A Deep Cultural Connection: An Interview with Minoo Dinshaw

by Imogen Woodberry

Told with light-hearted élan yet contained in a magisterial mould, Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight charts the life of Steven Runciman (1903 - 2000), a figure who was both a chronicler of the past – as a renowned historian of the Byzantine Empire – and a witness to the age in which he lived. A schoolfriend of George Orwell and an early love interest of Cecil Beaton, he partied with the Bloomsbury set as well as with royalty. In later life he would become distressed when the premiership of Tony Blair marked the advent of the first 20th-century prime minister with whom he did not have a personal connection.

What makes a biographical subject? A historical figure is interesting for who they know as much as for who they are; the cocoon of wealth and privilege Runciman inhabited was integral to his intellectual formation. To read this biography is not simply to learn about Runciman’s life but to step back into it: through the dashing, ludic style which saw him shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, Dinshaw expertly captures the essence of his subject. In a coffee shop in Hammersmith we chatted about Runciman and also discussed Dinshaw’s next project, a book about the interlocking lives of two political moderates during the English Civil War.

Can you talk about the literary quality of Runciman’s writing?

I think that’s what makes him, in the final analysis, important and interesting. He’s an artist.

Would you say that's unusual for a historian?

Yes. The historians are furious at someone who can outshine them with diamond cut prose, yet also be so dodgy on the facts. It’s maddening. It makes their lives much harder. Because if you’re a crusades expert and you have an undergraduate saying, ‘but Sir Steven Runciman says Enrico Dandolo had his eye poked out in a bar room brawl,’ and they have to say ‘he really didn’t – there’s no evidence’ – ‘But Sir Steven Runciman!’

I noticed how you drew out the parallel between his trilogy on the crusades and the famous literary trilogies of World War Two by Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning.

I think there’s a lot in that. They’re all people writing in the shadow of war, psychologically affected by war and with a message taken from it. I mean Waugh and Runciman never actually met – but they were part of the same kind of world.

I was surprised at that!

I know, I hunted hard for a connection. The only one I could find is with Alistair Graham, the model for Sebastian Flyte and Waugh’s undergraduate lover, who Runciman did briefly know and flirt with while travelling in Turkey.

Going on from this, what I also found surprising was the relative muteness in the biography about his personal life – I hoped for more racy anecdotes.

In a way that dismays me, but it doesn’t surprise me because there was so little hard evidence. There were endless photographs of interesting young men, sometimes in a state of greater or lesser undress, and endless names in engagement diaries. But not much other detail. The closest I got to something explicit was the Eddie Bates episode – when he’s travelling about with Bates who’s facing a homosexual scandal. And none of the reviewers cared about that at all which made me rather sad, because it’s the juiciest bit of sex in the book. But I suppose it was at one remove.

But then I also wondered whether this had been intentional on part because you didn’t feel that this was the most interesting thing to say about him? I think that it can a frustrating aspect of the contemporary biography, the degree to which sexuality tends of be very foregrounded as a way of getting to understand the subject.

I think that’s a perceptive thing to say. I’m not sure it was a hundred percent intentional. I think it might have been a little accidental – but it was also partly intentional. Because his sexuality was important: his manner, his campness, his aesthetic, his rebellion and his oddity. But what’s not important is to know what he did, with whom and when. Which is, by coincidence, what we don’t know. But it would be silly to put him in ‘gay lives’ as the number one thing about him – to put him in the LGBTQ+ shelf, rather than the crusades, or the Byzantium, or the bright young things, or even the liberal party or the occult shelf. I suppose what I was trying to do was convey the atmosphere, the manner, the type of thought and idiom and world that you would have encountered if you’d met him. And I was trying to do that all the time. Not just in the chapter about homosexuality. All the jokes and the style of the book is fey and dry and camp and it is Runciman, and it is me trying to become him, which I think is the task of the biographer. You become a chameleon. I hope I gave the impression of the kind of person he is like.

