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Balfour: A Life of Arthur James Balfour (Phoenix Giants) [Paperback]

Max Egremont
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

11 May 1998 Phoenix Giants
The outstanding biography of the Conservative Prime Minister, who was also a brilliant and elusive figure. For this biography, Max Egremont had unrestricted access to the long correspondence with Lady Elcho, with whom Balfour had an intimate relationship for almost fifty years.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: W&N; New edition edition (11 May 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753801469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753801468
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 15.6 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 716,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a man but a mannerism? 24 Jun 2007
Balfour, as historians and biographers are quick to point out, defies easy categorisation. This is perhaps the only definite conclusion that can be drawn about the man. In many respects he is the personification of the Hegelian notion of synthesis that so fascinated him; philosopher and politician, pragmatist and Zionist, ferocious partisan and detached observer, poor prime minister and exceptional elder statesman.

It is therefore understandable that Egremont often seems unable to fully grasp his subject. The many facets of Balfour's character and the sheer length of his career render it difficult to explore one aspect of his life without nullifying the importance of the others. Egremont appears to have decided at the outset not to attempt a rounded portrait but rather to develop Balfour's aura of graceful superiority, at most only a façade, so that it takes on the role of the personality. This leads to an overly-admiring biography that deftly skates round any notion that Balfour was not the omniscient statesman - "The Most Distinguished Figure in the World" as one chapter heading has it - Egremont so fondly imagines.

There is, however, much to be said for the book. Egremont's prose is stylish and engaging. His character sketches of Balfour's colleagues and family circle are perceptive and illuminated by lively anecdote. Original sources and documents are seamlessly interwoven with the body of the narrative and rarely, if ever, seem superfluous. His treatment of Balfour's long political career, whilst clearly biased, is competent and not overly concerned with dry detail.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balfour by Max Egremont 4 July 2002
Arthur James Balfour in the early 1900s suffered much the same fate as John Major was to endure in the mid-1990s, and for much the same reasons. Both Prime Ministers assumed office from predecessors - from Salisbury in 1902, from Thatcher in 1990 - who had set the tone of British politics for the previous decade, and both led the Tories into electoral disaster. Balfour's true calling, like Major's, was to be a first-rate civil servant but he was instead a third-rate Prime Minister. His genius was for assimilating great volumes of information and drawing it out into a choice of policy options; but, like Major, when called upon to make a policy choice that would alienate colleagues with larger personalities than his own, he could not, and so made certain the party schism that he was so eager to avoid. Balfour's dilemma was with Joseph Chamberlain's aggressive calls for Tariff Reform, a question of Britain's relations with the outside world which prefigured John Major's travails with his Euro-Sceptics of ninety years later.
Max Egremont's life of Balfour, first published in 1980, is alive with characters who create themselves through the correspondence and diaries on which the biographer draws heavily and satisfyingly. At times Balfour's story reads like an Evelyn Waugh novel as we become acquainted with the bright young things of his age - the glittering Ladies Elcho and Desborough, the prickly, brilliant Curzon, the doomed romantic George Wyndham (whose career in Government is ruined by his careless filing of letters from his Under-Secretary at the Irish Office), and the hero's lost love, May Lyttelton, whose death from typhoid in 1875, we are invited to suppose, diverts the young Balfour into public life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars BORING BALFOUR 21 Feb 2014
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The author does a good enough job, but cannot really get round the problem that Arthur Balfour was anything but charismatic or interesting. He was not very popular as PM, and in some ways, did his best work (like Edward Heath and Willi Brandt) after he fell from power. His record as PM was pitiful with what seems to be a callous disregard for the poor. Little wonder that the Liberals won so handsomely in 1906. Yet there must be more to him than that. The author tries hard, but fails to make me love Arthur Balfour any more.
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