Sunday, April 20, 2008
Our book today is Melbourne by Lord David Cecil, who is of a branch of the Cecils and is a direct descendant of the illustrious title character - all of which is apropos of nothing, other than that far-ranging sources (material and alive) that might otherwise have been reticent or recondite might have been flung open to somebody with those kinds of biological credentials, whereas a biographer from a row-house behind Euston Station might have had to make do with what was available in the branch library.
Or maybe not, and in either case, as in all cases, the ultimate measure will be the quality of the writing, the sharpness of the historical insight. Pedigree is meaningless to either one of those things, as one of Melbourne's greatest admirers, President Kennedy, would have been the first to affirm. And as luck would have it, Lord Cecil (the fourth son of the Marquis of Salisbury) wrote a damn fine book.
We here at Stevereads no doubt drifted onto this book through contemplating the checkered fates of Ireland over the last 150 years or so, fates in which Melbourne as Prime Minister played a large part. But regardless of the momentary predispositions with which one comes to this splendid book, one is almost immediately subsumed into the story Cecil is intending to tell, and all the old reasons for finding these pages fall away - the pages themselves give you ample reason to keep turning them. Hell, the book's prologue, titled "The World" and describing at length the wealthy Whiggish society into which Melbourne was born, is more informed, more allusive, and more beautifully written than many entire books on the subject:
Still, as unseemly as some of its manifestations were, one must admit that there is something extremely attractive in this earthy exuberance. And, as a matter of fact, it was the inevitable corollary of their virtues. English society had the merits of its defects. Its wide scope, its strong root in the earth, gave it and astounding, and irresistible vitality. For all their dissipation there was nothing decadent about these eighteenth-century aristocrats. Their excesses came from too much life, not too little. And it was the same vitality that gave them their predominance in public life. They took on the task of directing England's destinies with the same self-confident vigor that they danced and diced. .... For they were not unmoral. Their lapses came from passion, not from principle; and they are liable at any time to break out into contrite acknowledgments of guilt and artless resolutions for future improvement. Indeed, it was one of the paradoxes created by their mixed composition that, though they were worldly, they were not sophisticated.
Who can resist a book that spins a spell like that before it's 30 pages old? And the glittering, cheerful prose just keeps burbling along, through Melbourne's birth and upbringing, through his apprenticeship in government and his Prime Ministerships under Queen Victoria (whom he genuinely liked, and who genuinely liked him) - the parliamentary battles, the great questions of the day, the ceaseless drama and tension of a high statesman's life ... it's all here, told in vigorous, thrilling prose.
And of course that other thing is here too, that business that will forever spring to mind as long as anybody who knows anything about Lord Melbourne hears his name. And it's in Cecil's book too, as it would have to be: the torrid affair his wife, Caroline Lamb, undertook with Lord Byron. Being made a fool of by your wife's behavior with another man is quite humiliating enough; if the other man is Byron, well, the whole business gets into the history books.
Unlike the multitude of biographers who've touched on this affair in the last century, Cecil is restrained in his romanticism and strict in his personal assessments. "Society was presented," he writes, "with the extraordinary spectacle of a love drama, performed in the most flamboyant, romantic manner by two raging egotists, each of whom was in fact wholly absorbed in self."
They did not do it very well. Caroline over-acted her part, and Byron could not keep his up. Under the glaring spotlight of public attention, they postured about the stage, getting in each other's way, tripping each other up, turning on each other in childish abuse, pausing to explain to the audience how abominably the other was behaving. Indeed, it would have been an ignominious exhibition enough but for the personalities of the performers. But both in their varying degrees were people of genius, and in the most ludicrous postures, the most farcical contretemps, they managed somehow to remain magnetic and picturesque.
They managed this by both of them happening to be physically beautiful (if Caroline Lamb was a genius, every chicken in China is up for the title), but no matter: Cecil doesn't let the famous affair take over his narrative. Readers get the full details of it, yes, but then the story moves on - at least as much as Melbourne himself was ever able to move on completely from his wife's betrayal and desertion. And thronging 'round this affair, and so much more deserving of our attention, are all the other fascinating figures and issues of the Melbourne's day, here brought to life by a book no biography-reader should miss. This is the genre written just about as energetically and winningly as it gets.
It's out of print, of course. We're working on a brightly-colored link with Alibris, so we don't have to feel quite so apologetic every time we end a glowing review with words to that effect. Or rather, we should say our slope-shouldered, chicken-chested, pocket-protected feckless interns are working on it. As soon as they've come up with something to our liking, we'll proudly unveil it (after first sacking the lot of them for taking so fecking long, that is).
In the meantime, there's always the Brattle, the Strand, and Powell's!