Book review / Man of iron

Wellington: a personal history by Christopher Hibbert, HarperCollins, pounds 20

I believe I forgot to tell you I was made a Duke." The Duke of Wellington's nonchalant announcement to his brother, after having driven Napoleon's armies from Spain in 1814, may have been proof of his modesty. Or it may have been the cold satisfaction of a man who had a score to settle with his family. Christopher Hibbert gives Wellington the benefit of the doubt in his sympathetic and extremely engaging study of this complicated and paradoxical hero.

Wellington's family, the Wellesleys, were impoverished Anglo-Irish aristocrats. But what they lacked in wealth they made up for, in abundance, in snobbery. The name was originally Wesley, which Wellington's father, the first Earl of Mornington, changed to Wellesley to avoid any connection with Methodism.

When he was young, Wellington showed so little promise that his mother dismissed him as an "ugly boy, food for [gun] powder and nothing more". His clever elder brother, Richard, received all the attention while he shambled along, exasperating his parents by getting into fights at Eton and behaving awkwardly at home.

But less biased observers recognised Wellington's genius as soon as he joined the army. Throughout his early career in India he displayed the same obsessive attention to detail and tactical imagination which characterised all his later campaigns. During battle he made a conspicuous figure in his grey overcoat and black Hessian boots, riding to and fro, encouraging the troops.

Wellington was not liked by his soldiers but they respected him for the way he looked after them. He took enormous pride in their training. Asked once to describe the difference between the French and British armies he replied, "their soldiers got [the generals] into scrapes, mine always got me out".

After Waterloo, Wellington began a second career in politics. But like the Duke of Marlborough a century before him, Wellington was not a natural politician. He became Prime Minister because of his stature rather than his skills, and his years in office were brief and unpopular. He was blamed by his own party, the Tories, for persuading George IV to sign the Catholic Relief Act, despised by the Whigs for his obstinate opposition to political reform, and reviled by the mob for the part he took against Princess Caroline.

On one occasion a baying crowd stopped his horse and refused to allow him through until he shouted "God Save the Queen", which he at last did, adding, "and may all your wives be like her". He was fortunate that he lived long enough after his retirement from active politics to become a national hero again. His funeral was the greatest spectacle of the century, second only to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Wellington would have enjoyed the outpouring of national grief at his death. Behind his laconic mask was a vain and self-conscious man. He could never bring himself to praise individual officers, nor was he capable of delegating authority. His secretiveness soured his relations with his political colleagues, as did his refusal to be persuaded by argument.

Nor was it an accident that his chief officers were titled men with little ambition. Apart from Harriet and Charles Arbuthnot, he had few close friends who were not, like Lady Salisbury, adoring and beautiful. At home he was an unforgiving father and a cold, tyrannical husband. His neglected Duchess once confided in her diary, "perhaps in time God will pity the agony I suffer".

Hibbert refuses to speculate further than the Duke as to why he married a woman he disliked. He explained, when questioned by Harriet Arbuthnot, that "they asked me to do it and I did not know myself". Modern biographers are so quick to apply the psychological scalpel that Hibbert's fastidious treatment of his subject comes as a refreshing surprise. He belongs to that almost extinct type of historian, epitomised by the late Dame Veronica Wedgwood, who allows the material to speak for itself.

Instead of fussing about clever new theories, Hibbert entertains his readers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of 19th-century arcana; of duels, divorces, secret diaries and little-known outcomes. At the bottom of every page are the most amusing footnotes since Jan Morris's Pax Britannica trilogy.

Wellington is not an attempt to rival Elizabeth Longford's outstanding two-volume study, nor is it a reappraisal of the Duke's merits as a general. The specialist reader will not find much that is new, but it doesn't matter. Hibbert is one of England's greatest living historical writers, and reading anything by him is pure pleasure. Wellington should be enjoyed and savoured.

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