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.

George III is credited with the accurate prediction that ‘he was a very clever fellow, but that he would never be a bishop.’ Smith was bored by the country, but was exiled for most of his career to rural livings – at Foston in Yorkshire and Combe Florey in Somerset – for all that he was relished by the Whig leaders who were in power in the early 1830s, and despite his attainment and adornment of the influential circle at Holland House. Lord and Lady Holland are evoked in the adjuration: ‘think of his possessing Holland House, and that he reposes every evening on that beautiful structure of flesh and blood Lady H.’ But his longing for preferment, which supplies this biography with a major theme and inspires a concern with stipends and related matters, was never to be satisfied, though in 1831 he was created a Canon of St Paul’s. ‘I asked for nothing – never did anything shabby to procure preferment.’ The first of these claims is not so much inaccurate as untrue. And yet his volo episcopari can also give the impression of desiring the rejection which his levity and political views had, after all, invited – the impression of an outcast who half-preferred to remain outside.

This leads one back to the contrast mentioned by Macaulay, which can be accounted something of a period feature. As with Cockburn, the modern reader has to come to terms with the spectacle of an adhesion to progressive opinions which is in turn attached to a tendency towards hierarchical attitudes in private life, and to what those of later times have been accustomed to regard as snobbery. Smith exuded an ectoplasm of wit – the oyster mouth both devoured and delivered – which was devoted to the exposure of intolerance and sham. Burke’s violent deaths were Smith’s livings, and they were also Smith’s jokes: in the sense that each of these men, at their opposite ends of British life, was struggling to make ends meet, defend himself, keep going. But the targets of Smith’s humour are almost invariably to his credit. His command of the insinuating mystery of wit was absolute. His polemical arts are admirable and wonderful. But no more so than the uses to which they were put. His libertarian Whig rhetoric has lost little of its appeal: ‘no oppression, no tyranny in belief: a free altar, an open road to heaven: no human insolence, no human narrowness, hallowed by the name of God’. At the same time, the reader perceives that rank and advancement mattered to him, if ambivalently, to the point of pain, and that Mayfair mattered more than the English hinterland with its shabby and sequestered communities, its poor old Fostons and Combe Floreys: ‘I believe the parallelogram between Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Hyde Park, encloses more intelligence and human ability, to say nothing of wealth and beauty, than the world has ever collected in such a space before.’

As for the London slums, he favoured an entrance fee for St Paul’s in order to exclude ‘the worst characters male and female of the Metropolis’, who had been using the precincts as a place of assignation. This can be understood, and defended. More awkward is his daughter Saba’s praise for his cardinal-like demeanour at his dinners for Somerset farmers: ‘without lowering his own dignity or appealing to descend to the level of his more humble guests, it was interesting to observe how he drew out the real sense and knowledge they possessed ...’ When Smith said of his work for Catholic Emancipation that it was that of a bricklayer’s labourer, or when he said of a bishop’s invectives against himself that they involved ‘rather too close an imitation of that language which is used in the apostolic occupation of trafficking in fish’, the joke of course is that the occupations in question are low. It is not surprising, in the light of the second sally, that Evangelicals, and Victorians, could think of him as impious or blasphemous or antediluvian. The imagining of Lady Holland as her husband’s mattress, the planting of her ladyship in the posture of, as we shall see, one of Burke’s victims, was a species of performance which became, in the course of his lifetime and even in the context of a letter to a friend, an offensive thing of the past.

Out there in the English hinterland, but in fact quite close to the Metropolis, lay Edmonton. Mr Bell finds ‘very affecting’ a ‘magnanimous piece of patronage’ which, as Canon of St Paul’s, Smith performed in respect of a living at Edmonton in 1843. Since it was close to London, where he liked to be, he was expected to take the living himself. Instead, he awarded it to the son and curate of the incumbent, who had died, and did so in the presence of his sorrowing and impoverished, but unattractive family. Smith wrote to his bishop, who was pleased by this decision: ‘Virtue they say is its own reward, but there was an auxiliary premium for in a moment I was smothered with the kisses of the four ugly women and the sick mother.’ The parishioners were pleased too, and the smothered Smith assured them of the virtues of the new incumbent, who, on being preferred, began straight away to behave most unscripturally.

