The Lost Imperialist: Lord Dufferin, Memory and Mythmaking in an Age of Celebrity by Andrew Gailey, book review

The rise of an iron-fisted liberal imperialist
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Andrew Gailey was a housemaster at Eton and is now its Vice-Provost. The subject of his biography, Lord Dufferin (1826-1902), an Anglo-Irish landowner, himself went to Eton, where his fag was the future Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

Exploiting such contacts and a well-honed charm, Dufferin enjoyed a brilliant diplomatic career. He was British ambassador to St Petersburg, Constantinople, Rome and Paris as well as Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. En route he ascended the ranks of the peerage, finishing as the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. In short, this book tells the rise of a Victorian posh boy.

It is, however, a story with a tragic denouement and unexpected psychological twists, skilfully unravelled by Gailey, whose research has been prodigious. Dufferin had an exceptionally passionate relationship with his mother Helen, who was one of the "Three Graces", the beautiful grand-daughters of the dissolute playwright-politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Dufferin spent his life trying to live up to her high expectations. Thus he idealised her memory, enshrined in Helen's Tower, which he built on his estate at Clandeboye. He became trapped in an artificial persona, pretending to effortless superiority when he was often racked by self-doubt. And he mythologised his ancestry, expunging all trace of the Sheridan who, when asked his name on being found drunk in the gutter, replied: "Wilberforce."

Gailey makes rather too much of all this. Still, a convincing depiction of the man and his career does emerge. The lisping young dandy in his sky-blue tailcoat and yellow silk gloves won a reputation for courage with his account of sailing into Arctic waters. The high church romantic who relieved distress during the Irish famine came to blame it on the fecklessness of the inhabitants. And the diplomat showed how much patrician polish could achieve. Before Canada was linked by rail, he did much to bind the confederation together by establishing himself as its quasi-king. Back in Europe he captivated everyone from Bismarck to the Tsar.

Dufferin demonstrated how iron-fisted a liberal imperialist could be when, in 1886, he executed Lord Randolph Churchill's policy of seizing Upper Burma, which prompted bloody guerrilla resistance.

The career of the first Marquess ended disastrously. Innocent but improvident, he was caught up in a ruinous financial scandal and he lost two sons in the Boer War. This scholarly book does him ample justice.