Smug and pseudo-sagacious as they often seem from a 20th-century perspective, the "Eminent Victorians" never cease to surprise. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt is a case in point. Tall, brilliant, wealthy, Blunt was a poet, explorer, diplomat, sportsman, horse-breeder and politicain. Married Bryon's granddaughter and a sometime disciple of Cardinals Manning and Newman, a friend of Gladstone and Balfour, William Morris and Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and William Butler Yeats, he seems the very type of an Eminent Victorian. Yet Blunt's Byron connection was not just literally but metaphorically significant. For much like his rakish ancestor-by-marriage, this poet-politicain was a gloomy and romantic outcast, both political rebel and notorious lover -- in fact, a sort of Victorian Don Juan.
Elizabeth Longford has written a scrupulously detailed but sometimes tedious biography of this fascinating figure. The author of books about Queen Victoria, Wellington and Byron, besides being the mother of Lady Antonia Fraser, Longford is obviously well equipped to deal with a 19th-century Renaissance man whom E. . Forster once called "an English gentlemen of genius." Yet her book is curiously lacking in focus, perhaps in part because Blunt himself was so well-rounded an enfant terrible.
Despite Longford's difficulties, however, Blunt's life is certain to interest many readers, and it is no doubt his astonishing romatic career that will first capture the fancy of modern audiences. Even the most impassioned partners in "open" marriages probably don't have love lives like Blunt's. A denizen of the inbred Victorian cafe society where people married one set of cousins while carrying on wary and sometimes weary love affairs with several other sets of cousins, Blunt seems to have outdone all but the most proficient of his contemporaries in bedroom exploits. Beginning with the beautiful courtesan "Skittles" -- nee Catherine Walters -- who was later to become a mistress of the Prince of Wales, his conquests included Janey Morris (William Morris's wife and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's one-time beloved), Lady Augusta Gregory (Yeat's patroness and herself a leading figure of the Irish literary Renaissance), Georgie Sumner (another of Rosetti's georgeous pre-Raphaelite subjects), Margot Tennant (later Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister), and many others.
What distinguished Blunt from such a notorious sensualist as Frank Harris, however, was his indomitable idealism. At least as Longford characterizes him, this paradoxical polygamist was a Don Juan not unlike Byron's, a handsome innocent who simply had an infinite capacity for falling in love, sometimes with three or four women at once. Thus, where Harris' famous My Secret Life is full of spicy sexual revelations, Blunt's Secret Memoirs are apparently full of romantic accounts of sacred "marriages" in Bedouin tents and country house bedrooms. For if he wasn't exactly the kind of armoral amorist Steven Arcus wrote about in The Other Victorians, Blunt obviously wasn't a regulation Victorian pater familias either. "There is no more certain rule in friendship," he once wrote, "than that, unless one makes a little love to one's friend's wife, the love that was with him soon languishes." Espousing such a philosophy, Blunt seems to have been just the man Byron's Don Juan would have become if carried forward into the middle age: a sometime sentimental, sometimes sententious, yet always high-spirited British pasha.
Pasha is no exaggeration. If this Victorian Don Juan's romantic exploits are the most immediately dramatic facts of his life, his feats of exploration in the East, together with his passionately anti-imperialist politics, are finally his most significant accomplishments. Raised a Catholic by a mother who became a devout convert during the height of the Oxford Movement, Blunt was always something of an outsider in blueblooded Anglican England. Perhaps, then, it was a little easier for him than for more proper Victorians to take the step from Catholic outsider to anti-imperialist, pro-Islamic outsider.
That, at any rate, is the step he did take. Beginning in the 1870s, he and his wife Anne traveled indefatigably through the Near and Far East, exploring "the great red desert of Central Arabia," meeting sheiks, buying purebred horses, surviving an encounter with a fierce gang of "forty thieves." Increasingly, as they "went native," their sympathies extended to all the colonized peoples of the British Empire -- Egyptians, Indians, eventually the Irish. Thus, if Blunt lived and loved polygamously as any pasha, he also wrote and acted rebelliously as Colonel Arabi, the Egyptian nationalist leader, or Charles Stewart Arnell, the hero of Irish liberation.
Finally, in 1887 Blunt became the first Englishman jailed in Ireland for having made a speech in favor of Home Rule. Of his painful two-month term in Galway Gaol, he himself wrote that it was "the first recorded instance, in all the four hundred years of English oppression, of an Englishman having taken the Celtic Irish side in any conflict."
Both his amorous and his political activities became literary subjects for Blunt. Like most 19th-century writers, he was prolific, producing a flood of verse dramas, narrative poems and song cycles, as well as political pamphlets and memoirs. But while Lady Longford does discuss these works from time to time, she never manages to present them very clearly. Ultimately, moreover, this failure of clarity extends to her whole characterization of Blunt. One perceives the personality of this anti-Victorian Victorian as through a glass darkly, for his biographer imposes a mass of ofter irrelevant details between us and her subject. Sometimes, wading through pages of names and dates, one longs for the incisive summaries that give such strength to Lytton Strachey's portraiture.
Whenever Blunt speaks for himself in quotes from letters and diaries, he is so refreshingly unorthodox that one wishes Longford had unmuzzled him more often. In his words, his most distunguished contemporaries spring startingly to life: Sir Evelyn Baring, the consul-general in Egypt, looked "like a grocer"; Henry James was amazingly "dull-witted"; Gladstone was "a miserable mountebank" and Oscar Wilde "a fat mass," while Ezra Pound was "an odd nervous little man" who "needed deodorizing."
A seer as well as a poet and a dissident politician, Blunt wrote in 1899 that "Of the new century I prophesy nothing except that it will see the decline of the British Empire." Though he was reviled by some contemporaries, many respected him for such insights. Shaw immortalized him as two different characters in Heartbreak House, while both Yeats and the objctionable Pound wrote poems about their meetings with him. Reading between the lines of A Pilgrimage of Passion, it is easy to see why he commanded such admiration. Yet, regrettably, if we learn to like and respect Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, it is as much in spite of Elizabeth Longford's efforts as because of them.