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Book Review: Curzon: Imperial Statesman (David Gilmour)

“Curzon” is one of those typically British biographies of dead political figures. Such biographies tend to go into great detail not just about the protagonist, but about long-forgotten political issues fought among long-forgotten men. If you are interested in the protagonist, or the period, this can be excellent, as long as the writing is good, and Gilmour’s is good. But if you’re looking for an objectively thrilling read, you should stay away.

Before I read this book, I only knew vaguely of George Curzon, primarily for the so-called Curzon Line, which is not even mentioned in this very long book. (The Curzon Line was the line proposed by Curzon after World War I as the border between Bolshevik Russia and newly reconstituted Poland.) But Curzon did a lot more than draw borders during his workaholic life. He is today regarded, when remembered, as a man of tremendous early promise and gifts, undermined by perceived and real defects of personality, who never reached the heights he expected. Curzon, among other offices, served as a highly successful Viceroy of India (1899-1905), and was expected to be Prime Minister—but never was.

Gilmour explores all of these aspects of Curzon with a gimlet eye but with a fundamentally positive outlook on his subject. Apparently in the mid-twentieth century Curzon’s reputation suffered greatly at the hands of biased biographies, and in large part Gilmour’s book seems to be an effort to rehabilitate Curzon, while remaining realistic about his shortcomings.

Like Winston Churchill, but more so, Curzon was fundamentally an unreconstructed Victorian. He lived from 1859 to 1925, but never really adapted to the new, shifting realities of British domestic policies. During his career, from my limited understanding, leading British political opinion started to shift against Empire. Not that anyone at that time advocated ending the Empire, but the old Kipling-esque White Man’s Burden was no longer universally accepted, and flexible, calculating men shifted and calibrated their positions in light of the need to reduce the Empire’s commitments—especially after World War I. Curzon was incapable of such fluidity—he was extremely knowledgeable and extremely used to being a leading debater on all issues about which he cared, but he tended to plow straight ahead in predictable ways, refusing to trim his position and rejecting political intrigue. This did not always serve him well, and he was further harmed by a complete inability to appreciate the uses of press manipulation.

Curzon was born on the same estate his family had owned for more than 700 years. He did not regard this wholly as showing virtue—as he said, “No family could have remained in possession of the same estate since the twelfth century had they manifested the very slightest energy or courage.” And the family’s motto, “Let Curzon hold what Curzon held” backs this up. Curzon himself, though, showed nothing but energy and courage.

He followed a typical course of the British aristocracy of the Victorian age—Eton, followed by Oxford (Balliol), followed immediately by government service. Unlike most British aristocrats, however, he was fantastically well-traveled, and regarded from a young age as the country’s leading expert on the entire East. While a young man, he traveled extensively throughout the Middle East (Persia, Mesopotamia, Central Asia; Afghanistan); Russia; Korea; China; Japan. Among other achievements, he discovered one source of the Oxus River (an ice cave in the Wakhjir Pass near the Chinese border, apparently). Then he wrote numerous ponderous but very highly regarded books on the areas in which he traveled. Not for Curzon limiting himself to a Grand Tour of Europe—in fact, he visited Europe little, and Ireland, where he was a peer, not at all.

Curzon’s public career began in 1886; for fifteen years he served in Parliament and in a variety of foreign-policy-related government offices (while simultaneously traveling and writing as outlined above). What struck me most was Curzon’s dealing, through his entire adult life, with notable physical disabilities, while at the same time working hours that would have killed most men. As a teenager he suffered a back injury that required frequent wearing of a metal body cage to prevent collapse (giving him a reputation for stiffness and exacerbating his reputation for being pompous). He suffered from chronic insomnia, neuritis and phlebitis, each of which kept him sick in bed for weeks, if not months, every year. Yet year after year he ground on, incapable of doing anything but working, and working at the very highest level of output.

Curzon was convinced that all great men were detail men, from Alexander the Great, to Wellington, to himself. He refused to delegate even the most trivial of matters and spent inordinate time while Viceroy doing tasks like re-writing subordinates’ memoranda to fix their grammar and phrasing. Doubtless much of this was not necessary—Wellington, as Curzon knew, was a detail man in planning war, not in pedantry. But Curzon’s nature was, as he said, “if you wanted a thing done a particular war the only plan was to do it yourself.” The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but closer to Curzon. The idea that a truly great person can be primarily a delegator is a myth. So, for example, Steve Jobs was a detail person, and a great businessperson. Jack Welch was a delegator, and a grossly overrated man. All, or nearly all, great entrepreneurs, and for that matter all great leaders in any context, are workaholic detail people. I can’t think of a single exception—for example, Julius Caesar was criticized for his habit of dictating business correspondence during social dinners. Such people may not be great company or great family men—but they get things done.

From 1899 to 1905 Curzon was Viceroy of India, in which role he was immensely successful, and widely respected (if not always agreed with) by both native Indians and British. He demanded that criminal justice be equally applied, which was far from a universal British position. He took a particular interest in restoration of Indian historical monuments, such as the Taj Mahal (in fact, Nehru, not exactly a fan of British India, remarked “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.”) Ultimately Curzon was driven out as Viceroy, in the middle of his second-five year term, by the intrigues of the odious and largely incompetent Herbert Kitchener, then Commander-In-Chief in India, with whom Curzon clashed on the degree of power to be accorded to Kitchener. All this was played out in the British papers, which Kitchener played to the extent that Curzon was widely viewed as defective (again, not helped by Curzon’s habit of acting superior, and his inability to conduct his own press manipulation).

Upon return to England, Curzon did not receive the honors traditionally accorded to any Viceroy, much less a successful Viceroy. This was because of various shifting political sands and Curzon’s inability to navigate them—partially bad luck and partially bad management. Although he joined the House of Lords, for nearly ten years he did little of political impact. In 1915, however, he joined Asquith’s government, serving under him, then Lloyd George and Bonar Law during and after the war, in a variety of foreign policy cabinet positions, in frequent conflict with Churchill over matters such as the Dardanelles and British policy in Mesopotamia. In 1923, despite the widespread assumption that he would become Prime Minister upon Law’s resignation, Arthur Balfour was instead appointed, effectively ending Curzon’s career. He died in 1925.

The book spends a good amount of time on Curzon’s personal life, which enlivens the book considerably. Not that Curzon’s personal life was lively in the sense of pleasant; it was up and down, with lots of tragedy and conflict. Gilmour only touches on it in lightly, but Curzon’s children were a gruesome disappointment (although he contributed to his own bad relations with them). He had three daughters, all of whom were highly defective in the spectacular way of the declining British aristocracy after 1930. Two of them were involved with, and one married, Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader. And the rest of their lives were consumed with various dubious behavior that would have horrified Curzon.

Like all good biographies, this gives a flavor of the times, and like all good biographies, in combination with other knowledge, this gives the reader the ability to analyze other situations better. While aristocrats like Curzon are gone, self-assured, highly knowledgeable men (and women), keenly interested in public service as they see it, are still around (though fewer than there used to be). This book helps the reader understand them, the relations they had with others, and how they affected their times, and then to use that information to assist in understanding the world of today, and tomorrow.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews British History Charles Colonialism The Orient


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