23 JUNE 1939, Page 24



IT is, perhaps, no serious criticism of this scholarly and accomplished life of Burke to suggest that, while it supple- ments, it does not supersede the late Lord Morley's study of that eminent man. Writing from memory, I should say that the present book fills in many personal details, is more sympathetic to Burke's change of front in 179o, and rightly gives rather fuller emphasis to the influence of his own financial follies, and the demands of his unprincipled relatives on his political views. The book under review is largely based on original material in the family papers at Wentworth Woodhouse and at Milton, and though none of it is startingly sensational, it gives a writer on Burke a somewhat broader canvas than was possible when Morley's book was written. In these days when professional historians are struggling to give the impres- sion that no one can write about the past except those who are paid to work in the lecture room, the author will no doubt draw the fire of some of those worthies for introducing an. historical background of detail in which they will detect and proclaim microscopic errors of fact. However, the ordinary reader, for whom no doubt Sir Philip was primarily writing, may slightly regret the excessively detailed historical back- ground, because the personality of Burke is frequently limited and obscured by it. The book could more fittingly be entitled the " Life and Times of Burke."

Apart from any mere historic, literary or scholastic interest, Burke's career is for posterity dull with two exceptions—his change of political allegiance in 1790 and his attitude to the Revolution. Pleas for economical reform, thunderings about India and the Regency, and indignant lectures to the electors of Bristol, make excellent matter for dictation classes at pre- paratory schools, and comfortable reading for elderly gentle- men in libraries, but they have not the same lively interest as the two matters mentioned above. There is nothing in the present book to suggest that Burke was not a ghastly bore in public, and all the well-chosen contemporary caricatures with which it is illustrated give emphasis to that. How acutely clever those late eighteenth-century caricaturists were!

Odd, confusing and baffling as are contemporary politics, they serve to emphasise one truth which ambitious men would be well advised to ponder. Those who desert a party, even in the twentieth century, might recall the words of Burke ad- dressed to Fox, " I know the price of my conduct.. I have done my duty at the price of my friend." But if political desertion leads to loss of respect and of friendship, it seldom leads to comfort and security in the new quarters. That is patent from Burke's short, troubled and uneasy life after 179o. Here some of the readers of this book would wish that the author had analysed somewhat more carefuly the motives which influenced Burke to desert his Whig friends. Some would say (and the writer of this review among them) that the French Revolution burst " like the morning star, full of life and splendour and joy," just at the blackest period of Burke's political and private career. For an elderly, discredited politician the Revolution was a heaven-sent augury of long, lucrative days basking in the society of Tories and receiving the compliments of King George III.

Certainly Sir Philip Magnus's picture of the earlier part of Burke's life gives no confidence that he was the sort of man to resist temptation of this kind. Burke had bought, when his political and financial position was far Edmund Burke : A Life. By Sir Philip Magnus. (John Murray. x5s.)

from assured, a property at Beaconsfield known as Gregories for L20,000. This included both arable and pasture land, a fine Palladian house, which he quickly fitted with pictures by Poussin, Reynolds and Titian. He described this venture as " making a push to cast a little root in the country." At the end of his life, after the sobbing tragedy of his son's death, he wrote: " I cannot acquit myself of putting many more things to the risque of certain contingencies than I was entitled to."

Edmund Burke's brothers—a pair of raffish Irishmen who would have made excellent characters in one of Thackeray's novels—were constantly drawing money from him and no less constantly sailing right into the wind. In India, William Burke juggled with the national finances in a way which would have made a Nabob's mouth water, and from the nefarious practices of his brethren Burke stood to gain personal advantage. Sir Philip rightly says that it is " impossible to palliate his conduct by relating it to the morality of his age." He can only excuse him by saying, which is indeed the only defence, that the intensity of his family affections overwhelmed his judgement. Though the author does not say as much, it is abundantly clear that Burke's political failure, aggravated and exposed by the Regency debates of 1789, no less than his financial insecurity, paved the way for his views on the Revolution and his abandonment of Fox.

Posterity, in considering whether the balance of right lay with Fox or with Burke, has no easy task, partly because English politics are invariably confused and embittered when they are concentrated on foreign issues. They are confused because of the ignorance of politicians, and they are embittered because of the Englishman's habit of supplementing ignorance with emphasis. Fox's comment on the French Revolution that it was the best and greatest event in the world's history must be contrasted with Burke's judgement, delivered in the best style of the headmistress of a girls' school, that " that people are not fit for liberty." A century and a half afterwards, almost to the day, we can appreciate how bold—yet pointed and profound—was Fox's judgement and how abysmally inept was Burke's. Indeed, for absurdity it is only rivalled by another of Burke's obiter dicta about "the temperate, permanent, hereditary virtue of the whole House of Cavendish," which was made only a few years before the head of that noble house was living at Devonshire House in an inextricable con- fusion of wives, mistresses and bastards. Sir Philip Magnus, led by the compelling genius of his subject into realms of lofty folly, describes the Reflections as " the greatest individual storehouse of the ripe wisdom of its author." Even that amiable monarch George III did not go quite as far as that, and contented himself with saying, "Every gentleman should read it."

Passing from laudation of Burke to condemnation of Fox, the author dubs Fox's conduct " eccentricity " and writes of him as drinking " the thin air of Jacobinism." Such lan- guage seems neither apt nor happy. If, however, the venerable partialities of a Foxite reviewer are necessarily ruffled by the author's confident scorn of that glorious man, there is much in his book to which the prejudiced can turn with enjoyment. There are plenty of glimpses—though the author might perhaps have given us rather more of them and rather less of politics—of Burke in private life discussing with his friends anything from the charms of a double bed to the imitations of Dr. Johnson's style.