Yes, there’s a very ludic quality to your writing.

That’s what his books are like too. In his books about the Crusades and Byzantium you’re listening to a 1920s party-going wit telling you what he got up to in the Gargoyle Club.

Yes, that’s very like the style of Nancy Mitford’s biographies.

Louis the XIV? Is it De Gaulle Paris? Yes it is. Nancy Mitford and Steven – they’re another frustrating non-connection. I think she’s wonderful – I visit her grave every now and again. And in a way that’s where I began. After university I was really in a Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh world – half by accident, half by design. All my jobs were unpaid and many were unenjoyable. But the one that was most enjoyable was working for the Waugh estate. I was paid in wine to go and look for Waugh letters in college archives and I found things like a letter in which he was slagging off Iris Murdoch. I moved by accident from Waugh world into Runciman world. And they have something in common in the way they write and the circles they moved. Waugh is probably in the book more than he deserves when you look at the bare facts. But it’s a cultural thing. There’s a deep cultural connection.

Were you using Waugh as a way into Runciman? In that people know Waugh, know the writing style and manner.

Yes, but you can learn from Waugh and Runciman by reaction as well as similarity. Because when you take the Oxford-Brideshead cliché it’s a useful shorthand, but in the sense that Cambridge in the 1920s was very different. The Bright Young Thing life that Steven had was very different from the one that Waugh had.

Why was that?

For one thing the Cambridge lot were even queerer, but much less drunk. They were more intellectually serious and more innocent and childlike, as well as being better connected and better behaved. Waugh’s were aristocratic, but they were raffish, they were naughty. The homosexuality’s there, but its mainly because it’s countercultural – the way that hard drugs would be today – rather than because they’re exclusively gay. Whereas Runciman’s section is nearer to an old fashioned version of gay culture today, nearer to the sort of cultivated gay man you might meet in charge of a museum in Cambridge.

His homosexuality seems to have had an isolating effect. While he had hundreds of friends there seems to be a lack really intimate relationships.

Yes, I think he kept it that way deliberately. I think he wanted to be independent and free and not beholden to anyone. There’s one long poem that I quote in full that he wrote when he was very young; ‘The Loveless,’ and I think it shows why he doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone.

There’s a point in the book when you say this upset him.

He did regret it late in life. If we take what he said on two occasions seriously. I’m sure that part of him didn’t regret it at all – he got the life he wanted. He wrote and was free and got to do what he wanted all his life. But he did say to Agatha Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan, that he felt like a failure as a result of his homosexuality. That may be a remnant of the attitudes and atmosphere of his time, the difficulty growing up with the condemnation of society.

He did seem to have certain counter-cultural tendencies, particularly in leanings towards in the occult. I was interested by what seemed to be his unquestioning allusions to the practise of black magic in his historical works and the various anecdotes about his own magical experiments.

Are you talking about the Orwell voodoo reference? I’ m afraid that I simply didn’t believe it but when I did the oral research everyone seemed to back up the truth of the story. I suppose it depends on whether you believe in magic or not, doesn’t it.

Did he?

I think he did believe in magic. It was a joke to him – but a serious joke. Perhaps, in a way, we can connect it to his sexuality; which I think he was both serious and ludic about. I think just because he’s teasing doesn’t mean he doesn’t mean it. It relates to his affinity for romance, to Scottishness, to the belief in kings and royalty. He’s a consistent believer in the irrational, as I think most people driven by aesthetics are.

The final chapter quotes Runciman saying that the legacy of the medieval period still exerts ‘a real if unconscious effect on human minds.’ Is that a belief you share?

Yes. I’m in a quandary as a writer because I’m interested in the far and sometimes very far past without really being properly qualified yet to write about it. So someone like Runciman does the spade work for me – he knows the Syriac and the Old Norse and so on. I care deeply about people who are romantically, brilliantly backward looking. I think it’s a very appealing mode. There’s a book that’s recently been published, a scholar of 18th century literature describing how difficult he finds daily life so he takes to reading the newspaper every morning, but the newspaper published in the 1700s. Much nicer. You get to read about Addison and Swift instead of Trump and Brexit.

