Obituary of Lord Lytton (1831-1891)
Wednesday, November 25, 1891
Eminent Persons, Biographies reprinted from The Times (London: Macmillan, 1896), V, pages 147-152.
A DISTINGUISHED representative of a distinguished family, Lord Lytton was brilliant in many ways, without attaining to the very first rank in any of the various spheres of action in which he played a prominent part. Future historians will probably explain many of the peculiarities of his character and career by the principles of heredity. The family traces its descent from Sir Robert de Lytton, of Lytton, in the county of Derby, Comptroller of the Household to King Henry IV., and numbers among its members several men who did good service in their time; but the first two who became widely known were the uncle and the father of the peer whose untimely death we record to-day. The uncle was Lord Dalling, whose name is still remembered in Constantinople as an extremely able but somewhat eccentric Ambassador to the Porte from 1858 to 1865; and the father was Bulwer Lytton, the distinguished novelist and dramatist, whose works are so familiar to the elder section of the present generation.
In 1827 the novelist married Rosina Doyle, daughter of Francis Wheeler, Esq., of Lizzard Connell, county Limerick, and of this marriage was born, on 8th November 1831, the man who was to make, like his father, a name for himself in literature, who was to become Viceroy of India, and who has just died at the age of sixty as Ambassador to the French Republic. It is no secret that the relationship between his father and mother were anything but cordial, and that a series of domestic crises ended, not only in a separation, but in a violent, inextinguishable enmity on both sides. It may perhaps be doubted which of the parties in the ill-assorted union was most to blame, but there is no doubt that the domestic discord and the home surroundings in general had an injurious influence on the character and education of the son. It is here that the student of heredity will find ample scope for research and speculation, for the son was in many respects singularly like his father, whilst displaying strongly-marked characteristics of his own, which might, perhaps, be explained by his mother's idiosyncrasies. At an early age he showed symptoms of those cosmopolitan -- some said un-English -- tendencies which became very prominent in after life.
After spending some time at Harrow and subsequently with private tutors, he went to Bonn and devoted himself to the study of modem languages, but he did not go through a regular University course. His studies here, like his studies and pursuits at all periods of his career, had an unsystematic, dilettante character, and were more extensive than profound. What he probably would have liked to do was to saunter leisurely through life, culling the prettiest and most lusciously-scented flowers by the wayside and enlivening the monotony of existence by an occasional outburst of brilliant, spasmodic energy. His pecuniary means, however, did not allow him to enjoy the dolce far niente of the refined scholar. He had to enter a profession of some kind, and he was naturally apprenticed to the one which would enable him to live in foreign countries and indulge at least some of his intellectual tastes. When eighteen years of age he entered the Diplomatic Service, and was at once appointed, under his uncle, Lord Dilling, attaché at Washington. Here he remained about two years, and was then moved about from one post to another, according to the exigencies of the service and the prospects of promotion. The posts at which he resided included Florence, Paris, the Hague, St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Vienna, Copenhagen, Athens, Lisbon, and Madrid, so that he had an opportunity of making close acquaintance with many men and many cities before he reached the zenith of his official career.
It was during this period that Robert Lytton became known as a brilliant and agreeable man of letters under the pseudonym of Owen Meredith. Young diplomatists had in those days less official work than at present, and Owen Meredith loved literature much more than the routine, or even the more interesting studies, of diplomacy. In 1855 he published Clytemnestra, and other Poems; in 1860, Lucile; in 1861, Tannhauser, or the Battle of the Bards; in 1863, The Ring of Amasis; and in 1874, his Fables in Song. His poems are decidedly remarkable both in thought and expression, and are distinguished by great elegance of diction, but they have nothing of the force and originality of a poetic genius of the first order, nor have they any of the sympathetic, homely qualities which sometimes endear a second or third rate poet to a large circle of readers. He had, in fact, a delicate, refined appreciation of poetry rather than a rich vein of poetic originality, and his powers of expression were much greater than his other poetic gifts. That he borrowed largely from other poets is unquestionable, but it is difficult to decide how far his plagiarism was conscious and intentional. In a sensitive, receptive nature like his, there was a strong temptation to absorb and reproduce, half unconsciously, the thoughts of other authors, whom he habitually read and admired. In the later years of his life he did not publish so much, but he continued to write verse, and in 1885 he published a long poem in six books called Glenaveril, which did not add much to his literary reputation.
In 1864 he had married Edith, second daughter of the Hon. Edward Villiers, and niece of the late Earl of Clarendon, and in 1873, on his father's death, he succeeded to the title as the second Baron Lytton. He had at that time reached the rank of First Secretary of Embassy, and, as his private fortune was not sufficient to satisfy his somewhat expensive tastes, he determined to remain in the Diplomatic Service. His diplomatic career, however, was soon to be interrupted. In January 1876 Mr. Disraeli looked for a Viceroy of India after his own heart, who would pursue con amore an energetic, forward policy in an Imperialistic spirit, with a certain pyrotechnic display for the purpose of obtaining popular applause. For such a policy Lord Lytton seemed to him an admirable instrument. If the author of Tancred had become a successful Prime Minister of England, why should not Owen Meredith, with his lively imagination and his keen sympathy with the pomp and pageantry of the gorgeous East, make a successful Viceroy of India? In any case the experiment seemed to be worth making, and the cautious, hard-working, methodical Lord North brook was replaced by the showy young diplomatist and littérateur. The significance of this change soon became apparent.
