Nobody's Perfect: a new Whig interpretation of history, by Annabel Patterson

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When asked, in the final sentence of this book, how a list of liberties extending from free speech to female emancipation looks, one answers: "Fine". What other answer could be expected? The question is posed as the culmination of a chapter on Wordsworth's later career in which, resisting the usual view -– radical poet of the 1790s becomes bumbling Tory Laureate of the 1840s – Annabel Patterson argues that Wordsworth was always radical, and gathers together a respectable number of quotes to prove it. This might be a teasingly dissident view, had not various opinions ("Coleridge was a dreadful poet") been voiced which lead one to question her views. But then, nobody's perfect.

Joshua Reynolds is another misunderstood figure, according to this book, which seeks to rehabilitate the idealism of 18th-century cultural and political figures. In 1986, Nicholas Penny suggested that, despite his painterly qualities, for him "financial success was its own validation". William Armstrong wrote that he was a man "without deep-seated convictions". David Solkin thought Reynolds raised avarice to the status of a cultural symbol and praised him for embracing "a burgeoning market economy".

Professor Patterson will have none of this. True, she records Reynolds serving both Whig, Tory or any other patron who could afford his 100-guinea fee; true, he painted the High Tory Lord Chancellor, Edward Thurlow, making him "a blackguard", though "an interesting one". But Reynolds's real tendency, she argues, was Whiggish, pointing out that in his old age he bought a miniature of Milton, previously owned by Milton's daughter, which became "one of his most treasured possessions". He portrayed Charles James Fox just after Fox had been dismissed from office, paying special attention to the Bill "for regulating the Affairs of the East India Company" in Fox's hand. The Bill brought a (temporary) end to Fox's career but enshrined his name with glory. The fact that Fox explicitly asked, and no doubt paid, to have the Bill included is neither here nor there.

In a chapter on Burke, Patterson is eloquent on echoes of Paradise Lost in Burke's speech supporting American Independence, published in 1776. What she calls "the major allusion" in the speech derives from the end of Milton's poem, where the archangel Michael reveals to Adam the future history of the world.

Hester Thrale praised the passage to Samuel Johnson, whose anti-American pamphlet "Taxation No Tyranny" had just appeared; Johnson found Burke pouring scorn on his arguments without even mentioning their source, and was "predictably indignant". Another source, not commented upon, is the similar prospect of the future in Pope's Dunciad, whose vision of a "new world, to Nature's laws unknown" is one of which Burke naturally steered clear. Patterson might have included it as the obvious contra-Miltonic echo in the lexicon of empire.

The greater part of this book discusses minor figures in the struggles of 18th-century literature, politics and law, such as John Almon and Thomas Erskine, whom Patterson believes merit greater attention. She narrates the highlights of their careers, pausing to rebuke scholars who accuse them of duplicity; this is nothing more nor less, she argues, than examples of how the modern world "demands higher standards of behaviour from the past" than it could live with now.

Which is precisely where we began. The 18th century used to be a period about which everyone had theories. Namier and Butterfield, Tawney and Trevor-Roper, Rudé and E P Thompson, argued that the bourgeoisie was rising, falling or staying where it was, largely because it was the period which most educated people knew.

Professor Patterson says she seeks to recapture a "Whig interpretation of history". Really, it is a kind of seriousness she seeks to claim, for odd facts in the histories of men which will not fit easily into grandiose theories. But the theories of Butterfield and Namier, like the Georgian world they sought to recapture, are vanished, and nod to us in retrospect like heavy harvests beneath the snow.

David Nokes is professor of English at King's College, London

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