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History of Political Economy 34.3 (2002) 633-655
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Skidelsky on Keynes:
A Review Essay
D. E. Moggridge
“If this biography has rescued Keynes from the economists and placed him in the world of history where he properly belongs, it will have achieved its purpose.” Thus Robert Skidelsky concludes the introduction to the final part of his trilogy, some thirty-five years after making his first acquaintance with the historical Keynes for Politicians and the Slump (1967). Counting footnotes, but excluding the almost 100 pages of prefatory material, as well as the series of dramatis personae and indices, he has provided us with 1,645 pages of densely printed text—26 per year of Keynes's life: the count per year is 11.4 in volume 1, 40.2 in volume 2, and 60.1 in volume 3. Other biographers have a different balance: Harrod 1951 works out at 10.4 pages per year and has the three periods running 9.4, 11.9, and 21.3; Moggridge 1992 comes to 13.3 pages per year and [End Page 633] has the three periods running 10.5, 14.4, and 27.3. From these numbers, it would seem that the historian's larger scale that Skidelsky claims as an advantage (3:xviii) only kicks in after 1920—and with a vengeance, after 1936. The three-volume format, with long temporal gaps between the volumes, has also led to recapitulations in the early parts of volumes 2 and 3 as Skidelsky tries to bring his readers, some of whom may not have read or may have forgotten some of the previous volumes, up to speed.
Writing a biography of someone as multifaceted as Keynes requires wide knowledge. Naturally, it helps to know something about economics and its development since the middle of the nineteenth century, but one also needs to know about the development of probability theory up to the 1930s; the institutional history of the University of Cambridge over that same period; the governmental arrangements for India before 1947; British financial policy, both domestic and international, between 1900 and 1945; the development of liberal thought in the first half of the twentieth century; British foreign policy between 1914 and 1946; and domestic political developments, particularly as they affected the Liberal and Labour Parties. Nor is this list complete, given the need to know something about Eton and the development of the arts and their supporting infrastructure in Britain. As one would expect, Skidelsky has certainly done his homework.
The first two volumes of Skidelsky's biography have been highly acclaimed—and rightly so. The third won the 2001 Lionel Gelber Prize of $50,000 for nonfiction in international affairs. The first volume, which carries the story down to 1920, opens with Keynes's nonconformist dynastic background and of the Cambridge world of Henry Sidgwick and Alfred Marshall that his parents would enter and in which he would grow up. The portraits are well drawn, although this reader would have placed more emphasis on the Cambridge reforms (and ambitions for further reform) that brought Neville Keynes and Florence Brown to Cambridge in the first place and allowed Neville Keynes to prosper, if only to make sense of what followed during Maynard Keynes's career. There follows the childhood and adolescence of a bright first child, guided and egged on by a formidably ambitious and anxious father, which took the son, who was thankfully much more balanced and level-headed than the father, to Eton and King's College, Cambridge. Once in King's, although reading mathematics, Maynard Keynes's interests and tastes broaden, [End Page 634] particularly under the influence of G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Conversazione Society or Apostles, some of whose members would form the core of Old Bloomsbury. He is president of the Union and of the University Liberal Club; he is a Wrangler, though not of the top rank—he is twelfth; he comes second in the 1906 civil service examinations and ends up in the India Office. Nonetheless, he obtains a prize fellowship at...