Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Cecil, Cowper and Crown Constables

I've been reading The Stricken Deer, David Cecil's life of Cowper, reissued in 1933 as one of the Crown Constables series, handsome volumes aimed at 'enlightened folk whose taste for literature is as discriminating as their shelf-room. Crown Constables will occupy and enchant the finest minds, but will not overcrowd the smallest flat.' Golly!
The Stricken Deer is a typical Cecil biography - elegant, fluent, stylish and not overlong - a refreshing change from the clunky doorstop biographies of our day. Cecil's learning is lightly worn; he doesn't 'show his workings', rubbing the reader's nose in the depth and breadth of his research. He never loses sight of the fact that a biography is, above all else, a story, not a compendium of laundry lists. As a result, he is never less than readable.
Cecil - full name Lord Edward Christian David Gascoyne-Cecil is an interesting figure. He was an authentic aristocrat, the younger son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, and in the course of his career he evolved from gentleman scholar and man of letters to professional academic and, improbably, TV presenter and minor media celebrity - this despite a pronounced lisp and his caricature toff appearance (his son is the actor Jonathan Cecil, who specialises in posh silly ass roles). His books are easy to find - they often turn up in charity shops (as did The Stricken Deer) - and they are all worth reading. I'd especially recommend his two volumes on Lord Melbourne, his biography of Max Beerbohm, and his double-headers, Two Quiet Lives (Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray) and Visionary and Dreamer (Samuel Palmer and Edward Burne-Jones).
I see from the back pages of The Stricken Deer that among the already published Crown Constables are The Tale of Two Lovers, translated from the original Latin of Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini by Flora Grierson, and Philine, unpublished fragments from Amiel's Journal. How times change...


  1. I concur with your high estimate of Ld D Cecil and agree that his grasp of the biographer's art is lost on authors of present-day doorstops. But I fear my mental image of him personally is wholly corrupted by Kingsley Amis's howlingly funny portrait in the malicious score-settling Memoirs. It's all the funnier because most of it is about Cecil absent, and Amis's desperate attempts to track him down for a tutorial in post-war Oxford. He is a particularly worthy subject for Amis's superb ability to render idiosyncracies of speech phonetically. I don't have the book to hand but always treasure Thakespeum for Shakespeare.

  2. wouldn't mind reading the Beerbohm biography

  3. Barbara Pym, whom David Cecil and Philip Larkin had declared in a 1977 TLS article to be "the most underrated novelist of the century," wrote in her diary after tea with DC: ". . . he told me that he had been inspired to write after reading Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians . . . ."


  4. Oh yes that wicked Kingsley Amis... and lovely Barbara Pym, noting exactly what they had for tea. Cecil was certainly a biographer in the Strachey mould, but without that edge of malice. Thanks, all.