Palmerston: The Early Years, 1784-1841 
by Kenneth Bourne.
Allen Lane, 749 pp., £25, August 1982, 0 7139 1083 6
Show More
Show More

The history of the world is no longer the biographies of great men. The Victorians, who needed heroes as an addict needs heroin, enshrined their worthies in multitomed tombs. Letters were reproduced verbatim, speeches were quoted at inordinate length, and eulogies were printed in extenso. If the public career was successful, the moral was ponderously pointed; if the private life was suspect, the veil was dutifully drawn. Superstars like Disraeli, Albert and Gladstone were celebrated in six, five and three volumes apiece, and most Cabinet Ministers could usually count on at least two – especially if, like Lord Randolph Churchill, their reputation was safer in their son’s hands than in their own. Although Lytton Strachey assailed such pious pomposity by showing that the slenderest of books could sometimes be the weightiest, and that eminence was not necessarily next to Godliness, these pantheons in print were still being constructed on a lavish scale until the Second World War: four volumes (and still unfinished) for Salisbury, three for Joseph Chamberlain (likewise incomplete) and for Curzon, and a double-decker apiece for Asquith, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Rosebery.

The second half of our century has seen a dramatic decline in the construction of these many-volumed vaults. In the United States, where resources are greater, sentiments stronger, and Presidents ipso facto great men, the commemoration business has become even more luxuriant, as the metaphorical shrines have become actual, three-dimensional temples, housing the sacred relics of Presidential papers: the one for Kennedy in Boston stops short just this side of idolatry; Johnson’s in Texas goes well beyond it. But in England, the old genre has withered. Of recent Cabinet Ministers, only Ernest Bevin (two vols down, one to go) and Nye Bevan (canonised by Michael Foot) have received extended treatment, while the massive life of Churchill is unique in its Victorian dimensions. Today, the best way for a politician to guarantee this much-coveted form of life after death is to write it himself. And if he entertains pretensions to prolixity, it helps, as Harold Macmillan was the first to admit, if you own a publishing house as well.

This diminished celebration of the recently-departed has been paralleled by a scholarly reaction against biographies of the more distantly-deceased. The Victorians’ confident vigour meant that they were fascinated by the impact of men on circumstances; in our less expansive age, we are more preoccupied with the impact of circumstances on men. Unlike the old, the ‘new’ history – economic, social, urban and demographic – explores people as categories, groups, statistics, abstractions, rather than as flesh-and-blood beings. ‘Mere’ biography is dismissed as attributing an unmerited significance to the trivial doings of trivial individuals. At best, it is a poor way of writing history – person rather than problem-oriented, when no individual, however influential, has so dominated an age that it is sensible to write its history round him. Trends and tendencies, patterns and processes, crises and conjunctures, are what matter, not the vain protests of men, standing Canute-like in their impotent incomprehension, against the prevailing tides of history. We are all Marxists now.

Above all, there is the real danger for the professional historian that if he writes an outstanding biography, it may, even now, become a best-seller. For biography still flourishes – albeit on a reduced scale and with diminished intellectual self-confidence – both within and without the walls of academe. In one guise, it has been reincarnated as prosopography, which stresses backgrounds rather than opinions, collective behaviour in preference to individual diversity, in the (usually vain) hope of discovering some historical laws of circumstantial determinism. In another, it has been resurrected as psychohistory, which seeks greater intellectual respectability by becoming evidentially more sensational, probing the intimate details of men’s inner lives as lived in their bedrooms and bathrooms (thereby shifting the mainspring of historical causation from Cleopatra’s nose to Luther’s lav). A third response has been to restate the view that men sometimes make events as much as events make men; that history does, after all, occasionally need a helping hand; and that even Marx was a person, not a process. We are all persons now.

The alternative is to argue that good biography may be bad history, but that it takes more than a good historian to write great biography. Like the historian, the biographer must be familiar with the historical stage upon which his hero acts: if biography does encompass the universal in the particular, it is important to know about the universe before studying the particle. But in addition to knowledge of the period, careful study of the sources, thorough acquaintance with the secondary literature, the posing of pertinent questions and the exercising of controlled imagination in answering them, the biographer must also display empathy, sensitivity, sensibility, intuition, and, above all, be prepared to mortgage a large part of his intellectual and emotional life to understanding one particular, defunct figure. Cohabitation with the dead is not easy: Martin Gilbert has been living with Churchill for two decades; Dumas Malone has been communing with Jefferson for even longer. The demands of such single-minded scholarly devotion should not be underestimated. Bad biographies may be easy to write: good ones are much more difficult.

This is especially true of the lives of major political figures. It is hard to strike the balance between public and private life; the day-today activities of politics and administration are often excruciatingly tedious; and past issues which once aroused passionate controversy can seem merely arcane and recondite today. As a result, only a few such studies have earned widespread critical acclaim: Plumb’s Walpole (a grand opera, complete with overture, but still lacking its third act); Lady Longford’s Wellington (her pen as mighty as his sword); Gash’s Peel (a peerless study of a baronet); Lord David Cecil’s Melbourne (one patrician beguilingly evoking another); Blake’s Disraeli (champagne and epigrams all the way); and Marquand’s MacDonald (Fame is the spur stood on its head). But many prime ministers have fared less well: Chatham and Lord John Russell because there are few private papers; Gladstone and Salisbury because their careers were too long for any one writer to encompass comprehensively; Charles James Fox and Lloyd George because their passion to rule and their ruling passions are so hard to reconcile; and the younger Pitt and Baldwin because the weight of the times nearly suffocates the life.

Most of these difficulties lie in wait for the intending biographer of Palmerston. He was born before the American constitution saw the light, and lived to see the Great Republic’s civil war: among statesmen of the first rank, only Gladstone and Churchill have exceeded his elephantine span as an MP, but he surpassed them both in the number of years he held office. For some of his public life, there are few papers left, most tantalisingly for his formative, apprentice years as Secretary at War. Most of his remaining life was spent in foreign affairs, so that an account of his career can easily degenerate into a laundry list: the congress of X, the convention of Y and the treaty of Z. Despite the endless stream of speeches, official documents, memoranda and letters, he left behind few memorable phrases with which to lighten a flagging narrative. ‘Civis Romanus sum’ was cribbed, and his only quotable quote (‘Die doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do,’ reputedly uttered on his death bed) is probably apocryphal. Above all, there is that constant tension between his private passions and his public life: a biography of Palmerston as a day worker is very different from a study of him on the night shift. So it is hardly surprising that, as Kenneth Bourne disarmingly puts it in his preface, ‘there is no satisfactory biography of Palmerston, and there probably never will be.’

But this has not deterred a large number of writers from trying their hand. The great five-volumed mausoleum constructed by Bulwer and Ashley gravely mummified Palmerston as a decorous Victorian stateman. In the Twenties, Philip Guedalla (whose book Bourne re-vealingly describes as ‘infuriatingly allusive rather than solidly informative’) produced a piece of portrait sculpture, which presented Palmerston in Stracheyesque terms as the last great figure of the 18th century. A decade later, writing against the background of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, H.C.F. Bell’s double-decker life depicted Palmerston as the embodiment of mid-19th-century liberal nationalism, who established and safeguarded Britain’s claim to moral pre-eminence in Europe. Shortly after the Second World War, Webster’s study of his foreign policy portrayed Palmerston as a good European, the champion of constitutional government against despotism, and as a man whose sustained animosity to Russia afforded useful lessons at a time when the Cold War was blowing at its hottest. To celebrate the centenary of Palmerston’s death in 1965, Donald Southgate reasserted the virtues of Palmerstonian patriotism in a decade of imperial demise and national self-doubt. But Jasper Ridley, writing most recently, was decidedly equivocal in his praise for ‘the most English minister’.

It is a measure of Kenneth Bourne’s achievement that if he completes his study with a second volume on the scale of this first, it will not only supersede all these biographies of Palmerston, but also make it unnecessary for anyone to do the job again. The scale of the book is Palmerstonian in its dimensions: more than six hundred pages of text, and over a thousand footnotes. And the industry and vitality displayed are equally Palmerstonian: over fifty manuscript collections consulted, including (for the first time) exhaustive use of the voluminous Palmerston papers themselves. Throughout these pages, the author displays an intimidating mastery of the personal and professional facets of Palmerston’s life, seems as accomplished in analysing domestic politics as in unravelling foreign policy, and writes with equal authority about the functioning of government departments or on the mood of a Parliamentary debate. The result is a book especially informative on Palmerston’s crucial but neglected early years, which also contributes fundamentally to our understanding of most major political issues between 1807 and 1841, and which presents Palmerston himself more convincingly than any biography has done before. This is as authoritative a life as we are likely to get.

