Book review: Eminent Elizabethans, By Piers Brendon

From Jagger's priapism to Charles's princely charms

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The Independent Culture

Utilising the iconoclastic profiles in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians as a template, Brendon produced Eminent Edwardians (Northcliffe, Balfour, Pankhurst and Baden-Powell) and now, thirty years on, Eminent Elizabethans.

The problem with his new subjects Murdoch, Thatcher, Jagger and Prince Charles, is that unlike his Edwardian targets, they are four of the most scrutinised figures of our era. Yet by utilising the research techniques of academic history (notes and bibliography run to 40 pages), Brendon substantiates his devastating critiques. He also has a keen eye for the killer quote. From Douglas Hurd, we hear the absent-minded explanation from Thatcher why she preferred Major to him as successor ("He was the best of a very poor bunch") while Keith Richards reveals that Mick has "a tiny todger".

Of his four subjects, the heir to the throne emerges as the most intriguing. His chilly childhood is encapsulated by the Queen's decision to postpone reunion with her infant son "for several days" after a trip to Malta. He was an artistic oddity in a family whose idea of a cultural evening was, according to Anthony Blunt, "playing golf with a piece of coal on Aubusson carpets". "Easily misled by charlatans", Charles grew up to "esteem hierarchy" and "revere ritual". He developed "a swelling desire to impose his opinions." Yet Brendon concedes that his "warmth, charm, courtesy... and self-deprecating humour" restored his "battered" image".

No such redemption is granted to Jagger, whose early rebellious posturing hid a "Home Counties Tory, cautious, orthodox, old fashioned." Jagger himself insisted that his drug bust in 1967 is "why I turned bourgeois". Richards, a touchstone of droll objectivity, noted that "He'd never been anything but bourgeois."

Brendon delineates Jagger's misogyny, satyriasis, multiple personalities, relentless social climbing and bizarre stage persona ("pantomime demagogue"). Brendon's addictively enjoyable dissections are richly informative about this ego-driven quartet.