20 JANUARY 1961, Page 22

Walpole's Way


nt ROBERT WALPOLE, in portly confidence, S

looks out from the frontispiece of Dr. Plumb's book.* His official robes are larded with gold braid; the Blue Ribbon athwart his torso accentuates the generous curve of his paunch. But he carries his years and his good living well. The jowl may be heavy with superfluous flesh but there is nothing heavy about the judicious mouth or the sharp, dark eyes. There is nothing heavy either about the stance which is almost sprightly for so large a man, with the left leg advanced to reveal the Garter bound fast about the knee. (Walpole was the first commoner to be so honoured in many generations and he was not going to allow posterity to overlook the fact: he had the insignia added to all portraits done at an earlier date.) When, in describing the Excise crisis, Dr. Plumb writes of Walpole's `elephantine complacency,' this portrait at once flashes into the mind's eye to point the felicity of the phrase.

Walpole had good reason for self-satisfaction. He had risen to be the chief power in the nation from small beginnings as a Norfolk country squire, a progress which Dr. Plumb traced in depth and detail in his earlier book The Making of a Statesman. He broke off the story of Wal- pole's career in 1722: he was then in his middle forties, his rival Sunderland had been removed by death and he was about to settle down to his long dominance as the King's Minister.

In the present volume Walpole is secure and buoyant in power though not without dangers and difficulties, not without the snarling vitu- peration of satirists and the press, which rose at times to an uproar that would have unnerved any statesman less armoured than Walpole in self-confidence. In this book we watch the exten- sion of his interests and his vision, as his marvellously acute and comprehensive intelli- gence is directed upon the complex and unfamiliar field of foreign relations. Gradually he edges out of power his friend and ally Townshend. He builds the stately Houghton Hall, and collects notable works of art. He skil- fully turns the dangerous corner of a new King's accession, and makes himself as indispensable to King George II and Queen Caroline as he had been to George I. He survives the frenzied Excise crisis. The troublesome election of 1734 is fought and won. But no mortal thing, least of all the power of a statesman, can last for ever. On the last page of this book Dr. Plumb utters words of foreboding: Time no longer favoured him; the dashing young sprigs in the Commons—the hooting patriot boys—calculated his age and drank to the future. No longer could he regard the years ahead as a time of promise or fulfilment; the unfolded years were his consolation and delight. The future would bring the death of friends, the decline of powers, age, sickness and defeat. At other points in his account of these success-

* f a ROkil.RT WALPOI E : THE KIWI'S MINISTER. By J. H. Plumb. (Cresset, 30s.)

ful years Dr. Plumb has quietly and without over-emphasis indicated the beginnings of that decline: the coarsening effect of success on a character never particularly sensitive, the de- terioration of judgment which comes from the confidence of possessing abilities of an excep- tionally high order; the fading of the nobler vision as power becomes sweet for its own sake— an appetite that grows monstrously with what it feeds on. But on the whole the shadow of the future lies lightly on the central volume of this classic biography.

Here is the full-length portrait of a states- man at the height of his power seen in action in the midst of the living world of the early eighteenth century. Dr. Plumb is sympathetic to what is best in this world just as he is sympathe- tic to what is best in Walpole, and this is perhaps the chief reason why he has written such a superlatively good book on a man whose life and times are not, to many people, immediately inspiring.

A great deal of nonsense is talked, mostly by non-practitioners, about the virtues of objective and dispassionate history. No such thing exists.

But there is history written with sympathy for the men and the age concerned, and there is history written without it. Without sympathy of some kind it is nearly impossible to penetrate the motives of an individual or for that matter to comprehend the imponderable forces which cause the actions of groups and classes. Dr. Plumb keeps his sympathy well under the control of his scholarship. His researches have been exhaustive and he handles a mass of evidence with cool, unhurried precision. I should imagine that he has rarely known (and never yielded to) the horrid impulse to extract just that much more from any piece of evidence than, to dis- passionate inquiry, it will really yield. But he

has the unmistakable touch of one who loves what he writes. about, and is therefore involved

in it—not merely looking loftily down upon it.

He sees Walpole and his epoch clearly, without illusions, admitting the baseness, the greed, the ingratitude of political life, and the coarseness of much of the social scene, but recognising virtues and vices together as parts of a human whole, sometimes admirable, sometimes deplor- able, always alive and interesting.

In a few words of quiet conviction he defends Walpole's foreign policy against charges of amateurishness and opportunism, brought at the time and accepted by historians since: There were, of course, tides in European affairs that Walpole could not control. . . . Some, like Chatham, who discerned the course of the great currents that were bearing humanity along, could achieve a symbolic role by giving moral force to inevitable conflict between France and Britain over Spain. That was not Walpole's way. He saw immediate problems and solved them, He hated war, muddle, loss. He felt that the problems of nations, like the problems of men, could be solved by hard look for prosperity without plunder, to yearn for stability and to shun glory may be the work of an amateur whose policy can be stigmatised as opportunist. For those who love life and are indifferent to fame, Walpole's policy is both consistent in aim and distinguished in purpose.

