The character and aims of Francis Bacon

June 26, 1998

Sir, - In his review of Hostage to Fortune: The troubled life of Francis Bacon, 1561-1626 (June 18), Brian Vickers shows the flimsy foundations on which its authors, Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, have built this new essay in defamation - a genre of biography which I had hoped my Francis Bacon: The history of a character assassination (reviewed in the TLS, October 11, 1996) might have gone some way to discourage.

May I now add my voice to that of Professor Vickers in suggesting that, by deliberately setting aside the large body of research carried out on Bacon's life and times by some of the best historians of his period, they deprived themselves not only of much that would have cast a fuller and more balanced light on Bacon's aims, his dealings with his contemporaries and his fall, but of information that would have saved them from many improbable assumptions, misinterpretations and avoidable mistakes of fact.

(To mention only a few of the latter: the Earl of Essex did not give Bacon an estate in Twickenham, but a piece of land adjoining the lodge he leased there from the Crown; Essex did not claim that Bacon's two "framed letters" were written to discredit him; on the contrary, he said "they did plead for me feelingly", and cited them, mistakenly, as proof that he had enemies who threatened his life at court; Bacon had no hand, nor could he have had, in issuing a warrant for the torture of Peacham; it was to his friend Pembroke, the Lord Chamberlain, not to the Chancellor, Bacon, that Ralegh confided his piratical dream of seizing the Spanish fleet.)

Jardine and Stewart do not, as they claim, start with contemporary material, "from scratch". True, they quote - liberally, and uncritically - from notorious scandalmongers dismissed by the reputable historians of their own and later times, while favourable contemporary comment is conspicuous by its absence from their pages. But their persistent image of a Bacon devoting his life to "the inexorable pursuit of advancement" comes straight out of his two most biased detractors, the Victorian Edwin Abbott and the late twentieth-century writer, Jonathan Marwil. Following the first, they have resurrected a long-refuted canard against the proven veracity of Bacon's account to Lord Mountjoy of his dealings with Essex. Following the second, they announce that none of Bacon's works is authentic, and that he understood one thing only: how the intricacies of the system "might be exploited to his own advantage". They differ from their model only in that, for Marwil, Bacon's effort to impose his "convenient assessment of himself" on his friends and on the generations to come was regrettably successful, while they conclude that, in believing "he could reinvent himself for future generations", Bacon was entirely mistaken, and the efforts made by his friends, on his instructions, merely "muddied the waters of his 'Life' still further".

Muddied waters, principally those lapping around, and allegedly linking "Bribery, Buggery and the Fall of Bacon", are the leitmotif of this book - a surprising approach, as Vickers remarked, for a time like our own, when no stigma attaches to homosexuality. As he also noted, neither bribery - in the sense of being influenced by gifts - nor sodomy has been charged against Bacon by any reliable and disinterested authority. Bacon himself spoke strongly against "masculine love" in the New Atlantis. Yet, disregarding the much-valued relation of master to pupil in which the Chancellor stood to many of his followers - including the future philosopher Thomas Hobbes (a lover of women) - Jardine and Stewart take the buggery for granted throughout. They do adduce one unfamiliar titbit in favour of their assumption: an alleged "intimacy" between Bacon (thirty-two) and Antonio Perez (fifty-three), the infamous one-time Secretary of Philip II, for two years a politically useful but despised presence at court - "my Spanish traitor", Queen Elizabeth called him - with whom Essex and the Bacon brothers were necessarily involved. This unsavoury character - drawn to the life as Armado in Love's Labour's Lost - was for a time in fashion among the court ladies, with his letters full of bawdy allusions and his gifts of scented dog-skin gloves - lacking which, he confided to Lady Penelope Rich on one occasion, he had decided "to flay a piece of my own skin, from the most tender part of my body" for her, signing himself accordingly "her Ladyship's flayed dog".

Vickers has shown the frivolity of the evidence for this absurd allegation. Its origin is equally illusory. It arose in 1948, out of a double misreading by Perez's eminent Spanish biographer, Gregorio Mara$"n. On April 17, 1593 (the same month Perez arrived in England), in a letter complaining to Bacon's brother, Anthony, about her sons' endless financial demands on her, Lady Bacon bitterly reproached Francis for his extravagance with his servants, including bragging Jones, Enney, "a filthy wasteful knave", and "that bloody Percy", whom he kept "as a coach companion and bed companion - a proud, profane, costly fellow whose being about him I verily fear the Lord God doth mislike". The last two letters of the name Per(cy) are unreadable in the text, and in 1754 Thomas Birch had misread it as Per(ez). In 1861, Bacon's most reliable editor, James Spedding, drew attention to the mistake. Needless to say, Lady Bacon was not objecting to her son's sharing coach and bed with a servant, which was habitual at a time when beds were a prized commodity. What she resented was his spending so much of his money - and hers - on his showy followers. And the fact that this long-term servant of Bacon's was a Catholic. Mara$"n, who had evidently not seen the complete letter, supposed that Lady Bacon had written on two different occasions, once about Perez and once about Henry Percy, and was thus doubly convinced of Bacon's homoerotic practices.

With so much space wasted on a subject of more relevance to Dr Mara$"n - a specialist in the medical aspects of sexuality - than to Bacon, we need not be surprised to find that the one person almost entirely absent from this book is Bacon himself. There is little sign here of the constant striver for reform in every field of human endeavour, the thinker whose life project, from the age of fifteen - "The Greatest Birth of Time", as he called it - expressed in images deeply "grounded in nature", was aimed solely at relieving the misery of man. However, the best of antidotes against this dreary biography is at hand. We have only to turn to Bacon's inspired History of the Reign of King Henry VII, newly illuminated in Brian Vickers's edition for Cambridge University Press. We will find in this powerful psychological analysis, which was described in its time as "a teacher of kings", and in ours as a "blood brother of Shakespeare's histories", the illustration of many of Bacon's lifelong beliefs. We will also find the man who, as he put it, "delighted in beholding the variety of things", while observing elsewhere that "variety is as the rainbow to the sun".

Nieves Mathews Tecognano, 52040 Montanare di Cortona, Arezzo.

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