Vera Brittain: Close Reading for Oxford

June 29, 1914

Tentatively I broached the subject of Uppingham, and found my mother perfectly willing to take me with her to Edward’s last Speech Day ; no doubt she welcomed anything that would deflect my attention–to say nothing of my conversation–from the imminent Oxford Senior. The fact that this ordeal would follow immediately after the Speech Day lost, for the moment, its importance, and I settled down to work and to wait with as much patience as juvenile adulthood could muster.

Somehow, the time passed more quickly than I had expected. Absorbed in Unseen Translations and the Binomial Theorem, eagerly looking forward to seeing Roland once more at Uppingham, and mitigating the interval by a heartless retrospective flirtation with my would-be suitor of the previous summer, I entirely failed to notice in the daily papers of June 29th an account of the assassination, on the previous morning, of a European potentate whose name was unknown to me, in a Balkan town of which I had never heard.[1]

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 85. This retrospective confession of ignorance--a memoirist constructing a non-memory to mark an unnoticed event--is nicely representative. Few of our writers claim even to have noticed the assassination, and none go so far against the grain of historical memory as to claim that they thought it might in any way affect their lives. Vera Brittain inserts the non-memory as a sort of invisible bookmark in the mind of her 1914 self, otherwise studying hard to secure her place in Somerville College, Oxford, and looking forward to being able to see her brother--and her brother's attractive friend--at the celebration that will mark the end of their time in school (both are also Oxford bound, come autumn). A bookish and romantic Last Summer. We will check in with Vera in a few days, when she writes, and attend Speech Day on July 11th--it's a highlight of the blissful, sunny, ignorant march to war. For background on Vera, Edward, and Roland, see here.

A Shot Unheard in Britain

It would be strange not to mark today’s date, this being a Centenary-of-World-War-One project. And yet it isn’t really fitting, either. Of all the many British authors I have read, only a handful even discuss the assassination. Their stories start later, perhaps with the dawning awareness of late July, but more typically with an abrupt lurch on August 4th (when I had originally intended to begin this project) or, in many cases, even later, when they entered the army or reached France. Today’s date is only significant in retrospect, and can only be a sort of place-holder, the solid fact that casts the unseen shadow over all that sunny innocence. A war writers go back and mention it, but we’ll mark that sort of remembering tomorrow–after all, most people in England who did get the news got it the following morning, with their paper.

Instead, although I am not pretending to even pretend to consider to pretend to cover the continental literature of the war (although sometimes I look at my unread copy of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 and shed a tear) I recently stumbled across this eminently Middle-European account of this afternoon, a century back, and thought it would be another way of quickly marking the beginning of the great cascade of fact, futility, nationalist idiocy, and mobilization timetables. Here is how Stefan Zweig, (he’s so hot right now!) then in the imperial capital of Vienna, remembers that afternoon:

I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention. Nevertheless, I was simultaneously aware of the wind in the trees, the chirping of the birds, and the music which was wafted toward me from the park. I heard the melodies distinctly without being disturbed by them, for our ear is so capable of adapting itself that a continuous din, or the noise of a street, or the rippling of a brook adjusts itself completely to our consciousness, and it is only an unexpected halt in the rhythm that startles us into listening.

And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off… Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion… I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand…[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 215. Is this a seminal text on white noise, or the ironic uses thereof?

