Finally got round to watching Lincoln last night – finally in the sense that it’s been available to moviegoers across the water for months and has generated an unavoidable hype. Expectations were high, and were largely met. Daniel Day-Lewis is just as astonishing as he’s said to be, simply an incredible example of an actor allowing himself to disappear into a role. The dialogue is sparkling and surprisingly for a film about such a momentous time there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud humour. Tommy Lee-Jones overacts with Pacino-esque brio, and the supporting cast swarms with brilliance: Jackie Earle Haley as the Vice President of the Confederacy and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant were my personal favourites. The person I watched the film with was distracted from fully similar enjoyment by the schmaltz, which was fairly frequent – stirring music, dramatic lighting, portentous tones – what you might call ‘West Wing 39 moments’: the point a minute from the end of almost every episode of Sorkin’s series when things would take a turn for the patriotic and soppy. There’s no pleasing some people.
Having revelled in Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill it’s no surprise to find his account of Gladstone’s life and times equally stuffed full of fascinating detail and faintly surreal episodes recounted with Jenkins’ characteristic wry humour.
But this absolutely has to take the biscuit: I learned today that in July 1849 Gladstone – that titan of Victorian politics – engaged himself in, to use Jenkins’ phrase, ‘a fresh burst of eccentricity verging on the unbalanced’.
When the Countess of Lincoln eloped to Italy with her new paramour Lord Walpole, she left behind one of Gladstone’s closest friends, to whom she had been married for seventeen years. Gladstone was rarely one to resist the urge to hold others to his high and exacting moral standards, so commenced to pursue the fallen lady first to Naples and then, when the couple bolted, on to Milan and then to Lake Como, with the intention of talking the Countess round to seeing the error of her ways and returning with him.
This principal objective – always fanciful – evaporated in Milan when Gladstone discovered the good lady was ‘with child’, so Gladstone settled for his back-up plan of being able to stand witness to adultery (although one presumes not in the biblical sense). Wishing to obtain firsthand evidence of Lady Lincoln’s purported pregnancy, the prime minister to be at one point disguised himself as a mandolinist in order to get near the villa in Como in which the couple were hiding out.
Who needs fiction when you have history eh?
Since the dawn of time, it seems, just as today, public inquiries have been a way to avoid, obfuscate and delay. But I hadn’t realised quite what a lengthy pedigree the pointless public inquiry has.
In 1562 five hundred Huguenots (French Protestants) defied the law and worshipped in a barn within the limits of the town of Vassy. Soldiers attacked and several worshippers were killed. Catholics and Protestants throughout the country took up arms. Writing of the queen regent’s response to the incident Sarah Bakewell, in her brilliant biography of essayist Montaigne says:
Catherine de’ Medici, acting on behalf of the twelve-year-old Charles XI, ordered an inquiry into Vassy, but it fizzled out as public inquiries do, and by now it was too late.
The outcome of this fizzle was about as disastrous as one can imagine: civil war lasting the best part of half a century. Leveson and co do not, one presumes, stand to be quite so inadvertently influential.