Seminar 3: Writing Francis Bacon’s Letters

Portrait of Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, by John Vanderbank (after an unknown artist). 1713? (c.1618). Oil on canvas, 76.5 by 63.2cm. (National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG520; image taken from Wikimedia Commons).

In the third installment of the Project’s seminar series on Thursday 13 May, Professor Alan Stewart (Columbia University and the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, QMUL) gave a fascinating and wide-ranging talk on ‘Writing Francis Bacon’s Letters’. Taking as his starting point the curious anomaly that, despite his standing as a public intellectual, Bacon’s own extant letters (c.800) do not address scholarly themes and were not exchanged with continental luminaries such as Galileo, Grotius, and Peiresc (instead focusing on a ‘worldly and slightly sordid narrative’ of social and political affairs), Stewart argued that for an epistolary elaboration of Bacon’s intellectual agenda we need to focus on the letters he crafted as a lawyer and junior parliamentarian on behalf of Robert Devereux (the 2nd Earl of Essex) during the 1590s. Within an environment of manuscript production in which letters were not a private ‘conversation between two absent persons’ (in the Erasmian formulation) but were instead drafted, disseminated, and consumed collaboratively, and a political one in which Essex relied on a large team of quasi-scholarly secretaries and advisers to generate key documentation, Bacon was able to use the letters to advance anonymously themes which prefigure his later The Advancement of Learning (1605). This tactic is particularly evident in a letter ostensibly from Essex to Fulke Greville on research methods (which include Baconian attacks on the usefulness of epitomes and veneration of the value of history), and three letters to Roger Manners, the 5th Earl of Rutland (which include a Baconian discourse on the pursuit of knowledge as the purpose of travel). However, concluded Stewart, scrutiny of these practices during the 1601 trial following Essex’s failed rebellion led Bacon to distrust epistolary formats, meaning that thereafter we must look beyond letters to recontruct his intellectual project. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future seminars in the series, please see here.

podcast_icon2Podcast now available on the seminar page!

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