The repulse of the French in their attack on Holland, and their repeated defeats in Belgium, which will be mentioned in the next chapter, induced the French Government to make overtures for peace with Britain, but in a secret and most singular way. Instead of an open proposal through some duly-accredited envoy, the proposals came through a Mr. John Salter, a public notary of Poplar. This notary delivered to Lord Grenville two letters from Lebrun the French Foreign Minister, dated the 2nd of April, stating that France was desirous to accommodate its differences with Britain, and, provided the idea was accepted, M. Marat should be sent over with full powers, on passports being duly forwarded. A Mr. John Matthews, of Biggin House, Surrey, attested that these notes were perfectly genuine, and had been signed in the presence of himself and Mr. John Salter. Lord Grenville, suspecting a correspondence coming through so extraordinary a medium, and believing that the design of the French was only to gain time, in order to recover their losses, took no notice of the letters. Moreover, as the Jacobins were then following up their attacks on the Girondists from day to day, he saw no prospect of any permanence of this party in power. In fact, they were expelled by the 2nd of June, and on the 22nd of that month Lebrun was in flight to avoid arrest. Marat arrived, but held no communications with Grenville, and very shortly returned to France. Soon afterwards came indirect overtures through Dumouriez to our ambassador, Lord Auckland, but they were too late. War had been declared. But Tolly did not mean to remain longer than was necessary for the inhabitants to have made a safe distance; he was afraid of Napoleon making a flank movement and cutting off his way to Moscow. In the night fires broke out all over Smolensk: they could not be the effect only of the French shells; and Buonaparte sat watching them till morning. Soon bridges, houses, church spires, all of wood, were enveloped in roaring flames. The next day, the 18th of August, the French entered the place whilst it was still burning around them. The dead, half consumed, lay around the smoking ruins; and the French army marched through this ghostly scene with military music playing, but with hearts struck with consternation and despair at this proof of the inveterate determination of the Russians to destroy their whole country rather than suffer it to be conquered. Here they were left without shelter, without provisions, without hospitals for the sick, or dressings for the wounded, without a single bed where a man might lie down to die; and all before them was the same. The Cossacks beset the flanks of march, and burnt down all villages, and laid waste all fields ere the French could reach them. Again the officers entreated that they might form an encampment and remain; but Buonaparte replied still, "They must make all haste to Moscow."
The literature of this period is more distinguished for learning and cleverness than for genius. There are a few names that rise above the smartness and mere accomplishment of the time into the regions of pure genius; but, with very few exceptions, even they bear the stamp of the period. We have here no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Herbert, no Herrick even, to produce; but De Foe, Addison, Steele, Thomson, and Pope, if they do not lift us to the highest creative plane, give us glimpses and traits of what is found there. For the rest, however full of power, there hangs a tone of "town," of a vicious and sordid era, about them, of an artificial and by no means refined life, a flavour of the grovelling of the politics which distinguished the period, and of the low views and feelings which occupied and surrounded the throne during the greater portion of this term.
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James M'Cleland, made Baron of Exchequer.
Sir Charles Barry was the architect of numerous buildings, but his greatest work was the New Palace of Westminster. When the old Houses of Parliament were burned down in 1834, amongst the numerous designs sent in Mr. Barry's was selected, and he had the honour of constructing the magnificent temple of legislation in which the most powerful body in the world debates and deliberates, upon the old, classic site, rendered sacred by so many events in our history. It has been disputed whether the style of the building is altogether worthy of the locality and the object, and whether grander and more appropriate effects might not have been produced by the vast sums expended. But it has been remarked in defence of the artist, that the design was made almost at the commencement of the revival of our national architecture, and that, this fact being considered, the impression will be one of admiration for the genius of the architect that conceived such a work; and the conviction will remain that by it Sir Charles Barry did real service to the progress of English art.