Did my father do it?

C.H. Sisson

  • Elizabeth R.: A Biography by Elizabeth Longford
    Weidenfeld, 389 pp, £10.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78285 1
  • Aristocrats by Robert Lacey
    Hutchinson/BBC, 249 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 09 154290 1
  • The Cult of the Prince Consort by Elizabeth Darby and Nicola Smith
    Yale, 120 pp, £10.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 300 03015 0

There is something to be said for the view that the subject of a biography should be dead. Death does not guarantee the truth, nor the disinterestedness of the biographer, but life surely puts some additional difficulties in his way. Certain kinds of evidence will be wilfully denied him, certain other kinds may be offered too profusely or inaccurately. The exact nature of these difficulties will vary with the biographer and with the subject. Why is a particular biography written? Is the pop star or the footballer being promoted by an advertising man or denigrated by a rival or his agent? Is the author anxious merely to sell a lot of copies of his book? Is he seriously concerned about football or pop music, and if so from what point of view? Why, if he is, does he think that a book on the player’s life will help? All these questions, or appropriate equivalents, arise in the case of a biography of a reigning monarch. The market is there – several markets indeed, and the name of Lady Longford is an indication that we are concerned with the upper end. She is not Crawfie – not so well informed on some matters perhaps, but better informed on many more. Moreover, she has come to us with the guarantees afforded by a biography of Queen Victoria, as well as a row of other studies from Jameson’s Raid to Eminent Victorian Women. She has met the Queen ‘on many occasions over the last thirty years’, so has a closer view than one who has merely been among the rabble at Garden Parties or has had to be content with what is to be seen on television. She is the daughter of a Harley Street surgeon and married to an earl, which gives a certain range of social perspectives, and both she and her husband have been active in public life, which no doubt gives others. She is a Roman Catholic, which has a number of consequences for her view of the monarchy.

A biographer of the Queen must be concerned rather with her life and character than with the throne she graces, but there is no separating one from the other. A sense of the possible significances of the life for the work, and vice versa, is essential, and Lady Longford has this. She has thought about the monarchy and what it is; she has some historical perspectives, largely determined by her 19th-century studies. It would be fair to say that she sees things broadening down from precedent to precedent until they are nearly flat. Her theory of monarchy is that of Walter Bagehot, the Victorian journalist and banker, still believed in by Mr St John-Stevas. She even refers in more than one place to ‘St Bagehot’, which I fear reflects the uncritical adoration this smart performer received in academic quarters in the Packenhams’ youth. The essence of Bagehot’s view is that the Queen is merely an Appearance, while he and others who spin coins in the city are the Reality. The rest of the population are more or less nowhere, except in so far as they are encouraged to gawp at the Queen and so to conduct their sordid occupations that the bankers come out on top. Time has a little sullied this fair picture. ‘The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable,’ as Bagehot said, and it matters greatly to the rest of us by whom she is used.

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