18 June, 1914
No time to write this week, except to send you oceans of love & blessings, and to thank you tremendously for your letter. We’ve just had our ‘Waterloo Day’ parade, with all the geegaws; and the German Consul presenting a wreath from the German Emperor, etc, etc. Of course the awful thing happened, and the horse with the man carrying the standard kicked, bucked, & BOLTED! Awful scene. The standard had to be handed over to another man! All this week is a glorified show, parades & balls & polo & all sorts. I wish I had been born in the Fiji islands, with a nice brown stomach cloth & nothing else. You seem to be having the greatest fun, in the height of the season; and you do sound welly.
I am sorry about poor Hamel.
We come home November by the latest rumour. I’m going to have a shoot in Rhodesia before that.
I’m awfully well, Mummy; and I do want to see you. J
Julian Grenfell, first cousin to the twins Grenfell, was a 26-year-old subaltern in the Royal Dragoons, serving in South Africa. The letter is both representative–he did indeed sound like this, or at least when writing to his mother–and deeply dishonest in a good, old-fashioned, messed-up English way.
What was it Philip Larkin Said about Mum and Dad?
Poor Julian Grenfell: despite accomplishments as an athlete, scholar/student, officer, and poet, despite getting out as soon as possible and as far as practicable (right after Oxford, to a regiment stationed in India and slated for South Africa), he never could, and now never will, escape his mother’s influence. One biography puts mother and son on the cover and then pulls a half-Shandy, spending more than 80 pages entirely on mum’s affairs (mostly in that sense, yes) and going more than half the book before giving Julian’s exploits nearly as much attention as hers.
First, dad. Willy Grenfell, recently created Lord Desborough, was “a model Englishman” of rich and respectable Buckinghamshire stock. He was bluff, virile, neither clever nor particularly dim, and very, very sporty. He is, actually, a screamingly hysterical caricature of a Victorian gentleman: he played cricket, fenced, ran, punted, climbed (the Matterhorn), swam (the pool at the bottom of Niagara Falls, once in his youth and again, when the feat was disbelieved, in early middle age), rowed (for Oxford’s eight, and also–and also in a racing eight–across the channel), was in and out of parliament, had few specific political commitments (other than a cockamamie monetary theory), and hunted, hunted, hunted, shooting literally thousands of animals, sometimes hundreds of birds in a single day. He headed the British delegation to the Stockholm Olympics, which is inevitable when you consider that this was then a quirky, smallish, flannel-clad celebration of semi-specialized and gentlemanly amateur athletic achievement which was supposed to publicize vaguely peaceful intentions (as opposed to the current, enormous lycra-sheathed celebration of highly specialized professionalism, vulgarly half-blunted nationalism, greed, and corruption, which is often used as a distraction for military adventurism). While these achievements might explain the rather desultory panache with which Julian, born 1888, and his brother Billy, born 1890, approached hunting and games–they could hardly disappoint papa, but neither could they equal him–he seems to have been a perfectly reasonable father by the standards of time, place, and class. (There were younger siblings, and Monica will enter the story later, especially if I can get my hands on her memoir.)
Reasonable might be the very last adjective to apply to Lady Desborough, née Ettie Fane. An orphan from the age of two (this is the traditional starting place for explanations of her curious psychology), Ettie had earls on both sides of the family as well as a dearth of male cousins. By the time she “came out” she was an attractive woman, tiny and reasonably (ha!) pretty but not considered a “great beauty,” yet nevertheless a past mistress of allurement. She is usually photographed projecting demure vulnerability, with downcast eyes, and it was evidently her gracious manner, wit, and mysterious powers of stimulating joy and attracting devotion, rather than any merely sensual appeal, that allowed her to take on “lovers” as persistently and efficiently as a the conductor of a crowded train collects tickets. She was also extremely well connected and likely to be very rich (she eventually inherited Panshanger, a large estate which became a second country home for her family). So Willy seems like a strange choice. Yet the solidity of the marriage is more or less unquestioned: no paternity doubts, loving letters back and forth, all the appearances of bluff support and enjoyment of each other’s company, despite often spending months at a time away. Ettie Fane/Grenfell/Desborough was very clever and possessed of a fierce will to manipulate others, so perhaps she determined at a young age that a solid marriage to a stolid hunting type would provide a secure base of operations for her extravagant social interests and intense mothering. She was certainly the most brilliant hostess of the age. And her children loved her–and hated her.
So the marriage endured despite dozens of more or less open, although not sexually frank, “affairs.” These odd relationships are now known mostly from incomplete collections of letters: Ettie seems to have edited her correspondence both by blatantly altering letters and destroying those that did not fit her view of the past. Sometimes the letters and the balls and parties they describe seem to be conscious imitations of the style of the chivalric romances which had recently returned to popularity; at other times we feel as if we are discovering an entirely novel method of exploiting the social power that charismatic society women in Victorian Britain could assume. Ettie and her female friends collected male admirers–this was done openly, as a sort of social game–but with Ettie it seems to have gone much further, and gone on much longer. Several of these men–sometimes married, sometimes not; sometimes handsome, sometimes not; but always witty and able to shine socially–seemed to spend all their leisure time playing at the rituals of courtly love, writing prolifically and profusely praising the unattainable queen who had enslaved a noble knight to her affections… and yet the amount of actual marital infidelity is impossible to guess. Whatever was going on in private, Ettie was the queen bee of her social world, surrounding herself with dozens of “lovers” and acting as heart and soul of the “souls” (as her group of somewhat-intellectually-inclined and fervently witty group of friends were called).
