Herberts & Herbertinas

Rosemary Hill

  • Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw
    Penguin, 767 pp, £30.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 00493 7

I met Steven Runciman several times towards the end of his long life. On one occasion he told me, as he told many people, that as a young man he had danced with a friend of his mother who, in her own youth, had danced with Prince Albert. He seemed slightly disconcerted when I insisted that he dance a few steps with me so that I could say I had danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince Consort, but he did it and our little turn round the room made me feel in some psychic way closer to the court of Queen Victoria. I can’t say that it brought me any closer to Runciman. He seemed by then a personage quite as remote as Prince Albert, too lacquered in anecdote for there to be any question of getting to know him. His reputation as a historian was past its peak: it was as a figure that he was famous, a relic of Bloomsbury who had perhaps been a spy, who certainly was Astrologer Royal to the Greek court, and a dervish and a friend of the Queen Mother, a name mentioned with awe at the London Library, of which he’d been a member for seventy years and to which he donated a lift with a Latin inscription. Sixteen years after his death, this first biography comes at a critical point in his afterlife. As a historian he is out of fashion and as a figure he’s not likely to mean much to anyone under fifty, yet he is still well within living memory, with all the opportunities and difficulties that creates for the biographer. Ideally, a study on the monumental scale of Dinshaw’s book would need to offer a persuasive assessment of Runciman’s status as a scholar as well as a portrait of the person behind the artful carapace. In both respects Outlandish Knight is an uneven success.

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton
Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Runciman was born in 1903, one of the five children of Hilda and Walter Runciman, Liberal politicians who were the first married couple to sit simultaneously in Parliament. The considerable family fortune came from the shipping line founded by Walter’s father and the Runcimans’ five children were brought up in comfort, but not luxury. Teetotal and Nonconformist, Walter and especially Hilda inclined to plain living, high thinking and a strong sense of public service. Steven, the younger of their two sons, followed his brother, Leslie, to Eton, where he was a contemporary and friend of Eric Blair. In later life he was much irritated by questions from the compilers of the ‘Orwelliad’, as he called them, asking him for his impressions of a person who, as he pointed out, he had not by then seen for 77 years. This didn’t stop him from supplying anecdotes. One of the more striking was an account of the schoolboy Blair defending Aldous Huxley, who was brought in to Eton as a temporary master during the First World War when qualified teachers were scarce. By then nearly blind, Huxley was tormented by the boys until Blair intervened. It is, as Dinshaw remarks, ‘a neat image: the prophet of Brave New World shielded by the creator of 1984 – perhaps a little too neat.’ Thus, early on, he identifies a problem that he never resolves. How to deal with a subject whose accounts of himself ran the gamut from exaggeration to evasion to outright lies and who was not even, as Dinshaw neatly puts it, ‘straightforwardly hypocritical’.

Runciman’s more lasting Eton friendship with George ‘Dadie’ Rylands set the tone for much that was to follow. They both went on to Cambridge, where Rylands was invited to take up his place two terms early because the provost of King’s was in urgent need of an Electra for his Oresteia. ‘Glamour’ was the quality Runciman said he admired most and Rylands embodied it. Roland Penrose, one of Rylands’s many lovers, remembered him as ‘a completely sympathetic person’, others recalled a ruthless heart-breaker. Virginia Woolf, for whom he worked at the Hogarth Press, sketched him in her diary as a faintly preposterous dandy: ‘His silver grey suits, pink shirts, with his powdered pink and white face, his nerves, his manners, his love of praise’. ‘You make a distressingly lifelike loose woman,’ Runciman gasped after seeing him in a college sketch show. Runciman, who had won a scholarship to read history at Trinity, fitted naturally into this highly-strung, self-consciously aesthetic milieu. He got round the rule forbidding pianos in students’ rooms by buying an antique dulcitone, an instrument undreamed of by the college authorities, overspent his generous allowance on ‘an impractically huge Breton oak sideboard’, some Japanese tea sets and his ‘only whim’ – a selection of silk dressing gowns. His friendships were largely with the older undergraduates, dons and the college bursar, Maynard Keynes, who had known Walter Runciman and through whom Runciman found himself in the outer orbits of Bloomsbury. He was later as much irritated by being asked about Virginia Woolf as about Orwell.

