May 27th, 1914
In the Derby today it was the bay colt Durbar by three lengths for a purse of £6,450. The royal entry, Brakespear, finished out of the money, and not a single suffragette was done to death–all in all a highlight of the London season. Meanwhile, a few miles north in London, Siegfried Sassoon was unproductively mooning about, unaware that his own season wouldn’t begin the sprint for the homestretch for nearly a month.
Now, Siegfried is a lovely chap: well bred and shy, oldish-youngish, and, if you squeeze one eye or the other closed, either dashingly sporting or promisingly literary. If there were a figure at the very center of this project (there isn’t, damn it–it would spoil the choral effect impair the historical viability–but if there were) it would be Sassoon. But to discuss these things is to look forward–to the wartime career, to the form the writings will take–and that is against the rules of the game in the Century Back here and now, so I will banish the semi-spoilers to a footnote. Suffice it to say that Sassoon will be appear frequently as we go in and out of the years and over the water to where the wild war will be.
The reason I mention this, here at the beginning, is that I don’t want to simply omit him in the early months of the war. Sassoon’s story should always be close at hand, and to keep it there we need to overcome (or subvert) a particular obstacle: he wrote few letters and did not start keeping a personal diary (that I can find) until 1915, so it is very hard to stick him onto individual days. His (later) memoirs give up a few dates, and we’ll talk about him when these roll around, as well, but more typically he will set a scene somewhere within a hazily-defined patch of time. More than once he is just wrong about when an event took place (that is, I am confident that, triangulating with outside evidence, I can tidy up his imprecise memories).
So Siegfried Sassoon will be allowed–not for the first time–to play by his own set of rules. I will, for him, break my rule, half-grudgingly, that prescribes to-the-day centennial posting, and post on a day that might not be exactly correct. I’m going to do it today, and again in a few weeks. And hopefully that will be it: vague dating during the war itself would be a (more) dishonorable compromise of my personal code. Siegfried Sassoon: he marched to his own drummer; then he hung up his boots and his sticks and became the Spectorish overseer of the (over) overdubbing and over-producing of his own back catalogue… so the least I can do is to give him his own time signature…
Today, then, we will introduce Sassoon and, perforce, begin the examination of his unusual memoirs. First, though, let us not shirk the ugly fact of compromise: why Derby Day? Because Siegfried Sassoon loved horses, and because he had a money problem. To be precise, he had a horses + money problem, in that he could not afford to keep the four-horse establishment he had set up over the past fall and winter for a season of intense hunting alongside an old school friend. The significant event, then, was not the Derby itself but the major horse auction held by Tattersalls earlier that week. Sassoon attended the sale, dutifully and glumly, knowing that he was mixing for the last time with the members of the Atherstone Hunt and watching as several of the horses he had ridden there, including his own Crusader, were sold.
“‘Once upon a time there was a boy who was born in September 1886 at a house in Kent where he has lived ever since. He had two brothers who were born in 1884 and 1887, but we all behaved as if we were the same age. After 1891 we did not see our father very often. Our mother was unhappy because he had gone away to live in London and would not speak to her any more.'” Please note the the triple inverted commas–two from me and one from Sassoon himself. It’s an odd moment in his memoirs: he’s is telling us how he might have written his own story, as a six or seven year-old, had he not then been inclined to fanciful tales rather than autobiography. Yet it is typical in that it disturbs the air between writer and reader, making us aware not just of the tension between a life lived and the writing-up of that life’s history but of the way in which authorship is never a quiet presence in Sassoon’s song of himself, but rather a matter to be alternatively foregrounded or suppressed.
The mock fragment of autobiography does go quickly to the heart of the unhappiness in his otherwise idyllic country childhood. His father, scion of a wealthy Jewish merchant family with roots in British India and, before that, Baghdad, visited seldom and died some four years after the separation. Although there were several rich and influential Sassoon cousins, Siegfried and his brothers had little contact with his father’s family and inherited neither its wealth nor any remnant of its Jewish traditions or cosmopolitan connections. He grew up, instead, as a quintessential late Victorian young gentleman, rustic yet refined, sporting yet delicate.
His mother, who shut herself away during his father’s rare visits, was clearly the dominant influence in her son’s life, although he tends to write around this influence rather than directly about it. An artist, she was a member of the Thornycroft family, a clan which knew how to mold the stuff of the physical world: there were a number of significant Thornycroft sculptors, but also engineers and ship-building industrialists. Siegfried’s Thornycroft uncles were to play a more important role in his life than any Sassoon relations, and it was their money and connections that eventually smoothed the way for his entrance into the literary life that he had dreamed of–almost always idly–since early childhood. His mother’s many friends and relations in London meant that, however removed from society they were when at home (and Kent is not so far from the beaten path, after all), their lives were not really as circumscribed as those of the traditional decent-but dim, bluff-and-hardy rural gentry. A photograph exists of young Siegfried dressed as a mock-medieval page for an appearance at a press fair assisting his aunt,who was a prominent journalist, reviewer, and editor; when the Princess of Wales spoke to him, the poet-to-be was too dumbfounded to bow, and consequently had his hat knocked off by a brother. Some of his earliest poetry–precociously death-obsessed with all the aped solemnity of a pre-teen melancholic–was inspired by a visit to a London show of paintings by G.F. Watts, an old friend of his mother’s.
