BOOK REVIEW  

THE WINDING STAIR
FRANCIS BACON : HIS RISE AND FALL
by

Daphne du Maurier



1976

This review by Noel Fermor appeared in Baconiana issue #177 November 1977

"All rising to Great Place is by a Winding Staire" Francis Bacon, Essay No. XI, the 1625 and final edition 

One of the most frequently expressed criticisms of Francis Bacon concerns his role in the trial of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The criticism, though ill-founded, is understandable. We were, therefore, particularly pleased to find on the first page of this book a full explanation of the reason why Bacon spoke for the Crown.

Commander Martin Pares and others have already entered the lists on Bacon's behalf, but this is possibly the first time for many years that a public apologia has been made and this time by a famous and popular writer.

Dame Daphne begins by pointing out that Bacon was chosen as Queen's Counsel by Elizabeth herself ; a summons he dare not disobey. Sir Nicholas Bacon had "held the Crown paramount after God"........Yet Francis had spoken against the Triple Subsidy Bill in the House of Commons and earned the Queen's displeasure. He was no sychophant, then.

"Believing that I was born for the service of mankind and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property which like the air and water belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might be best served, and what service I was myself best fitted by nature to perform. I was not without hope, that if I came to hold office in the state, I might get something done too for the good of men's souls. When I found however my zeal was mistaken for ambition....I put all those thoughts aside, and (in pursuance of my old determination), betook myself wholly to this work."

These words, Dame Daphne reminds us, were written in Latin and not found until after 1626.


Bacon and his localities : from Bacon's 'Life of Henry VII.' It shows York House, Grays Inn,
old Gorhambury, Highbury and St. Michael's Church, St. Albans

On page 17 et sequitur we are informed that Francis had his own house at Twickenham Park which he retained until 1607 when he was 47 years of age; although Lady Bacon, Sir Nicholas' widow, had made over her life interest in manors and estates of Gorhambury in 1602. Anthony had died in 1601, but there is no record of this other than his burial at St. Olave's, Hart Street, in the City of London on 17th May that year.....

However the first of numerous hints as to Francis' hidden activities comes on page twenty-seven. The poet John Davies had gone north to meet the new King James I on his journey south from Edinburgh. Bacon requested him to "impress a good conceit and opinion of me, chiefly in the King", and ended his letter,

So desiring you to be good to concealed poets, I continue, your very assured, Fr. Bacon."

Plain enough one would have thought, but Dame Daphne adds a bonne bouche :

So it was not only his closest associates, like Tobie Matthew who knew how he sometimes spent his leisure hours......

The author produces interesting documentary evidence that Bacon was on friendly terms with the Earl of Northumberland the wizard Earl who was later imprisoned in The Tower. There he is believed to have collaborated with Francis in literary activities.

More significantly she comments briefly on Anthony's friendship with Montaigne, the famous French essayist and "his especial place in the intimate Essex-Southampton circle."

Dame Daphne righly recalls in this context the opening words to Francis' early work Valerius Terminus :

Believing that I was for the service of mankind......

and does well to draw attention to Certain Articles or Considerations Touching The Union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland.

The commisions met in October 1604 and the proceedings ended in December. The outcome was " unanimous agreement in all particulars" largely owing to Francis Bacon. The Union, however, was not consummated until 1707.

In chapter IV the author opens with a beguling synopsis of the Advancement of Learning ("certainly begun and possibly finished by the end of 1604") leading on to quotation on the "diseases of the mind" slyly asserting that a chord is struck in the mind of the ordinary reader. The chord is the well known passage from Macbeth :

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd
Pluck fromt the memory of a rooted sorrow...?

The play is said to have been acted at Court in 1605, but was not published until 1623, seven years after Shaksper's death. Almost immediately, we are hurried on to a quotation from Book II of the Advancement :

Is not the opinion of Aristotle worthy to be regarded , wherein he saith that young men are not fit auditors of moral philosophy, because they are not settled fromt he boiling heat of their affections, nor attempered with time and experience?

