Obituary of Lord Lytton (1831-1891)
The Spectator (London) 67 (November 28, 1891), p751

[] Notes that a paragraph was not indicated in the original but has been inserted here to ease reading.

LORD LYTTON'S death is a regrettable event, not because of his personality, but because of the extreme difficulty of refilling adequately a post of supreme im­portance which he filled fairly well. The Embassy to Paris is, of all foreign appointments in the gift of the Crown, the one on which the interests of the Empire most depend. Victorious or defeated, France is always with us, can always worry us, and is always, from her geographical position and the susceptibilities of her rulers, potentially our most formidable foe. Those rulers, too, cannot be managed successfully in ordinary times by a mere man of business, or even by a man who, like Sir William White, possesses unusual resources of capacity and decision. They require a man who understands them, and whom they understand, who can influence them by his manner and wit as well as by his arguments, who is popular in society, and who, above all, never arouses by his British disagreeableness the strange readiness of Frenchmen to feel affronted. They grow irritated even at eagerness, while a domineering Ambassador of the Lord Stratford de Redcliffe type might in any unlucky moment elicit, if not a declaration of war, a threat of making one.

[] Lord Dufferin and Ava is perhaps the one diplomatist now in the service who is perfectly qualified for the post, who, while defending the interests of England, can seem almost a Frenchman among Frenchmen, and that whether his opponents spring from the Faubourg, or belong, like most of the French Ministers of our day, to the new couche sociale. Lord Dufferin, however, we almost fear, is tired of work, and will be reluctant to accept even the Blue Ribbon of the service. We are unable to believe that Lord Lytton, had a grave crisis occurred, would have been a safe Ambassador in Paris, for the vein of rashness in his character, which once in India nearly produced a grand disaster, always came out at the supreme moment; but in time of peace, or of mere diplomatic friction, he did his work admirably well. He was in many respects an Irishman of the bright kind, with a temperament inherited from his typically Irish mother, very witty if you gave him a moment to think, a good judge of all characters but the English, and exquisitely perceptive as to an opponent's meaning; he could hold his own with Frenchmen without ruffling their sensitive self-love, and frequently smoothed away difficulties which might have developed into quarrels. His personal charm is denied by no one, and seems so exquisite to M. de Blowitz, who is extra-experienced in diplomatic personages, that, with quite wondrous naiveté, he on account of it pardons Lord Lytton in public for not asking him to dinner. On the edge of a war we should have deeply distrusted Lord Lytton; but on the edge of peace, which is the usual British position towards France, he was as effective a diplomatist, perhaps, as Lord Salisbury could have found, more especially as it was a point in his complex nature that he would obey distinct orders without spoiling them on account of his own distaste.

Partially successful as a great diplomatist, as a great executive chief Lord Lytton was a failure. We doubt if a diplomatist ever will quite succeed as Viceroy of India, unless, as in Lord Dufferin's case, his most important duty is of the kind with which diplomatists are most familiar. The hundred and fifty great executive orders which a Viceroy must issue every week, tax all but men who are either born or trained administrators, a little too severely. Lord Lytton was singularly ill-fitted for such a task as falls to the Viceroys. He had no administrative habit; he could not understand the extremely able but dullish men who, as a rule, rise to the head of the great Indian departments, and who invariably fail in English Parliamentary life; and he had a genuine love for creating a theatrical impression which was always leading him astray.

[] He fancied that Orientals admired this, misconceived their child-like fondness for pomp on great occasions as a feeble fondness for display, and forgot that their ideal rulers, men like Omar, and Akbar, and Sivajee, and Runjeet Singh, rulers who live in tradition, have been men of marked simplicity of demeanour, and even ostentatious ordinari­ness of life. "Jan Larenz," who would receive a great noble in his pyjamahs, was a far more terrible figure in their eyes than Lord Lytton, about whom Lord Beaconsfield made one of his few mistakes. A genius himself, though with iridescence rather than fire, Lord Beaconsfield was always looking for genius, and because Lord Lytton was many-sided and of a quick decision, he fancied that he had found one. In reality, he had only found a man who on many sides was almost a genius, but who never quite passed on any one of them the dividing-line which separates genius from talent.

