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Books: An awful lot of begging

HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, Gollancz pounds 25
When Francis Bacon remarked that a man is an architect of his own fortune, he possibly had his father's career in mind rather than his own. Sir Nicholas Bacon was an excellent example of the meteoric rises possible for ordinary men in Tudor England. A farmer's son who originally flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, he became a lawyer instead, profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually rose to become Lord Keeper of the Seal to Elizabeth I.

Late in life the most famous of his five sons, sick, disgraced and exiled from London, took what was, for him, the unprecedented step of offending a court favourite by refusing to part with the lease of York House on the Strand. Francis had been born there, into a network of power and privilege. Through his mother's sisters he was related by marriage to some brilliant connections, including the Cecil family.

Together with his brother Anthony he was the child of Nicholas's old age. The boys lived a cossetted life, greatly indulged because they were believed to be delicate. Even in middle age Anthony was still pestering his mother to pay for his sick-room treats. She was never slow to remind her sons that they were not the men their father had been.

Francis's childhood culminated in being presented to the Queen when he departed for Paris as part of the Ambassador's entourage. While he was abroad his father died suddenly, leaving his son with a taste for political power, but sadly, little else.

Francis was dependent on the goodwill of his distaff relatives for his advancement, a reserve his pride soon exhausted. "Arrogancy and overweening is so far from my nature, as if I think well of myself in anything it is in this, that I am free from that vice," he once wrote to his uncle Lord Burghley, in the course of another demand. This self-assessment was far from the truth. Francis loved to flaunt the distinctions he had acquired through wire-pulling as if he deserved them, to the disgust of his peers and ultimately his patrons.

He could depend on his brother, however. Anthony Bacon is the great discovery of this book. Previously overlooked as a louche traveller fond of good food and rough trade, this re-examination reveals him as an energetic spy-cum-diplomat and the guiding hand of his brother's early career. Delivering Anthony's intelligence kept Francis before the eyes of those with influence including the Queen. And it was Anthony who drew Francis under the patronage of the Earl of Essex.

His new patron's petulant and flirtatious relationship with the Queen was scarcely much more help to his career. It would even seem that Her Majesty took a spiteful delight in keeping Francis in suspense, then disappointing him. Reading the correspondence generated by Francis's ceaseless and fruitless campaigns for office, one can see the temptation. None of us would liked to be judged by our begging letters but Francis did write an awful lot of them.

The Queen's final humiliation of her ever-hopeful subject was to force him to prosecute Essex for treason. Francis had become adept at organising the judicial murder of those caught up in the entirely imaginary conspiracies that the Queen saw around her in her declining years. In this instance there can be little doubt there was a personal element. The Queen wished to see her former favourite hounded to death by his own client, and she was not disappointed by Francis's performance. He was to regret his energetic prosecution. Within a few years the Queen had faded away and died, to be succeeded by James of Scotland, a great friend of Essex.

Francis was an accomplished fence-sitter. In his youth a pamphlet he had contributed to a -bitter religious controversy had been acclaimed by both sides. But the apologia he rushed out to justify his betrayal of Essex was received with laughter. Nevertheless Anthony's hand, now stretching from the grave, was still able to exert influence. He had been a favourite of the new king too, and Francis was knighted in his brother's memory.

The new regime was in fact congenial to Francis. He shared with his king a love for rhetoric and pretty boys and both men were enthusiastic invalids. "When once my master, and afterwards myself, were both of us in extremity of sickness ... I never had so great pledges and certainties of his love and favour," Francis recalled. This is one of the few flashes of genuine intimacy we are shown in his letters. It is hard not to smile at the thought of these two queeny hypochondriacs comparing their diseases.

One by one, the prizes that had eluded him during the last reign fell to him in this, and more besides. He had the satisfaction of recovering the Seal and York House, plus the Chancellorship and a baronetcy before being impeached for bribery.

In an attempt to mitigate his disgrace Francis claimed the distinction between vitia temporis, vices of the age which everyone is guilty of, and vitia hominis, personal corruption. How well does this defence, which, stripped of its Latin, is familiar to infant school teachers, stand up? It must be said that this account of his life, based on immediate documents, such as letters and diaries, does not paint a very attractive picture.

Although Francis enjoyed a European reputation for his writings in his own lifetime, his intellectual activities were mostly part of his private life. It is the public man we encounter here. Since the claim that Bacon was secretly the author of Shakespeare (rightly not even considered here) is creeping back into fashion, it is ironic that the nearest Shakespearean parallel is Cassio in Othello, especially as Cassio, like Bacon, was a Calvinist. Sadly stripped of the immortal part of him and placed in his own times, what remains is bestial.