Sydney Smith and William Burke lived at the same time and in the same country: but at opposite ends of the spectrum of class, ends which rarely met, except in court. Such people were strangers to one another, foreigners, and could hate and suspect one another in the style that has been reserved for foreigners. Smith and Burke lived for a while in the same place, Edinburgh - the city of Calvin and caller air, of metaphysics and foul smells, according to Smith, who claimed, in a typical tease, that he had to detach a passer-by 'blown flat against my door' by the prevailing winds, and 'black in the face'. The authors of these interesting books resemble their subjects in having themselves come to live in the city from, respectively, England and Ireland. The books can be said to stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of emotion. Alan Bell's is cool, elegant, efficient, eminently printable, while the other smacks of excitement, adrenalin, and of an oral tradition. Smith is present in the Burke book, as an ideological partner of the Whig advocates who were briefed in the legal proceedings which followed the discovery of the Burke and Hare murders.
LRB 16 October 1980 | PDF Download