Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Seventy wax matches

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was born 170 years ago today. A famous breeder of Arab horses, a notorious womaniser, and a fierce anti-imperialist, he was also an interesting diarist, though the public had to wait more than 50 years following his death for revelations about his many affairs. A century ago today - the diaries reveal simply - Blunt was celebrating his 70th birthday with family, and being given a cake holding seventy wax matches.

Blunt was born in 1840 into an old Sussex family at Petworth House, but his father died when he was only two, and his mother when he was 15. Thereafter, he was educated at Stonyhurst and Oscott, before entering the diplomatic service aged 18. For more than a decade, he served in several European capitals and South America, adopting a self-styled Byronic image, and taking full advantage of his single status in privileged society. He had love affairs wherever he went, and sometimes published poetry about them.

In 1869, Blunt left government office, and married Lady Anne Noel, Byron’s granddaughter in fact. Within a couple of years, he had inherited family estates, not least the one at Crabbet Park. In 1873, Anne gave birth to Judith, their only child who survived past infancy. The Blunts travelled frequently, and lived much in the Middle East, often moving around on horseback together. With pure bred Arab stallions imported from the Middle East, they set up a stud farm at Crabbet Park which would become internationally famous, and survive nearly a century. Wikipedia says ‘at least 90% of all Arabian horses alive today trace their pedigrees in one or more lines to Crabbet horses’.

Aged around 40, Blunt started to become increasingly outspoken on international issues, taking a firm anti-imperialist stance, opposing British rule in Egypt, and British policy in the Sudan and sympathising with Muslim aspirations. He propagated his ideas in books such as The Future of Islam and Ideas about India. In 1888, he even served a term in prison for championing Irish home rule and defying the then Irish chief secretary, Arthur Balfour. (Later on, it is said, Blunt was to get his revenge on Balfour by seducing and making pregnant his own cousin, Mary Elcho, who happened to be a very close friend and confidant of Balfour.)

Blunt’s high-handed ways and constant infidelities (several of them long-term and with society women), however, eventually led, in 1906, to an acrimonious separation from his wife. Blunt claimed they had been reconciled by the time of her death in 1917, but afterwards there was a bitter lawsuit over the ownership of the stud which Blunt eventually lost to Judith, his daughter. His own death came in 1922. There is more biographical information at Wikipedia, The Fitzwilliam Museum website, and Aisha Bewley’s website on Islamic topics.

Among his various talents, Blunt was also a diarist of some repute. My Diaries: Being a Personal Narrative of Events 1888-1914 was published in two volumes just before his death in 1921 by Martin Secker. But earlier, he had used extracts from his diaries in political books such as The Secret Occupation of Egypt (1907), India under Lord Ripon (1909), and Gordon at Khartoum (1911). However, some of his diary material also contained highly personal revelations - particularly about his affairs - and this was not opened to the public (by The Fitzwilliam Museum which holds the manuscripts) until 50 years after his death, in 1972. Thereafter, in 1979, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published Elizabeth Longford’s biography - A Pilgrimage of Passion - based on the full range of his diaries.

Here is the very first diary entry in India under Ripon - A Private Diary published by T Fisher Unwin, London, in 1909, the full text of which is available at Internet Archive. George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (born at 10 Downing Street, the second son of Prime Minister Frederick John Robinson) held many government posts, but was Viceroy of India from 1880 to 1884

12 September 1883
‘Left home by the 10 o’clock train, and spent the day in London. A letter had come from Eddy Hamilton by the morning’s post asking to see me before I went abroad, and I went to Downing Street at one o’clock, Mr Gladstone is away yachting, and Eddy is acting Prime Minister, and a very great man. I had not been to Downing Street since last year - just upon a year ago - when I went to ask for Arabi’s life. Eddy was extremely amiable this time, and asked me what I was going to do in the East. I told him my plans exactly - that I was going first to Egypt, and should call on Baring and, if I found him favourably disposed, should propose to him a restoration of the National Party, but if he would not listen I should go on to Ceylon and India; that I could not do anything in Egypt without Baring’s countenance, for the people would not dare to come to speak to me; but, if Baring would help, I thought I could get the Nationalist leaders elected at the elections - all depended on the action of our officials.

Also as to India - that I had no intention of exciting to rebellion; that I should go first to Lord Ripon, then to Lyall, and afterwards to the provinces; that the subjects I wished principally to study were the financial condition of the country, that is to say, to find out whether our administration was really ruining India, and to ascertain the views of the natives with regard to Home Rule. Of both these plans Eddy seemed to approve, said that Baring would be sure to wish to see me, and listen to all I had to say, and, though he did not commit himself to anything very definite about the rest, did not disapprove. With regard to India, he said he would write to Primrose, Lord Ripon’s private secretary, to show me all attention; so on the whole I am highly satisfied with my visit.

I had some talk with Eddy about Randolph Churchill. He said that my connection with him in Egyptian affairs did me harm, but I don’t believe that, and I look upon Churchill as quite as serious a politician as the rest with whom I have had to deal. On Egypt I think he is sincere, because he has an American wife, and the Americans have always sympathized with freedom there. I believe, too, that he is at a turning point in his character, and means to have done with mere random fighting, and we both agreed that he has a career before him. For my own part I like Churchill. He does not affect any high principles, but he acts squarely.’

And here is a diary extract from exactly a century ago today (taken from My Diaries: Being a Personal Narrative of Events 1888-1914)

17 August 1910
‘My birthday of seventy, which I am spending at Clouds [a country house designed by Philip Webb and built 25 or so years earlier for the Wyndhams, in Wiltshire, to whom Blunt was related], a long and delightful day; also and on this I pride myself, I was able with my cup and ball to catch it on the point nine times out of twelve, which shows that my eyesight is not failing. In the evening we had the traditional birthday cake with the children, lighting it up with seventy wax matches. Guy’s boys amuse me. George, a boy of sixteen, still at Wellington School, but has grown a slight moustache and affects the way of a young man. He is very good-looking, and spends most of his time with the servants in the pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where he talks nonsense to the maids and helps footmen to clean the knives, smoking a briar pipe with twist tobacco, the most horrible stuff. Upstairs he has a fine assurance with pronounced opinions, as a man of the world. He is to go into the Foreign Office, and seems to have an amusing career before him. Dick, the younger, is of a strict scaramouch type, cleverer but less good-looking. [Dick Wyndham was the father of Joan Wyndham, a noted 20th century diarist who died recently in 2007]. Olivia is an audaciously pretty girl of thirteen, also with a career of pleasure before her, ready for all possible wickedness in a wicked world. They spent the day making a grand pic-nic with the servants and governesses to Pertwood on the Downs, where they had sack and three-legged races and all sorts of boisterous fun, of which Dick, who dined at table, gave us a naive account.’

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