Of late, I’ve been a complete git. A foul-tempered grumbletonian. And morose. (Though I can’t decide if I want to sit in a corner and sulk, or if I’d prefer to thunk my head against the wall over the limitations of my pea-brained intellect.)
Because here’s the thing. I’ve been reading Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny, John Bew’s new and rather fine biography of Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary from 1812-1822—the man whom Andrew Roberts called “perhaps the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries”.
(Yes, yes, the thing’s the size of a doorstop for woolly mammoths. But I like books that fat, they’ve got some meat to ’em.)
And I’m now more than half way through…thus well into his lordship’s stint as Foreign Secretary in 1812–my personal comfort zone, you might say–during the final push to oust Napoleon from power in Europe.
But what’s striking me on page after page is just how much I don’t know. How much I haven’t really considered or thought through. How many connexions I hadn’t before seen.
Now normally, I don’t mind that. In fact, I relish it. I love having my eyes opened so that I see and understand. (Though in the case of Lord Castlereagh, it’s not because of any lack of effort on my part.)
I’ve read several of the previous biographies of the fellow–sometimes more than once–as well as various histories of the Congress of Vienna and works about foreign policy and I’ve used them as reference when writing. I’ve read some of his letters and his speeches given in Parliament too.
I’ve read the newspaper accounts of everything he did and said when the Prime Minister was assassinated.
And still, there is so much I don’t know. And that vexes me. Because I want to understand.
Now a great deal of this is down to the general ignorance about the fellow. Castlereagh lived and worked in a world where truth in newspapers didn’t matter so much (if at all) and the radical press was vituperative, blood-thirsty and venomous. There were few, if any, checks. (So it’s been interesting to be reading this while the Leveson inquiry into the abuses of the Press are going on in London.)
Castlereagh lived in an age when Parliamentary discourse–for want of a better term–was often the most scurrilous and vitriolic abuse. Unprintable stuff, much of it.
And Bew, bless him, spends much of his page-space separating out the lies, the packs and packs of ’em, wading through the criticism and countering it with facts, especially with excerpts from his lordship’s vast correspondence. (The fellow wrote letters much as I drink cups of tea.) Though there are also many revealing letters from his brother, Charles Stewart, too.
And what emerges from these pages is not the insular Irishman cum Englishman, unfamiliar with Continental developments and out of his depth with the wily Europeans, nor the corrupt or cold minister loathed and despised by those with Jacobin/radical agendas.
What’s emerging is this soft-spoken (though he did have an Irish slur when he spoke) affable though reserved, genuinely thoughtful, highly intellectual fellow who spoke and voted with his conscience as much as possible–a moderate man who eschewed all the extreme points of view while he worked step by step for the betterment of his fellows. A loyal friend. A devoted husband and elder brother.
Unlike that view promulgated by the radicals and his loud-mouthed political enemies, Castlereagh was a reader, especially of Scottish and French Enlightenment authors, and his study floor in St. James’s Square was littered with books, French books, novels by Edgeworth and Rousseau, and international newspapers.
He’d been in France as a young man in 1791 as the French Revolution was really getting underway and what he’d seen concerned him, though he was no Edmund Burke. And he was once again on the Continent, in 1792, when he remained in Holland as the news of the September Massacres was hitting the headlines, stunning the world with details of a Paris gone mad and revelling in scenes of the most unthinkable torture and atrocity.
He was on the headland at Bantry Bay in Ireland, when the raging gales and blizzard conditions prevented a French army of more than 40,000 troops from landing and bringing the French Revolution to Ireland.
He was in power too as atrocities committed by those devoted to French Jacobin ideals spread across Ireland–slaughter which reads like something out of the Serbian war or the civil war in Rwanda.
It’s no wonder that he never ceased in his fight against French domination of the Continent. It’s no wonder that he never stopped working for Catholic Emancipation. It’s no wonder that he stood against radical extremism and Jacobinism in every form–he’d seen how its call to sacrifice everything for political ideals turned into a programme of extermination for anyone who held a differing point of view.
(It’s occurred to me many times in the course of reading this biography how little we understand the horrors of the French Revolution today. How easily we dismiss it as if it were no more than a ripple in time, of little import, when in fact to minimise it and its effect on Europe and those who lived through it, would be like laughing off Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia, or dismissing the Bolshevik Revolution as child’s play–incidentally, the French Reign of Terror provided the template for both Lenin and Pol Pot…)
But this, I fancy, is what really winds me up: Here was this man, this titan of thoughtful, incisive international policy who saved not just Britain’s but Europe’s backside… (Did I mention Castlereagh reorganised the army too, so that Wellington would have the troops and supplies he needed when he needed them?) And I hate, hate, hate seeing him trivialised and dropped into novels as though he were a male Regency version of Paris Hilton.
Yet what I hate even more is that as hard as I tried to capture him in both my previous novels–the suavity of his manners, his habitual courtesy, his refusal to meet invective with invective, his wry and self-mocking sense of humour, his love of music and his absolute devotion to his friends and family–all alongside his towering intellect–I’m not convinced I managed it. Not truly. Not as I would have been able to had this work been published five years earlier. I worked like the clappers at it, but I couldn’t do enough, not nearly enough to bring him fully alive on the page.
And that depresses me no end.
(If I have any complaint about Mr. Bew’s work is that there’s not enough of it. Even at 587 pages of text, I think he’s just scratched the surface. And I want to know more. Details, Mr. Bew, details. Lots of ’em. So, Mr. Bew, if you’re reading this–how about an expanded two-volume biography on the fellow? Because I want to be able to understand the pattern of his days as Foreign Secretary, you see, and you haven’t touched on the matter of international espionage at all either…)
Anyway…at the same time…I’ve been reading the Selected Poems of Sorley Maclean, the great 20th century Scots poet. And I came across this, (this is the English translation from the Scots Gaelic) which made me think, well…perhaps…I shouldn’t give up just yet…
Dogs and Wolves
Across eternity, across its snows
I see my unwritten poems,
I see the spoor of their paws dappling
the untroubled whiteness of the snow:
bristles raging, bloody-tongued,
lean greyhounds and wolves
leaping over the tops of the dykes,
running under the shade of the trees of the wilderness
taking the defile of narrow glens,
making for the steepness of windy mountains;
their baying yell shrieking
across the hard barenesses of the terrible times,
their everylasting barking in my ears,
their onrush seizing my mind:
career of wolves and eerie dogs
swift in pursuit of the quarry,
through the forests without veering,
over the mountain tops without sheering;
the mild mad dogs of poetry,
wolves in chase of beauty,
beauty of soul and face,
a white deer over hills and plains,
the deer of your gentle beloved beauty,
a hunt without halt, without respite.