Category Archives: English History

The Contrarian’s Disconcerting Dualism

 

Fintan O’Toole, Judging Shaw:

The Radicalism of GBS (Royal Irish Academy, $40.00) 

            By 1920, theatergoers throughout the world recognized the three letters “GBS” as a shorthand reference to George Bernard Shaw, not only the era’s most prolific and successful English language playwright but also a prominent social and political commentator with radical left-wing views.  GBS in 1920 was Shaw’s self-created brand, which he cultivated carefully and marketed shamelessly.  In Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS, prominent Irish journalist and cultural critic Fintan O’Toole explores how the brand GBS interacted with Shaw the man and evolved over the years.  O’Toole does so through eight thematic essays, each a section on a separate aspect of Shaw’s long life (1856-1950), but without adhering to a strict chronology.  His work is more appraisal than biography.

Author of over sixty plays, among them Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923), Shaw was also a prodigious writer of letters, pamphlets, and speeches.  By one estimate, O’Toole notes, Shaw wrote at least a quarter of a million letters and postcards.  Although he analyses Shaw’s plays, O’Toole also draws liberally upon them and other writings to cast light upon Shaw’s social and political thought – upon the “Radicalism of GBS” to use the book’s sub-title.  At the book’s heart lies Shaw’s disconcerting dualism: in the post-World War I era, the outspoken political progressive became an apologist for the totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as an ostensible proponent of eugenics.  It is primarily in Shaw’s capacity as a social and political thinker that O’Toole engages his readers in an exercise in “Judging Shaw,” the book’s title.

Although not a conventional biography, the book contains a detailed and helpful chronology at the outset, with year-by-year highlights of Shaw’s life.  It also contains an impressive series of visual memorabilia between each section. The series includes relevant photos but also vivid photocopies of letters, drafts of published writings, and other reminders of Shaw’s contrarian career.

* * *

                O’Toole’s initial section, “The Invention of GBS,” describes  Shaw as “among the first private citizens in world history to create for themselves a personal brand with global resonance.  GBS was an almost universal signifier” (p.20).  None of Shaw’s predecessors created a brand that was “as deliberate, as resonant, as widespread and as sustained as GBS. He shattered cultural boundaries in ways that still seem breathtakingly bold, confounding the apparently obvious differences between seriousness and showmanship, personality and politics, art and propaganda, the mainstream and the outré, the voice in the wilderness and the voice on the radio, moral purpose and charlatanism” (p.23).  GBS, the “invention of a single, obscure impoverished Irishman,” was “one of the great achievements of the history of advertising” which produced a “unique form of celebrity: a vast popularity that depended on a reputation for insisting on unpopular ideas and causes, for pleasing the public by provoking it to the point of distraction” (p.21-22).  Quite simply, GBS was “Shaw’s greatest character” (p.22).

O’Toole’s initial section also looks at Shaw’s early years growing up in a Protestant family in Dublin.  Shaw’s ancestors on the side of his father had been quite prosperous, but his grandfather lost the family money and his alcoholic father, George Carr Shaw, struggled to earn a living sufficient for Shaw and his two older sisters.  The realization that George Carr was a “drunk,” O’Toole writes, “introduced him to reality in a way that permanently shaped his consciousness” (p.26).   Shaw’s career might be seen as a “backhanded compliment to his family.  His teetotalism and vegetarianism were reactions against the toxicity of alcoholic addiction. His ferocious, almost manic work ethic was surely driven by the fecklessness and failure of his Papa” (p.30-31).

Shaw acquired his artistic sensibility mostly from his mother, Bessie Gurly.  O’Toole recounts how Bessie invited another man, George John Vandeleur Lee, Bessie’s piano teacher, to live with the family. Lee became a substitute father for Shaw, from whom the young man derived his lifelong affinity for classical music, along with a “studied individuality of ideas about food and health” (p.37).  Lee had a certain flamboyance about him that presaged the GBS mark.  Shaw’s relationship to Lee involved a process of “mentally killing off his real father and replacing him, for a time at least, with Lee” (p.36-37), O’Toole writes.  There was some speculation that Lee might have been Shaw’s actual father.  This is surely wrong, O’Toole argues, but if the young Shaw may have looked like Lee, the reason was “not genetic but mimetic. Consciously or not, he imitated the man who had displaced his father.  Shaw never explicitly acknowledged Lee’s influence on him, but it is stamped on one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion. . . [where] Henry Higgins is a mélange of GBS and Lee” (p.38).

Shaw left Dublin for London in April 1876, three months before his 20th birthday, the “culmination of an imaginative process of slow disengagement from Dublin and thus from the physical realities of his youth” (p.47).  With Shaw’s arrival in London, where he lived for most of the rest of his years, O’Toole abandons any pretense at chronological biography in favor of his thematic essays.  One, “GBS versus England,” addresses Shaw’s general relationship to England, where he always retained a sense of himself as an exile, followed by “GBS versus Ireland.” Here, O’Toole explains Shaw’s relationship to Ireland and the Irish independence movement during his adult years.  Shaw “always saw an independent Ireland remaining voluntarily as an active member of a democratized Commonwealth.  But he never deviated from a passionate insistence that Ireland was and must be its own country and that British rule was an illegitimate imposition. He insisted that aggressive Irish nationalism was a fever that could be cured only by freedom” (p.113).

In the next section, “The Thinking Cap and the Jester’s Bells,” O’Toole turns specifically to Shaw’s plays and how he used the stage to shatter multiple norms.  Shaw wrote in a society and a culture “deeply committed to notions of human difference – that the upper class was vastly different from the lower, the imperial power from its subjects, the superior races from the inferior.”  Shaw’s dramaturgy was a “conscious revolt against these notions” (p.153).  Shaw used the stage to suggest that “how we behave is a function not of our characters, but of social roles and circumstance” (p.162-63).  O’Toole compares Shaw’s characters to a set of Russian dolls: “we never know whether, if enough layers were exposed, we would actually find a ‘real’ self. . . [T]he haunting thought is that the real self may not exist” (p.170).

Unlike most playwrights of his day, Shaw took great care in preparing a preface to his plays.  The preface helped Shaw’s readers and viewers see him “not as a famous playwright but as a famous man who wrote plays and used his celebrity to generate an audience for them” (p.95).  Shaw’s plays were democratic in their themes but also in their targeted audiences and readership, persons of modest income and education, the first generation of mass readers.  Shaw’s plays appealed to:

the millions who devoured newspapers and haunted public libraries, who joined trade unions and feminist organizations, social clubs and socialist societies, who hungered for ideas about the world. . . The history of the cheap paperback book is intertwined with the history of GBS. And not for nothing – they both belonged in the hands of working men and women (p.308-09).

In two sections, “GBS’s War on Poverty” and “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” O’Toole draws heavily on Shaw’s plays as well as his other writings to set out the contours of Shaw’s political and social thought.  At least until the 1960s, Shaw was “by far the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language.  And at the heart of his thought was that visceral hatred of poverty he breathed in with the fetid air of the Dublin slums” (p.197).  More than any other factor, Shaw’s deep hatred for economic oppression and inequality shaped his social thought.

Shaw challenged the perception of poverty as a “product of personal failure or mere bad luck, or as a necessary and inevitable corollary of economic progress” (p.198).  For Shaw, poverty was “not the cause of crime – it is the crime” (p.204).  Moralizing constructs like the “deserving poor” were only “self-serving cant” (p.310).  Shaw began to write in an era like ours, O’Toole observes, when wealth was expanding rapidly but distributed ever more unequally, giving his thought “renewed relevance in the twenty-first century” (p.198).

Shaw was one of the first intellectuals to suggest that children have rights independent of their parents.  He became a fierce fighter for woman’s suffrage and advocated for repeal of laws against consensual adult homosexual activity.  Almost alone among public figures, Shaw stood by and defended Oscar Wilde when Wilde was released from prison after serving nearly two years for “gross indecency,” i.e., homosexual acts (the subject of a review here earlier this year).

But Shaw’s progressive heroism was more than tempered for me by O’Toole’s section “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” in which the task of “judging Shaw” considers his embrace of some of the 20th century’s darkest moments: Fascism, Nazism and Communism.  Shaw also appeared to embrace the now discredited notion of eugenics, the use of selective breeding to “ensure that ‘bad’ human traits, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to moral delinquency, were ‘bred out’ of the human race” (p.267).  O’Toole provides startling quotations in which Shaw seems to support not just determining who should be allowed to give birth but also a massive increase in capital punishment for those inclined to criminality or what was considered deviant behavior.  “A part of eugenic politics,” Shaw told an audience in 1910, “would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.  A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them” (p.268).  Shaw’s critics jumped on this and similar statements as evidence of the extremes to which his socialism invariably led.

Here, O’Toole turns lawyer for Shaw’s defense.  Shaw’s critics were willfully missing the irony behind his provocative suggestions, O’Toole argues.  Shaw was using the device of “pushing an idea to a grotesque conclusion in order to highlight an absurdity or an injustice” (p.269).  O’Toole compares Shaw to the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who argued in a deadpan tone that the rich should be allowed to eat the children of the poor.  But when O’Toole comes to Shaw’s attraction to Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s, he admits that he cannot serve effectively as Shaw’s lawyer.

Shaw imagined fascism as an “incomplete and underdeveloped version of his own communism” (p.277), O’Toole writes.  He saw Mussolini’s persecution of left-wing parties “not as part of the essence of fascism, but merely as a mistake” (p.277).  After a 1927 lunch with famed socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Beatrice recorded that Shaw had “gabbled” on the subject of Mussolini, demonstrating that he had “lost touch with political reality” and “could no longer be taken seriously as a political thinker” (p.276).  Webb blamed Shaw’s enthusiasm for Mussolini on his intellectual isolation and weakness for flattery, the result of his “living a luxurious life in the midst of a worthless multitude of idle admirers” (p.277;  Webb’s notes on this lunch appear as one of the between-section visuals, at p.294-95)

The Webbs must have been even more aghast with Shaw a few years later as Hitler rose to power in Germany.   Shaw had presciently seen the folly of the Versailles Treaty and, like John Maynard Keynes, had argued that it was little more than an invitation to another war.   Shaw’s early lack of objections to Hitler may have been in part because Shaw viewed Hitler’s rise as a natural reaction to Versailles.  “His sympathy for Hitler was driven in part by a sense that the rise of the Nazi leader was proving GBS’s warnings correct,” O’Toole writes (p.281).  Shaw supported Hitler’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, and rapid rebuilding of Germany’s armed forces.

Throughout the 1930s, Shaw maintained a “hopeless inability to understand what Nazism was about” (p.279).  Although Shaw despised Nazi racial theories, as he despised all racial theories, his “great delusion” was to think that the problem with anti-Semitism was an “excrescence of the ‘great Nazi movement’ that must be capable of something nobler. . . What Shaw seemed incapable of grasping was that anti-Semitism was not a stain on the otherwise pure cloth of Nazism. It was Hitler’s primary color” (p.279-80).  Shaw “blinded himself to the murderousness implicit in Nazism and choreographed his own ridiculous dance around one of the central realities of the 1930s” (p.282).  It was only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union that Shaw admitted he had been wrong about Hitler’s intentions.  But here, too, his apology was couched in terms that were neither “gracious” nor a “searching self-reflection – Shaw essentially apologized for Hitler not being as intelligent as GBS” (p.288).

Shaw’s infatuation with Communism is easier to square with his left-wing political outlook.   Shaw was hardly the only Westerner of a leftist bent who saw a potential “socialist paradise” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and applauded its apparent rapid modernization while the Western democracies remained mired in a worldwide economic depression.  O’Toole recounts an interview with Stalin that Shaw and Nancy Astor conducted when the pair traveled to Moscow in 1931.  Astor, Britain’s first female parliamentarian although an American by birth, asked Stalin why he slaughtered so many people.  Shaw seemed to have been satisfied with Stalin’s “bland assurance that ‘the need for dealing with political prisoners drastically would soon cease’” (p.279).  Thereafter, O’Toole indicates, Shaw’s view of Stalin “approached hero-worship: a photograph of Stalin was beside his deathbed, though with characteristic perversity it was balanced by one of Mahatma Gandhi” (p.278-79).

As he considers Shaw’s embrace of these totalitarian regimes as part of the task of “judging Shaw,” O’Toole sounds more like a prosecutor delivering an impassioned closing argument:

The great seer failed to see the true nature of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. The great skeptic allowed himself to believe just what he wanted to believe, that the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were rough harbingers of real progress and true democracy.  GBS was by no means the only artist or intellectual to be deluded by the promises of regimes that ‘got things done’ while democracies struggled to end the Great Depression.  But no other artist or intellectual had his standing as a global sage.  His sagacity proved to be useless when it mattered most (p.275).

After wearing both a defense lawyer’s hat and that of a prosecutor, O’Toole seems to find a judicial robe when he reminds his readers that Shaw’s dark phase coincided with an almost entirely barren period for him as a playwright and writer.   From the late 1920s onward through World War II, Shaw’s output came to an almost absolute halt.  In O’Toole’s view, the Great War marked the death of GBS, depriving Shaw of his most potent message.  Shaw had used mockery, paradox and comic absurdity to remind his readers and viewers that what was termed “civilization” was merely a “veneer on cruelty and hypocrisy. But the Great War swatted aside the gadfly. It revealed, through the scale of its horror, all the hidden truths that GBS had delighted in exposing” (p.240).

