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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

§ 11. The History of My Own Time and its genesis

The two folio volumes of which the original edition of Burnet’s History of My Own Time consists appeared in 1724 and 1734 respectively—in both cases, therefore, posthumously, as Burnet died in 1715. The first volume, however, which ends with the close of the reign of James II and the ensuing interregnum, and so much of the second volume as covers the reign of William III and the first two years, or thereabouts, of the reign of Anne, had, in their original form, been intended to constitute part of a work, designed on a somewhat different and looser plan, as “Memoirs” or a “Secret History” of the period which they covered. It will, therefore, be most convenient to trace this earlier production to its beginnings, before passing on to the published work in which it was ultimately merged.

Burnet’s biographer, Miss Foxcroft, assigns to the spring of 1683 the inception of the aforesaid “Memoirs” or “Secret History.” At this date, Burnet was residing in London, having, since his estrangement from Lauderdale, practically ceased to take any active part in Scottish affairs, and already held a conspicuous position in the English political world; although, in consonance with the course of affairs, as well as with the logical evolution of his opinions, he had not yet definitively thrown in his lot with the whigs. It was, therefore, before the discovery of the Rye house plot, of which event the consequences reacted upon his career, that he may be concluded to have written the earliest section of his memoirs, which came to form, in substance, book I of The History of My Own Time, and comprises a summary of affairs, in England and Scotland, before the restoration. This section is written with a clearness and vivacity sufficient to arrest attention in what often proves the dullest portion of a memoir, its opening; but, already here, when partisanship was, of course, in abeyance, there are evident inaccuracies of statement about foreign and English affairs—for instance, as to James I’s supposed intention of a reconciliation with Somerset. Early in the narrative, the writer turns to the affairs of Scotland, which, he says, “are but little known.” “Nor worth knowing” was the annotation added by Swift, who, by way of a sneer at the entire work, interlined its title as The History of (Scotland in) His Own Times. It must be allowed that the method of Burnet’s narrative, which frequently passes from England to Scotland, and back again, like a play with a main and a bye plot, though more or less unavoidable, is trying. Moreover, in the earlier part of the work, there is a marked contrast between the grasp which the writer possesses over Scottish affairs, and the less strenuous texture of the English sections of the narrative. In book I, the struggle between resolutioners and protesters is related with a thorough command of the subject, while the ensuing chapter on Cromwell, though highly entertaining, manifestly rests on evidence of a very doubtful character.

After, in July, 1683, sentence had been passed on Lord Russell, Burnet, unmanned, for the moment, by the terrible catastrophe, wrote a letter to his friend John Brisbane, secretary of the admiralty, who was cognisant of at least the plan of the memoirs, containing an abject attempt to conciliate the king by promising favourable treatment of him in the narrative which the writer was preparing. On the other hand, the character of Charles II, which is the first of a series of characters with which the next division of the memoirs opened, conveyed a hint that a more complete treatment of the subject would follow “when it would be more safe.” When that time arrived, Burnet was a refugee in Holland; but he had taken his memoirs with him, and was busily engaged upon them while abroad. This appears from the threat which, in May, 1687, he contrived to convey to James II through the secretary of state, when informing him of his nationalisation in Holland, that, if he were condemned, in his absence, on a charge of intercourse with traitors in Scotland, he would have to publish what might be disagreeable to the king—to wit, his memoirs. Before he set sail with the expedition of William of Orange, in 1688, Burnet had brought them up to date, and he carried them on through the busy next period of his life; the last extant fragment of them deals with the dismissal, in 1696, of his kinsman, James Johnston, from the Scottish secretaryship.

Nothing remains of Burnet’s original memoirs which treats of events or transactions dating from the period between February, 1696, and April, 1708; and, some years before the latter date, he had resolved upon recasting his memoirs in a different form—that in which they were ultimately given to the world. It is supposed that the appearance, in 1702–4, of the first edition of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion inspired Burnet with the thought of emulating his great predecessor in his own field; while a more direct model was, together with a title, supplied to him in the Historiae sui Temporis of de Thou, for whom Burnet had a great admiration and whose general method of treatment he sought to follow, avoiding, like him, any attempt to deal at length with military operations or even to enter into a full discussion of foreign affairs, but falling far short of him by omitting to furnish either a general survey of the progress of European politics or any adequate notice of great literary personalities. It was, as he states, likewise the example of de Thou, which induced Burnet to compose, in November, 1710, a short autobiography, which, however, he never revised and which was not published till our own day. This “rough draught” deserved to become a permanent possession of English biographical literature, and could hardly fail to achieve popularity were it more widely known. For, apart from its lucid and perfectly trustworthy statement of the data of an enlightened and single-minded man’s remarkable career, it reveals the quintessence of his most characteristic personal qualities and, being absolutely sincere, forms a most delightful, as well as a most instructive, piece of writing. When, in 1734, Burnet’s family brought out the second volume of his History, they opined to substitute for these plain and candid confessions a more regular and elaborate life by the editor, Burnet’s youngest son Thomas, on the promise of whose education the father had dilated towards the end of his suppressed sketch.

