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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.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 4. Bolingbroke in France

A Letter to Sir William Wyndham seems to have been directly provoked by a Jacobite pamphlet entitled A Letter from Avignon, which, in its turn, was a product of the rupture between Bolingbroke and the pretender early in 1716, and was written in the following year. Its main purpose was to demonstrate, for the benefit of the tories and from the writer’s own experience, the suicidal folly of an alliance between them and the Jacobites. But, though the logic of this demonstration is incontrovertible, the historical process by which the experience on which it rests was gained is audaciously misrepresented, and the circumstances in which Bolingbroke offered his services to the pretender are falsified, as are his relations to the tory party and its policy after his fall. It was, not improbably, his knowledge, not only of the truth, but of what others knew of the truth, which prevented him from publishing this famous Letter in his lifetime. For few, if any, among his writings equal it in force and effectiveness. Its tone is one of a candour half cynical, half truly English in its straightforwardness. He goes back to the days, in 1710, when the tories returned to power, and when he was himself fain to let Harley have his way, and not to take advantage of his own ascendency in the Commons—who “grow, like hounds, fond of the man who shows them game.” The whole account of his rival, though inspired by bitter personal hatred, has the ring of truth. Then follows the skilful analysis of the baffled tory party after queen Anne’s death, and the defiant defence of his own conduct—could he resolve “to be obliged to the whimsicals, or to suffer with Oxford?” So he threw in his lot with the Jacobites, and became a member of a court and government which he describes with inimitable contemptuousness—“Fanny Oglethorpe whom you must have seen in England, kept her corner in it, and Olive Trant was the great wheel of our machine.” His account of the failure of the contributions made by the pretender’s government, and by the pretender himself, to the failure of the 1715 is convincing; less so is that of his own consistency face to face with an inconsistent tory party; while his explanation of the pretender’s attitude towards the religious question is transparently ungenerous, however effectively it may clinch his demonstration of the cleavage between tories and Jacobites. But the attention of the reader is held throughout the tract, which excels in both direct invective and insidious sarcasm, and, apart from a few apparent gallicisms near the outset, may be regarded as a masterpiece of lighter English controversial prose.