By Victoria Hinshaw
I love the word – and the concept of – Serendipity. The word was invented by one of the 18th century’s most interesting characters, Horace Walpole (1717-97), whose life neatly spanned the century and, to my mind, rather defined the times.
Serendipity means discovering connections between thoughts or objects by happy accident. I first learned the word when I had a most pleasant meal on E. 60th Street in New York City at a charming restaurant named Serendipity. It was a serendipitous event! The discovery of a new concept while in the act of enjoying a new place (this was a very long time ago).
Recently, while working on a piece for this blog (see posts of March 29 and 31) on William Petty-FitzMaurice, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne (1737 – 1805), who was The Earl of Shelburne and Prime Minister 1782-1783, I learned that Walpole, himself an opinionated and eccentric character, did not like Shelburne, also famously opinionated and eccentric. How serendipitous, I thought, for I was also planning to do a piece on Walpole and the upcoming exhibitions of his treasures at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Which reminded me of the restaurant in New York; when I Googled it, I happily found it still prospering. Then I read that Walpole had coined the word Serendipity.
All of which is a long and involved introduction to my little essay on Horace Walpole, architect, author, collector, raconteur, bon vivant, and writer of 48 printed volumes of correspondence.
Horace was a younger son of Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, and England’s first Prime Minister during the reign of the first two Georges. Horace received an ideal gentleman’s education at Eton and Cambridge followed by a Grand Tour. He had wide ranging interests and made many friends, devoting himself to arts and culture. Though he served as a member of the House of Commons, he had an independent income which enabled him to pursue his eclectic interests by collecting and carefully developing his tastes. Widely considered a superb connoisseur, he and his friends spent years converting his villa in Twickenham into a neo-Gothic structure.
Here is another aside: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothick novels that always featured an innocent young lady at peril in an old castle or ruined religious structure, fearing at every moment the mysterious rattle of chains, the gloomy wailing of the winds and the sinister dark males that threaten A Fate Worse Than Death. Rather reminds me of the current crazes for vampires, werewolves and zombies.
“It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.”