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Book Review: Wellington, The Path to Victory

By (December 7, 2013) No Comment

wellington rory muirWellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814
by Rory Muir
Yale University Press, 2013

The defensiveness any writer must feel when embarking on a biography such an oft-chronicled figure as the Duke of Wellington is understandable, and it can excuse quite a bit in the way of nervous rhetoric and precocious territoriality. Two letters from Gandhi’s neighbor to his apothecary will be called a “trove.” A study of Franklin Roosevelt will trumpet that it’s “based on new evidence” even when that “new evidence” is an old napkin on which is scrawled the word “the.” The discovery of so inconsequential a thing as his skeleton is even now prompting a veritable rose garden of new Richard III biographies that will bustle into bookstores in late 2014. Biography is a tough game even in the best of years, so biographers are allowed some leeway.

Even so, Rory Muir starts off his gigantic new biography of Wellington (the first of a planned two-volume set splitting the man’s life along the fairly conventional lines of “war” and “peace”) with what any less trolling generation would have called a monstrous canard. Wellington, he claims, “has not been well served by his biographers.” He then tsk-tsks over the likes of early biographers such as William Napier, Charles Oman, and John Fortescue, citing their over-reliance of biased sources and their lopsided concentration on the military half of the Duke’s life. He then proceeds to explain his own project, with no acknowledgment of, not so much as a nod toward, the dozens of very good Wellington biographies that have appeared since Oman and Fortescue, and no mention whatsoever (you have to root around in the fine print of his End Notes for it) of Elizabeth Longford, whose two-part 1969 Wellington biography, The Years of the Sword and The Pillar of State is as close to an exact chromosomal ancestor of his own projected work as is possible to imagine. Longford’s two volumes are thorough, well-written, and pleasingly balanced; they’re a triumph of the art of popular narrative biography – they very much qualify as “good service.”

The little irony of the discourtesy is that it’s unnecessary: Muir has exceeded even Lady Longford’s great achievement. This first volume of his set is the best work on the ‘first half’ of Wellington’s life that’s ever been written.

More adroitly than any other biographer, Muir succeeds in reminding readers that the traditional two-half split of Wellington’s life is at most a convenient shorthand. In fact, Wellington was at almost all times during his military campaigns also deeply embroiled in politics as well. Part III of this current book, a miniature masterpiece titled “War, Politics, Fame and Controversy,” concentrates mostly on the domestic political interludes between Wellington’s shaping army experience in India from 1796 to 1805 and real conflagration of the Peninsular War in 1809, and it’s from such interludes rather than from military dispatches that Muir draws his portrait of the man:

When, in January 1805, [Wellington said] ‘I am not very ambitious,’ the statement was both true and false. He cared little for money beyond the minimum needed to give him independence, and considerably less for his own comfort. Honours and titles mattered little, but he did expect that his service would be recognised properly, and greatly resented any shortfall. The applause of his peers was especially welcome, and he was extremely sensitive to criticism. Above all, he wanted to be actively employed, using his abilities to the full. He was a very difficult subordinate, because he was convinced that he could do the job better himself. In general, he took disappointments badly, and felt keenly the merest hint of humiliation. He was, on the whole, an excellent superior, protecting even Lieutenant-Colonel Orrok despite his blunder at Assaye. But he had a sharp tongue and a sharper pen, and was not always aware of the pain he inflicted. Nor would he tolerate corruption, dishonesty or the abuse of power. According to Elphinstone, he was ‘a remarkably conscientious man, and has no idea of letting private favour interfere at all with public duty.’

The danger in Wellington biographies is it can feel almost unpatriotic to find fault with him, and although Muir is far less guilty of this kind of thing than most of his predecessors, he still finds it tough not to side with the guy who beat Napoleon. The evening critical notes persist right to the end of this book, but the energy of the accompanying rationalizations increases the closer Wellington gets to apotheosis:

From the day he took command of the army in Portugal in April 1809 to the day that news of Napoleon’s abdication reached him, Wellington took the weight of responsibility for success or failure squarely on his shoulders. A politically controversial figure at home, conducting a campaign that lacked bipartisan support, and with a weak government that would be unable to protect him in the even of failure, he would be held responsible for any defeat whether he was really to blame or not. Never one to suffer in silence he complained vehemently and indiscreetly at the difficult of the position in which he was placed, but it is clear that he relished the responsibility and had no wish to have it lessened by instructions that would limit his discretion. Throughout the Peninsular War he displayed a remarkable confidence and self-sufficiency that sustained him through every difficulty. Whatever the problem, he was confident that he was better able to devise a solution than anyone else, and while he often discussed the state of the war with his personal staff … there was never any suggestion that he looked to anyone for advice.

If you read carefully between the lines of paragraphs like that one (and you’ll have to, since your biographer typically won’t do it for you), it’s possible to piece together an alternate Arthur Wellesley, a vain, prickly, passive-aggressive, dictatorial glory-hound, a callous troop-butcher whose main differences from the tyrant he faced at Waterloo were height and victory, not morals or conscience. And that Wellington is here in Muir’s book as well, in the vast shrubbery of the book-unto-themselves End Notes, in scattered implications, and in the occasional direct rebuke. But although the military campaigns are described with exacting detail, Muir’s skill at conveying the vitality and consequence of the non-military side of Wellington’s life is so great that I finished this great, monumental first volume even more eager for the second, in which a at least a species of Parliamentary cacophony will perforce prevail.