Who was it who said that the thousandth biography of Napoleon will sell more than the first of any 'neglected' second-ranking figure, however significant? Whoever it was, it remains depressingly true, and here are two more biographies of Kitchener - Britain's closest approach to Napoleon in terms of popular acclaim, though not in military genius - to prove that publishers still believe it. Kitchener has never lacked biographies, either in his lifetime or since his death. The last, by the Canadian George Cassar, appeared as recently as 1977. Before that there was Philip Magnus's in 1958 and one by General Ballard in 1930, in addition to the three-volume official life published by his former private secretary, Sir George Arthur, in 1920, a host of shorter studies and several investigations into the circumstances of his death. The present offerings add remarkably little to the body of knowledge about Kitchener already available. Philip Warner's is little more than an opinionated sketch, chatty, anecdotal, unsubstantiated and frequently inaccurate. Trevor Royle's is an altogether more serious book, a thorough, workmanlike biography which must surely have assembled the last possible jot of evidence on the sinking of the Hampshire. Both authors, however, feel it necessary to present their portraits as the solution to an unsolved biographical mystery.
LRB 19 December 1985 | PDF Download