A perfect Englishman

WELLINGTON: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert, HarperCollins pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Wellington is the most solid and unchanging of Island Heroes. More than Dr Johnson, and far more than Winston Churchill, he epitomises those qualities that used to be considered peculiarly British: he was phlegmatic and incorruptible, courageous and straightforward, driven onward by duty and patriotism, immune both to flattery and to conceit. He not only saved Europe from Napoleon but did so in a memorably English way. Even when confronted by the finest armies of the Continent, he had time for a quick nap before a battle. And when roused by an anxious member of his staff, he insisted that the subsequent contest should be fought as fairly as possible. At Waterloo he refused to allow a gunner to aim at Napoleon, informing him that generals had better things to do than shoot at each other.

Wellington's qualities, like his defects, were transparent. As an early biographer observed, no great man's character was "more completely free from disguise". Even more than Cromwell, he invited the depiction of his warts and pimples, though in fact there were not many to depict, and then usually offset by compensating features. Of course he was a bit of a curmudgeon, grumbling about his troops and seldom able to praise them even after their best performances. Yet he took the blame when things went wrong: when he failed to capture Burgos in 1812, when he was "humbugged" by Napoleon before the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras.

Since he refused either to help historians or to read their accounts of his career, Wellington is almost uniquely innocent of the charge of rewriting history. For a lesser man this reticence might have been fatal for his reputation. But his transparency of character and behaviour was so obvious that even ill-intentioned commentators felt obliged to portray him as he was. That is why the Iron Duke of Hibbert's biography is so similar to the sketches of Croker and Creevey and their contemporaries. He remains the immortal figure who replied to a threat of blackmail with the words, "Publish and be damned", the crusty old statesman who, on hearing a stranger's effusion that he was "the greatest man who ever lived", answered with a curt "Don't be a damned fool".

Nearly 30 years ago Elizabeth Longford produced the first volume of her classic biography. There and in its sequel the essential Wellington appeared once more, obsessed by duty and service and the need to say exactly what he thought. She discussed debatable mistakes, such as his refusal to summon his right flank onto the battlefield at Waterloo, and criticised his later obduracy on political reform, which he thought would lead to revolution. But she also pointed out that his premiership promoted free trade and religious tolerance as well as Catholic emancipation. And while demonstrating his human proportions, the kindness behind the crustiness, she stressed his importance as a European statesman, a sophisticated ally of Castlereagh opposed to the insular patriotism of Canning. For someone who had defeated the conqueror of Europe, he was remarkably averse to triumphalism.

Christopher Hibbert disclaims any intention of displacing Lady Longford's work, but argues reasonably that, if "a person really worth writing about deserves reappraisal every 20 years, the time has certainly come for a new look at the Duke". To this study he has brought his usual qualities of intense industry, a clear narrative style and an impressive talent to absorb all available material. But the problem with Wellington is that he is such an unsuitable subject for reappraisal; a revisionist could find no worse person through whom to try to overturn an existing historical consensus.

Naturally, some myths may have survived. But Lady Longford dealt with the most ludicrous of all, the belief that Wellington could ever have said something so silly as "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" (although the myth had the happy consequence of prompting Orwell to observe that "the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there"). Apart from lack of evidence, the fields were not used in the 1780s for organised sports, and in any case Wellington hadn't played on them. And, despite the parsimony of his Waterloo Dispatch, he was well aware of the feats performed by non-Etonians in the battle.

If Hibbert's book cannot really be described as a reappraisal, nor can it, despite the subtitle, be considered "a personal history". The author has given more space than his predecessor to the artists who depicted Wellington, just as he has described more of the routine in Walmer Castle when the Duke was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. But the book remains a good, straightforward and far from original biography of a man whose career has been well traced before; the overwhelming mass of anecdote and quotation assembled here appeared in Lady Longford's volumes.

Yet this is not Hibbert's fault. Indeed he should be congratulated for having resisted the temptation to offer a new interpretation of a figure eternally unready for it. Through his pages yet another generation can therefore read of a man who was a great Englishman, who was almost a great Irishman and who was certainly a great European.

David Gilmour is Research Fellow at St Anthony's College Oxford and the author of 'Curzon' (Papermac pounds 13)