February 04, 2010

Historical Heroes: Grantley Berkeley, 1800-81.

‘Who?’ you ask. Rightly so, for this was not a preeminent man. He was, however, a man who stood up for the preservation of bluff English tradition in the face of reforming sensibilities that to him just seemed all too bloody French. He was a living atavism; his life a lament more than a triumph. Yet the spirit of the times never conquered his own esprit de coeur. This was a man who recollected feeling manly from the age of six! I celebrate his life not by way of condoning his actions, but rather by way of advertising his strength of character.


Berkeley cut his teeth in the Regency period; he was what you might call a no-nonsense Renaissance man. Not averse to a bare-knuckle box (he was taught the arts of pugilism by Gentleman Jackson, who also taught Byron), he was at home in the study, at court, and in the company of ladies. As Member of Parliament for Gloucester in the Liberal interest, he backed tradition over innovation, stoicism over effete sensibility. As a writer of political broadsides, novels, and sporting adventures in the American wilds, in addition to his extensive autobiographical pomp, he was irreverently proud. He pursued options closed to us ethereal scribblers: upon receipt of an unfavourable review of his first novel in Fraser’s Magazine he beat the proprietor of that eminent journal with his hunting whip, and fought the reviewer in a duel. Hang the law for honour’s sake!

Berkeley’s chief love was cockfighting, unless it were hunting (he was Master of Fox Hounds and Stag Hounds). The latter was entirely seemly in his age, but the former was criminalised in Berkeley’s prime, causing consternation among those who fancied the sod. Berkeley decried the prohibition as ‘un-English’, and carried on regardless, remaining unapologetic even in the dock at Uxbridge Magistrate’s court.

Think what you will about his pursuits: chacun à son gout. His defining spirit, however, was one of fair play in all things. State interference in morality was absurd; a careless libel was unjust; the intervention into what he saw as fair sports was ‘improper’ and ‘underhand’. The Hon. Grantley Fitzhardinge Berkeley, MP, MFH knew with great self-assurance what it was to be a gentleman in all things.

3 comments:

  1. Doctor,

    you make such a gentlemanly point of subtlety by distinguishing the man's character from his actions - which puts me in mind of the way women used to address delicate matters with their fans, though a difference there must be, as we are not talking love here, but politics - that I must press you to show us, your readers, more about this man. He cannot have been a living atavism if robustness of spirit itself is not obsolete. If there is anything admirable, however rare, precious, or endangered, the thing must be. We would, I am afraid, lose our way to being in earnest if we were to grant the passing of time such awful hold on what we may admire. If the man knew himself held in contempt and yet persevered, if he was a public creature in an age whose publicity he did not intimately share, if, finally, he was a stranger and an outcast but unreconciled - surely, something must be known more than is now known, or else we have lost the man in what was important in him and to him - that for which he stood in the face of adversity. Something must have moved him to his position and something must have moved him to stand on it; perhaps there is a good reason to do as he did and as he would have done.

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  2. His tastes were obsolete, or becoming so, even if his spirit can be thought admirable. If you want to know more, click on his picture - it will take you directly to volume 1 of his autobiography.

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  3. Neither doubting your erudition nor trying it for some onerous display, I only was wondering -
    a famous man's publicity and a timely man's taste are reassurances; a man's who is neither famous nor timely are a challenge; how much more the burden weighs on the latter it is rarely our occasion to see, which does not tend to refute my point.

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