A People’s Historian

John Julius Norwich, the historian, travel writer, man of letters, and television performer known to Burke’s Peerage as 2nd Viscount Norwich and beloved by millions of readers, viewers, and listeners for his erudition, wit, and inerrant handling of historical narrative, died last week at 88 years of age. A patrician, Norwich specialized in the democratic art of elucidating the human past to the ordinary reader, as Gibbon, Hume, and Macaulay had done before him.

I never met Norwich, but it was through him that I first met the Norman knights of Sicily, the merchants and mariners of the Venetian republic, and the emperors and bishops of Byzantium. Later, he introduced me to the saints and sinners of the papacy, and the poets and painters of Victorian Venice too. Writers learn by reading other writers, and reading Norwich is a masterclass. Spring-heeled in his Gibbonian rhythms, alert for aesthetic and narrative treasure glinting by the side of political and military highways, magisterial in his sweep and subtle in his corrections of earlier historians, and never without a touch of Augustan irony, Norwich was a serious writer. He was also a modest one.

“I have not discovered a single new historical fact in my life,” Norwich said when his memoir Trying to Please came out in 2008. Anyone can discover facts; the archives are full of them. But Norwich’s narratives, deceptively light in their handling of leaden documentary matter, were buoyed not just by the enthusiasm to which he admitted but by the heavy reading and hard writing that, in the English way, he disavowed.

On 21 November 1354, John Palaeologus slipped out of Tenedos. It was a dark, moonless night with occasional bursts of heavy rain, but there was a good following wind that drove him quickly up the Hellespont and into the Marmara. In the early hours of the 22nd, he reached Constantinople which, still under cover of darkness, he succeeded in entering unobserved. Once inside the city, however, he immediately made his presence known, and by dawn the crowds were already gathering on the streets and calling his name. Before long, inevitably, they went on the rampage.

The rapid rhythm (“dark, moonless . . . good following”) catches the wind that drives the ship up the Hellespont. As the deposed emperor, seeking to recover his throne, slips lightly into Constantinople, the dependent clause “still under cover of darkness” carries the factual load. A Latinate construction (“Once inside the city”) pivots effortlessly on “however” and concludes with a colloquial pattern (“he immediately made his presence known”). This descent from high written style to the pattern of ordinary speech narrates the emperor’s descent into the divided city—remember, he sailed “up the Hellespont”—and into urban politics. The “inevitably” that precedes the “rampage” could be Cicero or Livy or Gibbon.

When, turning the page, we learn that the imperial usurper John VI Cantacuzenus has retired to a monastery, Norwich gently corrects Gibbon’s doubts about the sincerity of the conversion. Thus Norwich, who claims only to entertain, adds new facts. Then he prompts us to consider the man, not the monarch or the monk: “It is hard not to feel sorry for John Cantacuzenus.” Finally, he fires a double-barreled verdict from Gibbon’s arsenal: “Few emperors had worked harder for the imperial good; few had possessed less personal ambition.”

Only the best historians can manage this kind of writing. Norwich weaves the facts into the drama and exposes the accidental elements of historical experience without losing the overall perspective. Anything can happen; it is as though the past is unwritten. Norwich sustains his dramas across hundreds of years and pages. And all of it is true.

“He grew up with history,” Norwich’s daughter the biographer Artemis Cooper tells me on the telephone from London. “He was one of those people who, because they’re drenched in history, see the present as informed by the past.”

Born in 1929, John Julius Cooper was the only child of the Conservative politician Duff Cooper, who was to become a minister in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and the society beauty Lady Diana Manners. Both parents were accomplished diarists. Duff Cooper’s diaries, edited by John Julius in 2005, record his athletic program of adultery. But Diana Cooper, her son recalled, was “quite glad that other women were taking the weight off her, as it were.”

“Diana Cooper was remarkable,” Artemis Cooper says of her grandmother. “Like most girls of her time, she had precious little education, but she was absolutely steeped in poetry and literature.” Evelyn Waugh immortalized her as Mrs. Algernon Stitch in Scoop (1938) and Men at Arms (1952), and Nancy Mitford, less flatteringly, as Lady Leone in Don’t Tell Alfred (1960).

