Charles James Fox – poor book, fascinating man.

I have been reading Charles James Fox Man of the People by David Powell(1989) and reproduce the comments I have made on the Eighteenth Century Worlds list. >>>I have now finished David Powell’s book : unfortunately it is not  good  and cannot really be recommended. It is poorly-written and unscholarly – there are no notes, sources or bibliography. Of course it is designed as a popular biography, but that is no reason why a book should be unscholarly (as Jenny Uglow’s book on Bewick demonstrates). It feels as if Powell is merely re-hashing secondary material and there is an absence of any real engagement with the subject. Ellen has already noted the lack of perception or detail about Fox’s personal life and although this is to some extent remedied in the last 2 chapters, it remains true that the portrait is superficial. But so too is the coverage of Fox’s political life and the back-ground history.

For all these criticisms there are some things to be said in its favour…

1) precisely because of its light-weight nature it is an easy
read and provides an introduction to the main course of
Fox’s life, at least as far as his political career is concerned.

2) Fox himself is such a charismatic, and in the last 15 or so
years anyway, of his life charming figure that I became fully
involved with the narrative towards the end, and indeed was
quite affected by the death-bed scene.

I am not going to attempt any sort of summary but very broadly Fox as a private man moved from hell-raising rake and gambler to devoted monogamist (he was completely in love with Liz Armistead and they were – especially by the standards of the late 18thC aristocracy – a truly devoted couple). Fox as a public man grew more radical as he grew older – a trajectory which always appeals to me, and goes completely against that non-sensical and absurd cliche about  people becoming more conservative as they age. His courage in the 1790’s when he opposed Pitt’s repression at the cost of any sort of career, of his popularity, in the face of scabrous vilification and all the forces of the state is truly inspiring. It is certainly true that his earlier career did not suggest this kind of political dedication and there were and are plenty to accuse him of inconsistency – but what is very clear is that in the 1790’s he sacrificed any sort of ambition for the sake of principle.

The following are just notes on things which I particularly enjoyed.

Writing of the corruption of earlier 18thC politics Powell quotes an MP by the name of Hans Stanley who wrote…

“If I had a son, I would say to him ‘Get into Parliament, make some tiresome speeches. Do not accept the first offer, but wait until you can make provision for yourself and your family and then call yourself an independent country gentleman'” (page 13)

which demonstrates that corruption in the British Parliament is hardly (as is claimed by the ignorant at present) new. Of course in terms of corruption Walpole himself set a standard which will never be equalled – at least he spent the proceeds well as anyone who has visited his Norfolk home at Houghton can attest.

One thing Powell does do well is to convey the stupidity, meanness and vindictiveness of George 3rd (the book is certainly a good corrective to that absurd Madness film); when Chatham died (the elder Pitt) George 3rd objected to his being buried in Westminster Abbey remarking….

‘This compliment is rather an offensive measure to me personally’ (page 94)

carrying his vindictiveness beyond the grave.

Reviewing the 18thC electoral system Powell gives a wonderful quote from Sir Philip Francis which shows that the election sequence in Blackadder series 3 (the Dish and Dishonestyepisode) was not, in fact, so far from the truth. Here is Francis speaking of his election at Appleby….

‘I was unanimously elected by one Elector to represent this ancient Borough in Parliament….there was no other Candidate, no Opposition, no Poll demanded, Scrutiny or petition. So I had nothing to do but thank the said Elector for the Unanimous Vote with which I had been chosen’ (page 110)

(actually thinking about it the election at Dunny-in-the-Wold was more democratic than this – there were at least other Candidates and a Poll in that case!).

Moving to Fox’s private life I want to cite a couple of passages illustrative of his devotion to Liz Armistead and the quietness of his domestic circumstances in later years. Here he is writing about Liz…

‘She is a comfort to me in very misfortune, and makes me enjoy doubly every pleasant circumstance of life; there is to me a charm and delight in her society, which time does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had an equal, she never had a superior…..The Lady of the Hill is one continual source of happiness to me.’ (page 228)

He finally married Liz in 1795, though the marriage was kept secret for 7 years for reasons which are still not clear though it may be that he did not want her dragged into the extremely brutal political arena in which he was operating. Here anyway is John Bernard Trotter’s, Fox’s secretary, description of the Foxs daily round at their country home at St Anne’s Hill….

