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Incredibly heavy going
on 12 November 2011
I read this out of professional necessity, and found it extremely hard going. Jane Brown really cannot write with any kind of sparkle and the book gets bogged down in far too many unnecessary details far too often. There are isolated sections where the pace picks up, but they are all too few.
It is often said that biographers fall in love with their subjects sooner or later and this is certainly true with this author. Ms. Brown pours scorn on the theory that Mr. Brown was illegitimate, dismissing this completely out of hand because she so obviously and desperately wants it not to be the case. So she "sets out in search of Brown's mother" and doesn't find anything to prove Lancelot's legitimacy, yet obviously believes what she writes in her own desire to do so. The mystery over Lancelot's parentage is simply glossed over, although Ms. Brown believes that she has convinced her readers that Lancelot was of legitimate birth. The truth is that this will never be known one way or another. His legitimacy was and always will be questionable, but Ms. Brown refuses to consider other views.
She also tries desperately to discredit the origins of his widely known tag of "Capability", trying to persuade herself and us that this moniker was only applied to him after his death, when it is well known that Brown was referred to in Lord Cobham's diaries as "The very capable Mr. Brown" during his early years at Stowe (and Ms. Brown simply refuses to even discuss the idea that the man himself was wont to describe landscapes as having "capabilities", not that any further credence to this oft-repeated urban myth is needed anyway). The fact that Brown's two sons were nicknamed "Capey" by their Eton contemporaries is also brushed under the carpet dismissively as it does not fit her theories about when the epithet "Capability" was applied. There is an interesting point made about the name "Capability" being used in one of Garrick's satirical plays, so the nickname must have been common knowledge by then - why would a playwright make an allusion to a well-known personality if none of his audience understood the reference?
The text is often dreary beyond belief and often needlessly verbose, over-fanciful or even downright purple occasionally as Ms. Brown slobbers all over her subject: "At the end of his schooling, Lancelot had grown into an attractive youth, tall and long-boned... with amused blue eyes [elsewhere in the text they are green or grey] and thick wavy hair". As no portrait exists of him at this time, one wonders how Ms. Brown knows this, or whether it is just doe-eyed supposition, a desperate need to make her subject handsome and dashing a la Mr. Darcy.
Little or no explanation is given as to the developments in gardening which meant that Lancelot was in the right place at the right time. One could be forgiven for thinking that the natural landscape style simply appeared overnight out of nowhere. In order to fully understand Lancelot's genius, you need to know what he was up against and what he had to overcome, but this is never properly considered.
The book screams for photographs of his landscapes yet these are curiously almost entirely absent. Even Mr. Brown's portrait, which should be the first illustration in the book, is relegated to follow several pages of portraits of his clients..
Yes, its being described as "an important biography". But "important" does not necessarily mean that it is any good.