On Reading Woodham-Smith’s ‘The Reason Why’

I cannot leave a second hand bookshop without a book.  Or rather I probably can but I never do. It is usually a hardback, probably history.  The impulse to buy an orphaned book is an irresistible mix of discovering a gem combined with a gleefully low price pencilled in by hand on the inside cover like a wink. To my mind, it’s a kind of rescue.

I pulled a handsome navy hardback from the shelf. I recognised the author as Cecil Woodham-Smith who had written an admired history of the Great Irish Famine. The title did not give much away: ‘The Reason Why’ seemed incomplete to all  but the uninitiated, speaking to something I should know but couldn’t place. There was no subtitle, no contents page, no foreword, and no introduction. ‘Theirs is not to reason why’ dimly stirred at the back of my head, a fragment of Kipling’s famous eulogy. A print of Lord Cardigan riding in the Phoenix Park clinched it; the charge of the Light Brigade. My brain flashed an image of Trevor Howard, the salty and coiled British actor playing Cardigan with mad exuberance in an old movie.

Woodham-Smith writes like a cavalry officer, with flash and verve, which charges the narrative forward. It’s said that she finished the book in a great, non-stop, thirty-six hour gallop. Yet this characterisation would do the book (and her writing) a disservice, for it has many treasures and surprises. Her descriptive writing is compressed in length but expansive in suggestion. She captures that odd transition in British society from a largely rural agricultural society at the opening of the 19th century, dominated by the landed aristocracy, to an industrial behemoth. The charge of the Light Brigade was a comic-tragic imbroglio made possible by that transition.

With unerringly deft touches, and great psychological acuity, she captures the personalities of the two principle authors of the disaster at Balaclava, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan. She quickly but richly sketches the histories of the respective Brudenell and Bingham families of which they were the most arrogant scions; the Brudenells long associated with British royalty, the Binghams as ferocious colonisers of Mayo.

Her description of George Charles Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, and his attempts to clear his estates around Castlebar of the starving peasantry after potato blight stuck is shocking: “Starving and dying, the people came to Castlebar and roamed the streets, begging for food…. Dead bodies lay by the side of the road… men and women who had fallen by the wayside were seen struggling in vain to rise until, with a low moan, they collapsed in death…”  She goes on: “To the Earl of Lucan famine horrors were so many convincing demonstrations of the urgent necessity of clearing the land.” Here was a man so convinced of his plans for consolidation and improvement that his actions likely led to the deaths of hundreds, and the wiping out of whole families.

Though he argued the point, it seemed clear that Lord Lucan had ensured that the workhouse – that much feared, last and cruel bastion of hope – ceased to function and the unfortunate inhabitants – homeless, sick, and starving – were turned out to their certain death. True, he poured his own wealth into the effort to improve his estates, but the price in misery and death was high. And it was true too that no landlord alone should shoulder all blame when the British Government was so determined to avoid landing the British taxpayer with the cost of relieving millions of starving Irish. Yet at this remove and judged from today, his actions would surely approach the threshold of crimes against humanity. Though censured by public opinion, he was incapable of reflection and remorse if at any cost to his pride. His brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, lived life with immense wealth and without a moment’s self-doubt; a great, handsome empty-head. No surprise then, when locked in ambiguous command of the cavalry, their mutual antagonism set the springs for the action that led to the destruction of the Light Brigade.

As for Woodham-Smith’s climatic chapters on the Crimea campaign and her final passages on the battle of Balaclava and that fatal charge, her concentrated marathon of writing paid off in an exhilarating tour de force. All of the personalities and forces at work that she had detailed throughout the book converged in that valley, itself so clearly visualised for the reader, and played out in pomp, heroism, stupidity, and butchery.

The Reason Why was a popular history when published in 1953. If you happen to find it when browsing dusty bookshelves, it’s worth its pencilled price tag and some time in a comfy chair.

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