Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Lust for Life

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes


William Collins 418pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Next to Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes was the most remarkable and influential Englishman of the 20th century. A year before the anniversary of his death, he is now commemorated in Richard Davenport-Hines’s first-class book, which I cannot praise highly enough.

Keynes owed a lot to his parents. His father was a Cambridge don and his mother was a Newnham graduate (in the days when few women went to university), an all-rounder and public figure who, among many other things, was an outstanding mayor of that city. They both recognised that their eldest child was a winner and accompanied him when he went to sit for an Eton scholarship, rather like Ruskin’s parents. He got it and flourished there, winning an extraordinary number of prizes (ten in his first year, eighteen in his second). He got into Pop, despite being no athlete and, on his own admission, painfully ugly. He suffered from a stutter but had a remarkable voice and, from an early age, a faultless command of words, which gave him a power of persuasion that was, by all accounts, overwhelming. It is no accident that he had a lifelong devotion to Isaac Newton, acquired many of his belongings at auction and wrote a revolutionary essay about him, establishing that he was not only an expert mathematician (as was Keynes) but also a medieval-style magus, absorbed with alchemy. 

Almost automatically, Keynes went from Eton to King’s College, Cambridge, an academic colony of the school, and was soon elected to the Apostles, a secret society then at its apogee. Keynes despised ordinary clubs (except the Athenaeum, which he reluctantly agreed to join), but he loved dining clubs, such as

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