The Man Who Was Greenmantle: A Biography of Aubrey Herbert, Margaret Fitzherbert (John Murray, 1983)
This was my first “just for fun” read of the summer, and it was worthwhile. I purchased this book because I have so enjoyed the novels of John Buchan, especially his Richard Hannay series which I discovered while we lived in Scotland. The series is set in Britain beginning in the days just before the outbreak of WWI and continuing through the war into the 1930’s. One of the key characters in these novels is Sandy Arbuthnot, a British Lord with extensive knowledge of the Middle East, fluent in many languages and a master of disguise. Sandy plays a key role in the novel, Green Mantle.
John Buchan wrote several novels, became Lord Tweedsmuir, and eventually served as Governor General of Canada (1935-1940). Buchan’s life story is fascinating, so when I learned that one of his most fascinating characters was based on the life of one of his friends, I wanted to read the story.
This biography of Aubrey Herbert is written by his granddaughter, and it is a fascinating view of an amazing life in what was practically a different world. Herbert was born into a noble family which counted among their residences Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed (it is still in the possession of the same family). Educated at Eton and Balliol, Herbert was friends with the leading men of his generation. One of his teachers was Hilaire Belloc. His brother was the Lord Carnarvon who financed the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb. Despite his near blindness, Aubrey Herbert travelled extensively in the Mid-East and Eastern Europe (in the midst of uprisings and unrest), served as a soldier and diplomat, playing a key role because of his knowledge of so many languages (French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Albanian). He became a key advocate of the Albanian people and was twice offered the throne of Albania!
Events in Hebert’s life which were mentioned in passing would today be breathlessly extolled on newscasts. It was truly a different era. This view into the past was one of the key benefits of the book. Buchan described Herbert as, “The most delightful and brilliant survivor from the days of chivalry.” Another writer said:
Aubrey lived in high romance. … He simmered and bubbled over with enthusiasm, for whatever Aubrey had in his head he made at least a phrase, sometimes an epigram, often some verses. He delighted in words, as some women in jewels, but he did not keep them, as most jewels are kept, for great occasions.
This liveliness and fullness of living were evident in the biography. Despite being nearly blind Herbert immersed himself in the life of Middle Eastern cultures, living among the people, meeting with rebel leaders, seeking peace and justice and at times simply seeking adventure. After slipping past authorities of various governments in order to visit Baghdad, he made the overland trek from Baghdad to Damascus, “a well-established endurance test,” just for the accomplishment. He also served many years in the House of Commons. The example of perseverance, hard work, and passion for life is one of the things I liked about the book.
This book is also a striking, up close account of the dramatic cultural shift which occurred after World War I. I hear of this more often through Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al. It was interesting to read of it through the eyes of a member of the English upperclass. After the war, Herbert wrote in a letter of his “growing sense of isolation, of having outlived the world to which I belonged” (225). Sadly the faith seemed to have little significance in his life, at least as he is portrayed in this book.
For historical insight and example of perseverance this book is a great read.