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Despite its popularity in France, the political memoir took a while to get going in Britain. It was Lord Clarendon’s epic attempt to make sense of the turbulent 17th century that slowly set the ball rolling, according to Paul Seaward.

Each year a new crop of political memoirs appears, promoted by publishers who bank on their popularity. In 2016 Kenneth Clarke, Ed Balls and Nick Clegg all produced volumes, which will have sold thousands of copies, many of them unwrapped by political nerds on Christmas Day. Yet political memoirs are usually greeted with scepticism or boredom. Too many of them are bland and evasive essays in self-congratulation or self-justification, while the memoirs of politicians who have been genuinely at the heart of decision-making are often dully impersonal: in attempting to write a first draft of history, they lose the sense of what it was like to live through it. Consequently, scholarship has treated the political memoir with indifference; for literary scholars, it is a bastard form somewhere between autobiography and history; for historians, it is a deeply suspect source, to be approached with extreme caution. Historians plunder memoirs for quotations and condemn them for inaccuracy. Rarely do they study them in their own right.

Yet historians should be more sophisticated than to write off memoirs, however unreliable. Like any political text, the political memoir is a rhetorical exercise: inherently subjective, it can never be treated as an attempt to arrive at some form of objective ‘truth’ about events. Its subjectivity is its strength, as well as its weakness. It is a record not just of what happened, but of the process by which narrative and meaning are strained out of a confused present. Oral historians have long been accustomed to showing how interviews with participants in an event, even where the details are inaccurate, may expose something more interesting about the attitudes of the speaker, or the way in which their memories have been moulded, deliberately or unconsciously. Political memoirs have seldom been given the same consideration. An exception is David Reynolds’ In Command of History (2004), his account of the production of Churchill’s history and memoir of the Second World War.Reynolds dissects the book and the records of its production to show both how the complex work was designed to promote Churchill’s own views of past and future policy, as well as how its composition itself contributed to the development of his views. 

Nowhere is the line between memoir and history more blurred than in the first political memoir of any significance in English: The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England and the Life of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. This massive work had a complicated gestation. Hyde set out to compile a history after he had been forced into exile with the Prince of Wales (later Charles II), following the defeat of Charles I in the Civil War. He spent the years 1646-48 working on it in Jersey, when he was out of sympathy with a royalist strategy in the hands of the king’s wife, Henrietta Maria. The History (then known as the Historical Narration) was abandoned on his return to royal service in 1648 and lay apparently untouched for almost 20 years, during which Hyde became Charles II’s principal minister and managed the process of the Restoration in 1660. By then Earl of Clarendon, he was ejected from politics in the convulsions following English defeat in the second Dutch War in 1667. In exile again in Montpellier, southern France, he returned to writing. He began an account of his own life before he returned to the text of his Historical Narration and decided to merge the two, ending up with what we now know as The History of the Rebellion. A further work followed, a memoir of his period as lord chancellor, after the Restoration, describing the period of his greatest influence and its gradual decay.

A French genre

Clarendon’s work was originally as much memoir as history. When it was published in 1702-4, more than 30 years after its completion, the contrast between its claims to impartiality and its rootedness in personal experience and opinion was pointed out by many of its earliest critics (some of them as keen to attack its association with Toryism as to engage with its accuracy). Part of the problem may have been due to the unfamiliarity of the memoir to English audiences. Before Clarendon, no significant political memoir had been written in English. There were classical memoirs – the most famous being the commentaries of Julius Caesar. There was one celebrated Continental memoir – the memoirs of the 15th-century Burgundian official Philippe de Commines, which had been translated and published in English in 1614, a work which Hyde read and admired and from which he took extensive notes. But no senior English politician had attempted to write an account of his own life, or even of the politics of his own times. 

The situation contrasted markedly with that across the Channel in France, where, by the 1640s, political memoir had become an established genre, almost a normal practice for those politicians expelled from court and favour, a standard corollary of political failure. The century or so since the beginning of the French Reformation and the consequent religious conflict had seen a steady increase in the publication of memoirs and of collections of the correspondence of senior political or military figures. More than 30 works described as memoirs or collections of correspondence were published in France in the 110 years before Clarendon’s death in 1674. Among the most celebrated were the Commentaries of Blaise de Monluc, marshal of France, published in 1592; the Vita of Jacques-Auguste de Thou, published in 1606 along with his massive Historia Sui Temporis; and the Mémoires ou Sages et Royales Oeconomies d’estat of Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully in 1638. The pace of both production and publication quickened after the Fronde, the breakdown of civil authority during the minority of Louis XIV. In 1665 three new memoirs appeared; the following year a further two. Among those writing memoirs in the 1660s was Jean-Francois de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz, a chancy cleric with whom Hyde had had dealings in the late 1650s: his slippery and entertaining memoir would become a masterpiece of the genre. 

An exotic and vulgar import

It is impossible to say how many of these works Clarendon read, though as a historical and political omnivore living in France for a sizeable part of his life after 1648 he cannot have been unaware of them. An engagement with the French tradition of memoir is helpful in understanding how he approached, during his second exile, the revision and completion of the text he began in his first. From 1646 to 1648 he planned to write a magisterial, impartial history, collecting as much information as he could. But in 1668, perhaps under the influence of French examples, he started to write a memoir: colourful, full of opinion, prejudice, personality and self-justification, abandoning any attempt at detailed fact-checking. When he came to splice the new text together with the old, it was the memoir – easier to write, as well as, usually, to read – that predominated. 

Despite the success of the History when it was eventually published, it was little imitated: Gilbert Burnet was said to have been influenced by it in composing his History of My Own Time; but no-one else wrote anything comparable in English until the great 20th-century memoirists, Lloyd George and Churchill, even though the genre had been further developed on the Continent by men such as the duc de Saint-Simon in France and Bismarck in Germany.

Why was this? Perhaps the political memoir still seemed an exotic or vulgar import, never naturalised into British political and literary culture: some French examples (particularly de Retz) may have associated it too strongly with other genres, including picaresque fiction. Perhaps British politicians never quite retired in the way that Continental colleagues did, denying them the leisure and distance to review their former lives and careers. Perhaps it was also that in the lively British publishing culture the political memoirist instantly exposed himself (for a long time it was usually ‘himself’) to the derision of opponents eager to challenge his claims to sell a partial truth as an impartial one. Political memoir continues to have less éclat than the classic political diaries, such as those of Alan Clark, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle, Tony Benn or Chris Mullin, with their sense of immediacy, of life as lived. Vain and self-serving they may be, but there can be just as much self-revelation in the retrospective examination of a life, the extraction of meaning from the daily chaos of political events.

Paul Seaward is Director of the History of Parliament Trust and General Editor (with Martin Dzelzainis) of the Oxford edition of the works of Lord Clarendon.

Order from chaos

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