To be thought a good man, it is always useful to cultivate a good myth. The TLS this week looks at mythmakers from the City of London to the Vatican and from General de Gaulle to Napoleon.
How good a man, for example, was the mid-20th-century London banker Sir Siegmund Warburg, the subject of Niall Ferguson’s much-praised new biography? Tim Congdon takes issue with the virtuous reputation of a man who he sees as being “lionized” by his biographer in an attempt to highlight Warburg's ethical superiority to the City slickers and shysters of today. Congdon, a longtime monetary economist and adviser to Conservative governments, is unconvinced by the noble case, judging Ferguson naïve about the low tricks that have ever been at the heart of high finance, and too keen “to see in them a public benefit that is not and never was there.” This argument may run and run.
The Myths of Charles de Gaulle
Richard Vinen is intrigued by two new books on General de Gaulle and, in particular, the light they shed on the differing reputations of Churchill and Napoleon, too. De Gaulle, he points out, had to achieve his personal mythology before he achieved any of his own victories; Napoleon needed mythmaking when his victories were long behind him. Churchill’s memoirs are treated in Britain as a source of facts and are found wanting by historians as a result; de Gaulle’s are published in France alongside Gide and Proust as “a kind of fiction” and are venerated accordingly. The books under review are Jonathan Fenby's The General and Sudhir Hazareesingh's Le Mythe Gaullien.
Saint Cardinal Newman?
As British Catholics await the pope’s visit in September, during which he will beatify the influential English cardinal, John Henry Newman, there is much discussion of whether the virtues displayed by the author of Apologia Pro Vita Sua will in time boost his own mythology still further? Is a formal declaration of sainthood the imminent next step. Anthony Kenny, reviewing a biography subtitled The Reluctant Saint, praises Newman’s prose style and intellectual power, while dismissing briskly as “absurd” the notion, popularized in the media, that he was ever homosexually active. Bernard Manzo examines the paradox of Newman as the literary man who instinctively preferred reading and writing tales of dreams to becoming a part of one himself. Newman considered Scripture to be a “record of an idea that lived in its fullness in the minds of the Apostles.” The letters of St. Paul were “literature in a real and true sense,” comparable in the cardinal’s mind to great Greek plays and the most powerful political speeches.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.