Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
George Savile, Marquis of Halifax (1633–1695)
 
[George Savile, first Marquis and Earl of Halifax, was born 11th November 1633. He was descended from an ancient Yorkshire family, and succeeded to the paternal baronetcy in 1641. In the year of the Restoration he entered Parliament as member for Pontefract. In 1668 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Savile of Eland and Viscount Halifax, and in the following year he began, as a Commissioner of the Board of Trade, an official career of unusual diversity, including a joint ambassadorship at the Hague. In 1675 his name was struck off the Privy Council, during the ascendancy of Danby, but it was restored in 1679, when he became a member of Shaftesbury’s administration and was created Earl of Halifax. He remained in office after Shaftesbury’s dismissal, and in 1680 was mainly instrumental in bringing about the rejection of the Exclusion Bill by the House of Lords. In 1682 he was created Marquis of Halifax and appointed Lord Privy Seal. He was, however, out of sympathy with the Court and in favour of the recall of Monmouth; and on the accession of James II., after being removed to the Presidency of the Council, he was in December 1685 dismissed from office. He took an active part in the operations which led to the overthrow of James II., and in the Convention Parliament of 1689 acted as Speaker of the House of Lords. He held office under the new régime as Lord Privy Seal from March 1689 to February 1690; but after this he withdrew from public life, and spent the remainder of his days chiefly in his country-seat of Rufford in Nottinghamshire, to which he was deeply attached. He died 5th April 1695, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Halifax’s first wife, Lady Dorothy Spencer, was a daughter of the first Earl of Sunderland and his Countess (“Sacharissa”).]  1
 
