January 11, 1859: George Nathaniel Curzon is born, the eldest son of a baron from Derbyshire. His family had lived on the place he was born since at least the late 13th Century.
The arc of Curzon’s life and career is in many ways almost emblematic of the late-Victorian nobility. He never got along with his father. His childhood appears to have been blighted by conflict with his governess. He was brilliant; so much so, in fact, that nationally prominent politicians took an active interest in and asked after his examination results when he was a mere school-boy at Eton. He studied at Oxford, where his brilliance won him powerful connections. His fellow students composed a bit of doggerel about him:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon./I am a most superior person./My face is pink, my hair is sleek;/I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
And that about sums up the reactions he was to inspire among his contemporaries all his life long. He really was that brilliant, but he wore his mental accomplishments about as poorly as it was possible to do. Gratuitous offense seems to have been nearly a compulsion.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s he travelled extensively throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. Unlike most of his social peers, he seems genuinely to have been fascinated by the places and people he encountered, and to have expended a tremendous amount of energy actually to understand them, their history, their societies, and the worlds in which they lived. Being a Most Superior Person, he wrote copiously about his travels and observations. At least at the time, his books were the most detailed and accurate assessments of the places he went available to the Western world. In short, over the course of his years spent in the area, he made himself by a wide margin among the best-informed public men on the challenges arising from those parts of the world.
That degree of comprehension was not unimportant, either, because of who he was. In 1885 he had become assistant private secretary to Lord Salisbury, one of the dominant forces in British politics for most of the last 20 years of the Victorian era. Curzon entered the Commons in 1886, and promptly began to display those personality traits that had made him so admired and disliked at Oxford.
Curzon became the last of Victoria’s Viceroys of India. In many ways he was an ideal choice, because he actually cared about the place and its peoples. In many ways he was a disastrous choice because of his tendency towards self-importance, condescension, and contempt for those who disagreed with him. As is true of anything at all complicated, India was a breeding ground for issues over which reasonable people could have disagreed in good faith. It was Curzon’s misfortune that among the people with whom he could disagree was numbered the Earl Kitchener. Of Khartoum. One of the most politically connected and savvy operators in late-Victorian Britain. He and Curzon never got along, and in their fight over control and organization of the Indian army, Curzon never really had a chance. Kitchener ran rings around him, and eventually maneuvered him into a position where resignation was all that was left.
Curzon’s private life was likewise unfortunate. Like Randolph Churchill he married American money. Twice, in fact. His first wife, whom he loved dearly and lost tragically young, was from Chicago. His second, with whom he fell out and from whom he separated, was from Alabama. With his first wife he had three daughters two of whom later got themselves mixed up with (one of them married eventually) Oswald Mosley, the former far-left radical and later head of the British fascist party. Curzon’s second wife also had an affair with him. Curzon later spent his daughter’s money restoring (here my memory fails me) a home, whether Curzon’s own or the castle he bought in 1916 I can’t recall.
His later political career was marked by repeated disappointment as he was over-ruled while foreign secretary and later passed over for prime minister. Once more he does not seem to have enjoyed good relations with his colleagues.
It’s been a few years now, but there’s a very good biography of Curzon which I am pleased to possess. It’s a wonderful look at a profoundly troubled person, one whose tragic flaw (he was sharp enough to realize how talented he was, but he just took himself so seriously that he repulsed those who might have assisted him to realize his abilities) forever undercut him.
Contemplating Curzon one cannot help recall another fellow who even while a schoolboy was widely thought of as The Anointed One, who was just destined for the highest office. This boy was told from his days in rompers that he was meant to be president. Like Curzon, from a very young age he moved in extremely influential circles, and all the while he was told how brilliant he was. Like Curzon he was famously dismissive of anyone with whom he disagreed. Unlike Curzon, however, he really wasn’t very talented at all. But like Curzon he took himself way too seriously; he actually believed all he was told about himself. And like Curzon he was denied his foretold destiny, by o! so wafer-thin a margin.
On one point of distinction, the career of Al Gore, Jr. and George Nathaniel Curzon are completely different. Curzon never sold out his country, while Algore took a half-billion dollar payoff from his country’s sworn enemies. And of course, after being denied what he had all along been told was his by right, he chose to become a charlatan, peddling bogus “science” to enrich himself.