Page 6, 9th September 1983

9th September 1983
Page 6
Page 6, 9th September 1983 — Fortune favours the last

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Fortune favours the last

bold knight of Europe

The Man who was Greenmantle. A Biography of Aubrey Herbert by Margaret Fitzlierbert, (John Murray, f15).

"AUF1REY lived in high romance. Every girl was a poem to him and to most of them he wrote one. He simmered and bubbled and boiled over with enthusiasm, for whatever Aubrey had in his head he made at least a phrase, sometimes an epigram, often some verses. He delighted in words as some women in jewels, but he did not keep them, as most jewels are kept, for great occasions. All his thoughts were open and at our service, he had no reserve with those he liked; and because his mind was singularly original and fertile, as well as romantic, there was no resisting the charm of his conversation. His activities were abreast of his knightly imagination".

L. E. Jones wrote this, and it is a neat precis of this biography, allowing that the last sentence necessarily expands to fill half its pages. Almost totally blind from birth, Aubrey Herbert had a perfect ear for languages. This, and his enormous sense of chivalry made the Balkan states irresistible to him. He espoused the cause of Albania with particular devotion, finding the Albanian Beys exactly like English squires. This response was reciprocated. They offered him the throne of Albania, which he only refused because he was not rich enough.

John Buchan, describing him as a sort of survivor from Cl usading times, used him as the hero of Greentnantle. and none of the gaudy adventures depicted in that romantic thriller are a least exaggeration of Aubrey's original exploits:—

"He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before. The Arabs let him pass, for they thought him stark mad and argued that the hand of Allah was heavy enough on him without their efforts. He's bloodbrother to every kind of Albanian bandit. Also he used to take a hand in Turkish politics and got a huge reputation."

Indeed, the Turkey of the 1900s was still the old Byzantium, although while this last knight of Europe was taking his weapons from the wall the Sultan, far from laughing, was hiding in a darkened room, incongruously reading Conan Doyle.

All his adult life, much as he loved his friends and family, Aubrey would, after a period of English domesticity, feel obliged to escape from "niggling conformism to people who really arc ready to sacrifice all they have for their Creed." In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre one Faster "he found himself in the centre of the contending groups, Latin, Greek and Armenian, who were beating each other with crosses, sticks and icons". How bored he would have been by the present mild manners of ecumenism.

Aubrey Herbert fought all through the Great War, and his diaries and letters recount the slaughter and disillusionment of Anzac and Mons with the same revulsion as many of his contemporaries.

He sat in the House of Commons and continued with the Balkan involvement. But malaria and typhoid had weakened his health. His sight failed completely and, in the tradition of true romantic heroes, he was spared even middle age, dying, of bad medical advice. at the age of 43.

Margaret FitzHcrbert explains that the writing of her grandfather's life was only eptrusted to what she diffidently describes as her "unscholarly and amateur" care because the big guns among biographers either died or turned it down. It was a most fortunate turn of Fate. Professional biographers are like actors reading poetry, not by any means the right people for the job.

Margaret FitzlIerbert's handling of what must have been a formidable bulk of family papers and historical research cannot be faulted. She is

articulate. funny and wonderfully stylish without ever overstepping her role a\s narrator. With this first book she strides to the front rank of contemporary literature.

Margaret Lucy

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