Wyndham, George (1863–1913), politician and writer, was born 29 August 1863 in London, second child and eldest son of Percy Scawen Wyndham (1835–1911), landowner and conservative MP, and his wife Madeline Caroline Frances Eden (née Campbell; d. 1920).
Background and early career
Wyndham was very conscious that the Wyndhams were an old gentry family stretching back to the middle ages; he belonged to the Somerset branch. Madeline Wyndham was a granddaughter of Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) and Wyndham had many Anglo-Irish cousins on both sides of his family; his father's sister married Lord Mayo (qv), viceroy of India. He inherited his mother's artistic interests; relatives claimed that she spoiled him. Wyndham revered William Morris as ‘leader of the world's return to its youth’, though his medievalism took the form of tory paternalism rather than Morris's socialism. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (qv) was a cousin; their lifelong intimate friendship survived political disagreements. Blunt's numerous lovers included Wyndham's mother and one of his sisters; the principal mistress of his last years was one of Wyndham's cousins.
Wyndham was educated at a preparatory school run by the Rev. C. G. Chittenden at The Grange, Hertfordshire (1874–7), and at Eton College (1877–80). He chose to enter the Royal Military College at Sandhurst (1881–4) without attending university; he later regretted this, believing that Oxford would have provided greater mental discipline. In 1884 he was assigned to the 16th lancers, subsequently serving in the Coldstream guards. Much of his military career was spent in London pursuing the characteristic amusements of young aristocratic officers. In February 1885 he was posted to the Sudan, where he saw active service against Sudanese Mahdist forces; he returned to London in September.
On 7 February 1887 Wyndham married Sibell Mary Grosvenor (née Lumley), daughter of the 9th earl of Scarborough and widow of Earl Grosvenor, heir to the 1st duke of Westminster. She was alleged to have eighty rival suitors and was ten years older than Wyndham. They had one son, Percy Lyulph, born 5 December 1887. (Sibell had three children by her first marriage, including Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known as ‘Bendor’, 2nd duke of Westminster.) Wyndham was recalled from their continental honeymoon to take up the post of private secretary to A. J. Balfour (qv), the newly appointed chief secretary for Ireland. (At this point he resigned from the regular army, though he retained a commission in the Cheshire yeomanry.)
Politician and writer
As Balfour's secretary Wyndham played a prominent role in unionist resistance to the Plan of Campaign; he read voluminous ‘bad speeches’ and the Parnell commission proceedings, reported on them to Balfour, and prepared responses. A collection of official rebuttals of nationalist claims (co-authored by Wyndham and Balfour) was published as Lies and replies (1892). A London radical newspaper edited by T. P. O'Connor (qv) remarked that as Balfour's assistant Wyndham ‘writes his most impudent letters, concocts his most unreliable statistics, and generally outdoes his chief for . . . impudence and vulgarity’. Wyndham was elected conservative MP for Dover in July 1889, retaining the seat until his death. During the parliament of 1892–5 he served as Balfour's unofficial parliamentary private secretary, and until 1900 remained his closest political confidant.
Wyndham's friendship with Blunt survived Blunt's imprisonment by Balfour in 1888. Between 1887 and 1894 he was the leading member of Blunt's Crabbet Club, a self-consciously frivolous male mutual admiration society, whose activities included reciting verses in praise of sin and playing nude tennis matches at Blunt's country residence. Other club members included Lord Alfred Douglas (a cousin of Wyndham) and Oscar Wilde (qv). The club's membership overlapped with that of the Souls, a wider aristocratic social coterie centred on Balfour, who prided themselves on their intellectual conversation and artistic and emotional sophistication – in contrast to unintellectual aristocrats whose interests focused on ‘hunting, shooting, and fishing’. This did not mean, however, that they abjured field sports altogether: fox hunting was one of Wyndham's favourite relaxations, and in a review of his posthumously collected writings on medieval romance T. S. Eliot said of Wyndham that he galloped through life like a fox hunter.