The great failure of GBS the sage in the post-World War I era, O’Toole contends, “cannot be divorced from the waning of the powers of GBS the dramatist.  It was in his art that Shaw tested and contradicted and argued with himself.  But that ability dried up” (p.289). Unlike artistic creators as varied as Beethoven, Titian, Goya and W.B. Yeats, all of whom found newborn creativity late in life, Shaw was “unable to develop a successful late style” (p.289).  His last great play was in 1923, Saint Joan, when he was 68. He “long outlived the GBS who could spin ideas and contradictions on the end of his fingertips” (p.290).

* * *

                The GBS brand may have died in the wake of World War I, and Shaw the social and political commentator remains tainted by his dalliances with the totalitarian ideologies of the 1930s.  Yet, in closing out this erudite and elegantly written exercise in judging Shaw, O’Toole concludes that nearly three quarters of a century after his death, Shaw’s status as playwright and artist — and contrarian — seems  “more secure now than might have been predicted even a few decades ago” (p.305-06).  Shaw’s revolutionary impact continues to lie in his insistence that the “right to question everything, to hold nothing sacred” belongs to the “common man and woman. And that it was not just a right – it was a duty” (p.306).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 29, 2019

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, History, Literature, Political Theory, Politics

Anything But Bland

 

Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell:

A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press) 

            Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of contemporary America’s most eminent historians of modern Europe, the author of several books on Greek and Balkan history, along with others on 20th century Europe generally.  Born in Britain in 1958, Mazower grew up in the Golders Green neighborhood of North London.  His home environment bordered on bland: it was thoroughly stable if unflashy, but most assuredly not a place where his parents dwelled upon the family’s past.  Before writing this affecting family memoir, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, Mazower probably did not realize the extent to which his family background, at least on his father’s side, was anything but bland.

            Mazower’s quest to learn more about his father’s family history led him to surprising revelations about his paternal grandparents, Max and Frouma, both Russian Jews.  Grandfather Max, the memoir’s main character, had been a leader in the Bund, the underground Jewish labor movement that flourished in late 19th and early 20th century Russia and played key roles in the anti-Tsarist uprisings of 1905 and 1917.  Grandmother Frouma saw her family entirely uprooted by the civil wars that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917. 

                By the early 1920s, Max and Frouma had both left Russia for England.  Max never returned after leaving for the last time in 1923; Frouma did not return until 1959.  Max too left family members behind in Russia who were caught up in the civil wars that ravaged Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover.   Some family members on both sides who survived the civil wars perished later in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and in World War II and the Holocaust.  Max and Frouma settled in North London, far from the tumult of Russia, where they lived lives of bourgeois respectability as part of a thriving Russian-Jewish immigrant community concentrated in and around their neighborhood of Highgate, not far from the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried.

            Mazower also uncovered much new information about the two older half-siblings his father had grown up with: half-brother André, Max’s son by a relationship with Sofia Krylenko, herself a leading anti-Bolshevik Leftist on the European Continent in the 1920s; and half-sister Ira, Frouma’s daughter by an earlier marriage to a swashbuckling soldier in the Tsarist army who died fighting the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.  André and Ira, spectacularly different in personality, both led eccentric lives that included turns to political conservatism as adults.

             In the first two thirds of the memoir, Mazower shares his insights into Max and Frouma, André and Ira, and the families Max and Frouma left behind in Russia, along with fascinating detail on the Bund.  In the last third, in the most personal and heartfelt portion of the memoir, he turns to his father William, referred to as “Dad” throughout.  Here, Mazower explains how his Dad had the quiet, nurturing childhood that had been denied to both his parents, and to André and Ira.  His mother,“Mum,” enters the story only briefly, and only at the end. 

            As he links the turbulence of early 20th century Russia to the tranquility and stability of mid-20th century Highgate, Mazower poses and tries to answer for his grandparents broader questions about assimilation and place – how and why do we come to feel that we belong to any particular location?  What psychic struggles were involved for his grandparents to leave Russia behind and make Highgate home? What did it mean for Max never to see his birthplace again after he left in 1923?  How did Frouma come to terms with being separated from her family for 30 years?

              Mazower never knew his grandfather, who died in 1952, before he was born; and barely knew his grandmother, who died in 1964, when he was six years old.  He began thinking about writing a family memoir around 2009, the year his father was ill and died.  It was a time when Mazower returned frequently from Manhattan to Highgate and his own boyhood neighborhood, nearby Golders Green, feeling “acutely nostalgic for my native city” (p.5).   The “Journey Home” portion of the subtitle applies more to Mazower than to any character in his memoir.  The  title, “What You Did Not Tell,” is directed at his grandfather and his father.  Both seemed congenitally incapable of talking about their pasts.  But Max’s silence, unlike that of Mazower’s father, “had hidden real secrets” (p.6).  

* * *

               The oldest of three brothers, Max was born in 1874 in Gradno, in today’s Belarus, a town in the Pale of Settlement, that “vast swath of western Russia to which the empire’s Jews had been almost entirely confined by imperial order” (p.21).  Max was of the same generation as Vladimir Lenin and future Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, and almost certainly crossed paths with each during his younger years (Litvinov later lived for a while in Highgate, where he also crossed paths with Max).  Little is known about Max’s early life except that his father died when he was 14.  But he seems to have been involved from his teenage years onward in the “General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia” — shortened simply to the Bund.  More than any of the other intriguing and endearing charcters in this memoir, Max is a figure of genuine historical interest because of his role in the Bund.  

             Although only barely remembered today, the Bund in the first decade of the 20th century had become, “by some considerable margin,” the “largest and best-organized socialist movement in the [Russian] empire, dwarfing Lenin’s quarrelsome band of followers.  Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Bund successfully combined revolutionary agitation with organizing workers to improve wages and working conditions” (p.37).  The Bund wanted no single leader, and it aimed to speak mostly for Russian Jews, not all Russians.  National, cultural, and linguistic differences needed to be acknowledged, not ignored. 

               Although the Bund “rejected the terrorist tradition of Russian revolutionary activism,” it was “certainly neither pacifist nor prepared to allow the terror unleashed by the authorities go unchecked” (p.38).   Bund members hailed the initial revolution that ousted the Tsar in the spring of 1917.  Many were elected to new workers’ councils.   But the November 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power split the Bund apart.  Some Bundists went over to the Bolsheviks, but the majority did not, “believing they were dictatorial and dangerous.  The Bolsheviks reciprocated their suspicion”  (p.59).  By the mid-1920s, the Bolsheviks had largely wiped out the Bund

              Max was the Bund’s “organizer par excellence” (p.51), a behind-the-scenes man who lived a double life in which caution, silence and mistrust were keys to survival.  Outwardly a conventionally bourgeois salesman for a Russian shipping firm in Vilna (today’s Vilnius, Lithuania), Max was simultaneously a revolutionary activist who wrote, translated, published and distributed seditious tracts.  But he was “neither a rhetorician nor a lover of the limelight” (p.51).   He published nothing under his own name.  He forged passports and purchased guns. When the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising broke out, Max was assigned to coordinate the Bund’s activities in Łódź, in today’s Poland.  He never spoke again about this experience, but it formed the “climax of his life as an agitator” (p.42).

              Max was arrested in the aftermath of the 1905 uprising and imprisoned in Siberia.  An escape in 1907 led him all the way from Siberia to Dresden, Germany, at a time when he seems to have concluded that the possibility of overthrowing the Tsars had been foreclosed.  Eager to put his semi-clandestine existence and constant police surveillance behind him, while in Dresden he responded to an ad of the London office of Yost Typewriter Company.  An American firm, Yost was anxious to expand into the Tsarist Empire and was looking for a marketing manager with knowledge of Russian. Yost offered Max a job as a “glorified salesman” (p.55), charged with opening up the Russian market.  Over the next decade and a half – the tumultuous period that spanned World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the post-revolution civil wars in Russia — Max lived in rented North London rooms while he spent much time back in Russia selling typewriters.

              During a  visit to Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) sometime in the early 1920s, Max met Frouma Toumarkine.  Born in 1892 and thus 18 years younger than Max, Frouma was one of eight siblings, five girls, three boys, members of a close-knit clan of moderately prosperous Russian Jews.  Her father was a Moscow timber merchant.  Unlike Max, Frouma had a formal secondary school education, and had entered Kiev University shortly before World War I.  When the war broke out, she left university to sign up as an auxiliary nurse.  

             In her capacity as nurse, Frouma met her first husband, Alexander Batlermanants, a medical officer in the Tsarist army, more than 20 years older.  From a wealthy family of Jewish origins, Batlermanants liked to gamble, the “characteristic vice of the Russian upper classes” (p.170-71).  He was self-centered, with “suspect charm” and a “complete lack of dependability” (p.171).  The couple’s daughter Ira – officially Irina – was born in 1912.   Batlermanants died fighting for the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war that broke out after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

               Mazower was unable to discover many details about Max and Frouma’s courtship.  But he learned that Max returned to England in the summer of 1924 from one of his trips to Eastern Europe with Frouma, then a 32-year-old Russian widow, and eight year old Ira.  Frouma was pregnant when she arrived in London and spoke almost no English. The couple married in London in December 1924, and Mazower’s father William – William was supposedly the only English name Frouma then knew — was born the following year, 1925.

               Shortly after their arrival back in London, Max had a house built in Highgate, at 20 Oakeshott Avenue. Bordering Hampstead Heath, Highgate was full of recently constructed single-family dwellings, built along shade-filled streets — the “epitome of affordable bourgeois comfort” (p.189).  Max and Frouma never again moved from Highgate area.  “There is a privilege in being able to stay put, in choosing when to move,” Mazower writes, and the “upheavals, fears, and deprivations of their early lives had equipped Dad’s parents to appreciate it” (p.9).  For years, Max and Frouma opened their doors to other Russian émigrés, especially old Bundist comrades, including many Max had not known personally, “as though the domestic space he had never really known as a child emerged late in his life to help shelter the remnants of a movement that had found history against it” (p.86).

                 Frouma, the memoir’s most endearing character, transformed the Oakeshott Avenue house into a home with her warmth and intuitive affection.  Her “vitality invigorated the home of the Mazowers” and her “energy kept the family together” (p.166).  Throughout her time in London, Frouma sorely missed her family back in Russia.  She toyed with the idea of returning to Russia.  To preserve and nurture ties with loved ones and her homeland, Frouma wrote  letters, the “lifeblood” of her family’s continued existence “after it had been sundered” (p.196).  For Frouma, the nurturing of family ties was a “way to withstand the pain of history” (p.6).  Her son William was the anchor that kept her in England.

                 But Frouma and Max’s household also included William’s half-siblings, André and Ira.  André, born in 1909 and 16 years older than William, was a “shadowy and constantly shifting presence” (p.102) at 20 Oakeshott Avenue, rarely seen as William grew up.  The story of André’s mother Sofia Krylenko, and her relationship with Max, was at the pinnacle of Max’s most closely guarded secrets.  But Mazower was able to learn that Sofia had been a prominent Russian revolutionary in her own right, a woman of “culture and independence and means, a modernist, a free spirit” (p.133), whom Max probably met when both were exiles in Germany.  Unlike Max, Sofia never made the turn to familial life.  She “remained an activist and castigated others for their compromises” (p. 135).  She was institutionalized during World War II and probably died during the war.

                Mazower established that Sofia’s son André came to London in 1913, when he was not yet four years old, but was able to uncover little else about the boy’s early years.  He considers the possibility that Max was not André’s father, a possibility that André encouraged as an adult.  At a minimum, Mazower concludes, Max acted as if André were his son.   André went on to attend Cambridge University, where he tried his hand at poetry and came under the influence of the poet T.S. Eliot.  As he moved into adulthood, he remained financially dependent upon Max for long stretches of time.  Otherwise, there was little contact between the two.  He would show up in Highgate unannounced, and recounted little about where he had been or where he was going next.  Frouma wrote of on-going tension between Max and André.

                  André wrote The Red Thread, a controversial tract that indulged in discredited anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  He converted to Catholicism, moved to Spain and, much to Max’s chagrin, supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  Despite his tilt to the right side of the political spectrum, André shared with his revolutionary mother Sofia what Mazower describes as a “propensity for ideological extremism, an attraction to secrecy and the conspiratorial worldview, and perhaps too the combination of self-pity, stubbornness, and self-romanticization that often accompanied them” (p.162).  His repudiation of the leftist views of Max and Sofia was in Mazower’s view André’s way of dealing with the sense of being “unmoored by the storms of history, his form of reaction to living the aftermath of revolution”  (p.162).  André died at age 95, in 2005.

            In sharp contrast to André, Frouma’s daughter Ira was omnipresent in the Mazower family’s life as William grew up.  Born in Russia in 1912, by the time she was five, Ira had lived through a world war, a revolution, a civil war, mass epidemic and famine.  In what for her must have been “insufferably tranquil” North London, Ira became a “sardonic, self-absorbed, willful English-speaking teenager with an artistic temperament” (p.219).  Throughout her life, Ira pursued an ideal of “beauty and glamour as if seeking to wipe out her earliest memories and revive what they had effaced” (p.223).  In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Ira first married at age 17, in 1935.  The marriage lasted just weeks. 

