he British general who is, in many ways, best suited to be the model for Scoresby, is the Duke of Wellington, who, in his youth, was known simply as Arthur Wesley (or Wellesley). When Scoresby is said to be unconscious "of the deep, loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people and flowing toward him," sometimes my overeager students in Moldova took this as a possible winking reference to Wellington (Merry Tales, 67, emphasis added). From "Arthur Wesley" it is no great leap to "Arthur Scoresby."
Wesley, like Scoresby, was a dreadful student; "he made very slow progress, labouring gloomily in the Fourth Form, his name appearing in the lists at number fifty-four out of a total of seventy-nine boys, many if not most of them younger than himself. His command of the classics, for all the hours he was required to spend poring over Ovid and Caesar, remained so highly uncertain that in later life he was to pronounce that his two standard rules for public speaker were never to take on subjects he knew nothing about and, whenever possible, to avoid quoting Latin" (Hibbert 1997, 5-6). As a schoolboy, Wesley's simplicity "might be and was mistaken for stupidity" (Aldington, 26). Though today we know more than nineteenth-century biographers did about his early life, we still do not know much, the reason being that in his youth he neither said nor did anything memorable, and gave absolutely no hint of future greatness. "His career at school is so completely without note that had not Robert Smith recorded the circumstance of a bout at fisticuffs between the future deliverer of Europe and himself, the biographer of the Duke of Wellington would have been absolutely without a tale to tell of all that his hero may have said or done at Chelsea, at Eton, and at Angers. And so it is with his life as a subaltern, a captain, a major, and an aide-de-camp to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. It is a mere vacant space on the paper which is soon to be filled with the record of exploits such as struck the world with wonder; — a sure proof that the same simplicity of character which distinguished his Grace in after years belonged to him in youth" (Brialmont and Gleig, 210). These early biographers ingeniously explain away Wesley's embarrassing failure to make any lasting impression by creating the myth of a virtuous reluctance to draw attention to himself. "It was this high principle, in our opinion, rather than the absence of natural ability, which rendered the life of Arthur Wellesley, up to the age of twenty-five, so completely a blank" (Ibid.).
Wellington first made a name for himself as a military leader in India, where in 1802 he defeated a much larger enemy force. At the village of Assaye, Wesley led 7,000 men and 22 guns in an audacious attack on an enemy force of 40,000 men and over 100 guns. Was this not a foolhardy deed? One of his volunteer soldiers wrote later, "I can assure you, till our troops got the order to advance the fate of the day seemed doubtful; and if the numerous cavalry of the enemy had done their duty I hardly think it possible we could have succeeded" (quoted in Hibbert 1997, 42-43). Wesley carried the day, and for this victory he was named Knight of the Bath. When asked many years later which battle had been his finest, the Duke "was silent for about 10 seconds & then answered, 'Assaye'. He did not add a word" (Ibid.) If, perhaps, Twain did take an event from Wellington's experience in India and move it to the Crimea, in a curious reversal only a few years later another author fictionalized the charge of the Light Brigade — and placed it in India (George Meredith's Lord Ormont, 1894). To say that Assaye was his greatest victory is an extraordinary claim, considering all his later triumphs in Spain, to say nothing of Waterloo. Still, one modern historian asserts: "Without question Assaye was the greatest of Arthur Wellesley's Indian victories" (Weller, 194).
Today, Wellington's reputation seems to rest on solid foundations. But it was not always so. Even during his lifetime, envious detractors did not refrain from attributing his victories to good fortune. "Wellington's luck has often attracted attention," notes one of his major modern biographers, who also refers in passing to "his legendary good luck" (Longford, 57, 198). Biographers in the nineteenth century already sought to refute the notion that he was "the mere spoilt child of fortune . . . No doubt fortune enters largely into the events of war, but whatever certain authors may say to the contrary, no human being ever trusted less to accident than the Duke of Wellington" (Brialmont and Gleig, 264).
Among the "certain authors" appears to be the French historian Adolphe Thiers. Though generally full of praise for Wellington's good sense, and never claiming that he was a fool, at one point Thiers did carp: "Though little fertile in genius and hardy combination, Wellington was nevertheless attentive to the opportunities which fortune threw his way. He did not create, but he seized them, and that was generally sufficient, because the opportunities which fortune offers are always the surest" [Quoted in Brialmont and Gleig, 268n; for a somewhat different translation, see Thiers, 441.]
There were also some English contemporaries who were at least initially skeptical of Wellington's abilities. Thomas Creevey noted in his diary, "In the Lords, [Earl] Grey made an admirable speech, disputed the military, moral and intellectual fame of Lord Wellington most capitally" (Creevey, 71-72). That was in 1810. Five years later, even after Waterloo, Creevey was writing about the Duke, "he had not the least appearance of being a clever man" (Ibid., 117).
By 1818 Creevey's views were more nuanced: " . . . considering the imposters that most men in power are — the insufferable pretensions one meets in every Jack-in-office — the uniform frankness and simplicity of Wellington in all the conversations I have heard him engaged in, coupled with the unparalleled situation he holds in the world for an English subject, makes him to me the most interesting object I have ever seen in my life." He continued to maintain, however, that Wellington outwardly gave "no indication of superior talents" (Ibid., 160, 165).
