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Order from Chaos

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.

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon as Lord High Chancellor, by Peter Lely, c.1666. Ⓒ Middle Temple London / Bridgeman Images.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.

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