Some Personal Details About Edmund Burke

The person who comes to the study of Edmund Burke’s thought faces an enormous volume of writing. Because Burke was not a philosopher in the systematic sense, one has to read a great deal to reach an understanding not only of the prominent argument with its many intricate connections, but also of the unmistakable metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions embedded in his writings. Similarly the student of Burke has to read widely in his works to appreciate his mastery of the English language and the potency of his oratory. This is to state what the true Burkean scholar has said many times. Although such a wide reading will connect you with Burke’s powerful mind and emotional make-up, one does not often come across personal details. Such details are left to the patient biographer to dig up for us. I am presently reading Jesse Norman’s book: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. This is an excellent biography filling a real gap in the literature on Edmund Burke, and I will have more to say about it when I finish reading. Towards the end of chapter three in Part One, we find some interesting details I have never come across before. Who would have thought that Edmund Burke had red hair?

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet

Jesse Norman

Part One, Chapter 3

In 1780 Burke was fifty years of age, and at the height of his powers. But what of him in private? Despite his personal reticence, we can catch glimpses: of the bespectacled Irishman with his wig off, who kept his red hair for many years and always spoke with an accent ‘as strong as if he had never quitted the banks of the Shannon’, in the words of the MP and memoirist Sir Nathaniel Wraxall; of the husband, ‘Ned’ as the family called him at home, who addressed his wife with the utmost tenderness as ‘My dearest Jane’, ‘My dearest love’ and ‘My ever dear Jane’; of the father, whom one son’s death had left almost too fond of the other, and who adored the company of children; of the host, never free of house guests but always entertaining with an open hand; of the patron, who knew the value of help to a young man, and who supported talented outsiders such as the painter James Barry and the poet George Crabbe; of the clubbable fellow who relished puns and low jokes and conversation, but never quite mastered the art of wit or repartee; of the countryman, who loved nature and rejoiced in his vegetable garden and in ‘scientific agriculture’; of the solitary thinker, who did not make close friends easily, who chafed at idleness and was prone to fits of melancholy.

Burke took care not to allow private matters to intrude into his public life, but there was no great gap between the two. And publicly at this time he was in every way a substantial figure: physically substantial, though never corpulent, and intellectually substantial, though still light enough to charm and command an audience. Two portraits, one painted in 1766– 70 after Reynolds (see following page/ s) and the other in 1774 by Reynolds himself (see cover), show his development; there is an almost tangible hardening, a sense of toughness and purpose in the (now rather damaged) latter painting. By 1780 Burke was a man of significant property, and debt; and he was an orator of huge power and unending invention, so that James Boswell once said, ‘It was astonishing how all kinds of figures of speech crowded upon him. He was like a man in an orchard where boughs loaded with fruit hung around him, and he pulled apples as fast as he pleased and pelted the Ministry’; and he was a senior politician, who dared to hope of high office after fourteen long years in opposition, as the North administration undid itself over the war.