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5 October 2016

“I have the temperament of a harlot“: on the life of Steven Runciman

Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight revels in the life of an untypical historian.

By Noel Malcolm

In the mid-1970s, when Steven Runciman was in his own eighth decade, he became a frequent house guest of the archaeologist (and husband of Agatha Christie) Max Mallowan. Like all who met him, the Mallowans were impressed by this charming and intellectually brilliant man, who was one of the best-known historians in the country. But one evening Mallowan confided to a friend that he had been shocked by his last conversation with Runciman, who told him “that he felt his life had been a failure because of his gayness”. Mallowan was dismayed not only because such soul-baring was startlingly out of character. As the friend later said, “I remember Max saying with huge indignation how tragic and wrong it was that Steven should feel this way.”

Tragic and wrong indeed. People differ in how they measure their own success or failure, but by almost any standards Runciman had led a successful life. His many books on Byzantine and medieval history had been acclaimed by specialists and avidly consumed by general readers; he had received a knighthood and became a Companion of Honour in 1984; he was an honorary whirling dervish and was appointed Grand Orator of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the age of 97 he complained that “the only friend I now have who is older than me is the Queen Mother”; yet one would need to analyse the guest list for his 90th birthday party, to which he invited 400 friends, to be sure of the accuracy of that remark.

The Runcimans were not old nobility – Steven’s father, a Liberal politician, was made a viscount in the 1930s – but they were grand, with family wealth built on industry and shipping, so Steven was born with a fair quantity of silver cutlery in his mouth. He won a scholarship to Eton, where his friends included Eric Blair (George Orwell) and Cyril Connolly, and then won a place at Cambridge at the early age of 17. Effortlessly well connected, and supported by a private income, he spent his student years mingling with Bright Young Things, Bloomsberries, Apostles and assorted littérateurs, many of them gay, and few of them entirely discreet.

This phase of Runciman’s life begins to feel like a generic period piece: the silk dressing gowns, the emerald green parakeet in the college room, the amateur theatricals (Dadie Rylands, a star of the Cambridge stage, was an intimate friend), the portrait by Cecil Beaton, who exclaimed: “I should adore to model him. He’s so huge and ugly and strong with the most fruity voice.” When Runciman became a junior fellow of Trinity, his colleagues included Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess was one of his favoured pupils. Here, too, it feels as if we are stepping back into a familiar world – though Runciman never became a communist and was not invited to join the Apostles, apparently because he held middle-of-the-road Liberal views.

Yet, all the while, something much more untypical was happening: this Bright Young Thing was turning himself, gradually, with very little help from his academic superiors, into a world authority on a peculiarly difficult area of European history, learning Russian, Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic and Armenian in order to do so. The book of his doctoral thesis, about a little-known 10th-century Byzantine emperor, was both scholarly and witty, and remains in print today. That was followed by the first major study in English of the early Bulgarian empire – again, hardly the stuff of cocktail-party conversation, though it did earn him a drink or two, on subsequent visits to Sofia, with Tsar Boris III.

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In 1937, when Runciman was 34, a large inheritance from his grandfather enabled him to resign his Cambridge fellowship and become an independent scholar. But other duties soon intervened: the Second World War sent him back to Sofia, where he was given, on Guy Burgess’s recommendation, the job of press attaché to the British Legation. After the legation’s expulsion from Bulgaria he spent the rest of the war in Cairo, Jerusalem, Turkey and Syria; two years followed at the British Council in Athens. The roll-call of his friends from this period ticks many expected boxes, from Freya Stark to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Freed at last of formal duties in 1947, he spent the next 53 years doing what he enjoyed: writing, lecturing, travelling, hobnobbing with royalty and Hollywood stars, and serving on many great-and-good committees. Until 1966, he was also a laird of the Hebridean island of Eigg. His great History of the Crusades (1951-54) was followed by ten other book-length studies, including one on the Malaysian state of Sarawak; and if he never became a household name, in the style of Kenneth Clark or A J P Taylor, he was about as famous as a historian can be, in the modern age, without appearing on television.

Runciman was reluctant to be biographised, though not because he thought his own life was without interest: he had a rich stock of anecdotes, some of them quite self-regarding, and was happy to publish many of them in his 1991 book of memoirs, A Traveller’s Alphabet. The reluctance stemmed from his fear that younger biographers would, as he put it, be “insensitive to the atmosphere of the past and unaware of that transient element, its humour”.

He should not have worried. Minoo Dinshaw, who is too young to have known him personally, has performed an astonishing feat of empathy as well as research. Outlandish Knight – the title is from a ballad – is based on reams of private correspondence, interviews and unpublished memoirs, in addition to the obvious printed sources (as well as many unobvious ones relating to people and events from Northumberland to Istanbul to Thailand). With a less talented author, the result might have been a Sargasso Sea of information. But what keeps the reader’s interest on every page is, precisely, this biographer’s sensitivity to atmosphere and his humorous awareness.

Minor characters are conjured up with delicious brevity. Cyril Connolly’s father was “a retired officer, chronic drinker and expert in the classification of snails”. The poet Elinor Wylie was “tall and of avian, fragile thinness, with luminous white skin”. George Cukor, the film director, was “physically unattractive, especially to himself; wounded, charming”. Of the marriage of the homosexual 2nd Baron Faringdon, the Labour peer who once began a speech to the upper house “My dears” instead of “My Lords”, Dinshaw states concisely: “A sailor attended the wedding night.”

Admittedly, the book has the weaknesses of its own strengths. In places, the finely crafted prose can become a distraction, as each well-chosen adjective is recalibrated by an even better-chosen adverb. And Dinshaw’s immersion in Runciman’s published works is such that he often writes as if the reader already knew them, commenting shrewdly on matters of style and technique but forgetting to supply elementary facts. Yet the strengths predominate – near-omniscient thoroughness, gentle humour, psychological precision.

This is not at all an uncritical biography. Dinshaw notes Runciman’s less appealing qualities: vanity, snobbery, occasional feline cruelty (there is a wince-making episode involving the humiliation of an earnest young American academic) and, where his elder brother’s ill-fated marriage to Rosamond Lehmann was concerned, “envy, indiscretion and mischief-making”. On the positive side, there was a golden vein of generosity in his character, and keen sympathy for outsiders and underdogs. But Dinshaw strikes a keynote when he refers to “Steven’s long-cultivated facility for civilian adaptability, self-preservation and camouflage”.

Which brings us back to the question of “gayness”. It is only on page 515 that we learn for the first time that Runciman had “a long career of active sexuality”. Up to that point, the book makes only brief suggestions of Runciman having had physical relationships with a few friends, mostly in his early adulthood; but decades have passed without the appearance of anyone who could be called, in the full sense, a lover. And even Dinshaw’s exhaustive researches cannot find one. What he has discovered is a few retrospective comments, late in life, boasting of innumerable casual conquests. As Runciman told a friend: “I have the temperament of a harlot, and so am free of emotional complications.”

In the one judgement that seems off-key in his biography, Dinshaw writes that the reason why Runciman played such a delicate game of sexual semi-concealment was that he believed homosexuality was “an inarguable offence against God”. There is no other evidence of any such hang-up. Surely, it is simpler to suppose that if he had formed a deep relationship with anyone he might have cast ambivalence aside; but, for a man of his generation, dependence on a succession of casual pick-ups would not have been something to celebrate, except with the closest, most like-minded friends.

So, even that mournful confession of “failure” was untruthful. Runciman certainly had never tried to lead a heterosexual life, but neither had he ever gone looking for a long-term gay lover and soulmate. Here is a man who, in his private life, as in his historical work and his public achievements, had done exactly what he wanted.

Noel Malcolm’s most recent book is “Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the 16th-Century Mediterranean World” (Penguin)

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories