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Lord Salisbury's World. Conservative Environments in Late-Victorian Britain
Michael Bentley
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
£29.95, 334 pages, ISBN 0-521-44506-X (hardback).

Alain Lauzanne
Université de Rouen

Lord Salisbury's World by Michael Bentley is not a conventional biography of Queen Victoria's Prime Minister, but is a portrait of the mental world inhabited by the Conservatives in the second half of the nineteenth century, a method the author presents in his introduction: 'Rather than begin with the birth of Lord Robert Cecil and end with the death of the third Marquis of Salisbury, we step sideways and look askance at the whole trajectory, now from one direction, now from another, thinking as we go about Salisbury's relationship to a particular environment and blatantly ignoring some other aspects that a biographer might deem de rigueur' (5). Bentley has endeavoured to present not only a Tory politician but also the world in which he lived: 'For much of the time, therefore, Salisbury holds the centre of the stage, but the subject of the book is the stage itself and the distinctive set on which on which other actors have walk-on roles or supporting parts' (6).

The first two chapters are about time and space. Bentley presents the family background as well as Salisbury's childhood and youth, during which death was a faithful companion. The analysis of Salisbury's conception of history is both original and interesting: 'History, in its broadest sense, legitimizes the present but not because it is quaint or glorious so much as because it allows accretion of experience to make itself felt as a kind of collective memory' (29-30), which is probably why he peppered his speeches with historical references. The chapter on space is less centred on Salisbury, as the author presents not only the places where the statesman lived but also the situation of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland at the time. The pages on Ireland are of great interest, as they show how British politicians (not only the Tory ones) viewed this island: 'It was China; it was Mars. It presented to the mind mythologies about the sapping effect of Roman Catholicism, the limitations of Celtic blood and brain, how not to arrange inheritance and land law, about the overwhelming incapacity of these distinctive Untermenschen to run their own lives in a responsible way' (57). In a few words Bentley manages to throw light on a whole frame of mind.

Chapter 3, which is devoted to society, studies the relationships with other nationalities, with women and with the middle classes as well as the working classes. Bentley's presentation of the Tory conception of society helps the reader understand some aspects of Conservative policies both at home and abroad: 'Society for late-Victorian Tories was, like God, English. Other places had their own societies of a kind, of course, but there was always something wrong with them and they were in any case not our business' (66). The attitude to foreigners and black people is vividly depicted and some quotations remind the reader in this age of political correctness that joking in public about a man's colour was not uncommon. In a speech delivered in 1888, Salisbury could not help joking about the colour of a candidate in the general elections who happened to be black: 'Of course, you will understand that I am speaking roughly and using language in its ordinary sense, because I imagine the colour is not exactly black […]' (67). The passage on the lower classes is less illuminating. Bentley intends to prove that Salisbury's most disparaging remarks about the working classes were made in the early years of his political career. However, he fails to show that there was a marked evolution in the politician, in spite of his stance on the housing of the poor.

The chapter on 'Thought' is mostly about Salisbury's relations with the intellectual world. 'Salisbury thought deeply about a wide range of issues and problems' whereas 'Conservative politicians tended, then as now, to shy away from intellectuals, universities and the life of the mind' (125). However, he kept his culture concealed and, as he did not write books, his thoughts reached paper mostly in his correspondence. Bentley places Salisbury in the context of Britain's intellectual classes, whose preoccupations were not only political but also religious. 'Intellectuals concerned themselves with race and its biology, German philosophical idealism and its relevance to British thought, the nature of the British past, a search for the moral and the manly' (143). Conservative thinkers, however, were interested in less high-brow topics such as religion, which often meant the Church, and society, which, to them, was often synonymous with the state. There follows, therefore, an analysis of the manners in which notions such as democracy, socialism and revolution were perceived by the Tories.

The chapter on the state is doubtless one of the most interesting in the book, as Bentley studies the various elements that constitute the state—the Queen, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, etc. The passage on Victoria at the end of the 1870s shows a warlike queen obsessed with Russia, on which the government should declare war as soon as possible. The situation was such that Disraeli was apprehensive that she was losing her sanity. A few pages are also devoted to the notion of state intervention in the last third of the century after a long period dominated by laissez-faire, although Salisbury rarely resorted to it.

The chapter on the empire is particularly illuminating as regards the place of the white man in the world. Bentley explains that Salisbury 'felt instinctively that races could be precisely ordered in a familiar nineteenth-century pattern of descent from superior to inferior: Teuton, Celt, Latin, brown (Christian), brown (Muslim), black, yellow…' (221). The superiority of the Whites could have several implications. He considered white slavery to be far more shocking than black slavery, and he told colleagues that beating the Boers might be very hard, as, this time, the enemy was of the Teutonic race. As for the Blacks, they needed 'a secure framework, a well-fenced garden,' the empire, 'in which they would grow in safety and receive the kindness that children deserved and required' (223). Bentley also insists on the economic aspect of the empire. If Britain wanted to keep its trade and industries alive it had 'to open new sources of consumption in the more untrodden portions of the earth,' as Salisbury put it in a speech delivered in the House of Lords in 1894. As the book is not a conventional biography of Salisbury only twenty pages are devoted to his period as leader of the Conservative party and as Prime Minister.

However interesting many parts of the book are, the fact that it is neither a conventional biography of Lord Salisbury, nor a mere study of the mental world of late-Victorian Conservatives makes it slightly difficult to use this work for teaching purposes. Besides the absence of a chronology of Salisbury makes it hard for the reader to know what his position was when some events mentioned in the text took place. However, the reader who is more interested in the environment of the Tories than in Lord Salisbury himself will find much valuable information in Michael Bentley's Lord Salisbury's World, and the detailed index will no doubt be of great help.

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