Our book today is Margaret Irwin's 1960 biography of Sir Walter Ralegh, That Great Lucifer, and it begins on an ominously testy note:
This is not a novel, or a fictional biography. There are no imaginary scenes or conversations in it; and Ralegh's own words are quoted continuously. But it is a portrait of him and some of his contemporaries rather than a comprehensive life; and it would be pretentious to add a bibliography. The sources are mostly evident from the text, or in my few footnotes.
The explanation comes from Irwin's own life story: she was a successful novelist. Starting in 1927 with Knock Four Times, continuing in 1928 with Fire Down Below, then in 1930 with her renowned None So Pretty, she carved out a faithful reading audience as a popular writer. And then, like so many such writers, she began to yearn for more. In her case it brought out her two best-known books, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and especially Young Bess, two high-spirited and very readable novels about Queen Elizabeth I (there was a third book in what then got called a trilogy, but it showed a bit of strain). But the El Dorado of every novelist is nonfiction (and it works in reverse - historians yearn for the dash of fiction), and late in her life Irwin produced this book, a defiantly factual little 'portrait' of the man considered by many - certainly including himself - to be the greatest Elizabethan of them all.
Like all such great Elizabethans, his greatness was of the deeply troubled, divisive variety. Ralegh came from minor Devonshire gentry, the type of people who could expect to be presented at court, but he gained his first fortune and renown by suppressing the Irish in Munster - and he was richly rewarded for it. He famously found the Irish a bit strange, and the feeling was mutual:
The peasants, as always in Ireland, were contemptuously, or at best tolerantly, amused by the strange whims of the high and mighty English chief who had a fancy to make them plant whole fields of a dull root with an Indian name, as if anyone in Ireland, however starving, would ever grow or eat anything so outlandish as his new-fangled 'potatoes.' Yet they took root there, both in the soil and in men's habits, far more quickly than in England; easier to grow than any crop, they saved the people from famine again and again; became the staple food of Ireland, and in time changed her economic history.
Still more outlandish were his fields of another Indian plant called tobacco, grown, not to eat, but to burn and puff through the mouth; and what profit could there ever be in that? No matter, he was an English lord, and as mad as they make them, but he paid for the work.
Manors, estates, tenants, and a comfortable income were his while he was still a young man, and unlike his Munster neighbor Edmund Spenser, he had the physical confidence and charisma to galvanize it all into a reputation for success that had little grounding in actual success. Ralegh was tall and well-formed, sharply well-spoken, and entirely willing to knock somebody down in the street if they offended him. He was a huckster, a project-starter, and he had the clear-eyed goal of filling both his own coffers and those of England - and in this he found the perfect monarch in Queen Elizabeth I, as Margaret Irwin knew better than anybody (you don't really come to know a historical figure until you try to capture them in fiction):
Elizabeth saw that England was learning to put principles above Princes. Righteous indignation, in this increasingly Puritan age, could from the highest motives drag England into Civil War. She forestalled it for forty years. She accepted the warning of the future, and ignored false encouragement from the past; forgot the example of her tyrannical father, and remembered instead that of her prudent grandfather who 'could not endure to see Trade sick.'
This is a delightful 'portrait,' all the lighter and more enjoyable for the author's feisty amateur status, and all the great figures of Elizabeth's day stride through these pages, shrewdly assessed:
Essex was not quite twenty, and young even for that; he was tall as Ralegh, and fair as Ralegh was dark, his bright hair and new-sprouting wisps of beard rather untidy and his dress careless, his hands delicate as a woman's, and his eyes those of a dreamy yet excitable boy. He stooped with his head thrust forward, and his portraits scarcely show the beauty which won a fame that was largely due to his extraordinary personal attraction. Eager, volatile, now gay, now moody; refreshingly, when not disconcertingly, impulsive, he charmed both men and women to spoil and forgive him, and to love him.
Unfortunately for Ralegh, he fell out with the aging Queen when he first impregnated and then married one of her closest friends, and although the relationship between courtier and monarch limped to a kind of recovery after that, things were never the same. And things changed drastically when Elizabeth died and her far less shrewd and far more insecure heir James came to the throne. The new boss had need of Ralegh's matchless enterprise as a voyage-maker, but Ralegh's bravery and confidence unnerved him. Unlike Shakespeare, this great Elizabethan couldn't adapt to being a great Jacobean, and Ralegh ended up in prison being treated snidely by the new men he might not have deigned to notice in his glory years:
To us today it sounds an intolerable impertinence to a much older man, so soon to die. But not to all of us; for a recent writer reproves, as harshly as any dogmatist divine of the seventeenth century, 'the essential frivolity of Ralegh's character ... giving a lightness and gaiety to his courage before death,' all the more reprehensible, apparently, because it 'deeply impressed contemporary opinion, and showed up James by contrast as a mean and grasping schemer.' But Ralegh can hardly be blamed because James suffered in contrast with him. It had indeed always been the deepest and worst complaint James held against Raleigh; all the more unforgivable because it must never be mentioned.
Of course, James had Ralegh beheaded. There was a fine scene on the scaffold, a fine quip for the audience, and there was a final minute of bravery greater than all the others (the axeman wasn't skilled). Margaret Irwin captures all this in the kind of sparkling, happy prose that's usually missing from more scholarly productions - and yet she sacrifices no accuracy on that score. Fifty year old biographies don't get reprinted the way fifty year old novels sometimes do, but I wish this one would.