The Green Pimpernel

Insurrectionary spirits looked back with some nostalgia to the fiery clarities of the French Revolution and to the Irish rebellion of 1798 with which it was so tragically intertwined. Lord Byron, for example, was enchanted by “anecdotes of those times when I, alas! was an infant.” He added, “If I had been a man, I would have made an English Lord Edward Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald, fifth son of Ireland’s premier peer, died in the attempt to free his country from the rule of the British monarchy, and he is the subject of Stella Tillyard’s masterly and moving new biography. The parallels between the young Irish aristocrat and the English poet peer and (some would argue) peerless poet are greater than Byron himself could have foreseen. Both underwent a transformation from disaffected socialite to committed revolutionary leader. Both died young, not in action but in less heroic settings on warfare’s outer edges. Lord Edward was thirty-four when he died slowly from festering wounds in Dublin Castle prison. Byron finally gave in to debilitating malarial fever in a small house in Missolonghi at the age of thirty-six.

Their early deaths created a glamour in the afterlife. Both Byron and Fitzgerald quickly acquired a mythic quality, and indeed these new nationalist heroes had a first biographer in common, the Irish poet and musician Thomas Moore, whose two-volume life of Byron, published in 1830, was followed a year later by a Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Byron, with his demonic sharpness, had noted, “Tom Moore loves a Lord.”

Moore’s biography has the sweet immediacy of a writer who was himself a Romantic nationalist as much as a Romantic poet. He brought out the charm and insouciance of Fitzgerald as he had once spotted him, early in 1797, walking down Grafton Street in Dublin. Moore had then been fascinated to observe the young revolutionary lord’s “peculiar dress, the elastic lightness of his step…and the soft expression given to his eyes by their long dark lashes.”

Moore’s book is not hagiography, but it plays up Fitzgerald’s chivalry at the expense of Lord Edward’s serious military importance and the icy ambitiousness of his militant aims to sever the British connection with Ireland and establish a new republic of hopefulness for men of all conditions and religions. Stella Tillyard makes the interesting point that Moore, in 1831, was writing cautiously, acceding to Whig governmental pressure, especially that of his patron Lord Holland. It was an edgy period. Only in 1830 had the Whigs finally come into office, bringing with them what Tillyard describes as “a noisy band of Irish MPs.”

Her own biography of Fitzgerald brings us a less innocent, less malleable character shown in a wider setting of family history and eighteenth-century politics of power. Her book on Lord Edward is part two of a planned trilogy about the high-born and influential Lennox family. He originally made his appearance in Aristocrats, the first of these volumes, as …

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