Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
George Cavendish (c. 1500–1561)
[Cavendish was made gentleman usher to Cardinal Wolsey in 1526 or 1527, and kept his post till Wolsey’s death in 1530, remaining always in close attendance on his master. After an examination before the Privy Council in regard to the last days of Wolsey’s life, Cavendish retired to his own house at Glansford in Suffolk, and kept out of the way of politics. The Life of Wolsey was written in 1557.]  1
CAVENDISH in his Life of Wolsey did not misuse the great opportunities presented to him for writing a notable book. He was not a trained man of letters, but he had a natural gift for telling a story—a literary gift which is closely connected with his straightforward and simple character. He is the “loyal servitor,” wholly interested in the great man who gave employment for the busiest and fullest years of his life. His mind is possessed with his subject, and as his mind is sound, strong, and very little corrupted by any rhetoric, he reproduces in his story exactly what one wants. He tells how people behaved and what they said to one another, not reducing the lively details into the abstract language of the dignified historian. King Henry appears in Cavendish’s narrative with the aspect and manner that he had to those who saw him with their own eyes, and knew him in a different way from ours, who in some ways know so much more about him than they did. He comes and finds Cavendish leaning against a tree “in a study,” and claps him on the shoulder and calls him by his name, and then goes back to his shooting. He talks to Cavendish for an hour or more within the garden postern gate of Hampton Court, and we hear what they talked about, and learn how familiar the great king’s manner was with his servants when he chose. “Three may,” quoth he, “keep counsel if two be away, and if I thought that my cap knew my counsel, I would cast it into the fire and burn it.”  2
  Cavendish acknowledges his constant desire “to see and be acquainted with strangers, in especial with men in honour and authority,” which is one of the foundations of his strength as a writer of memoirs; and from almost every page of his book we may draw evidence of the keenness of his impressions. He shares in the taste of the age for all sorts of pageantry and splendour, and is never tired of describing the state kept by his patron. He has an eye for dress; in the critical moment of his interview with the king he does not omit to notice his nightgown of russet velvet furred with sables. One of the best of all his sketches is that belonging to the embassy in France, where he describes the interior of the great house that afforded him courteous entertainment. It is an admirable passage, rendering with absolute fidelity a vivid hour of Cavendish’s experience—a pleasant, accidental meeting with high-bred and high-spirited people in a French castle, where there was enough to look at “in bower and hall.” The courtesy and humanity of this passage from true history recall one of the most memorable episodes in chivalrous romance—the entertainment of Geraint by the father and mother of Enid.  3
  The style of Cavendish’s book, which at its best is a good narrative style, is occasionally injured by various laxities of syntax on the one hand, and on the other by somewhat incongruous efforts of rhetoric. There is some mythological ornament: “Wherefore she (Fortune) procured Venus, the insatiate goddess, to be her instrument”; there are some appeals and outcries: “O wavering to newfangled multitude! is it not a wonder to consider the inconstant mutability of this uncertain world?” But these things do not really take away the freshness of his portrait of the great minister.  4

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