BOOK REVIEW: Portrait of a most superior person

CURZON David Gilmour John Murray, £25

Driving along the South African coast one morning in 1909, Lord Curzon was saluted, not just by the predictable cheering crowd, but by a whale, swimming close to the shore, that blew off a magnificent waterspout. Enchanted by this cetacean homage, the imperial proconsul stiffly raised his hat. "As a master of self-parody," comments David Gilmour, "Curzon was unequalled."

That non-human life forms should have wanted to do him honour must have seemed entirely comprehensible, the more so since his own kind were markedly grudging either with praise or encouragement. Even after his death in 1925, when the obituarists dutifully labelled his distinguished public service, brilliant intellect and unflagging industry, more substantial plaudits were slow in coming. Gilmour's biography, which attempts a three-dimensional view of this extraordinary essay in human overstatement, is the first to fix Curzon's achievements within any sort of adequate perspective. Superficially he may have seemed an elaborate failure, either as Viceroy of India or as Foreign Secretary under Bonar Law and Baldwin, but Gilmour, simply b y sifting the detail with patience and lucidity, offers a plausible case for him as the best man for either job, more creative, visionary and determined than his contemporaries deserved.

Curzon left for India in 1899, dogged by an appropriate sense of foreboding and by his own irrepressible tendency towards self-pity. Yet despite his dim view of most of those in authority under him (one provincial governor was characterised as "a curiousmixture of childish simplicity, charming manners, anxiety to do the right thing and complete administrative incompetence") he wrung from them all an astonishing amount of positive good.

The last of the great Victorian workaholics, compensating for his forebears' failure to do anything except build themselves a large house in Derbyshire, Curzon behaved towards India with the brisk benevolence of a grand seigneur making improvements to the family estate. In his six-year viceroyalty, he overhauled Punjabi agriculture, tidied up the private affairs of the more sottish native rulers, dispatched defensive missions to the frontier, divided unwieldy Bengal into two, masterminded the CoronationDurbar ceremonial, rationalised Indian higher education and upheld the principle, deeply unpopular with fellow colonials, of equal justice for natives and Europeans.

All this, not to speak of restoring the Taj Mahal and insisting on better living conditions for the arthritic lions of Calcutta zoo, should have earned him a crumb of official gratitude. His reward instead was a systematic professional destruction at thehands of the Indian Army supremo Lord Kitchener, whose mixture of epicurean idleness, preening and mendacity made him Curzon's perfect opposite. The Raj gained nothing from its Viceroy's recall, a hot potato in the embers of AJ Balfour's worn-out Tory government.

Lesser men would have nursed their wounds with an autobiography and a seat in the Lords. Curzon's resilience bounced him back to a life crammed full of everything from the chancellorship of Oxford University to restoring medieval castles, ghost-hunting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Broadstairs and conducting a vibrant affair with Elinor Glyn, whomade him the hero of a sentimental pot-boiler.

Gilmour is as lavish on the foibles and failings of the private man as on the public servant's petulant magnificence. Of the two Lady Curzons, he invites us to prefer the Chicago heiress, Mary Leiter, a natural vicereine, to her successor Grace Duggan, who was jealous and hopelessly indifferent to the importance of her husband's work at the Foreign Office. Curzon's gift for prophecy in this sphere allowed him to foresee the rise of Nazism, Arab-Jewish conflict and ultimate independence for India. Gilmour's talent is wonderfully exercised in this generous, wisely weighed portrait, looking his subject squarely in the face but never denying that Curzon deserves somewhat more from posterity than being called a rat by AJP Taylor.