Smith’s polemical goals were to deteriorate in later life. A common fate, no doubt – and he was not the only Whig Reformer to move to a less militant approach in the years that followed the triumph of 1832. Never a respecter of bishops, he was still willing to attack them in old age: but the reasons had changed. His first Letter to Archbishop Singleton challenged, in 1837, a Church Commission which had ventured to propose the confiscation of sinecures in order to augment clerical stipends all round. Smith thought this would never do. He said of the Church: ‘I would not have operated so largely on an old and (I fear) a decaying building.’ This can be compared with Whig sentiments in the heat of Reform, as reaffirmed in the aftermath by Cockburn (who was usually willing, admittedly, to refrain from operating as well as to operate). Of the institutions of Scotland, Cockburn wrote: ‘It is dangerous to touch an old house; but the danger of letting it alone is sometimes greater.’

Smith felt that the sinecures should be annexed to ‘demanding and underpaid parishes’, as Bell puts it, ‘so that the prebendaries could earn their stipends,’ and so that low men should not be encouraged to enter the Church. As Smith put it in the Letter, ‘the respectability of the Church as well as of the Bar, is almost entirely preserved by the unequal division of their revenues.’ He went on: ‘the whole income of the Church, if equally divided, would be about £250 for each minister. Who would go into the Church and spend £1200 or £1500 upon his education, if such were the highest remuneration he could ever look to?’ The division of the spoils should remain unequal; let there still be glittering prizes of the sort that Brougham had captured at the Bar.

These two episodes, to do with patronage and with sinecures, are entertainingly treated by Alan Bell, with the strongly sympathetic feeling for Smith’s role and reactions which is characteristic of the book. Where Smith is criticised, he is criticised, as a rule, deftly and delicately. The book yields nothing to Hesketh Pearson’s life in point of bouyancy and readability, while having at its disposal a new range of data: Bell is engaged upon a revised edition of Smith’s letters, which will offer double the number previously in print (Nowell Charles Smith’s two volumes appeared in 1953). The presentation of the book is of a high lucidity and precision. Technicalities have been simplified and curtailed without, Bell hopes, imperilling its ‘credentials as a work of scholarly endeavour’: further information is promised in the edition of the letters. Apparent here and elsewhere is a sense of decorum which is both enabling and constraining. There is little speculation as to motive or inner life (there must have been one, though Smith seldom chose to place it on display and his wit was more than sufficient to screen it from view); fellow-feeling stops short, moreover, at responding in kind to Smith’s own endearing strain of Georgian vulgarity; and Mr Bell has written with more verve on other occasions than he does in, at any rate, the more stipendiary passages of this book. But in all other respects it is a work that is worthy of its enchanting subject.

Burke and Hare made away with 17 people, the poorest of the poor – many of them, like Burke and Hare, Irish. Their method was smothering, which seems to have left no trace of violence for the forensic science of the day: a hand gripped the throat, the nostrils were pinched, and the assailant landed on top of his victim in a terminal embrace, after which the body was sold to the anatomist Robert Knox. Hare turned King’s evidence, and after a trial which ended early on Christmas morning 1828, his confederate was hanged. The woman Burke lived with, Helen MacDougal, received a verdict of not proven: she had been ably defended by Henry Cockburn.

A bad business; Owen Dudley Edwards calls it mass murder. Blackwood’s Magazine made it even worse than it was, adding atrocity to atrocity, in one of their series of imaginary conversations, the Noctes Ambrosianae. John Wilson (‘Christopher North’) appears to have been responsible for the horribly inflammatory discussion of the subject there, and to have scripted the contributions assigned to the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. One scholar has asserted that the imaginary Hogg was an improvement on the real one, but the contributions do not bear this out. What did ‘James Hogg’ think of the ‘proceedings of these two Irish gentlemen’?

That they were too monotonous to impress the imagination. First ae drunk auld wife, and then anither drunk auld wife – and then a third drunk auld wife – and then a drunk auld or sick man or twa. The confession got unco monotonous – the Lights and Shadows o’ Scottish Death want relief – though, to be sure, poor Peggy Paterson, that Unfortunate, broke in a little on the uniformity; and sae did Daft Jamie: for whilk last murder, without ony impiety, ane may venture to say, the Devil is at this moment ruggin that Burke out o’ hell-fire wi’ a three-pronged fork, and then in wi’ him again, through the ribs – and then stirring up the coals wi’ that eternal poker – and then wi’ the great bellows blawin up the furnace, till, like an Etna, or Mount Vesuvius, it vomits the murderer out again far ower into the very middle o’ the floor o’ the infernal regions.

Wilson says he is glad that the hangman’s knot was fastened at the back of Burke’s neck ‘to keep him in pain’, whereupon the Shepherd resumes: ‘And, feenally, in that consummating swing, “here we go round about, round about” – and that drawin up o’ the knees, that tells death’s doure – and the labour o’ the lungs in agony, when you can breathe neither through mouth nor nostrils, and a’ your inside is workin like a barmy barrel.’