                After World War II, Ira turned to clothes and fashion, initially a “source of fantasy,” her way of “turning life at home into something stylish and stylized” (p.226).  Her big break came when she took a position as art editor of a popular fashion magazine.  She proved to be a talented writer who demonstrated an “easy way with words” and did not “take herself too seriously” (p.227).  Ira wrote The Glass of Fashion, a “paean to glamour” (p.227) for austere post-war Britain, in which she argued that fashion was a good escape for women, reflecting the “daydreams of millions of women” (p.227).  The book received good reviews.  She went on to write several modestly successful fantasy novels, “packed with court intrigue, noble gamblers, dashing rakes, illegitimacy, mad passion and fatal attractions” (p.231).

                While living in Highgate with Max and Frouma and working in central London, Ira fell in love with the family’s neighbor, Richard Jeffries, known as “Jeff,” a banker in the City who was married with several children.  Max and Frouma considered Jeff “very English,” i.e., native born and not Jewish.  After Jeff left his first wife to marry Ira, the couple lived a lavish lifestyle, featuring fancy hotels, a Jaguar, luxury cruises, and lots to drink.  Ira wrote a memoir “designed to turn childhood pain into 1950s cocktail entertainment,” a sort of “Ballets Russes fantasy” with a “lighthearted style” which kept at bay the “fears, knowledge, and memories that lay close beneath the surface” after her life had become prosperous and comfortable  (p.221-22).  Like André, with whom she otherwise had very little in common, Ira too became “quite reactionary” as an adult, given to “making outrageous statements about peasants and workers” (p.218).

                In 1985, Jeff had a heart attack while driving, and was killed.  Not yet 70, Ira died of an overdose three days after Jeff’s funeral.  To Mazower, Ira’s death almost seemed as if she was living out one of her novels.  He describes his father’s half-sister as a woman who sought to “banish the memory of revolutionary deprivation, re-creating in the safety of an English suburb something of the comfort that had been snatched from her in childhood” (p.220). 

                 After the turbulent lives of Frouma and Max, and the unconventional lives of André and Ira, the memoir switches gears when Mazower addresses his father William.  William’s childhood was characterized by a “high degree of tenderness and gentleness,” along with the “omnipresence of his mother’s affection” (p.244).  Although Max was aloof and distant, “more or less incapable of demonstrating physical affection” with his son, Mazower’s Dad “never questioned that his father loved him, and felt both protective and proud of him as Max aged” (p.49).  Like his father, William was “not a talkative man, and he shied away from the personal like a nervous horse” (p.1).   

            William was a 14-year-old schoolboy when World War II broke out.  By war’s end in 1945, he was a “trained soldier with multiple technical skills.”  Although he never saw combat,  he had been through “bombing and air raids and knew about weapons and had seen the devastation they caused” (p.279).  After the war ended, he spent time with the British Army in occupied Germany.   He had been admitted in 1942 to Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College — the “powerhouse of the British political elite in the mid-twentieth century” (p.298) – but was not able to complete his studies at Balliol until several years after the war. 

              William spent his entire professional career as a middle manager in a multinational company, showing “no interest at all in climbing the greasy pole to executive glory” (p.333). He married in 1955, with children coming quickly thereafter: four boys, of which our author was the oldest.  William chose to be more present in his sons’ lives than his father had been in his.  But the responsibility he felt as the son of immigrants never left him.  His settled upbringing helps explain the “gratitude and respect” Dad “always felt to his parents, and his sense of obligation to them” (p.238-39). 

* * *

            The turbulence and upheavals of the twentieth century that had altered his grandparents’ lives and robbed his father’s half-siblings of normal childhoods had an impact on his father as well, Mazower concludes, “insofar as he understood the relationship to the place of his birth in a very specific and deeply felt way and because he knew what good fortune was whenever he looked at his family tree” (p.347).  As he journeyed physically and emotionally from New York to London to piece together this beguiling memoir, Mazower too must surely have recognized the good fortune he discovered in his family tree.   

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky USA

July 21, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, English History, European History, History, Russian History

Imprisonment and Exile as Liberation

 

Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:

The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)

            In February 1895, Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), then 40 years old, was at the top of his game as a poet, playwright and critic, known throughout the English-speaking literary world for his brilliant wit, glittering conversational skills and charming if flamboyant appearance.   Two of his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were playing to packed houses in London’s West End, with the latter about to open in New York.  Wilde was married to wealthy Englishwoman Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons whom Wilde adored, ten-year-old Cyril and nine-year-old Vyvan.

            Wilde’s marriage to Constance was by then more than a bit shaky, in no small part because Wilde had fallen passionately and recklessly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a brash, unpredictable, and frequently imprudent aristocrat, sixteen years younger than Wilde.  Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, heartily disapproved of the relationship between the two men, threatening at one point to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if Douglas did not end it.   This included showing up at Wilde’s house accompanied by a boxer, and almost disrupting the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde got wind of his intentions and barred him from the performance.  Then, on February 18, 1895, the Marquis left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling “sodomite.”  Against the advice of nearly everyone, including George Bernard Shaw, Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for criminal libel in an effort to put an end to the harassment, once and for all.  It was not a good decision. 

            Douglas’ father employed spies to dig up evidence that Wilde was in reality a “sodomite,” a term frequently used in late Victorian England as a synonym for homosexual.  His lawyers introduced romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquis’s son.  The court found the Marquis’s description of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” to be legally justified, and Wilde withdrew his suit.  He was then arrested on charges of “gross indecency” under a loosely worded and subjective statute that made almost any private and consensual action potentially subject to criminal prosecution.  After a sensational trial that aroused much interest in England and abroad, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. 

               In Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, Nicholas Frankel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, focuses upon Wilde’s last years, both his imprisonment, from May 1895 to May 1897, and the remaining three and a half years of his life, which he spent in exile in Dieppe, in Northern France, Naples, Sicily, and above all Paris, where he died in November 1900.  Unlike more comprehensive Wilde biographies, Frankel argues that his “represents the first sustained effort to understand Wilde’s imagination through the prism of his final years” (p.16).  Frankel provides a perceptive account of the unforgiving prison conditions that prevailed in late Victorian England, and much insight into the surprisingly open environment available to homosexuals on parts of the European continent as the 19th century came to a close. 

                 But the sturdiest thread tying together Frankel’s biographical narrative is Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, the “defining love affair of his life. . . [which] lasted well beyond his imprisonment,” an affair that was “at times intense, passionate, petty, rhapsodic, tender, ill-tempered, and vituperative” (p.31).  Wilde spent only limited time with Douglas after his release from prison, the rest seemingly in an endless pursuit of a variety of men – mostly younger men and boys.  But even when the two were not together, Douglas dominated Wilde’s psyche.

                Wilde fled Britain immediately upon his release from prison in May 1897, never to return.  He realized then that he needed to “reinvent himself as someone who could live and write unapologetically in spite of the poverty, ostracism, and isolation that he already knew he would face upon release” (p.77).  He never regained his full literary aplomb after his release from prison.  But to emphasize this, Frankel argues,  is to miss  the import of Wilde’s post-prison years.  Paradoxically, Frankel writes, imprisonment and exile liberated Wilde to “pursue an uninhibited life, and the pleasure he received in consequence could be enjoyed more fully, as a total experience of heart, mind, soul and body, with conversation as its medium and laughter its index . .  . Wilde’s greatest achievement in exile was himself” (p.303).

* * *

                Wilde served his prison term in several jails (“gaols” in the British spelling).  The prison system in Britain in Wilde’s day was known for being “harshly punitive,” centered on  “hard labor, hard board, and hard fare” (p.36).  The prison population included children as well as seasoned criminals.  Almost every prisoner was held in solitary confinement, with one hour out per day, and no talking among prisoners allowed.  There was little sense that prisoners could be reformed or rehabilitated. 

                Shortly after his release, Wilde wrote a long letter to the Daily Chronicle, a paper interested in prison reform, documenting the “brutality of the current British prison system and the terrible cruelty that it inflicted on child prisoners especially” (p.97).  He had kind words for the other prisoners, the “only really humanizing influence in prison.”  By contrast, prison authorities were “obliged to execute some of the most inhumane regulations” and were the “source of mindless cruelty” (p.98).  The letter, which Frankel describes as a  “masterpiece of plain rhetoric” (p.99), had a clear effect on the 1898 Prisons Act, marking the beginnings of modern penal reform in Great Britain by setting the stage for the subsequent abolition of hard labor and the establishment of separate institutions for young offenders. 

                Wilde’s prison experience also produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a lengthy poem still today considered one of the most cogent analyses of prison conditions, an “indictment not merely of the late-Victorian prison system but of the society that convicted and imprisoned Wilde” and, indirectly, a “moving and unapologetic reassertion of Wilde’s sexual orientation” (p.169-70).   The poem was based on the execution of fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, which had a “lasting effect on Wilde’s sense of himself and other prisoners as victims of a cruel, inhuman machine” (p.62).  The Ballad of Reading Gaol ends with Wilde’s “personal views on the justice system and its antithetical character to Christianity” (p.179).  The poem turned out to be the best selling of Wilde’s published writings in his lifetime and has never since been out of print.

                Although Wilde had begun his prison sentence vowing undying love for Lord Douglas, thoughts of Douglas rendered him angry, alienated and depressed as his prison term progressed.  At one point, he considered reconciliation with his wife Constance, who had officially barred him from seeing his children, in exchange for a small allowance upon his release.  During the prison term, Constance temporarily put her divorce plans on hold, but shortly thereafter reversed herself, changed her name, and took her sons to Genoa, Italy, where she died prematurely in 1898.  Wilde never saw his sons again,  “arguably the most tragic element of his final years” (p.103), Frankel suggests.

               In Frankel’s view, Wilde’s changing affections for Douglas were a reflection of his isolation and depression.  Wilde wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas while in prison (toward the end of his term, he was accorded special writing and reading privileges).  The letter has come to be known a De Profundis, much of which was Wilde’s expression of how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do upon release from prison.  But the first third was full of vitriolic recriminations against Douglas.   Prison regulations prohibited Wilde from sending the letter during his incarceration and Douglas claimed he never received a copy.   Frankel sees the intensity of Wilde’s attack on Douglas as a “clue that Wilde still loved him and intended some kind of reconciliation with him upon release,” (p.77), but that he wanted to set the terms for that reconciliation.   

                Shortly after Wilde’s release in May 1897, the pair met in Rouen, Normandy, but it was a fleeting encounter.  They met up again six weeks later in Naples, where they tried over the course of three months to reestablish their relationship.   Naples in the last decade of the 19th century was a city to which Northern European homosexuals naturally gravitated.  “Homosexuality was not a crime in Italy: Italian police, politicians, and prosecutors made little attempt to ban homosexual behavior, expel homosexuals expatriates, or otherwise harass them, and . . . Southern Italy provided an especially appealing destination for Northern homosexuals in flight from strict homophobic laws in their home countries” (p.129). 

            Wilde and Douglas rented a villa in Naples, and had four house servants.  Wilde took Italian lessons from an Italian poet and translator.   They both turned their attentions to writing, with Wilde completing the Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Although they were happy together, the English community in Naples ostracized them. A representative of the British Embassy in Rome traveled to Naples to tell Douglas “discretely” that his cohabitation with Wilde was causing a scandal back home and pressured Douglas to “eject Wilde from the house”  (p.153).  Moreover, both men had extravagant tastes and money was a never-ending problem, one that put an end altogether to the sojourn in Naples.  

               Douglas received money from his mother, Lady Queensbury, now divorced from the Marquis, and Wilde had an allowance as part of his settlement with Constance.   But Lady Queensbury threatened to cut off her son’s allowance if he continued to cohabit with Wilde.   Douglas concluded that he had no choice but to leave Wilde, while demanding that his mother send Wilde £200.   She did so, but only after receiving Wilde’s pledge that he would never again live under the same roof as her son.   Although both Douglas and Wilde expected their relationship to continue in some form thereafter, in fact their time as a couple ended in Naples.

               Wilde arrived in Paris in February 1898 and, with the exception of a two-month return visit to Italy from March to May 1900, remained there up to his death.  Paris for Wilde represented the “glittering capital of the World Republic of Letters, and he had always enjoyed a greater sense of intellectual freedom and recognition in the city. . . [I]t was above all the contrast between English public condemnation and French acceptance of his most controversial works that led Wilde to feel more at home among the French” (p.194-95). 

                  With a thriving and extensive homosexual subculture, centered on cafés and bars near the Champs Elysées, Paris had “long possessed a reputation for openness and toleration, especially in the eyes of the British” (p.193).  Homosexuals bonded socially as well as sexually in late 19th century Paris, Frankel writes, “relatively untroubled by any fear of police repression and scrutiny” (p.207).  Many of the active homosexuals were quite young, between 14 and 20.  Wilde called meeting with these young men “feasting with panthers,” and made no effort to hide his determination to continue such “feasting,” now that he lived singly, with no social standing to protect and hence little reason to be furtive.  “Within days of his arrival in Paris, Wilde began a series of open, public liaisons with young men offering him personal and sexual companionship” (p.207).

                 Frankel gives particular attention to a friendship of another sort which Wilde struck up in Paris, with Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man later determined to have framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  L’Affaire Dreyfus, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, was at its height when Wilde arrived in Paris in mid-February 1898 (I reviewed three books on the Dreyfus affair here in February 2012).  Esterhazy’s combination of “charm, bravura, and obvious criminal guilt fascinated Wilde” (p.12).  Although his friendship with Esterhazy has since elicited “severe moral disapproval,” Frankel sees it as “perfectly consistent with much that Wilde had written and done at the height of his social and literary success” (p.231).  Esterhazy, with his “frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” represented the “true liar” (p.231) whom Wilde had celebrated in his writings.  But the friendship ended suddenly when the proof against Esterhazy became irrefutable and he fled France – for England. 

