A flourish for Britannia's boys

The Patriot Opposition To Walpole:
April 7, 1995

It is an irony of Walpolian historiography that while almost every two-bit opposition figure has been the subject of a modern literary or political biography, the "great man" himself has received comparatively little attention. The standard scholarly work remains J. H. Plumb's brilliant but yellowing trilogy, written when Harold Macmillan was prime minister and still unfinished.

Christine Gerrard's title therefore suggests that she will be treading familiar ground by focusing on the "patriot opposition" to Walpole. But her book is not principally about the Craftsman, about William Pulteney and Lord Bolingbroke, about all the well-studied famous patriots. She is most interested in James Thomson (who wrote Rule, Britannia!) and a band of lesser known poets and playwrights who gathered around Frederick Prince of Wales in the 1730s: men like Henry Brooke, Richard Glover, Aaron Hill, George Lillo, David Mallet, Richard Powney, William Somervile and Gilbert West.

Frederick endlessly squabbled with his father George II, especially over the size of his £59,000 allowance, which he considered too small. In 1737, he was expelled from St James's, and he set up a rival court first at Norfolk House and then at Leicester House. There, he became the figurehead for the dissident Whig Sir Richard Temple (Lord Cobham), the "Cobham Cubs" or "Boy Patriots" like George Lyttleton and William Pitt (the elder), and the little-known literary circle.

Gerrard claims that this royal sycophancy goes a long way to explain why the writers have been marginalised by literary historians. Another reason is the patriot's perceived "dullness" - the traditional slur against those who did not use the hip literary weapon, satire. Gerrard points out that the patriots consciously avoided satire, eschewing its negative essence and electing more uplifting literary styles. It is one of the key contributions of the book that the opposition to Walpole was not driven exclusively by the "politics of nostalgia".

Gerrard portrays the complexity and peculiarity of Cobhamite patriotism. It was political certainly, revolving around the conflict with Spain. But it was also cultural, calling for a reformation of the arts in England under the enlightened patronage of Frederick, whose "reputation as a pretentious dunderhead of 'limited intelligence' is a complete fiction". The political and cultural themes thread through the historical myths - gothic liberty and Elizabethan greatness - with which the patriot poems and plays are embroidered.

The myth-making is important. It tells Gerrard that the traditional view of the fall of Walpole in 1742 (and the deaths of Pope and Swift soon after) as a literary watershed marking the shift from "Augustan" to "pre-romantic" is misplaced. The gothic revival in fact predates the writings of William Collins, Thomas Gray and the Warton brothers - mid-century poets who either aestheticised the political dimension of patriot gothic or who simply failed to recognise it.

It would be expecting too much from a literary historian to get through an entire book without some detailed analysis of the mainstream, canonical writers of the Walpole era. And sure enough, Alexander Pope is in. So too is Bolingbroke. But Gerrard makes useful observations: showing through Pope's poetry that patriotism was affected by the Tory-Whig dichotomy, and revealing that Bolingbroke's Idea of a Patriot King was influenced by the lesser known writers (rather than the other way round).

Gerrard's literary roots also come through in her disappointing delineation of Walpole as the archetypal baddie. On the one hand, she states that the idea that the Whig patriots were "obliged" to Frederick by his pensions is "Johnson-shaped" and therefore to be discounted. On the other hand, she does not give a second thought to describing Thomas Gordon as having "sold out" by writing for Walpole. It is also a shame that she does not include a comparative study of court Whig patriotism (which she enticingly calls "more imaginative"), and - given her emphasis on patriotic Elizabethanism - the writings of Walpole's gifted boy-journalist William Arnall as Francis Walsingham in the Free Briton. But these are small gripes about a book which is a significant contribution to the growing corpus of scholarship on the genesis of British nationalism in the 18th century.

Simon Targett is writing a book on Walpole's political newspapers.

The Patriot Opposition To Walpole:: Politics, Poetry and National Myth, 1725-1742

Author - Christine Gerrard
ISBN - 019 812982 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 3pp

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