Mr Edwards has had the good idea of dealing with the affair from the point of view of a historian, avoiding the sensationalism of most accounts and fixing the events in a social situation. The Irish element in the situation is prominently exposed. At this time, the Edinburgh region contained a population which had risen suddenly and swiftly and which had been increased by the arrival of some seven thousand Irish, I believe – of whom, on religious grounds among others, the Scots were inclined to disapprove. Mr Edwards shows how the newcomers lived: harvesting, hawking, navvying, digging the Union Canal, dossing down in lodging-houses, drinking and dancing on such feasts as Hallowe’en. The Burke and Hare circle seems to have revolved round drink (as did Smith’s), with Burke both hitting the whisky and sprinkling it to hide the smell of an inconvenient cadaver. The lives of such people were tied to the furtherance of an industrial system. These were, Mr Edwards says, vagrants – industry’s nomads. But the ‘nomadic aspect’ is overdone. Daft Jamie is characterised both as a nomad and as a village idiot, when he could hardly have been both, and the sentence occurs: ‘One of the earliest victims was staying in Hare’s overnight having come down from Gilmerton – a good four miles even on today’s roads.’ I have to object that I travelled these four miles every morning of my secondary schooldays with none of the sensations of the wanderer and with no tent to speak of. I was what would one day be called a commuter.

The book also does well to relate Burke and Hare Ltd – their business being an extension by other means of resurrectionism, or the digging up of the recently dead for surgical dissection – to other happenings and preoccupations of the period. The two men are seen as examples of the entrepreneurial energy associated with immigrants, who may meet some of the less salubrious needs of the host country, and Knox is seen as, for sinister reasons, a suitable patron. He has been called the first British racist, and he figures here as a social-Darwinist pioneer for whom the races of the world were at war, with the lightest-skinned fittest for survival and the Celts requiring to be eliminated from the British Isles. Knox may have been motivated, not only by a crying need for corpses to help him to compete with the rival anatomists of the University, but also by the conviction that there could be no great harm in the unquestioning acceptance at Surgeon’s Square of dead Celts from the lower depths, together with the odd prostitute and daftie. In addition. Malthus’s theories of population control were not such as to set the faces of the Edinburgh Enlightenment against the eradication of the shiftless. Another relationship, but one which goes unexplored, was with the contemporary interest in Gothic science and in the experimental creation of life. This is a more obscure link: but Mary Shelley’s monster had been launched only a few years before, and Frankenstein had functioned as a resurrectionist in the course of his Faustian attempts.

This is a strange book in a way that has nothing to do with its possession of a bizarre subject – a subject which was immediately admitted to the folklore of the crime-conscious North. The Introduction luxuriates in a kind of menacing gratitude. It seems that a large number of essentially kindly Scottish taskmasters and Jeffreys got the author to cut the book – which is published by an Edinburgh University student co-operative, of which the author has been a moving spirit – and helped him to drive out error. But there is an arresting grammatical mistake in the fourth sentence of Chapter One, and there are a great many after that, and a great many literals besides. At one point, morning drinks are called ‘matitudinal bibulations’: since the first of these long words does not exist, so far as I know, ‘matutinal’ may be meant, or misprinted. Parts of the book seem likely to correspond to lectures that were given; parts of it read like the transcript, compiled in adverse conditions, of a lively speech or conversational excursus.

This causes difficulties. Others arise from deficiencies in the sources with which Mr Edwards had to work. The trial seems to have given an even narrower picture than most trials do of the circumstances in which the crimes were committed, and Burke’s confessional statements are not deployed so as to shed much light. The journalistic coverage abounded in lies. The trial was enveloped in tactical complexities: these derived from the predilection for King’s Evidence deals on the part of the prosecuting authorities of the day (the Deacon Brodie case was an important precedent) and from the immunity that had to be bestowed on Hare, and from the antagonism between the formidable Whig defence teams and the Government-affected Bench, at a time when the Whigs were pushing for power and for Reform. Meanwhile the author’s bid to stress the Irishness of his criminals is placed under strain by the little that is known of their personal lives, their early lives in particular. He claims, for example, that ‘it says a good deal for Burke’ that nobody, back in his Irish locality, where he had abandoned a wife, had predicted he would hang. ‘And it also indicates that his wife preserved the greatest love for his memory.’ This is to say too much. Mr Edwards rightly calls attention here to the local Catholic priest’s, Father Corcoran’s, preference for ‘the unfortunate Bourke’ over the ‘notorious M’Dougal’ – abandoned in another sense: mass murder was less damnable in that locality than fornication. Nearby, however, Mr Edwards writes: ‘Burke’s story about his quarrel with his father-in-law again might have behind it an annoyance that he could not himself get more support from a source of some wealth. If this were the case it makes it very likely that the marriage followed discovery of pregnancy’. This is to found a probable upon a possible. Later, ‘Burke as a former internee in the Ballina military hospital would have assumed Knox, Paterson and all other “doctors” to have the morals of a schooner of pirates ...’ But we hear nothing about his hospitalisation which indicates what assumptions he may have formed about the medical fraternity.