This is contrasted with Hector's speech in Troilus and Cressida, published four years later :

Not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear Moral Philosphie.
The reasons you alledge, so more conduce
To the hot passion of dis timper'd blood
Then to make up a free determination
Twixt right and wrong.
( II, II, 166).

In chapter VI, Dame Daphne discusses Francis Bacon's lively interest in scientific speculation after the publication of his Advancement of Learning in 1605 . His list of helpers is intriguing. Northumberland, the Wizard Earl we have already mentioned, and to him is added "Raleigh, and therefore Harriott" the latter having instructed Sir Walter in mathematics. Sir Thomas Challoner an old friend of Anthony Bacon and Governor to the Household of Prince Henry is included, and this is a reminder of the Prince's keen interest in science and his friendship with and loyalty to Francis. Indeed Henry's death in 1612 at the age of 18 was a disaster for the realm and inevitably had a profound influence on Bacon's plans for the future.
On page 68 the authoress records that Anthony "was sending sonnets back to England from France as early as the 1580's ; and goes on to say that his claim cannot be entirely dismissed "should the authorship have been shared." This is a reasonable viewpoint, since Francis and Anthony worked in harmony until Anthony's death. We would only say that from cipher and other evidence we believe Francis to have been the mastermind in this, as in all the works that come out in Shakespeare's name , up to Anthony's death and for many years after. Essex, Southampton, Robert Sidney and Fulke Greville, also wrote poems. All were friends of Francis, and it would be strange if he had been the exception! It is even stranger to us--or significant--that no reviewer discussed the illuminating passages contained in this chapter (VIII).
One of the most engaging characteristics of this beautifully written book is that though it was dsesigned for the general public, the authoress does not hesitate to summarise the great thinker's philosophical works. De Sapientia Veterum, a book in which Bacon interprets ancient wisdom as told in thirty-odd Greek fables and myths, would hardly seem suitable fare for the popular reader. Yet, with compulsive skill, Dame Daphne shows otherwise and we are treated to a discussion of Francis' moral teachings. The quotation from the passage on Bacchus includes the following :

...For most certain it is that passion ever seeks and aspires after that which experience is rejected. And let all men who in the heat of pursuit and indulgence are ready to give any price for the fruition of their passion, know this-- that whatever be the object of their pursuit, be it honour or fortune or love or glory or knowledge, or what it will, they are paying court to things, cast off things which many men in all times have tried, and upon trial rejected with disgust.

These are wise words indeed. Who can abide them? Yet what miseries would we have been spared if we had! But

the voyage of Hercules especially, sailing in a pitcher to set Prometheus free, seems to present an image of God the Word hastening in the frail vessel of the flesh to redeem the human race.

The opening of Chapter VIII is almost laughably candid. Dame Daphne begins by wondering how Francis could possibly have filled his time in 1611 the year when Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest were performed. Every Shakespeare student knows that the last-named play refers to the shipwreck in the Bermoothes (Bahamas). Few are aware that the ship belonged to the Virginia Company, in which Bacon and Southampton had shares....
Gonzalo delivers a speech based, scholars say, on a reading of the English translation of Montaigne's Essaies... The author Shakespeare and Bacon were both "botanists"....Cunobelinus, king of the Catuvellauni British tribe and hero of Cymbeline ruled in Hertfordshire (and therefore Gorhambury)......

It is difficult to conceive how cumulative evidence of this genre can be ignored --maybe, and we write this with regret, this was the most prudent course for those of orthodox conviction to adopt ; or perhaps the above statements were regarded as a mere jeu d'espirit or succes fou ; despite the fact that Dame Daphne ranks as one of the most imaginative writers of this generation. Later (page 101) we are reminded that Mr. William Shakespeare had died on St.George's Day at Stratford-on-Avon, where he had been living in retirement since 1612. This supposedly traumatic event passed without comment even by the gossip writers and literary world. Why? The lack of communication was in direct contrast to the numerous elegiac tributes contained in the Manes Verulamani after Bacon's death in 1626.