‘In summer he rose between six and seven, in winter before eight…After breakfast, which took place between eight and nine in the summer, and a little after nine in the winter, he usually read some Italian authors with Mrs Fox, and then spent the time preceding dinner at his literary studies, in which the Greek poets bore a principal part. A frugal but plentiful dinner took place at three….; and a few glasses of wine were followed by coffee. The evening was dedicated to walking
and conversation to tea time, when reading aloud, in history, commenced, and continued till near ten. A light supper of fruit, pastry, or something very trifling finished the day, and at half past ten the family were gone to rest’. (page 243)

Now admittedly this is about as far from his younger hell-raising days as can be imagined, but I had no idea that Fox was like this in maturity – I had been utterly deceived by the popular (mis) representations. If for nothing else reading Powell has been worthwhile in correcting me in this misapprehension.

I’ll note for Ellen’s interest that Powell writes that Liz once had to ‘confiscate’ a copy of Fanny Burney’s Camillawhen Fox began to read the newly arrived book aloud at dinner, and for my own interest that he maintained an acquaintance with Crabbe. Like Crabbe and Bewick (and it seems almost everyone) he became an amateur naturalist listing every flower and plant on his small estate.

Here is a poem Fox wrote to Liz on his 50th Birthday – the poem may hardly be called a classic but the sentiment is affecting –

‘Of years I have now half a century passed
And none of the fifty so blessed as the last.
How it happens that my troubles thus daily should cease,
And my happiness thus with my years should increase,
This defiance of Nature’s more general laws,
You alone can explain, who alone are the cause’

(in some ways Fox is a Byronic figure – the aristocratic rebel [1] –
but in his mature private life he could hardly be more different).

Fox was of course above all a magnificent orator – the greatest in a period of great orators (Chatham, Burke, Sheridan) and Powell quotes several of his speeches. I pick the following from 1800. Fox is replying to a suggestion that, rather than seeking peace with France, Britain should pause and see how events turn out. Fox replies to Pitt….

“In former wars a man might at least, have some feeling, some interest, that served to balance in his mind the impressions which a scene of carnage and of death must inflict….But if a man were present now at a field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting – ‘Fighting!’ would be the answer; they are not fighting, they are pausing.’ ‘Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing in agony? What means this implacable fury?’ The answer must be ‘You are wrong, sir; you deceive yourself. They are not fighting. Do not disturb them; they are merely pausing. This man is not expiring with agony – this man is not dead – he is only pausing…..All you see, sir, is nothing like fighting – there is no harm, cruelty or bloodshed in it whatever; there is nothing more than a political pause.” (page 253)

This brilliant invective rings clear across the centuries as we consider the language used to cloak and soften the horrific realities of war.

In his very last speech in the Commons on 10th June 1806 Fox spoke in support of the abolition of slavery….

‘So fully am I impressed with the vast importance and necessity of obtaining what will be the object of my motion this night, that if, during the almost forty years that I have had the honour of a seat in Parliament, I had been so fortunate as to accomplish that, and that only, I should think I had done enough, and could
retire from public life with comfort, and the conscious satisfaction that I had done my duty.’ (page 276)

He died on 13th September 1806 his last words being to his wife who was at his side ‘It don’t signify my dearest dearest Liz.’

Powell points out that by modern standards Fox was in many ways not a radical especially in his opposition to universal suffrage. However I found him a far more courageous and sympathetic figure than I expected and would certainly like to read a better book than this, which he most definitely merits.<<<



1. I add a comment quoted by L.G. Mitchell in his ODNB entry on Fox who is here speaking of the political situation in 1793…..”Any thing that proves that it is not in the power of Kings and Princes by their great armies to have every thing their own way is of such good example that without any good will to the French one can not help being delighted by it, and you know I have a natural partiality to what some people call rebels.” – there is absolutely no question that just such a comment might have been made by Byron himself.

