Disreputable Fellow 4 Letters
Disreputable Fellow 4 Letters – Thanks to its sense of form and unifying powers, eighteenth-century England is a great era or culture that seems quite possible to cover. Civilized, urbane, we say of it; or, more deftly, Augustan — with such oral evidence as the practice of sanity, the supremacy of reason, the primacy of taste, Pope’s verse, Horace Walpole’s letters, Hume’s skepticism; Again, with visible evidence such as the crescent of Bath and the square of London, Adam’s House and Zoff’s conversation piece. Some have not only the desire, some have the actual data, to allow the agricultural side of the century the air of a gentleman’s cream-and-gilt library, its artistic side the appearance of a compact, well-organized, modestly domed museum. Furthermore, if we consider the century before the eighteenth century in England, when a king lost his head and two thrones; When science and superstition, when Rome and Canterbury, when divine right and unspeakable wrongs clashed with blood; Or if we think of the century which the eighteenth century gave way, which reformed respectability, that steam and smoke, which rose with invention and rang with invention—if we look before and after, it is to come back to an age whose perspectives were harmonious. And the proportions seem manageable.
But of course the truth about the era is not so simple. By squeezing “eighteenth-century England” into a formula or framework, we must leave out much of it—leave out all that concerns dull as well as poor, pious as well as lawless, born bureaucrats. As the Brutes. Still, even a hundred years of half-truths argue a demonstrable set of attitudes and sense of direction; And the half truth stands, or almost. Almost: because the very justification of the era could come to seem a little mad (half an hour before he was to be hanged, Admiral Byng “took his usual draft for scurvy”); His assured Augustanism oozed with grotesquerie, his urbanity with grime. That century emerges from a coherent picture but never completely explodes its frame. It’s not just that there’s something understandable and human-sized about most of his realities, but from Swift’s prime to black, there’s no crushing pressure. imagination
Disreputable Fellow 4 Letters
The former title is very appropriate not only for the four figures depicted – Boswell, Gibbon, Sterne and Wilkes – but also for walking down the main road, looking constantly left and right of the period they inhabited. A certain consistent virtue unites all four: Mr. Quenell “their vitality and their versatility, their devotion both to the pleasures of the world and the satisfactions of the intellect.” Yet ultimately they are not quite the same, if only for being so extraordinary in themselves. Still—and this is why we must keep weaving back and forth—they were extraordinarily very much in eighteenth-century fashion.
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Eighteenth-century manner, which, if such a thing exists, applies to Gibbon alone. Sterne and Boswell were often eccentric, neurasthenic and disreputable in their ways, with clouded atmospheres and spotted escapades when they weren’t dining with the great or mingling with the wise. What they shared was that great taste in eighteenth-century art, temperament—not very easy to distinguish. He is more than just conservative, musky, mercurial; It spans the period as well as the person, the subject and the approach to the prose.
Of course, Sterne and Boswell, along with Gibbon, had genius, and the ability to create something wonderfully their own and, equally, strangely new. Mr. Quenell notes how Boswell was at once “extremely passionate and strangely indifferent”; And indeed he was the mesher of detractors, the hailiest fellow of snobs and the boldest of toadies, for he proved the most rewarding of busybodies and, for all his self-love, perhaps the clearest of self-observers. Moreover, in the process of bringing to life a great man who spoke more of the past than the present, Boswell presented a biography of the future. Sterne, in expressing an eccentric, arch, humble, decidedly charming, throaty genius, very likely used the word “sentimental”; He certainly gave a new appeal to sentimentality, and a new sensibility and impressionistic approach to the novel. Gibbon, in his long labors of chronicling the decline and fall of the classical world, affected the wondrous triumph of the classical ideal. This
— each, as it happens, bv a man who died in his mid-fifties — are masterpieces that both represent their century and show how widely it could circulate. Gibbon seems to have embraced the center, his career laid out like a Roman road, his demeanor sometimes suggesting less of a procession than a procession. But, as Mr. Quenell remarks, self-love, so destructive to Boswell, was Gibbon’s “best friend.” He was also so disciplined that he seemed prissy at times. Where else can one find such candles for youthful romance as Gibbon’s “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son”? Who else was so classical but so thick that after kneeling for a vow of love, he had to call servants to bring him back to his feet again? All that disordered flesh so dreamed of marble that Gibbon was taxed, mistaking himself for the Roman Empire.
We, for our part, are perhaps in danger of forgetting the eighteenth century for Gibbon. But the measure, the formality, the symmetry which it exhibits, belong more to century letter-writing or portrait-painting or landscapes than to mankind. As I have said elsewhere, an age that makes a god of decoration often makes itself a beast. In many ways those prototypes of classicism, the Greeks, were obnoxious and unruly in their lives. Indeed, eighteenth-century prudence seems most evident in Fielding’s dusty, life-filled testimony, or in the sudden wisdom of Johnson, who himself is superstitious, melancholic, afraid of going mad. The century throbbed from the sovereign down, with madness. Detachment and reason may smile from the box, but strangeness and emotion hold the stage, and the death of Clarissa Harlow is wept more passionately than that of Little Nell. Similarly, moderation may have been praised, but the century abounds in mob scenes—in violent riots over gin, over taxes, over Catholics and, often, over Mr. Quenell’s fourth man, John Wilkes. “Wilks and Liberty” proved, as did “No Taxation without Representation” shortly after, one of the most provocative slogans, centering on one of men’s most striking flaws.
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The astonishingly ugly son of a rich distiller, Wilkes proved to be a prodigious rake both before and after marriage (he could, he said, remove his face in half an hour), and a member of the scandalous Hellfire Club found in the Gothic. AB to condemn Black Mass and others. A man of parts, Wilkes MP. Those who are anti-government
Anonymous and violently condemned George III’s praise of the great peace of Paris, which Wilkes said was like the peace of God, “for it passeth all understanding.” This unpopularity led to Wilkes’ arrest on a general warrant, which violated his civil rights; And with it was born the greatest of eighteenth-century England
After unethically arresting him, the government subsequently, against all precedent, refused to allow him to invoke parliamentary privilege. Escaping to France, Wilkes became an outlaw abroad and a formidable hero at home. When he returned, and was tried and convicted, his imprisonment became the social event of the season—every day, baskets piled high with delicacies and visits from great people. Thrice his constituents re-elected him to Parliament, thrice the election was thrown; When they elected him for the fourth time, Parliament declared Wilkes’ opponent the winner! At this point the nation was in so great an uproar that anything—unruly violence, a coup, an imagined revolution—would have resulted. But, unreliable and tiresome—a “common martyr,” as Mr. Quenell says—Wilks said, let time prove him; And the response of the time was to return him to Parliament and make him Lord Mayor of London as well.
The Wilkes case itself is primarily a monument to a foolish government error. But both Wilkes himself, declaring that he was “no Wilkite” and never turning his hero’s role into that of a demagogue, and “Wilkes and Liberty,” voicing the inalienable rights of the true-born Englishman, were eighteenth-century excesses. (A few years later, due to George III’s similar tactics, Enlightenment England sympathized with a man with some thirteen colonies, and a great British conquest was called “the
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Writing for Wilkes to pay the price of his freedom nowhere connects him as a writer with Mr. Kucknell’s other three men. All three knew it, however, and Mr. Quenell quoted from a wonderfully Boswellian invocation.