Palmerston was born with a silver-plated spoon in his mouth: but initially it came nearer to choking than to feeding him. He was heir to extensive estates in Ireland and England, and to an Irish title. His education at Harrow, and at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities, was relatively happy. He had a powerful and energetic political patron in Lord Malmesbury, who ensured his return as an MP at the age of 22, got him a government job as a Junior Lord of the Admiralty in the same year, and arranged for him to be offered the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in 1809. But somehow or other it all went wrong. The death of his father in 1802 and of his mother three years later not only affected Palmerston deeply, but left him responsible for his siblings and for many more distant relatives. As a youngster, he was nervous, timid, and lacking in outward warmth of feeling. He was defeated three times at the polls before securing a seat in Parliament, and delayed almost a year before making his maiden speech. So, when the glittering offer came in 1809, he refused it, on the grounds that it was aiming too high, and accepted instead the more humdrum office of Secretary at War. One cannot imagine the younger Pitt or Disraeli or Gladstone or Churchill being so bashful.

Palmerston stayed at the War Office for the next 19 years, which must surely rank as the longest and lowliest apprenticeship served by any major 19th-century political figure. And although he succeeded in clearing off the arrears of regimental accounts, the job proved more of a dead end than a stepping-stone. He was not a success in defending his department from Parliamentary attack: his speeches were alternately stammering and stuttering, hectoring and histrionic. He was too much the bureaucrat, immersed in detail, to be a good politician, and too much the autocrat, bullying his staff, to be a good administrator. He overstepped the bounds of departmental jurisdiction, which brought him into conflict with the Commander-in-Chief of the Army at Horse Guards, and ultimately with Wellington and the royal family. He broke with Malmesbury in 1812-3, but thereafter maintained a dangerous independence, which meant that he was constantly at risk of being sacrificed to the needs and ambitions of others. So faint had been the mark he made that the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, refused to back him in the General Election of 1826, and dangled an English peerage and colonial governorships before him in the hope of getting him out of the way. In the short-lived ministries of Canning, Goderich and Wellington, which followed Liverpool’s, there was still no promotion: he remained where he had begun, at the top of the heap of mediocrities.

Nor was his personal life particularly happy. A lunatic nearly killed him at the War Office in 1818. Even by the lax standards of the day, his private life was profligate and indiscreet. In 1808-9, he fell in love with Lady Cowper, a demanding mistress who was as unfaithful to him as he was to her. Only in 1837 did she at last become free to marry, thereby condemning Palmerston to a matrimonial waiting game even longer than the political apprenticeship he was simultaneously obliged to serve. In addition, there were dozens of lovers, several of whom refused him in marriage, and perhaps six illegitimate children. The result, for Palmerston, was exhaustion, recrimination, jealousy, heartache and blackmail. And the bastards had to be kept – either by finding them jobs in the War Office (which further aroused departmental resentment) or by buying them off (which further straitened his already straitened finances). His income was inadequate; his estates were heavily mortgaged; he invested rashly in unsound stock exchange ventures; he was taken in by knaves and swindlers. Undoubtedly, such extracurricular activities additionally hampered his career: he seemed too unsound and insufficiently committed to be considered seriously for higher office; and with so many other demands on his time and energies, it was hardly surprising that his Parliamentary performances were so often below par.

The late 1820s brought a major and unexpected change in his political fortunes. By sheer effort of will, he ceased to be a nervous and diffident speaker, and became a leading Parliamentary orator, giving major speeches on foreign affairs and Catholic emancipation. He began to distance himself from the Tories in 1826, and resigned from Wellington’s government in 1828. The deaths of Liverpool, Canning and Huskisson accelerated the break-up of the old Tory party, and in the fluid situation which ensued Palmerston found himself courted by both the Tories (among whom he was now an important, if rebel, figure, almost by default) and by the Whig opposition (who, having been out of office since 1807, coveted him for his recent experience of government). Urged on by political hostesses like Lady Cowper and Princess Lieven, he behaved with uncharacteristic audacity, and threw in his lot with the Whigs. Like other such shifts of Parliamentary allegiance, most notably Gladstone’s and Churchill’s, it was a shrewder move than ever he could have guessed. For he had abandoned the Tories at just the point when their hegemony was ended, and embraced the Whigs at the very moment when theirs was beginning.

But even during the Whig governments, which were almost continually in power from 1830 to 1841, his position was rarely entirely secure. He was the third choice for Foreign Secretary in Grey’s administration; he was the only member of the Cabinet to lose his seat in the landslide election of 1831; he made frequent difficulties for his colleagues over the Reform Bill; and there were constant plots to oust him. When Melbourne took over in 1835, he was not at all sure that he wanted Palmerston back at the FO; he lost his Parliamentary seat again that year; and the conspiracies to remove him continued. His old faults were not fully eradicated before new ones appeared. He was still not completely at ease in the Commons, his speeches were rarely memorable, and his attendance was irregular. He drove his staff too hard and kept unsociable hours. He was hated by the foreign ambassadors in London, and was slow to present papers to the Cabinet and the monarch. He was not always scrupulous in the printing of diplomatic material, and he wrote for the press when he categorically denied it. He must have been an infuriating colleague.

