from an aunt and an extra living from a lordly friend. He had always treated himself to an annual visit to London with a full diary of social engagements. In 1819 he took the family; for the children it was a huge adventure: “It is the first time they have ever seen four people together,” he said, “except on remarkably fine days at the parish church.”

As the Tories faltered in the late 1820s, Lord Lyndhurst became Lord Chancellor and slipped him in as a prebendary of Bristol Cathedral. To that was added the post of rector of Combe Florey in Somerset, which must count as the funniest village in England; it was later the home of both Evelyn and Auberon Waugh.

In 1830, the Whigs came to power at last, bringing forth many of the reforms for which Smith had campaigned. Both their prime ministers that decade, Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne, claimed they wanted to make him a bishop. But it never happened. The final consolation prize was to be made a canon of St Paul’s. This enabled him to adorn London dinner tables regularly while ministering part-time to Combe Florey. The canonry also involved a good deal of administration, which he did with pernickety efficiency, as if proving a point.

In truth, further promotion would have been the ruin of him. High office enforces a degree of conformity and compromise; heterodox bishops spend their lives on the defensive. And humorous ones have to be careful. Smith could defend the faith if he was provoked. Once at the dinner table, a French visitor was decrying the notion of God at some length. Finally, Sydney spoke:

“Very good soup, this.”

“Yes, monsieur, it’s excellent.”

“Pray, sir, do you believe in a cook?”

Perhaps, like Thomas Paine, he flirted with deism, believing in a creator who then knocked off and left the universe to sort itself out – but deism could be a flimsy cover for agnosticism, which was taboo. Few of Smith’s sermons have survived, and they seem relatively conventional – though far more vivid than the 19th-century ecclesiastical norm and, it was said, both more forcefully expressed and shorter: Sydney was done in 20 minutes. And there was no hint of dogma; he talked of kindness, pity and peace.

Most of his jokes have not survived either. There was much regret that he had no Boswell scribbling notes. But those attributed to him cannot be apocryphal – there is a pith to them that is far from pre-Victorian. One can sometimes hear the hint of a more sybaritic Alan Bennett.

And there are perhaps more as yet unread. The Sydney Smith Association, founded in 1996, now has a large cache of unpublished letters on its website (sydneysmith.org.uk). In one, he said of his friend Lord John Russell, when Russell was very ill: “He looks like a farthing’s worth of soap after a week’s washing.” Smith’s commonplace book has also turned up.

Sydie Bones, the association’s magnificent secretary, was not actually named after Sydney; she joined through her late husband and came to admire not just Smith himself but the association members. “They’re quirky, intellectual, funny, thoughtful and companionable.”

***

One can imagine Smith, if he lived now, weighted down with the phrase “national treasure”. He might well have been a barrister double-plus, like John Mortimer, flitting between the courts and the TV studios. But somehow that would have diminished him. It was his years at Netheravon and Foston that gave him the understanding of humanity which made him an inspiration as well as a jester.

His last public battle, conducted through the letters column of the Morning Chronicle in 1842, came with the newly constructed Great Western Railway (GWR). The early trains were accident-prone and highly combustible yet the GWR, unlike others, insisted on locking the passengers inside to face potential incineration. “Man is universally the master of his own body, except [if] he chooses to go from Paddington to Bridgwater,” he wrote. The directors surrendered.

Smith’s death, his biographer Hesketh Pearson reflected, was “not perhaps too soon, for a serious age had already dawned, and Falstaff and Merry England were out of date”. He was more than that. As the diarist Charles Greville put it: “He had the true religion of benevolence and charity, of peace and goodwill to mankind.”

Journalists must be wary of having heroes: they can cloud one’s clinical detachment. But the dead cannot betray or disappoint us. Everyone’s thoughts are tethered to an imaginary post: the context of their own times. Smith kept breaking free; he did not catch up with the problems posed by foie gras nor express a view on trans rights, but again and again he was on the side of progress and fairness – to his own cost. To me, that makes him a worthy hero. And, by crikey, he was funny.

“What is real piety?” he asked once. “What is true attachment to the Church? How are these fine feelings best evinced? The answer is plain: by sending strawberries to a clergyman. Many thanks.”

This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us