His Cambridge life was predominantly homosexual and homosocial. Women were not encouraged. Topsy Lucas, the wife of the classicist F.L. Lucas, one of the few who was tolerated, fell, like all the other ‘Herberts & Herbertinas of all sexes and sizes’, for Dadie and also for Runciman. A friend reported her saying ‘in a rattling staccato’: ‘I love Steven. Douglas has been with him. Steven has been seedy.’ Runciman denied, possibly truthfully, that the relationship with Douglas Davidson, a slightly older Magdalene undergraduate, was physical, describing it as a friendship ‘untrammelled by any emotional complication’. From an early age he seems to have regarded intimacy as undesirable and unnecessary. He apparently never had an acknowledged long-term lover and although he seems not to have doubted the nature of his sexuality, he was not at ease with it. His energetic sexual career was kept in a separate compartment from the rest of his life. Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it. There were other rare glimpses of his interior life in conversations with friends. He once said that he thought his life was a failure because he had never been in love and had hurt those who had loved him. An insight into the origins of this unease bordering on disgust about himself and his sexuality is suggested by a remark of his father’s about the unlikely exotic in the family’s midst: ‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’

It’s a pity that Dinshaw only mentions all this in Chapter 22, where he finally gets round to a proper discussion of his subject’s inner life. By leaving it so late he deprives the reader of the opportunity to sympathise with the otherwise unappealing young man known as ‘robot Runciman’, a son ‘more loyal than affectionate’ and the sort of friend who seems never to have said a kind or generous thing about anyone who wasn’t actually present, unless they were dead. He was close to his mother, but she was not a very warm figure and in adult life he was generally at best ambivalent about women, although he surrounded himself with them. Ambivalence and dislike on such a scale suggests the overflow of deeply rooted self-disgust but Dinshaw does not attempt to tease out such convolutions in his subject’s corkscrew character. Indeed he seems oddly oblivious to the impression of his ‘favourite historian’ that he is conveying to the open-minded reader, often burying where he means to praise. This is his first book and it has the concomitant strengths and weaknesses. It conveys boundless enthusiasm and great industry in research, but having left no stone unturned Dinshaw is at something of a loss to know what to do with the rubble. The book is not well organised and it is far too long, no detail too trivial to be crammed into one of many footnotes. We do not need to know, for example, that the father of the wife of the British ambassador to Egypt was Rudolph Valentino’s doctor.

Dinshaw is on somewhat surer ground in dealing with Runciman’s intellectual ability, of which there was no doubt. After a brilliant first degree he decided to pursue the study of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus in his work as in the rest of his life he chose to operate at an angle to the mainstream. Byzantine studies offered the ‘exotic, unexpected perspective’ he wanted, a combination of scholarship and the ever desirable glamour. One weekend in 1924 he caught a glimpse of Queen Marie of Romania at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley and was captivated: ‘She has painted lips, painted eyes and dyed hair, but is rather beautiful,’ he wrote to his sister, making her sound like Dadie Rylands with the added allure of royalty. He began to travel in the Balkans as a student and it was Queen Marie’s friend and fellow princess, Marthe Bibesco, whom he got to know better. Runciman asked this other princess ‘with huge green eyes … well-suited to the brush of Boldini’ if she would show him Romania and his letter of thanks after that visit strikes a rare note of sincerity and gratitude for ‘three weeks of enjoyment and interest such as I have never experienced before’. ‘I long to write a history of those princes,’ he went on, ‘that kept alive Byzantium in a hostile world, the great native princes, ending with magnificent tragedy in Brancovan’. There is for once a note of that intense emotion which was either absent or repressed in the rest of his life and which from now on found its outlet in the passion and romance of history.

His postgraduate work began under J.B. Bury, regius professor of Greek and history. Bury had few pupils and though Runciman was not, as he later claimed, the only one, he impressed Bury with his abilities as a linguist, already able to read Russian and prepared to take on Bulgarian, though he balked at Hungarian. Perhaps it suited the contrarian in Runciman to have a tutor so unlike himself. Bury belonged to the Rankean tradition. For him history was essentially about facts, it was not, in his view, ‘a branch of literature’. Runciman went on to build his reputation on the opposite premise that ‘history belongs in the English department.’ It was as a populariser, especially in his three-volume history of the crusades, that he became famous. His technique, Dinshaw explains, was to develop an original line with ‘flair and partiality’, choosing little-known subjects where primary sources were often scarce. This gave him an advantage over both his readers and his academic contemporaries. Nobody doubted his flair but his fluctuating reputation has depended on critics’ opinion about the point at which partiality becomes imbalance and eventually fiction and how much that matters. In his second book, The First Bulgarian Empire, which appeared in 1930, he learned, as Dinshaw puts it, ‘to frolic in the evidential void with abandon’. In other words, to make things up. But anyone who persists with a book whose opening sentence reads, ‘Once upon a time, when Constans was Emperor in Byzantium, there lived a king called Kubrat on the shores of the Sea of Asov,’ surely knows what to expect.


