Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Clarendon and His Friends

Our book today is Richard Pollard's luminously good 1987 Clarendon and His Friends, about a man who had what one person aptly called a "genius for friendship."

Clarendon was the name of the Earldom Edward Hyde thought up for himself - he hardly ever referred to himself that way, although there was something fitting in it, as Pollard himself writes in the first paragraph of his book, a paragraph of such easy, relaxed beauty and rhetorical strength that the reader is assured literally from the first moment that this is a book they'll be able to both absorb and trust, at least as much as any work of history can be trusted:

Clarendon is so much a part of the landscape of English civilisation that he is almost lost in it. Unlike his greatest opponent Cromwell he presents no unfamiliar outline to arrest the curiosity or stir the emotions of his countrymen. The title that he chose for his earldom carries the sound of church bells heard across the fields in summer; tranquil, dignified, ordered, at home with itself. The Clarendon building at Oxford, tall, firm, balanced and quietly magnificent, evokes responses of the same order. Yet if one thinks of him by the name he bore throughout the conflict that gave him both his place in history and his subject-matter as a historian, the associations of sound are very different though not less true to the man. Mr. Hyde (as he habitually refers to himself in the History and the Life), or Sir Edward Hyde, as his contemporaries knew him when he was forging the policy of constitutional Royalism, sounds as if he ought to be a more acerbic, quick-witted, ambitious, amusing person than the ponderous figure, swathed in his Lord Chancellor's robes, that gazes at us, not without an inviting sparkle of intelligence, from the engraved frontispiece of the History of the Rebellion.

Hyde was named Lord Chancellor by Charles II while there was as yet no country for him to be Lord Chancellor of; Hyde had followed Charles into exile after the victory of Cromwell, and there he stayed at his king's side through every manner of near-vagabondish deprivation and hardship. Ollard writes well of the hopes of those forlorn days:

The enemy, until death removed him in September 1658, was Cromwell. Although he did not assume the position of Head of State until 1654 he had established himself in supreme power by executing the King and crushing the Levellers in 1649. The subjugation of Ireland and Scotland had reinforced his impregnability and had destroyed any hope of maintaining a Royalist redoubt behind which an army might be embodied. If Cromwell was to be got rid of, there were only three ways to do it: a general rising, a coup d'etat, or assassination. They were not, of course, mutually exclusive.

At first, Charles was appropriately grateful, although Hyde, like everybody else to whom the Merry Monarch owed anything meaningful, was eventually betrayed by the man he'd served. There was never a king nor hardly yet a man with less loyalty than Charles II, but for more than twenty years, Hyde was blissfully unaware of this fact, or chose to look the other way when he saw others rudely discover it.

He was a quiet, mostly fastidious little man, a worrier who talked very loudly when drunk, a merry letter-writer, a better-than-average prose stylist, and an indefatigable reader. He wrote a history of Cromwell's rebellion and an autobiography that are both very much worth reading (later historians had a great deal of fun nit-picking both, usually with far less understanding and always with far less literary skill than their poor victim). One of the greatest pleasures of Clarendon and His Friends is Ollard's terrier willingness to attack any and all received opinions of Hyde, especially those conflicting with demonstrable evidence, like for instance Macaulay's slander (one of many) regarding Clarendon's alleged dislike of young people. Macaulay writes, "Toward the young orators, who were rising to distinction and authority in the Lower House, his deportment was ungracious: and he succeeded in making them, with scarcely an exception, his deadly enemies."

Ollard responds:

Had he, in Macaulay's phrase just quoted, 'an inordinate contempt for youth'? When he died in 1674, an exile, broken and forgotten, one of his young friends wrote to inform another of the private arrangements for his burial in Westminster Abbey. The recipient of the letter, Sir John Nicholas, Edward's eldest son, had also been the recipient of some of Hyde's most charming letters in the 1650s. The writer, Henry Coventry, was the elder brother of William, one of Hyde's most redoubtable critics. How many statesmen would have taken the trouble, as Hyde did, to write to an ambassador, Rochester, telling him how his son watched every post for a line from his father? How many fathers had lived so happily and affectionately with their own children and have been so warmly and so movingly remembered? He liked the young.