John Julius and his mother were closer than was typical for the times and she remained, he said, “my greatest influence.” She taught him to read at 4 and introduced him to French by taking him to France at 5. In Scoop, one of Mrs. Stitch’s friends finds Josephine, the “eight-year-old Stitch prodigy,” construing Virgil. “Show him your imitation of the Prime Minister,” Mrs. Stitch asks. “Sing him your Neapolitan song. . . . Stand on your head.”

“Wherever you went with Diana Cooper, it was a lesson,” Artemis Cooper recalls. “You had to shine, you had to know your stuff. On every shopping expedition, she would grill you about the capitals of the world or your times-tables, or tell you stories from the Greek myths.” Duff Cooper’s teaching method, taking turns to read aloud from books, further prepared John Julius for public life.

“It was the sort of family where if you passed a statue, you’d look at who it was and talk about the stories of that time,” Artemis Cooper says. “As a child, John Julius had Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens of England, which had simple illustrations and a little poem about each monarch, on a screen in his room. He could see it graphically in his mind.”

Evacuated to the United States in 1940 and partly schooled in Canada, John Julius returned to Eton and then read French and Russian at New College, Oxford. After national service in the Royal Navy, he followed his father’s path into the Foreign Office, serving at the British embassies in Belgrade and Beirut. In 1961, he returned to London fascinated by the Norman monuments he had seen during a two-week holiday in Sicily, only to find that there was “practically nothing in English” on the subject.

“There was nothing for it but to resign from the Foreign Office,” he wrote in Sicily: A Short History (2015), “and to take up the pen in earnest.” The two volumes of Norwich’s The Normans in Sicily (1967, 1970) remain the standard work. So do the two volumes of A History of Venice (1977, 1981) and the three volumes of Byzantium (1988, 1992, 1995).

“A publisher asked him to write a history of Florence,” Artemis Cooper remembers. “But he said, ‘I hate Florence, I hate those bloody bankers, I’m fed up with all those Medici. I want to write about Venice.’ ‘Well, okay,’ the publisher said, ‘that’s fine.’ ”

Norwich loved Venice. He visited it some 200 times and was chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. But the history of Venice is a history of faceless councils and powerless doges. “Anyone who looked like they were going to turn into a good story got their heads chopped off,” Artemis Cooper says. “The checks and balances were designed to cut out the story so that the republic could go serenely on.” The absence in Venice of characters like Frederick Barbarossa or Roger II in The Normans in Sicily challenged Norwich’s narrative skills.

“I remember him at the time wondering, ‘How am I ever going to make this into an interesting story?’ Artemis Cooper recalls. “It was a hard book to write. It was a series of stories, but not about individuals.” It reads, though, like a human drama. So does the Byzantium trilogy. But that, she notes, was “one grisly murder and plot after another, so he wasn’t short of stories.” The difficulty, rather, was to continue the work of Robert Byron and Steven Runciman, and extricate Byzantium from the contempt of earlier historians.

“He had always loved Byzantium. He said that Paddy Leigh Fermor had introduced him to the Eastern Mediterranean, which he always thought of as his spiritual home.” In 1956, Leigh Fermor guided John Julius, his mother, and his wife Anne on a Greek island sailing trip. “Nobody has ever carried his knowledge so lightly,” Norwich said at Leigh Fermor’s memorial service in 2011, “nobody has ever seemed less like a scholar.”

Cooper, Leigh Fermor’s biographer, sees a kinship of “ebullience” and enthusiasm between the two. “John Julius worked very, very hard. Played pretty hard, too. He was always at his desk, reading, but he wasn’t a scholar. A lot of what I wrote about Paddy could apply to John Julius. And maybe John Julius informed what I wrote about Paddy, insofar as the secret of happiness is to be constantly looking outwards, having enormous curiosity, wanting to talk and meet with people.”

The monument to Norwich’s relationship with his readers is their collaboration on Christmas Crackers, pamphlets he produced every year starting in the 1970s. “He’d been keeping these little commonplace books forever and sending out little booklets to friends as a little gift for Christmas,” Cooper says. “And then it grew into a lovely unofficial club, which anyone who wanted to join could join. People sent stories and suggestions, and he welcomed it all. Elizabeth David said that the best writers always address their readers as equals. John Julius was like that. It was so engaging, so generous and enthusiastic. He said, ‘I get this stuff from all over the place. It comes out of the ether. Isn’t it wonderful?’ ”

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