Before the new Viceroy had been a year in India -- on 1st January 1877 -- a magnificent durbar, to which all the princes and notables of India had been invited, was held at Delhi, and there, with a ceremonious pomp surpassing probably anything that had ever taken place in the days of the Mogul Emperors, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. But it was not merely in matters of ceremonial display that the new régime manifested itself. The prestige of British rule in India was to be raised not only by the creation of the Imperial title, but also by the extension of British influence beyond the frontier. The direction chosen was to the north-east. In Afghanistan the Ameer Shere Ali had shown a spirit of insubordination, if not of positive hostility. He had refused to receive a permanent British Agent in Cabul, and he was known to be coquetting on the other side with the Russian authorities in Central Asia. The Cabinet of St. Petersburg had agreed, in 1873, to regard Afghanistan as beyond the sphere of Russian influence, but it chose to consider that agreement as invalidated by the hostile attitude of England during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, and, in reply to the bringing of Indian troops to Malta, it despatched a mission under General Stolietof to Cabul. Shere Ali, who was embittered by his failure to obtain a British guarantee for his Sovereignty and family succession, and who was now being pressed to receive in his capital an unwelcome permanent diplomatic representative from Calcutta, determined to resist what he regarded as British aggression by leaning on Russian support. General Stolietof was accordingly received with all honour at Cabul, and Sir Neville Chamberlain with a British mission was turned back at the frontier. Such a rebuff could not be tolerated by a Viceroy who was expected to raise British prestige all over the East. War was therefore declared, and the campaign was at first remarkably successful.
Before a few weeks had passed, the Ameer had fled from Cabul with the Russian mission, and within six months from the commencement of operations the Treaty of Gandamak was signed. By that Treaty the frontier was rectified in accordance with Anglo-Indian interests, a British resident in Cabul was accepted, and the foreign relations of Afghanistan were subjected to English control. So far all had gone well, and Lord Lytton had reason to congratulate himself on the success of his energetic "forward" policy. Then came a change. The Treaty of Gandamak was signed in May 1879, and on 3rd September of the same year, the Resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his whole escort were massacred in Cabul, within a few yards of the house in which the new Ameer was sitting, inactive and apparently indifferent. Immediately an avenging force was despatched under General, now Sir Frederick, Roberts and fulfilled its mission; but the whole country rose against the invader, and the British troops could not be withdrawn till July 1880, when Abdurrahman Khan, the present Ameer, was placed on the throne.
Thus Lord Lytton's policy might be regarded on the whole as successful, but the political results were not considered as at all in proportion to the sacrifices of blood and treasure, and the defeat of the British force at Maiwand made a deeper impression on the English public than the previous and subsequent victories. For the present, therefore, Lord Lytton's Afghan policy is pretty generally condemned, and there is no doubt that during the war very grave blunders were committed --strategical, political, and financial -- but it would be hazardous to assert that posterity will confirm the condemnatory verdict. Regarding Lord Lytton as an administrator there is less scope for diversity of opinion. Though he could sometimes cause astonishment and admiration among his subordinates by the brilliancy and by the intuitive talent of his spasmodic efforts, be was incapable of prolonged systematic exertion, and his previous training had not prepared him for administrative work. He had no special talent for selecting the best instruments, nor the patience and perseverance required to control them when selected. Even as the upholder of British prestige in India, he cannot be regarded as a success. Though he had the Oriental love of display and an artistic eye for theatrical effects, he had not the calm, stately dignity which impresses Orientals, nor did he possess all the qualities which command respect among his own countrymen. His Viceroyalty naturally came to an end with the Beaconsfield Cabinet, and Lord Ripon was sent out by the Gladstone Government to undo much that had been done by his predecessor.
For seven years after his retirement from the Viceroyalty of India Lord Lytton lived as a private individual in England, taking part occasionally in the debates which specially interested him in the House of Lords, but making no effort to attain an important position in English political life. His tastes lay rather in the direction of diplomacy and residence abroad, and they were gratified by his appointment as Ambassador in Paris in 1887. During the four years that he held this post he has proved that in an important diplomatic position and in a genial atmosphere he could display diplomatic qualities of a very high order. If we have maintained, under a Government strongly suspected of pro-German proclivities, more cordial relations with France than we did even under previous Cabinets which had a decidedly Gallophil tendency, it is to the sympathetic personality, sound judgment, and habitual tact of Lord Lytton that the result is mainly to be attributed.
Last revised: 26 August 2010