Romilly (née Mitford), with her ten-month-old second daughter, and to tell her that Esmond – previously supposed to be missing – was almost certainly dead. He handed her an envelope with $500 in it but she left screaming furiously and crying at the same time.
Lovell charts the rise of the Churchill dynasty from the f ir st Duke of Marlborough through to the present eleventh duke and his fourth duchess. But Winston and Clementine’s own family is the psychological heart of this book. Winston’s adoring relationship with his only son, the handsome and charming Randolph, is central to the drama and painful to read. Clementine had periods when she was not on speaking terms with Randolph. His sister, Mary, said he was so difficult that he would on occasion pick an argument with a chair. Yet Winston, determined to do better than his own abusive and absent father, could never bear to criticise Randolph. When he discovered the boy had been sexually abused at school he was angrier than his children had ever seen him before. Winston, ever forgiving towards Randolph, also protected him as an adult in wartime by telling army chiefs that if Randolph were killed he would not be able to continue
HE MADE A SPLASH SIR WALTER RALEIGH: IN LIFE AND LEGEND
By Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
(Continuum 378pp £25)
CELEBRITY CULTURE IS no creation of the contemporary media age, for Sir Walter Ralegh – Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams concede the conventional spelling of the name for their book’s title, but insist on this more authentic form in the text – was nothing if not a celebrity. Unlike so many modern celebrities, however, Ralegh was famous for more than just being famous. Courtier, privateer, entrepreneur, explorer, poet, historian: he was a Renaissance man even among t he men o f t he Renaissance. His fame also lasted considerably longer than Warhol’s statutory fifteen minutes, intensifying in the years after his death and becoming, by the nineteenth century, the stuff of English schoolboy legend.
Even in our own times, Ralegh has hardly lacked for either scholarly or popular interpreters; this new biography, learned and accessible in equal measure, is nonetheless highly welcome. It will surely become the standard starting-point for anyone interested in his career and writings. The authors are two distinguished scholars of Elizabethan and Jacobean history, ably qualified to place Ralegh in his historical and literary context. They provide us with no clues as to how they approached the as Pr ime Minister. In 1939, one of his fir st acts on assuming office as First Lord of the Admiralty was bringing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor back from France on HMS Kelly. He summoned Randolph to take part in the secret mission.
For whatever reason, his children – with the exception of the youngest, Mary (now Lady Soames) – endured periods of desperate unhappiness. Diana, after her second marriage to Duncan Sandys finally collapsed (she had put up with multiple infidelities), took her own life. Sarah became a ‘fully fledged alcoholic’, was arrested more t han once and mar r i ed t h re e t imes, while Randolph, after two failed marriages, fell in love with a woman he could not marry. Lovell has unearthed many fascinating details about life in the Churchill family; bringing them all together reveals that, while calling on the nation for every last ounce of effort, Winston himself was being personally drained. One of the most extraordinary details is not only that he died on the same date (24 January) as his father, Lord Randolph, but that he forecast to Jock Colville that he would do so. To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 29
task of co-writing, but if they parcelled it out, it is virtually impossible to detect the joins. The prose is never less than lucid, and the book’s structure – a succession of thematic chapters with a forward chronological momentum – is sensible and effective. Inevitably, some of the facts that everyone knows about Sir Walter Ralegh turn out to be wrong. The famous episode in which he gallantly covered a puddle with his cloak, so that Queen Elizabeth could walk across it, is likely to be apocryphal, first recorded decades after the supposed event. Nor did he introduce either the potato or tobacco into England, though he probably helped make smoking fashionable at court. Yet Nicholls and Williams eschew the temptation to present themselves as buccaneering myth-busters and pioneering revisionists, offering, for example, a very balanced assessment of Ralegh’s supposed atheism. They scrupulously recognise where they are indebted to previous scholarship, and when they dissent from it they do so with courtesy and sensitivity. This makes their picture of Ralegh all the more persuasive and, in places, all the more devastating.
