Magazine article The Spectator

Unhappy in Their Own Way

Magazine article The Spectator

Unhappy in Their Own Way

Article excerpt

IMPERIAL MARRIAGE by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil John Murray, 25, pp. 366, ISBN 0719560438

In her splendid, trenchant, sadly unfinished life of her father, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Lady Gwendolen Cecil set her tone from the first page. After rising to prominence under the Tudors and Stuarts, the Cecils had then declined for more than a century and a half in which `the general mediocrity of intelligence which the family displayed was only varied by instances of quite exceptional stupidity'. By some freak of breeding, that pattern had been reversed with the great Lord Salisbury, prime minister for most of the two last decades of the 19th century, and his children.

Apart from a girl who died in infancy, there were two daughters, Lady Maud, who became Countess of Selbourne, and Lady Gwendolen, and five sons: James, who succeeded his father and had a less brilliant though still notable political career; Lord William, who became Bishop of Exeter; Lord Robert, latterly Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, barrister, cabinet minister and proponent of the League of Nations; Lord Edward, soldier and imperial administrator; and Lord Hugh, later Lord Quickswood, leader of the ultra `Hughligans' during the Parliament Bill crisis of 1911, passionate defender of the Church of England and Provost of Eton. In The Later Cecils Kenneth Rose painted a memorable group portrait of these seven siblings, not the least remarkable thing about whom was their longevity: three lived into their eighties and three into their nineties. The exception was Edward.

Born in 1869, he chose his career despite his father. Salisbury was the unlikeliest of English aristocrats, a very clever and wellread man with no interest in country sports or enthusiasm for military life: 'I detest all soldiering beyond measure,' he had told his own father. He nevertheless allowed Edward to proceed from Eton to Sandhurst and into the Grenadier Guards. In 1890, he went to Ireland as ADC to Lord Wolseley, and nearly went to the bad. He disliked his tedious conventional existence - one letter to his mother ended, `Your-convinced-- against-Society-with-a-big-S-son' - and stifled boredom by gambling, until he had to be bailed out by his father to the tune of more than fl,000, a professional man's annual income at the time. More happily, or so it seemed, it was in Dublin that he met Violet Maxse, and embarked on the `imperial marriage' whose haunting story is told in this book.

One man who improbably enough dreamed of completing Lady Gwendolen's biography was that passionate old Etonian admirer of Victorian England and the British empire, Guy Burgess. Another was Hugh Cecil. A scholarly historian of the Great War, he is a son of Lord and Lady David Cecil, and thus great-grandson of the prime minister. In the event he didn't write Salisbury's life, but has published, with his wife Mirabel, a prize-winning joint biography of his maternal grandparents, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy. In the same fruitful vein of ancestor-worship, they have now written a comparable book-- but with a difference. The guests at Edward and Violet's wedding included Oscar Wilde, shortly before The Importance of Being Earnest (and his downfall), and the epigraph for this book might have been, `In married life three is company and two is none.' It isn't a double but a triple biography, of the two, and of him who was truly the man in Violet's life, Alfred Milner.

In its way, theirs was a `mixed marriage'. Both families were highly distinctive. In an England where, even though the ruling classes mostly still followed the outward forms of their official religion, the sea of faith's melancholy, long, withdrawing roar could everywhere be heard, the Cecils were the most ardently devout and combative High Church family of their rank, much given to intemperate theological disputation. Violet's father, Admiral Frederick Maxse, was another recognisable Victorian type, an upper-class radical agnostic. …

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