Runciman’s books attracted a wide audience to a little-known aspect of history. His books were popular with his ‘grandest and smartest acquaintances’ such as Ottoline Morrell. The First Bulgarian Empire was followed by Byzantine Civilisation and The Medieval Manichee, which was finished in 1940 but not published until 1947. By then Runciman had acquired a reputation as an erudite historian with a rich prose style and a touchy relationship with the professionals, those ‘puzzled and diffident’ dons who made reasonable objections to his ‘capricious’ scholarship while displaying a less justified resentment of his glamour. In 1938, when he inherited a considerable fortune from his grandfather, Runciman resigned his fellowship at Trinity and was from then on largely an independent scholar. There were flirtations with academia, including an episode acting as stalking horse for Hugh Trevor-Roper in his pursuit of the regius professorship. Overall his relationship to the academy was yet another of those ambivalent connections that characterised him. Much as he affected to dislike the idea of a university post he was more than once mortified at being passed over. When Noel Annan, who had been a protégé at Cambridge, was elected to a fellowship at King’s, Runciman wrote him an extraordinarily spiteful letter: ‘I couldn’t disapprove more – not so much of King’s for choosing you: that was perhaps natural; but of you for being chosen, for being the sort of person that is chosen … I always feared that you were doomed given your tastes … and your type of snobbism; and my fears were confirmed by your bright war career and by those so scintillating reviews in the New Statesman.’ Dinshaw generously but perhaps naively attributes the tone to Runciman’s postwar weariness, insisting that his motive was ‘affectionate solicitude’.

The war was certainly a factor and so surely was jealousy. Annan’s military career had been brilliant; he rose rapidly through the Joint Intelligence Staff, becoming a colonel and an OBE at 29. Runciman’s war was odder and less distinguished. Guy Burgess, his first pupil at Cambridge, recommended him in 1940, on the strength of his linguistic skills, for the post of press attaché in Sofia. After the Germans invaded in 1941 he withdrew with the rest of the British legation to Istanbul, where he spent the rest of the war as professor of Byzantine art and history at the university. The connection with Burgess added a retrospective aura of mystery to Runciman’s activities during these years which he did nothing to dispel. The truth seems to have been that he was intended to pose as the sort of disaffected upper-class young Englishman who might be persuaded to collaborate in the event of a German invasion and thereby gather useful information, but in the event not much was achieved. As David Abulafia put it, if ‘he was something more than a professor of Byzantine studies … it would be absurd to cast him in the role of James Bond.’ In truth the war was enormously useful to him, allowing him to pursue his research. Afterwards he went to run the British Council in Athens, where the political climate was tense as Greece moved towards civil war, but society was lively. Among his compatriots were Osbert Lancaster, Rex Warner and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Maurice Cardiff, the army officer who ran the council temporarily before Runciman arrived, recalls him vividly dealing with his improbable staff as they all gamely muddled through. ‘He had two kinds of yesses, one short, even clipped, was a true affirmative; the other, long drawn out with a dip in the middle, signified “no”. The distinction was lost on Paddy, who on the strength of the longest of drawn out “yesses” would set out on a six-week tour of the islands or a trip round the Peloponnese.’ No doubt Runciman was not displeased to have Leigh Fermor, always something of a loose cannon, out of the office for a while. Cardiff also remembered Runciman working in Athens on his study of the crusades, but if so he made little progress. It was at home after the war that he began to write. The three-volume History of the Crusades, long in meditation, appeared in 1951-54. It was, in Averil Cameron’s judgment, ‘a great achievement of narrative history’. It prompted comparisons with Macaulay, who famously hoped to ‘supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies’, and Dinshaw makes a good point about its relationship to the prevalence of trilogies in postwar fiction: Waugh’s Sword of Honour, the three wartime volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy all dealt with the war itself, but the neo-Romanticism of the 1950s also created the appetite for richly coloured quasi-history which made T.H. White’s tetralogy The Once and Future King a bestseller. Like Macaulay, Runciman did not disguise what he saw as the relevance of history to the present and the books are saturated, as Cameron puts it, with ‘regret at the deplorable failure of the crusading West to understand Byzantium and the East’.

