Missing the beat on Burke

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 1993, 12:00am

THE GREAT MELODY: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke By Conor Cruise O'Brien (Sinclair-Stevenson, $382) HERE is a book blessed with every possible promising circumstance. I have not read Dr O'Brien's other tomes, but exiles from the British Observer will be familiar with his journalism, which is distinguished alike for the wisdom of its contents and the felicity of its expression.

Burke is a wonderful subject. Whatever you may think about the inner workings of British politics in the late 18th century, this was an era in which the House of Commons provided superb drama, and Burke was one of its leading players.

He knew everyone who was anyone in an exciting era. Dr Johnson enjoyed his conversation. Macaulay praised his speeches. Gibbon watched him from the Visitors' Gallery. Reynolds started a portrait and Romney finished one.

Burke wrote letters to Marie Antoinette, and Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley wrote letters to him. Garrick was a friend, Lord North and Warren Hastings were enemies. Fox was first one, then the other.

Before an often breathless House, Burke crossed swords with Chatham, Pitt, Dundas, and sundry other Kowloon street names. His oratory we have to take on trust but his prose is majestic. Like the best poetry, it is worth reading aloud to yourself.

And yet, about 50 pages into this book, I was already devoutly wishing that the honour of reviewing it had gone to someone else. What went wrong? Part of the problem is that Dr O'Brien has succumbed to that occupational disease of historians - and especially biographers - which leads to an immoderate conviction of the importance and virtues of the subject.

An unhappy tone is set by the ''Introduction: Burke and some scholars'', which readers are recommended to skip.

In this peevish piece of prose every historian who has had a dab at the 18th century seems to be assessed on a single standard: whether he or she accorded the necessary praise and importance to Burke. It is not enough to keep off the subject: omission isa slight as serious as criticism.

Cast as the chief villain is Sir Lewis Namier, in whose rather dry and dusty analysis of Georgian politics the brilliant individuals did, it is true, lose some of their sparkle.

All the same, Namier was one of those majestic historians who shed new light on a whole century. And he is no longer with us. The spectacle of a comparative lightweight urinating on his grave with such enthusiasm is not pretty.

Unfortunately, Dr O'Brien's protective enthusiasm is given full rein in the rest of the book as well. No slur is allowed to pass unanswered, no nit unpicked. The effect is like being stuck for a long air trip next to someone who not only believes devoutly that Nostradamus predicted the Gulf War, but will not allow you to watch the movie until you believe it too.

Burke, as usual, had the phrase for the problem when he wrote of George Grenville that he had ''not only enemies, but the very worst kind of enemies; I mean friends of very active zeal, guided by no sort of judgement''.

Burke himself had no shortage of critics. He left most of them unanswered. His biographers would do well to follow his example. Who cares what Michelet thought about Burke? Who cares what Michelet thought about anything? The alternative extreme, here presented, imposes on Burke a burden no politician can bear - to have been always right, always important, always consistent, always prescient.

The title The Great Melody comes from a poem by Yeats and the full phrase goes: Ireland, France and India/harried, and Burke's great melody against it.

This seems perfectly acceptable as an aesthetic judgement. Burke's splendid writing is copiously quoted in this book and the case is well made that there is a consistency in the quality, tone and rhetoric with which these three great themes are approached.

As a key to a political biography the idea does not work so well. Burke had a long career and it has always seemed to me a trivial criticism (if understandable at the time) that he was rather more conservative at the end of it than he was at the beginning.

But Dr O'Brien will have none of this. Clemenceau said that ''any man who is going to come to anything is an anarchist at the age of 21'' but Burke is allowed no such liberty. Even the few fragments of his undergraduate speeches must be squeezed into consistency with the Reflections on the French Revolution.

The other problem with Burke, on which Dr O'Brien is also too partisan to be convincing, is the difficulty of assessing his importance.

