Biographies Are a Key to History

Three new books reexamine British politics, the Spanish monarchy, and Victorian mores

Long before there was New Labour in Britain - before Prime Minister Tony Blair was even born - there was Old Labour that looked very like it: strongly pro-American, staunchly opposed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and firmly committed to expanding educational opportunity.

In the 1950s, this kind of Labour was exemplified by Hugh Gaitskell, who served as chancellor of the exchequer in the waning days of Clement Attlee's administration in 1950-51, and went on to become leader of the opposition in 1955. But for his untimely death early in 1963, Gaitskell would have become prime minister the following year instead of Harold Wilson.

In Hugh Gaitskell (Richard Cohen Books, 492 pp., $50), Brian Brivati, a British historian, provides a valuable portrait of a man widely regarded as one of the best prime ministers Britain never had. Brivati, though too young to remember Gaitskell, is an excellent guide to the rediscovery of a political leader who paved the way for the present government: "In some respects Mr. Blair can be seen as Gaitskell writ large," notes Brivati. "He leads from the front and is prepared to push the boundaries of revisionism against all that was formerly sacred."

Brivati is well aware of the differences between Blair and Gaitskell, but the Blairite perspective that he brings to this biography clearly enhances its value to today's readers.

Whereas Blair's New Labour has triumphed by assimilating many Thatcherite ideas, Gaitskell succeeded in getting the Conservative government of the 1950s to adopt many of his economic policies. Known as Butskellism, after Gaitskell and his Conservative successor as chancellor, R. A. Butler, this moderate stewardship of a mixed economy was a tribute to Gaitskell's brand of socialism, just as New Labour's adoption of Thatcherite policies can be seen as validating her approach.

Gaitskell was derided by his leftist enemies as "a desiccated calculating machine." He is revealed here to have been something very different. True, this academic economist and civil servant was analytical and intellectual, but he was also a man of strong beliefs and considerable passion - and not only for politics: Although a fond husband and devoted father to his daughters, he had a long affair with the wife of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.

But he will be remembered as the man who wanted to "fight and fight and fight again to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our Party with its great past may retain its glory and its greatness." And he would, as this book clearly shows, be delighted by Tony Blair's triumphant return of Labour to power.

Not one of history's most admired monarchs, Phillip II (1527-1598) ruled Spain, its European dependencies, and its rapidly expanding New World empire in the second half of the turbulent 16th century. He reigned over a country where the infamous Inquisition was in full force. On the larger European stage, Philip's regime fought to crush dissenting Protestants. In the Americas, Spanish settlers enslaved the native populations.

A contemporary of England's Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Philip had been married to her older half-sister, Mary Tudor, and at one point was considered - and firmly dismissed - as a potential husband by the self-styled Virgin Queen herself. She would later thwart his designs far more seriously when England's unpredictable weather destroyed his formidable Spanish Armada in 1588 in what proved a vain attempt to show English privateers who ruled the waves.

Henry Kamen's scholarly but very readable Philip of Spain (Yale U. Press, 384 pp., $35), aims to redress what the author sees as the Spanish monarch's excessively bad press. Philip, Kamen feels, has too often been portrayed as a bigoted, tyrannical Prince of Darkness.

Using many primary documents, including Philip's own letters, Kamen presents a more congenial portrait of a man who may have had his flaws, but who was not a monster.

Philip, we learn, lent a sympathetic ear to the Dominican friar Bartolom de Las Casas pleading the cause for humane treatment of the American Indians. Occasionally, the king intervened on behalf of former Jews who had converted to Christianity but were still victims of suspicion and discrimination. Philip also took an interest in the arts, commissioning and collecting works by artists like Titian and Bosch.

What emerges from these amply researched, well-written pages is a believable human being, deftly placed in the context of his times. But notwithstanding Kamen's explanations and exculpations, Philip is still not a very attractive figure.

Although he listened respectfully to Las Casas's pleas, he gave in to the settlers' pressure to permit slavery. Although he tolerated Jews living in outlying provinces like the then-Spanish Netherlands, he denied the petitions of Jews who sought to return to their former home in Spain itself. He approved the burning of heretics, the execution of Count Egmont, and any other means of nipping heresy and rebellion in the bud.

"His conviction of the need for a firm hand in religious matters was born of his first-hand political experience of political disorder in northern Europe. It did not arise from any unusual intensity of faith...." Kamen assures us, as if the claims of Realpolitik were a far better excuse for inhumanity than those of religious fanaticism.

Elsewhere, discussing the monarch's policy towards heretics sentenced to the stake, the biographer notes that Philip "never in his life erred on the side of mercy."

But if Kamen's absorbing portrait of a prince trying to maintain order at almost any price does not inspire admiration for his policies, the care-worn king of Spain at least seems recognizably human. Kamen imparts a fine sense of Philip's daily life, his tastes and temperament.

The Victorian novelist George Eliot, nee Mary Ann Evans, was born in 1819, the same year Queen Victoria was born. Her stature only seems to increase with the passage of time, for she had a kind of greatness of soul that is rarely found even among the most gifted minds.

She was a woman of many apparent paradoxes: a sincere moralist who defied convention to live with a married man; a free thinker who disdained the more colorful trappings of rebellion and inwardly longed for social acceptance. Yet one of the words that best defines her is "moderation" - not the timorous, lukewarm moderation anxious to avoid risk and opprobrium by remaining neutral or playing safe, but the kind that comes from wisdom and temperance.

Her self-education was in many ways a struggle to attain this moderation, to move from her narrow provincial upbringing to a broader vision without sacrificing the depths of her feelings and understanding.

The author of biographies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and of George Eliot's "husband," George Henry Lewes, Rosemary Ashton exhibits a sure feel for her subject in her engaging new book George Eliot: A Life, (Penguin, 465 pp., $32.95). Ashton pays tribute to the pioneering work of Eliot biographer Gordon Haight, which she characterizes as "documentary," compared with her own more literary-critical approach.

Focusing on George Eliot the novelist, Ashton shows a subtle and appreciative understanding of the complex ways in which the woman's experiences influenced her fiction.

Given Ashton's interest in Eliot's creative processes, it is surprising how little attention she manages to pay Frederick Karl's intensely analytical study of Eliot's life and work which was published just two years ago.

Ashton's life of Eliot is a pleasure to read: limpidly written with a nicely understated wittiness. Reading it, one is reminded that the great Victorians, though accustomed to a much higher degree of prudery and self-censorship than today's writers, were just as concerned with representing a true picture of reality.

In "Adam Bede," as Ashton points out, Eliot tackled the sad story of a unmarried girl who becomes pregnant and kills her newborn baby.

Yet in handling this potentially explosive material, she had the examples of two literary giants: Walter Scott's "The Heart of Midlothian," and the story of Gretchen in Goethe's "Faust." Eliot surpassed their realism, going into much more explicit detail, yet she succeeded in her aim of writing a book that might still be read by impressionable young readers.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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