By Bruce, Donald
Contemporary Review , Vol. 291, No. 1694
SUCH is the dexterity of Thackeray's sombre and even bitter novel, Henry Esmond (1852). that, although many of us know its outcome already, we read its last chapters spellbound. In the end the son of King James II (whom Thackeray calls by the neutral title of the Chevalier St George), favoured by his half-sister Queen Anne to succeed her, throws away his chance of the throne to his distant cousin, the Electoral Prince of Hanover. Instead, the Chevalier sets out in pursuit of Beatrix Esmond, who has taken his nonchalant glancing fancy. Henry Esmond, who has undergone so many risks and given so much thought to bring the trifling Chevalier to England, only to forfeit Beatrix to him, reflects that there is sense in the view taken by the Whigs and expressed by their mild spokesman Joseph Addison: 'Parliament and people consecrate the Sovereign, not bishops nor genealogies, nor oils, nor coronations' (Esmond Book III, chapter ix). There is a touch of irony in Esmond's conversion to Addison's view.
The episode in Henry Esmond is, of course, fiction. Believable though it is because of the author's skill, it belongs to what Thackeray himself called Fableland. The Chevalier did not come to England or meet Queen Anne. His loyalists did not gather in Kensington Square but in a riverside villa in a large garden with a grotto, soundproof when the gates were locked, at Twickenham, in the borough of Richmond upon Thames.
The leaseholder. Alexander Pope, was proud both of his estate and his guests. He describes the property in a poem to John Gay written in 1720, strangely in the form of a lament for the absence of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (whom he was later to call 'filthy Sappho') from Saville House, her residence in what is now Heath Street:
In vain fair Thames reflects the double scenes Of hanging mountains and sloping greens.
There were certainly no hanging mountains in Twickenham: only the pastoral slope of Richmond Hill and the moderate ascent of Strawberry Hill, both too distant to be reflected in the Thames. With the villa came five acres of gardens, the objects of Pope's ardent diligence, later built over, in part by St Catherine's Convent School. (My elder daughter, who was a pupil at the school, can testify to the excellence of the fruit from the carefully nurtured descendants of Pope's orchard.) Gardening was long favoured by English landowners, but that seldom meant actual digging and planting. For that others were employed; yet glorying in his friend, the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, who defeated the French at Barcelona and Valencia between 1705 and 1706, Pope wrote of him in 1733:
And he, whose Lightning pierc'd th' Iberian Lines, Now forms my Quincunx and now ranks my Vines
Peterborough was about seventy-five years old in 1733. Planting trees and wine-stocks was a strenuous task for a man of that age.
Meanwhile, the former Secretary of State, Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, twenty years younger than Peterborough:
mingles with my friendly bowl The Feast of Reason and the Flow of Soul.
Unallured by Bolingbroke, it is doubtful that Pope, although a Catholic, would have been a Jacobite, or even a royalist at all. He told Joseph Spence that the reign of James I was the worst we ever had, 'except perhaps that of James II'. Having heard of George II's profitable dealings in South Sea Stock, he remarked, 'Kings are now the worst things on earth. They are turned mere tradesmen' (One must allow for Pope's dislike of George II and his adherence to the alienated court of Frederick, the Prince of Wales, but note his general condemnation of 'Kings'.) Pope's old family friend, Edward Blount asserted, 'Mr Pope is a Whig, and would be a Protestant, if his mother were dead'.
On 1 August, 1714, when the death of Queen Anne transferred power from the Tories to the Whigs, there was no such conviviality at Pope's villa. Instead Bolingbroke, the Jacobite first Minister, gathered his fellows at the lawyer Viscount Harcourt's country house in Oxford: the military Duke of Ormonde; Pope's correspondent, Earl Bathurst; Bolingbroke's constant loyalist, Sir William Wyndham; and the irascible Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester. …