There are two sides to privacy: the bright side and the dark side. It is often politics which brings these to the fore. In 2009, the scandal surrounding MPs expenses showed the ugly art of secrecy breeding secrecy, and the ramifications are only now beginning to take effect.
Yet key public figures constantly find themselves involved with, or victim of, private and secretive practices. The prime minister’s communications chief, Andy Coulson, still suspected by many of complicity in secret phone-tapping, has just resigned. As has shadow chancellor Alan Johnson, citing private issues, after a member of his security team was alleged to have had an affair with his wife.
Andrew Marvell was MP elect for Hull for almost two decades from 1659. Interestingly, his inclination towards secrecy and privacy has rarely complicated the view of him as an honest, dedicated, and incorruptible public servant. And I was pleased to recently stumble across an anecdote about Marvell from the mid-eighteenth century that celebrates (as well we might today) the value of an honest politician. It relates to expenses, no less!
The borough of Hull chose Andrew Marvell, a gentleman of little or no fortune, and maintained him in London for the service of the public. His understanding, integrity, and spirit were dreadful to the then infamous administration. Persuaded that he would be theirs for properly asking, the ministers sent his old school-fellow, the Lord Treasurer Danby, to renew acquaintance with him in his garret. At parting, the lord treasurer, out of pure affection, slipped into his hand an order upon the treasury for one thousand pounds, and then went into his chariot.
Marvell, looking at the paper, calls after the treasurer: “My lord, I request another moment!” They went up again to the garret, and Jack, the servant-boy, was called.
“Jack, child, what had I for dinner yesterday?”
“Don’t you remember, sir? You had the little shoulder of mutton that you ordered me to bring from a woman in the market.”
“Very right, child. What have I for dinner to-day?”
“Don’t you know, sir, that you bade me lay by the blade-bone to broil”
“’Tis so; very right, child; go away…
My lord, do you hear that? Andrew Marvell’s dinner is provided. There’s your piece of paper; I want it not. I know the sort of kindness you intended. I live here to serve my constituents; the ministry may seek men for their purpose; I am not one!“
This story may be a slight exaggeration, but the substance is wholly believable. Marvell is presented as a lonesome man of humble means and strong private morals, who, thankful for his keep, would not be bought, bribed, corrupted, or cajoled by an old acquaintance. In this regard, the reticent face of Marvell is one that stands for courage and conscience in the face of corruption and temptation.
Marvell’s copious letters detailing parliamentary business reveal a man singularly fixated with work and duty. Note the weary tone of one letter from 14th November 1667 to the Mayor and Aldermen of Hull:
Really the business of the House hath been of late so earnest daily and so busy, that I have not had the time and scarce vigour left me by night to write to you; and to-day, because I would not omit any longer, I lose my dinner to make sure of this letter.
They show a man who is escaping the pressures of privacy by seeking activity. Amen to that. If only we could believe that Marvell was so comfortable; the witnesses to his debts after his death are quite clinical…
Something Something Dark Side
This is a picture that many, including me, would much prefer to swallow. It provides hope in the integrity of politics, and befits the stunning artistry of the beautiful lyric poems.
But it goes without saying that privacy has a darker face, too. For all his morals, Marvell shows occasional dishonesty and opportunism. In a textual exchange in the 1670s, he stated that ‘I never had any, not the remotest relation to publick matters, nor correspondence with the persons then predominant, until the year 1657’. This ignores both the job application for a government position in 1653, and his panegyric poem for Cromwell, The First Anniversary, in 1655.
Marvell was, at times, bitter, impulsive, and tempestuous. He wrote savagely about his adversaries, notably Richard Flecknoe and Thomas May. He engaged in parliamentary fisticuffs with Thomas Clifford, refusing to apologise afterwards, to the disbelief of the House. And, most notably, he is reported to have aimed a pistol at a coachman’s head in Germany when returning from business in Russia with an ambassadorial entourage.
Marvell’s increasing influence brought powerful enemies on all sides. His death in 1678 is not without some suspicion of poison; though, like the issue of Marvell’s marriage, which also surfaced after his death, it is furtiveness that prevents the truth from being easily discovered.
The darker side of privacy has many faces. There is what is factual, and then what lies in the void – almost where we feel that we shouldn’t be looking. (Previously on RoyalArbor: There are holes in Marvell’s life). To ask the really awkward questions about a private life would seem to say more about me than it does about Marvell. Relating extra-tightly to my previous post, I’m not sure that I like the idea of having to face the mirror in such a way. But another way of looking at it is a problem to be defeated. Writing about how awkward personal experience feels in academic writing has made me all the more determined to include it.
If I’m a lonely 26 year old, with mind ‘so displaced / That I shall never find my home’, I do desperately want to know how Andrew Marvell, a man that I connect with so well, copes with a lifetime of it.
Edit: The fabulous new biography of Andrew Marvell by Nigel Smith arrived today. One of the first stand-out words as I was flicking through was ‘depression’ (p. 170). I should be more careful about what I hope to find, and what I believe it shows.