A genius reeking of everything but success

Hostage to Fortune

June 26, 1998

Anyone thinking about writing a serious life of Francis Bacon is likely to be discouraged by the fact of Spedding's vast, defensive Life and Letters in seven volumes (1861), even by its relatively handy abridgement in two volumes. They would be like someone in Wiltshire about 1000bc meditating the construction of a stone circle and then recalling the existence of Stonehenge. Although there have been some good short biographies, there has been no comprehensive biography in recent years.

Hostage to Fortune does not quite do the job, hefty and close packed though it is. Indeed, in a number of ways it is rather a weird book. Most weird is its almost total exclusion of any reference to Bacon's philosophy, apart from perfunctory mention of dates of publication (of the comparatively small fraction that was published during his life) and, occasionally, of the names of things he might have been working on at particular times. Given that he was a philosopher as well as a politically notable figure that is odd enough. Lives of A. J. Balfour, for example, ordinarily make some effort to discuss his philosophical writings. But Balfour was a very influential politician. His philosophy, although very well written, was primarily recreational.

Bacon, on the other hand, is one of the major figures in the intellectual tradition of Europe: patron saint of the Royal Society, inspiration of the Encyclopedistes, dedicatee of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. If not exactly the father - he was more the godfather - of British empiricism, he was the supreme promoter of natural science based on observation and experiment, even if undistinguished as its practitioner. As a thinker he was widely admired and lavishly misunderstood, quite often fruitfully. His philosophical importance has never been in doubt, even by those who most deplored his ideas, de Maistre, for example, who wrote an angry book about him.

A symptom of Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart's indifference to the most interesting aspect of Bacon is the curious remark that "when Francis Bacon was catapulted into 'retirement' in April 1621I of the writings which later editors were to consider the 'Philosophical Works', only the Novum Organum was yet available to the public". The Advancement of Learning had come out in 1605 and that, although literary and not very rigorously argued, is unquestionably a work of philosophy. Nothing called Bacon's "Philosophical Works" could possibly omit it. He had also published De Sapientia Veterum in 1609, but it is, admittedly, a borderline case. It reinterprets classical fables so as to bring out, in a highly ingenious but seldom convincing way, the rational, indeed philosophical, message allegorically concealed within them. What is true is that much of his most interesting writing, although apparently done in 1603 and 1604, while the crown was changing hands, did not come out until after his death.

The Bacon on whom Jardine's and Stewart's attention is exclusively focused is a fairly absurd figure. He was kept busy with legal work, but his political influence on the two very capricious monarchs he served - or tried to serve - was almost negligible. He gave a lot of sensible political advice, mainly directed towards moderation: do not infuriate the House of Commons, the Puritans or the Catholics. During her reign Elizabeth was herself the chief obstacle to his upward progress. She did nothing whatever to prevent Burghley, her first minister and Bacon's ungenerous uncle, from steadily refusing to give him any of the posts for which he so cringingly pleaded. Even Essex, who was well-disposed to Bacon, could not get the solicitor-generalship for him in the 1590s and Bacon had to wait for it until Robert, earl of Salisbury, Burghley's son and successor, died in 1612. It seems clear that Elizabeth either disliked or distrusted him, or both. His notorious homosexuality may have been distasteful to her. If she distrusted him she was right to do so. The quoted matter in this book abundantly confirms the standard view that his overwhelming practical concern was advancement in status, wealth and power and to the devil with morality.

James I, of course, was a blatant homosexual himself and that, one might have thought, should have been a bond with Bacon. Perhaps it was, to some extent, although their tastes were different. The king liked glamorous, straight young men; Bacon liked stable boys. At any rate it did not help much. Elizabeth did not hand over all that much power to her darlings, Leicester and Essex. James was much more lavish to Carr and Villiers. Carr did not last long and Bacon botched his obsequious handling of Villiers. Jardine and Stewart take a sensible and tolerant line about homosexuality in Bacon's epoch, that of a sophisticated Edwardian public school housemaster. If you are going to put a lot of vigorous young men together in confined quarters and keep them away from women, what do you expect is going to happen?

On the whole the spectacle of Bacon's public career, as lengthily set out in Hostage to Fortune, is more comic than tragic (at least he did not have his head cut off), and the comedy is of a more farcical than pathetic kind. Bacon is the Laurel to his own Hardy: "Here's another fine mess I've gotten myself into." The first catastrophe was the death of his father, who had made no adequate provision for him in his will, when he was 18. Then, in 1593, moving up with glacial slowness, he enraged the queen by opposing a subsidy bill, thus neutralising all Essex's efforts on his behalf. In 1598 a rich heiress, Lady Hatton, on whom he had fastened his beady eye, suddenly married Edward Coke, his deadly rival. Having unequivocally attached himself to Essex, he sees him descend into treacherous conduct, and to save his skin has to play a leading part in the earl's condemnation to death. Soon James I succeeds and makes Bacon a knight, along with 300 others, a somewhat diluted distinction. He had to wait a very long time for his reversion to the clerkship of the court of Star Chamber to mature on the death of the incumbent. He sets himself to stand well with James I's excellent elder son, Henry, who then tiresomely dies. He gets into serious trouble with Villiers for helping Coke's wife (whom he had once pursued) preserve her daughter from Coke's plan to marry her to a brother of Villiers, the ruling favourite, who, to Bacon's distress and apparent amazement, was furious.