Like Scoresby, Wellington favorably impressed his contemporaries with his "curious simplicity" and lack of affectation. According to one of his hostesses, Mrs. Granville, he was "the most unpretentious, perfectly natural and amiable person" she had ever met. In Mrs. Arbuthnot's eyes, he was "the pleasantest person possible in a house, so simple & so easily amused and pleased." She added, "It is impossible to know him well without loving him. He is so kind to everybody, so affectionate & so good-natured, & I must say I never did know any man so universally beloved." "Encountering him at a party, Mrs. Calvert found him just the same good-humoured, unaffected creature he ever was" (Hibbert 1997, 233, 252).
It was not just the ladies who admired this trait. Charles Greville observed, "His greatness, was the result of a few striking qualities — a perfect simplicity of character without a particle of vanity or conceit" (Ibid., 403). Others also took note of "the ineffable charm of [Wellington's] unassuming simplicity" (Baron Holland, 230).
This conspicuous trait of Wellington's could be observed even on the field of battle. "Never, in the midst of his most brilliant triumphs, did this modest simplicity forsake him . . . Ever simple, ever true, he shrank from placing himself, under any circumstances, in a theatrical attitude . . . " (Brialmont and Gleig, 353ff).
In 1850, Thomas Carlyle met the aged hero at a social gathering, and wrote in his diary: "By far the most interesting figure present was the old Duke of Wellington . . . truly a beautiful old man. I had never seen till now how beautiful, and what an expression of graceful simplicity, veracity, and nobleness there is about the old hero when you see him close at hand. . ." (Froude, 39). In this context it is worth noting that Twain was an enthusiastic reader of Carlyle and owned Froude's biography, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1882 (Baetzhold, 87).
Among Wellington's many titles were Knight of the Garter, Knight of the Holy Cross, Knight of the Golden Fleece, and Knight Grand Cross of the Bath. Likewise, Scoresby is said to be "one of the two or three conspicuously illustrious English military names of this generation," holder of the "V.C., K.C.B., etc., etc., etc." The clergyman in "Luck" says of Scoresby, "He has been a shining soldier in all our wars for a generation . . . . Look at his breast; why, he is just clothed in domestic and foreign decorations" (Merry Tales, 75).
The narrator of "Luck" also says he could not have been more surprised at the clergyman's heretical views than if he had spoken of Napoleon, or Socrates, or Solomon. Such exalted company would seem to suggest an individual of the stature of Wellington. After all, Tennyson had called the Duke "the last great Englishman . . . Our greatest yet with least pretence . . . In his simplicity sublime" ("Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington").
Lord Wolseley, whose reputation in the Victorian era was second only to that of Wellington himself, noted: "From earliest childhood we had been so accustomed to hear him referred to as the greatest of living men, that my generation had grown up to regard him as an Immortal, and as a national institution" (Wolseley 1903, 23). Wellington "preserved, to the end of his life, through the ascendancy of his character, not less than because of the prestige of his victories, a popularity which is without example in the annals of English history" (Brialmont and Gleig, 370). Echoing this nineteenth-century view, a twentieth-century historian speaks of "the near idolatry with which he was regarded in his last years" (Aldington, 371).
In other words, in Arthur Wesley we have a highly decorated general who had been at best an indifferent student but won brilliant victories in the field, finding glory on one occasion by attacking an overwhelmingly superior enemy. This victory was, in his own eyes, his greatest military achievement, though there were many others subsequently. He is widely believed to be Britain's supreme military genius of the nineteenth century. Though some critics referred to the role of luck in his success, all are agreed that he remained simple, honest, unpretentious, kind, natural, and widely beloved.
In Arthur Scoresby we have a highly decorated general who had managed to learn just what he needed to pass his exams at the military academy, and nothing else. He went on to win a brilliant victory by attacking an enemy army that enjoyed overwhelming superiority of numbers. This was, in the world's eyes, his greatest military achievement, though there were many others to come. He is widely believed to be one of the greatest military geniuses of the nineteenth century, though in fact he is a lucky fool. But even the one person who knows the truth about Scoresby agrees with everyone else in regarding him as a man of simple honesty, unpretending, sweet, good, and widely beloved.
Wellington, in sum, much more closely fits the description of Scoresby than the acerbic, intellectual Wolseley does. But of course there are difficulties, chiefly of a chronological nature. When Wellington died two years before the outbreak of the Crimean War, he was 83 years old. Thus neither Twain nor Twichell could have met anyone who had been Wellington's instructor at Eton (he did not attend Woolwich). So whatever information Twain had about Wellington-as-Scoresby could not have come from a first-hand source. But it is precisely this that justifies Twain's claim that he has a reliable, indeed irrefutable source of knowledge.
Mark Twain on the Crimean War
- The Crimean War
- Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley
- Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington
- Ulysses S. Grant
Last modified 16 August 2005