               Paris provided opportunities for Douglas and Wilde to see one another “without attracting the disapproving attentions of English journalists”  (p.212).  They met frequently, often dining out together, although Frankel finds it unlikely that they had a sexual relationship during this time.  Both were pursuing younger men; they often shared partners.  And they continued to quarrel over money, with Wilde pressing the case that Douglas should be supporting him financially.  Douglas initially rejected Wilde’s entreaties, but he sent Wilde about £125 in the last months of 1900.  In August of that year, Wilde and Douglas dined together for the last time, at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra, their preferred dining site. 

               The saddest element of Wilde’s final year in Frankel’s view was that he “could no longer write.  For at least two years after his release, he had remained determined to prove that he still possessed literary genius and that prison had not killed his creative spirit”  (p.261).  Although his arrival in Paris in February 1898 had coincided with the publication in England of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with significant critical and commercial success, Wilde came to the realization in Paris that there would be no “artistic resurrection.”  He would “never again recover the social and literary standing he had lost” (p.205).  

                 By 1900, Wilde had become increasingly unable to “step out of the wreckage his life had become: he could no longer write creatively, his health was declining, and he was rapidly losing the confidence of some of his most loyal friends and supporters” (p.258). He succumbed to “fits of lassitude and self-pity” (p.205), with depression, sadness and drinking to excess dominating his last year.  Wilde by then was a “physically altered person” who had “put on weight, and his once luxurious hair was thinning and turning grey.  He had grown distinctly deaf . . . and he now often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to hide his bad teeth” (p.257).  But if he could no longer write, he could still tell beautiful stories to anyone willing to listen, talking with a  “brilliance and fertility of tongue and imagination that nobody could match” (p.262).     

                In early September 1900, Wilde suffered a fatal relapse of an ear infection that had afflicted him while in prison and went untreated. The only solution was a radical operation with a high risk of permanent hearing loss.  Wilde submitted to such an operation on October 10, 1900, creating an open wound that left him in constant pain and required daily dressing and cavity packing.   Although he realized some improvement toward the end of October, in November the infection spread to his brain.  He died on November 30,1900, in his Paris hotel room, six weeks short of his 46th birthday, alone and with little fanfare.   Douglas paid about £20 in funeral costs.

* * *

                 Queen Victoria died less than two months after Wilde. Their deaths together, Frankel contends, marked the end of the Victorianism with which Wilde had always been at odds.  Frankel concludes his thoughtful biography by noting that Wilde had served as the “harbinger of new attitudes that would eventually come to replace the repressive Victorian laws and morality surrounding matters of sex and gender” (p.294-95).   His imprisonment and exile may have liberated future generations more than they liberated Wilde himself.     

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

June 26, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under English History, History, Literature

The Full Six-Pack

 

Laura Thompson, Take Six Girls,

The Lives of the Mitford Sisters 

            Is there anything more or original left to say about the Mitford sisters, those six girls born into the English upper class between 1904 and 1920 and became household names in the fraught 1930s, achieving both fame and notoriety that would endure throughout World War II and the entire post-war period, up until the last died in 2014? Freelance author and journalist Laura Thompson thinks so. Adding to a long list of works about the Mitfords — enough to fill a mid-size library if you include the many books by the sisters themselves – Thompson seeks to capture a collective Mitford spirit rooted in the times in which the sisters lived and their inter-family relations — a “veritable morass of female rivalries, shifting and reconfiguring throughout their lives” (p.25), as she puts it in Take Six Girls, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters.

            Thompson says the Mitford girls were like a “social experiment, the results of which would have staggered even the most imaginative scientist” (p.1). Oldest daughter Nancy (1904-1973) became a highly acclaimed novelist and writer.  Second daughter Pamela (1907-1994) married a brilliant but eccentric physicist and accomplished horseman, who had five additional marriages; when her marriage broke up, she took up with an Italian horsewoman.  Diana (1910-2003) left what from the outside looked like the perfect high society marriage for Oswald Mosley, the demagogic leader of Britain’s fascist party, and she and Mosley spent time in jail during World War II as potential traitors to Britain.  Unity (1914-1948) in her early 20s became a particular favorite of Adolph Hitler, meeting with the Führer on more than 100 occasions, and thereby made herself the object of thoroughgoing public revulsion as relations between Britain and Germany worsened in the late 1930s.  Jessica ((1917-1996), a fervent communist, went to Spain to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and ended up in the United States, where she became a leading American progressive.  Only Deborah (1920-2014), the youngest sister, managed to live something akin to a conventional aristocratic life.   And then there was brother Tom (1909-1945) , born between Pamela and Diana, an integral if outmatched part of the family.

            The term “Mitfordian” has a meaning, Thompson contends, much like Dickensian or Proustian, although that meaning never quite emerges in these pages.  The sisters’ complexity and their feisty individualism would likely thwart any attempt to provide a tidy definition to the term.  Still, Thompson identifies some commonalities between the six Mitford sisters.  The  sisters were “never going to be ignored,” she writes. “Being what they were, they did not want to be. They had a feel for the limelight, a desire to prance in the in the glow” (p.10).  They were “naturally and comfortably shameless” or at least “shame free” (p.9).  A “blend of formality and anarchy that is impossible now to achieve,” with an “indestructibly feminine way of breaking the rules,” the sisters “always operated within certain boundaries” (p.24).

         Thompson arranges her book in approximate chronological order, in four parts: Part I, family background and early years; Part II, the 1930s; Part III, World War II; and Part IV, post-war.   But the parts are unnamed, with no titles, leaving readers on their own to figure out the focus and direction for each. Thompson writes in a breezy, informal style that at times becomes too cute.  We can imagine that we the readers are seated next to her on a couch as she goes through a family photograph album and provides commentary, caustic and defensive in equal doses, while showing us family photos.

        Eldest daughter Nancy and third daughter Diana loom larger than the rest in Thompson’s account, the two centerpieces to the story of six sisters.  “When people talk about the ‘Mitford Girls,’” Thompson writes, it is Diana and Nancy whom they really mean, “because without the separate components of Diana and Nancy the spell of the whole would never have been created” (p.11).  Nancy and Diana were the two queens “who dominated the rest, and who each would have dominated outright had it not been for the other” (p.113).

          Thompson draws freely upon Nancy’s novels as keys to understanding the family.  The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s 1945 best seller that Thompson compares to Brideshead Revisited, “contains the genesis of the Mitford myth” (p.12). It was Nancy’s “mythologizing skills” and the way she marketed herself, her family and her social class that gave rise to the sustained public interest in what Thompson terms the “full six-pack” (p.19). Without these mythologizing skills, the girls would have been looked at individually, with most focus on Unity and her friendship with Hitler.

          The Mitford girls were born into the early 20th century English aristocracy, at a time when its wealth was diminished and its influence increasingly under question. The girls’ upbringing manifested many of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that go with generations of inherited privilege. While brother Tom went off to Eton, the girls were educated at home, at the three different country houses they inhabited. Home education was handled partially by governesses, but more by giving the girls access to the family library, full of books of all genres, and being told to read.  And read they did, voraciously.

         The head of the household, David Mitford, was the 2nd Baron Redesdale, a loving father by the standards of the times but at a loss as to how he should react to his “bright and mischievous and competitive” daughters (p.77).  Like many of his social class, David, a peer in the House of Lords, was hopeless with money.  David’s wife, Sydney Bowles, the girls’ mother, was cold, reserved, judgmental, miserly with praise – “not innately maternal” (p.64), as Thompson delicately puts it.  Unlike her husband, however, Sydney was fastidious when it came to money.   But in Thompson’s account, David and Sydney are mostly perplexed parents, not quite sure what to make of or do with the seven children they brought into the world.

          Whereas many English aristocratic families identified culturally with France, David and Sydney entertained an affinity for German culture.  They were attracted to the writings of Goethe and Schiller, the music of Bach and Brahms, the operas of the Wagners.   This affinity proved problematic in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power.   Like many in the English upper classes, David and Sydney saw Hitler and the Nazis as a bulwark against communism, which they considered by far the greater menace.  David in the 1930s became one of Britain’s most outspoken proponents of appeasement of Hitler.  Of the seven Mitford children, all but Nancy and Jessica shared this generally benign view of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II.

          Thompson notes that oldest daughter Nancy’s debutante ball at age 18 was in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power in Italy. Deborah, the last sibling, had her coming out ball in 1938, just after Hitler’s Anchluss with Austria. The Mitford girls thus came of age during “one of the most politically explosive periods in history” (p.1). In this tense period, politics became “ever more openly polarized and extreme.  Communism and Fascism stood at each end of the global chessboard like clumsy monoliths. Democracy seemed a feeble little beast by contrast, bleating of moderation in the face of the aftermath of war and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and mass unemployment” (p.5). While the book covers the sisters into the 21st century, the Mitford phenomenon finds its origins in the tumultuous period  prior to World War II.  The “nature of the girls, the nature of the world at that time: such a configuration can never happen again” (p.3).

* * *

            Eldest daughter Nancy was not the only talented writer among the sisters, but she was the unofficial family raconteur and scribe.  She was also the token Francophile in a family drawn to German culture.   By the standards of the time, she married quite late, at the ripe age of 28, to Peter Rodd, after having pursued a dashing homosexual who was more interested in brother Tom.  Her marriage to Rodd proved unsatisfactory.  Like most of the men who entered the Mitford women’s lives, Rodd chased numerous other women during the marriage (he purportedly proposed to several others on the night she accepted his marriage proposal).  But in the end, Rodd was “simply too boring” for Nancy (p.150).  During World War II, Nancy struck up a relationship with Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer close to Charles de Gaulle, and followed him to Paris after the war.  Palewski was even more proficient than Rodd in pursuing multiple women simultaneously. They never married, but Nancy’s affection for Palewski  remained unwavering during the post-war years, which she spent in Paris, writing prolifically.  Through it all, her relationship with Diana was riddled with tension.

            Diana was in Thompson’s view the most physically attractive of the sisters, “beautiful as a goddess” (p.8).  At age 19, she married Bryan Guinness, heir to a family fortune derived in part from the beer of that name.  Although Bryan was a “worshipping husband” and the couple had two young sons together, Diana left her life of “picture book perfection” (p.8) with Guinness for Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist Party, the British Union of Fascists, and 14 years Diana’s senior.  Married at the time, Mosley too was a serial womanizer.  But he continued to live with wife during his affair with the 22-year-old Diana, while pursuing other women.  Diana lived for nearly two years in a separate residence, an outcast in her family, waiting for Mosley’s attentions.  Her conduct seems mad, Thompson writes.  She had walked out on a man who had “given her everything, to face a future of absolute uncertainty” with “London’s worst philanderer” (p.136-37).   In 1932, open adultery of this kind was “scandalous beyond comprehension” (p.137).  Thompson describes Diana’s otherwise inexplicable attraction to Mosley as the “unfathomable paradox” within Diana: “a woman of the most intensely civilized values . . . was, in her deepest soul, attracted to something dark, harsh, dictatorial and violent” (p.140).

          Only after Mosley’s wife died did he and Diana marry – at the home of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with Adolph Hitler as the guest of honor.  Although Mosley’s philandering did not end with the marriage, they stayed married for the remainder of their lives. The Mosleys actually came closest together as a couple during World War II, after  both were interned as wartime security risks, without charges or trial.  When public authorities sought to intern Mosley, Nancy suggested that his internment would be “quite useless if [Diana] is still at large” (p.244).  After three years’ imprisonment, the couple was released in November 1943 because of Mosley’s ill health. Jessica stated in an open letter to Prime Minister Churchill that their release betrayed “those who have died for the cause of anti-fascism” (p.249).

            Diana’s sister Unity, four years younger, introduced Diana to Hitler after the two sisters had attended a major Nazi rally in Nuremberg.  Unity was most likely conceived in a small Canadian mining town called Swastika, Thompson indicates, when Sydney accompanied David on an otherwise unsuccessful mining venture. Cynics might therefore contend that the Nazi symbol remained embedded in her genes from that point forward.  In early 1934, at age 20, Unity went to Munich, with the crazy schoolgirl dream of meeting Hitler.  Thompson speculates that this was her way of competing with older sister Diana, who was by then with Mosley.  Somehow, she did meet the Führer, and spent substantial time in his presence between 1936 and 1940, with 140 documented meetings.

                Unity was treated “like an honored guest at rallies, [and] at events such as the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Bayreuth Festival; she was twice invited to [Hitler’s] retreat at Berchtesgaden . . . Effectively Unity was admitted to Hitler’s inner circle” (p.168).  Her relationship with Hitler, Thompson indicates, was most probably platonic.  There’s no clue that Unity was a romantic rival to Eva Braun, the Führer’s official mistress (see my review of two books on Hitler’s relationship with Braun, reviewed here in March 2013). Thompson describes Hitler’s attraction to Unity as “light relief, a combination of younger sister, court jester and talisman . . . [Hitler] was impressed by Britain, fascinated by its ability to command an empire, and like so many people he was compelled by the British aristocracy” (p.169). For her part, Unity in her early twenties came to consider herself an intermediary between Britain and Germany, capable of steering the two countries away from war.

