A FRENCH life, Francis I. by Jehanne d’Orliac (Lippincott, $3.50), comes to us appropriately in late spring, for this passionate patron of sport, glory, and the fine arts was a true child of that brief French Renaissance to which Belloc has given the all-expressive name of April. Women have always been indulgent to Francis, from his doting mother, who brought him up as ‘our Cæsar,’ down to Madame d’Orliac, who can barely restrain herself within the limits of historic detachment in celebrating the charms of her hero. For his latest biographer, as for Guizot, the King is ‘a brilliant spoiled child.’ She loves him in an intensely contemporary fashion, so much so that she makes no attempt to justify his vices of head and heart, his selfish prodigality, ingratitude, lack of good faith. This biography is a lyric hymn to an era and a man, rather than a piece of reasoned history — but one could wish that the rhapsody were a little better constructed. The composer, we have somewhere read, prides herself on a scrupulous scholarship based on original sources; one is not so reassured in reading her latest book, even though some of its errors must be ascribed to the translation and proofreading. The King’s ancestor, the debonair mediæval Due d’Orléans, was not ‘Louis the Assassin,’ but, as it happens, Louis the Assassinated. There is no such thing as a Count of Suffolk, the English equivalent for Comte being Earl. The Constable de Bourbon could not have sought to marry the King’s sister before 1525, since her first husband, Alençon, was still alive at that date. There was no Duke of York in England at the same time; the personage meant is evidently ‘the Cardinal of York’ — in short, Thomas Wolsey. It is not on record that Rabelais was ever in England. And so on.
Possibly it may seem pedantic to single out these slips, but we think they suffice to set the tone of a book composed with a somewhat flaccid rhetoric. Madame d’Orliac is a scholar after her fashion. But her fashion consists in telling the reader that the corpse of Francis I was attired in cloth of gold trimmed with ermine and a crimson tunic sewn with fleurs-de-lis. . . .
Being himself a Russian, Count Alexei Tolstoi seems constitutionally incapable of writing about his country with balance or economy. Peter the Great (Covici, Friede, $3.00) is some 400 pages long, yet it terminates at the point when the Tsar, still relatively youthful, makes his first European tour and suppresses the Streltsi revolt, swimming toward the ideals of Western humanity through a tide of blood. Actually it is not a biography at all, but a biography fictionized, a form of art of which we, for one, are getting heartily tired. It appalls the reader by its overwhelming length and absence of literary discipline, yet does impress him by the vigor and color of its atmosphere. We plunge courageously into its endless pages as into a raging sea of icons and battle-axes, the senses dazzled, yet revolted, by the panoramic sweep of the narrative, the odor of unwashed bodies under vestments stiff with jewels, the blazing incompetence of the author’s method, the vast, sprawling orgy of words. Against this background, overcrowded like that of an old-fashioned grand opera, with people of unpronounceable names and incomprehensible emotions, two characters stand out and are even vaguely sympathetic: the impudent and vivacious favorite, Alexander Menshikov, who began life as a guttersnipe and died Prince of the Empire; and, odd to relate, the Tsar himself. Peter was obviously not sane, but his megalomania took, if we may say so, saner forms than those of his fathers and successors. That is, he worked and drank and even made love insanely, but he was not by nature either a sadist or a religious maniac. Evidently there have been many worse kings and worse men. It is to be noted that he thoroughly understood his countrymen.
In the Protestant tradition, Philip II has always counted as one of the great bogies of history, largely because he encouraged the burning of heretics and stimulated the odious Spanish Inquisition in spite of protests from Rome. He did this, as he did everything, from an intense, narrow, and, for him and his nation, very unfortunate sense of duty. Thus he has remained strangely popular in Spain because he wore himself out in her service, and ruined her from the highest motives. He was made of the essence of bureaucracy, a drab, infinitely long-suffering little man without imagination enough to be really cruel, who was devoted to his family, and who never laughed. Schools and universities are full of such beings. But we have never held that a writer’s style should resemble its subject, and if Philip was a drab and humdrum character there is no real reason why a book about him and the sixteenth century should give the impression of drabness also. This is the peculiar fault we find with David Loth’s biography, Philip II (Brentano’s, $3.75). It is painstaking, well-informed, without special distinction — much like the Hapsburg King. The difference between it and Count Tolstoi’s volume is the difference between intoxication and abstinence.
Passing from the Spain of the Armada to the England of Charles II, we are in a new century, the seventeenth. Those Puritan Englishmen whom Philip had persecuted in Spain had just had their innings under the Commonwealth (1649-1660), during which they cut off a King’s head and abolished Christmas trees. It is this King’s son, restored to the throne, whom Arthur Bryant celebrates in a brilliant biography, Charles II (Longmans, Green, $3.50). ‘Then came those days,’ says Macaulay, speaking of the Restoration, ‘of servitude without loyalty and sensuality without love, the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds, the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave.’ Incidentally, it was the age of Milton, Dryden, Locke, Pepys, the gentle Evelyn, Izaak Walton, the Duchess of Orleans, and, across the Channel, the age of Bossuet, Fénelon, Racine, Molière, Colbert, Vauban, Turenne, and Louis Quatorze. It is perhaps unfortunate that the drama of English history, generally speaking, has been officially written up by Whigs and Liberals whose bias is pretty well indicated in the above sample. For generations it appears to have been the sacred duty of every Whig to vilify the old English Monarchy, and this bias is the more ungenerous because, at the time when Macaulay wrote, the Monarchy had long since been a lost cause trampled by a ruling caste of rich men.
In our own time there has arisen a kind of Neo-Tory school whose great service it has been to expose the Whig Myth, but this school has too often been compromised by a new bias, the religious one, being mostly composed of Catholics or Neo-Catholics. It is the great value and charm of Mr. Bryant’s book that, though resolutely Royalist, it. seems innocent of religious preoccupations, of the. peculiar strained and aggressive tone we associate with Mr. Belloc or Mr. D. B. Wyndham Lewis. A glance at the fifty pages of references cited will convince anyone of Mr. Bryant’s erudition, and a reading of the text of his talent for narrative, unfailing good temper, and occasional beauty of style. More than once, as in the descriptions of the young King’s flight from Worcester, the bells of a pure, unclouded English break through the careful restraint of the narration. It is most significant that this book, which does not set out to be romantic, or panoramic, or deliberately picturesque, which pretends to nothing save to tell the truth about a neglected period and a maligned man, should achieve a readability easily superior to that of the other three.