A building inhabited by George Nathaniel Curzon became a building with a history – one written by himself. Envisaging his own presence there as the latest episode in a colourful pageant of stirring deeds and raw emotions, he wanted that pageant to be properly chronicled. Sitting in Government House, Calcutta, he reflected, ‘If these stones could speak, what a tale they might tell’ – and told it for them in a book that he saw as his literary monument, to be read hundreds of years after his death. He commemorated many of his residences – Bodiam and Walmer Castles, Tattershall and Kedleston – between hard covers. He lovingly restored most of them and left two to the National Trust, of which he was a strong advocate.
Conservation was for Curzon a mission, embracing wild birds, old English villages and the houses of past national heroes. Nehru praised his sensitivity to Indian treasures as Viceroy. He had £50,000 spent on the repair and beautification of the great monuments of Agra; he removed the English additions to the Royal Palace at Mandalay; he worked to rescue simple wayside shrines from neglect; he created an Archaeological Department to continue the work of restoring Indian art and architecture. Asserting that the Moghul civilisation was ‘earlier and superior’ to the British, he believed it was the duty of the present to maintain ‘what is beautiful, what is historic, what tears the mask off the face of the past’. This would improve the more degenerate Indians by instructing them about their history, and demonstrate his own conviction that statesmanship and trusteeship were intimately linked.
It is this Curzon – self-important, fussy, but sensitive to beauty, romance and alien cultures – who is uppermost in David Gilmour’s splendid new biography. Gilmour punctures the myth of the insufferably arrogant and despotically ‘un-English’ Curzon perpetuated by society gossip and by the hostile accounts of the Beaverbrook circle. Attendants at his Indian court did not walk backwards; he scarcely ever rode on elephants (it was bad for his back); critics of the 1903 Durbar were, by and large, politically motivated; he did not process through London in coronet and robes, as was reported in America. Though he believed in the political importance of ceremony, he came to distrust a good deal of the empty pomp and ritual which he observed in India, he had a strong sense of the ridiculous, and his greatest ceremonial legacy was the unostentatious but highly moving Remembrance Day ceremony which he masterminded in 1919-20.
Gilmour’s Curzon was motivated, instead, by his powerful historical imagination and his anxiety to feature in the histories written in the future. His father had inherited a peerage and the great house of Kedleston unexpectedly, but remained a typically unambitious country clergyman. Few other Curzons had left any mark in national affairs. Curzon felt something like guilt that the family had been unworthy of its position, and strove to put that right. He passionately wanted not to be second-rate; self-doubt was never far away. It was increased by the tragedy of gaining a mere second at Oxford. Social and intellectual insecurity drove him to extraordinary feats of labour. Curvature of the spine was diagnosed when he was 19, yet this provided merely another enemy against which to pit his formidable self-discipline. The result was periodic collapse from overwork, and a relatively early death.
Curzon’s ambition was fixed early: to uphold the governing mission of Britain by political service. This was hardly unusual (two of his Eton contemporaries wrote the words for ‘I vow to thee my country’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’). The Empire was his secular religion; he maintained that, if Britain abandoned her imperial ‘duty and self-sacrifice’, she would sink into ‘a narrow and selfish materialism’, like a ‘glorified Belgium’. He trained himself to become an expert on Asia, by intensive youthful reading and travelling, which produced three richly-informed books between 1889 and 1894. When appointed Viceroy of India in 1898, he was a young-looking and potentially lightweight 39. Superficially, this might seem an ill-considered gamble; but Lord Salisbury was not a man to play so recklessly with the jewel in the Imperial Crown. Curzon was an outstanding Viceroy, just as he was later (1919-23) to be the best-informed Foreign Secretary in a long time, where Eastern affairs were concerned.