               More than Diana, Unity was vilified in the public eye for her coziness with the Nazis as Britain and Germany inched toward war. In August 1939, just before the war’s outbreak, Unity attempted unsuccessfully to take her own life, leaving her with substantial brain damage from which she never recovered.  The bullet lodged itself at the back of her head, in a position too precarious to allow its removal, “causing her to become wholly childlike in her moods, her lack of co-ordination and her incontinence. Yet somehow she remained very much herself” (p.209).  Unity was the first of the Mitford sisters to die, in 1948, at age 34.

           Although always under the spell of her older sister Diana, Unity somehow remained close to her sister Jessica, the family’s official lefty, a communist who unlike most of the rest of the family looked upon Hitler as a grave threat.  While Jessica never wavered in her dislike for Diana, and saw her only rarely in adult life, she considered her Nazi-loving sister Unity “easily my favorite sister” (p.255), an innocent, led astray by Diana.

            Jessica’s embrace of communism was for her parents almost completely beyond comprehension. Jessica created her own family scandal, akin to Diana leaving her marriage for Mosley, when she eloped with a fellow communist, Esmond Romilly, the nephew and rumored son of Winston Churchill, whom she had met in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was an Alpha male, much like Mosley in that regard — “Mosley with a red flag” (p.182) – and still another man who did not attach a high priority to marital fidelity.

            The pair traveled to the United States as war loomed, owning and running a bar in Miami purchased with the assistance of Washington Post owner Phillip Graham.  Esmond joined Canadian Air Force in 1940, and was lost in action after a bombing raid over Germany in 1941.  Jessica stayed in Washington during the war, where she worked for the government.  She eventually remarried, to American civil rights lawyer Phillip Truehart, a leading American progressive and also – surprise – a serial philanderer.

        Jessica and Truehaft were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late ‘40s and 1950s, and both came under suspicion for their Communist Party affiliations during the McCarthy era.  She and Truehaft left the Party in 1958.  In the 1960s, Jessica became a best-selling author with her The American Way of Death, an exposé of the exploitative practices of the American funeral industry.  She continued investigative journalism and the pursuit of liberal causes in the United States and wrote prolifically for the remainder of her life.

       Pamela and Deborah are the sisters most difficult to decipher in this account, seeming to get lost amongst their flashier sisters. Second-oldest Pamela married the eccentric Derek Jackson, a brilliant physicist and accomplished horseman, with a colorful personal life who married six times. Thompson contends that Jackson was at one time or another in love with all the Mitford girls except Nancy, as well as with brother Tom.  After her divorce from Jackson in the 1950s, Pamela took up with an Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi, in what turned out to be a lasting partnership.

          The last daughter, Deborah, had the life that most closely conformed to whatDavid and Sydney had in mind for all their daughters.  As a young woman, she became friendly with the Kennedy family.  At a party at the United States Embassy, she not only danced with the future American president, she also met Andrew Cavendish, the nephew of future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Andrew’s brother Billy married Kathleen Kennedy in 1944, but was killed in the war shortly thereafter; Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948). Deborah married Andrew in 1941 and became the Duchess of Devonshire.  Her marriage proved to be the most stable by far among the sisters.  Thompson describes Deborah as “emollient. She really was the only Mitford girl to retain good relations with all the others and to receive, and deftly juggle, all their confidences” (p.65). The last of the Mitfords to die, in 2014, Deborah’s most conspicuous eccentricity was that she was an inveterate fan of Elvis Presley and filled her stately country home with memorabilia of America’s king.

            Brother Tom, growing up surrounded on all sides by female energy and intensity, seems to have been a decent chap, good looking and likely gay.  Tom was the one person in the family “whom everybody both respected and liked” (p.71). His affection for Hitler and the Nazis rivaled that of Diana and Unity. He died in World War II, fighting Japan, after refusing to fight in Europe against Germany.  Tom’s loss was felt deeply by all his sisters. They were “united in the fact that they all loved Tom: a man who had known Mosley and Romilly and had found the respect and liking of both” (p.283-84).

* * *

             Whether Thompson’s book contains any breakthrough revelations that might lead to a new and different understanding of the six sisters is a question for more seasoned Mitford readers and scholars.  The book may not produce a lasting collective notion of the sisters and what made them so . . . Mitfordian.  But readers who are new to the Mitfords will find Thompson’s work a thorough introduction to the sisters, while seasoned Mitford readers are likely to marvel anew at the sheer implausibility of the six sisters’ stories. You can’t make this stuff up!

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 16, 2018

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

* * *

          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

Ineffective Peace Treaty

MagnaCarta

Dan Jones, Magna Carta:

The Birth of Liberty 

 

            The Magna Carta, a document dating from 1215 — a mere 802 years ago – is now regarded as the foundation for some of the most enduring Anglo-American liberties, among them trial by jury; the right of habeas corpus; the principle of no taxation without representation; and the notion that the king is subject to and not above the law.  Grandiose terms such as “due process of law” and the “rule of law” are regularly traced to the Great Charter. Yet, when we look at the charter from the perspective of 1215, we see a markedly different instrument: an ineffective peace treaty designed to end civil war between a loathsome English king and rebellious barons that brought about almost no cessation of hostilities; and a compact that, within a few short weeks of its execution, was condemned by the Pope in the strongest terms, when he threatened both sides with excommunication from the Catholic Church if they sought to observe or enforce its terms.

            Dan Jones’ Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty seeks to capture the perspective and spirit of 1215. In this compact, easy-to-read volume, Jones, a British historian and journalist who has published extensively on the Middle Ages, takes his readers back to the late 12th and 13th centuries to show the origins and immediate after effects of the Great Charter. To this story, fascinating in itself, Jones adds much rich detail about life in England and on the European continent during the Middle Ages — for kings and barons, to be sure, but also for everyday folks, those without titles of nobility. In Jones’ interpretation, the Magna Carta was the product of a struggle for control of the 13th century English feudal order between three institutions: the crown, the nobility, and the Catholic Church.

           The key characters in Jones’ story are King John I — “bad King John,” as I remember him described in school; approximately 200 barons, England’s’ most powerful nobles who, upon condition of pledging loyalty to the king, ruled over wide stretches of the realm like miniature kings; and Pope Innocent III, in Jones’ view one of the greatest medieval popes, a “reformer, a crusader, and a strict clerical authoritarian” (p.41) with an unbending belief in papal supremacy that was bound to clash with the expansive notions of royal prerogative which John entertained.  Yet, the two headstrong personalities enjoyed a brief period of collaboration that led directly to the Great Charter.

* * *

        Jones rejects recent attempts of historians to rehabilitate John’s reputation. “Bad King John” seems to summarize well who John was: a “cruel and unpleasant man, a second-rate soldier . . . slippery, faithless, interfering, [and] uninspiring . . . not a man who was considered fit for kingship” (p.28-29). Born in 1166, John was the youngest of five sons of the first of England’s Plantagenet kings, King Henry II, and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of the five sons, only John and his brother Richard survived to adulthood. Richard, known as “Richard the Lionhearted” for his “peerless brilliance as a military leader” (p.24), succeeded his father as king in 1189.

        Neither Henry nor Richard spent much time in England. Both were busy fighting adversaries in France and acquiring lands in Brittany, Normandy, and Western France.  Richard was also involved both in the Third Crusade to the Holy Land and in wars elsewhere on the European continent. On his deathbed, Henry learned that his son John had joined some of his leading French adversaries in plotting against his father. John repeated his treachery during his brother Richard’s reign: he provoked conflict with Richard’s royal administrators while his brother was away, attempting to seize control of government for himself. Without children, Richard died in battle in France in 1199 and John inherited the English throne.

         John began his reign fighting wars on several fronts in France. Within five years of his accession, he had lost “virtually the whole Continental empire that had been so painstakingly assembled and defended by his father and his brother” (p.33) — not without reason was he known as “John Lackland.” But John “never gave up believing that he was obliged – perhaps even destined – to one day return to the lands he had lost and reclaim them” (p.38). As he devoted the better part of ten years to reclaiming lost French lands, John needed to raise huge revenues. Wars in those days, as in ours, were expensive undertakings.

         John was relentless in exploiting familiar sources of revenue and spotting new ones. He sold immunity from lawsuits and charged aristocratic widows vast sums to forego his right to subject such women to forced marriage. He expanded the lands deemed royal forests, and imposed substantial fines on those who sought to hunt or collect firewood on them. He levied punitive taxes on England’s Jews. None of these measures were wholesale innovations, Jones indicates. What made John different was the “sheer scale and relentlessness with which he bled his realm. Over the course of his reign his average annual income was . . . far higher than [what] either his father or his brother had ever achieved” (p.38).

       But John was most ruthless in imposing taxes and fees upon England’s 200 or so barons, who officially held their land at the pleasure of the king. Pledging loyalty to the king and paying taxes and fees to him permitted a baron to live, literally, like a king in a castle, surrounded by servants who worked in the castle, knights who pledged loyalty to the baron, and serfs who tilled nearby land. Beyond basic rent, the barons were subject to a wide range of additional payments to the king: inheritance taxes, fees for the king’s permission to marry, and payments to avoid sending a baron’s knights to fight in the royal army, known as “scutage,” one of the most contentious sources of friction between John and the barons. John “deliberately pushed numerous barons to the brink of bankruptcy, a state in which they became highly dependent on royal favor” (p.50).

            As tensions between king and barons mounted over John’s “pitilessly efficient legal and a financial administration” (p.53), John also challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the “ultimate guarantor” in 13th century England of the “spiritual health of the realm” (p.45).  In 1206, John found himself in direct confrontation with the church’s head in Rome, Pope Innocent III.  John objected vehemently to Innocent’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, an instance of an on-going struggle over ecclesiastical appointments, in which kings claimed the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms and popes resisted acknowledging any such right. Langton’s potentially seditious ideas alarmed John. The pope’s nominee condemned the “avarice . . . of modern kings” and criticized those who “collect treasure not in order that they may sustain necessity, but to satiate their cupidity” (p.40-41).

            To impede Langton’s appointment, John seized lands belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Innocent retaliated by placing an interdict upon England, forbidding most church services, a severe sentence on all of John’s subjects, placing in peril England’s “collective soul” (p.45). Later, the Pope excommunicated John — the ultimate 13th century sanction that a pope could impose upon an earthly being, foreclosing heaven’s everlasting grace and exposing the hapless soul to eternal damnation.  The stalemate ended in 1213 when John, facing the threat of an invasion from France, agreed to accept Langton as Archbishop, pledged obedience to the Pope and the Catholic Church, and vowed to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Through this “astonishing volte-face,” John could henceforth claim “special protection from all his enemies as a personal vassal of the pope” (p.57).  For his part, Innocent had shown “remarkable moral flexibility,” blending seamlessly the “Christian principle of forgiving one’s enemies with a willingness to consort with almost anyone who he thought could help him achieve his heartfelt desire to smite the Muslims of the Middle East” (p.89).

          Having made his peace with Rome, John pursued his quest to retake previously lost lands in France.  He suffered a humiliating loss  in 1214 at the town of Bouvines in Northern France to forces aligned with French King Phillip Augustus.  After this catastrophic debacle, and with his “foreign policy and military reputation now severely tarnished,” John returned to England to find the “chorus of baronial anger at his high-handed brand of kingship louder than ever” (p.63). A group of barons, but perhaps not a majority, formally renounced their fealty to John, thereby “declaring themselves free to make war upon him” (p.105). Having “unilaterally defied their lord and freed themselves from the feudal oath on which their relationship and the whole of the structure of society depended,” the barons were henceforth “outlaws, rebels, and enemies of the realm” (p.105).  John’s kingdom was “teetering dangerously on the brink of civil war. It was a war he could neither avoid nor afford to pursue” (p.63).

       In a mutinous spirit, the barons demanded that John confirm the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation issued by King Henry I more than a century earlier, in 1100, that had sought to bind the King to certain laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials, and individuals.   John’s response was to hold a council in London in January 1215 to discuss potential reforms with the barons. Both sides appealed for assistance to Pope Innocent III. John’s reconciliation with the pope two years earlier turned out to be a “political masterstroke” (p.58). The Pope squarely took John’s side in the dispute, providing him with a key bargaining edge.

          From late May into the early days of June 1215, messengers traveled back and forth between the king and the rebel barons. Slowly but surely they began to feel out the basis for an agreement, with Archbishop Langton playing a key role as mediator. By June 10, 1215, the outlines of an agreement had taken detailed form, and John was ready to meet his rebellious barons in person. The meeting took place at Runnymede, a meadow in Surrey on the River Thames, about 20 miles west of London, a traditional meeting point where opposing sides met to work out differences on neutral ground. General agreement was reached on June 15, 2015.  Four days later, the barons formally renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and official copies of the charter were issued.

* * *

         The bargain at Runnymede was essentially an exchange of peace to benefit the king, for which the barons gained confirmation of many long-desired liberties. The Runnymede charter was “much longer, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated than any other statement of English law or custom that had ever been demanded from a King of England” (p.141). The written document was not initially termed “Magna Carta”; that would come two years later.  It consisted of 4.000 words, in continuous Latin text, without divisions. Subsequently the text was sub-divided into 63 clauses. “Read in sequence,” Jones writes, the 63 clauses “feel like a great jumble of issues and statements that at times barely follow one from the other.  Taken together, however, they form a critique of almost every aspect of Plantagenet kingship in general and the rule of John in particular” (p.133).

          Buried deep in the document were Clauses 39 and 40. Clause 39 declared: “No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or disseized, or outlawed or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (p.138). Clause 40 stipulates: “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” (p.138-39). More than any other portions of the charter, these two clauses constitute the reason why the Magna Carta remained consequential over the course of the following eight centuries. The two clauses enshrine, Jones states, the “basic idea that justice should always restrain the power of government” (p.139). They contain in embryo form the modern notions of due process of law and judgment by equals.