On page 148 another series of significant personal relationships is given involving William Underhill-- but for further information we refer our readers to the attached notes which T. D. Bokenham compiled some years ago.

In Chapter XVII Dame Daphne deals sympathetically with the charges of corruption brought against Bacon in 1621, effectively exonerating him from guilt. We need not dwell on this in view of the article by the late H. Kendra Baker, Barrister-at- Law, which appeared in Baconiana 176 and continues in the current issue.

At about this time the great Lord Chancellor wrote one of his beautiful prayers which, with unfailing vigilance, Dame Daphne notes, quoting the well-known phrase :

"I have, though in a despised weed, procured the good of all men,"

and adds, in parenthesis, the following :

("Does he refer to his lawyer's gown or to his writer's mask?")

A deft touch!

We would be failing in our duty if we did not report that Dame Daphne makes no mention of the fact that Bacon was instructed by James I to plead guilty to the House of Lords corruption charges, nor is it made crystal clear that there was no trial; (In the words of Lord Birkenhead in Famous Trials. The House of Lords interrogatories were shown by Parker Woodward to amount to a slur on Bacon's character) but his peremptory letter to Buckingham demanding and obtaining almost immediate release from The Tower is duly recorded, as is his own verdict on his term of office : 

" the justest Chancellor that hath been in the five charges since Sir Nicholas Bacon's time."

All this is hardly redolent of a guilty conscience, and it is surely highly significance that Bacon went straight from The Tower to lodge at the house of Sir John Vaughan, Comptroller to the Prince of Wales. Again, the £ 40,000 fine levied on Francis by the House of Lords was not exacted by the Crown surely an unprecedented situation before or since? Let Sir Tobie Matthew's words speak :

And I can truly say... that I never yet saw any trace in him of a vindictive mind, whatever injury were done him, nor even heard him utter a word to any man's disadvantage which seemed to proceed from personal feeling against that man, but only, and that too very seldom, from judgment made of him in cold blood. It is not his greatness that I admire but his virtue......

On page 192 Dame Daphne quotes the much quoted PS. to Tobie Matthew's letter to Lord Verulam :

The most prodigious wit, that I ever knew of my nation, and of this side of the sea, is of your Lordship's name though he be known of another.

This was written in 1623 and she suggests that no other inference can be drawn than there was something in preparation that was to appear under another name. As she goes on to point out the 1623 Folio appeared later in the same year, a month after the De Augmentis. Of the 36 Plays included in the Folio eighteen had not been printed before, and William had died in 1616. One of the signatories to the epistle To the Great Variety of Readers was Henry Condell already retired from the stage, and living next to Sir John Vaughan, former Comptroller to Prince Henry, at whose house Bacon had lodged in 1621 after his fall!

How any competent critic could disregard this evidence is beyond our comprehension, but it is only a beginning. The reader is invited to study the whole of Chapter XIX, with its relation of Bacon's acquaintanceship, with Pembroke and Montgomery, dedicatees of the First Folio, Ben Jonson (who had been presented at Court), et seriatim.

The suggestion that the description of the voyage in New Atlantis may have been based on The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics and Discoveries of the English Nation by Rev. Richard Hakluyt first published in 1589 is new (and credible), since both men had shares in the Virginia Company; and we were pleased to see the reminder that Dr. Frances Yates in the Rosicrucian Enlightenment believed that Bacon based his Utopian fable on the famous Manifestos. The comment that there is no proof that Francis belonged to "any mystical or other secret society" is less convincing, however, since "proof" was the last thing he would have wanted. The raison d'etre of any secret society particularly one devoted to the advancement of the human race sub rosa would have been lost. Again, we must demur from the view that the Translations of Certaine Psalms into English Verse lacked talent. No writer perhaps has succeeded in this difficult task, but Bacon's versions were undoubtedly superior of those of John Milton, and reference to the article The Day-Star of the Muses by "E. M. B." which appeared in Baconiana 167 will help our readers towards an informal appraisal.

