I had never heard of this man, William Cobbett, until I had the recommendation to read his book, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland. How droll a book title, no? But wow, what a book!!! More on that book at another time. Now is the time to puzzle and wonder at the man who wrote it, the incorrigible William Cobbett.
It’s not often you come across a character as colorful as this. Quickly scan his bio to get a measure, you do not often see biographies this truly wild. In brief, as a young man he joined the Army, but wound up suing his superiors and then fleeing to France when they retaliated, and straight into the looming French Revolution. So then he fled to America, to Philadelphia, and began a career as a pamphleteer. He was a prickly one, even earning the nickname Peter Porcupine! And so that career got him into fresh trouble, so he fled back to England. More pamphleteering here led to more troubles, so he fled once more to America, to Long Island. From here he would eventually sneak back to England, and somehow secreting the skeletal remains of none other than Thomas Paine! More publishing and politicking resumed, together with several failed attempts to run for Parliament. At last he became elected, but tragically his career in office was a failure and also it seems to have killed him. It was a mistake to quit the fair air of the countryside for that den of thieves!
But through all these travails, Cobbett never lost the sense of his original self. His upbringing was pleasant, as a country boy from Surrey, and his love of the land and of country people and of the goodness of rural society never quit him. He’s most famous today for his book Rural Rides, which recounts his many travels through the countryside. Another book he wrote, The Cottage Economy, also has a large following today from people looking to go “off the grid” and return to simpler, more honest and self-sufficient lifestyles. That was a major aim of Cobbett, and his book is manual for that in his day. But his book on the Reformation is the one I have and wow, it is a doozy!
Cobbett writes in wonderful style, with authority and aplomb. He was a grammarian, so he writes in a high Latinate style that you find more in the 17th and 18th Century English writers than you find in Cobbett’s own day. But Cobbett has a dramatic flair, pulpit-style, and very personal. He is a pleasure to read! And even though the Reformation book is not about country life, Cobbett’s great love and great estimation of it sparkles throughout the text. The pre-Reformation England that he describes is something he longs for, you come to long for it, too. A Golden Age when things were more just, more properly ordered, more attuned to human needs. Cobbett’s book is having a profound effect on me, because of his profound love.