     But these clauses were far from priorities for either side. The charter’s first substantive clause affirmed that “the English Church shall be free” (p.134), a clause inserted at Archbishop Langton’s urging to limit the king from interfering in church appointments. Although the Magna Carta is “often thought to be a document concerned with the secular rights of subjects or citizens,” in 1215 its religious considerations were “given pride of place” (p.135).   Subsequent clauses restrained the king’s right to impose taxes upon the barons.

      The charter explicitly limited the authority of the Exchequer – the king’s treasury, the “most important institution of royal government” (p.14-15) – to impose inheritance taxes, so that it could no longer “extort, bully and ruin anyone whom the king happened merely to dislike” (p.136). Scutage, the tax exacted as an alternative to service in the king’s armies, was to be imposed only after taking the “common counsel of the realm” (p.136), foreshadowing the notion developed later in the 13th and 14th centuries that taxes could be imposed only after formal meetings between the king and his subjects.

        Clause 61, known as the “security clause,” was arguably of greatest importance to the barons. It established a panel of 25 specially elected barons empowered to hold John to his word. If John were to “transgress against any of the articles of peace” (p.140), the clause entitled the barons to renounce their loyalty to the king and take appropriate action, including taking the king’s castles, lands and possessions.  The security clause was the first mechanism in English history to allow the “community of the realm to override the king’s authority when that authority was abused” (p.140). More bluntly, if John were to backslide on his obligations under the charter, the clause explicitly “allowed for licensed civil war” (p.140).

        Other clauses in the charter regulated bridge building; banned fish traps; established uniform weights and measures for corn, cloth, and ale; and reversed the expansion of royal forests that had taken place during John’s reign. There was also, Jones writes, much in the Magna Carta that remained “vague, woolly, or fudged. In places the document feels like frustratingly unfinished business” (p.139). Yet, beneath the host of details and specificities of the charter, Jones sees two simple ideas. The first was that the English barons could conceive of themselves as a community of the realm – a group with “collective rights that pertained to them en masse rather than individually.” Even more fundamentally, although the king still made the law, he explicitly recognized in the charter that he had a duty to “obey [the law] as well” (p.141).

* * *

          The weeks that followed the breakup of the meeting at Runnymede were, as Jones puts it “messy and marked by increasing distrust” (p.143). In the immediate aftermath of the charter’s confirmation, John was flooded with demands that he return land and castles he had confiscated in previous years. Prior to the end of June 1215, John was forced to make fifty such restorations to rebel barons. Seeing little advantage to the peace treaty he had agreed to, John convoked another meeting with the barons in July at Oxford. There, he sought a supplementary charter in which the barons would acknowledge that they were “’bound by oath to defend him and his heirs ‘in life and limb’” (p.144). When the barons refused, John wrote to Pope Innocent III asking him to annul the Great Charter and release him from his oath to obey it.

           Writing back with the “righteous anger that he could summon better than any man in Europe”(p.144), Innocent more than complied with John’s request. In words that left little room for interpretation, Innocent declared the charter “null, and void of all validity forever” (p.145). Under threat of excommunication, Innocent enjoined John from observing the document and the barons from insisting upon its observance. By the end of September 1215, roughly 100 days after its execution, the Magna Carta was, Jones writes, “certifiably dead” (p.145).

* * *

          But the Great Charter did not remain dead.  Although civil war between John and the barons erupted anew in the autumn of 1215, the charter received new life with the deaths of the story’s two protagonists the following year: Innocent died in July 1216 and John in October of that year.   After John’s death, the charter evolved from a peace treaty imposed by the king’s enemies to an “offering by the king’s friends, designed to demonstrate voluntarily the commitment of the new regime to govern by principles on which the whole realm could agree” (p.184-85). For the rest of the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta was “reconfirmed and reissued at moments of political instability or crisis” (p.184-85). Even where its specific clauses grew irrelevant and obsolete, “much importance was still attached to the idea of the Magna Carta as a bargaining chip, particularly in relation to taxation” (p.186-87).   By the end of the 13th century, a peace treaty that lasted just a few weeks more than eight decades earlier had become the “founding stone of the whole system of English law and government” (p.189-190).

       Into this story of political intrigue and civil conflict, Jones weaves detailed descriptions of everyday life in early 13th century England: for example, what Christmas and Easter celebrations entailed; the tenuous lives of serfs; and how life in London, already England’s largest city, differed from that in the rest of the realm.   These passages enliven Jones’ study of the charter’s origins and immediate afterlife.

           In a final chapter, Jones fast forwards several centuries, discussing briefly the Great Charter’s long afterlife: its influence on the rebellion against the Stuart kings in 17th century England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; how the charter underlay the rebellion of England’s American colonies during the following century; and its continued resonance in modern times.  The charter’s afterlife, Jones writes, is the story of its myth and symbolism becoming “almost wholly divorced from its original history” (p.5).  Jones’ lucid and engrossing work constitutes an invaluable elaboration of the charter’s original history, reminding us of the unpromising early 13th century environment from which it emerged to become one of the most enduring documents of liberal democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 23, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, Rule of Law

Managing Winston

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Clementine.2

Sonia Purnell, Clementine:

The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill 

            Biographies of political spouses run the risk of being overwhelmed by the politician once he or she enters the scene. Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by far the most comprehensive biography to date of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, does not quite succumb to that risk.  But Purnell, a freelance British journalist and historian, provides a fresh look at the familiar ups and downs in Winston’s career, recounting them from Clementine’s perspective, from the time the couple first met in 1904 and married in 1908 through Winston’s death in 1965.  Although comprehensive in its cradle-to-grave coverage of Clementine herself, the book shines in its treatment of the couple during World War II.  When Winston became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in 1940, Clementine functioned as her husband’s closest advisor. She was, Purnell writes, Winston’s “ultimate authority, his conscience and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people.”  Without Clementine sharing his burden, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine [Winston] becoming the single-minded giant who led Britain, against almost impossible odds, to victory over tyranny” (p.391).

            But if World War II was the couple’s own “finest hour,” to borrow from Winston’s famous speech to Parliament in June 1940, many of the qualities that enabled them to survive and thrive during that trial can be traced to the testing they received during World War I.  War, it seems, served as the force that bound their marriage together.  We know a great deal about the workings of that marriage because the couple spent an extraordinary amount of time apart from one another. They corresponded regularly when separated, and even communicated frequently in writing when they were together under the same roof. By one count, the couple sent about 1,700 letters, notes and telegrams back and forth over the course of nearly six decades of courtship and marriage, many of which survive.

          The Churchills’ correspondence and the other portions of the record that Purnell has skillfully pieced together reveal a marriage that had its share of difficult moments, bending but never breaking. Both spouses had volatile and frequently volcanic personalities.  Although her husband was known for his bouts of depression, referred to informally as “Black Dog,” Clementine had an actual case of clinically diagnosed depression, and more than her fair share of mood swings and temperamental outbursts. Further, both spouses were surprisingly indifferent parents, more devoted to each other than to their children. Clementine, tormented that Winston might abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother, clearly placed Winston’s needs over those of her children. Yet, on more than one occasion she seems to have contemplated leaving the marriage.  Nonetheless, over the course of 57 years, the marital glue held.

* * *

         Clementine, born in 1885, had an unorthodox upbringing. Her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, of aristocratic origin but limited means, was trapped in a bad marriage to Colonel Henry Hozier, who left his wife and children during Clementine’s early childhood. To this day, historians debate whether Hozier was indeed Clementine’s biological father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Clementine’s two sisters, Kitty and Nellie, may have been her half sisters – their paternity has not been conclusively established either. After Colonel Hozier’s departure, the three girls lived a peripatetic life with Lady Blanche, who took her children frequently to Northern France and allowed herself to be pursued by a wide number of suitors. Kitty seemed to be her mother’s favorite among the three daughters, but she died a month before her 17th birthday and her mother “was never the same again” (p.21). Lady Blanche never provided Clementine with a steady, loving childhood, a loss which likely affected Clementine’s subsequent relationships with her own children.

         Clementine was first introduced to rising political star Winston Churchill at a society ball in the summer of 1904, when she was 18 and he was 29.  She was far from impressed with the “notorious publicity seeker” (p.29) who had recently defected from the Conservative Party to join the upstart Liberal Party over his opposition to a Conservative proposal to impose protective tariffs on goods imported into Britain.  Inexplicably, the usually gregarious and supremely self-confident young man clammed up, unable to make the requisite small talk. The next encounter occurred four years later, in 1908, when Clementine happened to be seated next to Winston at a dinner party. This time, Clementine “found his idealism and brilliance liberating” (p.31).  Winston was impressed that Clementine, herself more mature at age 22, knew “far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was well educated, sharing his love of France and its culture” (p.31). After a courtship conventionally aristocratic, if short, the couple married later that year (the courtship, marriage and Winston’s early political years, from 1900 to 1915, are the subject matter of Michael Seldin’s Young Titan, reviewed here in May 2015).

            The marriage was “never destined to be smooth” (p.54), Purnell writes. The man Clementine married was “demanding, selfish and rash” (p.54), emotionally needy, lacking in empathy, and a workaholic with a tendency to bully.  But Clementine could be “rigid and unforgiving” (p.4) and brought an “explosive temper” to the marriage, where the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into a fury” (p.53). Plagued throughout life by a pattern of “severe listlessness alternating with near-hysterical outbursts” (p.148), Clementine, not Winston, had the couple’s only case of clinically diagnosed depression. Throughout their first three decades of marriage, the couple was united in the goal of making Winston Prime Minister. But they pursued this goal at no small cost to their offspring.

            Between 1909 and 1922, the couple had five children, four daughters and one son. Daughter Marigold, born in 1918, died at an early age. The four surviving offspring — Diana, b.1909; Randolph, b.1911; Sarah, b.1914; and Mary, b.1922 – “saw little of either parent, even by the standards of British upper-class families of the period” (p.184). Winston outwardly adored his children. He gave them silly nicknames and, when available, enjoyed playing games and roughhousing with them. But he was only infrequently available.  Clementine in this account seemed to lack even this level of intimacy. She was distant and not particularly warm with any of her children, and also frequently absent, either traveling with her husband or away on recurring travel and adventures on her own.

          Randolph, Diana and Sarah went on to lead turbulent adult lives. Randolph drank heavily, gambled frequently and acquired a reputation for boorish behavior.  One of the book’s most surprising – indeed stunning – episodes occurred during his 1939 marriage to Pamela Digby, later Pamela Harrington. It was not a good marriage. Randolph was abusive in many ways, physically and otherwise.  In their troubled  marriage, Randolph’s parents plainly sided with their daughter-in-law over their son. After war broke out, with Randolph serving in the army and the couple living apart, Pamela pursued affairs with several leading figures from the United States, including famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and wealthy businessman Averill Harriman, whom she later married.

            In Purnell’s account, both Winston, by then Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Clementine encouraged these romantic liaisons for their intelligence gathering potential in furtherance of the war effort. Pamela “fast became one of the most important intelligence brokers in the war” (p.275).   She provided information to her parents-in-law on “what the Americans were thinking” (p.274) and boosted Britain’s case for more American assistance.  Randolph never forgave his parents for condoning the liaisons, and it is not difficult to understand why. Randolph died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 57.

            Randolph’s sisters Diana and Sarah also struggled through adult life.  Diana had two bad marriages and suffered repeatedly from nervous breakdowns.  She likely took her own life from an overdose of barbiturates in 1963, at age 54.  Sarah had a moderately successful acting career, but was plagued throughout much of her adult life by alcohol abuse, “drinking herself to her grave by slow stages” (p.387). She married three times. Her termination of an affair with American Ambassador John Winant likely contributed to his suicide in 1947. With Sarah on the brink of filing for divorce from her second husband, he too committed suicide. Sarah died in 1982, five years after Clementine, at age 68.

            Only the youngest Churchill, Mary, “always the perfect daughter” (p.387), achieved something akin to normalcy as an adult.  She married but once, had five children, served in numerous public organizations, and wrote the first (and seemingly only other) biography of her mother.  In the 1960s, she was quoted as saying that, based on her own childhood experience, she “made a conscious decision to put my children first because I did feel something had been. . . yes, missing at home” (p.359).  Alone among the Churchill children, Mary lived to an old age, dying in 2014 at age 92.

            Purnell documents several points between the two wars, and after World War II, when Clementine appeared to be on the brink of exiting the marriage.  Bitter rows between the parents over Randolph’s behavior as a young adult led in the 1930s to hints that the Churchills’ “ever more regular separations might become permanent” (p.196). After the war, perfect daughter Marry sought to mediate the couple’s differences.  Worried that her parents’ marriage again seemed on the verge of falling apart, Mary acknowledged her mother’s “occasional yearning for ‘the quieter more banal happiness of being married to an ordinary man’” (p.354).