But he survived, which was more than Castlereagh and Canning, his two most illustrious predecessors in the job, had done. His capacity for hard work was unrivalled, and was admitted even by his sternest critics. He habitually worked standing up at a high desk, so that, if he literally fell asleep, the shock of falling would wake him up. His marriage to Lady Cowper in 1839 was to make him more affable and less irritable (although no more faithful – it was, as one colleague explained, ‘a marriage vow which they both know does not bind them’). He established an unassailable reputation for expertise in foreign affairs. His pragmatic grasp of Britain’s material interests and his realistically flexible aproach to the balance of power set him above Castlereagh, and his manipulation of conference diplomacy and tactical skill in ensuring that Britain was never isolated were superior even to Canning’s. His successes were substantial and undoubted: in the early Thirties with his handling of the conference on Belgium and in recovering the entente with France; and at the end of the decade with the Opium War and the settlement of the Turco-Egyptian crisis. In the Twenties, he had played the waiting game and rarely won; in the Thirties, he played it and rarely lost.

By concentrating so much on Palmerston’s early life (half the book is gone before we reach 1830), Bourne makes him psychologically a more convincing figure than any of his predecessors. In his early years, he was shy and unsure of himself, devoid of both political passion and real ambition. Even as Foreign Secretary, his policy was much more cautious than is often supposed. Insofar as he was driven, it was by financial need (an official salary was especially useful in the 1820s), by the desire to discharge his reponsibilities to his family and dependents, by the pressures and demands of the politically-involved women with whom he slept, and by the constant fear of failure. It was this need to prove himself to himself which explains his impatience of human frailty in others, his inability to delegate, and his compulsion to drive his subordinates as hard as he drove himself. Here, Bourne argues, is the real Palmerston, gnawed by inner self-doubt and uncertainty, and hidden from the world by a facade of rudeness, deviousness, lying and hypocrisy. There is little trace of the genial, bantering affability, the cool and studied insouciance, the jaunty, cocksure showmanship, of earlier legend or later life.

The many pages devoted to the War and Foreign Offices convey with positively soporific vividness the tedium and time-consuming nature of much government administration. While there was political intrigue in plenty, there was less than some accounts of 19th-century high politics might imply: running the country just took up too much time. Above all, the book excels in conveying the feel of what it was like actually to govern. The problem of making foreign policy in the 1830s when, for much of the time, three other ministers thought they, too, should interfere; the need to win approval from the Commons, the Lords, the Cabinet and the monarchy; and the difficulties in dealing simultaneously with foreign ambassadors in London and British ambassadors abroad: all this is brought out with (to use Bourne’s favourite adjective) masterly authority.

The author’s commendable determination to situate Palmerston so fully in his times, and to explore so many facets of his life, of necessity results in a book which does not always make for easy reading. Most of the chapters are more than fifty pages in length, and several are nearer a hundred. The interminable details of suppliants for War Office pensions, and of each new twist and turn in foreign policy, inevitably pall. On occasion, one wishes that the book were less infuriatingly informative and more solidly allusive. The five-year lag between the completion of the manuscript and its publication means that some of the conclusions on matters such as army flogging and the press have already been anticipated. Perhaps, too, Bourne’s Palmerston – unsure, contorted, underhand – is in some ways as much a life for our times as were the grave statesman, the ‘Lord Cupid’, the moral crusader and cold-warrior for previous generations. And because Palmerston emerges as a more complex and less agreeable figure than in some of his earlier incarnations, there is not the emotional identification between author and subject that would make this biography as satisfying a work of art as it is an outstanding work of scholarship. At the end of the day, the historian’s distance has triumphed over the biographer’s involvement.

But these are no more than cavils. To say that the second volume is eagerly awaited seems altogether insufficient encomium. In the introduction to his study, Donald South-gate predicted that ‘Palmerston must long await his true memorial.’ Stripped of the crenellations of Victorian hagiography, and reinforced by the concrete of 20th-century scholarship, here it is. The history of the world may not be the lives of great men any more, but if this biography is any guide, the great men of the world certainly still deserve the histories of their lives.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences