Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw
I think I can be forgiven for going ‘Steven Who?’ when faced with this doorstop of a book to read as a Shadow Judge of this prize. History has never been my strong suit, and I’d never heard of Runciman – who turned out to be an eminent historian of Byzantium and the Crusades, a man whose life spanned the twentieth century (1903-2000) and a man who, it seemed, knew everyone who was anyone!
I was almost dreading having to read this book, but have read it chunk by chunk around my other reading for the prize – done this way it turned out to be no chore at all. Upon opening the front cover I discovered that the rather magnificent end-papers are covered with Major Arcana cards from a classic tarot pack – this theme is echoed in the chapter titles, 22 out of 26 are titled for these cards and Dinshaw cleverly picks the right card to match the major themes within. Apparently, Runciman was fascinated by the tarot, but this doesn’t really feature in the text past a couple of mentions – but my interest was piqued.
Runciman’s parents were notable Liberals, his father Walter served in Asquith’s government. His childhood was spent in Northumberland with a series of nanny/governesses, each with their own interests. Although the Runcimans were Geordies, Steven regarded himself as Scottish, reinforced by his beloved Scottish nanny Torby, and later when his father purchased the island of Eigg, he could indulge his innate Scottishness there. At Eton, Steven’s best pal was none other than Eric Blair, whom he writes in his diaries: “though he always had wit and irony, was lacking in lightness of humour, anything that smacked of frivolity.” Runciman went up to Cambridge where he made many new friends, and began to skirt on the edges of the Bloomsbury set – some called this group ‘Second Generation Bloomsbury’, but one of his friends coined the term ‘the Homintern’ – for most of them were homosexual. He met and formed a strong friendship with Guy Burgess there (he’d be questioned about this later) and was photographed by Cecil Beaton. In 1925, he headed off on a ship towards China and then on to Japan, (which he found disappointing after China). He would travel widely, and meet many interesting people including Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark: Leigh Fermor would describe Steven as “pleasantly feline”, which amused me.
My favourite section (it was Rebecca’s too) was the time he spent in Hollywood during the late 1950s as a historical advisor to director George Cukor on a film about the Byzantine Empress Theodora, to be played by Ava Gardner. Cukor was coincidentally born on the same day as Runciman. Steven attended parties, and made the acquaintance of many leading ladies, but particularly liked and became friends with Katharine Hepburn. Hewas knighted in 1958, and he obviously knew the Queen already, and would also become good friends with the Queen Mother. In 1965, he published a short book on The Fall of Constantinople, and it became a bestseller, Steven boasted:
“To my surprise (and to my publishers’ – they were tactless to tell me so!) it has been on the London best-seller list for 3 weeks – only beaten by a book written by one of the Beatles!” [Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works]
I’ve concentrated on the social butterfly aspects of Runciman’s life above, but I don’t think I’ve even nearly captured Runciman the man in my brief survey. He comes across as a private individual, a closeted homosexual, who loved to gossip outrageously in his diaries. He was undoubtedly a snob and aesthete, and could be quite nasty when he wanted to. Dinshaw gives us warts and all. As for his literary and historical career – he said (in his late seventies): “History belongs in the English department, it belongs with literature.” Maybe this romantic view of his subject was the secret of his success as an author – attracting readers who would read for a good read as much as for the history. Dinshaw includes plenty of quotations from Runciman’s work so we can appreciate his style.
Young Minoo Dinshaw shows a similar flair, having produced a dense and impeccably researched biography that is very readable indeed. He comes from a literary pedigree – his mother is Candia McWilliam, his father an Oxford Don. Dinshaw came to be asked to write the biography of his favourite historian by serendipitous accident – finding connections through friends to Runciman’s niece, his literary executor. She gave him access to all the papers, including Steven’s diaries, known as his Alphabet, and helped him with contacts and more over the four and a half years it took to write the book.
Minoo himself is a charming young man, Donnish, fogeyish – in a good way, a natural raconteur who frequently goes off on tangents. We were chatting away as he signed my copy of his book, and it was only later I saw his dedication – I’d explained the spelling of my name as like the nightclub – and there it is!
This magnum opus is a huge achievement for Dinshaw, who would be as happy to write a novel as anything else after this biography. Being immersed in one person’s life for so long, I can see why he might take a complete change in direction.
Source: Review copy for the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel.
Read my fellow shadow judges’ reviews: Rebecca,