A magisterial life of the renowned British politician and empire-builder.
Like his near-contemporary Rudyard Kipling, the subject of Gilmour’s recent The Long Recessional (2002), George Nathaniel Curzon believed that Europe had a duty to bring civilization to the non-European world. Curzon’s belief had a decidedly paternalistic component. As viceroy of India, he believed that his subjects were not necessarily corrupt, but certainly degenerate; Gilmour writes that “he found them childlike and often aggravating, but there can be no doubt that he liked them.” Curzon came by a sense of hauteur honestly, having been descended from a family that traced its ancestry to one of William the Conqueror’s lieutenants; yet he dismissed those ancestors as “a feeble lot,” arguing that the family would not have possessed the same estate since the 12th century “had they manifested the very slightest energy or courage.” Say what you will about his beliefs—and plenty of critics, including Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, twitted him for one thing or another at every turn—Curzon was indeed energetic and courageous, and he explored and wrote about vast portions of Central Asia before settling in to a four-decade career in imperial administration. In this work he had checkered success, for Curzon was not particularly well liked at home, in part because he was so openly contemptuous of his lessers and colleagues (and, one suspects, the royals as well). Too, writes Gilmour, Curzon often swam against the tide of world events, arguing in the wake of WWI that Egypt should not be granted independence and that Britain should not give in to nationalist movements in its colonies. Still, as subsequent events have shown, he was often right, as when he agitated for an independent Kurdistan against protests from Ottoman diplomats—sniffing, of course, that “he could tell a Kurd from a Turk any day of the week.”
Gilmour charts Curzon’s life through success and failure, turning in a well-formed view of the late imperial era in the bargain. An outstanding biography of an important historical figure.