QUEEN VICTORIA by Cecil Woodham-Smith Knopf, $10.00
In the writing of this well-judged, detailed, and engrossing biography, Cecil Woodham-Smith has had access to all sources, including the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, and she has used them, as Lytton Strachey never did, to trace the development of Victoria from her infancy through the intrigues which marred her girlhood, her rapturous marriage to Prince Albert, her grasp of power, and finally to her widowhood at forty-two and the resulting cataclysm of grief.
Seldom has a great monarch had a less auspicious beginning. Her father, the unpopular Duke of Kent, was cursed with debts which had alienated his older brother, the Prince Regent; her mother was a German princess handicapped by her inability to speak English. Victoria, whose birth assumed dynastic importance, was a healthy child and she had need to be, for after her father’s death, the pouty Duchess and her Irish secretary, John Conroy, devised what the biographer calls “the Kensington System”: isolate the girl in Kensington Palace, make her dependent upon her mother against that day when she would succeed King William IV, and the Duchess, as they hoped, would be appointed to a Regency, with Conroy the power behind the throne. Under these circumstances Victoria struggled through a drab girlhood with no friends and few allies. The three who knew what was going on and who steeled her against the “system” were her uncle, Prince Leopold, her lovely half sister, Princess Feodora, whom she saw at long intervals, and her German governess, Baroness Lehzen, who was at her side for nineteen years.
As consolation for her strict daily schedule, Victoria, who “was not a well-educated nor an advanced child,” kept a journal, and an extraordinary chronicle it became. Her observations were acute, she had total recall, was honest, gushing in her vehemence and love, and vivid in her characterization. “Ultimately,” the biographer writes, “Queen Victoria’s Journal filled more than 122 volumes, a record of persons, events and emotions without parallel in European history.” This is the mirror in which we often see her and it is sad that on her death her daughter, Princess Beatrice, in misguided discretion, destroyed the greater part of it, beginning with January, 1837, the year in which Victoria came to the throne.
The finest chapters are those in which she asserts herself. Far from growing subservient, her resilience was remarkable and, thanks to some wise counsel from Uncle Leopold, now become King of Belgium, she freed herself from her mother and would have nothing to do with Conroy, who under Wellington’s pressure departed the Court. After her coronation she completely captivated Lord Melbourne, her Prime Minister, and her loyalty helped to restore his tottering Whig majority.
Miss Woodham-Smith gives us a sympathetic understanding of Prince Albert, who had been brought up to believe that he would one day marry the Queen. No sparks were ignited between them on his first visit, but when he returned three years later as one of the handsomest young men in Europe, Victoria was enchanted and ready to propose to him in three days. The Prince was studious, patient, and intelligent. He knew that he would miss Germany, had no wish for an English title, and was carefully restrained in his dealings with the Queen’s ministers. His gift to England was in his tempering of Victoria. As the Queen herself observed, she had very strong dislikes; in her early years she was obstinate, of limited outlook, insistent on her rights, willing to be guided so long as the advice coincided with her own wishes. At the outset it was her iron hand in the velvet glove which arranged things. What the biographer has done so magnificently is to show how Victoria, happy in her marriage, came to be more tolerant, more attentive to foreign affairs, and more just, thanks to her remarkable partner. Their mistake, and a big one, was in the upbringing of their eldest son.
TRANSPARENT THINGS by Vladimir Nabokov McGraw-Hill, $5.95
An amusing thesis could be written about the two Slavs who have mastered English in our time, Conrad and Nabokov. Conrad’s narratives were in the classic tradition and he was careful never to get in the way of his characters, whereas Nabokov makes an art of intruding upon his people. Nabokov is much more nimble and confident in his handling of dialogue (Conrad, it seems, spoke with a heavy Polish accent and was sensitive about his use of English vernacular). Both men demand the close attention of the reader: Conrad in his long passages of introspection and Nabokov in the subtlety with which he employs surprising, often showy, words that enrich the association of his sentences. Part of the fun of reading Nabokov is this element of surprise. No other contemporary novelist can compact so much laughter and satire in a single swift episode.
It is this juggling of words, of action, and of feeling that one most admires in Transparent Things. The novella is light and it skips like a stone on the surface of life as it follows the adventures of Hugh Person, the editor for a New York publishing house, who has been sent abroad to suggest a new title and some changes in the manuscript of a notable foreign author known as “Mister R.“ R. a querulous caricature of Nabokov himself, will have none of such service. Hugh is sent packing, but not before the young man has tracked to an Alpine village Armande Potapov, the attractive daughter of Russian refugees. Hugh Person is no skier and he has a horrible time trying to keep up with Armande and her present boyfriends, Jacques, the golden-haired bobsled champion, and the English twins with their curious sexual behavior. But Hugh perseveres; Armande accepts his proposal and agrees to return with him to his unpretentious literary in Manhattan. She has her whims, as have all of Mr. Nabokov’s heroines, whether nymphets or adults: an expert rock climber, she orders the awkward Hugh to follow her as she foots her way down the facade of their hotel from the fourth floor to the second. Naturally Hugh gets stuck on the ledge just below their balcony and their reunion is sheer comedy. Nor is it surprising, in view of Nabokov’s track record, that her sexual oddities are rather perplexing to her husband.