          Another sign of the marriage’s sometimes fragile character came in the 1930s, when Clementine, traveling without her husband on a four-month cruise of the East Indies, fell under the charms of Terence Philip, an art dealer with a reputation for “passing flirtations” (p.203).  Phillip was “tall, rich, suave, an authority on art and unburdened by driving ambition – unlike Winston, in fact, in almost every respect” (p.201). It is unclear whether Clementine’s relationship with Phillip was adulterous. Phillip was “thought not to be that interested in women sexually. . . Nevertheless his open and ardent admiration shook Clementine to her core” (p.203-04). Purnell also describes an incident where Winston was invited to take tea with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn upon arrival at her apartment that the barely clad woman had a purpose other than tea in mind for his visit.  Upon discovering that purpose, Winston “insisted he had left immediately” and recounted the incident to Clementine, who “appears to have been surprisingly relaxed about the encounter” (p.132).

* * *

            Purnell neatly weaves these soap opera details of the Churchill family into the familiar story of Winston pursuing his political ambitions and the less familiar story of Clementine playing an indispensable role in that pursuit. Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Winston became Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order in the country.  In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, and held this position when Britain found itself at war in 1914.  In this capacity, he oversaw the failed 1915 attack on Ottoman Turkey at the Dardanelles straights, a calamitous failure for which Winston became the scapegoat, “held liable for one of the bloodiest British military failures in history” (p.81). Purnell suggests that Winston’s marriage saved him from self-destruction at the time of this grim setback. Only Clementine “could repeatedly tell him why he was deemed untrustworthy and why he had made so many enemies”(p.118).

             With Clementine’s support, Winston slowly crept back into politics. He lost his seat as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1922. At a time when the Liberal Party was fading into irrelevance, he rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that capacity, he oversaw Britain’s return in 1926 to the gold standard, another decision that proved disastrous for him politically, resulting in deflation and unemployment and leading to the General Strike of 1926. With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston was out of politics and entered what he later termed his “Wilderness Years.” In the 1920s, he had earned a reputation as somewhat of a crank, railing incessantly about the Bolshevik menace to Europe.  In the 1930s, he shifted his rhetorical target to Germany and the threat that Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party posed, which the public perceived initially as little more than another example of his crankiness. But in May 1940, Winston became his country’s Prime Minister, charged with leading the war against Nazi Germany which had broken out the previous September.  Winston and Clementine’s “true life’s work” then began,  and she “would barely leave his side again until it was done” (p.234).

            By the time Winston became Prime Minister, Clementine was already an “amalgam of special advisor, lobbyist and spin doctor” — or, as David Lloyd George put it, an “expert at ‘managing’ Winston” (p.94). At each juncture in Winston’s career, Clementine developed an “astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated” (p.57). She closely reviewed drafts of Winston’s speeches and coached him on effective delivery techniques.   Campaigning for his seat in Parliament bored Winston, and he frequently sent Clementine to rouse his constituents as elections approached.   In a time before political optics and images were given over to full-time professionals, Clementine was Winston’s optics specialist. With her “surer grasp of the importance of public image” (p.3), she frequently raised questions that the more impulsive Winston hadn’t fully thought through about how a course of action would look to the voters or be perceived internationally.

            During World War II, Clementine assumed an unprecedented role as Winston’s aide.  It is unlikely, Purnell contends, that “any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power – albeit entirely behind the scenes.  She did not duplicate what Winston was doing, or cross it; she complemented it and he gave her free rein to do so” (p.246-47).  When Winston was in Teheran in December 1943 meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin, for instance, Clementine was busy putting out fires and easing tensions within Winston’s cabinet.  At the same time, she “reviewed reports on parliamentary debates, read the most secret telegrams, kept [Opposition leader and Deputy Prime Minister] Clement Attlee informed of the prime minister’s progress, dealt with constituency matters, and sent back to Winston digests of public reaction to the war “(p.314).

          Yet, paradoxically, Winston and Clementine did not see eye-to-eye on many of issues of their time, with Clementine’s instincts conspicuously more liberal than those of her husband.  Despite her aristocratic background and lofty position as a politician’s’wife, Clementine was unusually adept at establishing links and relations with average citizens. Her relatively impoverished childhood and limited work experience while unmarried “fostered in Clementine an instinctive sympathy for the worker’s point of view” (p.103).  Even before World War I, she was a fervent advocate of women’s voting rights, “just the first of many issues on which she would part ways with her husband’s more conservative political views” (p.56). Later she would champion co-education at Cambridge University’s Churchill College and abolition of the death penalty.

          During World War II, Clementine frequently visited injured military personnel and otherwise sought out everyday citizens to encourage them to continue to support the war effort.  She also prevailed upon her husband to create opportunities for women to serve in auxiliary military roles. Winston was “initially unenthusiastic at the idea . . . but Clementine persevered and he became one of the first to appreciate that the country could not win through the sacrifice of its menfolk alone” (p.241).

         A tale within the tale of World War II is Clementine’s relationship with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two met on several occasions during the war. Clementine did not care for Eleanor’s husband Franklin, who had taken the unpardonable liberty of calling her “Clemmie,” a “privilege normally reserved for the most deserving and long-serving friends” (p.310); and there was no love lost between Winston and Eleanor.  Eleanor felt Winston “romanticized war” (p.281), while Winston found Eleanor to be a busybody “who did not conform to [his] ideas of an ‘attractive’ woman” (p.285).  Nonetheless, the two women “enjoyed each other’s company” (p.296).  They were of a similar age and upper class backgrounds, and each had endured a difficult childhood.  Both demonstrated uncommon concern for the poor and their countries’ least favored citizens.  Each lost a child as a young mother, and had children who struggled through adult life.  Purnell notes that the four Roosevelt sons racked up 18 marriages between them, while Clementine’s four children blundered through a mere eight.

          But the Roosevelts were living almost entirely separate lives during World War II, with Eleanor reduced to the role of a second-tier political advisor, in the dark on most of the key war issues that her husband was dealing with.  She sometimes criticized or questioned her husband’s decisions or policies in a newspaper column she wrote. Such public airing of differences between Clementine and Winston was unthinkable for either spouse.  As Purnell notes, Clementine “never even hinted publicly about her private disagreements with Winston. But then [unlike Franklin Roosevelt] he kept nothing from her” (p.306).

          Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month prior to the end of Europe’s most devastating war.  A few short months later, Winston, himself in poor health, saw his Conservative party voted out of office, as Clement Atlee and his Labour Party won a general election in July 1945.  Improbably, Winston returned at age 77 as Prime Minister to lead the Conservatives from 1951 to 1955, his final and generally unsatisfactory years as government leader.  He remained a Member of Parliament until the October 1964 general election, and died just months later in January 1965.

* * *

         Purnell ends her substantive chapters with Winston’s death, covering Clementine’s final years as a widow, up to her death in 1977 at age 92, in an “Epilogue.” This was a period of “almost ethereal calm” (p.387) for her.  With Randolph’s death in 1968, she had outlived three of her five children. Her husband’s towering reputation across the globe was secure and, as Purnell puts it, “if her light was fading, so be it” (p.388).  Purnell’s thoroughly researched and highly readable work constitutes a major step in assuring that Clementine’s light continues to shine.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 4, 2017

 

9 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Uncategorized

Remarkable Life, Remarkably Sad Ending

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Marx.2

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life

     Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii).  She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.

     But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.

     Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny.  Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.

     The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.

    Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.

* * *

    By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.

    Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

    By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.

     Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system.  But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law.  Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.

     While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre.  Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).

     The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,

* * *

      Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.

     Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side.  The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).

    Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.

     Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420).  In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.

     When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:

questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).

     Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by  desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).

     Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32).  The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy.  Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of.  Aveling had by then left the premises.

    What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed  him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

* * *

      If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Politics

Liberal Star Rising High, Falling Fast

churchill

Michael Shelden, Young Titan:
The Making of Winston Churchill

                  Michael Shelden’s Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill adds a significant slice of the life of Winston Churchill to the ever-growing body of Churchill literature. Shelden, author of highly-acclaimed biographies of George Orwell, Mark Twain and Graham Greene, treats Churchill’s earliest years in politics, roughly 1900 to 1915. The book is easy to read. Rather than digging deeply, the book seems to skim along the surface of British political and social life in the first decades of the 20th century and, as such, constitutes an enjoyable glimpse of Britain at what was arguably the apogee of its worldwide power.

              Churchill returned to England in 1901 at age 26, after making himself known to the British public at a very young age for his adventures, exploits and writing from places as diverse as Cuba, India and the Sudan. “Most dramatic of all,” Churchill survived “capture by the Boers in South Africa, and then [made] his escape across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory” (p.7). Thanks to a “torrent of prose in five books and many newspaper articles, almost everyone in Britain knew of young Churchill’s brave deeds on three continents between 1895 and 1900” when he had “lived the adventures of a storybook character” (p.7). Having made his reputation as a man of adventure, the supremely confident Churchill now sought to “earn respect as a man of learning. He regretted not having a university education, but he was always his own best teacher, and had made good use of his independent reading. In political battles, he wanted to excel by making knowledge his sword, entering each fray with more facts and a deeper understanding than his opponents” (p.29).

               As he embarked on a career in public service, Churchill considered politics “almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous” (p.83). He successfully launched his political career in 1901, winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative. Less than three years later, however, Churchill switched to the Liberal Party and his political fortunes soared. But the book ends abruptly in 1915 with the spectacular failure of a British military operation during World War I at the Dardanelles. Then head of the Royal Navy, Churchill was held responsible and forced to resign. In the book’s final pages, the brilliant political wunderkind appears to have gone down in flames, crashed and burned, with a highly uncertain future ahead of him.

               Much of the first half of the book concerns not Churchill’s politics but his search for a suitable wife. There were numerous candidates whom Churchill pursued, always with zest. The first was society femme fatale Pamela Plowden, who spurned Churchill’s marriage offer. Shelden suggests that this was a lucky break for Churchill, who “sadly misjudged Pamela’s character from the start.” Shelden describes Plowden as a “young woman of ordinary desires who always found it hard to limit her interests to one man” (p.53). A notable exception to Churchill’s search within England’s aristocracy was the American singing star Ethel Barrymore. In addition to her own multiple attractions, it could not have escaped Churchill’s attention that as he was pursuing Ms. Barrymore, he was also following in his revered father’s footsteps — America was the birthplace of Churchill’s mother Jennie (although Churchill’s father died well before the book starts, his mother is a constant here, advising her son on many of the romantic and political issues he was dealing with). But Barrymore too spurned Churchill’s marriage offer.

             Another leading candidate was Violet Asquith, daughter of Henry Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister during much of the period covered. Shelden describes Violet as “strong-willed,” “highly opinionated,” “idealistic,” “overwhelming,” and “romantic” (p.152-53), qualities which could also be ascribed to Churchill. But similar though they might have been, Churchill was not as attracted to Violet and she was to him, and did not extend a marriage offer to her. Later in life, Violet wrote that their relationship had been one of “unrequited love” (p.152). Yet, Churchill retained contact with Violet throughout his married life. Much like his mother, Violet served was an informal political advisor to Churchill. Shelden describes Violet as the sister Churchill never had.

                 Churchill’s campaign to find a wife came to an end in 1908 – and at about the half-way point in the book — when he wed Clementine Hozier (always “Clemmie” to Churchill). Eleven years younger than Churchill, Clementine was the granddaughter of an Earl and thus had the requisite aristocratic background. But her childhood was hardly royal. Her mother, Lady Blanche, separated from her husband, Sir William, when Clementine was 6, and to this day it is not clear whether Sir William was Clementine’s biological father. After the separation, Clementine and her family “lived a frugal but often colorful life in England and France” (p.167), where Lady Blanche befriended numerous artists and writers, including the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Churchill liked Clementine’s unconventional background and her French connections. “Bachelor life had been lonelier than Winston had wanted to admit,” Shelden writes, and when he married Clementine, the woman he would stay married to for life, he had found a “companion with whom he could share everything” (p.207).

          Churchill’s shift from the Conservative to the Liberal Party in 1904 marked a crucial turning point in the ambitious young politician’s career. The immediate issue prompting the shift was tariffs on goods coming from with the Empire. Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlin, a Birmingham industrialist known as the “King of the Screw Trade” (p.64), favored tariffs to boost revenue and home industries. Churchill was at heart a free trader, a good liberal position, but the issue seems like a pretext – Churchill had calculated that he could rise higher and faster within the Liberal Party for several reasons, not least of which was that his boss would be his friend Violet’s father, Henry Asquith. In his new party, Churchill found a “‘house of many mansions’ large enough to hold even the oversized individuality of Winston Churchill, giving him the chance to belong to a party that he could define as he chose” (p.178).

          Churchill saw Britain’s next political battlefield at home, lying in the “growing discontent over questions of economic justice and basic human rights” (p.57). He joined forces with the more radical Beatrice Webb and astonished everyone by how swiftly he managed to lay out his vision of a Britain “protected and liberated by what later generations would call the social safety net” (p.218). He called for a “network of State intervention & regulation,” which he hoped would “give everyone in Britain a minimum standard of security in such areas as employment, housing, and old age pensions. This was heretical thinking for a politician who had left the Tories only three years previously” (p.164).

            In 1907, Asquith appointed Churchill to his first cabinet position, President of the Board of Trade. At age 33, Churchill was the youngest cabinet member in nearly 50 years. Although his strong suit had generally been style, after entering the cabinet, Shelden argues, Churchill was able to show that he was also a “political leader of real substance” (p.217). As Board of Trade President, Churchill was responsible for three major achievements: the Labour Exchanges Act, which created a national job placement system; the Trade Boards Act, which helped alleviate unhealthy working conditions and miserable pay among “sweated laborers,” mostly women in small workshops; and a scheme for unemployment insurance which was embodied in the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill described these as actions designed to give a “greater measure of security to all classes, but particularly to the laboring classes” (p.218). By 1909, the last year that the Liberal Party had a commanding majority in the House of Commons, Churchill had become the party’s most effective figure.

