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Thomas Creevey: A Later Appraisal

“How came it that so many important contemporaries took this ‘social butterfly’ so seriously?” John Gore, Creevey’s editor and biographer, re-examines the Whig memorialist’s contribution to late Georgian history.

Until the secrets of all hearts are revealed and every cupboard laid bare, there can be no such thing as a definitive biography. And that goes—now and in an estimable future—for Shakespeare and Napoleon as for the lesser fry of our own times. A new biography jogs a memory or opens one more cupboard or line of approach, which soon or late may leave the “last word” still to be written.

I spent many happy years probing from time to time into the origins and career of Thomas Creevey, a minor political and social figure who just survived into Victorian times. He was forgotten in no time. The same sombre fate awaits most statesmen who were not giants or freaks, or whose names have not been fortuitously linked with some memorable event.

Creevey had been totally forgotten for nearly seventy years, when in 1903 his letters and memoranda, long stored away in a country house, burst on a delighted Edwardian Society. He was put on the map again; but nobody had the material to write much more than the schoolboy’s “three lines” about him.

Sir Herbert Maxwell, his first editor, did not attempt to probe deeply into the details of his career. He was content to allow his letters to speak for him and admirably devoted his efforts to interpreting and clarifying them.

Thus, for another thirty years, Creevey achieved no higher rank than that of a gossip, a vague imp of history, a play-boy and a place-man; and it was so that Lytton Strachey dismissed him, with a light-hearted, condescending kick in eight pages of his Books & Characters.

Yet Maxwell must have been surprised by some remarkable facts disclosed in his letters and memoranda, which might well have persuaded him to probe deeper. How came it that so many important contemporaries took this “social butterfly” so seriously? Brougham, Grey, above all, Wellington? How came it that Greville, Melbourne, Broughton and Lady Holland, all found him worth serious appraisement?

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