Hats off, but not gloves, for man of taste and ire


May 23, 2003

Alex Danchev regrets a lack of astringency in an otherwise impressive work.

What type of garment is an Anthony Eden?" Major Charles ("Cough Cough") Ingram was asked on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The alternatives were (a) an overcoat, (b) a hat, (c) a shoe, (d) a tie. Typically, the major did not know, but his cougher did, and a grateful nation was reminded of Eden's legacy to the lexicon. D. R. Thorpe, a veritable quizmaster of a biographer, makes the point in a characteristic phrase, with an equally characteristic comparative footnote: "Appearances were the non-deductible, but essential, expenses of political life. Eden, with his film-star looks, was already (in 1929) the glass of fashion and the mould of form, cutting a dashing figure in his elegant suits and Homburg, soon known as the Eden hat... The Duke of Wellington, with his boots, was the only other British prime minister to have given his name to an article of clothing."

Eden was a glamourpuss. He was also a decorated survivor of the Western Front (Captain Eden, like Major Attlee, in his earliest political incarnation, as Thorpe points out); an Oriental linguist - ironically - reading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the original and bandying Arab proverbs with his nemesis Gamal Abdel Nasser on their ill-fated encounter; and a passionate aesthete. At Oxford University, he was a founder member of the Uffizi Society, dedicated to painters and painting, "a club so exclusive that it withered away because eventually nobody was considered worthy of election", as one of its brethren remembered. His paper on Cézanne caused a sensation in the early 1920s for its almost incongruously advanced taste. Eden certainly had taste, whatever his deficiencies in judgement. Contrary to appearances, he was not a rich man but he was a discriminating collector - a 1905 Picasso pencil sketch, a 1939 Braque still- life - and when it came to his own portrait for Christ Church, he pressed for Oskar Kokoschka, only to be disappointed in Sir William Coldstream.

Here, then, was a man of presence and substance. The balance between them, however, is a matter of debate. "There was something of the statesman about him," reflected his colleague Rab Butler, after the fact. "He was a wonderful diplomatist. He listened to all the Sirs at the Foreign Office, and no man could ever wear a grey suit better." The sardonic Butler was not alone in his equivocation. The debate is complicated by a further issue - temperament. Eden majored in temperament. It has been described most kindly as "nervousness", as if highly strung, like a thoroughbred; less kindly as preciousness carried to extreme, "fussing and fidgetingI vain as a peacock with all the mannerisms of the petit maître ". Eden's tantrums were legendary. When the consummate US secretary of state Dean Acheson remarked that "the business of the foreign minister today (1952) was very different from what it was when Lord Palmerston was handling things like this" (a crisis in Iran), he sulked. Often, he exploded. Meeting him for the first time in Gibraltar in 1941, the actor-manager Anthony Quayle made the interesting observation that he seemed like an actor playing the part of Anthony Eden. It was a demanding role - for self and others - and ultimately perhaps an unsustainable one.

For his latest biographer, Eden is not merely a leading man but a great one, and a tragic hero to boot. Thorpe's Eden is the tenth to hit the groaning shelves - and the life is getting longer all the time. Moreover, unusually, this is the second authorised life, commissioned by Eden's widow in 1991, only five years after the appearance of the first. Despite this luxuriant garden of Edens, seeing Anthony plain has always been something of a problem. Eden's unexpected longevity served only to complicate matters. He was a sick man when he was more or less compelled to resign in 1957, after the debcle of Suez, but he lived for another 20 years, stitching together exculpatory memoirs, agreeing a story with the complaisant Selwyn Lloyd ("collusion about collusion", offers Thorpe, with rare astringency), and carefully seeding the ground for his biographer presumptive. Yet the path to posterity did not run smooth. Eden's appointed scribe, John Wheeler-Bennett, predeceased him; Anthony Nicholls honourably withdrew, squeamish about Suez; Martin Gilbert was preoccupied with his doorstop Churchill; and the torch was finally passed to Robert Rhodes James, who delivered an elegy on a life well lived, anchored in his subject's own papers (as Eden would have wished), and crowned by a strangely ambiguous borrowing from Churchill on Curzon: "These heavy reverses were supported after the initial shocks with goodwill and dignity.

But undoubtedly they invested the long and strenuous career with ultimate disappointment. The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, and each was polished till it shone after its fashion."