The line

The world's a bubble, and the life of man less than a span;

begins a poem that must be familiar to many of our readers, but we were glad to be reminded that Spedding did not doubt Lord Bacon's authorship, even though it appeared under other names, or none, from time to time. Certainly the ending is Baconian in sentiment ;

What then remains, but that we still should cry
Not to be born, or being born to die.

A little later (page 215) the authoress speculates that "it is at least possible that some MSS." of a more private nature, were never placed in the hands of Sir John Constable or any others of the executors of Bacon's Will, possibly through the personal instructions of Francis himself. Except to the deliberately purblind it seems obvious that this is an oblique reference to the Shakespeare MSS. inter alia. Finally, we are led gently to the exit of this great soul from the stage of the world on Easter Day, 9th April, 1626, in the early morningan appropriate setting indeed.......

Who after all Natural Wisdom
And Secrets of Civil Life he had unfolded
Nature's hour fulfilled

Let Compounds be dissolved!
______

A number of fascinating memorabilia concerning the men and women who formed the jigsaw pieces which fitted into the puzzle of Bacon's life are given in the Epilogue, which one printer's error, Archbiship Tension's famous work appearing as Baconia instead of Baconiana. We were particularly pleased to note a mention of Tobie Matthew's collection of letters with the unique tribute to Francis :

A man so rare in knowledge, of so many several kinds imbued with the facility of expressing it all in so elegant, significant, so abundant, and yet so choice and ravishing a choice of words, of metaphors and allusions, as, perhaps, the world hath not seen, since it was a world......

This is no excess of speech, but the simple truth.
The Appendices, Bibliography, and Sources sections are immensely invaluable as a finale, though the Index is not quite so accurate as one would wish. The illustrations are excellent going far to justify the cost of the book, which itself is a magnificient effort from one of the most fluent writers of our time.
We cannot conclude without citing a quaint piece of information supplied by our President, Commander Martin Pares. He wrote as follows :

On page 121 Dame Daphne recounts how Francis Bacon rebuked Secretary Winwood for beating a dog. Francis would have known, from his knowledge of Greek mythology, that the dog was sacred to Sirius, the brilliant Star in the constellation Canis Major. It does not appear for very long or very brightly in these latitudes. But near the Equator I have often observed it astronomically at dusk or dawn where it is very bright. Indeed, next to Venus (which is of course a planet) it is the brightest star in the heavens..... In The Winding Stair (page 148) she mentions Thomas Bushell, Francis Bacon's faithful servant for many years. When Mrs. Pares and I last visited the Isle of Man I got a fisherman to take me across the tide rips to the Calf of Man, and I walked up to the hill where I saw the remains of Thomas Bushell's shack. It is marked on the Ordance Survey map of the Isle of Man, which is to be seen at Douglas. As a result I was offered an original copy of Bacon's Historia Ventorum (History of the Winds) which was too expensive for me then. This copy was in Douglas.

Commander Pares is broadly correct in describing Bushell as a faithful servant, at least in length of service, except that he accepted gifts without his master's knowledge. After Bacon's fall from power Bushell bitterly regretted this, until his dying day.

____

Additional commentary on Daphne du Maurier's Winding Stair

There be some whose lives are as if they perpetually played a part upon a stage, disguised to all others, open only to themselves. Bacon's The Essay of Friendship, 1607 Harleian MS and in only one editon, the 1612 one.

......If you read Daphne du Maurier's Winding Stair (felicitously initialled W.. S..!) carefully, you feel that even open documentation has led its author to unorthodox convictions. She suggests them superlatively well.......And one should not forget the Manes Verulamiani, so inconvenient to historians. Dame du Maurier, I think, was right in not mentioning them : the reviewers of her book would have been put to instant flight, which was not the purpose to be achieved.Pierre Henrion, October 7, 1976 excerpted correspondence found in Baconiana issue 177 November 1977.

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