Magazine article The Spectator

Compliments for Fishing

Magazine article The Spectator

Compliments for Fishing

Article excerpt


edited by Jessica Martin Carcanet, L9.95, pp. 204

When he died in his 90th year Walton was known as the author of what we might call 'ur-biographies' -- those five Lives he published to acclaim during the long years of retirement from his linen-draper's business. His literary career only began by accident anyway, but none could have predicted he would become one of our bestknown authors, and all because of a pocket manual about his pastime, published anonymously during the Interregnum at 18 pence a copy; he wasn't even great shakes as an angler.

Details of his own life remain sporadic. Born the son of a Stafford 'tippler', Izaak became an apprentice in London where, despite little formal education, he made the acquaintance of Donne, Drayton, Jonson and several distinguished Anglican clerics. He left his profitable business near Fleet Street around 1644, and during the Great Rebellion -- though pushing 60 was briefly active for the Royalist cause when he smuggled a Garter Jewel up to the Tower of London after the Battle of Worcester. His first wife, and seven children, predeceased him, and his life must certainly have been troubled. Yet our abiding image is caught in the Huysmans portrait -- genial, pious Father Walton, the essence of English rosbif (to Leigh Hunt not a fan - he resembled 'a pike, dressed in broadcloth'.)

He died quite prosperous, the inventory of his goods including one item heartbreaking to any modern collector, `FishingTackle and other Lumber - L10'. Walton's will was sealed with a bloodstone signet given him by Donne; his kindness seems to have been real enough, for he left money to `be imployed to buie coles for some pore people' in his home town, and the list of mourning rings ends, `Mrs Dalbin must not be forgotton'.

Though without the tartness of Pepys, or Aubrey's marbled wit, the Lives still read well and do indeed `contain some of Walton's finest prose', as Jessica Martin asserts in her valuable selection. Critics of a later age may have castigated him for unreliability, but his sketches were honest and consistent in several respects, and were remarkably influential: his 'Donne' remains the first ever account of this poet, which was followed by 'Wotton' (who translated the aphorism `An Embassadour is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country'), and 'Hooker' (the Anglican apologist, whose wife, Joan, is unfairly memorialised as a shrew). …

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