The one thing Hugh did not disclose to his bride is his peculiar form of insomnia which sets him night-walking and about which Nabokov writes so knowingly. In dreams which spring him from bed, Hugh can be a source of danger, and it is this clue which supplies the mystery, the climax, and the aftermath of this clever and original story.
THE PERSIAN BOY by Mary Renault Pantheon, $7.95
Taking her lead from Robert Graves, who opened a new door for us in his splendid novel, I, Claudius, Mary Renault has breathed into her novels of the ancient world her profound knowledge of character and her glowing sense of reality. In this colorful book she resumes the story of Alexander the Great, which she had begun in Fire from Heaven: at twenty-six Alexander with his lean, disciplined Macedonians has broken through the strongholds of Persia and is well on his way to the mastery of the world. Darius, the Persian king, has fled, and his allies and mercenaries are suing for peace. Part of the booty that comes to the conqueror is Bagoas, the beautiful eunuch and dancer who tells the story.
Bagoas is a Persian of royal lineage whose gelding and slavery after his father’s murder is a cruel business. Not until the boy’s beauty was recognized by King Darius did he acquire the confidence and seductiveness which made him irresistible. Fresh from the indulgence of the Persian court, Bagoas is struck by the rugged simplicity of Alexander’s camp, and still more so by the continence of the young conqueror. He recognizes the bond between Alexander and his most trusted lieutenant Hephaistion, and with quiet discretion the eunuch sets out to seduce Alexander, his boss. It takes skill to delineate, as Miss Renault has done, this half-man, half-courtesan, who is so deeply in love with the warrior.
In the fighting and reconciliation which follow the author brings out Alexander’s magnanimity as a conqueror, his consideration for the Greek slaves, his employment of the defeated Persians and his urging the marriage of his officers with Persian women, his restraint of rapine—all incidents of history vividly magnified. But the strain on him is great, as Bagoas knows better than anyone else. When the Macedonian veterans threaten to mutiny, when Hephaistion sickens and dies, when Alexander becomes enmeshed in India, we see the beginning of the deterioration that will strike him down. The author’s note at the close provides the documentation of the narrative she has told so well.
THE GREAT AMERICAN SHOOTING PRINTS Selections & text by Robert Elman Knopf, $25.00
In his introduction to this sumptuous book, Hermann Warner Williams, Jr., director emeritus of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, makes a penetrating observation about the American attitude toward art. In the colonial days, he explains, the only types of painting which found acceptance were portraits and the gay pictorial signs for shops and taverns. The first genre paintings of hunting had to wait until the frontier had pushed to the Rockies, when men were no longer hunting simply for meat, and when there were enough rich people to regard it as a sport. There were numerous paintings of men and boys fishing prior to 1850—why not hunting? Well, for one reason, all one needed for fishing was a man or a boy and a boat. The artist could bluff the rest.
One of the salient features of these sporting prints, apart from the beauty of the setting and the flash of action, is that they were painted by professionals, perfectionists in their knowledge of guns, hunting dogs, and men on target. This point is stressed by Robert Elman in the interpretive captions which face each of the eighty full-color reproductions. Audubon, of course, was one of the pioneers, and the portrait of him by his son, John Woodhouse Audubon, painted in 1840, shows him in the autumn of life with his favorite companions, his dog, a horse, and a percussion fowling piece.
Another early artist was the Swiss-American Peter Rindisbacher, who in the 1820s was employed as a clerk by the Hudson’s Bay Company and during this period accompanied Indian hunting parties, sketching everything he saw. The picture he painted in 1826 of a bison being hunted by an Indian on snowshoes with bow and arrow and a pack of small dogs is brilliant in its composition and makes us wish the artist had not died at the age of twenty-eight. The most tense of these early paintings is by William Ranney, in the Hoboken marshes when they were a duck hunter’s paradise. The gunner may have been the artist himself, and in the morning light as the sneakboat turns the corner, one can imagine the flurry of wings and almost simultaneously the explosion of both barrels.
It is primarily as a sportsman that Mr. Elman speaks to us in his text: he identifies guns, and explains their capability, discusses ammunition, field conditions, and the habits of geese and woodcock and bears. He traces the history of hunting costumes and the evolution of several breeds of dog; he applauds the feeling for conservation, increasingly noticeable in the paintings after 1870, and he tells us revealing bits of the painters’ lives. For example, he informs us that Carl Rungius, visiting an uncle in Maine for moose hunt, was so hooked by the north game country that he devoted the next sixty years to painting from the Atlantic to Alaska and died brush in hand.
The great names are all here: Thomas Eakins, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, Frank Benson, and Ogden Pleissner, but Mr. Elman has not confined his selection to museum candidates; he includes calendar paintings and firearms posters, and quite rightly, for both demanded accurate and accomplished work. Hardly a third of the paintings show game successfully killed and in several, for instance, in Oliver Kemp’s portrait of the big buck surprised in deep snow, the implication is clear that the hunter will never get the gun to his shoulder in time. I find my least pleasure in those prints of that animated hatrack. the moose, as he stands in the soft twilight, a target that not even an opera singer could miss, and most reward in those in which no firearms are involved: the caribou rubbing off the velvet; the four “Rocky Mountain bighorns, summer bachelors, gaze out over their range near Wilcox Pass”; and the Canada geese coming in—these are what I like, and may they live forever!