The political core of Gilmour’s biography is the re-evaluation of Curzon’s achievement in these two crucial postings. A strong case is made for his administrative and economic reforms in India, and for the wisdom of his proposed responses to French, German and Russian influence in Muscat, Kuwait and Persia respectively (which smaller minds at home sometimes cavilled at adopting). Above all, Gilmour emphasises Curzon’s anxiety that British rule in India should rest on justice, morality and restraint. Indeed, much of his growing reputation for haughtiness is ascribed to the enemies he made in the process – by seeking to punish British soldiers who mistreated natives, and by despising the frivolous, gossipy, horse-and-dog-show mentality of Simla society, whose penchant for cold tapioca pudding and other vulgarities Curzon could not resist satirising.
Far from revelling in court splendour, Curzon claimed that the most enjoyable episodes in his Viceroyalty were his travels to the frontier and his meetings with local tribesmen, which brought back memories of his youthful treks. (He was a great patron of exploration, and later, as President of the Royal Geographical Society, urged the ascent of Everest.) He had a great respect for the manly independence of these tribes. He was sure that they offered much sturdier defence against a (weak) Russian threat than would army garrisons or full-blooded military conquest, and constructed his frontier policy accordingly. His admiration was deep and revealing, and Gilmour might with advantage have developed it further.
Curzon’s love affair with the East began with his first, post-graduation, tour – of Greece, Palestine and Syria – in which he contrasted the impressively bronzed, handsome, powerfully masculine rural and desert peoples with the degenerate townsmen. It was in the desert and the hills, rather than in Jerusalem, that he found something akin to the solitude and spirituality he had hoped to experience in the Holy Land. Though Curzon’s feelings for the East were partly explained by his awe at its savage, sensual, superstitious aspects, he was also attracted by the simplicity, self-reliance and adventurousness of tribesmen all over the region. He was typical of Victorian travellers in empathising with qualities that seemed akin to those of free-spirited, courageous Britons.
Gilmour’s book presents his subject as a much more rounded, vivacious and passionate human being than the old caricature. Despite his often terrifying workload, Curzon enjoyed life to the full; though he despised bridge and other frivolous country-house pursuits, he was an enthusiast for cultivated society, an irrepressible anecdotalist, and a fund of Rabelaisian humour. A ‘Soul’ and member of the rumbustious Crabbet Club, he once played tennis naked with Oscar Wilde. Impulsive and emotional where women were concerned, he appears to have had an insatiable sexual appetite and a string of mistresses. Though nearly all his correspondence with them has been burned, enough has survived to reveal how staggeringly inconsiderate he could be, particularly to Elinor Glyn (whose tiger skin was I present from him). His desperate and vain quest for an heir drove his first wife to ill-health and premature death, and led him into an unsuitable second marriage. Curzon was not an easy man to live with; he could be irritable, rude, mean and bumptious, and had no sense of proportion (when he lived in Carlton House Terrace, he tried to have Big Ben silenced at night, claiming that it stopped him from sleeping). But it would be wrong to take too seriously the tone of self-pity which from time to time crept into his correspondence.
Occasionally, that self-pity seems to convince Gilmour who, like all Curzon’s biographers, reflects on what might have been – on his failure to become prime minister. This was, of course, a great blow to him. But it is worth pointing out that he did more than anyone else to convince young Britons that the Viceroyalty of India was as grand a job to aim for as the premiership – despite the indifference to empire which he rightly discerned in large swathes of public opinion. (He made vigorous efforts in his speeches to dispel this indifference, but knew they had little effect; hence, in part, his opposition to further extensions of the vote, to women in particular.) Nor can it be denied that he was unsuited to be a post-war prime minister, not because he was a peer, but because of his poor political antennae. He was not the best man to cope with the difficult domestic questions of the Twenties. Even when young he was not particularly interested in home affairs or constituency work. His most preposterous foray into British politics was as early as 1909, when he told the bemused citizens of Oldham that they should support the peers’ case against the People’s Budget because their Lordships represented the permanent sentiments of the British people and all civilisations were the work of aristocracies.