It was as a popularising historian that Runciman’s best and most engaging qualities were on show. His palpable love for his subject, the urbane fluidity of his prose and the lack of academic stodginess made further successes of the later, shorter works, especially The Sicilian Vespers of 1958 and The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, published in 1965. In history all that was repressed or hived off in his own life was allowed. He wrote about love, betrayal and homosexuality: ‘Alp Arslan,’ he tells us in The Crusades, was ‘a weak, vicious and cruel boy of 16, completely in the hands of his favourite eunuch, Lulu’. In 1968 with The Great Church in Captivity, a study of the Orthodox Church under Ottoman rule, Cameron suggests he ‘came into his own as a historian of religion’. It was a pioneering work and Runciman, though not himself a believer, was always sympathetic to religious faith, shining a humane light for his readers into an unimaginably distant time and mentality. How far the light penetrated was disputable. Anthony Bryer described the book as ‘like a history of the Anglican Church seen through the eyes of Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem’, but among Runciman’s contemporaries Veronica Wedgwood was a loyal champion. She admired him for shifting the historical perspective, ‘working against the insular and Nordic view of European history, which sees the Channel as the centre … and puts the Mediterranean as the southern limit’. Characteristically, Runciman ‘never quite acknowledged her talent in return’: a lack of gratitude which Dinshaw attributes to the fact that ‘her appearance told against her,’ for she was ‘as plain as her prose’, and anyway Runciman ‘rarely felt much kinship with lesbian intellectuals’. Yet again the reader wonders what Dinshaw imagines he is doing by making his subject appear unpleasant in so many and various ways.

Later historians have objected both to Runciman’s romantic extrapolations and to a prose style which at times seems dated, what Robert Irwin has characterised as his ‘Beau Geste idiom’. Abulafia declined when his own publisher asked him to write a history of the Sicilian Vespers on the grounds that ‘one does not impudently replace a classic’, but ‘classic’ does not mean definitive, or accurate or even terribly good. Had he agreed Abulafia might have found himself awkwardly obliged to criticise the older historian who was by now venerable and to some extent a victim of his own celebrity. The next generation, while ‘bewitched by his style and narrative gift’, was also ‘inclined to view him as himself a historical figure, inseparable from a certain context, even legend … they treated him … with respectful caution, fringed with irreverence’.

The legend continued to grow. Runciman divided his time when not abroad between London and the Isle of Eigg, which he and his brother Leslie had inherited. There Runciman was a popular laird, organising Easter egg hunts for the children and cooking for house guests. Attractive young men were invited first to his St John’s Wood house and if they passed the audition would be ‘summoned to Eigg as a special further favour’. Runciman’s social network was ever-expanding, especially in the direction of crowned heads, though he could be as ungracious about royalty as about everyone else. He received his knighthood in characteristic tones: ‘I don’t think it quite my line … so associated with Welsh aldermen and failing jockeys. I suppose I’ll get used to it. The dear Queen is to do her stuff on me on Feb 11th.’ After the dubbing at Buckingham Palace he ran into the Queen Mother, who asked how he felt about being a knight. He apparently replied: ‘Now I know for the first time what it is to be both middle-aged and middle-class,’ at which she was understandably annoyed. Since the abdication crisis he had preferred Mrs Simpson, who had the desirable glamour, to ‘that blousy woman … grinning Lizzie’ but with time he came round to her, and on discovering that the ‘Queen Mother likes queens’ he began his famous annual lunches for her at the Athenaeum.

When it became apparent that the next Runciman generation didn’t want to take on Eigg, the island was sold and Runciman moved his country base to Elshieshields, a tower house in Dumfriesshire, where he continued to write and entertain, and where a lifelong fascination with the supernatural and a belief in his own psychic powers added a sometimes dubious edge to the entertainment. He liked to tell ghost stories, sometimes about his own home. One guest groping his way to bed after dinner discovered that the guide rope from the spiral staircase to his room was missing. In the morning he found it outside his door, formed into a noose.

By the time of his death in 2000 Runciman had outlived most of his contemporaries, remarking that the Queen Mother was the only friend he had left older than himself. He continued, however, to make contacts with the powerful ‘boys’ among the rising generation, including Mark Bolland, and contrived to remain the ‘ultimate insider’ into old age. He was finally defeated by the ascent of Tony Blair, the only prime minister in his lifetime apart from Bonar Law with whom he had no mutual acquaintance – and ‘nobody knew’ Bonar Law. Blair was distasteful on many fronts. ‘How can anyone marry a wife called Cherie?’ But Runciman was also the ultimate outsider: his constant travel, the choice of subjects out of the mainstream and compartmentalisation of the aspects of his life amounted to a form of psychological exile and the exile always holds an extra card, is never fully committed to where he is, always belonging partly somewhere else. In his book of ‘partial memoirs’, A Traveller’s Alphabet, published in 1991, Runciman wrote: ‘I like to travel alone; but one pays a price for it in the end.’ This well-meant but accidentally brutal biography may be the price.