That Corrupting Country

Thomas Keymer

  • Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer and Linguist, 1746-94 by Michael Franklin
    Oxford, 396 pp, £35.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 953200 1

Sir William Jones, the Enlightenment polymath who established the shared origins of Indo-European languages and cultures, certainly didn’t lack a capacity for big vision. But he was also keen on details, with no time for broad-brush talk about the seven ages of man. He was 47 – still in Jaques’s fifth age (‘And then the justice … with eyes severe’) – when he died in 1794, in the fancy Calcutta suburb of Garden Reach. Two decades earlier he had drawn up a more fine-grained scale of his own, which he called the ‘Andrometer’. This had 63 points, starting with the Lockean blankness of a newborn child (‘Ideas received through the senses’) and ending in septuagenarian piety (‘Preparation for eternity’). Jones didn’t mean, his first biographer, Baron Teignmouth, nervously added, that we shouldn’t be preparing for eternity the whole time. But it was secular immortality he really had in view as he worked his way through the demanding regime of intellectual and practical attainments laid out in the Andrometer. One thing drove him above all: ‘Glory I shall pursue,’ he told a Hungarian colleague in 1771, ‘through fire and water, by night and by day.’

In good 18th-century style, the Andrometer was intended for both instruction and amusement when it was sketched out for the 16-year-old Viscount Althorp, Jones’s pupil and future patron, who became home secretary after his death. The tensions and paradoxes of patronage culture mark Jones’s entire career, nowhere more than in his dealings with Althorp and the Spencer family. The grandson of an Anglesey sheep farmer, Jones was never exactly poor: his father was a real self-made man, a brilliant mathematician who rose from charity school in Llanfechell to become vice-president of the Royal Society (introducing ‘pi’ in its modern meaning along the way). But he died before his son’s third birthday, and Jones started life with only a modest bequest. Tutoring Althorp was his way of working through college, and, he boasted, ‘with the fortune of a peasant, giving himself the education of a prince’, he mastered Arabic and Persian, as well as fencing and the Welsh harp. It was later said of Jones’s proud but incomplete Welshness that he understood every language except his own.

Even the Spencers were unable to give Jones everything he craved at Oxford: he wasn’t elected to the Regius Chair of Modern History and Languages (a long shot in his early twenties), or the Lord Almoner’s Professorship of Arabic (awarded to an inoffensive plodder), or even the university’s seat in Parliament, despite the fact that Althorp’s glamorous sister Georgiana canvassed on his behalf. ‘Patronage … will carry votes against me: it must therefore be exerted for me,’ Jones insisted, but to no avail. Elsewhere patronage was decisive. Through the Spencers Jones gained access to Whig grandees who kept him going with minor preferments until he landed a big prize in 1783: he was made a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal, an appointment worth £6000 per annum, ten times his earnings at the time, perhaps fifty times the income of a typical lawyer.

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