De Lesseps and the Suez Canal

W.H. Chaloner assesses the life and career of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the French diplomat and later developer of the Suez Canal.

The Suez Affair naturally lends a melancholy interest to the first biography of the canal’s creator to appear in English since Mr. Hugh J. Schonfield’s Ferdinand de Lesseps of 1937, and therefore also the first to draw on Georges Edgar-Bonnet’s definitive Ferdinand de Lesseps le diplomate, le createur de Suez (1951). Mr Charles Beatty’s study is not, however, merely “the book of the crisis,” although it deserves the attention of those members of the general public who seek enlightenment about the background of contemporary history.

In addition, Mr. Beatty provides an object lesson to professional historians on how to tell a story which depends so much on accurate documentation without sacrificing narrative excitement. His book is firmly based on the essential evidence, and he recaptures the authentic atmosphere of nineteenth-century international politics and finance. De Lesseps emerges from the printed pages as the genius he undoubtedly was, the man possessed of a demon. There is obviously scope for a psychoanalytic study here. Why, for example, did he specialize in joining seas and oceans and apparently fail to display interest in any other kind of canal?

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