The Most Interesting Wellington Biography by Phillip Guedalla (1931)

May 2018
In preparation for a paper I am working on, I came across the 1931 The Duke written by Phillip Guedalla. I must say that this biography reads as though Stephen Colbert or Greg Gutfeld wrote a Wellington biography.

Little gems, which criticize Wellseley's contemporaries, appear throughout the book:

"Since his experience of active service was confined to Europe and Asia, ministers consulted him exclusively upon operations in America."

"A threat of toleration for his Catholic subjects aroused the sleeping dragons of King George's conscience."

"This was austerity indeed; for it was the golden age of patronage, and India was almost sacred to nepotism."

He has a flair for the historically ironic:

"But for three weeks in 1805 a malicious fate enjoyed the brief paradox of Napoloen at large and Wellington at St. Helena."

He takes on 1930s history fanboys with a vigor :

"Waterloo? That, surely, cannot have been forgotten. Hardly; though a century of French assertion, combined with a steadily increasing Napoleonic cult, seems to have imposed the odd belief that Waterloo was lost by the Emperor rather than being won by Wellington...a soldier who inspired such universal trust that the whole problem of Reparations was left by common consent in his hands."

His description of British Aristocratic life in the 18th century (Wellesley's younger years) possesses the luster of prosperous prose. He draws a few parallels (bearing some hostility) comparing the aristocratic plantation life in Ireland with that of the American South:

"They bore themselves, besides, with the immense patrician dignity that comes from superposition on a foundation of slavery. For the native Irish, even in the last years of the Eighteenth Century, were not far removed from slavery."

"For the nearest social parallel to rural Ireland was to be found three thousand miles away in the cotton-fields of Carolina. There, too, a little caste lived on its acres. The grace of Southern manners on the white-pillared porches of Colonial mansions matches the ease of Irish country-houses. There is the same profusion, the same improvidence against the same background of slavery. The same defects recur."

"Even on a little run from Dublin they hesitated to rely upon the unaided powers of “cold fowl, lamb, pigeon pye, Dutch beef, tongue, cockells, sallad, much variety of liquors, and the finest syllabub that ever was tasted.” But the Muses were invoked, a lady placed at the harpsichord jangled a little, and afterwards Mr. Wesley’s violin kept time to his daughters’ dancing. For, as a courtly ear observed, he “played well (for a gentleman) on the violin.”

Yet, even though Guedalla was very much a Liberal, his praise for Wellington (a Tory) seems unequivocal:

"By a peculiar division of labor, British history, quite considerable parts of which have been made by Tories, has been largely written by Whigs; and Whig historians are a little apt to dispose summarily of Tory reputations."

"At any rate, his portrait richly deserves to hang in the great gallery of English prose."

Most oddly, Guedella hits on a few things that other historians seem to have missed. For example: Wellington once compared his experiences in India with Caesar in Gaul (according to the Duke's reading list, he read the Commentaries) and learned much of war from Julius Caesar:

"Indeed, he found his Cæsar curiously relevant to Indian military problems; for he confessed in later years how much he learned from him, “fortifying my camp every night as he did,” and borrowing Cæsar’s methods of crossing rivers by basket-boats."

Wellington was also an opponent of the Slave Trade, and apparently associated with such radicals as Thomas Clarkston:

"But Paris brought Wellington a closer acquaintance with the problem; for he was pelted with improving literature, interviewed by Zachary Macaulay and the virtuous Clarkson, and positively satisfied the latter that he had read through his History of Abolition and Impolicy of the Slave Trade, to say nothing of a little thing by Mr. Wilberforce and all the memoranda from the African Society—strange reading for a conqueror. But his interest was genuine; and he gave shrewd advice upon the management of French opinion, even volunteering to finance their publications out of public funds."

Oddly enough, Wellington basically predicted the problem of Emperor Maxmillian and the "Mexican Empire":

“The French gentlemen who have turned their thoughts to this subject have recommended that one of the French princes should be established as king in New Spain, and the English and Spanish writers have recommended an independent government, without specifying of what nature it should be. None, however, have pointed out in what manner the government recommended to be established in that country should be kept in existence, carried on, and supported after the revolution should have been effected, particularly against the attempts which might be made upon it by the United States.”

Overall, the book is written as a biography of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington which focuses on his whole life, as opposed to simply his military or political career(s). His descriptions of 18th and 19th century life is most helpful for a reader in 2019 to understand life in that period (he was, admittedly, 90 years closer to that time period than we are today.)

But what makes the book great is his prose, charming witticisms, and the revealing of facts about the Duke's life which other historians have deemed unimportant. As good as Rory Muir, Richard Holmes, Gordon Corrigan and Jac Weller have done, this book is by far the most charming of Wellington biographies.
Nov 2010
Interesting find. There are basic 'arts of war' to coin a phrase that transpond time. Good leaders often do a fair bit of study. Shame Napoleon took a history of Charles XII of Sweden's failed invasion of Russia with him!

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