Monday, May 11, 2009

The British Prime Ministers Series of Winter 2009

I have been posting book reviews on the GoodReads social-networking site for about two years. I suspect they are read by no more than half a dozen people, nor could this blog claim a much higher readership, yet I have occasionally been faintly troubled - suppose it is not the same half a dozen people?. Not wanting anyone to miss these mots, I debated reposting some of that writing here, aware also that redundance and excessive cross-posting is bad internet manners. Finally GoodReads itself has somewhat solved the problem by a recent stylesheet change in which the reviews started appearing in a transparent popup window such that the underlying text now renders them illegible (and I always suspected the popup site design was a deterrent to reading them to begin with). So, exonerated of all charges of laziness, in fact performing a veritable public service by restoring my carefully crafted word-science to the notice of a select public, I commence.

I picked up Lytton Strachey's appealingly slender biography of Queen Victoria last fall at my favorite Upper West Side dollar book stall. I wasn't sure what to expect but the opening pages seemed like a hilariously gossipy approach to royal biography, yet in fine literary style, and I found myself zooming through. Summing up after finishing, "gossipy" is not quite the term, lest one encompass it in the same breath with Andrew Morton and the like, but I gather that Strachey's somewhat irreverent style set a new standard for biography that is still admired and emulated. You already know that he was one of the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster et al. and his Eminent Victorians in some ways defined the modern notion of the "Victorian" age. This biography is consistently engaging and I'll recommend it to anyone who wants to know a bit more about 19th century British history (or who hasn't yet realized that they do).

It reminded me of a stack of rather weightier "tomes" on the subject that I pulled out of a dumpster at a posh UWS palace across the street from that bookstore where the old-time artistic and intellectual tenantry has been steadily yielding to financiers who don't read! - you can't even find The Economist in their recycle bins, it's all Country Living. Strachey's dozen page portraits of the predominant political figures of the time (Robert Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli) inspired further investigations, starting with a biography of Gladstone. I also start pursuing these lines of inquiry to satisfy my curiosities about sometimes rather fleeting pop culture references (conveniently there's an earlier entry here on this topic): for example, the English Prime Ministers of the 19th century, particularly Gladstone and Disraeli, are hugely significant (in highly fictionalized representations) in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (the early 21st fantasy masterpiece you should move on to after completing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), so I have for some time wished I knew more about them.

Sir Philip Magnus' Gladstone: A Biography was my starting point and it proved to be an excellent use of a few days - constantly referring to wikipedia for clarifications like "Who was Bismarck?", "who fought the Crimean War and why?" and so on, went on a long way to dispelling my general sense of ignorance with regard to 19th century European history. It was, however, long, and the similarly chunky Asquith by Roy Jenkins is languishing on the coffee table with a mere 150 page bite taken out of it. The years of his premiership aside (which I never actually got to), Asquith is part of an interesting and historically noteworthy lineage – his descendants (by birth or marriage) include actress Helena Bonham-Carter and novelist Emma Tennant.

Benjamin Disraeli (who was both novelist and Prime Minister) is very much the bête noire of Gladstone's biography, but I thought reading one of his novels (Sybil, or The Two Nations) might provide more pleasure and interesting insight than adding yet another unfinished biography to my list. One of Disraeli's oft-commented upon "qualifications" for office was his ability to flatter Queen Victoria; the rapturous description in here of the Virgin Queen's ascent to the throne amidst tweeting birds seems almost a caricature of such flattery. As literature, Disraeli's novels have been challenged by the test of time - huge undigested chunks of his theories of history alternate with the plot, improbable characters come up conveniently to explain things in long monologues, but this was also well-written and funny enough of the time. The Two Nations of the title are the rich and the poor - Sybil herself is one of those impossibly virtuous and graceful Victorian novel heroines. As the daughter of an artisan, her nascent romance with the second son of an aristocratic family would seem to be impossible because of the class divide, but rather than their ultimate union being achieved by the exact democratizing social upheaval which is the ostensible theme of the book, it turns that her family actually are of the aristocracy, having been swindled out of their hereditary lands, a deceit that ultimately comes to light. So the happy ending, such as it is, more reaffirms the existing social order than anything else. This contradiction is, I believe, characteristic of Disraeli's slightly muddled set of beliefs and opportunistic approach to making his way in politics at the time he wrote it.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Hey Bob ! You're back ! Had almost given up hope... will read this when I get home tonight... best wishes from your correspondant in Paris...