Still, his early years were spent first lolling about the house and garden. He was often ill–or sometimes ill and therefore thought to be sickly–and so his dreaminess was indulged. (An uncharitably contemporary take on the situation would be that he was allowed to become habitually lazy.) When these bouts were behind him, though, he was reasonably active, and life was butterflies and horses, cricket and piano lessons, flower shows and, eventually, hunting. Treading lightly among the disturbing memories of his parents’ failed marriage, a fraught last visit to his dying father, and his brothers’ bewilderment at being packed off to attend his incomprehensible funeral (Siegfried was too distraught to attend), Sassoon generally describes his early life as one of gentle, nervous privilege. His mother encouraged his literary leanings, and seems to have always believed in his poetic destiny, yet he and his brothers were kept at home for longer than most boys of their class and found themselves far behind when they finally did begin formal education. While school–first a nearby preparatory school and then Marlborough (some years, of course, before Charles Sorley)–seems not to have been as alarming and traumatic as other literary memoirists suggest (hang on until July–Robert Graves will deliver, with mischievous panache), neither did he excel, enjoy himself, or find social success: “It is no use pretending that I was anything else than a dreaming and unpractical boy. Perhaps my environment made me sensitive, but there was an “unmanly” element in my nature which betrayed me into many blunders and secret humiliations. Somehow I could never acquire the knack of doing and saying the right thing: and my troubles were multiplied by an easily exited and emotional temperament.” Strangely, though, his memoirs are relatively free of really nasty or traumatic experiences. Dreamy, impractical–sure, fine. But he did make friends, and his brothers were often at school with him, and he was reasonably good at games. His blunders seem minor: he has a few anecdotes in which he mistakes a person’s identity or status or accidentally reveals his own ignorance, but so have we all. He tells us that he got lost and arrived late to his very first morning class at Marlborough–the new boy was admonished and snickered at–and for years afterward relived this embarrassment in dreams. But this is garden-variety schoolboy shame, hardly top-drawer trauma. School may have been awkward, but it wasn’t really unpleasant, in his retelling.
At home, Siegfried was well-loved and lavishly provided for. The house was full of books, and he read Tennyson and Shelley, all the classic Victorian boy’s adventure books and a smattering of the more grown-up novels. Later, of course, he fell in with William Morris and the dreamy poetry that bobbed harmlessly along in the wake of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (the house, too, was decorated with reproductions of pre-Raphaelite paintings). This was an environment perfectly suited to the growth and development of a young aesthete, a solitary soul and a budding poet. But Siegfried was slow to blossom: he never finished his third term at Marlborough, barely crammed his way into Cambridge, and made little mark there. He has very little indeed to say about Cambridge: he was pleased to let his wayward mind wander through courses in law and history, but since the poetical pores of his brain were so resistant to dates and facts, he went down without taking a degree. University flies by in fewer pages than it takes to describe the physical appearance of a book or the emotions of a single horse race.
Despite the few years of pseudo-independence at Cambridge, Sassoon was, in 1913, a man of twenty-seven still living in his mother’s world. He was back at home in Kent, in his old room, and he read, idled, and wrote, self-publishing a few slim volumes of ornate, sensual, and deeply unoriginal verses. But this is only half the story, as he tells it. This was the indoor world, and there was another Sassoon, the outdoor gentleman who played golf and cricket was an accomplished rider.
The last two pursuits were learned under the tutelage of the family’s coachman-cum-groom, Tom Richardson. It’s hard not to engage the “father figure” cliche, here. Siegfried’s father was absent, then he died; Richardson, stepping up in the role of the devoted family servant, made sure that appropriate ponies and horses were purchased, and then he taught the boy to ride. He also instructed him in cricket (there was a tutor in the mix as well), and, if Englishman and Americans are not by the width of a bat and the bounce of a ball divided, then even the faintest glimmer of the image of a boy on a lawn of a summer’s afternoon, throwing and catching with an idealized older man will not fail to bring a tear to the eye… and Richardson and the young master played village cricket together, too, side by side. But class is class, and grooms are not fathers. Richardson taught young Sassoon until he rode well enough to follow the hunt. But then, of course, he rode alongside not as fellow but as servant and assistant, a beloved trainer/caddy/teacher whose place was a stride behind.