Edmund Blunden: A Draw in Brighton

June 27th, 1914

Edmund Blunden will always be in the running for Nicest English Boy of Them All, although he would probably pull up before the tape to avoid embarrassing all the other nice young men in the pack. He loved flowers, cricket, quaint English villages, poetry, flowers, England, and cricket. And also cricket. He was a son of the provincial middle classes: his father was village schoolmaster, choirmaster, and church organist in Yalding, Kent. Blunden, then, shared this hop-kiln-studded southern landscape with Siegfried Sassoon, although he did not get to see so much of it from horseback. Blunden senior, though, was very much present, dominating family and village life, and teaching his son to revere cricket–the younger Blunden seems to have played enthusiastically and often, but not particularly well. The elder Blunden was a man of many talents, but he was bad with money, falling several times into debt in a very public manner. Most of Blunden’s childhood (he was born in 1896) was idyllic–fishing and climbing the clock-tower, singing in his father’s choir and carrying the bags of visiting cricketers–but the memory of furniture piled in the street for repossession lent a Dickensian shadow to that childhood (as Edmund himself noted). His mother had been a teacher as well, and had briefly moved in higher circles in London, where she had met both Ruskin and Wilde. She was a softer influence, although Edmund feared inheriting a strain of madness that ran in her family.

The crucial event of Blunden’s childhood, however, was his father’s decision to send him to Christ’s Hospital, a one-of-a-kind school utterly English in its complete eccentricity. The school was founded in 1552 by Edward VI, offered an excellent education, and required its students not only to learn a great deal of sui generis slang and pointless school custom (this being very much on the Public School model) but also to dress in a long blue coat and yellow stockings (which no fashionable public school boy would be caught dead in). And it was free. The wealthy and the titled did not attend Christ’s Hospital, but any middle class (or, conceivably but rarely) working class youth who passed the entrance examination could. To his love of England’s fields young Edmund could now add a love of its literature, and he began, of course, to write poetry of his own. He lived in a house named after the school’s most illustrious alumnus–Coleridge–and studied the classics diligently enough to earn the extra coat-buttons afforded a scholarship-likely “Grecian” and even to excel in the then-popular extreme-classicism sport of turning English poetry into Latin. But he was probably more proud of playing in the school’s second eleven. So the Dickensian shadow is very slight, the days of youth quite sunny–a happy, rooted childhood leading to great happiness in school, and the promise of university and an unusually mobile middle-class adulthood.

There is little enough of Blunden’s childhood and school days that need telling, I think. Quiet, pretty, poetical, well-liked, apparently untroubled: this would seem to describe both Blunden as others saw him and his own view of life. Of course it’s more complicated than that, and the war is coming. Blunden, though, is slated for another year in school to prepare to win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge and we will not see him regularly for some time (his memoir, the most beautiful book to come out of the war, begins with his orders to proceed to France in 1916). But I wanted to introduce him, here, on even the slenderest of pretexts.

He might have been anywhere, today, a century back, but I’ll bet he was in Brighton, watching “Housey’s” first eleven draw a one-day, single innings match against Brighton College. His fellow Latinist P.W.J. Stevenson had a disappointing ten, and his good friend Dick Creese was five not out when the light failed. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was a soft golden light, that the air was fragrant, and that a good time was had by all.[1]

A snippets of later work, then:

“On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.”


References and Footnotes

  1. Sources for this fairly obtuse introduction to Blunden include Barry Webb's biography and

Edward Thomas: Drawing up at Adlestrop

June 24th, 1914

Edward and Helen Thomas had come in from Gloucestershire to London for the ballet–the premiere, as it happened, of La Légende de Josephe. Underwhelmed by the production, and unaware of two fellow aspiring poets in the audience, Thomas returned to his parents’ house for the night, slept, got up at 4.20 AM, wrote a brief note to his friend Eleanor Farjeon, kissed his three children goodbye (one would imagine–the rest, though, is well documented) and left, with his wife, for Paddington and the 10.20 for Malvern. Ahead lay a few days free of the children, to be spent walking about the countryside–this, along with writing and talking with writers about writing, was one of his favorite activities. But first, a slow ride west through a drowsily hot summer noon: “A glorious day,” the clouds “tiers of pure white with loose longer masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.” And then? Well, if you’re English you will probably recognize what comes next–if you’re not, or if you don’t, well, then, you’re only moments away from a rush of anglophila.