In the meantime, the biographical equivalent of a smash-and-grab raid had taken place. In 1981 David Carlton published an unauthorised, unorthodox, and unsurpassed investigation into the statesman-in-action throughout his career. Carlton had no privileged access and no private papers; he substituted a certain intellectual remorselessness. The upshot was exactly what Eden had done his level best to avoid: a dangerous book and a damaging reappraisal. "Slowly he pulls a legend to pieces," wrote Nigel Nicolson at the time, "like stripping leaves off an artichoke."

Thorpe, by contrast, likes his artichokes whole. He is a biographer with a weakness for the unpromising subject. Thorpe's subjects are more unpromising than most: the Conservative grandee, the dodo of British politics. His previous efforts on behalf of Selwyn Lloyd and Alec Douglas-Home, respectively foreign secretary and Commonwealth secretary (both ultra-loyalists) during the Suez crisis, lead to some circularity in the referencing of this one, as D. R. Thorpe cites D. R. Thorpe. Yet there is good cause. On constitutional requirement, political process and social form he is a spacious authority; he has mined more private papers than any of his competitors; he has traced more witnesses than Inspector Maigret (there is a lot of "private information", perhaps too much, some of it to be found in other books); he has wrung confidences from Eden's widow, and prised fresh morsels from books and documents still in her possession; he has even persuaded the doctors to disgorge. This is the most deeply researched Eden yet to emerge. As a sourcebook, it is invaluable. As an argument, however, it is a grievous disappointment. For some time, the project of the Eden industry has been a convincing, thoroughgoing revaluation. Nearly half a century after the ignominious end to Eden's political life, that project looks increasingly Utopian. We await the next contender.

In this "life and times" the analytical follow-through is hostage to the ticker-tape progression of the work. Eden's importance - his greatness - is held to reside in the totality of his career before Suez. On that reading, so far from being the dénouement, Suez verges on the extraneous: an intractable problem visited on the white knight as if by a mischievous dramatist, to unhorse him, cruelly, as the curtain falls. Thorpe insists that the life should not be read backwards. The main event is "Facing the dictators" during the later 1930s and the second world war; closely followed by the international negotiations of the early cold war, culminating in Eden's triumph of placation at the Geneva conference on Korea and Indo-China in 1954 (on which Thorpe accepts Eden's own hyperbolic estimation that he averted a third world war). Eden is presented as being vital to the unfolding events of 1935-55, and the unfolding events are presented as being vital to Eden. In a book of events the narrative is frequently strained. "Many unanswerable moral questions were now finding their way to Eden's desk." Some transitions seem abrupt, others bathetic. A section on the botched surgery of 1953 ends with the sombre news that David Astor asked Lord Salisbury for delivery of an immediate obituary for The Observer . The next section begins with Eden's firmly expressed opposition to sponsored television.

Like its subject, Eden lacks a good editor. Small repetitions proliferate. The writing can be admirably pithy ("Churchill busied himself with his own interests - travel, war memoirs, painting, global utterance"); but the stylistic flourishes are a trial ("unlike many of her aristocratic contemporaries, who toiled not, nor span, Clarissa Churchill had made her own way"), and the jolly allusions will baffle anyone under 60 ("The timing of retirement is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish, as Dame Nellie Melba demonstrated on many occasions"). The very idea of a life and times is perhaps a little dated, and there is an air of old-fashioned decency about the book that sits ill with any claim to stringent inquiry.

The treatment of Eden's first marriage is a throwback to an earlier, more euphemistic age, before the semen stain had been invented. "Beatrice Eden became interested in many new friendships and was often absent at this time. Eden, meanwhile, found much consolation in his elder son (Simon)."

Inevitably, "Simon was not Eden's only consolation at this timeI Davina Erne always had a special place in Eden's heart." Neither his aloofness towards the budding Europe nor his condescension towards the US is fully explored. How farsighted was he as a diplomatist? Eden was an honourable man, insists Thorpe; the defence rests.

"The trouble with Anthony Eden," said Harold Macmillan, who slyly superseded him, "was that he was trained to win the Derby in 1938; unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955."

Changing the metaphor, he was too long the crown prince. But that was not the only trouble. Overwrought in life, overwritten in death, Eden was in every sense overpromoted. Omnium consensu , as Thorpe might have said, capax imperii nisi imperasset . That is to say: everyone thought him capable of exercising authority until he tried it.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden

Author - D. R. Thorpe
ISBN - 0 7011 6744 0
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 758

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs