Tory Historian has been reading Robert Conquest's latest book (some more are in the pipeline) "The Dragons of Expectation", which is subtitled "Reality and Delusion in the Course of History". Professor Conquest is a man of many parts, a noted Sovietologist and historian, poet, novelist, literary critic and political analyst.
The essays in this book range widely from discussion of the Soviet Union, communism and its misguided supporters in the West to discussions of the state of modern art. There is even a long poem, entitled "Reconnaissance", that summarizes the author's views of the world and the universe.
One particular idea struck Tory Historian as being of great interest (actually, there were others but these will be discussed in other postings):
In the eighteenth century, the English enlighteners, if you wish to call them that, debated in pubs and clubs and homes, the French in châteaux and salons and academies. In politics, there could scarcely be two "activists" more different than John Wilkes and, say, Condorcet.In a way this idea is a continuation of Shakespeare's comparisons as seen in Henry V but, naturally, enough the play was more or a propaganda.
Earlier, Voltair and others validated the British experience, but in the long run it was the theorists and emotionalists who triumphed mentally in Paris.
The French, and European, Enlightenment thus emerged not on the absis of a political class or political institutions, but from minds more or less bombinating in a vacuum.
The two cultures can accept a measure of spillover from each other, as with parts of the U.S. Constitution. So if we speak of the two traditions as muturally exclusive we are only generalizing. Still, the historical or historico-cultural difference stands.
Tory Historian took advantage of the NFT’s Laurence Olivier season in which “Henry V” has been given pride of place with a certain number of disclaimers by critics who, over the years, have had to acknowledge with pursed lips that, despite its heroism and emphasis on patriotism, the film is superb. Some of us might think that contrariwise, the heroism and patriotism add to the quality of the film but that is probably why we are not film critics.
Made during the war, with Olivier taking time out from his service with Fleet Air Arm, it does emphasise patriotic ideals, in particular ideals of England. As it happens, none of that was invented by the film-makers – the lines, the images, the concepts are there in Shakespeare’s play, which is what makes them so interesting.
Cinematically the film is mesmerizing, beginning and ending with a panorama shot of Elizabethan London, carefully recreated from contemporary prints. Famously, Olivier accepted and incorporated into the film the sheer theatricality of the play. We start with a raucous performance of “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France”, during which the Chorus, played by Leslie Banks, urges us to expand the play in our imagination to take in England and France, and opens out first into the Boar’s Head Inn, where Falstaff is dying, then the two courts, the armies and the battles themselves. William Walton’s music spreads through the film.
The opened up scenes are not realistic in any sense, showing the castles, the fields, Princess Katharine’s enclosed garden and everybody’s costumes as illustrations from the Book of Hours. The faint artificiality of Technicolour adds to the imagery’s beauty.
There is, throughout the play, an image of England and of the English King that is essentially different from France. The French King is not an unattractive personality but he is weak and has been buffeted by history. The Dauphin is a fool and a braggart, a man who causes trouble through his thoughtlessness. The French nobles have no link with the people. The only truly attractive character is the Herald as he becomes more and more impressed by Henry.
England, on the other hand, is its people; the King is the King of all and the yeomen are as important if not, indeed, more important than the nobles. Although, the core of the play is England as reality and as idea, there is a kind of a proto-Union in the delightful vignette of the four captains: Gower, Fluellen, Jamy and McMorris, representing the four parts of it. They dispute, quarrel and drink together and there is an undying link between them.
In the night before the battle, the French nobles and the Dauphin sit in their own tent and alternate between dismal premonition and braggadocio. The Dauphin, spends not a minute of his time on his troops – they are there to serve him and the nobles. If anything is mourned it is the destruction of its flower at Crecy, though the lesson of that has not been learnt by anyone except the King of France. The heavy and heavily decorated armour in which the knights have themselves mounted onto their unfortunate horses symbolizes France in the same way as swiftness, lightness and, above all, ingenuity symbolize England.
In the night before the battle, Henry leaves his nobles without a single complaint from them, puts on a cloak and walks through the camp, making sure he visits every tent (“a touch of Harry in the night”). He talks to soldiers as well as captains; he listens to their complaints and to their fears; he meditates on the duties and responsibilities of kingship, in some ways echoing his own father’s thoughts on the head that wears the crown lying uneasily. Of course, he does not have his father’s bad conscience, having inherited rather than usurped his position. Nevertheless, he acknowledges his responsibility for whatever horrors might come in the morning.
There is an interesting discussion between two soldiers in which one expresses the view that if the King’s cause be wrong (the very fact that an ordinary soldier can think such a thing is astonishing) he will pay a heavy price for the battle and its outcome:
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument?To which another soldier, one who is considerably more rebellious in his attitude to the King, replies:
Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own.Henry hears it all and thinks his own heavy thoughts.
