Dear George

Jonathan Parry

  • Curzon by David Gilmour
    Murray, 684 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 7195 4834 9

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.

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