            Churchill next accepted a post as Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order the country. He had become, in effect, the country’s top cop. “In his work as a Liberal legislator, Winston had been trying to create a better life for the millions struggling to survive in the hard conditions of industrial Britain. But in his job at the Home Office he was given a harrowing view of the crime and depravity in the nation’s slums and was forced to confront how intractable these problems were” (p.222). Throughout his tenure as Home Secretary, Churchill acted with flair, gusto, and daring. He was not a low profile leader.

              In an infamous confrontation with striking miners in Tonypandy, South Wales, Churchill suppressed the miners’ protest, efficiently if perhaps also ruthlessly, making enemies on the left. Then, he enraged conservatives with his efforts to reconcile with the miners. Churchill emerged from the crisis with a “whole new set of enemies on the right and left blaming him for doing the wrong thing – one side saying that he was too tough, the other that he wasn’t tough enough (p.237). Churchill gained further notoriety when two Russian anarchists went on a shooting spree in the East End of London. He was called to the scene precipitously, and adroitly managed to minimize casualties as the house in which the anarchists were hiding went up in flames. Although Churchill’s handling of the incident should have been one of his finest moments as Home Secretary, instead he was “ridiculed as a grandstanding egomaniac who didn’t have any business inserting himself into an armed police operation” (p.241).

            By the time he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, in 1911, Churchill had already begun to grasp the implications of Britain’s growing military and economic rivalry with Germany and the importance of sea power in defending the British Isles and the empire. Churchill, Shelden writes, was the “only major British leader who was thinking so far ahead about the catastrophe that awaited the world” (p.258). He wrote an eerily-prescient memo that year, supposed to be only for Asquith and the Committee of Imperial Defence, which “read like an outline for a novel about the first weeks of a European war” (p.257). Drawing on his considerable powers of imagination, Churchill described what he believed would transpire in the first forty days of fighting. As he pointed out after the First World War, his forecasts were “almost literally verified three years later by the event” (p.257).

                       When war broke out in 1914, Churchill, not yet 40, found himself:

at the center of a world war, with a heavy responsibility for the largest navy in the world, and a duty to protect the shores of his island nation. It had taken him only thirteen years to rise from a parliamentary backbencher to one of the top posts in an empire at war. After all the struggles, after all the political fights and name-calling, he now had the chance to change the course of world history, and to prove the worth of his heroic view of life (p.306-07).

            With his “youthful energy, battlefield experience, and the will to win” (p.309), Churchill seemed to be everywhere at once in the opening months of the war. He actually went into combat, taking part in the defense of Antwerp, Belgium. This was, to say the least, a highly unusual tactic for someone in his position. Lacking sleep but with his mind spinning relentlessly, Churchill came up with all sorts of ideas for saving the city, some good, some not so good. The worst came when he wired Asquith requesting that he be allowed to resign as First Lord and given “full powers of a commander of a detached force in the field.” In the heat of battle, Churchill had “lost all sense of priorities, thinking that holding Antwerp was everything. But the only priority that mattered at that second was winning” (p.310). As Shelden points out, leaders were often criticized for sending others into battle. Now, Churchill was criticized for doing the opposite.

             Then came the ill-fated 1915 attack on the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile straight which divides European from Asian Turkey along the Gallopi peninsula, emptying into the Mediterranean. By Shelden’s account, Churchill unwisely accepted the advice of an eccentric and cantankerous retired Admiral, Jacky Fischer, once considered the “greatest naval innovator of his time” (p.275), but then in his seventies and well past his prime. The idea was to take out Ottoman Turkey, Germany’s ally, to enable Russia, Britain’s ally, to move freely through the straights to the Mediterranean, thereby forcing Germany to shift its focus away from the Western Front, where British troops were entrenched. The assault turned out to be a “disaster from start to finish . . . [W]hen the older battleships moved into the strait on March 18 to attack additional forts they ran into mines, and they were lost in a matter of a few hours. . . mistake after mistake was made” (p.315). The Turks “proved to be far more disciplined and determined than the British had been willing to believe” (p.315).

                The setback in the Dardanelles was “so big that a suitably big scapegoat was needed, and Winston was it. As soon as things began to go wrong, little time was wasted in pointing the finger of blame in his direction” (p.315). As Shelden puts it, the “young Titan had pushed his luck too far” (p.315) and was forced to resign. In a war that left so many of its combatants maimed or traumatized for life, Churchill was “lucky to escape with merely a wounded career. But he couldn’t be sure at the time that the wound would ever heal and allow him to resume his rise to the top. Because he had been so sure of himself, and had risen so quickly, he was so unprepared for this precipitous fall that few options were left open to him” (p.321).

                 Churchill “lost something in 1915 that he never regained,” Shelden concludes. A spirit that had “once seemed so vital and inexhaustible, a lively spark that had served him well from crisis to crisis . . . [had] flickered and went out in 1915 and Churchill was never the same” (p.323). We all know, however, that the pugnacious Churchill survived, rebuilt his career and much more. The ignominious ending to the story leaves the reader hoping that Shelden will next describe the path which the fallen Liberal star took back into the political arena.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
April 26, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, Uncategorized

Not So Great

Hochschild.realone

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars:
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 

          Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion makes a nice complement to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, reviewed here in September. Hochschild’s work does not purport to be a comprehensive account of what is sometimes called the Great War, as is Clark’s on the prelude to the war. Rather, Hochschild elaborates upon selected manifestations and consequences of the destruction unleashed in the summer of 1914, destruction that “still seems beyond belief,” with a “magnitude of slaughter. . . beyond anything in European experience” (p.xiii-xiv). In artful prose, Hochschild surveys war resisters, women’s rights advocates, socialists, soldiers on the front lines and their commanding generals. His approach is anecdotal but also rather strictly chronological, treating the war in yearly sections, staring in 1914 and ending in 1918. Hochschild’s primary focus is on Great Britain, but he manages to bring all the belligerents into his picture. Throughout, he writes sympathetically and passionately, yet objectively, about those who prosecuted the war and those who opposed it.

          Hochschild starts with a captivating prelude termed “Dramatis Personae,” which provides an overview of Britain in the half-century prior to 1914. Here, Hochschild introduces his readers to several of the main characters of his book, whom he follows throughout the course of the Great War. These exceptionally vivid sketches personalize the fault lines of the war, none more so than between career soldier John French, who became commander of British forces on the Western Front, and his pacifist, progressive sister, Charlotte Despard, who led the opposition to the war. Hochschild also gives prominent attention to Douglas Haig, French’s “ambitious subordinate” (p.104), who replaced French as Western Front commander and in that capacity made some of the most misguided strategic decisions of the war. The jingoistic poet Rudyard Kipling is the figure in “Dramatis Personae” most likely to be familiar to readers. Kipling’s unabated enthusiasm for the war was tested when his beloved son John disappeared in battle in Northern France. Hochschild also introduces his readers to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fervent support for women’s suffrage overrode her pacifist inclinations; and James Keir Hardy, leader of the British Socialist Party and a true believer that socialism was the perfect antidote to war.

          “Dramatis Personae” further highlights forces that changed the nature of warfare when the conflict broke out in 1914, most of which came into view during Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Over 100,000 civilians, including African farmhands, Boer women, children, and elderly were herded into guarded concentration camps, “an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future” (p.33). More than twice the number of Boer civilians died in concentration camps than Boer soldiers who died in combat. The Boer War made clear that industrial might would determine the outcome of the next war.

          The socialism that was gaining ground across Europe as 1914 began was an early manifestation of what we might now term globalism, in which social welfare and improvement of living standards across Europe were deemed to trump workers’ loyalty to their nation states. But British class consciousness proved for the most part an ineffectual competitor with the national loyalties which the Great War demanded. The socialist dream “[d]issolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one’s tribe – a group most defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation” (p.128). In Germany, too, socialists were “like everyone else, carried along on the unstoppable torrent of emotion” (p.92). On both sides, consequently, “governments were delighted to discover that they had feared the left too much” (p.92).

           At the outset of the war, advocates of women’s suffrage were among the few who raised their voices in opposition. Emmeline Parkhurst, who had been a vocal opponent of the Boer War, suggested when war broke out in Europe in 1914 that “all war was the mere byproduct of male stupidity” (p.48). The Suffragettes’ opposition to the war was so strong that her Women’s Social and Political Union decided to put suffrage on hold. But later in 1914, Parkhurst went through a mysterious transformation into a war supporter. Hochschild spectulates that she may have made tactical decision that it would be easier to obtain the vote for women if she supported the war. It was perhaps in recognition of this support, as well as recognition of the sacrifices that women were making to further the war effort, that Britain in 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 — those less likely to have husbands killed or wounded in the war, and therefore less likely to adopt anti-war sentiments, Hochschild suggests. By the time the war ended, Parkhurst had become one of the most strident voices in support of the British war effort.

          The anti-war movement arose in Britain at about same time as conscription and remained an important force throughout the war. By 1916, some 200,000 Britons had signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Russia was the only other belligerent to have an anti-war movement as large and as vocal as Britain. Although the war had unleashed “powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight” (p.257), Britain alone enjoyed the “deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties” that allowed the anti-war movement to flourish (p.188). But with overwhelming pressure from friends and family to support the war effort, it nonetheless required “rare courage to resist” (p.188). Yet, by 1917, there were anti-war voices within the Establishment and the right.

          British leaders vigorously sought to counter anti-war sentiment. Parliament empowered a War Propaganda Bureau, which enlisted a wide range of authors to launch a “flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” (p.148), with the United States being one of the primary foreign targets. “Pamphlets and books bore the imprimatur of well-known publishing houses, and the government secretly agreed in advance to buy copies, which it often distributed for free” (p.148). The Bureau freely ran with rumors and half truths about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. In one court case against a war resister, prosecutor Sir Archibald Bodkin — who, after the war, won fame for winning the case that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses from publication in England – argued that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong” (p.191).  Imagine.

          In his treatment of the realities of the battlefield, Hochschild focuses on trench warfare, new weapons, and battlefield carnage. Trench warfare was not new. Versions were seen in the American Civil War and the Boer War. But it “seemed like such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe had planned for it” (p.123). “No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long” (p.173). On all sides, military leaders were reluctant to admit how dramatically the machine gun had changed warfare. “No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers” (p.124).

              The Battle of the Somme on July1, 1916 was the bloodiest of the war so far, and marked a turning point for Great Britain. Of the 120,000 British troops thrown into the battle, 57,000 were dead or wounded by day’s end – “nearly two causalities for every yard of the front” (p.206). From that point onward, Hochschild argues, the attitudes of British soldiers began to change. “It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference” (p.211). Later that year, however, David Lloyd George as Secretary of State for War allowed a film of the gruesome battle to be shown in theatres. The film actually reinforced civilian support for the war. “The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all” (p.228).

          Hochschild’s treatment of battlefield realities is interlaced with discussions of miscalculations made by military hierarchy, especially French and Haig. Haig combined stubbornness with an “unshakable faith in the rightness of the British cause. . . [and a] mindless optimism in the face of bad news” (p.321). Haig adhered to his belief that the cavalry was still the 20th century’s key to military success. Referring to two cavalry skeptics, Hochschild quotes Haig as saying, “If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches” (p.139). High casualties were seen in some military circles as a sign of aggressive leadership and a measure of success. This perverse logic, Hochschild writes, “sometimes led Haig to fly into rage when he thought British losses . . . were too low” (p.209). But what made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” his son wrote, “because these visits made him physically ill” (p.210).

          Haig launched a bombing campaign in Northern Belgium – one of lowest spots in Europe’s “low countries” — with no apparent thought given to the possibility that this bombardment would “wreck canals and drainage ditches and leave tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water” (p.285). Haig and French were jointly responsible for Britain’s first use of poison gas, on September 25, 1915. The winds did not favor the use of gas that day and, when the day was done, Britain had suffered more casualties than Germany from its own gas.

          The following day, Haig made a decision to order an advance by two battle weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly up a hill guarded by German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. Out of the 10,000 men thrown into battle, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded or missing in very short time. It is difficult for us to look at this “spasm of carnage” on September 26, 1915, Hochschild writes, as “anything other than a blatant, needless massacre” initiated by French, Haig and their advisors “with near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced” (p.165). But, Hochschild notes, few survivors saw that day’s carnage in this light. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant . . . asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born” (p.165).

          After detailing the military ineptitude that exacerbated the unparalleled carnage on the battlefield, Hochschild poses the question that lies behind his narrative: is there an argument to be made, from Britain’s perspective, that the Great War had been necessary. Here, Hochschild differs dramatically from Clark, who refused to assign responsibility to any nation state for the outbreak of the war, depicting it not as a crime of any state but a collective tragedy implemented by sleepwalking diplomats. Hochschild would likely respond that the war was both a tragedy and a crime, with Germany the most criminal of the belligerents. It invaded neutral Belgium, committing widespread atrocities against the Belgium civilian population –“pre-figuring the Nazis’ even more ruthless occupation regime of the Second World War” (p.219) — and clearly threatened to conquer France in the West and Russia in the East.

           In the end, though, Hochschild sidesteps a direct response to this question, while nonetheless reminding readers that the consequences of the Great War would be devastating for years to come. The “most toxic legacy of the conflict,” he concludes, “lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed” (p.373).

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 8, 2014

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