Two things seem to have driven Ettie Grenfell through life: a fervent desire to succeed socially, which manifested itself in non-stop hosting, in the accumulation of so many “lovers,” and in the relentless pressure she put on Julian to conform to her expectations of social participation; and a sort of Panglossian emotional blackmail. Her “stubborn gospel of joy,” as one of her friends called it, had to be accepted as an unalterable decree of the queen of heaven: she demanded that everyone always be frightfully happy and consider all events to be absolutely for the best.
The Well-Bred Rebel
This was hard for Julian to deal with. From his father he got a measure of athletic skill and an example of physical courage; but his sharp intelligence and stubbornness seem to come from his mother, his inward nature and, later, confirmed individualism, came from neither–unless we see him, early in the Freudian century, constructing his entire personality as an act of resistance to his mother’s domination. If his mother was difficult to deal with in childhood, the relationship became a bigger problem once he got some distance from home, and even Ettie admitted that his time at Eton and Oxford was marked by “battles for life” with his mother. He fought with her, really, not to make any dramatically unconventional decisions, but merely to be left alone, to be allowed to see things as he saw them. Inasmuch as this meant rejecting his mother’s re-writings of reality, it would never be allowed.
Everything surely became very difficult to deal with once Ettie started taking “lovers” from among Julian’s contemporaries and school friends. Several of these young men seemed very similar to Julian other than in their willingness to play Ettie’s games and to engage wholeheartedly in her social life. So Julian strove, and was successful as both a student and scholar, but he seems to have been zealously unhappy, as well might you be if your mother wrote to you about flirting and dancing with some of your school chums.
It’s hard to tell whether Julian was broody and aloof and negative in a studied way, or whether he was generally unhappy whenever he was thinking about things (and at peace, therefore, only during games and outdoor pursuits). In either case, he was prone to severe depressions, which only appear in his letters after the fact. While he occasionally complains about things in his letters home, he more often suppresses his unhappiness and affects high spirits. The only difference, then, between the tone of many of his letters and the tone of his mother’s is that he occasionally ratchets the happiness and silliness up into obvious parody. In this way he could please his mother by being witty, while simultaneously cutting her with that wit–Ettie liked cleverness, but not irony (which we might as well consider, looking forward, to be positions representative of their generations.)
But now I’ve gone and done it again: Julian is miserable because of mom, his sense of doom is his spirit crushed by his mother’s demands, her insane insistence that everyone only love her (as many did) and proclaim the great joy of living. It’s hard on a chap when he can’t be allowed to own his own depression, or take credit for his well-researched misanthropy and fatalism.
Class, School, and Depression
Quickly, now, with the class-calipers and the school assessments. We can have a light meal of basic background now, and return later this summer (there are many letters) to unpack this fancy picnic hamper of frenetic misery at our leisure.
To get our social fix, let’s compare Grenfell to Sassoon, the other writer whose childhood I’ve recently read/written about in some depth. For Julian Grenfell there is greater comfort (his family’s servants outnumbered Sassoon’s by a factor of about three, although this still left the family far less rich than many of their friends–Ettie kept accounts) and higher social position (long walks with Lord Kitchener rather than dinner with Edmund Gosse –although Gosse, too, was a family friend–and, while both were photographed as a fancy-dress page, Sassoon’s failure to bow before the Princess of Wales took place at a public event, while Grenfell’s mother was an actual lady-in-waiting to the queen and can be seen gazing down at the Prince of Wales in a house party group photograph) and of course the much more problematical mother. Sassoon may have gently killed off (how’s that?) his mother for half of his memoirs, but Ettie wrote her son’s unhappiness out of his own letters and her “journal.”
It’s instructive, too, to compare Sassoon’s lax upbringing–he was allowed to start school very late and to miss large swaths of it, and ambition and hard work were slow in coming–with Grenfell’s. This doesn’t seem to have been brutal, but he and his siblings (his sisters he seems to have been distantly fond of, more on Billy in due time) nevertheless turned out tough, working hard and excelling. Grenfell earned a scholarship to Balliol where he established the reputation of a renaissance man (good at games, school work, poetry) and a loner, alternately charming and “primitive,” with little interest in conforming or joining any particular “set.” Everyone, retrospectively, was very impressed.