3 thoughts on “Charles James Fox – poor book, fascinating man.

  1. ellenandjim

    When I first started reading the book, I liked it: in its preface Tony Benn sets the situation against our modern one, the differences and similarities. The similarities are self-evident, politics as personal power and riches-grab, with a new ancien regime holding on to what it has, and recently trying to extend it again; the differences too, genuine near universal suffrage with decent laws and customs for the relatively and full powerless or unconnected. It’s paradoxical that Fox came to stand for the rights of these latter: super-wealthy aristocratic, gambler, but also highly well-educated (from Henry and Caroline who we learned about from Tillyard).

    I’ll quote one cogent statement by Benn: “The pressure of all these events [1780s through 90s, from “beneath” for annual parliaments, equal or real representation, the French and American revolutionary ideals and doings] made Fox sound like a voice in the wilderness [his point of view was so rare, so individual it seemed] though a century or more later his little minority had won the day – and therein lies the importance of Fox as a major figure in the period through which he lived.

    Reading on I found myself feeling like I’m reading an addendum to Tillyard’s two books. Powell omits Caroline Fox just about, but much that he says coheres with what we saw in the mini-series and read in Tillyard’s books. He has a real gift for explaining a complicated situation in few words and I have now first the first time a genuine grasp of the complicated politics and corrupt realities behind the Wilkes fiascos, but he is too slick, and loves to repeat supposedly amusing fine sounding paragraphs with lots of antitheses.

    Nick partly made me want to take it down from the shelf and partly saves me the trouble and time. I did know that Fox led a beautiful private life later on, married most unconventionally, and really from this and what I had read in Tillyard was expecting a dual biography: one which delved the private life as well and that was part of my disappointment.

    I feel a little better because I did get far enough to have read most (but not the ones to his wife or the poem or about his later life) of the passages from the book Nick quotes. I really stopped just before the radical era when the sordidness and corruption were so rife and Powell seemed to be getting a kick out of his own antitheses recording it.

    McCarthy in his book on Barbauld gives an effective description of the 1790s so we see how not just the radicals, but ordinary people with let’s say progressive ideas were frighened, and punished for the least appearance of enlightened thought or protest. The government was behind the riots at Priestley’s house and it together with power local people across the country repeated the same kinds of acts backed by military might and local ostraicism, firing, and scapegoating. The Barbaulds were the type that were affected here, and many of their friends.

    She like Fox was brave in the 1790s, but not quite as brave, only of course she was a woman so it wasn’t possible to stand on the world’s stage. She published then famous works anonymously; it was known they were by her, and she was partly protected becasue she was a woman. Who cared what she thought. I have a parallel passage to Nick’s by Fox inthe 1790s where her idea that’s use language truthfully and say the thing a thing is is brought to clear power. Here is she aguing that the still powerful cruel idiocies about calling the blessing of God on your murderous activities (war) is somehow a moral thing to do. She wites in _Sins of the Nation_

    – “we have calmly voted slaughter and merchandized destruction” – and urged that things should be called by their proper names: “When we pay our army and our navy estimates, let us set down – so much for killing, so much for maim­ing, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine upon a district, so much for corrupting citizens and subjects into spies and traitors, so much for ruining industrious tradesmen and making bankrupts (of that species of distress at least, we can form an idea)”.

    I know there’s a book on Elizabeth Armistead and Fox but it’s called the Politician and the Harlot. If I buy that book I am rewarding someone who to sell books puts a slur on women as a glamorous thing. The title is sickening. Beyond that it’s expensive.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen especially for the details on Barbauld. I have obtained another book on Fox (by Stanely Ayling) but at a superficial glance it does not look any better than Powell’s – if it is not I shall certainly not persist.

  3. Pingback: Reeves on Mill – Chapters 1-5 « Moving Toyshop

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