He liked the life of the mind too, as Ollard consistently points out. Hyde was a great reader, a lover of finding things out and getting them down right (he kept innumerable commonplace books, as impetuously started as they were abandoned ... now all lost, I believe), but he was more than just a passive receptacle for everything he read: it filled him with plans, ideas, and schemes for his own writing. Ollard, as always, finds the right quotes and knows their significance:

That he was itching to get back to his history is evident. Did he ever tinker with what he had written, or make notes for its revision and extension? When he talks of 'falling to my book,' does he simply mean that he is going to read? Probably, but not certainly. Even when he was Lord Chancellor of England at the height of a war, passing sleepless nights over the mounting Bills of Mortality occasioned by the Great Plague, he found, or made, time to write. "I find myself insensibly ingaged in my olde exercise of writinge ...

(Hyde's love of those happy studies, reading and writing, was born and nurtured in tandem with the great friend of his young manhood, Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, as smart and lively and promising a young man as anybody could ever hope for as a friend; Lucius Cary was immensely wealthy, extremely handsome - his one surviving portrait shows hardly anything authentic except his habitual slouch - and winningly outgoing, and there can be little doubt - Ollard certainly doesn't doubt it - that Hyde loved him more than he loved him more than anybody else in his life. Falkland had that effect on virtually every friend he made, and when he died, age 30, at the Battle of Newbury in 1643, Hyde wasn't the only one so grief-stricken he couldn't function for a few days).

Hyde's daughter Anne was a spirited, delightful spark of a girl, able to hold her own in conversation with anybody, and unabashedly confident of her fine-tuned ability to hone and wield her sexual allure ("wantonness" was something she despised as much as her father did, but for different reasons: for him, it was an open door to lavish, untenable expense; for her, it was amateurish). It's typical of sexist nomenclature to say such women "ensnare" men (whereas aside from the most notorious mustache-twirling villains in Clarissa, nobody ever says it about sexually confident men), and who are we to argue with sexist nomenclature? Anne ensnared James, the Duke of York, the big-boned and droolingly stupid brother of Charles II, and matters quickly reached the awkward point where something had to be done.

She married James (her daughters, Anne and Mary, Hyde's granddaughters, both became queen), and in recognition of that fact (or compensation?) Charles offered Hyde a Dukedom. Hyde didn't want to appear grabby, so he settled for an Earldom - not that any of it mattered when Charles II had one of his periodic needs to hang some close confederate out to dry, as happened to Hyde in 1667 when he was driven out of office and into exile by the House of Commons for alleged misdeeds stemming from the Second Dutch War. At any point in the proceedings, Charles could have saved him, but the king did nothing but watch.

Hyde lived in exile for the rest of his life, writing the whole time and keeping up the incredibly industrious correspondence for which he was famed in his own day among his friends and enemies alike. Friends received an endless stream of letters, long, wonderful, casually erudite letters that actually rewarded periodic re-reading. Only the stream wasn't, of course, truly endless: eventually Hyde was taken ill and died, and there were no more letters. One bereft correspondent put it this way:

"Of late he was pleased to entertaine a a particular and kind commerce with me by ample letters in literatory matters; and I persuade myselfe one of mine was one of the last which he read before his falling sicke, which I am certaine His Lordship's delight in subjects of that nature would have produced a large and learned reply if it had pleased God to lett him and his bookes together a little longer ..."

Hyde was a picky reader, and he could be prickly of his pride, but it's hard to believe he wouldn't have felt honored by Clarendon and His Friends, even though it's no hagiography and takes him to task in clear language for all his shortcomings. It's that clear language that would have won him over; this is just a wonderfully-written book. Anyone interested in the English Civil War shouldn't be without it.

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