Magazine article The Spectator

Jekyll and Hyde Figure

Magazine article The Spectator

Jekyll and Hyde Figure

Article excerpt

Enigma: A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell

by Paul Bew

Gill & Macmillan, £21.99, pp. 245,

ISBN 9780717147441

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver believed that the ideal British prime minister was a creature wholly exempt from joy and grief who applies his words to everything except to the indication of his mind. Swift's dilation on the virtues of political froideur is only one of many ghosts evoked by Paul Bew's riveting portrait of the man who seemed certain to be the first Irish prime minister of the Victorian age. In a characteristic confection of intimate portraiture and high-political history, Bew assesses the astonishing career of a lacklustre Protestant landlord who brought a Catholic populace to the threshold of parliamentary self-government in 1886.

And 'astonishing' scarcely does justice to the political achievements of the deeply strange, even dysfunctional man at the heart of Bew's book. Readers are forced to ponder some fairly spectacular contradictions and improbabilities. How are we to reconcile the sleep-walking, paranoid inadequate who obsessed about the colour green and the number 13 with the parliamentary titan who came to terrify the Speaker of the Commons with his deadly procedural prowess by 1880?

Could the architect of sundry exquisite political alliances such as the 'New Departure' (linking Fenians with Irish parliamentarians) and the 'Union of Hearts' (linking Gladstonian Liberalism with Irish nationalism) be the same man who seemed incapable of writing a grammatical letter to the Times or distinguishing between the constitutions of the Isle of Man and Canada unaided? Was the clinical, even sadistic deposer of the gentle parliamentary federalist Isaac Butt the political Jekyll to the private Hyde-figure who threatened to jump the rails on Brighton Pier, dreamed of finding gold under his Wicklow estate, and had 'the eye of a madman' according to John Bright and Cardinal Manning?

Bew attends to this vertiginous doubling element in Parnell's career with deftness and humanity. For him, Parnell's peculiarities were products of his marginal Irish Protestant background, one that bequeathed an intense sensitivity to the precariousness of the Irish land settlement after 1688, and that also taught the virtues of subjecting English metropolitan politics to the strictest scrutiny. (His American mother certainly helped to ensure that her son would remember the day the Redcoats torched Mr Madison's White House. …

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