By Piers Brendon
Lytton Strachey famously began his classic experiment in short-form biography, Eminent Victorians, by claiming that the history of the Victorian Age could never be written because we know too much about it. “For ignorance,” he opined, “is the first requisite of the historian,” and, in 1918, there was simply no way for any historian of Victorian Britain to handle the information overload, the “great ocean of material” available.
Strachey hadn’t seen anything yet.
As Piers Brendon notes in the introduction to Eminent Elizabethans (both an homage to Strachey and a sequel to Brendon’s own Eminent Edwardians) “the situation is far worse now,” with “the most famous figures of the new Elizabethan age . . . well-nigh submerged under the weight of words devoted to them.” And so, given the “flood of data” unleashed by today’s mass media and the Internet, Brendon adopts Strachey’s technique of distillation, telling anecdote, and “acid etching rather than pastel shading” in order to create his own set of poisonous contemporary cameos.
The four subjects Brendon has chosen to sketch are the media overlord Rupert Murdoch, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and rock-n-roll showman Mick Jagger. On the face of it they have little in common, but for Brendon each represents a major theme of the age (economic, social, political, cultural), and, in his eyes, they share one essential quality: “flirting with radicalism yet embracing conservatism … Each tilted against the old order to maintain the status quo.”
This final point is unconvincing. In our own time the “status quo” no longer exists, at least in reference to any kind of traditional social order. Yes, Mick Jagger was knighted in 2003 (he’s “Sir Michael” now), but Keith Richards was right to dismiss the award as by then a “paltry honour.” Instead of trying to preserve the status quo, what the quartet were mainly intent on maintaining was their status: elite positions of wealth and power in the new Elizabethan hierarchy. Like a lot of people who have “made it” in one way or another, their conservatism was really just the natural inclination to defend a system that worked to their advantage and, as they got older, a desire to justify and hold on to their gains.
Brendon, on the other hand, seems like more of a real conservative. That is to say, not one of the neo-liberal wrecking crew (he distrusts the politics of Murdoch and Thatcher), but someone who can even muster up a bit of sympathy for sad sack Prince Charles (Charles’ father Philip gets by far the worst of it in this section). The British heir is a slightly dim figure, it’s true, but he at least shows evidence of a social conscience and, given the circumstances of his birth, he’s never had to hustle for a living. This is significant because Brendon frequently reveals a suspicion of people who are too obviously on the make, which is another traditional conservative bias. It’s no surprise that Jagger is the one eminent Elizabethan he has no respect for at all, portraying him as a grasping poseur with little talent but an oversize ambition to rise in society.
Taking a step back from all the well-chosen detail, it’s worth taking note of how dramatic a change there has been in the nearly one hundred years since Strachey wrote his book, especially in our attitudes about what constitutes “eminence.” What made Eminent Victorians provocative was its puncturing of certifiable Great Men (and one Great Woman, Florence Nightingale). The eminent Victorians were by broad consensus figures of heroic moral stature, and as Edmund Wilson put it, Strachey’s chief mission “was to take down once and for all the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral superiority.”
Where does such consensus on the heroic exist in the new Elizabethan age? Margaret Thatcher was one of the most polarizing politicians of her day, and it’s probably fair to say that’s still true, with most people who remember her Downing Street years as likely to despise as admire her. And what of Prince Charles imagining being reincarnated as a tampon? How do you “take down” someone like that?
Morality was the one true canon of eminence for the Victorians, but in our own time eminence simply means fame or notoriety. Put another way, we don’t have heroes any more, we have celebrities. It’s hard to imagine what a “moral” Rupert Murdoch or Mick Jagger would look like. Presumably they would find the whole notion … Victorian.
To be sure, Eminent Elizabethans is a delight. There’s something irresistible about snarky smackdowns of famous people delivered from on high in a dry British accent. But in a world where nothing is sacred, and one where we already know far more than we want to about awful celebrities and politicians, what Brendon is left with is mainly an exercise in style.
Review first published in the Toronto Star November 4, 2012.