Sex and Violence

Critic: John Carey
Source: The New Statesman, January 7, 1977, p. 22

Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), the first English deist, wrote his memoirs for the benefit of his descendants who, he reckoned, having temperaments like his own, might run into similar difficulties. The motive was characteristic: with Lord Herbert, family counted for much. To judge from [The Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury] the hazards most likely to have dogged his progeny were brawls and women; and it ranks among the most appealing of the 17th-century autobiographies largely because of its author's transparent vanity about his management of both.

To impress readers with the dauntless hardihood of Herberts in general, and himself in particular, is a major aim. He tots up applaudingly the single combats fought by each of his brothers. The peaceful one, George, is dismissed in a single sentence, which does not quite get round to mentioning that he wrote poetry. As for Lord Herbert himself, he issued challenges it seems all over Europe, and on the smallest pretexts. Overhearing a stranger's conversation, and disliking it, was quite enough to set him off. Curiously, the duels never took place. Time and again he would arrive at the rendezvous there to huff and puff until he grew tired of waiting, or until officers, alerted by his craven foe, arrived to intervene. Herbert was past 60 when he began the memoirs, and perhaps fancying himself a fire-eater was an old man's weakness. Or perhaps the challenges were all really issued and, Herbert's foul temper being well known, nobody bothered to tangle with him. Several large-scale conflicts also enliven the narrative. Herbert recalls armed bands jumping out at him in the street or shouting taunts beneath his window. Sometimes they retired, severely discomfited, after he had engaged them; sometimes they fled at the mere sight of him.

In addition there were gratuitous feats of daring. At the siege of Jülich a braggart French nobleman leaped from the trenches and ran towards the walls shouting (in French, of course, but Herbert as usual repeats and then translates the compliment), "They say you are one of the bravest of your nation, let us see who will do best." Disdaining to run, Herbert followed "leasurely and upright" while "a storm of Bullets" flew around him. Somehow both got back unscathed. This was only one instance of his heroic conduct during the siege, Herbert explains, but he leaves the others underscribed "least I should relish too much of Vanity." Of all his exploits, crossing from Calais during a storm in 1617 was, he considers, "the most needless danger that ever I did run." No doubt this illustrates the folly of travelling at all in the 17th century, but to Herbert water was an especial threat since he could not swim. His mother, with pleasing logic, forbade him to learn, because he had once nearly drowned as a child. To a 20th-century mind this handicap might seem to explain Herbert's behaviour during a shipwreck off Dover in 1610 when, sword in hand, he insisted on himself and his friend Sir Thomas Lucy getting into the only boat available. However, it would be mistaken to take this as an indication of cowardice rather than courage. From a contemporary viewpoint Herbert was merely defending his right, as a nobleman, to be rescued before the rabble.

About his attractiveness to women, Herbert is not so explicit as he is about his bravery. Modesty, he says, forbids it. Nevertheless he tells us how Sir John Ayres's wife doted on his picture, keeping it "under her breasts" till her husband went half mad with jealousy; and he confesses that the ladies on the continent managed to lure him into "follyes" (though only after they had made such a set at him that it would have seduced "the Chastest of mankind"). He didn't, he protests, enjoy it much: "I never delighted in that or any other sinne." Perhaps this is what Mr. Shuttleworth has in mind when, in his introduction, he oddly commends Herbert's "loyalty" to his wife.

Sex and violence are by no means the only topics he finds to boast about. His wisdom, as a child, is also a source of pride (when a tot the first question he asked his nurses was how he had come into the world, which made them titter). He piques himself on the sweet smell of his sweat and breath ("beyond what easily can be believed"), and on his medical skill. Of the latter he gave spectacular proof when treating a friend's hydrocephalus. The patient, having sampled Herbert's potion, urinated so abundantly that `his head by degrees returned to its ancient figure'. As a philosopher Herbert received, he recounts, commendation from the highest possible authority. When in doubt whether to publish his De Veritate he knelt before an open window one cloudless day and asked God for a sign, adding that he would suppress the work if he did not get one. Thereupon, "a Loud though yet Gentle noise came from the Heaven," signifying to Herbert, the divine imprimatur.

Perhaps God was laughing. But the Life is not all comedy, of course. The glimpses it gives of 17th-century conditions are often fearful. Riding through Italy in 1615, for instance, Herbert came upon an inn which had just been ransacked by the Duke of Savoy's soldiers. The hostess, who carried a newborn baby in her arms, had neither food nor drink but, fearing to offend her visitor, offered Herbert some milk from her breasts in a wooden dish. The ordinariness of infant morality in the period is also brought home-as when Herbert, who married at 16, nonchalantly records that by the time he was 21 his wife had given birth to "divers children" who did not survive. Not to show grief was, of course, part of Herbert's code. But what it felt like to live in his world is poignantly implied by the argument he uses to prove the immortality of the soul. Just as in his mother's womb he had eyes and ears which, being of no service in that "Dark and noysome place," showed that he was destined for another existence, so, Herbert reasons, we have on earth the faculties of hope, love and joy, and though this life gives them no scope, they assure us of a better. Looked at from that angle, his death-daring feats become both more believable and less absurd.

Source: John Carey, "Sex and Violence," in The New Statesman, January 7, 1977, p. 22.