One small but telling difference between the political culture of modern Britain and that of previous centuries lies in our apparently insatiable appetite for self-serving political memoirs. Until this century, the genre was decidedly unfashionable - much less so, for example, than in France. It would have been considered disreputable for any 17th or 18th-century English politician to leave the kind of memoir written by Cardinal de Retz, which was not only a brazenly exaggerated account of his own actions but an open celebration of his ambition, cynicism and lust. Like a number of French memoirists, de Retz wished to leave a record of his personality; for him the function of autobiography was to present 'faits vus à travers un tempérament'. Englishmen were not so keen on confessing their passions; they also had a more reliable way of defending their honour, consistency and patriotism, because of the centrality of Parliament to 18th-century politics. It was in public speaking to one's peers that one explained one's actions, declared one's principles and asserted one's consistency and integrity. This did not change in the 19th century - though there was an increasing demand for political biography, which was almost invariably pious and posthumous. The Foxite Whigs became the first leading politicians (as opposed to court observers) to write memoirs. They were enthusiasts for French culture and for history; they were believers in open government; they were inventors of a permanent party of principle; and their party tradition set particular store by honour and fame. Lord Holland's were the first published reminiscences of a major politician, Brougham's was the first full autobiography, and Lord John Russell's the first broad-canvas memoir by a former prime minister. Even so, these were not generally regarded as good examples: Holland had an exotic reputation, Brougham's Life and Times was an egotistic fantasy and Russell wrote his book too late in life for it to have any coherence.
LRB 10 November 1994 | PDF Download