‘Of course, we are conspirators; and you English do not like conspiracy, and the dagger, and the bomb.’
John St Loe Strachey, The Madonna of the Barricades (1925)
What ruined the Socialists was their surrender to the Extremists and their use of violence. They were too easily persuaded into thinking that physical force applied without mercy would bring victory and prevent any possibility of reaction!
The Italian political secret societies of the nineteenth century, with their spine-chilling oaths of loyalty, their obsession with bloody revenge, and their networks of undercover agents spread around the civilized world – these things were an endless source of fascination to British writers. They are key to the plots of, for example, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Pavilion on the Links’ (1880), one of E.W. Hornung’s best Raffles adventures ‘The Last Laugh’ (1901), and the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ (1911).
Those are all classics, of course, whereas this novel, regrettably, is not. But don’t go away just yet: it does have its moments and – as Sherlock would say – there are points of interest.
John St Loe Strachey (1860–1927) isn’t the best remembered of his family. That’d be his cousin Lytton, who wrote Eminent Victorians (1916), and revolutionized the art of biography. Or possibly his son John, who co-founded the New Party with Oswald Mosley and went on to be the minster of food in Clement Attlee’s government (older viewers may remember the Tanganyika groundnut scheme). Or even – in my world – his daughter Amabel, who married Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion fame.
In his day, however, Strachey was an important figure, the man who followed the great Meredith Townsend as editor of The Spectator in 1887. Townsend had been there for over quarter-of-a-century, but Strachey outdid even that, staying in place right through to 1925. That was also the year in which, at the age of sixty-five, he published this, his first novel.
And what a very queer kettle of fish it is: a historical romance that brings together two young aristocrats – one English, the other Italian – whose love plays out against the backdrop of Parisian barricades during the June Days uprising of 1848. It’s a Mills & Boon take on ‘Street Fighting Man’, laced with intellectual and philosophical pretensions.
(Incidentally, if you’re not fully across the events of the June Days, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Like Strachey himself, this revolutionary moment been somewhat overshadowed by its relatives, so that the big three Paris uprisings, from a modern British perspective, are 1789, 1968 and 1871.)
Purportedly written forty years after the events it describes, The Madonna of the Barricades is narrated by a now-retired Liberal cabinet minister, George, Lord Chertsey, looking back to his youth and to his twin infatuations with radical politics and with Countess Carlotta.
The latter is a political exile, an ardent Italian nationalist, and a member of the Carbonari, the biggest of those secret societies so beloved of the British novelist. A beautiful, 22-year-old revolutionary, with a ‘roguish but perfectly well-bred eye’ and a penchant for violent insurrection, she’s also the Madonna of the title, and she’s a great idea for a character.
Unfortunately, however, the concept is better than the execution. Carlotta is presented as a sort of secular saint, prepared to sacrifice her happiness and even her life for the cause in which she so passionately believes. Which means, for the reader, that she’s often very, very boring. Her conversation mostly consists of long, deadly serious, political speeches that go on for page after page after page, until you feel that, at times, even George is struggling to stay awake.
She does profess her love for him, but it never sounds convincing. By which I mean, George is convinced, and he expects us to be as well, but we’re not: her protestations just sound like she’s manipulating him. At one stage she delicately explains that she would be prepared ‘to ingratiate herself through the arts of fascination’ with one of Italy’s enemies in order ‘to obtain information from him, or to steal papers’. So we know that love plays a poor second fiddle to politics in her life, and that fact does rather hamper the romance somewhat. The absolute lack of humour doesn’t help much, either.
And yet there are glimpses of a much more interesting character trying to escape. We learn, for example, that she was brought up a woman who adhered to ‘the “Vecchio Religio” – “the old religion” – the faith of Italy in the days of the Romans, and the Etruscans, when men were men and not trembling slaves of the old shaveling priests and fat friars’. In her childhood, the old gods were still worshipped, including, ‘greatest of all, the Goat-footed God, who was everywhere and in all that live and multiply, and enjoy.’
