John Wilkes’s autobiography

Spent Friday afternoon going through JW’s autobiography, which is really just two fragmentary narratives in two little duodecimo volumes, one covering his earliest schooling, the other describing his liaison with a (what to call her?  courtesan?  dancing girl?  mistress?) woman called Corradini between 1764-65.  And that’s it. 

It’s written in the third person, and really is the antithesis of the Boswellian style, despite his appreciation for the young Boswell himself: it is formal, decorous, defensive in all sorts of curious ways, and determined to sustain his usual self-image as patriot and gentleman.   Consequently, it reveals even less about the man than the usual anecdotes, except to the extent that we hear about episodes that otherwise get relatively little attention.  Did you know that Wilkes visited Naples?  I didn’t think so.

Arthur Cash’s new biography of Wilkes claims that Wilkes was one of the first people to read Boswell’s diaries and truly appreciate them.  If so, then it is that much more disappointing that JW was so guarded in this autobiographical fragment, though not surprising.  He had an image to uphold, and this diary (written ca. 1789, according to Cash) seems to have been intended for publication. 

The Corradini episodes end with her returning home with his furniture and silver plate, a loss which Wilkes preferred to the 2000 pounds she’d been demanding before.  And Wilkes knew that with a change of ministry, it was time to return back to England, to resume his political career.  [Cash’s biography has the full story, if you’re interested]

In the meantime, for those of you interested in my little travelogue, the temperatures here rose to 80 degrees here in London, the sun stayed out all day, and every Londoner I could see threw off their raincoats and jackets and dressed as if they were going to the beach.  After a pleasant lunch in Clapham, we went to the playground at Kensington, and watched the kids pretend they were pirates for about 3 hours.  Hundreds of people were sunbathing or playing frisbee or football in the park.  And I’m hoping the sun stays through the rest of the weekend.



One response to “John Wilkes’s autobiography

  1. Oho, now I get it. I was reading the wrong set of letters, the letters to his male friends and followers. The letters to his daughter, Mary (‘Polly’) are a delight, everything you could ask for in a famous man–witty, intimate, teasing, unguarded. These will keep me busy for some time.