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam… extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel–looking out on grey dry stones between metals & shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass—one man clears his throat—and a great rustic silence.[1]

And that was that–the train stopped “only for a minute” and the notebook soon went into a drawer. Edward Thomas was a professional, prolific, influential writer–and a very good writer too. But he was not yet a poet. In fact, it had only been in May that he had first admitted his desire to take to verse. So no poem yet–that would come with winter, when a badly sprained ankle sent him back to this summer notebook.

It would be hard to find a better example of this project’s interest in the overlap of historical immediacy (the notes, the day, the weather, the time), the literary refashioning of past time (only six months intervened, but summer was Edwardian, Georgian, Victorian, Peaceful, Confident, Perfect, and winter was War), and, inevitably, chance (the sprained ankle standing [or falling] in for much worse).

The resulting poem, Adlestrop, is one of the best-loved and best-remembered of 20th century English poems. It even has its own anthology.[2]

Why, exactly? As numerous critics have pointed out, this short, very gentle poem has little in common with any of the then-new movements in poetry, including the precise observation and naturalistic dialogue that Thomas was himself championing. Like most very popular poems it’s simple and sweet; like a few, it’s very good–impossible to pin down or render into prose without ruining, but about something none the less. Ivor Gurney, whom we will get to in good time, doubled down on this effect, calling it “nebulously intangibly beautiful.”

Adlestrop could sustain a good deal of careful reading, float more than a few minutes of learned discussion–but in this context the meaning is easy to fix to satisfaction: today, a century back, the essence of England, of the English countryside, was taken down. The last drowsy journey that doesn’t really go anywhere (from the essential English train scenario[3] of the first stanza to the shire-names of the last) because everywhere is England, secure and unchanging through all the long centuries of cycling seasons that ended with the war.[4]

The poem feels effortless (of course it does, it’s a good poem–but it wasn’t effortless in the writing) and the rhythm is easy, but it’s got everything in there: between the train and the peaceful/ominous empty platform at the beginning of the poem and the shires at the end we have time for the two favorite subjects of this generation’s English pastoralists–the flora (“willows, willow-herb, and grass,/And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry”) and the birds, “all the birds.” Matthew Hollis, author of a sad and excellent book on Thomas, is probably right to set aside the hifalutin’ perception that “the inscrutable chorus of birdsong into which the poem dissolves” is not the key to its popularity. It is rather the overall sense that sense itself can save us from oblivion. Sight and smell and sound, here, preserve in memory that irretrievably lost summer, allowing the poet to conjure it up again, to summon it and fix it as language, to cheat time and fend off death. For a while–for a while.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. The quotations from Thomas's notebook are found in Matthew Hollis's Now All Roads Lead to France, 139, 205.
  2. Adlestrop, An Anthology, edited by the commendable Anne Harvey.
  3. How very English-pastoral, too, to embrace the hiss of the First Industrial Revolution. A steam train, sure: but the grumble of a diesel engine or, worse, the throbbing of an idling lorry, would be dreadful and disgusting.
  4. The emphasis on the undislocatable strength of a name--" I remember Adlestrop—/The name... Adlestrop—only the name," as well as the naming of counties at the end--also seems to anticipate the well-known Hemingway/Fussell point about the need for concrete names to cling to once the tidal wave of loss and destruction has swamped the old vocabulary of remembrance. This is one of the ways in which the quiet country poem seems to clearly identify itself--to our eyes, at least--as a war poem.
  5. Apologies for the silly and inappropriate allusion--it's a beautiful poem by a powerful poet, and I realize that I can't make a habit of giggling at the sad, serious stuff--it would be as difficult to defend or sustain, in the years to come, as patriotic cant or heavy-lidded sentimentality.

Everybody at the Ballet

Today’s post has decided, like Siegfried Sassoon and so many other indolent, striving youths, to forsake its country home and take a flat in the Big Literary City, in this case, on The Millions.