So Richardson is to be thanked, and allowed, for the moment, to fade from the story. But this countryman of the servant classes was a much more successful teacher than the haphazard assemblage of tutors and masters that had seen Indoor Siegfried through his failed academic career. Sassoon grew into the country gentleman’s role and became a good enough cricketer to play alongside professionals with a local amateur club (the Bluemantles), a good enough rider to enter some of the point-to-point (i.e. cross-country, with jumping) races that were highlights of the local hunting calendar–a few he even won. So it wasn’t all loneliness and poetry and humiliation: there were long, satisfying days of outdoor sport, and there were triumphs.
In his poetic inclinations, in his country life indoor and out, even in his many Thornycroft family connections, Sassoon felt himself to be deeply (we would add “traditionally”) English. His poems were about English flowers (and English-inflected death), his drawings were of hop-kilns, and his wardrobe included the red coat of the fox hunter, the white flannels of the cricketer, and, by the time of our next entry, a glossy top hat as well. He loved horses and he loved the open countryside, and despite its literary lure he had so far avoided spending more than the odd few days in London. This was an English country gentleman, through and through, sporting and soft-spoken, gently bred. His unusual name had become little more than a source of slight annoyance, since to new acquaintances it connoted a wealth and exoticism in which he did not share.
Since we are so dependent upon Sassoon’s memoirs–happily dependent, as they make for fascinating reading–we had best come face to face (to face) with the strangest thing about them. The first three volumes are fictionalized in an unusual way: the memoirs belong to”George Sherston,” a young gentleman of means from Kent whose experiences are more or less identical to those of Siegfried Sassoon. School, hunting, racing–under the tutelage of a groom diminutivized as “Tom Dixon”–all of this is drawn directly from his life. Real people can be easily recognized and the hunts and, later, the war experiences, precisely dated. And yet: George Sherston is an orphan and an only child. Sassoon simply cleared out the family members he would rather not talk about, replacing them wholesale with a dotty, harmless, demi-Dickensian “Aunt Evelyn.” Odder still, he often delves into “Sherston’s” mental and emotional life, which seems to be Sassoon’s, except for the fact that this inner life includes no poetic calling, no writing or literary ambitions–which is to say most of what occupied Sassoon’s actual mind.
Then, later, he wrote three more volumes of memoirs, in which appears in propria persona, mothered and brothered and mooning after the stars. These volumes spend much more time on his childhood and touch only very lightly on the hunting and riding which figure so prominently in the Sherston memoirs: the first Sherston volume is called Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, the second Sassoon volume is The Weald of Youth.
And so we get two Sassoons for the price of one, more than the sum of his parts, a memoirist confronting the mirror of the past yet also sketching what he sees over his shoulder, doubly-reflected and distorted in a cloudy cheval glass over by the door. The “dreaming and unpractical boy” mentioned above is, technically, Sherston, while the boy born “once upon a time” was Sassoon. Yet they are one and the same.
Fussell described this as “binary vision,” while Sassoon’s own favorite metaphor was the stereoscope. It makes it rather interesting to get many scenes twice over, and yet never once with that pretense of artless “historical” description that characterizes so many other memoirs. Once you’ve fictionalized your life, a second rumination can’t really pretend to be straight personal history either, and Sassoon doesn’t make this claim. More than most authors, even, he is committed to bending the story of his youth and young-manhood onto a frame, the story of innocence seen from a mature distance. His life is eventful enough, as we will see, and while its history will always be fraught–tangled, screened, uncertain–the high literary quality of his writing and its unusual double form make the memoirs well worth extended consideration. So Siegfried Sassoon will become for us the writer who stands not for the problem of accurately representing experience but rather for the artistic process of conscious memory and its transmutation into literature. His use of variations on the “I was two different people/I had a different personality with every friend” theme is so persistent that it goes to the heart not just of Sassoon the writer but Sassoon the man. Throughout his youth and through our period he will experience an intense shifting of self, as he finds himself playing different roles–and we haven’t even gotten to the war, or dealt much with religion or sexuality. And yet: we all change our self-presentation, playing up or down different aspects of her personality to different people. Sassoon was not unique, although perhaps he did this more than most–or is it only that he was more intensely sensitive, more intensely self-aware (self-obsessed?) than the rest of us. All this should get more extended discussion once we’ve had occasion to cite the memoirs at least a few times, and get a feel for them.
For now, then, only a note that today, a century back, George/Siegfried spent one more aimless day in London, his hunting life on hiatus, everything else enveloped in a pleasant summery cloud of listless ennui: “I didn’t do much, but I was trying my best to be helpful, dawdling about in the stables and the sale yard…”
But looking back, we can mark the sale of the Atherstone horses as the end of an era, and not only for the aimless young man. Crusader was bought by a cavalry officer, who, like peacetime cavalry officers everywhere, had ample free time and an interest in equestrian sports. But, as both memoirist/narrators can’t resist mentioning (breaking, as I am doing here, the hazy heat of the Edwardian Summer with a rumbling foreshadow of thunder,) the cavalry officer was Belgian, and as such will have neither the time nor the place to retrain Crusader as a show-jumper, after all.