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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 10. A Memorial for the Electress Sophia

But the most interesting of Burnet’s communications with Hanover is A Memorial offered to the electress by him in 1703, containing a Delineation of the Constitution and Policy of England: with Anecdotes concerning remarkable Persons of that Time, first published, from the original in the Hanover archives, in 1815. The electress, who was not a friend of long or tedious discourses, could not have objected to Burnet’s treatise on either ground; though she may not have altogether relished the free criticism of the system of government pursued by her uncle Charles I and her cousin Charles II, and the assumption as to the “pretended” birth of her young living kinsman, whom the Jacobites called James III. To us, the interest of this characteristic manual lies not so much in the historical exposition of the reasons of the weakness of crown and nobility and the suggestion of “remedies” designed to strengthen the stability of the throne, as in the plea for a generous treatment by the church of England, with a view to future reunion, of presbyterians and even of other nonconformists. For the rest, though the treatise has not any particular value as a sketch of parties or persons, its anecdotes and general style make it very readable; and it was probably unnecessary for the artful prelate to forward for perusal, with his own manuscript, copies of Hudibras and The Snake in the Grass. Burnet’s fear of being dull was, of all the fears which, from time to time, interfered with his self-confidence, the least well-grounded. The protest against the reprinting of the political works of Harrington and Milton is, however, unworthy of him.

Finally, we come to the work which, during the greater part of his life of ceaseless effort, Burnet must have regarded as that upon which his reputation as a writer would, in the end, mainly rest. It is true that he declared A Discourse of the Pastoral Care to be of all his writings the one which pleased himself best—a preference well according with the fine ironical tribute paid by Halifax to his “ill-natured” fondness for “degrading himself into the lowest and most painful duties of his calling.” But, though the spiritual element in Burnet’s activity was never quenched, “his times” and the world absorbed his most continuous literary effort; and something must here be said, in the first instance, concerning the genesis and evolution of one of the best-abused books in historical literature.