Just to prove I’m an ecelectic reader (I will read the backs and fronts of crisp packets, to be honest), I happened to be in the poetry section of the great second-hand bookshop in Ashburton, when my eye grazed across a biography of the Duke of Wellington, the Christopher Hibbert one. It was only £2, so I bought it. I don’t know why. I just enjoy reading about lives (and this one concentrates on the man rather than his achievements). It’s always the detail that gets me. I love the footling factual asides, and the footnotes themselves. It was like that at school when I was about ten, too (where my teacher was also, curiously, called Hibbert). The mainline material didn’t grab me – the tattle relegated to the bottom of the page was what I liked best.
The first two things I enjoyed discovering were that (a) Wellington never actually, as far as can be reasonably ascertained, suggested that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. The saying wasn’t attributed to him until three years after his death – and therefore half a century after the battle. And in fact, he was neither fond of his time there, nor, evidently, particularly engrossed in any activity it offered, sporting, scholastic or otherwise. And (b), it would also appear that he never said ‘Publish and be damned’ when the memoirs of his supposed lover, Harriette Wilson, were due to be published, and the publisher let him know the contents. In fact there is some evidence that he vaguely (he was quite elderly) tried to obstruct publication; and he did in fact suffer no ill-repute as a result (the memoirs rather enhanced his reputation).
The attachment (as it were) of Wellington to boot is also a bit odd in a modern context: a Wellington boot was one which protected the knee, which no wellies of mine have ever done.
So many of Wellington’s words have been preserved by others, since he was by far the most famous man in England, and alternately as pleased by this as he was irritated by it – although Hibbert makes a good case for suggesting that Wellington’s victories were the result of caution, and a fair bit of luck – that he leaps off the page, time after time again. He is a curious man, given to fits of temper which he retracted by proxy – rarely admitting he was wrong, simply being preternaturally kind on the following occasion, to those whom he had erroneously accused of this, that and the other. He also seems to have gone in for highly sentimental love letters, and to have married out of sentiment years after proposing, only to ignore his wife almost entirely. He wasn’t born Wellesley, either, but Wesley. His family put the missing ‘lles’ back in (it had been dropped many generations earlier) to avoid being mixed up with Methodists.
But my favourite quotation concerns his views on ‘the whole race of poets’. He said ‘There is no believing a word they say … I have the worst opinion of them.’ Very good! There’s a poem in that!