Posted by: zhiv | February 2, 2011

Eminent Georgians, John Halperin

Bad blogging continues. Coming off a rugged bout with the flu, and I got sidetracked from finishing Vera Brittain’s long memoir by John Halperin’s collection of short biographies (pub. 1995), reading the first of them, about George V. The inspiration for reading it was that I saw the book sitting on my shelves just as we were watching The King’s Speech, which is obviously one of the primary movies du jour of Oscar season. Having realized that I knew virtually nothing about George VI, it was obvious that I knew less about George V, and I was also curious to read it as background to WWI Lit.

Halperin is a biographer of Jane Austen, George Gissing, and C.P. Snow, with a lot of solid Victorian and Modernist scholarship, and I want to check out his more recent work. This short biography was exactly what I wanted–it had to be compelling to keep me away from Vera Brittain. The other biographies are of Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, and Nancy Astor, and I haven’t read those yet. I have to wonder how closely Halperin is sticking to Lytton Strachey’s model and approach in Eminent Victorians. I don’t think it’s very close, aside from the most basic structure (four short, representative biographies), and the George V biography was completely straightforward. I didn’t see any evidence of an attempt to duplicate Strachey’s deep ironies. But Halperin does exhibit occasional strong opinions and he seems to have something of a revisionist agenda. Apparently the rap on George V is that he was brainless and disengaged from all cultural influence. Halperin proposes that his aggressive anti-sophistication gets too much play, and that he was a hard-working, deeply sympathetic monarch who was the right man during a long, critical period of historical transformation. He wasn’t inspired, but his solid focus and maturity deserves much credit, and it was inspiring. The general sense is that England was lucky in its 20th century Georges, and this seems reasonable enough.

Reading royal biography, especially 20th century royal biography, seems like a very weird thing to do, but it was interesting. And it made me think about Strachey and rereading him (somewhat improbable) and his biography of Queen Victoria, separate from Eminent Victorians. Halperin mentions how George V was reading Sidney Lee’s biography of his father Edward VII at one point, enjoying it but finding some inaccuracies. I’ve had a copy of Lee’s books (2 vols., pub. 1925) for a long time, because Sidney Lee was Leslie Stephen’s junior partner and successor in editing the DNB. I was never really interested in reading this biography before, but I can almost see doing it now. I’m curious about the Edwardian period, and Edward VII is an interesting enough character to me, and there must be some intriguing issues about a biographer like Sidney Lee writing the “official” biography of such a character, and comparing it to Strachey’s Queen Victoria (pub. 1921). These are more advanced studies that I might have done if I had accomplished my original goal of studying Stephen and the DNB and the evolution of the short biography from Samuel Johnson to Strachey. This brief incidental turn towards royal biography takes me by surprise, I must say, and it’s extra strange that I never would have thought of connecting these dots if it hadn’t been for watching a good, entertaining, well-made movie.

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