Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Quick Review

Oliver CromwellOliver Cromwell by John Buchan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Buchan was a gentleman.  Yes, yes, he was an MP, and eventually Governor General of Canada, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir PC GCMG GCVO CH, etc., etc.  Very respectable, all that, if not specially meaningful to the common American reader, such as me.  Be that as it may, as something of an anglophile and a devoted reader of English history, I can certainly appreciate a gent.  I say again, John Buchan was a gent.

The breed, so far as I know, is all but extinct -- and most ways that's probably just as well: colonialism, The British class system, fox-hunting; a mixed bag at best.  It could likewise be pretty convincingly argued that gentility, for want of a better term, did nearly as much harm as good to English literature.  (Think of Anthony Trollope on sexual "incontinence" or Kipling or Churchill on "fakirs.")  At his best though, the English gentleman of letters, or even as here the Scot, tended rather charmingly to judge mankind not as monsieur might, by the crease in his pants, but rather by his "bottom"; here suggesting gravitas, the way he sat a horse, spoke to subordinates, behaved in the company of ladies.  So it seems, the Lord Protector was a gentleman.

I might have foreseen this from reading Buchan's Julius Caesar, who even more surprisingly proved to be -- yup -- a gentleman, much otherwise misunderstood.  Say what you will about the historical accuracy of this perspective, it does make for a not unpleasant atmosphere of good humoured fair play.  Not quite the same thing as objectivity, obviously, or even even-handedness, so much as an even-tempered, even genial style, tempered by a very genuine sympathy for both subject and history. 

Here then is Cromwell as the leader of men, yes, but awfully good about horses too, you know.  Cromwell, it must be admitted, was a rather bloody conqueror of Ireland -- bad form -- but never really so bloody-minded as has been made out elsewhere.  Not really, no.  Just the one ruthless massacre, just at the start, and we have his letters home to tell us he did come to feel very bad about the slip.  And domestically, it's well worth saying, he kept more heads on shoulders than he took off, or jolly well might have done.

I'm not really being fair.  Buchan was, first and foremost, a thoroughly accomplished writer, a novelist of very real gifts.  His prose is always smooth, his curiosity and care both obvious and satisfying.  I can't fault his scholarship, which seems certainly to have well met the standard of his day and profession.  His is an eminently readable and well-made history, very much in the tradition of Macaulay and the great Victorians who so clearly influenced both his style and his outlook on life.  He's neither stuffy nor stiff, and I can't remember a book about Oliver -- as he sometimes endearingly calls this least endearing of men -- I've enjoyed reading more.

Reading this book set me to at least browsing in Carlyle's impossibly heavy edition of Cromwell's letters, and that was well worth doing too -- if abandoned immediately after concluding Buchan's history.  (If I was never quite convinced of Cromwell's basic goodness and simplicity of heart by either author, it certainly wasn't for want of effort on the part of all involved.)

How then does Buchan's Cromwell read compared to those before and since?  I'd have to say that even the serious student of the period could certainly do worse.  Here at least is a model of narrative efficiency, good humour and sympathy.  When was the last time a contemporary historian exhibited that sort of restraint and emotion, ladies and gentlemen?

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