[] Except perhaps in a few verses of rather profound reflection, Lord Lytton's poetry is essentially imitative, and he cannot be placed above the second, or even the third rank. He had a lively fancy, and an ear for melody; but the gift which makes the great poet, the gift of smelting concentrated thought into harmony, had not been granted to Lord Lytton. His despatches are full of the most lucid English, and of that literary flavour which, though one or two first-rate men like Canning have used it, second-rate statesmen are so apt to mistake for force.

[] Even his diplomatic insight failed him when he had to deal with masses of hard and, to himself, unknown facts. He could comprehend a Frenchman, but not an Afghan. His whole idea of reducing Afghanistan to a dependency, which was the key of his Indian "policy," was founded on an illusion as to the character of the people and the ascendency of the Ameer, which the murder of Sir Louis Cavagnari at once revealed to the remainder of the world. That murder roused at once Lord Lytton's personal pride and his instinct for theatric display; and he insisted on a sudden and dramatic vengeance, the march to Cabul at a few hours' notice of a corps d'armée which was not ready for war in any one respect, and which the Afghans would infallibly have cut to pieces, as they very nearly did the well-appointed force which wiser heads, after a fierce though secret conflict with the Viceroy, at last obtained permission to prepare. His rage was perfectly natural and justifiable, and he did ultimately take good counsel; but India requires the government of a cool mind, and Lord Lytton's was only a coruscating one.

[] He was, in truth, in spite of some considerable powers and a great many engaging qualities, a light-minded man, who could only have been great in a Continental Court, under a passed-away regime. Louis XIV would have promoted Lord Lytton with all his heart, have pardoned every eccen­tricity, and have covered his mistakes with the magnanimity which, as he regarded every agent as part of himself, was perhaps the most natural, as it was certainly the most admirable, outcome of the "Great King's" superb egotism.

We dare say Lord Lytton's friends, and he had a good many, will set down the depreciatory criticisms passed in this country on his career, as due to the British incapacity to understand many-sided, and what may be called gay natures, when they are in high position. There is some truth in the defence, for there is a weakness of that sort in the British mind, and we are not sure but it increases. We can fancy that Mr. Canning would today be looked on askance as Foreign Minister, and are quite certain that Lord Melbourne would never be regarded as a fitting candidate for the Premiership. There is a distrust of the men of "parts" which in the last century would have been regarded with amazement, a distrust which extends even to the fact that a man is witty. Mr. Balfour's one defect in the eyes of many of his followers, is a certain lightness of temper which is by no means lightness of mind; and Lord Salisbury has lost more support by his sardonic humour than by any occasional traces of old Conservatism.

[] The change from the last century in this respect is most marked, and even from the time when Lord Palmerston’s jocularity added distinctly to his hold over the popular imagination. We suppose its cause is, in the main, the decay all over the world of aristocratic ascendency, and the consequent rise to power classes which take everything, if possible, a little too seriously; but there is another reason too. There is a distinct increase in the horror of disaster, in this instance of the democracy that their agents shall avoid anything in the nature of scenic failure. The French despair at the blunders in Tonquin would have been inconceivable to the men who surrounded Louis XVI; while our own agitation at the trumpery reverse in Muneepore would have struck the contemporaries of Clive as rather despicable weakness. Even the steady German mind grows excited by little disasters in Eastern Africa; while King Humbert, it is said, regards his position in regard to Abyssinia, and the consequent popular annoyance, as the one evidence of Signor Crispi's incapacity. Much of this is due to better, and above all quicker information, which enables the democracy to act, and much to the intermittent but growing horror of any sacrifice of life; but the principal cause is the increasing sense of the complexity of affairs.

[] Nobody can quite see the full consequences of anything, and everybody sees that events are much interlinked, the consequence being a demand for "safe" men, which inevitably produces a supply. That demand is not altogether favourable to the production of rulers with positive genius, for they will rarely walk only on beaten paths; but as a compensation it is fatal to the men, so full of parts and so wanting in judgment, who swarmed in the eighteenth century, as they are said to swarm today in Russia, and among whom, if we were collecting a gallery of historic portraits, we should be inclined to place Lord Lytton.

Last revised: 26 August 2010