If you’ve come hither from there, welcome. Because that article seemed like a good idea, this blog is now getting off to an early start. It will be, come August, a daily event, featuring either a piece of writing about the Great War produced or published a century ago to the day or (more frequently, in the early going) a discussion of a significant event in the life of one of the writers we are following that occurred on that day. So, bear with me through July, when the posts will be less frequent (but, like the May and June posts, likely to be longer–most are intended to introduce one of our main writer-characters or Big Literary Themes) but please do explore the archives.

So today’s story is told elsewhere…

…but there’s always more to write. Read on below for additional explanations, as well as notes on the research that went into the article and some source notes on its quotes and claims.


On Coincidences

From the very beginning of this project I had idly (or industriously) dreamt of the small, sweet reward of discovering a crossing of paths, a remark-upon-able overlapping in time and space. It would be a small thrill–yet large enough to be registered by sensitive instruments–to find two or more of our writers in close proximity to each other, unbeknownst to history. It would feel, too, like a nice little honorarium from history, a token repayment for all of this reading and careful calendar watching. I imagined that this would happen on or about July 1916: perhaps a lesser-known writer would pass a famous poet’s battalion on the march, or two of our subjects would be found to have written about the identical comic/horrific training accident, or looked out from different vantage points on the very same disastrous attack. Such a “discovery” doesn’t mean much–coincidences are, after all, soberly believed to be flashy distractions from singular events of real, contextual, continual significance. And correctly so.

But it would be fun. And, yes, perhaps, also: if I were to find a convergence that was not involuntary or completely banal, then I might have a little nugget of real scholarly gold  (the most refined [and retorted?] sort of fool’s gold) on my hands, panned from the unending slag heap of already-published material that I’ve been chewing over… but this mining metaphor is slipping from my hands and threatening to plunge into deep obscurity.

This is, anyway, a slight aspiration, and, inasmuch as it intends to celebrate coincidence rather than new insight, an ignoble one as well–yet it’s fitting to the project. Within the self-staked parameters, at least, I can claim broad reading; so I may not drill to new depths, but I might see pockets of color that writers mining the narrow vein of one writer (or, often enough, working along the gallery that touches on the veins of several writing friends) might miss.

The mining metaphor is somewhat appropriate–thousands of miners will ply their trade in uniform on the Western Front, and there will be a great deal of scrabbling about in dirt and broken stone, mining for less golden goals–but given our interest in English poetry perhaps the fields would suit us better. So: these fields of knowledge are sun-drenched and well-plowed, continually cultivated even as their fertility declines (every world war one scholar still kicking has a book coming out this summer, it seems). While my own tilling is shallow, at least I’m messing about in fields-full of furrows at once.

And so I’ve found an interesting coincidence, involving the convergence of three of our war writers (though they are unhappy in their writing and the war is yet to begin) today, a century back.  Read about it here.


You Read it Here First

Now, as to whether or not I should be congratulated for an unassisted triple play is, necessarily, an open question. This isn’t my field and I haven’t bestirred myself to scour the scholarly literature or call upon any academic experts, lest they take this gilded coincidence for a nugget of true gold and be tempted (forgivably, given that they dwell in the shadow of the insatiable and omnivorous draconis curriculum vitae) to steal it and add it to their own hoard. So I’m not all that confident in claiming initial ownership of the double coincidence, and I stand ready to be disillusioned. When I first read Great Morning! and noticed the overlap with Sassoon’s memories, I expected then to come upon some reference to their crossing of paths, but I have consulted several of the major critical/scholarly works and the standard biographies, and I’ve googled around and found nothing. Since the event itself, and either Sassoon’s or Sitwell’s attendance at it, is mentioned in at least a dozen books, I would not be surprised to learn that some scholar somewhere has noticed, and enthused about, the fact that they were at the same performance.

