Benjamin Beasley-Murray

Away with the fairies | 10 March 2016

Bart Casey brilliantly resurrects this adventurer, diplomat, mystic and spy who impressed Queen Victoria with his ability to commune with fairies

As an erstwhile obituarist, I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy (and the subject of Bart Casey’s biography) — when he died, aged 59, in 1888. The first paragraph should (according to the well-seasoned formula) contain some characterising incident or achievement, giving the measure of the man, the impact he made on the world and those around him, and an indication of his interior life. The anecdote must — like cherry-picked quotations for a Shakespeare exam — inform more than one facet of a broader narrative. Any runner-up contenders can be dropped into paragraphs four, eight and 12.

The difficulty with Oliphant is that his entire life was a mosaic of improbable adventures. Should one begin in 1870 when, as a war correspondent for the Times, he dined with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in order to garner information on hostilities between Prussia and France, before touring the battlefields of the Loire in a covered coach as cannonballs burst overhead? Or perhaps back in 1855, in Chechnya, when Oliphant (ostensibly on a mission to convince the Chechens to side with the British and Turks against the Russians) was mistaken by a Turkish commander for a serving officer, and charged with co-ordinating 250 men to set up an artillery battery yards from the Russian frontline on a night-time raid? (Oliphant later reported to his mother that he’d performed this task with ‘a pretty brisk shower of missiles flying about’.)

Or, again, our obituarist might start with an account of Oliphant’s work trying to break the monopoly of the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable company. For nearly 20 years, a race to bridge the two-week information delay between Europe and North America had been a source of intense financial speculation.

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