A Constant Struggle to Stay on the Gravy Train; Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Sir Francis Bacon. by Lisa Jar Dine and Alan Stewart (Gollancz, Pounds 25.00). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

Looking back in time to the court of Elizabeth the First (but from the safer vantage point of James her successor) Francis Bacon (1561-1626) remembered his perception of the Virgin Queen as a woman who "loved to be wooed and courted, and ever to have lov e made to her". The Queen and her dalliances "detracted but little from her fame and nothing at all from her majesty".

Bacon was nothing if not astute. An impeccable courtier and therefore cautious of what might be imputed to him in what were dangerous times, he would never have made either of those remarks in the Queen's lifetime, since to have done so would have drawn royal wrath down upon him, and Bacon was the man who was able, above all else, to define for the world the essence of Elizabethan politics.

First a courtier, to get anywhere at all, had to subscribe to the fiction of being in love with the Queen. Secondly, there were the processes of prevarication, which allowed the wily Elizabeth to dodge political and marital issues. But these subterfuges drove her advisors mad with frustration. During Bacon's lifetime the question - would she, wouldn't she, were things which seemed to occupy the whole Elizabethan age.

But, totally unfazed by it all, the Queen continued to move the political goal posts at will. Meanwhile, Bacon skipped around the court, ogling handsome boys and hoping for the wealth which would come with royal preferment.

Bacon was the very image of Renaissance man, where everything as far as science was concerned was open to question. Essayist, philosopher and the man who created the notion of scientific enquiry, Bacon perceived the world as a many-faceted globe, where t hings of high interest could be recognised as worthy of study.

Sadly, he was middle aged before his political career prospered and his significant writings - the famous essays - certainly date from his period of maturity, his greatest work falling into the Jacobean period rather than the Elizabethan.

Apparently Bacon wrote tirelessly and one of his most significant works was the superb The Advancement of Learning, dedicated wisely to King James with whom Bacon seems to have had an on and off relationship.

Perhaps on the whole James was a better bet than Elizabeth. Bacon had pursued Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's chief minister, hoping for political advancement. When this failed he chased after the Queen's own favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex - someth ing which probably drew Glorian's basilisk stare knowing, as she would have done, of Bacon's homosexual predilections.

But Essex was helpful and he pushed Bacon forward when his candidacy for office was ripe. Yet court frustrations being what they were in the closed circles around a queen who couldn't make up her mind, Bacon finally lost promotion to the elevated post of Solicitor General. It went instead to Sir Edward Coke, and thus created a state of affairs which was guaranteed to breed fury and rivalry between the two men. It was something Essex could do little to smooth over and the Queen would have been no help.

Curiously enough, there is a great irony in all this. When the Essex plot (1601) to seize the throne of England failed, the Earl was flung into prison by the outraged Queen. Bacon was one of the council for the prosecution, so the Queen was forced to wat ch a man she disliked for his sexual orientations sitting in judgement on the man she truly loved.

But when James came to the throne he was a better bet altogether. Bacon had helped the king to office, and James' reward was the coveted post of Solicitor General which was given to him 20 years after the Queen had denied it. …