Burke and Smith

Karl Miller

  • Sydney Smith by Alan Bell
    Oxford, 250 pp, £9.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 812050 8
  • Burke and Hare by Owen Dudley Edwards
    Polygon, 300 pp, £7.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 904919 27 7

Sydney Smith and William Burke lived at the same time and in the same country: but at opposite ends of the spectrum of class, ends which rarely met, except in court. Such people were strangers to one another, foreigners, and could hate and suspect one another in the style that has been reserved for foreigners. Smith and Burke lived for a while in the same place, Edinburgh – the city of Calvin and caller air, of metaphysics and foul smells, according to Smith, who claimed, in a typical tease, that he had to detach a passer-by ‘blown flat against my door’ by the prevailing winds, and ‘black in the face’. The authors of these interesting books resemble their subjects in having themselves come to live in the city from, respectively, England and Ireland. The books can be said to stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of emotion. Alan Bell’s is cool, elegant, efficient, eminently printable, while the other smacks of excitement, adrenalin, and of an oral tradition. Smith is present in the Burke book, as an ideological partner of the Whig advocates who were briefed in the legal proceedings which followed the discovery of the Burke and Hare murders.

Unlike Burke, Smith lived a long life – 1771 to 1845 – in clover, but it was not without its serious troubles. He was a great wit, and great wits are understood to be closely allied to madness. Smith, certainly, was lineally connected with it. He had a brother and a son who proved unstable and fell from respectability, and he had a father, a rich businessman, whose angers and miserliness appear to have been very thinly partitioned from insanity. When Sydney married, judiciously and successfully, he had to seek his parent’s forbearance: ‘I know you think Miss Pybus’s person very disagreeable, but this consideration is so entirely confined to opinion, and the evil (if it exists) is so exclusively my own, that I am sure you will not give me unprovoked pain by commenting on the subject.’ The marriage continued to rankle with his father, and Sydney wrote: ‘I have always endeavoured to conduct myself like an honest and respectable man and not to disgrace the education you have given me. I am hurt I confess to find myself an outcast – but it will be a great consolation to me if you will notice my children as they grow up, and if anything happens to me, show some countenance to my wife – who has never meant harm to any human creature, and who has lost all her friends on my account.’

Earlier, having studied at Oxford and taken orders, Smith had gone as a gentleman’s tutor to Edinburgh, where he was welcomed by the young Turks of the Whig élite, with whom, in 1802, he founded the Edinburgh Review. Great wits don’t always readily agree, and there was another on the scene in the person of Henry Cockburn, whose career and reputation show several points of similarity with Smith’s: the two did not quarrel, but he was to have more to do with Cockburn’s friend Jeffrey, editor of the Review. Jeffrey’s cockiness and scepticism were chided and parodied: ‘Damn the solar system! bad light – planets too distant – pestered with comets – feeble contrivance; – could make a better with great ease.’ Cockburn and Jeffrey were on the small side, and were elevated to the Bench. Smith on the latter: ‘His robes, God knows, will cost him little; one buck rabbit will clothe him to the heels.’ Smith was swept to fame by his contributions to the Review, ‘Lightness and flimsiness are my line of reviewing,’ and Jeffrey would keep cutting his jokes, in the manner of many an editor who knows that his pages badly need the jokes that remain. Smith grew famous for his liberal positions, dazzlingly expressed, on public schools, chimney-sweeps, the Society for the Suppression of Vice – above all, for the adroit tactical ironies of his long advocacy of Catholic Emancipation.

It was to Jeffrey, in 1805, that Smith reported his wife’s especially interesting condition: ‘to the amazement of the obstetric world she is still as pregnant as the Trojan horse.’ In time, Sydney, too, became pregnant. And no less of a Trojan horse. A Henry Jamesian lifetime of manger et parler, and a learned interest in food much enhanced by expeditions to Paris, imparted a stomach which ‘looks,’ he said, ‘like the accumulation of thousands of dinners and luncheons. It looks like a pregnant woman in a cloth waistcoat and as if I were near my time and might reasonably look for twins.’ His well-known idea of heaven – ‘eating pâté de foie to the sound of trumpets’ – is investigated by Alan Bell with the finding that it may have referred to someone else: but it is hard to detach it from the miser’s greedy son. His appearance was described by one woman in words that would not have disgraced a sally of his own: ‘a mouth like an oyster, and three double chins. I did not hear him say anything strikingly amusing.’ He was, wrote another, the champion of tolerance and charity: ‘And yet never did anybody look more like a high Churchman! As he walked up the aisle to the altar, I always thought of Cardinal Wolsey ...’ Macaulay spoke of the contrast between ‘the clerical amplitude of his person and the most unclerical wit, whim and petulance of his eye’. Lockhart spoke of his countenance as ‘the most splendid combination of sense and sensuality’. His sallies and teases, his joyous extempore (as they seem often to have been), were spoken of as his ‘good things’ – aptly enough, for at one level they issued from, and conferred, an experience of the good things of life.

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