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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 the doted-upon infant of Emily, née Lennox, who married the twentieth Earl of Kildare, later first Duke of Leinster. Already, in Aristocrats, Fitzgerald’s republican enthusiasms could be seen to be developing. “One must not say the mob before him, but the people,” his family noted with a touch of sarcasm when he returned from Revolutionary Paris in 1792.

In choosing now to focus on the wayward younger son Tillyard has been able to subtly change the bias of her story from the women to the men of this self-confident, profuse, and affectionate family. Lord Edward, who starts life as “a robust, bustling little child,” ends it, to the alarm and disapproval of his relatives, as a driven, decisive man beyond the law. In her narrative of the education of a terrorist, gradually distancing himself from his own family for the sake of what he sees as human liberation, Tillyard takes up the conflict between natural and unnatural that was so profound a part of eighteenth-century sensibility. Her skill as a historian lies not only in evoking the opulent and brittle appearance of the period but in charting its volatile emotional territory. It looks probable that her trilogy, when completed, will alter the way we view the eighteenth century.

Tillyard gives us a new picture of Emily, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, as Edward’s Rousseauesque mother, demonstrative, demanding, flirting with her “almost perfect little Being.” Believing that her children should not be sent away to school, and inspired by the educationally progressive ideals she read about in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, she set up a school for her own extensive family at Black Rock, a fishing village five miles south of Dublin, imperiously summoning Rousseau himself to run it. Failing that, she appointed William Ogilvie, a Scot, with whom she first deceived her husband and then, on the Duke of Leinster’s death, married him. Although now the lawful wife of an ex-schoolmaster of questionable origins, Emily continued to use the title Duchess. The upbringing of Lord Edward combined Enlightenment values and unthinking privilege.

At the schoolhouse, romantically called Frescati, by the sea and in the hayfields, the young lord was encouraged to be a child of nature. He became a knowledgeable, practical gardener, urged on in his revolutionary tendencies by a literal love of Irish soil shared with his social inferiors. As Tillyard notes, his gardens are personal and joyous spaces to be tended, rough places to be smoothed, and emblems of the revolution to be flaunted. One of the most touching moments in the book comes almost at the end when Lord Edward, by then being hunted throughout Dublin by the British military, begins contentedly digging in a large bed of lilies in the gardens of the house where he is hiding. He sees the orange and green flowers flourishing like patriotic flags.

Fitzgerald, again like Byron, was a natural exile. With an Irish ducal father, English mother, and Scottish stepfather, he had his sense of identity confused further when the Duchess, Ogilvie, and their ever-increasing family set off to live in France, sprawling into the medieval château at Aubigny belonging to the Duchess’s brother, the Duke of Richmond. At the age of fourteen Lord Edward was sent to a military academy in Paris. He enjoyed speaking French and admired what he saw as “the true French character.” He exuded Gallic charm, and became the living exemplar of “the man of feeling” in the popular novels and dramas of the period. This immersion in French life would shape his later view of politics. His empathy with Europe, and later with America, gave an extra dimension to Fitzgerald’s Irishness.

He was still the handsome drifter, pleasure-loving and politically immature, when in 1779 he returned to England, joining his uncle the Duke of Richmond’s regiment, the Sussex Militia. With the thoughtless young man’s ardor to see action he bought his way into the 19th Regiment of Foot, which was just about to sail out of Cork to America. The British force he joined on his arrival had just captured Charleston, the principal port in South Carolina, in what Tillyard describes as “the dog days” of the War of Independence. Fitzgerald was later to say ruefully that he had fought in America “against the cause of Liberty.”

Wounded at Eutaw Springs in the final superfluous engagement of the war, Lord Edward was discovered on the battlefield and tended to by a black soldier in the American forces. In gratitude Lord Edward took the young man, once a slave, into his employment and brought him back to Ireland. In her handling of the story of the servant, Tony Small, who was actually a tall man, as depicted in the portrait commissioned by Lord Edward, Tillyard shows one of her great strengths as a biographer. This is her recognition, and restoration to their due prominence, of people of relatively lowly social status who were dismissed as minor figures by earlier biographers but were actually ever-present on the scene.

Tony Small became the alter ego of Lord Edward. Tillyard shows how the lithe, exotic figure, possibly a mulatto, worked on Lord Edward’s imagination as the ideal of the noble savage, the black Samaritan, proof of the essential goodness of mankind. She also indicates how Small himself reveled in his new position as a personal servant, subsuming his own personality and his desires in the hero worship of his master. Here Tillyard raises the interesting question of whether the role of servant to a late-eighteenth-century Irish aristocrat was slavery in a more sophisticated form. In the tense months leading up to the attempted Irish coup d’état there was a tragic ending when the devoted servant became a source of danger to his master. In the Dublin of that period negroes were conspicuous. To prevent him from revealing his master’s conspiratorial movements in the city, Tony had to remain housebound, in a prison of his own.

When he returned from fighting in America, a career in London politics was within Lord Edward’s reach. The new administration was headed jointly by Lord North and by Lord Edward’s cousin, Charles James Fox, the reformer and antimonarchist. Fitzgerald’s brother Lord Henry was already an enthusiastic “Foxite,” in the inner circles of governmental power. But Lord Edward was not subtle enough for English politics. He was disconcerted by what Tillyard describes as the “louche and drunken modishness” of Fox’s entourage. He still saw himself as primarily a soldier: “My profession is that of a military man.”

At this stage Fitzgerald’s progress had not been so very different from that of other amiable, impoverished, and well-bred younger sons. On reaching his majority he inherited the Kilrush estate in County Kildare and in 1783 he was elected to the Irish parliament. He allowed himself to be bullied by his loving mother, who traveled between London and Frescati according to her whims. He suffered delicious miseries from temporary love affairs. He caught, and was treated for, venereal disease. When he fell in love seriously it was with a near relation, Georgiana Lennox, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of his uncle Lord George Lennox. He proposed. She refused him, and her refusal was followed by a curt letter from her father. The family had evidently planned a more resplendent alliance with a richer man. The rejection resulted in his lifelong animosity toward his uncle, and Tillyard sees it as a decisive factor in his growing disenchantment with the entire aristocratic way of life.

In his new mood Fitzgerald set out for the New World. Over the next year he and Tony Small made long and arduous expeditions through the Canadian wilds. The eager spirit of adventure beams out from the informative, detailed letters he wrote home. He found an unexpected intimacy in the open spaces, joining the dances of the Indians he encountered, skating on the frozen rivers. He took to the canoe: “A canoe here is like a post-chaise at home and the rivers and lakes your post-horses,” he told his mother.

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