The confident assertiveness of the title of this book instantly whets one’s curiosity. How will the author define ‘greatest’? To put my own cards on the table before I check the table of contents, I think a hero/heroine must be someone we look up to for shafts of moral grandeur as well as for their more obvious historic exploits. I do not mean they have to be saints – although saints can sometimes be heroes – but that, despite their human flaws, the example of their lives must at some level, kindle and inspire the imagination.
In his introduction Sebag-Montefiore, a popular biographer and historian of Russia, seems at first to concur with me, writing “We live in an unheroic age, and an unheroic age has a desperate need to learn about heroism. The stories of the great heroes bring history to life. They inspire and teach us about values and the nature of responsibility, the bonds that keep societies together – but they are also wonderful and exciting stories that we should tell our children.” No-one would quarrel with this – especially in an age of celebrity when too many children, hugely influenced by television and the internet, yearn simply to be ‘famous’.
Then I cast my eye on the contents’ list and am immediately confronted with its contradictions, omissions, questionable selections and seeming randomness of choice. To defend the author, such a book will inevitably be idiosyncratic and reflect its collator’s own enthusiasms and predilections – but even so, should Dumas pere, Hemingway, Toulouse-Lautrec, Casanova and Elvis Presley really be included under such a title? I cannot see that they teach us anything about values or the nature of responsibility. In childhood I read every novel of Dumas’s that I could lay my hands on; in my callow youth I also thought Hemingway a great writer; in both cases maturity brought me to my senses. Of nineteenth century painters, Ingres and Cezanne – unmentioned – deserve a more honoured place than Toulouse-Lautrec; Casanova is remembered chiefly for his (alleged) exploits in the bedroom; and although Elvis should have a prominent place in the history of pop music (although shared with the — unmentioned — Buddy Holly, according to the latter’s huge band of disciples), his life and death are hardly the stuff of children’s bedtime stories.
Reading these brief lives I am aware that Sebag-Montefiore is drawn to ‘keyhole history’ i.e. looking through the keyhole into his heroes’ intimate lives; he is also dazzled by glamour and by voluptuaries. I deduce his ideal hero is someone who reads Plato at breakfast, lunches with his victorious generals and sups with a succession of beautiful mistresses. Of course he includes many of the great and the good – people who have contributed to civilization rather than try to destroy it: Confucius, Muhammad, George Washington and Einstein among others, but his summaries are bland, sometimes shallow and peppered with wearisome superlatives. Those who love Dr Johnson or Proust and who hope for small insights about the lives of their special heroes will be disappointed; those who know about John Paul II, though applauding his inclusion, will recognise a journalist’s verdict in the sentence “generally inflexible over doctrine, remaining doggedly conservative in matters such as the ordination of women…”
Darwin receives the usual genuflection: “No longer did humanity possess some special status as God’s appointed steward on earth, separate from and superior to the other animals…” This seems a somewhat odd remark given that the author’s worthy purpose in this volume is to privilege certain extraordinary people whose achievements are meant to be decidedly superior to those of their fellow men, let alone superior to the higher primates. Inevitably there is a dearth of women; to compensate, we are treated to the lives of Sappho and Sarah Bernhardt alongside the worthy Florence Nightingale and Margaret Thatcher. Sappho’s life is more legend that fact; I suspect she has been included because of her alleged orientation; I would have preferred the inclusion of Marie Curie and Elizabeth Fry.
Sebag-Montefiore is descended from an old Sephardic family. From his own venerable tradition of great men, why does he not include Moses, the law-giver, or indeed Abraham, the father of three world religions; or in more modern times, Freud? Freud, like Wagner, Gregory the Great, St Benedict and Queen Victoria (none included), has given us the word, “Freudian” which, like “Wagnerian”, “Gregorian” “Benedictine” and “Victorian”, has had enormous influence on how we interpret the world of ideas or high culture. Perhaps the problem is that the book has been compiled with the aid of two research assistants, Dan Jones and Claudia Renton; yet we are not told who has written what, or why.
The author is going to follow up this book with a sequel on ‘”Monsters”. That should be interesting – and perhaps easier to discern. Heroes can occasionally do monstrous things, and all victorious war leaders, such as Lincoln or Churchill, will have much blood on their hands; but when they do wrong they are clearly departing from the high standards that we expect of them, reflected in their speeches and writings. With “monsters” there is no such moral compass restraining their behaviour. Sebag-Montefiore rightly comments that the line between the two categories is sometimes thin; but I still don’t see how Cromwell, for all his harshness towards the Irish, could be included in the companion volume as the author suggests. Perhaps Wagner will be included as a “monster of egotism”? We must wait and see.
Yet along with all these quibbles we must be thankful for small mercies. The author includes boxes of information alongside each potted biography and among, for example, disquisitions on the Empress Josephine’s love life or Talleyrand’s mode of dressing, I note there is a discussion on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. To my great relief, Sebag-Montefiore supports the man from Stratford and dismisses Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford and other jokers. Having an eccentric friend who has renamed his property “de Vere House” in honour of Lord Oxford’s candidacy, I am pleased that the author has come down on the side of sanity. There was one glaring error: Alexander the Great’s height is given as 4’ 6”; but would make him the same height as the crippled poet Alexander Pope, and is never mentioned by the ancient authorities; surely the author means 5’ 6”, similar to Napoleon’s and quite a respectable stature?
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.