After the collapse of Wilde's libel suit against Lord Queensberry in 1895, Douglas sought Wyndham's intervention in the vain hope that he might be able to prevent Wilde's arrest for homosexual offences; Wyndham advised Wilde to flee the country. In 1892 Wyndham had annoyed the conservative leadership by giving evidence on behalf of his future biographer Charles Gatty, a fellow member of the Crabbet Club and Liberal Party candidate, in a libel case against his successful conservative opponent, who had accused him of sodomy. Wyndham's own sexuality was vigorously and promiscuously heterosexual; he maintained a relationship with Lady Plymouth which lasted from 1898 until the last hour of his life. (Wyndham was widely reputed to be the father of the future prime minister, Anthony Eden, whose dandyism was often compared to Wyndham's; though Eden himself gave some credence to the notion, Wyndham was in South Africa at the relevant time.) His sensibility was essentially pagan, though he retained a vague general belief in Christianity, wistfully regretted the Reformation, and was an outspoken upholder of the Church of England.
From 1889 Wyndham's artistic and political interests came together through his association with W. E. Henley in the literary imperialist weekly the Scots Observer (succeeded in turn by the National Observer and the New Review). He took over the failing New Review in 1896, and after its closure founded The Outlook as its successor in 1898. Wyndham edited Sir Thomas North's Elizabethan translation of Plutarch in 1895, and in 1898 produced an edition of Shakespeare's poems (deploying to advantage his extensive knowledge of field sports and heraldry).
Wyndham did not gain office when the unionists were restored to government in 1895, but in October 1898 he became under-secretary of state at the War Office, which made him the War Office spokesman in the commons as the secretary of state was a peer. In this capacity he was an outspoken defender of government policy during the Boer war. He hero-worshipped Cecil Rhodes, and had previously taken a leading role in covering up official complicity in the Jameson raid. Wyndham horrified the anti-imperialist Blunt by his frank private declarations that imperialism was a matter of national necessity, and the question of right or wrong was irrelevant: ‘George represents all that is most brutal in modern English politics and it marks the decline of the higher traditions to find one like him proclaiming and defending it’, Blunt declared (Longford, 343–4).
Chief secretary for Ireland
In November 1900 Wyndham became chief secretary for Ireland but was not made a member of the cabinet – the lord lieutenant, Lord Cadogan (qv), was already a cabinet minister; Wyndham did not obtain full control of Irish policy until he was admitted to the cabinet in July 1902, after Balfour became prime minster and secured Cadogan's resignation. The first years of his tenure were marked by conflict with the land agitators of the United Irish League. Wyndham believed that by some great Irish reform scheme he could pacify the country and advance his political career; the Irish literary revival appealed to his romanticism and he believed himself capable of satisfying Ireland's imagination. In November 1901 he told his brother ‘I want to smash the agitation, introduce the land bill, get money for a harbour-fishing policy in the west and float a catholic university.’ A first land bill (with significant concessions on land purchase) was introduced in 1902, but had to be withdrawn through lack of consensus. Cabinet hardliners pushed him towards further coercion as the price of their support for land legislation: several districts were ‘proclaimed’, a number of MPs were imprisoned, and newspapers were subjected to official pressure; nationalist cartoons depicted Wyndham reproved by the ghost of Lord Edward FitzGerald.
Late in 1902 Wyndham unofficially encouraged an initiative, advanced by a group of moderate landlords around Lord Dunraven (qv), for a conference of landlord and tenant representatives to hammer out agreed terms for a land settlement; the conference was established in December 1902 with Dunraven as chairman. Its proposals became the basis for the Wyndham Land Act (passed into law in August 1903), which provided government-subsidised loans to make up the difference between the price the landlord was prepared to accept and the price the tenant was prepared to give. The act, which Wyndham himself drafted in a major burst of effort, marked an important turning-point in the process of tenant purchase; though the view that it definitively solved the land question is exaggerated (the falling price of government securities caused problems with the bill's finances, and land purchase and land division continued to be serious questions), Wyndham was briefly the political star of the hour; his triumph was symbolised by the high-profile visit of Edward VII to Dublin in July 1903.
When a cabinet split over Chamberlain's tariff reform proposals led to several resignations in September 1903, Wyndham was offered promotion; he refused it in the belief that Ireland was in a ‘plastic’ condition and he had a uniquely favourable chance to remould it. (He may also have believed that the government's lifespan was so short it would be inadvisable to move to a fresh department, where he would not have time to make an impact.) He had never concealed his desire to become prime minister, though disdainful tory backbenchers thought him a dandified lightweight.
