The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon
By Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart
Hill and Wang, 1998 637p
REVIEWED by Mather Walker
If you hate Francis Bacon you will love "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE". On the other hand if you are like me you may be reminded of Dorothy Parker's comment about another book:
"This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
Not only that, you may want to wash your hands thoroughly after throwing the book with great force. Jardine and Stewart's book is permeated from beginning to end with the malodorous malice of second rate minds for the truly great. In her book, "The Fountainhead" Ayn Rand painted in her depiction of the despicable Ellsworth Toohey a character that resembles Jardine and Stewart to the life. There has never been a more thorough going character assassination of Francis Bacon since Thomas Babington Macauley wrote his essay in 1837. An old advertisement for Camel cigarettes proclaimed, "I would walk a mile for a Camel". Jardine and Stewart would walk ten miles for a piece of dirt on Francis Bacon, and they dredge up every bit of contemporary gossip that reflects adversely on him. We may say of "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE" what Virginia Woolf said of James Joyce, it is like
"The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his Pimples."
Jardine and Stewart suffer from halitosis of the intellect.
There are many testimonies to the high moral character of Francis Bacon given by contemporaries after his death who would have certainly spoke out if they had had anything ill to say of him . The following are only a few: Aubrey said,
"All that were great and good loved and honored him." Sir Toby Matthew said, "It is not his greatness that I admire, but his virtue."
Ben Jonson who seldom had a good word to say about anyone said:
"My conceit of his person was never increased toward him by his place, or honors: but I have and do reverence him , for the greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed God would give him strength; for greatness he could not want."
Pierre Amboise (the author of his first biography) said:
"Among so many virtues that made this great man commendable, prudence, as the first of all the moral virtues, and that most necessary of those of his profession, was that which shone in him the most brightly.Never was there man who so loved equity, or so enthusiastically worked for the public good as he.Vanity, avarice, and ambition, vices that too often attach themselves to great honors, were to him quite unknown, and if he did a good action it was not from a desire of fame, but simply because he could not do otherwise. His good qualities were entirely pure, without being clouded by the admixture of any imperfections, and the passions that form usually the defects in great men in him only served to bring out his virtues."
Peter Boener, his private apothecary said:
"Whilst his fortunes were so changed, I never saw him-either in mien, word or acts-changed or disturbed towards whomsoever; ira enim hominis non implet justitiam Dei, he was ever one and the same, both in sorrow and in joy, as becometh a philosopher; always with a benevolent allocution-manus nostrae sunt oculatae, credunt quot vident.A noteworthy example and pattern for everyone of all virtue, gentleness, peacefulness, and patience."
But you will not find a single one of these glowing testimonies in "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE".
Thomas Macauley had two motives for attacking Francis Bacon. He couldn't stand the fact that Francis Bacon was incomparably more brilliant than he was, and, in addition, like a pugilist who can't resist the desire to exercise his athletic skill on any target he can find, Macauley couldn't resist any opportunity to exercise his incisive wit. Jardine and Stewart wouldn't know incisive wit if it bit them on the ass, but they easily outstrip Macauley when it comes to malice. Like a rat, who can go longer without water than a camel, Jardine and Stewart get prodigious mileage out of their malice.
Jardine and Stewart should never have written a book about Francis Bacon. There are things living on the bottom of ponds that have more insight into the mind of Francis Bacon than Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart. They transform an account of the life of a transcendentally great man into a piece of tabloid journalism. Not only are these bottom feeders continually searching for whatever dirt they can pick up, everything is reduced to the narrow and malice poisoned dimensions of their own minds. When Bacon produces his ESSAYS (one of the most famous prose works in all English literature, perennial evidence that he was a supreme master of the English language) Jardine and Stewart see only a nefarious plot brewing in Bacon's mind against Essex because he dedicated them to his brother Anthony rather than to Essex.
When Bacon produces the Advancement of Learning, one of the great documents in the history of human thought, Jardine and Stewart see only the desire for preferment.
And as for his Great Instauration for which, as Bacon pointed out, the course he had taken involved putting away all vanity, Jardine and Stewart see only the desire to make himself "rich and world famous". One could wish that these two were citizens of the state of Kentucky. If they had been perhaps the stench would have been reduced a little. There is still a law on the books of the state of Kentucky that requires every citizen to take a bath at least once a year.
Nevertheless, despite the bad news about "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE", there is some good news. There is a joke about a man who went in to be circumcised and woke up with the doctor standing beside his bed with a concerned look on his face.
"Mr. Jones," The doctor said, "I'm afraid that in addition to some good news I have some bad news as well." "What is the bad news?" Mr. Jones asked. "Well," The doctor said, "Just as I started to make the cut the power failed and the lights went out, and unfortunately, in the total darkness the blade went awry, and I cut the entire thing off."
"Oh my God," Mr. Jones moaned, "That's terrible. My sex life is gone. Tell me the good news doctor. I need something to cheer me up."
"Mr. Jones," The doctor said cheerily with his best bed side manner, "You will be delighted to know that we sent it to the lab to be analyzed and it wasn't malignant."
There is no need to send "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE" to the lab to be analyzed to know whether it's malignant or not. The malignancy fairly screams at you. On the other hand, the good news is that unlike so many other biographies of Francis Bacon, although "HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE" may be, as Alfred Lord Tennyson remarked of the critic Churton Collins, "A louse in the locks of literature", nevertheless it is not a mere rehash of the biographies that went before as so many biographies of Bacon have been.
Jardine and Stewart actually went back to the source records. Consequently, there is a considerable amount of new material in the book. There is new information about Bacon's activities during the time he was in France that gives a possible connection of Bacon with the court at Navarre and consequently with Loves Labor Lost, and there is new material bearing on his life while he was in England that gives a possible connection of Bacon with the Rosicrucians. Doubtlessly these connections are very adverse to the intentions of Jardine and Stewart, but this is not the first time valuable evidence has been found in a garbage dump.
Jardine and Stewart have not a single redeeming defect. My best advice to you, if you must read this piece of scurrilous journalism is to read it only for whatever new information Jardine and Stewart may have inadvertently included in the book.