Duff was born in Eden, Banffshire, northeast Scotland, in 1829. He was the son of a well known Indian official in the Bombay Presidency, part of British India, and was named after the Scottish statesman, Mountstuart Elphinstone, who had been governor of Bombay until 1827. Duff was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Balliol College. He studied law at the Inns of Court and was called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1854. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, wrote articles for the Saturday Review, and joined the Liberal Party.
Duff was elected the Liberal MP for Elgin in 1857. Two years later he married Anna Julia Webster, and they would have eight children. In time, they bought York House in Twickenham, and played host to many famous politicians and literary figures. He served with Prime Minister William Gladstone as Under-Secretary of State for India (1868-1874) and as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (1880-1881). But, in 1881, he was appointed Governor of Madras, a position he held until 1886. On returning to Britain, he was knighted. He became, in turn, president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1889 (until 1892) and the Royal Historical Society (1892-1899), after which, in 1903, he became a trustee of the British Museum. He died on 12 January 1906. A little further information is available from Wikipedia, the Twickenham Museum website, or The Times obituary.
Duff began keeping a diary in his late teens, and continued throughout his life. But it was only in his later years that he set about editing them, for publication by John Murray. There are seven books, two volumes each, making 14 volumes, all freely available online at Internet Archive: Notes from a Diary 1851-1872 (volume one and volume two, 1897); Notes from a Diary 1873-1881 (volume one and volume two, 1898); Notes from a Diary, kept chiefly in Southern India, 1881-1886 (volume one and volume two, 1899); Notes from a Diary 1886-1888 (volume one and volume two, 1900); Notes from a Diary 1889-1891 (volume one and volume two, 1901); Notes from a Diary 1892-1895 (volume one and volume two, 1904); Notes from a Diary 1896-January 23, 1901 (volume one and volume two, 1905). A generation later, in 1930, Methuen published A Victorian Vintage: being a selection of the best stories from the diaries of the Right Hon. Sir M. E. G. Duff, as edited by A. Tilney Bassett. Inexpensive copies of this can be found at Abebooks.
In his preface to the first volume of the first book of diary extracts, Duff explains his diary habits and reasons for publishing. In particular, he notes his determination to ensure the published diaries include as little about his work as possible (he having had, as he says, ample other opportunities to state his views on public matters); and he repeats this idea in prefaces to the later two books of diaries.
‘In the year 1847 I determined to keep a diary, and began to do so on my eighteenth birthday, making an entry in it, longer or shorter, for every day that passed over me. It was not, however, till I had continued this practice for something like a quarter of a century, that it occurred to me to read through what I had written. Having done so, I came to the conclusion that I had seen much about which it was desirable I should leave some permanent record, but that the record I possessed would not be intelligible to any one save myself. I extracted from it accordingly all that I thought likely to be interesting to persons whose tastes were similar to my own, threw it into a fairly readable shape [. . .]
It will be observed that I have said very little about the House of Commons, although fifteen of the years included in the portion of my notes now published were passed in that Assembly. I have done so for three reasons: first, because I wished to make these pages as light as possible; secondly, because I was anxious to leave behind me one of the most good-natured books of its kind ever printed, and I apprehend that for a politician to write truthfully of the political struggles in which he has been engaged, without paying to some of the combatants “the genuine tribute of undissembled horror,” would be a hopeless enterprise; thirdly, because I had, during these fifteen years, frequent opportunities of stating my views upon all public matters, in Parliament and out of it, opportunities of which I availed myself pretty freely. [. . .]
To relegate to the background nearly all the more serious part of life, and to ignore every disagreeable person and thing I have come across, would, if I were writing my memoirs, be a very indefensible proceeding. I am not, however, writing my memoirs. Heaven forbid! I am merely publishing some notes on things that have interested me, and this being so, I consider myself quite justified in saying, like the sundial - “Horas non numero nisi serenas.” [I count only the sunny hours.]’
It is worth quoting Arthur Ponsonby (author of English Diaries) on Duff: ‘With the exception of the first two volumes, which concern travels in India and Palestine, the fourteen volumes of diary (1851 to 1901) issued by Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff [. . .] consist for the most part of a vast collection of anecdotes, good stories and memorable sayings, many of which have appeared elsewhere. That he succeeded in making the books “light reading” we may venture to doubt. To flutter a page or two occasionally may help to pass the time, but to read consecutively anecdote after anecdote, epigram after epigram, joke after joke, however good some of them may be, is practically impossible. There are dinner party lists and occasional references to books, a few appreciations of scenery and gardens, but he strictly adheres to his intention of introducing nothing in the way of personal opinions, private reflections or serious matter.’
10 November 1853
‘Mr. Peacock talked to me to-day at much length about Jeremy Bentham, with whom he had been extremely intimate - dining with him tete a tete once a week for years together. He mentioned, amongst other things, that when experiments were being made with Mr. Bentham’s body after his death, Mr. James Mill had one day come into his (Mr. Peacock’s) room at the India House and told him that there had exuded from Mr. Bentham’s head a kind of oil, which was almost unfreezable, and which he conceived might be used for the oiling of chronometers which were going into high latitudes. “The less you say about that, Mill,” said Peacock, “the better it will be for you; because if the fact once becomes known, just as we see now in the newspapers advertisements to the effect that a fine bear is to be killed for his grease, we shall be having advertisements to the effect that a fine philosopher is to be killed for his oil.” ’
7 March 1856
‘Looked over the old betting book at Brooks’s. It is not very interesting, but here and there is a curious entry. On the 11th March 1776, for example, Mr. Charles Fox gave a guinea to Lord Bolingbroke, on the understanding that he was to receive a thousand guineas from him when the National Debt amounted to 171 millions. He was not, however, to pay the thousand guineas till he was a Cabinet Minister. In 1778 he gave Mr. Shirley ten guineas, on the understanding that he was to receive five hundred whenever Turkey in Europe belonged to a European Power or Powers.’
15 February 1858
‘Made my maiden speech, on the second reading of Lord Palmerston’s India Bill.’
2 November 1860
‘A singularly clear and beautiful moonlight night has been followed by a most perfect day. To-night we have the aurora borealis streaming from nearly every part of the sky up to the zenith.’
4 May 1863
‘Gladstone’s great speech on the Taxation of Endowed Charities, which I think, on the whole, the most remarkable I ever heard him make.’
4 April 1864
‘Went down to Brooke House in the Isle of Wight, belonging to Mr. Seely, M.P. for Lincoln, to meet Garibaldi, who had just come to England, and is on a visit to him.
It was a strange miscellaneous party. Menotti Garibaldi [politician son of the famous Giuseppe Garibaldi] and Ricciotti his brother, the latter little more than a boy. [. . .] I had a pretty long talk with Garibaldi, walking up and down a long orchard house full of fruit trees in flower. He spoke English badly but preferred speaking it, although his French was more agreeable to listen to in spite of a strong Italian accent. His conversation did not at all impress me, but he spoke only of trivial subjects. He wore while at Brooke sometimes a grey and sometimes a red poncho.’
15 January 1871
‘Went over from High Elms with Lubbock, Huxley and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to call on Darwin, whom Lowe had never seen since they met as quite young men, on two neighbouring reading parties forty years ago. We stayed as long as it was safe, for a very little too much talking brings on an attack of the violent sickness which has been the bane of the great philosopher’s life. As we returned, Huxley expressed the opinion, which was probably correct, that no man now living had done so much to give a new direction to the human mind. “Ah,” said Lowe, “you think him the top-sawyer of these times.” “ Yes,” said the other.’
16 January 1881
‘Again at High Elms, where my wife has been staying. Talking of the want of young people in our society she said to me to-day: “For goodness’ sake ask some one who belongs, at least, to this geological period!”
Miss Lubbock remarked to Mr. Arthur Balfour, who was sitting between her and me, that she would like to hear Disraeli’s conversation. “You needn’t do that,” he replied. “You have only to imagine a brazen mask talking his own novels.”
In the afternoon we walked up to see Darwin. He has of late been studying earthworms, and said to Lubbock, “You antiquarians ought to have great respect for them; they have done more to preserve tessellated pavements than any other agency. I have ascertained, by careful examination, that the worms on a single acre of land bring up ten tons of dry earth to the surface in a year.” ’
18 January 1881
‘The worst day I ever saw in London, or anywhere else, except when I crossed the Cenis in December 1860. My wife, who was coming up to London from High Elms, was happily sent back by the station-master at Orpington, and only regained the house with great difficulty; the carriage being almost stopped in the deep wreaths of snow.’
8 May 1882
‘I was just starting to breakfast with Bashir-ud-Dowla, the brother-in-law of the Nizam, who is staying at Ootacamund, when a telegram was brought to me. It contained the terrible news of the murder of Frederick Cavendish, and, of course, altered all my arrangements.’
11 May 1882
‘Attended the Wellington races and lunched with my staff, who have a pretty camp near the course. Wild weather, with thunder, rain, hail, and what not, cut short the proceedings, and we drove back in a deluge, accompanied by the largest flashes of lightning I ever beheld. The four horses never shied nor flinched.’
18 May 1882
‘Daud Shah, the late Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan Army, one of the handsomest and most gigantic men I ever saw, dined with us. In the evening, someone showed him a picture of Mecca, in a recent number of the Graphic. He asked, “Where is the Caaba?” And, on its being pointed out to him, lifted it to his forehead and kissed it.’
2 June 1882
‘Our new daughter, born 16th March, was to-day christened Iseult Frederica by Bishop Gell. Her godmothers are Mrs. Greg, the companion of so many of our journeys, associated, too, with our visit to Brittany, the meeting-place of the Iseults, and Lady Malmesbury, the youngest daughter of my old friend John Hamilton. Her godfather is Sir Frederick Roberts.’
2 July 1882
‘I received this morning a cipher telegram from the Viceroy, warning me that we might have to send troops to Egypt. I saw accordingly the Commander-in-Chief, as well as the Military Secretary, and telegraphed to alter the arrangements for my approaching tour, some portions of which, as originally settled, would have taken me too far from the railway.’
11 July 1882
‘Just as the fireworks began at Vellore a telegram, announcing that the bombardment of Alexandria had commenced, was placed in my hands.’
12 July 1882
‘While the municipal address was being read to me this morning at Chittore, a huge elephant, belonging to the Zemindar of Kalastri, a great temporal chief, charged a smaller elephant belonging to the Mohunt or High Priest of Tripaty, thus dis-establishing the church much more rapidly, alas! than we did in Ireland. The stampede of the crowd was a sight to behold. The natives took to the trees like squirrels.’
The Diary Junction.