Why did you choose the biographical form?

At times he did seem someone you could write a novel or a play about – but I think he did appear in the right medium. I’ve loved his writing and periods that he wrote about since I was fourteen or fifteen. I did also once meet him, or at least saw him. We were in the same hotel lobby and my mother took me by the ear and whispered into it ‘Do you see that very old man who looks like a tortoise?’

Moving to your next project, you’re planning to write about another historian, Edward Hyde, who’s also distinctive for the literary quality of his writing. Was this also what drew you to him?

My path to Hyde, or Lord Clarendon as he became, was indirect and thorny. Michael Holroyd has said, I think quite rightly (as usual), that it feels felicitous to use a minor character in one biography as the subject of a subsequent one. I had initially kept that advice in mind. Two figures who recur in my Runciman book, the historical novelists Alfred Duggan and Zoé Oldenbourg, are both subjects to whom I’d like to get round in some form when the moment feels right. I contemplated writing about the great, but somewhat too recently deceased novelist and art historian Anita Brookner – not directly mentioned in Outlandish Knight, but a pupil and friend of Anthony Blunt, who certainly is. Then for a while I worked on a fresh account of the doomed shadow-love affair between Gavin Maxwell and Kathleen Raine, a writer and a poet who both overlapped slightly with Runciman’s milieu. But nothing proceeded quite to plan. What I eventually realised was that Runciman’s strong, fierce, jealous spirit was reluctant to see me transfer my attentions to any successor he felt he could overpower.

Meanwhile, the universe and my own life were hard enough to keep up with. In 2016, the year of my first book’s publication, along came Brexit and Trump; in 2017 I got married and we had a son. I began to feel I had to address a letter from the past to our present; specifically from the 17th century, the last time our strange but usually complacent country felt so rent apart; and specifically from that time’s most moderate and substantial perspective. Enter Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon – a figure before whose bulk, in every sense, physical, political, stylistic, historical, even Sir Steven Runciman could gracefully give way.

What has led you to take two subjects for your biography? In what way do you see Hyde’s career being elucidated by considering it in parallel to Bulstrode Whitelocke?

The brief I carved for myself at first was, as everybody involved correctly kept warning me, huge, ambitious and in danger of being vague. I wanted to write a fresh, legible popular history of what I’m not alone in thinking is Britain’s most complicated, as well as important, century. My plan to follow the story of the political and literary moderates, did not exactly narrow my field down. So I identified two ‘protagonists’ – initially Hyde and George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, the leading moderate of the next generation. Hyde was the prose stylist and thinker at whose altar that great historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Runciman’s friend and ally, worshipped. Halifax is probably still my favourite politician of his era and had sneaked a tangential mention in my first book. So I felt a sense of that Holroydian coherence after all.

But as I proceeded with the research, it became a problem that Hyde and Halifax felt increasingly clearly like two overlapping periods, men, philosophies, books. At the same time a new character kept recurring in my study of Hyde – Bulstrode Whitelocke, a lawyer and memoirist of whom I knew little, and nothing good. What I came to realise was that Whitelocke – damned by most historians as a nest-feathering timeserver – himself stood in quite well for the sort of flexibly enlightened politics Halifax tried to advance. What was more, the human story of the friendship and estrangement between Hyde and Whitelocke made for a much better, tighter, more unified theme and drama. Between them, this pair of excellently connected, meddling, ambitious 17th-century lawyers are in the right places at the right times to serve up the whole of the most divided part of their century, and to articulate their time’s most moderate answers from the camps of both King and Parliament. I am excited and honoured to be scurrying in their wake – just as I was delighted to track Runciman’s before.

Minoo Dinshaw's Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman is published by Penguin.