After drafting the account of the night at the ballet and casting a wider net for possible mentions of it, I found Kirsty McLeod’s The Last Summer, an engaging but footnoteless (for shame!) account that draws on a large number of diaries (and with a much better gender balance than I am able to achieve here, given the requirement of military service). McLeod is working from both Sassoon’s and Sitwell’s memoirs (but not Eleanor Farjeon’s or other Edward Thomas material) and draws on both for descriptions of La Légende de Josephe–so she has them seeing the same production but does not mention that they were there on the same night.[1] This omission may mean that, given the problem of dating Sassoon’s recollection (see the next section, below), she doesn’t want to make a fuss about a less-than-certain coincidence (this would be the high road, since coincidences don’t really add much to historical accounts and forced or doubtful coincidences might seriously detract), or perhaps, not being the proprietor of a 1,600-column spreadsheet, she didn’t notice that one man’s “June 23rd” was another man’s July-ish-perhaps “the premiere.” But kudos to McLeod for first noticing (as far as I know) that two different poet/memoirists made the same ballet production a part of their “Last Summer” story.


Did Sassoon Really Go to the Premiere?

The Weald of Youth gives the impression that this memorable first visit to the ballet occurred in early July. And it may have, if Sassoon is mistaken in remembering that he attended the premiere: Strauss conducted six more times that summer, and Sassoon gives the program—evidently from memory—as Les Sylphides, then La Légende de Josephe, then Papillons. But Les Sylphides was not danced the night of the premiere–Thamar was (this according to the original souvenir program, not to mention Edward Thomas’s letter). Les Sylphides was on the same bill with La Légende de Josephe for only a single performance that July (if the progam is accurate), but the third piece on that night was Stravinsky’s Rossignol, which is rather unlikely to be confused with Papillons. Sassoon, who went to the Ballet Russes many times that July and surely saw all of the above at one point, is conflating, one way or another.

It seems more likely that he correctly remembers the fact of the premiere (the ambassador, etc) and two of the three ballets, and is therefore wrong about the date, than that he invented the fact of the premiere. As for Sassoon’s biographers, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, in Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, follows Sassoon in putting the event in July while Max Egremont leaves the date vague (as Sassoon does) and, if the online preview is accurate, accidentally relegates the entire season to 1913 in his forthcoming Some Desperate Glory. But the premiere definitely occurred on the 23rd, and Sassoon, who did not keep a diary at this point (a hunt diary and, later, a war diary, exist, but nothing, to my knowledge, recording either contemporary thoughts or appointments) has several other near-misses when he attempts to date experiences that he is reflecting upon more than a quarter-century later and without benefit of documentation. It seems much more likely that he really was there, on June 23rd.


Or Was it Top-Secret Snark?

The article raises the possibility of an alternate reading. The coincidence of the young Sassoon being so flummoxed by this foppish, socially adroit know-it-all character drawling about Veronese and Sitwell’s identical characterization of the ballet’s “décor”  in his own memoir raises the possibility that Sassoon remembers very well that he met Sitwell that night. If this is true, then he is dissembling when he claims to have missed the names of the men Eddie Marsh introduces him to and is pointedly mocking his pretentious ex-friend without identifying him–a nasty little anonymous dig. (“Spoilers,” according to the conventions of this project, in this footnote,[2] and the next few as well.)

Could this be true? Not likely.[3] Coincidences often look deceptively strong when you stare at them for too long: there are the tiaras, sure, and the ambassadors, and Veronese, but these are all reasonably memorable accoutrements of those last days of prosperity and peace, real highlights become stereotypes. Two accounts of a ballet by two not-entirely-dissimilar men looking back upon it from a similar distance and using it to illustrate the same dramatic season of history are bound to contain some similarities.

