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  • John Wilkes. The Lives of a Libertine
  • Karl W. Schweizer
John Wilkes. The Lives of a Libertine. By John Sainsbury. Ashgate Publishing: Aldershot. 2006. xxiv, 282 pp. £55.00. ISBN 0754656268.

Colourful, charismatic and perennially elusive, 'that consummate libertine', John Wilkes continues to catch the imagination to this day, more than any other figure on the eighteenth-century political stage with the possible exception of his alter ego, the Elder Pitt. Thus over the years his political career has been extensively explored by such noted scholars as inter alia G. Rudé, J. Brewer and P. D. G. Thomas, with primary attention devoted to the period 1763-74, when Wilkes was most active in the public arena. Correspondingly less attention has focused on his tumultuous private life, even in standard biographies,1 except as a transient backdrop to the momentous legal/constitutional issues he brought to national attention. Essentially, the perplexing ambiguities of Wilkes's brazen personality have tended to be sidestepped or seen as a source of anecdotes - part of his cultivated image as 'anti-hero' - but not as crucial elements in the evolution and maturation of his notoriously provocative attitude towards oligarchic politics. It is the purpose of this volume to redress this balance. Deftly synthesizing an impressive range of archival and secondary sources, the author employs a finely nuanced approach that explores the personal dimension of Wilkes's official persona most effectively, resulting in a more comprehensive, multidimensional and integrated portrayal of the man than has hitherto been available. Indeed, a major strength of the work is its innovative approach - not conventionally chronological but thematic - the themes, each comprising a chapter, throwing new light not only on Wilkes as historical figure, but also on eighteenth-century British society in general, notably its fluctuating attitudes towards morality, politics, gender and economic life, all prime topics of ongoing historiographical interest. It is this textured approach that moves Dr Sainsbury's work beyond one-dimensionality - so common in narrative treatments of the topic - to a fuller evocation of the manifold complexities behind beliefs, ideologies, and national conceptions of politics and events. Unlike earlier studies of Wilkes, the present book focuses less on the preconditions and secondary consequences of his career than on how the agitator's multiple personas, aimed [End Page 420] at specific constituencies, 'promoted a self-conscious sense of engagement in the public sphere' (p. 242), in ways that contested aristocratic hegemony and ultimately contributed to the advancement of socio-political liberties.

The book begins with two chapters exploring Wilkes's early life and formative influences on his evolving personality and character, showing how these lent more continuity, if not consistency to his subsequent political career than is usually recognized. In the domestic realm, though not a considerate husband, Wilkes proved himself to be a surprisingly doting father to his daughter Polly, creating a public image that helped him politically 'to the extent that it challenged notions he was the self-absorbed rake that his enemies were anxious to depict him as' (p. 29). Still, his well known carnal proclivities remained unflagging despite his consistent efforts to reconcile domesticity with libertinism - efforts which were never entirely successful but again illustrate the odd ambiguities in the man's psychological profile, resonating likewise throughout his political manoeuvres. Indeed, as Sainsbury convincingly demonstrates, Wilkes ultimately excelled in appropriating 'self-centered, aristocratic libertinism for larger civic ends' (p. 112) - a vital clue to his triumphs in the increasingly gendered universe of popular politics.

Similarly paradoxical was Wilkes's lifelong attachment to aristocratic society and values despite his sallies against constituted authority. Beginning as local notable, having acquired by marriage the Aylesbury/Prebendal estate, he began to expand his social horizons through high-placed friends, culminating in the support of Earl Temple, his first (and last) aristocratic patron. His next phase, the emergence from obscure party hack to national celebrity, was studded with numerous false starts: unsuccessful attempts to secure a government post, failure as parliamentary speaker, early anonymous ventures into print leading finally to the essays in The North Briton that brought him wide notoriety and led him to promote the radical movement, synonymous with his name. A major contribution of...


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pp. 420-422
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Archived 2008
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