The Winding Stair by Jesse Norman

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Review by Terence Jagger

Jesse Norman has, for his first novel, cleverly selected two hugely important and influential characters to write about, whose importance is immediately obvious, but about whom many readers, perhaps most, won’t have strong views – Francis Bacon and Edward Coke. Personally, I knew of them both and regarded them both very highly, but in separate compartments of my mind. Bacon I knew mainly through the Essays, thoughtful, innovative, stimulating, written in glorious (though complex) prose; and Coke, author of the Institutes of the Lawes of England, hugely important for my constitutional history paper at university – and more importantly, the foundation of English’s common law, still quoted in English and overseas courts with great regularity. But the intensity of their relationship had, I am ashamed to say, passed me by.  However, Jesse Norman illuminates it excellently, and makes it entertaining and lively.  But the themes – political and personal advancement, corruption and favouritism in high places, and arguments about both how and where the ship of state should be sailed – are lively ones at the present and Jesse Norman makes no bones about that:

This is a novel. Much of it is made up; almost all of it is true. Any resemblance to actual persons and events, past or present, is unlikely to be coincidental.

Full disclosure, I know Jesse Norman quite well, as he is the MP for Hereford, where I chair a start up engineering university, NMITE, of which he is an strong and energetic supporter. As well as being an MP, he is a Minister in the Department for Transport, and has written two acclaimed biographies, of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. So my first question is where on earth did he find the time to write this, and the second is why did he write a novel, not more biography?

Well, I will ask him! But in the meantime, here is an answer to the second question at least – the rivalry between Bacon and Coke was intense and personal, and also encapsulated two political philosophies – Coke’s belief in the common law as a central part of a monarchy in which the king, while immensely powerful, is as subject to the law, made in parliament, as any man; and Bacon’s belief (or at least his professed belief) in the prerogative of the king, above the law and under only God, to act as he saw fit.  This makes for a dramatic, painful and long lasting clash, with plenty of ups and downs and conflicts – I would love to read the dual biography had Jesse Norman written it that way, but I suspect even that would read like a novel.

The book is clearly very well researched, and I can see no place where events have been altered or omitted to make a better story, although of course while there are many letters and other documents from both men, their and others’ dialogues must be largely imaginary.  And here, specifically, arises an important question – how to select the best style for the prose and especially the language for the dialogue?  Genuinely antique, modern or a compromise which gives the flavour? I think Jesse Norman has hit the right answer here – the main narrative has a distinct late sixteenth / early seventeenth century feel, without being too complex to follow, with lavish quotations from the main players. Here for example is Bacon, in 1603, writing to his younger cousin Cecil, Lord Privy Seal and Secretary of State to James I:

And as to preferment? Well, as it was with old Burghley, so now it is with his son; there is amity, but no amelioration. One generation passeth away, another cometh; but the Earth, and Francis’s debts, abideth still.

Still, Cecil has hinted at a knighthood, so there is nothing lost if Francis’s letter touches upon that too. He takes up his pen. For my estate, he writes, I shall be able by selling the skirts of my living in Hertfordshire to preserve the body. For my purpose or course, I desire to meddle as little as I can in the King’s causes, His Majesty now abounding in counsel; and to follow my private thrift and practice, and to marry with some convenient advancement. For as for any ambition, I do assure your Honour mine is quenched. My ambition now I shall only put upon my pen, whereby I shall be able to maintain memory and merit of the times succeeding.

He continues, For this divulged and almost prostituted title of knighthood, I could without charge, by your Honour’s mean, be content to have it, both because of this late disgrace, and because I have three new knights in my mess in Gray’s Inn’s commons; and because I have found out an Alderman’s daughter, an handsome maiden to my liking. So as if your Honour will find the time, I will come to the court from Gorhambury upon any warning.

The claim that his ambition had been quenched was entirely false; and the girl to whom he had taken a liking was only 11, and would be 13 when they married, although this was quite normal for the period.

And here are Coke (the Attorney General at the time) and Bacon falling out in public while Elizabeth still lived:

But suddenly the Attorney had kindled at him and said loudly, ‘Master Bacon, if you have any tooth against me pluck it out; for it will do you more hurt than all the teeth in your head will do you good.’

