Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The "Character" of James the First and Antiquarian Secret History

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The "Character" of James the First and Antiquarian Secret History

Article excerpt

Isaac D'Israeli's An Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James I (1816) was less concerned with recreating James as an historical personality than with challenging his representation in national histories as a degraded stylized "character." This convention of character writing inherited from classical historiography assessed a prominent figure through an inventory of salient traits compressing the life into a concise set of characteristics rather than a narrative. Typically, it offered a final evaluative "look" at the historical subject, as in David Hume's great History of England, which included a "character" of each monarch after narrating his death. Tied to the model of humanist history, the "character" as a convention declined in the 18th century, but, while overlooked in current historical studies of the Romantic period, it remained prominent in the 19th century, as D'Israeli's title reveals in the production of what he termed "public history." From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, James bore a remarkably consistent and negative "character" forged in the polemics of the Commonwealth pamphlet wars but surviving through history. Crossing ideological, formal and methodological lines, the persistence of this "character" illustrates the influence of aesthetic taste on the formation of national history: James repeatedly failed to become a historical subject because he could not become an aesthetic one.

Individual historians, influenced by their own allegiances, determined if a figure was suited to be an historical "character," a subject of national history. James represented a convergence of taste and of aesthetic judgment, sustaining the obvious moral, political and intellectual dimensions. Taste, Archibald Alison declared in his influential essay, is the mental power whereby individuals "perceive and enjoy whatever is beautiful and sublime in the works of nature or art." Perception and enjoyment are not, however, precisely coordinates; Alison carefully distinguishes them as lower and higher stages in the work of taste: taste proper, he says, "has no resemblance to a sense," and he identifies the pleasures of taste with an activity of imagination whereby internal associations are brought to bear on an object, extending and harmonizing it. (1) Thus objects appealing to the eye, such as gardens and paintings, stand lower in the hierarchy of taste than poetry with its address to the imagination, while beauty depends centrally on the abstract and relational quality of unity (unity of character, expression, emotion, etc.).

The "character" of James, however, his incoherent sensibility on the one hand and his ungainly body on the other, is outside the bounds of taste. Paradox, contradiction, self-cancellation--these are the keynotes, rooted in witness-narratives from his own time and restated in Hume's History (1754): "Many virtues, it must be owned, he was possessed of; but scarce any of them pure, or free from the contagion of the neighbouring vices. His generosity bordered on profusion, his learning on pedantry, his pacific disposition on pusillanimity, his wisdom on cunning, his friendship on light fancy and boyish fondness." (2) Hume's judgment is echoed in early nineteenth-century texts, from an iconoclastic Whig history of Scotland produced by Malcolm Laing in 1800 ("Pedantic without the merit of useful literature, and prodigal without the praise of true generosity") to the Catholic-inflected reading of English history by the respected priest, John Lingard, in the 1820s: "His quickness of apprehension and soundness of judgment were marred by his credulity and partialities, his childish fears and habit of vacillation.... His discourse teemed with maxims of political wisdom, his conduct frequently bore the impress of political folly." (3) The balanced syntax tries to harmonize a confused subjectivity, but the problem of James evokes the grotesque, the irregularity and disproportion that rendered him baroque, beyond the aesthetic categories within which high historical personages were routinely accommodated. …

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