Magazine article The Spectator

A Cold Fish in Deep Water

Magazine article The Spectator

A Cold Fish in Deep Water

Article excerpt

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE by Hugh Brogan Profile, £30, pp. 448, ISBN 1861975090 . £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

There are many studies of Tocqueville's books and writings. The publication of the surviving Oeuvres, papiers et correspondence began in 1951 and still drags on. Yet there have been few biographies. Hugh Brogan, who has edited for the Oeuvres the correspondence and conversations with Tocqueville with the English economist Nassau W. Senior, has now written the most complete life to date. He opens with a coy and whimsical declaration:

In recent years, seeing me so preoccupied with Tocqueville, some of my friends took to asking me if I liked him. I found the question difficult to answer, but my considered reply must be that Tocqueville is himself one of my oldest and dearest friends ... and although I use a friend's privilege to be frank about his weaknesses, no one else better do the same in my presence.

This hints at some of the difficulties he has had to face, and some of the reasons why there has been so much exegesis and so few Lives.

Tocqueville's fame rests on two extraordinary books, Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.

His life was not so interesting and his character was less attractive. Brogan is excellent on his background in the Norman aristocracy, his kinship with Malesherbes, the admirable defender of Louis XVI, and with Chateaubriand, and on his family's experiences in the Revolution, in which a fair number were guillotined. Childhood, education, journey to America, publication of Democracy, fame, Restoration intellectual life, the revolution of 1830, political career under Louis Philippe, 1848, his brief stint as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Louis Napoleon, the coup d'état of 1851, withdrawal from public life, the writing and publication of The Ancien Régime -- overshadowed by the livelier read offered by Madame Bovary -- and death in Cannes, 1859, aged 53: it is all here. However, Brogan's loyalty does not persuade one that much of it repays his exhaustive treatment. Tocqueville was not a particularly unusual, important or successful politician. His judgments, as recorded by Senior, were often wrong, and lacked the realistic bite of some of Senior's other acquaintances such as Thiers, who from time to time enlivens those relentlessly highminded diaries with his enthusiasm for shooting down his compatriots in the streets.

This biography makes the case for Tocqueville's Souvenirs as an account of 1848 and its aftermath in France, but vivid as they are, as analysis they lose in competition with Karl Marx. Tocqueville's vaunted independence from party and faction, his air of superiority and his complacent inability to suffer fools made him ineffectual: one is reminded of Disraeli's remark about his friend and admirer John Stuart Mill: 'Ah yes, the finishing governess ...' Brogan gives his own verdict: 'He is always setting out to cross the floor and getting stuck halfway.' Tocqueville also appears in these pages as far too given to proclaiming his own passionate -- a word that appears with wearying frequency -- adherence to Liberty, as if that alone provided the answer to all problems, a not uncommon posture among liberal intellectuals to this day: against the current, but at the same time somehow in the swim.

There are longueurs too in the account of his life outside politics and writing. There was a tedious amount of invalidism in his family and in his marriage, even by 19thcentury standards, and his stomach troubles get rather too much attention. …

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