The changes made by Burnet in transforming what, if it had not been his life’s work, had occupied a very considerable share of his attention during the years of his maturity, were, in sum, important. These changes, to a large extent, are open to the inspection of posterity. Besides a long fragment of the original manuscript of the memoirs reaching from 1660 to 1664, we possess smaller fragments concerned with the period from 1679 to 1683, and, again, with that from 1684 to 1696 (from just before the death of Charles II to just before the peace of Ryswyk). Concerning the subsequent period, we have only so much of the memoirs as deals with the years 1708 to 1713; but this section was written with the conception of a more perfect history before the eyes of the author. Nor should it be overlooked that, in 1708, according to the statement of his son, he “thought himself near the end of the history,” for which the peace at one time thought likely to follow upon the great victory of Oudenarde (or, rather, upon the full use expected to be made of it) seemed a suitable terminus. He, therefore, with a pardonable, and by no means unparalleled, desire not to lose any time in “improving” the most signal occasion of his literary life, wrote a “conclusion” of his history, for which, when he reached the year 1713, and the real end chartaeque viaeque, he substituted the short and impressive paragraph with which it actually closes. The “conclusion” of 1708, however, is rightly printed in the editions of his book, to which it would have formed an appropriate epilogue or moral, at whatever point in the narrative of queen Anne’s later years it was inserted. For it is really an admonition to those responsible for the guidance of church and state in England to apply the lessons taught by The History, and—in the halcyon days, now seemingly near at hand, of peace and, perhaps, of a lasting political settlement—to do what was possible towards securing a prosperous and a virtuous national future by a series of comprehensive and far-reaching reforms. If this elaborate—but well thought-out and admirably written—“conclusion,” as a whole, suggests the charge of a bishop taking leave of his diocese (archidiaconal charges Burnet wished to see abolished), it has the true ring of clear purpose and genuinely liberal feeling, and speaks the mind of a man whose political principles could raise him far above all considerations of party, while his religious aspirations sought the advancement of something wider and higher than the beliefs or interests of any particular sect or church.

Even before the materials for a comparison had been fully surveyed, it was seriously questioned whether Burnet’s work did not lose more than it gained by the very drastic revision—amounting, in some passages, to rewriting—to which he subjected his original text; and, in a well-known excursus to his History of England, the great historian Ranke argued forcibly, though without having completely surveyed the material, in favour of the superior value, as a historical authority, of the unadulterated memoirs. Without accepting, as more than partially correct, the view that Burnet’s motive for revision was not to correct inaccuracies, but to alter what failed to suit views and purposes entertained by him at a later date, we may allow that this revision not only, in many instances (some of which were of considerable significance), deprived his work of the weight of a contemporary authority, but, in many others, altered it for the worse from a literary point of view.

As is pointed out by Burnet’s biographer, while the leisure which, at different periods of his life, he was able, or willing, to allow himself left him time for the composition of memoirs, he lacked the opportunity, which de Thou created for himself and which circumstances forced upon Clarendon, for the writing of a great history. Of the actual changes introduced by Burnet, not a few were due to a widening of experience, and others to a desire natural to a right-minded and well-meaning man, such as, at bottom, he was, for softening the asperities of temporary resentment and the vehemence of younger years. At the same time, however, he had, as he advanced in age, become more of a partisan in the affairs of both church and state. Yet, in some instances—so in his later, as compared with his earlier, treatment of Marlborough—self-interest may have combined with a sense of justice to recast a onesided treatment; in others, as in the removal of unfavourable comments on Portland, towards whom he had never entertained friendly sentiments, he was moved by a generous resentment of the unjust outcry against a most loyal servant of their common master.