In such a paragraph the eminent good sense of pl Sir Robert Walpole is reflected in the eminent be

good sense of his biographer. There is indeed 1 Olt

luminous sanity about Dr. Plumb's writing. and Ri this is present even when he is describing people fo and situations neither luminous nor sane. Thus ba

the account of European courts and policies Pi

with which the book begins is a model of clear exposition showing how the significant and the trivial could be and were organically connected to create the diplomatic tensions of the early eighteenth century. Questions of wealth and power, profound changes and pressures, found expression in arguments over dynastic claims; anxieties over royal marriages, propagation and inheritance loomed much larger than the deeper issues that they covered. Dr. Plumb's quick sketches of the squalid court of Philip V of cl Spain and his bouncing Queen. Elizabeth it Farnese, or of little Louis XV perched on his 1*) tutor's knee and playing with his silky white hair arc fun for the reader, but they also have their importance, along with other matters, in the story of Walpole's diplomacy. I have never read

a more intelligible or more interesting account a of British foreign policy at this period than that

given here, or realised more vividly the perva- 11

sive importance of that sly, tottering old church- P

man, Cardinal Fleury, who guided the destinies

of France. s, But Walpole's England, the English Court and the English scene are, as they were in the first

volume, the living centre of the book. Here

Walpole is seen at his full stature, a giant of a 7 man, with a comprehensive memory for detail. a clear judgment, an unrivalled gift for managing the Commons, a splendid confidence without which the exercise of political power would be a nightmare. It was never—or rarely—a nightmare to Walpole. The gargantuan meals, the heavy drinking, the hard riding were all part of his capacity to take on pretty well any challenge. But with the courage, the zest, the skill, the endurance went also a tremendous ruthlessness, calculation and cunning, and an increasing coarseness of mind.

Ends which were desirable in themselves were to be compassed by whatever means came to hand. Lesser men, swarming about the centres of power, got payment only if they were still worth paying. There was no gratitude for services rendered unless there were also services to come. Vast as was the patronage that Walpole con- trolled, he could not satisfy all demands, and without compunction he discarded the useless mouths. There was the case of Sir' John Fryer. As Lord Mayor of London he had been ex- tremely helpful to Walpole at the time of the South Sea Bubble. Fallen on evil days, the poor old gentleman pleaded for a small salaried post to keep him out of the debtors' prison. He did not get it. Walpole's mistress, on the other hand, the intelligent and lively Molly Skerrett, was discreetly provided for out of the public funds.

It seems odd that this earthy commonsensical man should have had a streak of hysteria about the Jacobites. His fears were not quite base- less, since the Forty-five lay still in the future, but they were grossly exaggerated. Yet plot- mindedness and a certain jumpiness about possible foreign invasion were a natural legacy from the latter days of the troubled seventeenth century. Walpole had grown to manhood during

bargaining. To seek peace and not empire, to )'ea

Years of plot, counter-plot and foreign con- spiracy. The growing stability of the eighteenth Century was after all largely his own doing. His power and success found outward expres- sion in the magnificent mansion, Houghton Hall, opulent with walnut and mahogany, brilliant 'plot crimson and gold,' which he built on the Plot of ground where his needy boyhood had

been spent.' This was the kind of gesture often made by transcendently successful. statesmen. Richelieu a hundred years before had trans- formed the scene of his needy boyhood into a „baroque palace of surpassing glory. But Dr. plumb has at last done justice to Walpole as a Man of taste. Houghton Hall and the splendid collection of works of art were not crude gestures of ostentation. He cared about the design of his house, interfered, made suggestions. The pictures he collected were well chosen and deeply cher- ished. Sold by a feckless descendant to Catherine the Great of Russia, they are most of them still today at the Hermitage and include some of the finest Rembrandts in the world.

In this sphere Dr. Plumb makes a justified elairn for Walpole as a figure of some importance in the history of English taste. But the more Philistine aspects of Walpole ultimately make the greater effect. In the sumptuous and elegant setting of Houghton Hall, where his own bust Was ranged among those of Roman Emperors, ne gave huge house parties, hunted all day, ate and drank half the night, and with unabated energy read despatches, wrote letters, conducted the affairs of the nation and kept an eye on Political dissidents and rivals. With a literary skill that equals his gifts of perception and scholarship Dr. Plumb makes the authentic Walpole stand out as large as life from the Printed page.