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Scribblers, biographers and Robert Walpole.

The Great Man: Scoundrel, Genius and Britain's First Prime Minister. Edward Pearce. Jonathan Cape. [pounds sterling]25.00. ix + 485 pages. ISBN 978-0-224-07181-9.

Sir Robert Walpole has always been subjected to scribblers. In his own lifetime, this was an understandable enough phenomena, given that the office which he came to fill--and which has been immortalised, if somewhat anachronistically, as being that of 'Britain's First Prime Minister'--coincided with the burgeoning evolution of the newspaper as a form of political instruction and comment. No one has ever thought Walpole was politically chaste--least of all the journalists and satirical polemicists of his day. In fact, as subsequent historians have come to argue, Walpole was an accomplished operator who developed well-tuned political antennae, built a parliamentary following and turned it to good account. This enabled him to remain pre-eminent amongst politicians for a quarter-of-a-century, the majority of the time serving in the office with which he has become indelibly identified.

Edward Pearce is a scribbler for our times. The analogy is not an unflattering one. His Walpolean contemporaries would have numbered Addison, Steele, Swift, Defoe and many other accomplished 'men of letters'. The skills of the scribbler are not necessarily those which make for the historian: by nature, there is more contemporaneousness about the former than the latter and more than a whiff of scandal (or 'scoundrel'?) in the interests of good copy. The scribbler's best friends are wit and brevity: the ideal subject for a short, accomplished character-sketch may begin to pale and tire the reader over many thousand words.

Mr Pearce writes in a vivid style, but one which makes few concessions to the untutored (or even cognisant) reader, delighting in witty epigrams, extensive allusions and contemporary (i.e. twenty-first century) asides. Another writer might have written less elegantly but more clearly. As such, Walpole himself is sometimes obscured from view: a wide panoramic cast of events and personalities tending to submerge 'The Great Man' and render him one part in the unfolding historical pageant which Mr Pearce reveals to us rather than the omnipresent 'Genius' who is extolled in the title.

Nevertheless, Edward Pearce's book is to be warmly welcomed, skilfully inserting itself as it does into a historical vacuum which has never been satisfactorily filled since John Plumb failed to finish his projected three-volume 'Life' of Walpole. A historian may, for different reasons, recommend Jeremy Black, Betty Kemp and Brian Hill as better and more accomplished biographers of Walpole but Mr Pearce is likely to attract a wide and appreciative audience outside the academy. If this creates new converts to eighteenth-century studies, he will have fulfilled a valuable service to the whole historical community.

Dr Gaunt teaches in the University of Nottingham's School of History and has recently published two volumes of the fourth Duke of Newcastle's diaries.
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Title Annotation:The Great Man: Scoundrel, Genius and Britain's First Prime Minister
Author:Gaunt, Richard A.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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