Throughout his tenure in Ireland, Wyndham tried to split the nationalist party by detaching disaffected MPs (which led to his involving himself in shadowy intrigues with T. M. Healy (qv)). He appears to have entertained the same belief as Dunraven, that it was possible to unite moderate nationalists and unionists in pursuit of a business policy; in this he was encouraged by the sudden conversion of William O'Brien (qv) to the view that the ‘conference policy’ could be used to gain further reforms that would act as stepping-stones towards home rule. Wyndham hoped that new high-profile initiatives would further cement Irish goodwill, creating irresistible pressure on the treasury; to this end Dunraven and the under-secretary, Sir Antony MacDonnell (qv), were deployed in further semi-official initiatives. These hopes were soon dashed, however. Hopes of solving the ‘university question’ were derailed by Ulster unionist opposition; a proposed labourers’ bill was abandoned; O'Brien was marginalised by John Dillon (qv) and Michael Davitt (qv), who feared that engagement with Wyndham and Dunraven would corrupt and destroy the nationalist party.
Resignation and final years
In a later age Wyndham might have been called manic-depressive; he was capable of immense effort when focused on a particular task, but chafed and lost interest when the path became unclear. With the breakdown of his plans he gave himself up to ‘artificial stimulants and bursts of violent physical exercise’, before taking a continental holiday. Meanwhile Dunraven, in association with MacDonnell, drew up plans for administrative reform based on limited devolution, which they published in August and September 1904. Dunraven established a new Irish Reform Association to carry out these changes, but Wyndham promptly repudiated it as an unacceptable compromise with home rule. MacDonnell's role in drafting the proposals was revealed: the under-secretary stated that he had seen his activities as consistent with the terms of his appointment (which referred to reforming the ramshackle Dublin Castle bureaucracy) and made it known that he had kept Wyndham informed. Wyndham equivocated; the increasingly militant younger Ulster unionist leaders were infuriated, and rumours circulated that the whole government was compromised. Under attack from Ulster unionists and nationalists alike, Wyndham resigned on 6 March 1905.
Some nationalists (notably O'Brien) spoke of Wyndham as a potential romantic nationalist convert, defeated by intransigents on both sides; Wyndham always rejected this view. His earliest biographers accepted his retrospective claim that he had mislaid the letters in which MacDonnell mentioned his activities. Later scholars, beginning with Andrew Gailey, regard this as disingenuous; they hold that Wyndham was aware in broad outline of MacDonnell's activities and used him to explore possibilities without formally committing the government, and that his denials of knowledge referred equivocally to official, as distinct from personal, knowledge.
Wyndham spent some time recuperating from the stress of these events, during which he composed a book on seventeenth-century French poetry. He then returned to the campaign for tariff reform; he was active on the opposition front bench in the years after the liberal landslide of 1906, and fought fiercely for denominational education. He was deeply disappointed by the failure of the conservatives to regain power in 1910; Lloyd George's ‘people's budget’, with its taxation of the landed classes, seemed to him an attack on the very heart and soul of England. He was a leading diehard opponent of restrictions on the lords’ veto, and lamented that few conservatives were prepared to fight with the intensity of Edward Carson (qv). Wyndham's growing friendship with Hilaire Belloc encouraged, but did not originate, his obsessive anti-Semitic diatribes about the growing power of ‘cosmopolitan finance’ as a sign of impending national doom. (He also ranted against ‘polyglot’ Americans.)
After inheriting the family's Wiltshire estate on his father's death in 1911, Wyndham spoke of abandoning politics for a life of rural paternalism. He hoped his descendants would live for generations at Clouds, the mansion which his father had built. (In the event Wyndham's only son was killed in battle in 1914 and within a few decades the house was sold off.) Wyndham died suddenly of a heart attack at the Hôtel Lotti on the rue de Castiglione, Paris, on 8 June 1913, where he was staying with Lady Plymouth. Much of the literature on Wyndham is dominated by his self-glamorisation, Edwardian nostalgia, and perennial Irish yearning for perceived lost opportunities of reconciliation; this stale romanticism is as much part of his legacy as the solid achievement of the Wyndham Land Act.