BOOK REVIEW / Of a monkey-faced melancholic: 'Umbrella' - Ferdinand Mount: Heinemann, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NOT MUCH has been remembered of Lord Aberdeen, 19th-century statesman, classical scholar, cousin of Byron and owner of a vast sweep of Scotland.

This long-serving foreign secretary - a sort of Douglas Hurd of his time - has been cast as a foil to Palmerston, all patrician restraint to the gung-ho bluster and gunboats of 'Pam'. His premiership carries a double blame - for limping into the Crimean War, and failing to fight it with any conviction.

Not the stuff of a heroic tale, you think, but from these bare bones Ferdinand Mount has created a beguiling, spirited piece of fiction. Aberdeen -George to his readers - is furnished with the personality history forgot.

Here he becomes a monkey-faced melancholic, flawed but somehow better than the times he lived in. Mount tells his story nimbly, darting about the years, making no stab at comprehensiveness nor lapsing into cod-biography.

Orphaned at the age of 14 (when Pitt stepped in as guardian), George does not expect life to be happy. But then he meets and marries Catherine Hamilton, and for a few short pages they are blissful. The rest is tragedy: death robs him of his wife, their three daughters, his brother, his second wife, and his last daughter. Unremitting grief leaves George almost devastated, but his career undimmed. From these blows the umbrella of the title, though sturdy and capacious, is unable to protect him.

So George is sad, but that doesn't mean Mount can't have fun with him. He gets off to a flying start: first stop on his grand tour, c 1802, is Malmaison, because 'to go to Paris without paying a call on the enigma of his age, the monster, the liberator, the tyrant, that would not be seeing Paris'. He excavates the Acropolis, and brings some of it home. He acts in front of Sheridan. He dines on the field of the Battle of Leipzig, an emperor at each elbow. He spends a night in a hayloft with Metternich (the start of a friendship cemented by mutual migraine-suffering).

All these encounters are animated by sparkling, sometimes mischievous dialogue. Fragments of real letters and speeches are woven into the narrative but do not jolt it: this novel (novella?) wears its learning lightly. Aberdeen might be wooden and fusty, but the narrator (at times so close he might be a monkey perched on the shoulder) provides a good sense of what George thinks and feels. Walk-on characters are deftly sketched: Pitt 'with his strange acuteness, which was both cold and somehow feminine'; 'sly foxy silky Metternich'; Caro, first of his daughters to die, 'a sad shrunk little scrap of a person'. Mount has a good eye for eyes - George's are buttons, Sheridan's are bloodshot and blue. Smells are strongly evoked: babies, pine trees, and the stench of corpses that haunts George from Leipzig to Scutari.

The pathetic irony that it was Aberdeen - who had seen and hated war and spent 40 years defusing conflicts - who got Britain into the Crimea is agonisingly drawn out. Declaring war to a jingoistic public, the wretched Aberdeen 'could not help setting out the policy of Russia in the most understanding fashion'. The incriminating despatches of W H Russell in the Times set him up as the 'St Stephen of the mass media, the first martyr'.

Umbrella has uncanny contemporary echoes (although at one point we are sternly informed 'this is not a narrative for modern readers'). The book trips only on the home lap. The actual end is a flight of whimsy - but there is another ending, whose stinging poignancy seems altogether more fitting.