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Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 15. Roger North’s Lives of the Norths

Though also confessedly composed by a partisan—who avows that “he knows not by what influence or means he took very early to the loyal side,” and who consistently speaks of its opponents as “the faction against monarchy” or “the faction” pure and simple—Roger North’s biographies hold an enduring position in English historical literature. The period with which they deal extends but slightly beyond the reign of Charles II; but the most important of them, The Life of Francis North, Lord Guilford, was repeatedly revised, and was not published with the companion Lives of the Hon. Sir Dudley North and the Hon. and Rev. Dr. John North till 1740, immediately after the author’s Examen; while Roger North’s own Autobiography was not generally accessible till 1887, when an edition of it was brought out by Jessopp, who has identified himself with The Lives of the Norths.

Roger North, who confesses that he was himself of a timid disposition, gifted neither with readiness of speech nor with the quickness of thought which underlies it, and whose innate modesty is not the least pleasing element in the altruism which ennobled his character, was a true believer in his family. The Norths, he says, “were a numerous flock, and no one scabby sheep in it”; and, though the eldest of the brothers (Lord North and Gray of Rolleston) had “attached himself to the faction,” the rest were “in all respects helpful and assistant to each other … nor the least favour of difference or feud found amongst them.” Roger became the biographer of four of them, including himself. Specially intimate were his relations with the third of the brothers, Francis, who became Lord Guilford and keeper of the great seal. The advancement of Francis in place and prosperity was also that of Roger, whom he associated with himself in every stage of his career, who lodged with him, was a daily guest at his table and, for many years, never failed to see him safe to bed; who, in short, as Roger himself expresses it, was his brother’s “shadow.” With the frankness which adds both value and charm to his narrative, Roger confesses that his nature at one time rebelled against this dependence; but he never broke through it, and the sincerity with which he judges his brother’s character and career is never devoid of piety. Their intimacy enabled the biographer to interpret the laconic notes kept by the successful counsel and eminent judge with a fulness which converts them into so many episodes of legal experience, as well as to expand the “speculums” that represented his passing thoughts on the multifarious problems of his public and private life. Thus, Francis North’s complex but masculine, though, in more respects than one, not very attractive, character is brought before the reader with all the force of veracity—for he was cautious as well as ambitious, not overscrupulous so long as he kept well within the law (within which he consistently conjured king Charles II to keep); but, at the same time, straightforward in his private and in his public acts, and content to leave the latter “without any affected lustre or handles to fame if he could avoid them.” “No wonder,” writes his biographer, with telling irony, “he is so soon forgot.” The account of his matrimonial and electioneering operations illustrates the social and political ethics of the age rather than his own. The characters of Lord Guilford’s contemporaries in the higher judiciary are drawn with less reticence and extraordinary force—such portraits as those of “Silenus” Saunders and Jeffreys, in their way, are immortal, the latter more especially so because Macaulay’s portrait owes to it some of its most telling features; while the finer touches which reveal the biographer’s antipathy against Sir Matthew Hale are at least equally to the credit of his artistic skill. By the side of these portraits of legal luminaries may be mentioned the admirable portrait of one whose light was hid behind the backstairs—Will Chiffinch.

To the literary ability of Roger North, the second of these Lives, that of Sir Dudley North, the great Turkey merchant, afterwards, at a critical season, appointed sheriff of London by a more than doubtful process dictated by the policy of the court, bears signal witness. This biography depicts, with singular fidelity and force, the career of a young man of family who, virtually, began his mercantile life as supercargo on a ship bound for Archangel, and ended it as treasurer of the Turkey company at Constantinople. The account, derived from him by his brother, of the Turkish system of government (the description of avanios or exactions from Christian states and persons is specially interesting), law and society, is as full of interest as, when first made known, it must have been of novelty; and the personal character of the great merchant—whose eastern notions were not, like his mustachios, suppressed on his return home—is brought out with much affectionate humour. The honours gained by Sir Dudley North after his return nearly involved him in serious trouble after the revolution of 1688: Roger’s account of his brother’s examination before the House of Commons is one of the best-told episodes in the story. The third of the Lives, that of John North, master of Trinity college, Cambridge, has a very different interest; it relates the story of the life of a Cambridge don, first at Jesus, where his younger brother was his pupil but where he grew tired of the “grave, and perhaps empty seniors,” then at Trinity lodge, where he was on uneasy terms with the fellows, very unpopular with the undergraduates and “so nice that he never completed anything” in the way of a book. In the end, his intellectual powers decayed with those of his body; through life, his greatest happiness seems to have been the occasional society of his brothers.

Roger, the sixth and youngest of his father’s sons, was, as has been observed, born to be the biographer of those among them whose worldly success had outstripped his own. He judged himself humbly, but without hypocrisy—“though not of prime of my rank, yet not contemptible.” His tastes were intellectual: mathematics and music had a special attraction for him, and, of amusements, he preferred that of sailing. That he had a genuine literary gift, he seems hardly to have suspected—for he never himself published anything but A Discourse of Fish and Fish Ponds (1683); but, during the long evening of his life (from 1690 to 1734), which he spent in his own house at Rougham in Norfolk, after, as a non-juror, he had given up practice at the bar, he wrote the Lives of which mention has been made and his own Autobiography. The latter breaks off with an account of his long services as trustee under Sir Peter Lely’s will, which, like those by him performed under that of his brother Lord Guilford, long occupied most of his leisure. But, though only a fragment, and a repetition, here and there, of what he had already told in the Lives of his brothers, it is not the least engaging of his productions, and, occasionally, lifts an unsuspected corner of his inner nature—as in the strange passage concerning a man’s right to end his own existence. In a lighter vein is the comparison—which must amuse readers of The Rape of the Lock—of the life of men to a game at ombre.