Alexander William Kinglake was as proud of his horsemanship as of his scholarship. He wrote in Eothen that his mother had taught him ‘in earliest childhood . . . to find a home in his saddle and to love old Homer.’’ Mrs Kinglake must have omitted to impress upon young Alex that the former advice was contingent upon his having first secured said saddle to his steed with adequate care, for when, on the morning of the battle of the Alma, his pony, after having made enough noise to attract the attention of all within earshot, put its head down and bolted, the saddle was jettisoned over its neck, and Kinglake, setting new standards of filial adherence to maternal precept, went with it.
The indignity of this accident, oddly uncharacteristic of one whose childhood training in matters equestrian had since been reinforced by practical experience of the Eastern tour and of military trekking (he had accompanied St Arnaud’s Algerian column in 1845), returned generous dividends. It brought him to the notice of Lord Raglan, in whose fortuitous vicinity the event had occurred, together with a loan of one of his Lordship’s mounts and an invitation to dinner. Until he left the Crimea four weeks later, Kinglake stayed close to the Commander-in-Chief, absorbing ‘the idle talk of the knot of nephews of whom Lord Raglan had constructed his military family, and among whom the historian of the war lived, as long as he remained in the Crimea, a pleasant and gossipping life’. When the war was over he was commissioned by Lady Raglan to write a history exonerating her husband.
Lord Raglan’s papers were consigned to him, and he was appointed, so to speak, his Lordship’s executor. Thus it was that . . . every man who had a letter, or a document, or a correspondence connected with the war handed it over to him. The archives and records of State departments were placed at his disposal. French and Russian officers entered into communication with him, and took pains to satisfy his queries. Europe, in fact, was ransacked to furnish materials for his work, and in the course of time, to aid his researches, books were published, official and non-official, giving valuable information respecting the events of the war.
The results were slow to emerge, appearing as follows:
- 1863, volumes 1 and 2 (the origins of the war, the landing, and the battle of the Alma)
- 1868, volumes 3 and 4 (the flank march, the first bombardment, and the battle of Balaclava)
- 1875, volume 5 (the battle of Inkerman)
- 1880, volume 6 (the winter troubles)
- 1887, volumes 7 and 8 (from the morrow of Inkerman to the death of Lord Raglan).
Kinglake had gone to the Crimea at the age of 45; he was 78 before he laid down his pen at the close of his magnum opus. Parliamentary ambitions had occupied some of this time. Bridgwater was a cosy little borough which had two MPs for fewer than 600 voters, of whom 200, it was said, would vote for the highest bidder. Kinglake was elected there in 1857, 1859, 1865, and 1868. After the 1865 election a petition against him was dismissed, but following the 1868 election a Commission found proof of extensive bribery. He was unseated, and the constituency was abolished.
The early volumes of his history were avidly received (the first two went through five editions in 1863 alone), but some reviewers were critical, accusing Kinglake of bias, inaccuracy, inconsistency, prolixity, and unfairness. The Times was particularly harsh. In the course of its extensive reviews (11,500 words on volume 1, and 23,000 words on volume 2) it said:
‘The violent antipathies and prejudices of the writer destroy the value of his work as a trustworthy history of events.’
‘He is not an historian in the sense in which the word is most honourable.’
‘The account of the battle [Alma] is neither perfectly lucid nor yet quite trustworthy.’
‘He is . . . inaccurate, partial, disingenuous, and unjust.’
‘We think it due to our good name, our good faith, and the national honour to repudiate his book as a history of the war.’
‘It is . . . scarcely credible that Mr Kinglake should write such unmitigated nonsense.’
‘Mr Kinglake’s mind is so warped, his opinions and statements cannot be accepted with safety. Indeed, his work abounds in so many fancies, that it may be more properly described as a fiction founded on fact, or as a historical romance, than as a history.’
‘His work is throughout disfigured by errors, some of which are unpardonable, and which are made more offensive by the affectation of accuracy.’
Kinglake did, however, have his supporters. Two journals in particular, The North British Review and The Saturday Review, took his side, and in 1863 an anonymous pamphlet was published in his cause, entitled Mr Kinglake and the Quarterlys, by An Old Reviewer. It was marked ‘not for sale’ and privately circulated, but it ran to three editions nonetheless. The Times felt moved to review the pamphlet, and in the course of doing so made some remarkable allegations.
First it questioned the wisdom, and, indeed, the propriety, of putting ‘secret and confidential papers’ at the disposal of one man, ‘to use or misuse as he pleases,’ and opined that in future, when considering candidates for high command, the Government ‘will have to ascertain whether they are afflicted with . . . literary friends, and whether the private and confidential correspondence which may chance to remain among their papers is likely to be thrown at their deaths into the market, in order to fill the pockets or to minister to the passions of their heirs.’
Next the paper criticised Kinglake’s treatment of those officers who had sought to correct errors of fact in his narrative. He had taken the view that such comments should be made privately to him, whereupon he would make what amendment, if any, he felt necessary, in a footnote or appendix to his next edition. Any officer who dared to write to the press contradicting Kinglake was likely to find his name blackened in the journals which supported the author. This was done, The Times alleged, in collusion with Kinglake. It cited the cases of Captain Mends, who had disputed the story that the French had moved a buoy, and Colonel Norcott, who had denied that the Rifle Brigade had left the Light Division without skirmishers at the Alma. Both were subsequently ‘written down’ by a journalist ‘armed with excerpta from Lord Raglan’s unpublished papers — selected and supplied to him by Mr Kinglake’, ‘unfair ammunition . . . served out from Mr Kinglake’s private stores to the literary Bashi-Bazouk who has volunteered for the unenviable task of protecting his rear.’