Edmund Burke Volume I, 1730–1784
Lock, F. P.
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When Sir Walter Elliot, in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, decides to let his ancestral home and retire to a more economical life at Bath, he is gratiﬁed that his prospective tenant is an admiral. No friend to the carrière ouverte aux talents, Sir Walter dislikes the Navy for bringing ‘persons of obscure birth’ into ‘undue distinction’. Yet to be able to say ‘I have let my house to Admiral Croft,’ he reﬂects, ‘would sound extremely well; very much better than to any mere Mr ——; a Mr (save, perhaps, some half dozen in the nation,) always needs a note of explanation. An admiral speaks his own consequence, and, at the same time, can never make a baronet look small.’ Although much had changed in the twenty years between Burke’s death and the publication of Persuasion, the England in which the novel is set remains recognizably Burke’s world. Political power and social prestige are still largely the preserve of the landed gentry. A baronet outranks an admiral, and a ‘new man’ is still held in disdain by the likes of Sir Walter. Most of those ‘persons of obscure birth’ who achieved distinction in the eighteenth century rose, like Admiral Croft, through one of the professions: through the Army or the Navy, the law or the Church. Some of these ‘new men’, chieﬂy the lawyers, even worked their way into Parliament. Burke’s career was unusual even among these exceptional few. Almost alone of the ‘new men’ of his age who achieved political prominence, he owed his rise not to professional success but to the force of his mind and his eloquence. Burke’s life falls naturally into three periods, dividing at 1765, and at 1782 or 1784. Until 1765, the surviving evidence is scanty; in the tenvolume edition of his letters, 1765 is reached half-way through volume i. Even so, by digging in the archives (especially the student records at Trinity College, Dublin) I have been able to treat Burke’s early years more fully than previous biographers have done. Before 1766, Burke was known, if at all, as an author. Yet only one of his early writings, the Philosophical Enquiry, is familiar today. I have tried to redress the balance by treating at length two works hitherto neglected: the Account of the European Settlements in America(written in collaboration with William Burke) and his unﬁnished ‘History of England’.
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