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November 30, 2006

Edmund Burke, a New Life: Edmund Burke, Volume II: 1784-1797 - F. P. Lock

Posted by Jeremy Black

Edmund Burke, Volume II: 1784-1797
by F. P. Lock
Pp. xiv+605. Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 90

The second of a two-volume life, this book maintains the high standards of its predecessor, but does so in the face of the serious challenges posed by Burke's central engagement with a range of issues, most obviously India and France, but also the future of British politics.

As Lock points out, however, Burke never reserved his energies for great occasions or affairs, and his life touches a host of issues including those of crime: Burke in 1784 suffered from housebreakers in Beaconsfield, which otherwise seemed an Elysium.

There is also plentiful material on his health which, as with that of Dr Johnson, offers somewhat grim reading. Burke had to take refuge in opium, but, after some initial success, this, in 1797, proved to worsen his condition, and was discontinued. As Lock cogently argues, Burke's supreme gift was not his wisdom but his eloquence, which rested on gripping powers of expression and a mastery of the language.

As with Pitt the Elder, however, there was sometimes an unhinged quality to this rhetoric, and neither the House of Commons nor the reading public consistently reacted to the eloquence as Burke would have wished. Both Burke and Pitt provided a rhetoric that had detractors as well as supporters. Content was also an issue. As Lock points out, Price energized Burke's opposition to the Revolution, and any study of Burke has to give due weight to contrary views, a challenge to which Lock ably rises.

The controversial, not to say unhinged, quality may be more pertinent than Lock's suggestion that Burke's writings can remind us of truths that are out of fashion or neglected. For example, Burke's ideological approach to foreign policy violated a need for prudence that the course of conflict in the 1790s was to drive home.

Lock's work will be particularly valuable to those undertaking research on the subject. He, for examples, makes good use of the letters which he sees as an outlet for psychological pressures, although usually an oblique one.

Unfortunately, the book is too long to serve as a student text, which is a great pity. A Burke reader that draws on this new biography and on the editions of his works and correspondence would offer much, although it is unclear that the ideological and political controversies of the period have the relevance for current students, and indeed readers, that they had a century ago. Part of the challenge is not simply to produce fine scholarship like this, but also to re-engage interest and explain relevance. A scholarly life or monograph, unfortunately, is not the best means to do so.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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