Francis answered, ‘Master Attorney, I respect you; I fear you not; and the less you speak of your own greatness, the more I will think of it.’

Coke said, I think scorn to stand upon terms of greatness towards you, who are less than little; less than the least.’ Master Attorney, do not depress me so far; for I have been your better, and may be again, when it please the Queen.’

But Jesse Norman is expecting serious and dedicated readers; there is a lot of law and a lot of history in this book, and the language and vocabulary is sometimes demanding. For example, the book is in sections called Genesis, Hubris, Nemesis, Krisis, Tesis, Synthesis, Catharsis, Telos; and do you know what a metwand or a clyster are, for example?  Or the quadrivium and trivium?  To be fair, the general sense is clear in context, and you don’t need detailed knowledge of any sort to follow the narrative – but this is not a novel to read while half awake or watching the football with one eye!

Norman doesn’t take sides, although Bacon is the only character we know by his forename (not counting monarchs), and he is keen to acknowledge Coke’s genius as a lawyer for not only his own age, but for all of history since.  And while both men are touched with greatness in their different ways, they both have serious character faults and personal failings, so you can’t easily love them. But in the final section, having dealt with Bacon’s humbling and Coke’s pride in achieving it, Jesse Norman is at pains – courtesy of Thomas Hobbes, once a secretary to Bacon in his declining years, and a shower of quotations in the epilogue – to re-burnish his greatness. 

Hobbes: The fear of every man that heard him (Bacon) was lest he should make an end.

Alexander Pope: Think how Bacon shined The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind!

Thomas Jefferson: Bacon, Locke and Newton. I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.  

The book may not take sides, but it does spend more time on Bacon, though it is ruthless in making sure Bacon is presented in the round, as a great essayist and intellectual (and a fine lawyer, for all Coke was a greater), and as a man most seriously flawed. Bacon the philosopher and intellectual:

Francis follows where his mind will take him, and for a day it takes him to natural philosophy, and meditations on different forms of motion and change, of emission, evaporation, exhalation, coagulation, liquefaction, fractionation, congelation, of rusting and moulding, of bodily infection, generation and defecation. Perhaps these will become the subject of a new work? Then it is back to power and purpose, purpose and power. How to enhance and protect the King’s finances, better management of the Commons, equalling of the laws of Scotland and England into one codified whole, the handling of recusants, restoration of the true glory of the Church, the need to keep courts to their proper jurisdictions, the defence of the King’s prerogative powers.

Bacon knowing himself later in life:

Now his mother’s decease marks the loss of his last connection to the past: to her world, the world of the ancients, of piety and learning, and the world of his own golden youth betrayed. 

He cannot forget what followed: his years of debt and despair, of promise unfulfilled and undischarged, of great projects ignored or passed over by others, of a young man desolate in his hopes.

But success brings its own costs. A man cannot ascend by virtue alone, that he knows; there must be vice in him as well, to give vigour to his virtue. And a mixture of a lie with the truth doth ever add pleasure. Dissembling has become a second nature over years to Francis Bacon; he knows it, he hates it, he rejoices in it, he cannot, he would, he will not escape it. He has learned to cast it like a cloak around his soul, and wear the mask of feigned courtesy.

Bacon’s chickens come home to roost:

Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, having been removed from his place as Lord Chancellor, is fined £40,000, sent for imprisonment in the Tower of London during the King’s pleasure, rendered incapable of any future office, place, or employment in the State and Commonwealth, and banned from ever sitting in Parliament or sitting within the verge of the court.

He sought office for twenty-five years, and held it for fifteen. To fall from power, be tried and sentenced and leave the highest place in the land in disgrace, has taken barely twelve weeks.

I enjoyed this book tremendously, and I look forward to the television adaptation! It has a knowing quality, as Jesse Norman tells a dramatic and gripping story, but also invites us to think on current politics and recent battles and recent protagonists. And while I am no lawyer, and won’t therefore be reading Coke, I will return to Bacon’s essays, which are thoughtful, intriguing and gorgeously written and probably nowadays his best memorial.

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Jesse Norman:  The Winding Stair  (Biteback publishing, 2023). 978-1785907920, 462pp., hardback.

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