Anthony Eden by Robert Rhodes James (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, f16.95).
WINSTON Churchill's biography of his father, Lord Randolph, was described by Randolph's old friend, Rosebery, as one of the half dozen best biographies "in the language". Robert Rhodes James who, incidentally, wrote biographies of both Rosebery and Randolph Churchill, has now written a life of Anthony Eden, which is certainly one of the six best biographies of a twentieth century Englishman.
Two years ago, in a book about the last eleven prime ministers, I described Anthony Eden as "the gallant gentleman". That description is strongly confirmed in this comprehensive, very searching book. No-one can seriously
question Eden's title to be called a gentleman in every sense of the word, as his Labour opponents refer to him here. His gallantry in peace and war are not likely to be denied even by his detractors to whom, in more cases than one Rhodes James applies the phrase "mystifyingly hostile".
I had not realised, however, just how gallant he was, till I worked through the lengthy series of illnesses and periods of exhaustion recorded here. In spite of all such handicaps, he operated on the highest level of national and international politics for over twenty years till he collapsed over Suez. Rhodes James speculates that if a surgeon had not made a tragic error in 1953 he would have become prime minister in that year, a much fitter man than in the event, and would have been a great success in the job.
To me that is more than doubtful, given his long, record of ill-health. We are told here that he fainted in 1950 at a United Nations Rally. In fact he fainted twice, the second time into my arms. He rose heroically, murmuring to me: "I can't let them down, Frank". After tea he went off to address another meeting. He stayed up talking till late and on the Sunday morning set off to fulfil further engagements.
From them on, if not before, I was always conscious that, to use Rhodes James's phrase, he lived on his nerves. I cannot think that, even apart from Suez, he would have survived the ultimate strains of Downing Street.
Rhodes James has had the priceless advantage for a biographer of Eden of sitting as a junior clerk in the gallery of the House of Commons during the Suez debates. He brings those scenes, and not those scenes only, vividly before us. He tries to say some good words for the Suez operation, but there he is hardly supported by his own text. Nothing apart from Eden's state of health can ever excuse the secret collusion with France and Israel and the falsehoods told to cover it up later.
The author brings out with much skill the complexity of Eden's nature. He leaves us rightly with the impression of an honourable and kindly man, though one who had few friends in politics, and was much more at home with a sympathetic circle.
He does not shrink from referring to Eden's infidelities during his first marriage. The break-up of that marriage is not attributed to faults on one side more than the other. He brings out very movingly the beauty of his second marriage.
He does not hesitate to quote what a close colleague told him about the two Edens: "One was cultivated, highly intelligent, wise, dedicated to his country and calling, kind, generous, and immensely courageous — the best of hosts, great fun and clearly a great man whom it was an honour to know and work for. But then one would meet. someone totally different — bad tempered, unfair, petulant and even petty."
His not infrequent "rages" have been attributed to his eccentric, if highly artistic, father. But Rhodes James leaves it an open question whether his real father was not George Wyndham, to whom he bore a strong physical resemblance and with whom his erratic mother had some kind of intimate relationship.
To me it seems more probably that throughout his career he was pushing himself beyond what nature intended with emotional consequences. It should be added that all who worked with him were astonished at his capacity for hard labour and mastery of diplomatic detail. Rhodes James is no doubt right in arguing that his lack of experience of domestic affairs was one reason for his failure as prime minister.
Eden's upbringing was artistic. All his life he loved the beautiful in pictures and poetry. His own looks aroused much admiration. We are told however that he was, although shortsighted, reluctant to wear
spectacles. As one who suffered from a similar reluctance as a school-boy I have been accustomed to put this down to vanity.
He was a patriot and has generally been regarded as an internationalist. Rhodes James however, concludes that he was the last of the liberal imperialists which would take one back to Rosebery, who lasted at No 10 for an even shorter period than Eden.
If I have to sum Eden up I would adapt something said of President Woodrow Wilson who, like Eden, "went down with the ship". Eden after all stood for human decency. He stood, not always strongly, for human decency. But he stood where it was an honour to stand.