Magazine article The Spectator

The Special Charm of Failure

Magazine article The Spectator

The Special Charm of Failure

Article excerpt

HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF FRANCIS BACON, 1561-1626 by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart Gollancz, 25, pp. 637

History is kind to learned men, even if they are unsuccessful politicians. If Francis Bacon had not dabbled in scientific speculation or written sententious essays, he would now be known only as the lord chancellor who was impeached and dismissed in 1621 for accepting bribes, and whose reaction to being prosecuted was surprise that any one should think ill of it.

Bacon's disgrace has tended to overshadow the rest of his career. This is a pity. For, as this excellent new biography demonstrates, the rest of Bacon's life was every bit as unattractive as the circumstances of his departure from high office. His offences, which he freely confessed, were characteristic of a career largely passed in jobbery, sycophancy and corruption. It is fair to say (as Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart do) that Bacon was not alone in this. He was a creature of his time, a man of fierce ambition obsessed with the influence and riches that always seemed only one job away from him.

In a political world which depended on patronage, Bacon was adept in choosing his patrons and in abandoning them when they were spent. He helped Queen Elizabeth to destroy the Earl of Essex and King James to destroy the Earl of Somerset, both of them men who had worked hard in the prime of their power to help Bacon advance, only to outlive their usefulness at the end and see him stand prominently among their persecutors. He was among the first to hitch his wagon to the star to the repulsive George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, James I's next favourite after the fall of Somerset.

For all his ruthless pursuit of selfadvancement Bacon held no major office of state until 1605, when he became solicitor-general after nearly 20 years of scheming. He became attorney-general in 1613, many years after Essex had tried and failed at the height of his power to get him the job. He became lord chancellor in 1617 at the age of 56 and then lost his office four years later with scarcely an ally to save him. Why was this? Bacon was not an unpleasant man, like his long-standing rival Sir Edward Coke. His many friends could testify to that. He was not a particularly unlucky one, like his charming and conspiratorial elder brother Anthony. He was far from being the most corrupt politician in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His father had been a distinguished royal servant. He was related to the Cecils, the dominant political family in England for most of his adult life. …

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