Reading Note:
Vigororous Vieux Jeu
21 February 2019

Harold Nicolson’s Kings, Courts and Monarchy was, essentially, an old-fashioned book when it was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962. Nicolson, who was in his late seventies at the time, had published something called Monarchy earlier the same year, in England; I presume that it was a collection of essays on kingship that had been prompted by the accession of Elizabeth II ten years earlier. (This would explain the final chapter, “Regalia,” a brisk but annotated program of the Coronation.) Nicolson was more an Edwardian than a historian; the authority conveyed by an Oxford degree (Balliol) seems to have allowed him to rummage through his recollections of secondary sources, refreshing his grip on what happened by a few privileged glimpses of ancient documents, and punt. He makes a complete hash of the Lombard kings of Italy — you’ll just have to take my word for it. He falls for the imposture of a well-known picture of Louis XIV and his “family.” But these are minor details; Kings, Courts and Monarchy is not intended to be held to strict account — partly because it is essentially Edwardian, too worldly for grubby pedantry. 

And partly because, for 1962, it is also a very new-fashioned book. Its text notwithstanding, Kings, Courts and Monarchy, as overhauled by S & S, is a profusely-illustrated coffee-table book, beating Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King — widely but apparently mistakenly regarded as the first of these productions — by four years. It’s true that there are only a few color plates, and that most of the pictures are old engravings or black-and-white (and very anachronistic) extracts from illuminated manuscripts, but the text is so suavely engaging, even — an old donnish trick — when it is tedious, that it all but apologizes for the bother of reading. I’m here to tell you that Kings, Courts and Monarchy is a book to be treasured by easily-bored aspirants to historical fluency. It was as just such a reader that I clasped this book to my bosom when it was given to me, as a Christmas present, in the year of its publication. I was still fourteen years old.

I had asked for it on my Christmas list. I believe that I had read about it in the Times Book Review, which I’d just started looking at. My parents, who may be forgiven for having had no idea where this was going, were actually impressed by the request. 

Harold Nicolson may not have been a scholar, but he was a man of the world with a gift for writing — a diplomat, in other words. Who but an habitué of the Foreign Office and the Quai d’Orsay would tell us, in the opening chapter about “The King as Magician,” that

It was in the Nemi grove moreover that Diana hid her mortal lover Hippolytus, giving him the name Viribius, and rejoicing in the vigor of his limbs. 

What would I have made of that final bit, had I read Kings, Courts and Monarchy when I got it? But I did not read it. Not as such. I looked at it a lot, and memorized most of the illustrations. (The mystical frontispiece of Leviathan has always stood in for the unpleasant politics of Hobbes, which I have not confronted directly.) I read the scurrilous passages about Heliogabalus, and a few other saucy nuggets. Nicolson’s eyewitness account of the regal self-possession of Alfonso XIII lodged in my brain and was never forgotten. Mostly, the book took a prominent place on the shelf, as if I still believed that it was a work of importance. I suppose that not reading it was the best preservative of that impression. Having finally just read it at the tender age of seventy-one, I see that the significance that it seemed to have as a book nearly sixty years ago is simply part of its significance as a memento of the first days of my adulthood. So it will go right back to its prominent place. 

“Rejoicing in the vigor of his limbs” — that can’t be better in Latin! 

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