Seventeenth Century Statesmen -wand Eighteenth Century Monsters
John Pym. By S. Reed Brett. (John Murray. 10s. 6d.)
Richelieu. By Carl J. Burckhardt. (George Allen and Unwin, 16s.) The Romanovs. By William Gcrhardi. (Rich and Cowan, 30s.) Reviewed by BERNARD BASSET, S.J.
Y111 and Richelieu were contem poraries, but they had nothing else ill common, and as we read their biographies it is difficult to remember that they were living in the same century, indeed only a few hundred miles apart.
The two latest biographies admirably illustrate the complete difference between the two men. Riellieu, by far the greater statesman, makes the more interesting subject for a study, and Car] Burekhardt has not missed his chance. The author has the happy
gift of giving the necessary detail without unnecessary effort, and a pleasant humour enlivens every page. This volume covers only,Richelieu's rise to power, but as this includes the bewildering behaviour of the Queen Mother, the career of Luynes, the absurdities of Buckingham and the siege of La Rochelle, there is more than enough to absorb the interest of the reader and whet his appetite for more.
The ominous threat on the dust-cover that Richelieu is to appear as a seventeenth-century Fuehrer is fortunately not fulfilled, and the author deserves special praise for the accuracy of his descriptions, which present the seventeenth century in its proper setting, not as the twentieth century in fancy dress. This is a very enjoyable book, excellently translated, and singularly free from mistakes. By a strange oversight the year of Richelieu's birth is not given.
THE biographer of John Pymhas far less assistance from his hero, for Pym is a tedious man. His public career is important, but it is a very short one, and for two-thirds of the book he remains in the background while Wentworth, Eliot and Hampden are to the fore.
Pyre does not even lend a hand in holding down the Speaker, he pays ship money, and keeps well away from jail. Only in 1640 does he become the leader of the party, and then his greatest work, apart from parliamentary strategy, is the hunting down of Strafford, a not very savoury piece of history, even when described in a sympathetic way. Pym died of cancer before the Civil War had had time to add lustre to his life story.
Yet Pym was a determined politician of' considerable ability and importance, and Mr Reed Brett's study is a valuable contribution to the history of the period. There is some original material in it, and one very interesting chapter on Pym's colonial undertakings, but much of the general narrative is heavy, and the author draws too much from standard textbooks which, often enough, are partisan. The case for Charles and Strafford is not given, Prynne and Company are automatically presumed to be heroes, and Parliament is not infrequently mentioned as though it enjoyed the maturity and democratic qualities which it has to-day.
Despite these tendencies, which smack of Gardiner, the new biography of Pym will prove a book of considerable worth.
GERHARDI'S massive work on the Romanov dynasty is difficult to appraise. It suffers from many serious disadvantages, of which not the least is the tedious'introductory chapter, called unintelligibly "an historical Credo." Once that is over, the reader has five hundred pages of brilliant and fascinating narrative to devour, for the author does not again lapse into pseudo philosophic language until the last page.
The introduction to the book is certainly unhappy, as also is the " adult humour" of which the publishers speak. This humour runs through parts of the book. Some of It is very necessary, for a historian cannot be squeamish, but at times there is no adequate reason for lowering the level of such a truly splendid work.
Two other mistakes must also be noted, a certain confusion in the arrangement of the matter—it would have been better to introduce Peter the Great before Catherine II—and still greater confusion in the use of historical evidence. Historical facts and court gossip are muddled together to produce a brilliant story which unfortunately may not all be true.
Such criticisms as these might suggest contempt for the work in question, whereas in fact the book is one of the best that has appeared for many years. It gives an accurate and highly Interesting picture of that disgusting Philosophic society which has for so long enjoyed the applause of liberal historians. Mr Gerhardi debunks Peter the Great, Catherine. and Alexander, and in so doing he also tears down the whitened sepulchres of Voltaire, Frederick and Les Philosophes.
For all his love of scandal and sensation he shows us the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as they really were. No one who reads this book will be able to tolerate the futile adulation of benevolent despotism, and for this reason, if for no other, all students of the eighteenth century should read Mr Gerhardi's brutal attack. He writes in the style of Horace Walpole or Lord Hervey, but with no contemporary prejudice to blind him, nor is his onslaught on the Romanovs due to any ulterior political motive. Doubtless the worst enormities of the eighteenth century Russian monarchy could be matched by the atrocities of our own day.
You will laugh as you read this breezy and disrespectful narrative, but at the end your laughter is the laughter of despair. Mr Gerhard' leaves it at that, for perhaps he has nothing to put in the place of the idols which he has so rudely toppled from their niches; but the Catholic student knows well that if Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and many of their contemporaries were scoundrels there were others alive in the eighteenth century, unknown to secular history, whose heroism points the way to hope.