Julian wrote and edited and boxed and studied at Eton, and began to read and write poetry. At Balliol he worked hard enough to be headed toward a first in Greats when, after the death in a car smash of Archie Gordon, one of his friends as well as one of his mother’s young “lovers,” he fell into a catastrophic two-month-long depression. This was in 1910, a low point and a turning point. Julian seems to have contemplated suicide, and while depression was clearly natural to his psyche (“genetic,” we would say) it’s also a good bet that his despair derived from his mother’s response to Gordon’s death. There was no way to grieve or question its meaning because Ettie, and the whole social world around her, bred to her expectations that every trial and disaster should be declared a victory, indulged (or gruesomely over-indulged) in the cliches of happy and peaceful passing–“everyone seemed suddenly to say they were radiantly happy.” This is, of course, properly Christian, but selectively so–these were people committed to living the good life, and Ettie’s appropriation of the idea of death as a passing to a better place is at best an opportunistic use of faith and at worse a suborning of religion to the needs of an endless piece of performance art.
Julian, “fingering the trigger” of a shotgun and seeing the world’s contradictions as insurmountable, and Ettie, proclaiming the violent death of a young man to be a source of beauty and happiness, were both getting good practice for the near future.
After this, Grenfell abandoned serious study and simply finished Oxford with the army in mind–he picked the Royal Dragoons not least because they would take him far from England, and quickly. He had one long flirtation and perhaps one brief affair around this time, but both were with daughters of his mother’s circle, and her opposition and interference in his nascent love life (we hear of no schoolboy crushes) was yet another reason to flee the country.
And yet, as befitting a serious scholarship boy naturally solitary and determined to be independent, he produced a small book of critical/philosophical essays that amounted, apparently, to a carefully reasoned attack on all aspects of contemporary social life. The main idea–or a prominent running theme–seems to have been an attack on idealism (in the Platonic sense, as well as in the more conventional sense that life must be lived by high principles rather than in response to the particular facts and challenges of the material world) and in particular an attack on contemporary society, which Grenfell portrayed as holding too many contradictory ideals, such as the paramount importance of both the competitive spirit and Christian self-sacrifice.
The book was written, read by Ettie and a few others, and forgotten. One of those, who read it, notably, was Patrick Shaw-Stewart, an Eton-and-Oxford friend (or former friend) of Julian and a lover of Ettie who will enter our story rather soon. Having produced his rejection of the society that produced him, Julian stashed it a file box and left for India and a life of physical action.
In the Army
Julian Grenfell had all of the makings of a good cavalry officer. Although he alternately loved and hated the physical hardships of garrison life in India (a cycle of depressions and periods of high spirits seems to have continued), he rode very well, winning races and jumping contests, he was generally competent and well mannered, and he established himself in his regiment despite his anti-social and intellectual tendencies. This was a time when breeding and good manners were required of a cavalry officer, and physical courage fetishized–the rest was commentary.
These qualities he had, and, although he never showed quite his father’s gourmandise for hunting, Julian Grenfell, author of philosophical essays and verse, loved the danger and violence of the hunt, especially that British Indian Army favorite, “pig-sticking.” Julian, like any red-blooded aristocrat, would spend a day shooting helpless birds, sure–but he preferred riding after boars, big animals that, at the end of the chase, turned on you and could hurt you. This, at least, is putting his body where his mind had been: whatever the “ideals” of “sport,” this wasn’t mere cricket: pig-sticking, jumping, and boxing were painful or potentially dangerous, and that counted as reality.
In late 1911 the regiment transferred to South Africa and in 1912 to a station not far from Johannesburg. Julian continued to race and hunt in his (ample) free time, and he was also reprimanded by his colonel for an over-active social life with the young ladies of the town. Thousands of miles from his mother, he seems to have become suddenly interested in enjoying flirtation and social life. He also started reading, seriously (he wrote occasional verse, too, but not, at this time, with intent to revise or publish). Among the many authors mentioned in his letters I will cherry-pick Rupert Brooke and Thomas Hardy: like Charles Sorley, we know that Grenfell read Jude the Obscure not long before the war; unlike Sorley (more on that next year), he seems to have been quite impressed with Brooke’s verse. It’s a shame that they didn’t run into each other: Brooke would have been fascinated with, or terrified by, Grenfell; and would Grenfell have condescended to see something of a tortured kindred spirit, or condemned him as a vacillating, silly, barefoot, and rarely violent pretty boy?
We’ll be back with Grenfell soon, but since his letters are so tricky to wring meaning from, let’s end on a physical note: we are often told that British soldiers respected or looked up to aristocratic officers who acted the part–brave, aloof, decisive; and we usually have to accept this dubious proposition on faith. But Julian Grenfell offers them, and us, a little more proof. Accompanying several men to the army boxing championship (for South Africa, it would seem) he decided to fight, and when no other officers entered in his weight class, he challenged all comers. A serious boxer who had already won two bouts by knockout took up the offer and knocked Grenfell down immediately. He was up by the count of six, but couldn’t see straight, and took a pounding for the rest of the round. In the second round he knocked out his opponent and was carried off on his soldiers’ shoulders. Oh, they don’t make ’em like they used to.