AMONG the most celebrated productions of Halifax’s pen, it is usual to assign the first place to the Character of a Trimmer (1688), the mere title of which would have sufficed to make its fortune as a tract. But although his sole or joint authorship has long been generally assumed, and is confidently taken for granted by Macaulay, the fact remains that the first three editions attribute the treatise to Sir William Coventry, Halifax’s kinsman,—the third, however, stating it to have been revised by Halifax himself. Coventry appears to have denied his authorship, and since the inclusion of the Character in Halifax’s Miscellanies, first published nine years after his death, it has been usually regarded as his. All that can be said with certainty is that he had a good deal to do with it, and that it suits his principles as well as it matches what we know of his style.  2
  To Macaulay modern readers of English history may be said to owe their appreciation of Halifax’s rare qualities as a politician and a patriot; nor has any character in his long and brilliant gallery been drawn more generously by the great party historian than that of the Trimmer—who had a soul above party. A whig record of the reigns of Charles II. and James II. may indeed, without arrogance, claim some inner affinity with the spirit of one who thought so nobly of Liberty as did Halifax; and if the passage extracted below was not actually written by him, it may stand as one which he must have entirely approved. On the other hand the tract breathes a patriotism of the most conservative type, and it is, like everything that was written by Halifax or that commended itself to him, the work of one who loved England above everything. Nor need we blame him because in thinking of England he was apt to remember Rufford, his inherited part and parcel of his country.  3
  A Trimmer, then, is one who trims or balances in order to preserve—whether a boat in the river, or the good ship Commonwealth in a sea of troubles. Whether the designation implies honour or dishonour, depends altogether on the bona fides of the individual; just as was the case with the analogous designation of the politiques in France in the days of the internecine struggle between the League and the monarchy. The famous Character—which with the exception of its section on foreign policy hardly deviates from the broad path of apparent, though often highly significant, commonplace—thoroughly vindicates its fundamental conception. “Our Trimmer” stands for a “mixt monarchy”—in other words, he is a constitutionalist of a type which during a full century remained the standard of political liberalism for all practical men, but which in Halifax’s day was by no means trite. The “classes” of his generation, it must be remembered, knew something by experience of republican government; while of the evils of monarchical despotism, the Trimmer could give without passion an exposition worthy of the admiration of Montesquieu. On matters ecclesiastical his “opinion” is equally enlightened; and he represents that religious liberalism—equally far removed from fanaticism and from indifference—which in later periods of English life has again became as rare as it was in the reigns of our last two Stuart kings. What, however, it would be futile to seek in the Character of a Trimmer, is political philosophy which looks far beyond a given situation. The author is only concerned to apply a few broad principles to matters as they stand; and this he does in language which, though here and there it glows with an unfeigned warmth, disdains neither trivial illustrations nor familiar figures, and rarely rises to so ambitious a height as that of the well-known passage at the close of the tract, which it seemed right not to omit below.  4
  Another well-known tract attributed to Halifax, though the signature T. W. reversed was held by some to point to Sir William Temple, is the Letter to a Dissenter, published on the occasion of James II.’s first Declaration of Indulgence (1687). It was an admirably devised and most opportune attempt to convince the Protestant Nonconformists of the correctness of the timeo Danaos attitude which, with a combination of long-sightedness and fortitude almost unparalleled, a large proportion of their body assumed, and in spite of discouragement upon discouragement maintained. The argument of the solidarity of the Protestant interest was in itself excellent; the weakness of the position taken up by the writer of the Letter, which he did his best to cover with the help of a style full of liveliness and wit, lay in the paucity of the examples at his disposal of the readiness of the Church of England to acknowledge the solidarity in question. The Letter called forth a full score of replies; but while I perceive no reason for doubting Halifax’s authorship of it, I cannot suppose him to have written the dogmatic Second Letter to a Dissenter, etc. (1687), which appeared in the course of the controversy. Among other political pieces that have been attributed to Halifax are the happily-named and shrewd, but rather drily written, Anatomy of an Equivalent (i.e., for oaths and tests); the very interesting Cautions offered to the consideration of those who are to choose Members to serve in the ensuing Parliament, which apparently belongs to the year 1689, and contains a most curious picture, drawn without narrow-mindedness, of the social composition of a House of Commons of the times; and A Rough Draft of a New Model at Sea (1694). In this pamphlet, which, if written by Halifax, was probably his last political piece, he seeks, not very effectively, to “trim” between the two different systems of appointment to commissions, which in the Navy and elsewhere it long proved so difficult to blend. The brief Maxims of State printed among Halifax’s Miscellanies have considerable vigour, and conclude with the following:—“That a people may let a king fall, yet still remain a people; but if a king let his people step from him, he is no longer king.”  5
  Of much the same type are the Political and Moral Reflexions, which were published in 1750 from Halifax’s MSS. by his granddaughter, the Countess of Burlington. But aphoristic literature has no claim to survive unless when distinguished by real excellence; and these sentences, while rarely devoid of the kind of wisdom that is the fruit of experience, as rarely show what deserves to be called wit. At the same time was given to the world Halifax’s Character of Charles II., to which posterity has turned with more interest than to his censures on Edward II. and Richard II.; yet the latter are of some significance. They appeared in the very crisis of the Revolution settlement (January 1689), under the full (something too full) title of Historical Observations upon the Reigns of Edward I., II., III., and Richard II.; with Remarks upon their Faithful Counsellors and False Favourites; written by a Person of Honour. Yet in truth Edward I. and II. only come in towards the close in a series of antitheta of no particular interest; the point of the essay lies in the parallel between Edward II. and Richard II., and possibly James II. subauditus. The Introduction, which exhibits Lord Halifax himself in the character of a highly self-complacent latter-day Doctor Faustus, rejecting theology, giving philosophy the go-by, and in default of being able to make way with uncontentious mathematics venturing upon a bit of solid history in their stead, is quite worth perusal, but contains no passage of notable force. It should not remain unmentioned, in this connexion, that Halifax was a keen-sighted collector of original historical documents, a selection from which, published in 1703, must not be confounded with the other Miscellanies of his own inditing.  6
  As a quick-sighted observer, who had every opportunity of supplementing his own observations by those of the clever men, and more especially of the gifted women, whose intimacy he enjoyed, and as a judge raised above all prejudice, whether partisan or personal, Halifax was uniquely qualified to sum up the character of a prince, usually, but not altogether correctly, supposed to have had no character at all. And in my opinion the result is the best extant summary of the subject from the personal, or in other words the one biographically satisfactory, point of view. I have extracted parts of the concluding chapter, which has something of the gracefulness inseparable from the true generosity of disposition which distinguished Halifax.  7
  Nor is this quality altogether missing in the last of Halifax’s literary productions on which I propose to touch, The Lady’s New-Year’s Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter. This once famous little treatise might almost be described as its author’s offering to the beloved young wife of whom (in 1670) he was suddenly bereft, as well as to his daughter Anne (afterwards Lady Vaughan) to whom he devoted a not less genuine affection. This Manual of Conduct ran rapidly through sixteen editions, and was translated into French and Italian; and I have met with it in curiously mixed company in a guinea gift-book, entitled Angelica’s Ladies’ Library, or, Parents’ and Guardians’ Present, illustrated by Angelica Kauffman and H. Bunbury, and dedicated to good Queen Charlotte (1794). It has many undeniable merits; for it is not only, as a matter of course, full of shrewdness and commonsense, but it likewise, as observed, displays on such questions as those of domestic economy the broad and liberal spirit of a true grand seigneur. And again, more especially in discussing the management of children, it reveals a genial and loveable side of Halifax’s character, not elsewhere apparent except in his familiar letters. Yet when one reads that in the vade mecum composed by him for his child, our author tempered “maxims of exalted piety with a curious mixture of worldly wisdom,” one can only wonder at the willingness of able writers to accommodate themselves to foregone conclusions. Halifax’s standpoint in this work is dangerously near to that of another celebrated nobleman—a grandson by the way of Halifax and his second wife—in his Letters to his Son. In both instances the father’s admonitions are inadequate, not so much because of what they contain as because of what they omit. Halifax’s conception of religion, for instance, as here developed is consistent and calm; it is cheerful; it is charitable; it is what you will; but I cannot discern in it anything “exalted.” He moves, not more at his ease (for he is always quite at his ease), but more to the tune of his times, in the succeeding sections under the headings, “Husband,” “House, Family, and Children,” “Behaviour,” “Friendship,” “Diversions,” and so forth. We here see him to be sincerely intent upon his daughter’s prosperity in the world which he knew both intus et in cute, and offering her the very best of advice, quintessential indeed in the strength in which it is distilled from his unrivalled experience. If her husband has faults or vices, if he is too fond, for instance, of sitting over his bottle or of counting his money-bags, let her not so much give way to as utilise these defects, and she will find her reckoning. If her friends of her own sex are discussed in her presence, let her not be too eager to defend them with generous warmth. Nobody can predict what may or may not prove true; and it is never advisable to be found to have taken the wrong side. On the other hand, if you must blame, if you must strike, “do it like a Lady, gently; and assure yourself that where you care to do it you will wound others more, and hurt yourself less by soft strokes, than by being harsh or violent.” Accustomed though Halifax was to the society of some of the most honourable, cultivated, and within their lights, both high-minded and high-spirited women of his times, he could not think, so far as in him lay, of training up his daughter except in one way, the way that would pay. Thus his social, not less than his political philosophy, had its limits.  8
 
 
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