Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered today as one of the most brilliant dramatists of the 18th century. What Fintan O’Toole does with this book, while not ignoring Sheridan’s considerable literary achievements is show that there was more to the man than the playwright. In fact Sheridan was one of the most democratic politicians of his day, a political visionary in both Irish and British politics. His reputation as a artist, cemented, almost literally, by his burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, was privileged in order to obscure his much more dangerous treasonous (to Britain) and patriotic (to Ireland) political views lest they encourage others.
The book, beautifully written as is typical of O’Toole, has the pace of a political thriller set against the background of the French Revolution, the United Irish rebellion of 1798 and machinations of Westminster at the time. My one quibble with the book is that it passes over the events of the 1798 rebellion too quickly to give readers unfamiliar with that period a full sense of the trauma that it must have been for Sheridan and those who thought like him.
Nevertheless the book achieves the remarkable feat of showing the modern relevance of someone from 200 years ago who has been ignored for too long in favour of much more imperial figures.