An unconventional biography of the brilliant economist who shaped British public life in the 20th century.
Historian Davenport-Hines (An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, 2013, etc.) examines the many ways in which John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) left his mark on the age that bears his name. In the 35 years after World War II, Keynes’ economic ideas dominated the policies of Western governments. Yet his celebrated economic theories are little discussed here. Instead, the author traces the many other ways of viewing Keynes’ unusually rich life “as an exemplary figure, as a youthful prodigy, as a powerful government official, as an influential public man, as a private sensualist, as a devotee of the arts and as an international statesman.” A product of Eton and King’s College, Keynes, in his varied undertakings (civil servant, businessman, writer, book collector, and member of the “gifted little clan” called the Bloomsbury Set), “conjoined different networks of expertise, influence and ambitions.” Eschewing chronology, Davenport-Hines focuses on the values and forces that animated Keynes in his engagements with so many spheres of life. With his great curiosity and imagination, Keynes sought always to convince people into “right thinking,” whether in dining clubs and discussion groups or in encounters with leading figures in politics, banking, and the arts. A homely man (with a “queer swollen eel look,” said Virginia Woolf), he was nonetheless highly persuasive, with a beguiling voice that seduced listeners (including many lovers) and a tireless devotion to the belief that only human stupidity and pessimism stood in the way of progress. In all things, he was guided by a concern for how people could lead virtuous and productive lives. The author offers vivid glimpses of Keynes’ interactions with such contemporaries as Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa Bell.
An admiring and nuanced book filled with insights into this scholar and man of action in all his complexity.