Now this is more like it. You can never go far wrong with a bit of Pan. And it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that this novel was written in the immediate aftermath of the decisive 1924 election and the ensuing Aventine Secession that secured Mussolini’s rule over Italy, with its attempted evocation of the Roman Empire: developments in Italian politics were very much in the news. But, regrettably, the Old Religion doesn’t seem to have worn off on Carlotta herself, and comparisons are made with a Catholic saint, not with the Great God Pan.
As the tensions rise on the streets of Paris, and the inevitable violence approaches, the endless lectures are gradually replaced by action, and things improve no end. In preparation for the battles to come, Carlotta dons male clothes – ‘of rather a Byronic type’ – though ‘she made no pretence at being a boy, but was obviously a young woman dressed in a youth’s clothes’. It’s at this point George begins to fret that he’s maybe manning the barricades under false pretences; he wonders ‘whether it could be right to do what I was doing not for conscience’s sake, or because I believed it was right, but for the carnal love of a woman’. Though he does make clear that the two of them haven’t actually been carnal as such.
If Carlotta is intended to be at the heart of the novel, George himself is actually the more engaging character. He presents himself – without a great deal of evidence – as a man of deep thought and reflection: ‘in a crisis,’ he reflects, ‘there is nothing like thinking, thinking, thinking to clarify the brain.’ (How unlike the home-life of our own John Buchan hero.)
But mostly his intelligence is to be found in his latter-day role as memoirist, rather than in his earlier incarnation as a callow youth who gets swept up in the excitement of the times. He regrets the folly of his younger self, but not, interestingly, for what he did, so much as his lack of boldness in not doing more:
Why will not Youth understand that it is in possession of the thinking period of life? It imagines that Age is full of wisdom and is always devolving great ideas as well as great schemes and, in a word, making full use of the experience to which it has attained. Nothing could be more untrue. With very few exceptions, Age is resting upon its oars and letting the impulse which it has given to the boat by previous strokes carry it as far as it will.
There’s a certain paradox here – that to have come to this understanding is surely product of the wisdom of age – but it’s a fine insight nonetheless. And that image of the boat is one of the best in the book.
Anyway, the young George is an accurate enough portrayal of a recognizable type. We first meet him in the summer before he goes to university, a sporting young man with a keen interest in politics. Noting this interest, his father – an ‘old friend and colleague’ of Lord Melbourne – gives him a book to read, an act described in what is one of my favourite sentences in the whole of fiction: ‘My Father’s valet brought me, while I was undressing, The Communist Manifesto.’
Oh, yes. However much Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels may have thought their message was targeted at the proletariat, it’s actually the son and heir of Viscount Chertsey who is truly thrilled by their message. Even in the excitement of going to Oxford, he can’t forget what he’s read. ‘Marx and Engels, indeed, did for me exactly what they intended to do. They set me on fire. I very soon got together a little group of young men, who used to meet at my rooms and talk over what we called “Politics and the Social Situation”.’
It’s an uplifting tale – and it’s hard to resist that ‘exactly what they intended’ – but there is a slight problem. We are at this stage in the late summer of 1847; yet The Communist Manifesto wasn’t written, let alone published, until 1848, and it wasn’t until 1850 that the first English translation appeared.
It’s not the only historical inaccuracy in the book, and George’s airy explanation carries very little weight: ‘I have refrained from the strain of looking back at old letters and bills, or consulting the files of newspapers to refresh my memory.’ Still, you’d think he’d remember when he read this life-changing text. And even if we excuse George, there’s no get-out for Strachey: not only was he awarded a first-class history degree from Oxford, he also boasts in a prefatory note that ‘1848 has always been the epoch of my special regard’.
But if you can manage to ignore this sort of thing, then the psychology is convincing enough. We’re left with a naïve, upper-class young dilettante, a political dandy trying on various suits of ideological clothing to see whether they fit him, whether he feels comfortable wearing the apparel. Unlike Carlotta, with her supposed saintliness, he’s entirely believable.