For the Ralegh who emerges from these pages is far removed f rom the upstanding hero hailed by the Victor ians. He could be cynically opportunistic and remarkably ruthless, overseeing a massacre of prisoners in Ireland in 1580 and brutally overrunning the Spanish headquarters in Trinidad in 1595. There was, Nicholls and Williams suggest, ‘an abiding dark heart to his character’. His loyalty to friends and followers was always less than absolute. When his final voyage to the New World in 1617–18 – a desperate bid to regain the lost favour of James I – inevitably failed to find the El Dorado of
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011
whose ex i s t ence Ralegh had deludedly convinced himself , all the blame was loaded onto a subordinate captain, Lawrence Keymis, who in consequence took his own life.
At the same time, for all the glitter and sparkle of his rise as a cour t f avour i t e, Ralegh was sometimes politically inept and naive, manifesting a ‘peculiar ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time’. His ruminations about the succession may have ir r itated Elizabeth I, and cer tainly antagonised James I, who kept Ralegh in the Tower for thirteen years after his conviction for involvement in the obscure Main Plot of 1603 (Nicholls and Williams conclude this was a case of no smoke without fire). Along the way, he antagonised the mercurial Earl of Essex, as well as Essex’s great rival, the wily Sir Robert Cecil, a former ally of Ralegh and a man who might have been able to protect him from the consequences of his actions. Ralegh’s capacity for generating dislike is truly impressive. Essex’s stepfather, Sir Christopher Blount, tr ied to assassinate him dur ing Essex’s ill-fated rising of 1601, fir ing and missing four times. Another ally of the earl’s, Sir Josceline Percy, composed a satirical will while awaiting trial in the Fleet Pr ison: ‘Item I doe g ive my buttocks to Sir Walter Ralegh and the pox goe with them.’
Ralegh leading Elizabeth I’s funeral procession book’s final chapter, and it is clear that this is a subject on which more could e a s i l y be said. Through the seventeenth century and beyond, multiple Raleghs began to emerge, serving various political and cultural interests. One trajectory was the Americanisation of Ralegh. His ro l e i n t he f ounding o f t he nation was remembered through the placing on the map of several eponymous towns, and the marketing of numerous consumer products named in his honour (including, of course, tobacco). Of late, Ralegh’s star ha s waned s omewhat, a l ong with the imperial and nationalistic values that he once seemed to epitomise. Modern film and TV portrayals, Nicholls and Williams suggest, have been cur iously bloodless and unsuccessful. But there is life in the old sea dog yet. During the 2007 campaign to elect a deputy leader of the Labour Party, MP Stephen Pound flamboyantly threw his coat down on a wet pavement for candidate Hazel Blears to walk across. She demurred. To order this book for £25, see LR Bookshop on page 29
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But there were undeniable touches of greatness too, not least a talent for self-promotion. Ralegh’s voyages to the New World – both the two he undertook, and the others he financed – produced relatively little in practical terms, but his self-justificator y account of his travels, The Discoverie of Guiana, was a remarkable literary success as well as an unashamed, and frankly sexualised, call to colonial exploitation of resources. ‘Guiana’, he suggestively pointed out, ‘is a country that hath yet her maidenhead.’ More admirable now, perhaps, is the greatness shown in adversity. Ralegh rose to the occasion of his treason trial, employing his favourite mode of performance, ‘the eloquence of self-pity’, to win over a public sympathy he had hitherto done little to court or deserve. That sympathy was sealed by Ralegh’s highly effective final performance on the scaffold, in which he unmistakably, and unconventionally, sought to convey the impression that he was a victim of royal injustice. Ralegh was soon hailed as a martyr for the patriotic and Protestant cause (one of the political imperatives behind his execution was the need to appease the Spanish for his unprovoked attack on a settlement during the 1617–18 expedition).
Ralegh’s posthumous reputation is the subject of the
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LITERARY REVIEW April 2011