The major disaster was, of course, his trial for corruption as a judge, which, the authors persuasively suggest, was a case of his being sacrificed to shield the king and Villiers. The final indignity was posthumous. He had lived apart from his much younger wife after his banishment from London and she took up with one Underhill, a gentleman of Bacon's household. Within 11 days of Bacon's death she had, with maximal insult to her late spouse, married him. (It did not work out well; according to Aubrey, she drove him blind and deaf "with too much Venus".) The suggestion I made earlier that Bacon was an important thinker but an unimportant politician is borne out by the political triviality of the great bulk of his public preoccupations. He seems to have played little part in the formulation or execution of Elizabeth's Irish policy, the main business of her last years. He did take a sensible line about the union of England and Scotland, but without the smallest effect. Nor does he seem to have taken a hand in the business of marrying the future Charles I to the Spanish infanta, a policy, which, fortunately for us all perhaps, collapsed soon after Bacon did. The acquisition of important posts and the development of bright ideas are of no use to a politician unless the posts are used to put the ideas into effect. In that respect Bacon's failure was total.

The authors describe their book as a "modern biography", without explaining what this is and why they concentrate wholly on Bacon's political life. Even if, quite understandably, they did not want to go into technical detail about Bacon's writings, they might have said something about Bacon's intellectual environment and the influences to which he was subject. It is characteristic that when they mention his brother's Huguenot contacts in France, Hotman, Languet and du Plessis-Mornay, they do not observe that they were significant political theorists, critics of absolute monarchy, authors of Franco-Gallia and Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. There is no mention of Ramus, an anti-Aristotelian influence in Cambridge in Bacon's time there.

It is not clear at whom the book is directed. It is essentially a scholarly production with massive tracts of quoted material often separated by only a thin stream of commentary and supported by some 1,600 reference notes filling 66 pages. On the other hand, things are explained which really do not need to be explained to an educated, let alone a scholarly reader. Who needs to be told that Cicero was a "Roman writer and politician" or that Seneca was "a Latin author". Are there so few people slightly familiar with the Tudor English of the prayer book as to require it to be said that "meet" means "suitable". Have things come to such a pass that the Martin Marprelate controversy has to be explained ("after the pseudonym of one of the debaters")? "Ancientry", however, which is not in the new Shorter Oxford Dictionary in any legal sense, but presumably is, or was, some kind of lawyer's status, is left in darkness. One unwelcome fulfilment of the pledge of modernity is a certain amount of lexical uncouthness:

"socialise", "lifestyle", "red alert", "hot topic" and "pulls rank", for example.

The authors' level-headed handling of the matter of Bacon's homosexuality has already been mentioned. His halitosis was apparently legendary, an olfactory distinction comparable (if Aldous Huxley is to be believed) with the European reputation of the feet of Henri IV. On the more serious issue of Bacon's moral character they do not come to much in the way of a conclusion. They offer no direct comment on Macaulay's famous heads of accusation. Broadly, their position on the most important of them - Bacon's betrayal of Essex - is the sensible one that Bacon had tried to head him off and that once he committed himself to open rebellion Bacon was justified in doing what he could to protect himself from being swept away by Essex's folly. They attenuate one of Bacon's most decried offences - supervising the torture of the seditious clergyman, Edmund Peacham - by failing to explain a quoted term. The warrant for Peacham's investigation said that he should be "put to the manacles", which suggests not torture, but simply handcuffing.

A well-known legend about Bacon that the authors take up in a critical spirit is the story that he died in Lord Arundel's house at Highgate after stuffing a chicken with snow as an experiment in refrigeration. They argue that the experiments in the prolongation of life, which Bacon mentions in his letter of apology to Arundel for making use of his house in his absence, are really experiments on himself, part of his lifelong habit of taking opiates.

A good deal of work has evidently gone into this book. But with so much left out - particularly the historical background and Bacon's intellectual life - it is pretty much of a compilation of laboriously extracted materials for a life, rather than a life in its own right. One part of the haul did not require all that much extraction; the letters of John Chamberlain, described in the Dictionary of National Biography as the Horace Walpole of his time. These are to be found, handily, in two volumes, edited by N. E. McClure and very attractive and interesting they are, a marked contrast to Bacon's endless stream of drafted and redrafted begging letters.

Lord Quinton was president, Trinity College, Oxford.

Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon

Author - Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart
ISBN - 0 575 06233 9
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £25.00
Pages - 637

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