BOOKS: Stunning Biography from a Happy Author; John Stuart Mill - Victorian Firebrand by Richard Reeves. Atlantic Books. Pounds 30
Byline: Reviewed by IAN CAWOOD
In EH Carr's What is History? he writes: "First, know your historian." So, unfamiliar with the name of the author of this new biography of JS Mill, I did a bit of lazy research.
Yes, reader, I googled him. To my astonishment it produced all sorts of odd things, leading me to wonder how many Richard Reeves there really were. He was described on a number of fairly reliable sites as an economist, a writer and speaker, an academic at the University of London, and, most alarmingly, as a "happiness guru" (whatever that is). I pursued this last one a bit further and found that Reeves was one of the group who tried "Making Slough Happy" back in 2005 on BBC2 and wrote a book called Happy Mondays - putting the pleasure back into work.
Now this all seemed very familiar, and rather worrying, and as I dug further my worst fears seemed confirmed. He is a "futurologist", has worked for The Work Foundation and The Talent Foundation, runs his own consultancy firm and he is a policy advisor to New Labour.
Of course, none of this had told me anything about why he had just written a 500 page biography of John Stuart Mill. What would a "happiness guru" want with a liberal, feminist logician like Mill? If I'm feeling cynical I would write "because no major biography of such a famous figure is in print and lots of very zeitgesity people have been quoting him recently (Gordon Brown, David Cameron, David Milliband, Victoria Beckham - sorry, I made the last one up.)".
But, in fact, having read the book, I got a very different answer.
This is a stunning achievement: a biography of a man famous for his austerity and high-minded detachment for the grubby business of life that is absolutely compelling.
Product of a hothouse education by his Scottish father who forbade the young Mill any contact with other children, John Stuart Mill could read Greek and Latin by the age of eight. Unsurprisingly, he had a nervous breakdown at the age of 20 and found it difficult to relate to people until late in his life.
He overcame this diffidence with his pen and became - through sheer, exhaustive reading, debate and reflective consideration - the leading exponent of British Liberalism.
His unshakeable commitment to freedom of speech and the elimination of economic oppression made him a very modern man, Reeves reveals.
He believed that only the elimination of barriers to opportunity, self-expression and dignity could bring about a truly free society, so he supported campaigns to regulate gambling, drinking and prostitution and recognised that the gulf between the rich and poor made both nervous.
Perhaps he didn't fully escape the standards of his age in every respect. …