Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wellington: A Personal History (Book #105)

When I met Bernard Cornwell earlier this year at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, I asked his advice on researching the Duke of Wellington. He advised me to start with Christopher Hibbert's 1997 biography, Wellington: A Personal History, and so it's my research book for December. (I make sure I read at least one research book per month, even if I don't need it for my current project, just to help keep my imagination's wells filled.)

Wellington is a fascinating figure, and for the most part Hibbert lets him speak for himself without editorializing, using narrative to weave together Wellington's words and correspondence and the memories of those who knew him. I was more interested in events before 1815 than after, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of British history 1815-1850 than I did before reading this book. Whether I'll ever do anything with that knowledge I don't know, but at least it's there to be drawn upon now.

I find Wellington alternately admirable and infuriating. He was a great general, probably one of the best ever, with the (IMO) rare combination of attentiveness to practical, everyday details and a flexible, quick-thinking intelligence on the battlefield. He was pragmatic, well-read, and wonderfully snarky, all qualities I appreciate. But he was a man of his time and class, and I can't read his opinions on topics like the Irish, parliamentary reform, or the general worth of the "lower orders" without wanting to go back in time and scream at him. I mean, my ancestry could hardly be more common, and it's hard not to get angry at someone who would've deemed me not worthy of education or a voice in choosing my government.

I do cut historical figures--and, indeed, my living elders--a certain amount of slack for being people of their times. And I can't help liking Wellington despite his conservatism, because I'm so drawn to his intelligence and all that delightful snark. But I don't completely forgive them. Where would the world be without people able to step outside of the bounds of their time, place, and class and see the world as it OUGHT to be?

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