She, of course, has no time for communism at all, or for anything other than complete political commitment. Her concern is purely with full-blooded Italian nationalism. But, come the revolutionary year of 1848, communism and nationalism form a united front, and she persuades George to go to Paris with her, where the Carbonari are planning to overthrow the government. The intention is to install a new administration, one that would be more favourable to Italian independence, and somehow – in a way that isn’t entirely clear – it involves Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III), who is secretly a member of the Carbonari.
I confess it’s not a period or a place I know anything about, but to my mind none of this sounds plausible; surely the rising in Paris was more French than Italian in origin and execution? Not that it matters too much. The descriptions of the building of the barricades and the battles ring true, and they’re much more important. There’s some genuine atmosphere of revolution here.
The individuals that George encounters are pretty good as well. Here’s an old man who served in the Grand Army of Napoleon, a veteran of the doomed Russian campaign, explaining – correctly – that the entire tactic of street barricades is a mistake on the part of the revolutionaries:
they gained a temporary success, but they were, all the same, committing the greatest of military crimes – they were demobilizing their forces, i.e. making them unable to move, therefore unable to take the initiative, therefore unable to attack, and therefore in the last resort unable to win.
And here’s a description of a young French anarchist:
a young man of the intellectual class, a man who might be well known at a glance as a votary of Prudhon [sic] and Saint-Simon. His hair was long, his face very pale, and he had deep-set burning black eyes. He looked like a fanatic through and through, but was obviously sincere.
Now, this is precisely what George is not. Even in the opening pages, back in the Oxford days, we’re not convinced by his commitment to the cause; and nor, really, is he. He says of The Communist Manifesto: ‘It did not convert me to Communism, or to Revolution, but it unquestionably stirred my heart and made me feel strongly and deeply.’ He’s impressed by the passion of others, but he is at heart still the son of a Whig politician of the old school, and for him such passion is only ever going to be a passing phase. Not even the beautiful Carlotta can divert him from his course; he can admire her philosophy but it doesn’t touch his soul: ‘Englishman-like, I thought it ought to be moderated here and compromised on there.’
By the time he’s in the midst of the uprising, he’s abandoned even his mild flirtation with Marx. Once he had proposed a toast to his little reading-circle in Oxford: ‘Freedom for the Oppressed, Death and Damnation to the Oppressors, and a Happier and Better Life for the Toilers of the World!’ Now, he looks on Communism and sees something ‘which, as far as I understood it, I heartily disliked!’
He gets lost in the heat of combat in the June Days, but at night he can’t reconcile the demands for justice and freedom with the bloodshed he’s witnessing:
At the back of my mind I was profoundly dissatisfied with the cruelty and brutality with which the reds conducted their campaign, and more than doubtful of the ability of the Communists to bring about that greater happiness for the workers that I so strongly desired.
In fact, his motivation throughout is personal rather than political. Not only is he trying to impress a woman, he also has something to prove to himself. After surviving his first firefight, with bodies hanging on the barricades and with two hundred National Guard dead on the other side, his over-riding emotion is relief: ‘I had proved my manhood. Whether my cause of fight was right or wrong, I had not flinched – as I had so often secretly feared I might. I was not a coward.’ The echoes you hear are those of Lewis Haystoun in The Half-Hearted and Harry Feversham in The Four Feathers.
This is not a great book. Strachey was not a natural novelist – this was to be his last, as well as his first, venture into the territory – and neither the writing nor the characters truly sparkle. There are some fearfully dull passages.
There are, though, some nice casual jokes, mostly at the expense of foreigners. ‘A Frenchman never jibs at a compliment. It does not make him suspicious, as it does the ordinary Englishman.’ And I particularly like the Basque courier who can speak ‘French, Italian, German, Russian and English with complete fluency, though with a perfect lack of grammar. He was never at a loss for a word, but there was not a vestige of syntax in the composition of his sentences.’
Best of all, there are some fine – if random – cameo appearances, from Marx himself to Alphonse de Lamartine, and from Matthew Arnold (who tells our hero that George Sand ‘is the greatest genius alive in Europe today’) to Madame Tussaud. Where the celebrities of the time don’t appear in person, they’re never too far from the scene: an upper-class woman working as a nurse turns out to be a close friend of Florence Nightingale, ‘and had imbibed from her a great many of those theories of how to nurse and how not to nurse which some six years afterwards Miss Nightingale was to put into practice in the Crimean hospitals.’ (There’s none of the delicate, witty nuance here that Lytton Strachey brought to his portrait of Nightingale in Eminent Victorians.)
There’s also a chapter set in the Cave of Harmony, a song-and-supper room clearly based on the Cyder Cellars in Covent Garden, where George hears the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray ‘half recite, half intone his version of “Villikens and his Diner” in a wonderful Cockney accent’. It’s a lovely idea, not entirely undermined by the fact that we’re still in 1848, and ‘Villikins and His Dinah’ (as it’s more commonly known) wasn’t written until 1853, becoming a hit for Sam Cowell in the song-and-supper rooms the year after that.
This sequence is matched later on by a vignette in the Catacombs of Paris (a place ‘admirably described in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables,’ we’re told, in a slightly patronizing tone). Here, for no obvious reason, we get a glimpse of a Black Mass, and George disapproves in the strongest terms possible: ‘Their diabolism was nonsense, their blasphemy childish, and their bestial obscenity a matter for the alienist, rather than for the magistrate’. And yet, he reflects, on the other hand, there’s also some Gregorian chant, which is ‘rather good from a musical point of view’.
Incidentally, during this passage, we’re told that the most extreme devil-worshippers have the Cross tattooed on their feet, so that they can always be tramping it into the dirt. This idea had earlier turned up, in slightly different form, in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s account of a leading French Satanist in Là-Bas (1891): ‘His frenzy for sacrilege is such that he had the image of Christ tattooed on his heels so that he could always step on the Saviour!’ I had thought that Huysmans made this up, but perhaps there’s a common source and there is some truth in it.
The novel got good notices. Well, it would. Book reviewers worked in an industry where Strachey had been a hugely powerful figure for nigh-on forty years, and it might not have been sensible to be harshly critical in print. ‘Mr Strachey’s first novel has not disappointed the very high hopes we naturally had of it,’ observed the Observer, and most others fell into line: ‘a very fine and very moving story’; ‘one of the most notable contributions to the literature of 1925’; ‘a highly accomplished novel’.
There were some quiet reservations. ‘Mr Strachey’s book will not, we think, make a wide appeal,’ murmured the Yorkshire Post, ‘though to students of the history of the nineteenth century it will prove extremely interesting.’ Meanwhile, in the Daily Herald, Godfrey Elton, whose own book The Revolutionary Idea in France, 1789–1878 had recently been published, gently pointed out some of the historical inaccuracies.
The one real stinker I’ve come across, however, followed the novel’s publication in the USA a year or so later. ‘The book is written to slander Marx and the revolutionary workers,’ protested the American journal The Communist. ‘Strachey describes Marx as scared green at the thought of a rising, and bleating for Scotland Yard protection.’ In short: ‘This book is one more symptom of the mastering desire of the English bourgeoisie to preach patience, submission and pacifism to their workers.’
They weren’t entirely wrong. I think we’re meant to sympathize with George, but to recognize that his youthful dabbling in revolutionary politics and revolutionary women is a rite of passage, a staging-post on his road to adulthood and responsibility. Certainly, Strachey has no taste for political violence and, writing at a time when communists and fascists had seized control of European nations, he was of course entirely right to defend a more civilized way of behaving.
‘Things go too smoothly here,’ Carlotta tells George, while they’re still in England, ‘and we are apt to think that everything can be done by talk and a free press and a free Parliament.’ Yes. Good, isn’t it?