Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Obiter Dicta by Augustine Birrell

Augustine Birrell never saw it coming. A bomb outrage was the most he expected but instead he got a revolution. As Chief Secretary for Ireland he should have known and it is quite extraordinary that there was no per as usual traitor or spy to inform him that there was a plot. The Rising of Easter 1916 was quickly snuffed but British brutality evoked such outrage that a general Anglo-Irish war ensued. Birrell resigned of course and his vision of 32 county home rule was never realised. My interest here is in the man as an essayist as represented in his first and second series of Obiter Dicta in 1884 and 1887. They are chiefly on literary figures such as Milton, Browning, Carlyle, Pope etc. and though it is doubtful that serious students will learn anything new from them they will be grateful for their lightness, vivacity and tart expressiveness. Writing on Dr. Johnson he contrasts him with Matthew Arnold:

In the pleasant art of chaffing an author Johnson has hardly an equal.  De Quincey too often overdoes it.  Macaulay seldom fails to excite sympathy with his victim.  In playfulness Mr. Arnold perhaps surpasses the Doctor, but then the latter’s playfulness is always leonine, whilst Mr. Arnold’s is surely, sometimes, just a trifle kittenish. 

Edmund Burke’s father was anxious, the boy had spent several years in London in desultory study and literary dalliance. He would cut off the funds to fix his mind on the law:

The attorney in Dublin grew anxious, and searched for precedents of a son behaving like his, and rising to eminence.  Had his son got the legal mind?—which, according to a keen observer, chiefly displays itself by illustrating the obvious, explaining the evident, and expatiating on the commonplace.  Edmund’s powers of illustration, explanation, and expatiation could not indeed be questioned; but then the subjects selected for the exhibition of those powers were very far indeed from being obvious, evident, or commonplace, and the attorney’s heart grew heavy within him.  The paternal displeasure was signified in the usual manner—the supplies were cut off.  Edmund Burke, however, was no ordinary prodigal, and his reply to his father’s expostulations took the unexpected and unprecedented shape of a copy of a second and enlarged edition of his treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, which he had published in 1756 at the price of three shillings.  Burke’s father promptly sent the author a bank-bill for £100—conduct on his part which, considering he had sent his son to London and maintained him there for six years to study law, was, in my judgment, both sublime and beautiful.

Writing on Thomas Carlyle he expressed the general distaste for the unseemly revelations of Reminiscences in relation to Jane Walsh Carlyle but holds that many of the uncharitable remarks in the book originated from her. Her waspishness was a byword.

The horrible description of Mrs. Irving's personal appearance, and the other stories of the same connection, are recognised by Mrs. Oliphant as in substance Mrs. Carlyle's; whilst the malicious account of Mrs. Basil Montague's head-dress is attributed by Carlyle himself to his wife. Still, after dividing the total, there is a good helping for each, and blame would justly be Carlyle's due if we did not remember, as we are bound to do, that, interesting as these three sketches are, their interest is pathological, and ought never to have been given us. Mr. Froude should have read them in tears, and burnt them in fire.

Bluntness in relation to other members of polite society was not appreciated in Victorian times. I must find that passage about the head-dress of Mrs. Basil which sounds like a war bonnet. Ah here it is:

Her very dress was notable ; always the same, and in a fashion of its own ; kind of widow's cap fastened below the chin, darkish puce-coloured silk all the rest, and (I used to hear from one who knew !) was admirable, and must have required daily the fastening of sixty or eighty pins.

I fear that Birrell K.C. is indulging in a little stultification of the public appall. Find both series of Obiter Dicta on Gutenberg Project or down in the barrows. I got the second series for ein euro published by Charles Scribner in 1888 and still with uncut pages.

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