For Wilson’s Ettrick Shepherd, one of the victims of Burke and Hare was an ‘Unfortunate’. For Father Corcoran, Burke was ‘unfortunate’. They were all unfortunates compared with Sydney Smith, who saw himself as an outcast. Sentimental feelings were lavished at the time on the unfortunate victims of these crimes, though there was some to spare for individual members of the gang. Nowadays, on such subjects, those books which achieve the widest publicity grieve for unfortunate assailants. Such is the climate in which Mr Edwards speaks up for Burke. And it is not out of the question that in making his speech for the defence he may sometimes have had Norman Mailer in mind. It is certainly a subject for Mailer, and might have made one for Dostoevsky. But it is also a treacherous subject. Its unknown quantities – which include an under-examined Northern social background – afford all too much scope for invention. To reverse the expression used by ‘James Hogg’, they are all too impressive to the imagination. Talented writers have been drawn to the tale. One of them, Dylan Thomas, made nothing of it at all.

Mr Edwards suggests that it made a difference that Burke was Irish. He does not mean that murder is Irish; nor does he say that ill-treated migrant or immigrant workers may fall to ill-treating and selling their own kind at times of desperation and drink. But the exploitation of Irish labour certainly is, as he intends it to be, one explanation for what happened. There is a factor of fellow-feeling here, as in the previous book. He has a fairly high opinion of Burke. Burke was capable of wit. This ‘gentleman’ could exhibit a ‘true magnanimity’. The grounds for the opinion are largely his loving concern for Helen or Nellie MacDougal: ‘Well, thank God you’re safe!’ Cockburn, who incidentally shared the prejudice of his neighbours against the incoming Irish, thinking them seditious and an infestation, also shares Mr Edwards’s liking for Burke: ‘Except that he murdered, Burke was a sensible, and what might be called a respectable, man.’ Magnanimous, sensible, respectable, witty – he sounds like Sydney Smith.

Helen MacDougal does not sound like Dickens’s Little Nell in the snatches of her speech which have survived. Of the old woman whose murder furnished the indictment Helen had earlier been, after a fashion, an assailant: she said she’d ‘kicked the damned bitch’s backside out of the door’ for ‘using too much freedom’ with Burke. Mr Edwards feels that ‘in the midst of murder’ she was ‘innocent’ of the charge she faced: but if she did not guess that murders were taking place in her immediate vicinity, her powers of detection must have been as slender as the sense of justice exhibited by Lord Meadowbank of the Scottish Judiciary, arch-protector of the informant Hare.

At its best, this provocative book is better than many which are altogether free from literals and ‘matitudinals’, and it comes to a resounding close with the execution of Burke, watched by Walter Scott, humanely aware of the life of the poor in Ireland and deeply hostile to Knox, and by 25,000 screaming citizens. They were reckoned to be the biggest crowd that had ever gathered in Edinburgh, though it would be a poor turn-out for a football game now. ‘Burke him!’ they yelled. ‘Hang Knox!’ ‘He’s a noxious morsel!’ No more noxious than the Noctes Ambrosianae. Burke was given a handkerchief, which he spread beneath his knee on the scaffold. It carried a portrait of Burns, and some of his many lines about misfortune.

Chased by avenging mobs, Helen MacDougal disappeared into the unknown – the unknown with which this historian has had to contend in giving his account. It is likely that she became a wanderer, a beggar, if she escaped with her life. I have come across a trace of her in a footnote which belongs to a book published a few months after the trial, in 1830 – Robert Macnish’s The Philosophy of Sleep. It reveals how quick the affair was to pass into the condition of fairy-tale and romance, how soft hearts could feel from the first for an unfortunate assailant in the affair, and how victim and assailant can be closely allied. It states that she had ‘to steal away like a ghost’ when a crowd had beaten her up. ‘Often she besought pity as one willing to fly, if she only knew where.’