Monday, September 13, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DAVID CECIL’S MELBOURNE

Here is that rare thing, a beautiful book, gracefully written and displaying genuine scholarship, Lord David Cecil’s biography of William Lamb, Lord Melbourne.

Melbourne was prime minister to the eighteen-year old Queen Victoria when she assumed the monarch’s role and had first to deal with the complex and perplexing demands of being head of state. It was a time when the monarchy no longer ruled but retained considerable importance in British society and political affairs. He became Victoria’s intimate advisor and friend, a role perhaps unlike that of any other prime minister in British history.

Cecil’s style perfectly suits his subject – graceful, learned, thoughtful - a rare harmony in biography. The author admires his subject, although well aware of Melbourne’s limitations, and I tend to favour biographers who are not hostile.

Melbourne was a controversial figure for a number of reasons, but especially owing to his role in the early years of Victoria’s reign. One can imagine the feelings of the opposition party over his special relationship with the Queen, and we read a fair amount about it here. Victoria had an unpleasant childhood with an intense and overwhelming mother, who worked to shape her daughter to her own purposes, and little contact with her father. Melbourne provided an advisor of matchless charm and understanding and sophistication, filling a place in her young life as something of a father figure, intimate friend, and truly expert political and protocol advisor.

Victoria filled an important place in Melbourne’s life too, for Melbourne was a man who loved the society of women. While as a young man he had many love affairs - behaviour typical of his Whig aristocracy class in the late 18th century and early 19th, a period called the Regency era and marking the transition from Georgian England to Victorian - he was not a Les Liaisons dangereuses type of character but a man who was perfectly capable of having happy and affectionate relationships with women. Indeed, he absolutely needed such relationships. When his government fell and he lost the Prime Minister’s access to Victoria, there was a haunting emptiness to his last years.

This is not a definitive biography, and it was certainly not intended to be one, but it tells us the main stories of Melbourne’s life, both personal and political. It is perhaps more than anything else a study in human character. Melbourne was an interesting man, highly polished and intelligent, and one of the last of the Regency era’s privileged Whig statesmen. To a considerable degree, he was already outdated by the time he was given great political power, although deep understanding of human nature is never outdated. There are wonderful glimpses here too of Queen Victoria as an uncertain 18-year old thrown into the role of official head of the world’s great empire.

Melbourne was something of a reluctant politician, being most comfortable with dinner parties, good company, and good books. The extent to which he was active in some reforms was not so much from his personal convictions in the matters but from his conviction that society changed and laws must accommodate the change. His greatest horror was civil unrest and the threat of a repeat of the French Revolution, and he believed in not creating any tensions or popular hopes which could not be fulfilled. Ironically, he lived through a time of tremendous unrest in England, the unrest that pushed a long series of reforms, from parliamentary representation to Catholic emancipation in Ireland and to the repeal of the Corn Laws, the last having been the very foundation of the Whig class’s privileged place in society.

Melbourne’s underlying strength of character is displayed in his relationship with his wife, a beautiful, frail woman who appears to have suffered from late-onset schizophrenia. Despite the many embarrassments she caused him, including a tempestuous and very public love affair with Lord Byron, he stood by her until the end. And just so with any friend or intimate companion, including the Queen, he stood by them, often taking blame for matters of which he was not the cause, rather than betray friendship.

Recommended for all students of British history, students of human psychology, those who love good biography, and those who simply love books.

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