restricted access A Political Biography of Alexander Pope (review)
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Reviewed by
Pat Rogers. A Political Biography of Alexander Pope. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010. Pp. xi + 258. $99.

Mr. Rogers is an inspired choice of author for this volume. There is scarcely an area of Pope’s biography to which he has not made a major contribution. This achievement enriches every aspect of the writing, though it is particularly evident in the early chapters, as informed readers familiar with his two previous books focusing on Windsor-Forest would expect. In those earlier works, Mr. Rogers built a painstaking and meticulous case for the view that Pope was, in the phrase coined by Douglas Brooks-Davies, an “emotional Jacobite.” He demonstrated the extent to which Pope’s world was distinguished, in the years leading up to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, by membership in a rural and regional Catholic and crypto-Jacobite enclave—a Berkshire Catholic community spreading tendrils into other southern English counties. Many of his closest friends were active Jacobites, whose lives were ruined by backing the wrong horse on Queen Anne’s death.

Perhaps the most sensational new material in the present volume is that showing the consanguinity (even if by marriage rather than birth) between Pope’s close friends the Blount sisters and the Earl of Derwentwater, executed for treason in the aftermath of the ’15. It becomes impossible to argue that the Popes were left unscathed by the upheavals of 1688–1690 and 1714–1715; it is much more plausible that these fideistic and constitutional crises, albeit compounded by his deformity and his apparent sexual nullity, made [End Page 48] him into the outsider figure whose insider knowledge arms his satirical poetry with unequalled acuity and depth of cut.

However securely identified with his Twickenham villa Pope later became, his family was in fact rendered quasi-nomadic by anti-Catholic penal legislation, and he only ever occupied this rented rural fastness by default. As Mr. Rogers mordantly observes, Pope was more of a Cockney poet than any of the “Cockney” school ever were. Even before he moved to Binfield, the present volume shows, the Pope family’s choice of Hammer-smith as a relatively safe bolt-hole was determined by the Catholic complexion of that village then. Once in Binfield, Pope’s extensively networked understanding of the small “p” politics governing the Catholic marriage market, the strategic imperatives of managing romance within the incestuous recusant group, is what gives Rape of the Lock, its “much ado about nothing” archness. The poem’s whistleblowing aspect threatened, for a while, to make Pope persona non grata even in his own community.

Where the earlier books concentrate on Windsor-Forest, imputing to its images of hunting, blood, and mortality the threnodic, elegiac texture—the sense of being fore-doomed—that is a pervasive feature of all later Jacobite writing, the present volume extends to a full, if necessarily economical, account of Pope’s “interactions with public controversy of his . . . time.” Conducted over many years, Mr. Rogers’s research contributes graphic detail to this account of Pope’s political involvements: his half-sister Magdalen Rackett’s family contretemps over the Waltham Blacks, the relationship between Alderman John Barber and Elkanah Settle that explains some of the background to the early Dunciad, the perennial popping up of Edmund Curll and, least familiar to this reader, the centrality to Pope’s later poetry of another familial web based in Here-fordshire. Lady Scudamore is not a household name to Pope scholars—you will search the index to Maynard Mack’s standard biography in vain—but Mr. Rogers’s book shows her seat at Holme Lacy to be the epicenter of the latter part of Epistle to Bathurst, explaining that poem’s quarrel with Thomas Coningsby and positing that her local knowledge is the source of Pope’s information on the curious figure of the “Man of Ross.” This western connection embraces in its tentacles the families of Digby and Bathurst, offering Pope a substitute in his later life for the rootedness and sense of belonging that he earlier found in the region of Windsor.

“What the book attempts,” Mr. Rogers states, “is to locate Pope’s position in the...