by Philip Guedalla. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1927. 8vo. xvi+498 pp. Illus. $5.00.
LORD PALMERSTON is an admirable subject for Mr. Guedalla’s pen. His life covered eighty of the most momentous years in England’s development, and for fifty-eight of those years he had an important hand in that development. Probably no other statesman of the modern world has retained power through such fundamental changes as Palmerston witnessed: ‘His life unites an almost legendary past to our own time . . . his first diplomatic duels were fought with Talleyrand and Metternich, his last with Mr. Lincoln and Prince Bismarck.’ Through it all he managed to remain generally true to his principles — eighteenth-century principles! — and yet never became an anachronism, politically or socially. He seemed to have eternal political youth; as Mr. Guedalla says, ‘it was his secret.’
Academic historians are prone to regard events and tendencies as inevitable, granted certain material factors, and to minimize the personalities involved. The career of Lord Palmerston is an eternal reminder that most of the ‘ inevitable ’ events of history were made so only because of the influence exerted by some individual man. On this ground, as well as on many others, the present volume is a complete justification for the biographical approach to history. Palmerston seems much closer to the events of our own day, too, when we remember that, as a result of his support of Belgium’s struggle for liberty in 1830, he committed England to a policy and subsequently to a treaty which, in 1914, made her participation in the war a certainty. ‘The real policy of England,’ he said, ‘. . . is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that policy with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done.’ This is the old idea of ‘balance of power,’ altered just enough to make it palatable to Victorian England, but fundamentally much the same as it was when Cardinal Wolsey first put it to practical use. In a speech before the House in 1844, Palmerston indicated how this policy should be carried out: ‘We ought to teach the weaker Powers to hope that they will receive the support of this country in their time of danger. Powerful countries should be taught to fear that they will be resisted by England in any unjust acts either towards ourselves or towards those who are bound in terms of amity with us.'
In a brief review it is impossible to give any idea of the vividness of Mr. Guedalla’s character delineation or of the skillful manner in which he traces the connection between Palmerston’s character and the government in which he was so powerful an influence. Mr. Guedalla is least happy in his first two chapters. While he has laudably concealed, as he tells us he tried to do, the ‘apparatus of research,’ he has not been so successful in concealing his striving for ‘atmosphere.’ In the beginning, too, be seems a little conscious of his style, — it is almost too studied, —and there are several irritating repetitions of a striking phrase or word. In the second half of the book, however, he gets into his stride and it is difficult to overpraise him.
Many people were a little disappointed in Mr. Guedalla’s first important historical work; some feared, too, that the excessive praise with which the Second Empire was greeted would produce in its promising author a feeling of complacency that would interfere with the full development of his talents. His Palmerston proves those fears to have been groundless, for it is an enormous advance, both in method and in historical penetration, over the earlier volume. Furthermore, Mr. Guedalla’s brilliant, witty style has mellowed; it has fewer mannerisms and is more nearly attuned to its subject. Of the Palmerston it is hardly too much to say that no more delightful historical study has appeared in this generation.