by A.J.P. Taylor
Simon and Schuster, 712 pp., $12.95
An impartial biography does not exist. Biographies are full of autobiography, for who can push his way about in another’s existence without revealing what he likes and what he simply has to accept? Mr. Taylor hurries to state where he stands in this matter. At the very beginning of his very long book he confesses, “I loved Max Aitken Lord Beaverbrook when he was alive…the joys of his company were beyond description…. Now that I have learnt to know him better from his records I love him even more.”
Beaverbrook is lucky. Publisher of the Daily Express, Cabinet minister under Lloyd George and Churchill, a tireless political schemer, he had many enemies. The normal lot of such men is to be the prey of various and somewhat apprehensive biographers while living, which he was, and the victim of an authorized research team when dead. Instead, he has had Mr. Taylor to present a full, affectionate, brilliantly written, and highly readable case for him. Though the book is intended to be a monument it is not an entirely polite one. Much of it is a kind of secular hagiography in which the virtues of the subject constantly come up against the reader’s resistance, but it holds one’s attention throughout by its expert marshaling of a vast amount of detail. One reaches the last page murmuring, “Well, there must be something in it….”
The claim that the joys of Beaverbrook’s company were beyond description, for example. Perhaps they were to a distinguished historian able to place him against a balanced view of Britain during the twentieth century, yet they are something which most readers of this life will have to take on trust. The main attraction in this book is in finding oneself at such close quarters with a phenomenon, for Mr. Taylor evokes all the extraordinary features of his subject. The ball of fire bounces vividly, sometimes purposefully, through many of the big scenes in British life from World War I to the Common Market, and we are made to feel the whirl of it, if not the warmth.
The book is at its most fascinating in dealing with the way Max Aitken hurried from poor boy to very rich boy—he was making millions when still in his twenties—and from obscurity in Canada to London celebrity. In these chapters he is like a hero in a nineteenth-century political novel who has to be rushed to the central theme of the book and given riches, powerful friends, influence, and honors before the main plot can unfold. The rise was a dazzling achievement, the product of aplomb, good timing, and more hidden causes that could never have entered Aitken’s reckoning.
Aitken’s father had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1864. He was a Presbyterian minister and had received a “call.” The family had been working the same little tenant farm since the early seventeenth century and was typical of the stock from which most …