BIOGRAPHIES are all the rage, and they don't come much more enjoyable than this. A largely forgotten, not terribly important and ever-surprising hero, an exciting variety of locales, a technique elegant and scholarly - Younghusband by Patrick French (HarperCollins, pounds 20) is the perfect book to read in the bath on a Sunday morning (or would be if it were not a hefty volume of 440 pages, including 24 pages of notes, a bibliography and two portfolios of photographs).
Consider its hero first. Sir Francis Younghusband, born in India in 1863, began his career as a fairly conventional officer of the King's Dragoon Guards. He went on to pioneer a new overland route from China to India, to lead a calamitous military invasion of Tibet, to write hardly less calamitous books about such matters as Cosmic Humanism, the Rhythm of the Universe and the Sum of Things, to supervise the first expeditions to Mount Everest, to found the World Congress of Faiths, to be the President of the Royal Geographical Society and to propagate the theory that on the undiscovered planet Altair lived a future Leader of the World, 'Holiness itself made manifest'. Along the way he seems to have enjoyed an all-but-incestuous relationship with his sister Emmie, and in the last months of his life he apparently cherished the hope of implanting the seed of a new Messiah in the womb of his married mistress Madeline.
'Was he,' his biographer once wonders, surely echoing the thoughts of all his readers, 'barking mad?' If he was, his was on the whole a benevolent and certainly a persuasive lunacy. His life took a decisive turn for the kinder when, having presided over the slaughter of several hundred Tibetans during his Lhasa Expedition of 1904, he had a kind of vision on a hill outside the capital. He was overcome by an intensity of spiritual joy, together with a conviction 'past all refutation' that all men at heart were divine. He found himself, he recorded, 'boiling over with love for the whole world'. He decided he would never think evil again, nor 'be at enmity with any man'.
He stuck to these wholesome resolutions, and as a well-known hero devoted the rest of his life to increasingly visionary ideals of universal amity. He became a religious and sexual freethinker of almost alarming liberation. Improving books poured from his pen. Didactic societies sprang from his sponsorship - the Fight for Right Movement, the Religious Drama Society, the Natural Beauty Association, the Excellence-Worship Society or the Quest Society, which promoted Honour, Nature and the Ideal.
His sincerity seems to have been unquestioned, and seductive. Whatever their views about excellence-worship or Altairean destiny, George Curzon, Bertrand Russell, John Buchan, Thomas Hardy, Gilbert Murray, Charles Lindbergh and Robert Baden- Powell were all at one time or another among Younghusband's supporters.
Parry's setting of Jerusalem and T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral were both indebted to his patronage. He had innumerable American disciples. His enthusiasms never flagged, and he died during the Second World War in the arms of the passionately other-worldly Madeline Lees, putative mother to his God-child (the earlier Lady Younghusband having fortunately gone before).
The book's technique is well up to this demanding curriculum. Indeed I cannot begin to do justice to the skill and the fun of this happy work, which is impeccably researched and most entertainingly written. If it has a fault, to my mind it lies in its adherence to a contemporary biographical convention, the need for a biographer to involve himself physically in his story. Now and then French breaks his narrative to go cross-genre - off as a travel writer to the Karakoram, to the Gobi Desert, to Sikkim. Some of his journeys are, as the blurb claims, intrepid. His lone crossing of the Rhotang Pass in Lahaul sounds extremely intrepid, and so does his visit to the surviving children of Madeline Lees to inquire if their mother had, in fact, produced a sacred sibling (she hadn't).
These interludes, though, strike me as unnecessary distractions, inferior to the rest of the book and sometimes a little patronising in tone, as travel writing is inclined to be; I was always glad to get back to the next instalment of Younghusband's much more startling enterprises. Just occasionally, too, I noticed errors and solecisms in the headlong profusion of the text. There were no 'doodle-bugs' in 1940, for example, 'burrah sahib' was not a specific nickname but an institutional generic, 'Britisher' seems to me a usage unworthy of French's urbane prose, and lifelong admirer though I am of the cereal called Force ('high oer the fence leaps Sunny Jim / FORCE is the food that raises him'), I don't believe it was ever particularly pukkah.
But I am nit-picking. Younghusband is a glorious biography, fair, frank, and always interesting, which will give Sir Francis a gratifying new lease of after-life. (I did read it in my bath, too, unfortunately slopping soapy water over the pictures following page 362, which include one of George Leigh-Mallory advancing stark naked, but for a trilby hat, tovvards the summit of Mount Everest).