Book reviews, John Updike once wrote, ‘perform a clear and desired social service: they excuse us from reading the books themselves’. It’s a theory, I’m afraid, that doesn’t apply to this review — but it certainly does to this book: an impeccably wide-ranging collection of Ferdinand Mount’s own non-fiction reviews, including for The Spectator, over three decades.
Find yourself unaccountably vague on the premiership of Lord Rosebery? A little rusty on the life of George Gissing? Embarrassingly patchy on the history of Methodism? Thanks to Mount, there’s no need to plough through 500 pages on any of them — nor the more than 50 other subjects he covers. Now you can simply set aside a few minutes to read one of these elegant, measured and unassailably well-informed pieces instead.
Of course, in 30 years of reviewing, Mount does occasionally repeat a few trusty tactics. He’s quite fond, for instance, of quoting somebody’s verdict on somebody else — Kingsley Amis denouncing Elizabeth Jane Howard’s self-centredness, say — before turning it back on them, sometimes with the words, ‘Well, it takes one.’
And as it turns out, that same phrase often springs to mind while reading Mount himself — not least when he points out Walter Bagehot’s ability to ‘pick up any subject and give it a high bright gloss, leaving his readers confident that they now knew all they needed to know about it’. Or when he praises Bagehot’s biographer for ‘picking out the plums nicely’: something Mount also does on virtually every page. (As a result, there are far too many examples to quote, but how about Edward Heath declaring as long ago as the 1950s that ‘the nation state is dead. What has sovereignty to do with anything in the 20th century?’ Or Thomas Hardy’s chilling condolence letter to the Rider Haggards after the death of their only son: ‘To be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.