His prayer at dawn is interesting. He does not pray for victory but for his soldiers to lose their fears:
O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;When he addresses his troops he addresses them all on both occasions. They are all his friends, his brothers:
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposèd numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me(The film uses the alternative reading of “base” instead of “vile”.)
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
The battle is won by the yeomen archers and their craft as much as by the outnumbered nobles and the image of England as the land where all are one and the King is at one with all, is complete.
As a coda one sees Henry wooing the French Princess Katharine, who is obviously greatly taken by him, telling her that he is a plain speaking English soldier, who loves her but who will not produce flowery language for her sake. She must take him as he is but as he is he will be hers. This is a wonderful English theme, developed by numerous writers in subsequent centuries.
Of particular interest is Olivier’s Churchillian pronunciation of a few French sentences, which must have been treasured by those who understood the joke.
Olivier’s King Harry shows the actor to be a remarkable film director and producer as well as the greatest Shakespearian actor of the twentieth century. He may not have had Gielgud’s mellifluous and mesmerizing voice but he could say those lines as if they were a natural way of talking. Who can rival that even now?
“Henry V” was most probably written and first performed in 1599, only a decade after England had withstood and triumphed over a great danger from Spain, in the middle of yet another Irish rebellion and a time when folk memory could still recall accounts of the century long civil war that preceded the Tudors. A look across the Channel would have shown countries where civil warfare seemed almost endemic.
Olivier’s film was made at a time when Britain (or England) was once again in danger and the people were united behind the leader (with some very loud grumbling in the ranks).
There have been numerous interpretations of Shakespeare’s attitude to war – was he glorifying it and praising Essex’s incompetent attempt to subdue Tyrone’s rebellion (probably, if he knew which side his bread was buttered on) or undermining it by the presence of such contemptible braggarts as Pistol and cowardly thieves like Bardolph and Nym? The answer, one suspects, is both, which is a happy thought for all those critics and producers. How else could they pretend that they understand what Will said than Will did himself?
The film is on for a few more days.
By now most of our readers (certainly, on this side of the Pond) would have heard of the death of Lord Biffen of Tanat. He was 76 and has been seriously ill for some time.
His name would be familiar to anyone who is interested in the Thatcher premiership. The BBC sums up his career as follows:
Lord Biffen had been the MP for Oswestry from 1961 to 1983 when he won a by-election, then for Shropshire North from 1983 to 1997 when he was given a peerage.He was a man of strong principles, a true free-marketeer, a eurosceptic, one who stood by his ideas and, in some ways, managed to rise above party politics. This, of course, can be seen as sinking below party loyalties. Biffen was, famously, sacked from the Cabinet in 1987, having been described by Bernard Ingham as being semi-detached.
He became chief secretary to the Treasury in 1979, moving on to be trade secretary in 1981 and then leader of the House of Commons until 1987.
John Biffen’s own description of Margaret Thatcher was that “she was a tigress surrounded by hamsters”.
In the House of Lords, to which he was elevated in 1997 he was a notable, almost brooding presence, taking a habitual strong line on the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, until his illness prevented him from coming to London.
Below is a tribute paid to him by his successor as MP for Shropshire North, Owen Paterson:
John Biffen was an exceptional man. He was MP for North Shropshire for thirty five years and people of all parties and all interests owe him a great debt. He was greatly admired as a constituency MP for his conscientious hard work, his judgement and his kindness to all, regardless of their political affiliation.Tory Historian can add nothing more to that.
On the national stage, he was first and foremost a great Parliamentarian, still remembered as one of the finest Leaders of the House of the last fifty years. Liked and respected by both friends and opponents, he handled the House with fairness and a deft sense of humour. He was a staunch believer in the sovereignty of the House of Commons.
He played a key role in the revival of the Conservative Party’s fortunes in the 1970s as a member of Margaret Thatcher's inner circle, rethinking and developing the policies that led to eighteen years of Conservative Government and the transformation of Great Britain.However, to the end he was brave and independent-minded, never afraid to part company with the party line if he believed it to be wrong.
My thoughts go out to his wife Sarah and his stepchildren Lucy and Nicholas. She has always been a tower of strength and in particular, has looked after him with unfailing care in recent years as his health declined.
An interesting analysis of the position of the conservative academic in Britain and the United States by Professor Jeremy Black. Most of it, I am glad to say, is not yet anothe complaint about the difficulties of academic life but there is not enough on the most difficult subject of all - financing of universities. Worth reading, though.