Politics in the 18th century did not work as they do now, of course, although the actual proceedings in Parliament look deceptively similar. Most seats in the Commons were for practical purposes ''owned'' by members of the Lords, in whose shifting alliances there was much scope for an active monarch to exert considerable influence on policy.

At the superficial level it is easy to say that Burke spent most of his career sitting for other people's ''pocket boroughs''. He never occupied one of the great offices of state, and was usually in opposition. Despite his advice, British governments contrived to lose America, made a mess of Ireland, and provide little impediment to the French Revolution. The impeachment of Warren Hastings ended in acquittal.

Looking more deeply, though, you must say that debates in the House of Commons did play an important role in forming the political consensus, and that as an adviser and inspiration to Whig magnates who had inherited more power than ideas for using it, Burke could and did do much behind the scenes.

What the reader needs is some careful analysis and exposition of the way in which power was exercised and decisions taken, leading perhaps to an understanding of Burke's position as somewhere between that of a very experienced congressional staffer and avery influential columnist.

Instead we get the continuing argument between Dr O'Brien and almost everyone else. This leads us to some strange places.

This book is very good on the Irish dimension of Burke, and in particular on the ambiguous positions into which people were driven by the legislation discriminating against Catholics.

It is clear that Burke's father ''conformed'' for practical reasons and urged his son to do likewise. And Burke, though his wife and mother were Catholics, went through the motions during the period between his departure from his first school and his deathbed request for Extreme Unction.

This was a regrettable necessity of the times. Dr O'Brien finds nothing to criticise and neither do I. The result is rather incongruous, though. This book offers a figure of Washingtonian integrity, a political chevalier sans peur et sans reproche who could be neither bought nor bullied, but went through his whole life lying about his religion.

The pity of it is that Dr O'Brien is so keen to offer us Burke the secular saint that we miss Burke the man. There is nothing in this book of what Burke ate, drank, wore, read for fun (if anything), did on his days off or said to his wife.

There is not a word about Burke's son until the lad becomes old enough to be politically active. Daughters, if there were any, blush unseen.

Burke's conversation must have been interesting to impress Dr Johnson, but we get not a word of what he talked about. His personality inspired lasting friendships, but this quality is missing as well.

Personally I would have found it easier to sympathise with Burke as a real human being of his day than to stomach Dr O'Brien's attempt to depict him as politically acceptable in 20th century terms.

Of course Burke was a conservative. In America he sympathised with the revolutionaries because they were colonial gentry like him. (Ireland was unashamedly a colony in the 18th century; Union was attempted later.) In France he sympathised on a personal level with the aristocrats and on the religious with the clergy - the two groups whose relentless opposition to any diminution of their privileges had made revolution inevitable.

Give Burke credit, by all means, for pointing out that revolution is inevitably gruesome in its details and uncertain in its effects. But remember his proposed remedy was a long war, of which the same two points could be made on a larger scale.

My appreciation of Burke's deathbed scene was not enhanced by the fatal phrase: ''Wilberforce brought news of the mutiny at Spithead, and it was with Burke's emphatic demand for strong measures [against the mutineers] ringing in his ears that Windham left to attend a Cabinet meeting . . .'' So the last legacy of that ''lifelong struggle against the abuse of power'' was supposed to be an orgy of flogging round the fleet (the appalling and invariably fatal punishment then meted out to naval mutineers).

Dr O'Brien has done much invaluable spadework. He will have earned much of the credit which will go to the book which places Burke as a man in his own time, a proficient politician who established some important principles and generally refused to sacrifice them to his career.

That book will try harder to give a sense of the real, breathing Burke, and less hard to establish a reputation impervious to assault from dead historians and their heirs.

Like this book, it will quote copiously from Burke's intricately musical prose. Unlike this one it will not provide a paragraph of admiring exegesis for each passage. It will not seek to defend Burke, who is quite capable of looking after himself, but itwill explain him honestly.

That is the biography Burke deserves. Unfortunately this is not it.