Seizing the Senses

Derek Jarrett

  • Edmund Burke. Vol. I: 1730-84 by F.P. Lock
    Oxford, 564 pp, £75.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 19 820676 3

‘Mr Burke will live,’ declared the Times two days after he had died, ‘as long as strength of imagination and beauty of language shall be respected by the world.’ By the time the Oxford edition of Burke’s Select Works came out in 1876 there was more for the world to respect. ‘Burke will always stand forth as a man whose political knowledge was complete,’ wrote the editor, E.J. Payne. ‘He was therefore, though a reformer, incapable of rash and inconsiderate action. The man who has arrived at a view of the whole plan of civil society, and taken in the mutual relations and dependencies of distant parts, is not in danger of being consumed by an irrational zeal for or against any established element in that society.’ A few years later, in his History of England in the 18th Century, W.E.H. Lecky found yet more to respect and admire:

No other politician or writer has thrown the light of so penetrating a genius on the nature and working of the British Constitution ... He had a peculiar gift of introducing into transient party conflicts observations drawn from the most profound knowledge of human nature ... there is perhaps no English prose writer since Bacon whose works are so thickly starred with thought. The time may come when they will be no longer read. The time will never come in which men would not grow the wiser by reading them.

It was Lewis Namier who began the work of demolition. In The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, published in 1928, he cited what he called ‘the literary afterthoughts of Edmund Burke and the latter-day Whigs’ as an example of the sort of source material that had led previous historians astray. Because Burke’s political knowledge was in fact far from complete, because his scant understanding of the working of the British Constitution prevented him from comprehending the political structure it had engendered, these historians, according to Namier, had been little the wiser for reading him. In his second book, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930), Namier went on to question the value of the observations Burke introduced into transient party conflicts. ‘It seems extremely doubtful,’ he wrote, ‘whether Burke and his friends, if in power, would have succeeded in saving the First British Empire. Their ideas were no less hierarchical and authoritarian than those of George III and Lord North ... had Burke been in office during the American Revolution, we might merely have had to antedate his counter-revolutionary Toryism by some twenty years.’ This was a reference to Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London relative to that event (1790), in which Burke denounced all those who thought that revolution in France pointed up the need for reform in England. Namier went on to declare that previous historians had been wrong in thinking that Burke and his friends, the so-called Rockingham Whigs, were in direct line of descent from the Whigs of George II’s reign. He ended by saying that his next book, if ever written, would be on ‘The Rise of Party’.

Now, with a new Oxford edition of Burke’s writings and speeches nearing completion, and with more years between us and Namier’s pronouncements than between them and Lecky, Professor Lock gives us the first volume of what promises to be an important biography. By dividing his account of Burke’s life and work into two volumes and ending the first at the general election of 1784, Lock is able to set aside Namier’s retrospection. Instead of being told that what Burke did in the 1790s shows what he would have liked to do in the 1770s, we are able to assess his first 54 years on their merits without having ‘counter-revolutionary Toryism’ paraded before us like Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas yet to come.

The volume begins by suggesting that there were indeed 54 years, not 55 as has often been supposed: the evidence Lock produces points to January 1730, not January 1729, as Burke’s date of birth. As a child he felt more at home with his mother’s Catholic family in County Cork than with his Protestant father, a hidebound Dublin lawyer. At the age of II he was sent to Abraham Shackleton’s ‘classical academy’ at Ballitore in County Kildare, a Quaker school with a reputation for efficient teaching of the Latin and Greek classics. Shackleton’s influence, moral rather than intellectual according to Lock, was considerable. At Trinity College Dublin, where Burke studied from 1744 to 1748, he seems to have enjoyed his Latin and Greek, ‘despite the dull teaching and his own mediocre performance’, but he also enjoyed reading old chivalric romances and confessed himself ‘far gone in the poetical madness’. By the time he came to London in the spring of 1750, ostensibly to read law at his father’s behest, he wanted above all to be a poet.

Soon after his arrival in England he fell ill and went to take the waters at Bath. There he met his future father-in-law Christopher Nugent, an Irish Catholic with a French medical degree. The waters helped a little but Burke did not fully recover his health until the latter part of 1753, by which time he had completed his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In 1755, at the end of a legal training which had cost his father a thousand pounds, he decided not to be a lawyer. It was a gesture of defiance, a declaration of intent. From now on he would make his own way in the world.

His first published work, an anonymous satirical parody entitled A Vindication of Natural Society, appeared in May 1756. It was well received and its publisher Robert Dodsley offered 20 guineas for the copyright of the Philosophical Enquiry plus a further ten if it reached a third edition. The offer was accepted and the work was published in April 1757, six weeks after Burke married Nugent’s daughter Jane. He had also contracted to write a history of England which was to be finished by the end of 1758 and would bring in £300 in instalments. A less than vigilant proof-reader has allowed Lock’s text to give the proposed length of this work as ‘400,000 thousand words’, perhaps a little ambitious even for Burke. In April 1758, shortly after the birth of his son Richard, he agreed to compile and edit a new periodical to be called the Annual Register in return for a fee of £100 a year. A second son, Christopher, was born in December 1758 and it soon became apparent that Burke’s literary earnings would not suffice to pay the bills. ‘The consulship at Madrid has been vacant these eight months,’ Dr William Markham wrote to the Duchess of Queensbury in September 1759. ‘Mr Pitt is actually at a loss for a proper person to appoint to it. This has encouraged my friend to think of it.’ The friend was Burke, who ‘seems to have a most extensive knowledge, with extraordinary talents for business, and to want nothing but ground to stand upon to do his country very important services’.

‘Ground to stand upon’ meant influence and connection of the sort that enabled the tombstone of a certain Mrs Bates to record that ‘by means of her alliance with the illustrious family of Stanhope she had the merit to obtain for her husband and children twelve several appointments in Church and State.’ Mrs Burke had no such merit and her husband was not appointed to the consulship. When George III came to the throne in October 1760 there was talk of a new age, a new kind of politics in which family alliances would be less important, and the Annual Register rejoiced that the young King had ‘united all sects and all parties’. For the time being, however, the old ways prevailed and Burke had to do the best he could. He agreed to act as paid assistant and adviser to William Gerard Hamilton, chief secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

In July 1761, shortly before he went to Dublin with Hamilton, Burke met Horace Walpole, who was later to become one of his fiercest critics. ‘He is a sensible man,’ Walpole remarked, ‘but has not worn off his authorism yet, and thinks there is nothing so charming as writers, and to be one.’ When Burke returned to London in the summer of 1762 he found himself caught in the cross-currents of politics. William Burke, his close friend and possibly a distant relative, was busy canvassing merchant interests in an attempt to whip up opposition to the peace treaty about to be signed with France and Spain. Edmund joined in, declaring that the treaty was ‘the most shameful that ever was made’, only to discover three weeks later that William was deep in new intrigues, directed this time towards drumming up support for the treaty in the House of Commons in the hope of being made a colonial governor after the war.

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