The problem, it is often said, was that Curzon’s views were outdated. But this is not – in most respects – true. The real difficulty was that he had so little political (as opposed to administrative) judgment and intuition. He lacked vision; and his oratory was invariably too self-conscious and elevated to find the jugular vein of Parliamentary opponents. He was too self-contained. He could neither inspire trust in the decent, nor defend himself against the devious and uncerebral – the careerist hacks and spineless squires who littered the Tory benches. He was not particularly unpopular with the masses, and would have been no worse a leader in this respect than Balfour, Bonar Law or Baldwin. What mattered, rather, was his reputation in the Conservative Party: his inability to disguise from most of them that he thought little of their intellects, arguments and motives. He was regularly defeated in political manoeuvre – most famously by Kitchener’s unscrupulous campaign of 1904-5 against the Indian Military Department, which drove Curzon from the Viceroyalty and led directly to the Mesopotamian disaster of 1916.
The two Conservative politicians with whom he grappled longest were Balfour and Brodrick. Balfour’s clever, lazy, amoral levity had little in common with Brodrick’s bovine two-faced incompetence, but in their insincerity and cunning they made too great a match for ‘dear George’. Indeed, Curzon had no more permanent enemy at Westminster than Balfour, who presumably took great pleasure from the sport of damaging his most intellectually dangerous rival at every turn. First, he betrayed Curzon’s diplomatic achievements in India because they caused political difficulties at home; then, he excluded him from the Commons, so marginalising the most serious challenger for his Tory leadership; finally, he gleefully signalled his own continuing political influence by denying Curzon a series of postwar ambitions. Curzon’s footwork was always too slow and stately. The result was that, though he behaved sensibly and rather properly in the frenetic political crises of 1911, 1916 and 1922, he was left either holding the dagger or with a hand resting suspiciously nearby. No wonder he never wore the crown.
In domestic politics Curzon was certainly no dictator; his punching power was below average. This is best shown by his career as Foreign Secretary under Lloyd George and Baldwin. Too often he lost the arguments, though in hindsight his views made a lot of sense. He disliked the Balfour Declaration, which he thought ignored the realities of Palestine and was the fruit of Balfour’s over-ripe Classical imagination. He was forced to leave Western Europe to Lloyd George, and to watch as Churchill persuaded the Cabinet to withdraw British troops from northern Persia. He deeply regretted Lloyd George’s utopian but influential hostility to Turkish claims in western Anatolia. Finally, after enduring three years of neglect, subordination and abuse, he had had enough of Welsh wizardry. Curzon saw that he had been ‘slow and perhaps even belated’ in recognising that ‘I have been too loyal to him to my own detriment for over three years.’ So, when Lloyd George attempted to use British troops at Chanak to halt the Turks, he pulled the plug on the most mercurially autocratic prime minister of the century to date. Where more recently have we heard those cadences, that devastating ‘perhaps’, from a long-suffering Foreign Secretary?
Curzon’s prize was real power at the Foreign Office under Bonar Law and Baldwin in 1922-3, during which he negotiated the Treaty of Lausanne, which established the modern Turkish nation and proved the most permanent of the post-war treaties. But in 1924 he fell foul of Baldwin’s Majorish pusillanimity towards France, with whom Curzon’s policy had been as forceful as one would expect from his description of her ‘epicene civilisation’, ‘music-hall statesmanship’ and ‘greasy cooking’. Curzon was shunted to the sidelines by an insular but canny politician who had less grasp of international realities than of taxpayer pressure for defence cuts. Deprived of all hope of further global influence, he was dead within five months.
For all his failings, Curzon achieved more of his life-plan than most. He was a great imperial servant and helped to sway the destinies of two-thirds of southern Asia, the territory he had studied since his youth. If he appears as an exotic creature today, it is important not to exaggerate his distance from his own contemporaries. Most of his political disappointments stemmed from his character defects, not from ‘un-English’ attitudes. In an epitaph, Harold Nicolson described Curzon’s ideals as ‘the magnitude of England, the integrity of beauty, the glory of work’. Some reviewers of Gilmour, and many previous critics of Curzon, have suggested that these values, on which he built his life, were illusions (as if this were peculiar to Curzon). Curzon would have said that there are worse illusions.