Lord David Cecil

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Lord David Cecil in 1923

Lord Edward Christian David Gascoyne-Cecil CH (9 April 1902 – 1 January 1986) was a British biographer, historian, and scholar. He held the style of "Lord" by courtesy, as a younger son of a marquess.


  • Comedy was implicit in the manner in which she [Jane Austen] told her story. Her irony, her delicate ruthless irony, was of the substance of her style. It never obtruded itself; sometimes it only glinted out in a turn of phrase. But it was never absent for more than a paragraph; and her most straightforward piece of exposition was tart with its perfume.
    • The Leslie Stephen Lecture at the University of Cambridge (1 May 1935), quoted in The Times (2 May 1935), p. 11
  • England can best express her passionate will to peace by proposing something concrete to solve present difficulties. To show ourselves generous and sensible is in our own finest tradition. Cannot we, through the League, propose to offer Germany some mandate or devise other means to allow for her expansion? Even if it is only to gratify her desire for prestige, we are sufficiently proud of our prestige to sympathize with this desire. To refuse to do so is to show ourselves guilty of the same narrow, selfish nationalism that we deplore in the more reckless utterances of Fascist leaders.
    • Letter to The Times (14 December 1936), p. 10
  • Let us announce to the League that we admit Germany's right to development and that we are prepared to concede something to procure it. An impartial commission might then draw up definite proposals. The Germans are far more likely to appreciate the advantage of the collective system if for once it is employed to assist them. They have learnt that they only get things by the threat of force: let us show them we can offer them something concrete by peaceful methods. May I repeat, except for the admittedly searching question of these Colonies, there is no reason why England and Germany should not live in perfect unity together. Let us keep calm and shape a policy in the light of the consoling truth.
    • Letter to The Times (23 December 1936), p. 6
  • That city [Oxford] is one of the few supreme monuments of European history and civilization, the English equivalent of Florence or Venice.
    • Letter to The Times (9 August 1960), p. 9
  • I cannot recall a time when stories and rhymes and pictures and tunes were not for me the chief source of interest and pleasure in life. I stress the word pleasure. Pleasure has played a large part in my life; pleasure, solitary and sociable, carnal or spiritual; pleasure in the beauties of art and nature, in the enthralling variety of the human scene; and pleasure in jokes. Nothing has been included here, however interesting its subject matter, which does not also give me pleasure.
    • Library Looking-Glass: A Personal Anthology (1975), p. 1
  • Poetry is usually concerned with what is universal and unchanging in human life; novels necessarily with much that is local and ephemeral. Moreover poetry, almost like music, transcends the limitations of time by appealing to our emotions through our basic primitive sense of rhythm and harmony.
    • Letter to The Times (13 January 1982), p. 9

The Young Melbourne (1939)[edit]

  • The Whig aristocracy was a unique product of English civilization. It was before all things a governing class. At a time when economic power was concentrated in the landed interest, the Whigs were among the biggest landowners: their party was in office for the greater part of the eighteenth century.
    • p. 2
  • Since life to them was so secure and so pleasant, the Whig aristocrats tended to take its fundamental values very much for granted; they concentrated rather on how to live. And here again, their ideal was not an artless one. Their customs, their mode of speech, their taste in decoration, their stylish stiff clothes, are alike marked by a character at once polished and precise, disciplined and florid.
    • p. 4
  • Founded as their position was on landed property, the Whig aristocracy was never urban. They passed at least half the year in their country seats; and there they occupied themselves in the ordinary avocations of country life. The ladies interested themselves in their children, and visited the poor; the gentlemen looked after their estates, rode to hounds, and administered from the local bench justice to poachers and pilferers. Their days went by, active, out-of-door, unceremonious; they wore riding-boots as often as silk stockings. Moreover, they were always in touch with the central and serious current of contemporary life. The fact that they were a governing class meant that they had to govern.
    • pp. 4-5
  • The eighteenth century was the age of clubs; and Whig society itself was a sort of club, exclusive, but in which those who managed to achieve membership lived on equal terms; a rowdy, rough-and-tumble club, full of conflict and plain speaking, where people were expected to stand up for themselves and take and give hard knocks. At Eton the little dukes and earls cuffed and bullied each other like street urchins. As mature persons in their country homes, or in the pillared rooms of Brook's Club, their intercourse continued more politely, yet with equal familiarity. While their House of Commons life passed in a robust atmosphere of combat and crisis and defeat.
    • pp. 5-6
  • Their elaborate manners masked simple reactions. Like their mode of life their characters were essentially natural; spontaneous, unintrospective, brimming over with normal feelings, love of home and family, loyalty, conviviality, desire for fame, hero-worship, patriotism. And they showed their feelings too. Happy creatures! They lived before the days of the stiff upper lip and the inhibited public school Englishman. A manly tear stood in their eye at the story of a heroic deed... They were equally frank about their less elevated sentiments. Eighteenth century rationalism combined with rural common sense to make them robustly ready to face unedifying facts. And they declared their impressions with a brusque honesty, outstandingly characteristic of them.
    • pp. 13-14

Quotes about Lord David Cecil[edit]

  • We got on extremely well; I thought he was wonderful; the most agreeable, intelligent charming man I had met in my life... We used to see each other every day, and we talked for about eight hours every day. Endlessly... He was a very sharp delineator of character. His vignettes were absolutely wonderful.
    • Isaiah Berlin, quoted in Hannah Cranborne, '1930–1939', in David Cecil: A Portrait by his Friends (1990), pp. 47-48
  • His style, polished, urbane, slightly ironical throughout—in short, reminiscent of Strachey's, serves him supremely well as an instrument of character analysis and as a lens through which human passions and follies may be observed with Gibbonian detachment. The Young Melbourne (London, 1939) presented the subtly drawn picture of a young man whose own temperament, half animal vigor and hard common sense, half dreamy speculation and delicate sensibility, mirrored the transition from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century habits of thought and feeling.
    • John Clive, 'More or Less Eminent Victorians: Some Trends in Recent Victorian Biography', Victorian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (September 1958), p. 17
  • Lord David's artistry has fullest play wherever the human element rules supreme, as in his masterly treatment of the relationship between the young Queen and her first Prime Minister. And since this relationship happens to have been perhaps the most significant aspect of Melbourne's Premiership, the book qualifies as an outstanding political biography as well as a moving human portrait.
    • John Clive, 'More or Less Eminent Victorians: Some Trends in Recent Victorian Biography', Victorian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (September 1958), p. 18
  • To my mind one of his finest achievements in the field of literary criticism is his theory of Emily Brontë's basic intention in Wuthering Heights. By the house and household of Hindley or filched from him by the villain Heathcliff – she means to represent the storm, the aberration from normal human nature. Whereas Thrushcross Grange, in spite of its many vicissitudes, embodies the calm, the restoration of order out of chaos, which wins in the end, after and indeed before Heathcliff's death... Emily's sympathies may have been with the storm rather than the calm, and I think they were; but it was left to David Cecil to discern the broad fundamental contrast between the two worlds of Wuthering Heights.
    • L. P. Hartley, 'Lord David Cecil', in Essays & Poems Presented to Lord David Cecil (1970), pp. 3-4
  • What is the secret of his critical gift that distinguishes it from others? Partly, I think, his individual approach, which is easy to recognize but hard to define, because it combines the qualities of the professional and the amateur. Professional in its seriousness, is technical proficiency and its regard for the subject; amateur (in the original sense) of loving or liking the subject too much to let himself be bound by hard-and-fast rules of treatment... [H]is love of literature is too strong a thing to be forced into the channel of a single theme. It overflows its banks for the mere pleasure of it – and as all his readers know, to give pleasure is one of his main objects in writing. Writing without pleasure, given and received, is dead: it is one of the essential differences between art and science.
    • L. P. Hartley, 'Lord David Cecil', in Essays & Poems Presented to Lord David Cecil (1970), p. 4
  • F. R. Leavis is more direct in The Great Tradition (1948), which is among other things a running diatribe against Janeite extraordinaire, Lord David Cecil. Leavis dignifies Austen as well as the great tradition of English fiction she originated by insisting on her moral seriousness, and accordingly, the leisured amateurism of Janeites – with their fondness for entertainment, performance and comedy – is noxious to him. His class-based attack upon Lord David, which includes charges of decadence, aestheticism, over-sophistication and evil, contains a homophobically charged gender component as well, for when Leavis casts aspersions on Lytton Strachey and the culture of Bloomsbury, he is aiming to taint Lord David by association.
    • Claudia L. Johnson, 'Austen cults and cultures', in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (1997; 2nd ed. 2011), p. 240
  • Good literary criticism enhances my pleasure. I read David Cecil with delight, whether on Hardy, Cowper, or the Early Victorian Novelists. The sine qua non here is still Wuthering Heights: it has the rugged but certain strength of a Beethoven symphony.
  • His first book, The Stricken Deer, was at the same time a searching analysis of its tragic subject, the poet Cowper, and a vivid evocation of a particular phase of English life. Thus it already reveals his characteristic blend of interests. As a biographer, he has sought to bring out the unique individuality of human beings; to render the very essence of a Thomas Gray or a Max Beerbohm, a Caroline Lamb or a Dorothy Osborne. But he never neglects for long that larger social and spiritual context into which even the quietest of lives is interwoven.
  • By choosing to write in a typically modern kind, the imaginative biography, he has acknowledged the stimulus of its inaugurator, Lytton Strachey. But Strachey may have sometimes sacrificed truth to literary effect; in contrast, David Cecil is exact and scrupulous. And if his predecessor's tone tended to be one of mockery, his own astringency is mitigated with humour, and his irony with charity. The compassionate spirit of his writing is in his case undoubtedly inspired by his lifelong attachment to the Christian faith.
  • All who know him will agree that as a man he is characterized by his gay liveliness of mind, and his robust downrightness and common sense.
  • That David Cecil understands the work of Shakespeare very thoroughly, and cares for it deeply, I can testify not only from many conversations we have enjoyed through the years, but from the memory of lectures he has given at Oxford. A quarter of century ago, he gave a course on Shakespeare's English historical plays which brought them to life for me as no other teacher had ever succeeded in doing.
    • John Wain, ‘A Note On Characterization in Othello’, in Essays & Poems Presented to Lord David Cecil (1970), p. 52

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