Playing at revolution

CITIZEN LORD: Edward Fitzgerald by Stella Tillyard, Chatto pounds 16.99
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Paradox was in much of the character of Edward Fitzgerald, twelfth child of the Duke and Duchess of Leinster, who died in jail, a martyr to the cause of Irish independence. He was a citizen Lord and an Irish Protestant Indian chieftain, and he was also a home-loving adventurer. He was a man of sentiment who actively endorsed violence as the only practical means to establish democracy in his native land. A secondary figure in biographies of Charles James Fox and Sheridan, Wolfe Tone and Tom Paine, the colourful Lord Edward is now given centre stage in this second volume of Stella Tillyard's projected trilogy, which interprets the events of the period 1740 to 1830 through the lives of the Lennox sisters (heroines of the acclaimed first volume, Aristocrats) and their offspring.

Fitzgerald was the darling of his wealthy and influential family. He left his adored mother at an early age to join in active service in the American War of Independence, later lamenting that he had ever fought "against the cause of Liberty". Valorous, popular, charming and unintellectual, he didn't at this point seem to have any political opinions at all, only dreading the coming peace as an end to his adventure. Back home, he drifted into an Irish parliamentary seat under the patronage of his brother, the 2nd Duke of Leinster. But he soon gravitated towards the circle of his powerful cousin, Charles Fox, in London. There, he met and fell in love with Richard Sheridan's beautiful wife, Elizabeth Linley, by whom he had an illegitimate daughter, brought up by Sheridan after Elizabeth's tragically early death.

Fitzgerald's education, undertaken with his siblings in an experimental school devised by his mother (who created a scandal by marrying the tutor) had been liberal and free-thinking, but essentially linked to family life. So although his politics became radical, he was never quite able to eject himself from that aristocratic background, despite his attempts to melt into a different stratum of society, or even a different society altogether, as shown in his travels among the white settlers and Indian tribes of North America - communities which seemed to exemplify the Rousseausque simple life he had been expensively educated to appreciate. The Iroquois made him an honorary chieftain, the French let him renounce his title in a gesture of solidarity with the revolution, yet his birth hung round him immovably.

In 1791, when Fitzgerald modulated into a follower of Tom Paine, there was no denying that he represented just the class of person whom Paine was targetting strategically, the devotees of Rousseau who had as yet failed to convert their ideals into practical action, whose minds were "in love with an object without the means of possessing it". His eager enthusiasm for the revolution - "I can compare [Paris] to nothing but Rome in its days of conquest - the energy of the people is beyond belief" - differed from that of most British onlookers in persisting through the Terror and beyond, despite the guillotining of his wife Pamela's alleged father, the Duc d'Orleans. According to his bemused family, he had "turned a complete Frenchman" and openly rejoiced at the death of Louis XVI, a conspicuous thing to do, certainly, but whether it was a symptom of idealism or strategic intransigence (or both) is hard to tell.

Fitzgerald's attempts to transport the Revolution to Ireland form the fascinating crisis of Stella Tillyard's book. He joined Wolfe Tone's United Irishmen at just the point when it was changing from a reform lobby to an underground movement, hampered by intrigue and misinformation. There is evidence that Fitzgerald judged the popular will in Ireland correctly, but misjudged what to do about it, and forced the issue of an armed rebellion by encouraging the Irish and French to expect more of each other than either side could deliver. When the French invasion force under Hoche attempted to land in Ireland in 1796, they were amazed and disappointed by the lack of a rebel reception, an expectation deliberately fostered by Fitzgerald. His lack of realism was almost incalculably damaging, if one thinks forward from the first French "invasion" to the second attempt in 1797 and the tragically botched uprising of 1798 to Pitt's panicky Act of Union, over which we are still fighting to this day.

Stella Tillyard succeeds in establishing Fitzgerald's revolutionary credentials, a corrective to the sanitised record left by his family and his first biographer, Tom Moore. But she seems keen to play down the romantic aspect of it, settling instead on a far more damning epithet, "undiscriminating". Tillyard intends to "dispel once and for all the idea of Lord Edward as a romantic who was used or led by men more ruthless than himself". But if only he had been led by some canny Machiavellian masters: as it was, he ended up in prison, awaiting trial for murder and treason, dying of septicaemia. Fitzgerald had neither the ability nor the ambition to lead the Irish rebellion, nor, given his class and status, did he have much value as a figurehead. His value to the movement was as an experienced officer who relished war and inspired devotion among his troops, the very virtues he was never given a chance to demonstrate during the years of dithering about how and when the uprising was to take place.

Perhaps because she relies heavily on the extensive Lennox and Fitzgerald family papers, Tillyard's extremely well-written and lively portrait of "le citoyen Edouard" has an intimate, interested feel that few biographies achieve. The family recorders were mostly women, and their alertness to Lord Edward's numerous New-Mannerisms form a nice counterbalance to the details of his life as a man of action, scrupulously researched and reconstructed by the author. Only two words seemed to be missing from this book: one is "feminist", the other "culpable". Many years after Fitzgerald's death, Wolfe Tone's widow, Matilda, made this bitter remark: "Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the Sheares brothers [...] were playing revolution and did mischief." It is ironic that had Fitzgerald been less of an idealist, had he exploited his powerful connections without scruple, his sacrifice might have been of real use to "the people", rather than working so perversely against them.