The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/Lord John Russell

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The Author of The memoirs of the affairs of Europe.png

Author of the "Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe."


Maginn, who hated a Whig more bitterly, if possible, than a water- drinker, is rather severe on "little Johnny Russell," who with curling locks and fur-collared coat, may be imagined as reclining on a Ministerial bench, and meditating over the important and interesting contents of a Blue Book. Still, amid the absurd injustice of the illustrative remarks, we cannot but admit, that in citing the couplet : —

"When once he begins, he never will flinch,
But repeats the same note the whole day like a finch,—

and in attributing to the nascent statesman as his leading characteristics, "pride, pertinacity and frigidity, with a taste for attempting departments of literature foreign to his nature," the literary caricaturist accurately laid his finger on the most conspicuous failings of the present subject of the crayon of Maclise.

Professor Von Raumer, who visited England in 1835, was disappointed with the appearance of Lord John. "From the engravings of him," says he, "I expected to see a tall thin man, instead of which I found a little, sharp, cunning-looking fellow, with nothing of an imposing presence";[1] but on the other hand, a great poet writes:—

"Jack R—ss—ll charms me with his quiet air,
 His simple phrase, and purpose undesigned;
Smooth without languor, polished without glare;
 Feeling his way, until his coil is twined,
Then darting all his meaning on the mind!"[2]

Everybody knows that he was the youngest son of the sixth Duke of Bedford, by his first marriage, and that he was born in London, on the 18th August, 1792.

By posterity, he will be better known as a diplomatist and politician than as a man of letters. "In him," said the Times, on the occasion of his death, "we have lost a man who illustrates the history of England for half a century better, perhaps, than any other person of his time. During his long season of toil there were more brilliant political intellects, more striking masters of debate, and men more gifted with the various qualities of party leadership. There were, on the whole, statesmen of greater foresight, and more executive ability. There were statesmen who exercised a far more powerful fascination on the minds of rich and poor. But there was no other man so closely identified with the political movements which will make fifty or sixty years of our history memorable to the future."

The political career of Lord John Russell extended over the period allotted alike by experience and biblical authority to the life of man. To understand and estimate his life and actions as a statesman, we must call to mind who and what he was. Belonging to the aristocracy of the realm, and born in the purple of a ducal house, his infancy and youth were passed at a period when the stupid tyranny of George III. was administered by men whose entire theory- of government was the repression of opinion, and compulsory subordination to the divine right of kings. But, fortunately for him, he was sent for education to Edinburgh, and there imbibed the principles of constitutional liberty, without the infecting prejudices which characterized the teaching of Oxford and Cambridge. England then groaned under the heel of Toryism; and its people were slaves alike in politics, in religion, and in industrial life. Their mouths were gagged, their progress was impeded and held synonymous with revolution, books and schools were scarce and few, the universities were closed, and the press for them had no existence. But why proceed.^ The ground is wide and slippers', and must be passed over with fleeting foot. Lord John Russell, whatever may be his shortcomings, his failures and his mistakes, was an honest and consistent reformer. It was doubtless a mistake to proclaim the Act of 1832 a "final" measure,—whence his nickname, "Finality John;"—but he lived to see his error, and in 1852 introduced a Reform Bill which went further in the right direction. The ball is still rolling, and the goal of to-day is the starting-point of to-morrow. It was Earl Russell who saved England from the cruel, bigotted, ruthless policy of the olden world ; and whei^ his long career was closed by that awful event to which piety brings no indefinite delay, the unanimous feeling of her grateful people might have been expressed in the words of Cicero, "Luctuosum hoc suis; acerbum patriæ; grave bonis omnibus."

It is, however, rather as a man of letters, that Earl Russell claims attention as a member of our "Gallery;" in which character, if space were at my command, I might consider his pretensions as an essayist, a tragedian, a novelist, an historian, a biographer, an editor, a writer on constitutional history, and a political pamphleteer. Sydney Smith it was who said of him that he was "ready to undertake anything and everything,—to build St. Paul's,—cut for the stone,—or command the Channel fleet;" and this pretentious ambition seems to have led him into every walk of literature. One of his earliest publications was a slim octavo volume, entitled Essays and Sketches of Life and Character, 1820. To these words was added the statement that the various pieces were published from the MS. of "a gentleman who had left his lodgings;" and the volume was prefaced by a narrative, signed "Joseph Skillett," the lodging-house keeper, who is supposed to publish the papers to pay himself the rent which his lodger had forgotten to liquidate. These bibliographical facts may be worth recording, as this preface was afterwards suppressed, and the book supplied with a new tide-page, on which the words "second edition," with the date 1821, appeared, with the addition of a dedication to "Thomas Moore, Esq., who advised the publication of the following fragments."

Next to this comes The Nun of Arrouca, a tale (Murray, 1822),—a tome which few of my readers have ever even heard of. It was rigidly suppressed by the author; is consequently very rare; and will fetch its two guineas any day.

Of his lordship's dramatic lucubrations, which were pronounced dead and buried sixty years ago, silence may be held on the principle de mortuis nil nisi bonum. The best known is Don Carlos, which is now as completely forgotten as Otway's play under the same title. Yet this latter in its day had met with unbounded applause, while the admirable Orphan, and the still nobler Venice Preserved, had received but a moderate share of public approbation. This error of contemporary judgment is ridiculed by the Duke of Buckingham in his well-known Session of the Poets,—an imitation of a satire of Boileau:—

"Tom Otway came next, Tom Shadwell's dear Zany,
Who swears, for heroicks, he writes best of any;
Don Carlos his pockets so amply had filled,
That his mange was quite cur'd, and his lice were all kill'd,"

—which may serve as a specimen of the refined criticism of the day.[3]

But to return from my short excursus. Of the labours of Lord John Russell in other departments of literature, I cannot now speak. The student may gain something from his Essay on the British Constitution; but his History of Europe since the Peace of Utrecht will hardly, I fancy, repay the trouble of exhumation. As a biographer, in his Life and Letters of Thomas Moore he has provoked an inodorous comparison with Boswell and Lockhart. He was ever distinguished by his love and reverence for literature; and will be remembered as the friend of men of letters, and for his generosity to them, when in need of assistance.

As a minister and politician men do, and will, form opinions widely diverse as to his conduct and abilities. But I doubt not that the ultimate verdict of posterity will be that he was, through his long career, when all his solecisms and shortcomings as a diplomatist are taken into account, a consistent Liberal according to his lights,—an honest man,—and a faithful servant, alike of his queen and his countrymen. His life was a life of labour, and I could enumerate, if space allowed, a score of diplomatic offices which he filled with more or less distinction. He was raised to the peerage, under the title of Earl Russell, in 1861, and he died May 28th, 1878, in the eighty-sixth year of his age. He was succeeded in the peerage by a grandson, thirteen years of age, the son of the late Lord Amberley.

  1. The words in the original are, "ein kleiner, feiner, klug-aus-sehender Mann," which Mrs. Austin, in her translation, euphemizes into "a small man, with a refined and intelligent, though not an imposing air."
  2. The Modern Orlando, by Dr. Croly, 1848, 8vo, page 168.
  3. Works of Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, ii. 151.