Truffles for Potatoes

Ferdinand Mount

  • Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil by Leo McKinstry
    Murray, 626 pp, £25.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 7195 5879 4

The schoolmaster William Johnson is remembered for three things, although not under that name. He wrote the most famous of all translations from Greek lyric verse, ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’; he wrote the words of the ‘Eton Boating Song’; and in a letter to Francis Warre-Cornish, another Eton schoolmaster, he wrote of his pupil, the future Lord Rosebery: ‘I would give you a piece of plate if you would get that lad to work; he is one of those who like the palm without the dust.’ Ten years later, Johnson was sacked for fondling one pupil too many and changed his name to Cory. After his death, Warre-Cornish published his old friend’s letters and journals. Unfortunately, the collapse of Rosebery’s administration after only 15 months was all too fresh in people’s minds and Johnson/ Cory’s verdict stuck. No other prime minister in British history has surrendered power quite so limply, none more ignominiously except Anthony Eden after Suez.

Like Eden, Rosebery was a golden boy (both were made foreign secretary at the age of 38). Adoring crowds followed him throughout his career. Leo McKinstry in this excellent new biography makes a case for him being the first modern celebrity (but what about Nelson?). The music halls rang to the words: ‘Nearly everyone knows me, from Smith to Lord Rosebery,/I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow.’ His daughter Peggy’s wedding drew crowds almost as big as for the queen’s jubilees. Thousands of spectators wore primroses as a gesture to the family name. The London Evening News printed its afternoon editions on primrose paper. Margot Asquith said that ‘when the Prince of Wales went up the aisle, he was a nobody compared to Rosebery.’ Until 1951 the Scottish football team would often turn out in primrose and rose hoops, the racing colours of Rosebery, who was their honorary president. Long after his ill-fated premiership, well-wishers from Edward VII downwards wanted him to come back and could not stop wondering what he would do next. In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, one of the first questions the sceptical journalist asks the Time Traveller is: ‘These chaps here say you have been travelling into the middle of next week! Tell us all about little Rosebery, will you?’

He had it all and was famous for having it all. As a young man touring America, he was said to have boasted that he had three ambitions: to marry an heiress, to win the Derby and to become prime minister (McKinstry can’t decide whether this story is apocryphal – after all, Rosebery was supposed to have been speaking at the Mendacious Club in Washington). He overfulfilled his programme, winning the Derby three times and marrying not just any old heiress but Hannah de Rothschild, who brought him Mentmore, that vast treasure house in the Vale of Aylesbury, designed by Paxton of Crystal Palace fame on much the same scale and brimming with booty from Versailles and the Doges’ Palace. According to Henry James, Hannah was ‘large, coarse, Hebrew-looking, with hair of no particular colour and personally unattractive’ (ah, the exquisite sensibility of the novelist), but he had to concede that she was good-natured, sensible and kind, and the 12 years she and Rosebery had together were the happiest of his life. She died of typhoid in 1890. Rosebery was never quite the same and never married again.

Was he gay? McKinstry doesn’t think so; others do and go on about it, though without much reliable evidence, since the principal witnesses for the gay thesis are the notorious forger and fantasist Edmund Backhouse and the homophobe Lord Queensberry, who tried without success to rope him into the Wilde scandal. Rosebery might have married Princess Victoria, Edward VII’s shy middle daughter, if her parents had not objected so violently – the only occasion on which he was found to be not grand enough. But then again he might not. My guess is that, in later life anyway, he would have preferred a book and a decanter to sex of any sort. Those who believe that hypersensitivity to personal criticism is proof of homosexual leanings have not met enough politicians.

Apart from Mentmore, Rosebery also had Dalmeny, a Victorian Gothic palace on the Firth of Forth, plus the ancient fortress of Barnbougle in its grounds, which he restored and used as a retreat from his weekend guests (one weekend he appeared at Dalmeny only once, to fetch a penknife from the library); the Durdans, a much loved low rambling lodge at Epsom for the racing; a town house in Berkeley Square; a fabulous villa on the Bay of Naples; and a couple of large shooting lodges in Norfolk and Midlothian. When his horse Ladas II was running in the Derby, he hired a special train to bring the colt and his attendants from Newmarket to Epsom. When the horse won, the crowd went wild. The next day at the Durdans Lord Rosebery stood on his head on the hearthrug.

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