Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Thomas Ellwood (16391713)
[The autobiography of Thomas Ellwood (16391713) goes down to the year 1683: it was published in 1714, the year after his death, with a supplement by Joseph Wyeth. A number of his works were published in his lifetime, most of them controversial, in defence of the Quakers. A Sacred History, in folio (two volumes), appeared in 1705: Davideis, a sacred poem, in five books, in 1712.]
THE History of Thomas Ellwood, written by himself, is the only one of his many works that is still worth reading. His controversial tracts have nothing much to distinguish them: the preface to his sacred poem may be read as an appendix to his biography.
The History of Thomas Ellwood is the history of a character such as most commonly has to wait for some imaginative and humorous artist to do it justice. The exceptional value of this book is that it anticipates the imagination of the novelist, and, in a natural and uncalculated way, reaches the same effects as are obtained by the novelist intentionally or ironically. The beauty of Ellwoods narrative consists in the perpetual discrepancy between the authors own simple-minded view of the circumstances, and the other views that are at once suggested by his story. Thomas Ellwood expects to be taken at his own valuation, but he is always giving grounds for a quite different estimate from his own, which often (and this makes the great charm of his book) is much higher than his own with regard to virtues of which he is unconscious. He demands credit for his verses, or for his discovery of the truth in the year 1659; for his use of Thou, and his refusal of Hat-honour. The reader admires him for his stubborn downright wilfulness, for the spirit (though he repented of it) which made him so quick with his rapier when he was young, and did not leave him meek or submissive to insults even after his conversion. I suppose they took me for a confident young man, he says, in describing his appearance at the Old Bailey: and the reader is inclined to sympathise with them; while, at the same time, it is impossible to be seriously irritated by his confidence, even in his insubordination to his father, after he had satisfied himself that honour due to parents did not consist in uncovering the head and bowing the body to them, and therefore kept on his hat before his father, and called him thee. It is true that this exercise, as Thomas Ellwood called it, brought him under a good deal of discipline from his father (a whirret on the ear coming in as part of it), all of which seems to be required in strict justice, to counterpoise ones sentiment of lenity towards the confident young man who had discovered this new interpretation of the commandment. The extraordinary truthfulness and vividness of Ellwoods memory, and the simplicity of his character, make it all but impossible for him to misrepresent his antagonists. He does not understand them, but he does not try to paint them in black and red: he describes them as he saw them, and so impartially that it is generally easy to understand them even after all this interval of time. The sketches of Ellwoods father, or of the Warden of Maidenhead (a budge old man) are not in the least distorted by reason of Ellwoods conviction that he was right and they were wrong. He gives the enemy the benefit of every point he can fairly claim to have won. A proof of this is his note of the very sufficient repartee made to him by one of the persecutors:
In this work none seemed so eager and active as their leader Major Rosewell; which I observing stepped boldly to him as he was passing by me, and asked him if he intended a massacre, for of that in those days there was a great apprehension and talk. The suddenness of the question, from such a young man especially, somewhat startled him; but, recollecting himself, he answered, No, but I intend to have you all hanged by the wholesome laws of the land.
Ellwoods manner is often very like Defoes. He always gets the right points in his description; never better than in the first story in the book, of the dispute with the two churls at night. Thereupon my father, turning his head to me, said, Tom, disarm them, this, with the bright blade glittering in the dark night, and the panic of the two clowns, and, above all, the readiness of Tom, make up a story in which nothing is blundered by the author. The later encounter with the servants of the Duke of York is almost as well told. Ellwood says very little about his quondam master, Milton. Possibly for once he was made unjust, but by his own poetical ambitions, not by his religious principles. These seem never to have embittered his view, though there are traces of a worldly humour in his account of the punishment and consequent dejection of two braving Baptists, topping blades, that looked high and spoke big, contrasted with the resistance made by a Friend, a poor little man of a low condition and mean appearance, who would not give in.
As regards diction and rhetoric, there is nothing antique or affected in the History of Thomas Ellwood. He does not seem to have been influenced much by the older generation of English authors; like Bunyan he seems to have adopted naturally a practical style of composition, not overweighted in any way, good at reporting conversations. In Ellwoods case, and from the character of his mind, there was one subject only, the history of his own life, to which this style could be applied with full success. The same conditions that went to make his History so good were those that kept him from writing any other work that can be compared with it.