But the primary arguments against the conspiratorial interpretation are very simple: there’s no real motive, it doesn’t fit Sassoon’s modus memorandi,[4] and it would be a weirdly ineffectual blow to Sitwell, who seems to have been an all-publicity-is-good-publicity sort of fellow.[5]

No, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Besides, wouldn’t it be a terrific comment on the nature of memory if Sassoon really does have a strong image of that overbearing aristocratic ballet critic as he saw him in 1914, and that his mind, so long set to the fine literary sifting of his past, isn’t able to match that memory–the voice so clear, but the name lost and the face faded, filed away in the archive of experiences of youthful nervousness and aesthetic novelty–to the later memories of he-who-we-now-know-to-be-the-same-man, properly filed under “Sitwell, Osbert; poetical frenemy?”

Any Other Famous People Tangentially Connected to Tonight’s Ballet?

Well, it’s worth noting that Sitwell’s little snub of Lady Speyer is particularly unforgivable in that she was not only a society bigwig somewhat out of his class (they were both painted by Sargent–Osbert as a tot in a family shot, Leonora in her own glamorous portrait) but had been an accomplished professional musician and was probably better positioned than he, whatever her taste in objets, to critique the work of Strauss. After she and her husband were hounded out of Britain during the war for their alleged German sympathies (for, that is, their German ancestry) she became a celebrated poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1927.

But here’s where the vagaries of time have conspired to keep me from being carried aloft in an arm-chair, like some rogueish bar mitvah boy belatedly made good, all through the back-ballrooms of the next MLA: they just missed Rupert Brooke. On page 595 of The Letters of Rupert Brooke there is an undated letter to Jacques Raverat, bracketed as July by the editor but just as likely written in late June. (Now, the littera ante quam in the collection is dated June 22nd, meaning that if the editors are a bit mistaken about the date and Rupert has fumbled the day of the week, meaning Tuesday instead of Thursday, why then couldn’t he have… no, no, much too much!!!)

Anyway: the letter shows that Brooke intended, at least, to see the very same ballet shortly after Sassoon, Sitwell, and Thomas:

I’m rushing across in my Car to Gloucestershire tomorrow… Thursday I dart back to London. Thursday night I take Herr Ward to see the Bally–a new affair by his compatriot Strauss–who, by the way, isn’t a Jew, so may be patronized. The Bally is going in more and more for decorations by Benòis and other decent people, and less and less for Bakst, the Jew; so it’s improving, in that way.”

Brooke seems to have left London for his parents’ home in Rugby shortly before (there are letters dated from there on the 18th and on the 22nd) but he was back and forth between there and Eddie Marsh’s guest room several times in the early summer. Alas for the “Thursday:” without that (yes, there was a Thursday performance of La Légende on the 25th) we might have had a Quadruple Convergence of poets. (And yes, I did quote the letter more fully in order to get some of Brooke’s nasty little brand of antisemitism out there–the Golden Apollo/Pansexual Poetic Boy Wonder thing is already wearing thin. I can’t be certain [slide-tackling a biography or two will begin shortly] but I think that note of real nastiness is exactly as nasty as it seems to be: the ironic or mocking note is directed at the clumsy behavior of society anti-semites, but the attitude of simply loathing Jews is one that Brooke shares.)

The Meaning of All This

Well, we shall see. For much of the rest of the summer–the Last Summer, the end of an era, the dying days of Old Europe, the last few weeks of the Long Nineteenth Century, the waning of the Edwardian Afternoon–the “Never Such Innocence Again” theme will be dominant, as it has been since the late 20s (never mind that it wasn’t precisely formulated until the semi-centennial). This emphasis on the pure innocence and ignorance of the British (especially the young adults who would suffer the most) doesn’t actually fit all that well, as McLeod points out, with that other popular sweeping generalization, namely the disastrous decadence of European culture.

They are night and day, really, but in the astronomical rather than the oppositional sense: you’ve got to have both for time to keep turning, no? By night the bright lights burning over and out on the Belle Époque, and all its gilded decorations and glittering tiaras suddeninly seeming garish, threatening to tumble to the ground in super-slo-mo for a montage of  “well now we see it” retrospective decline; by day the the boating and the cricket, the gorgeous weather and the girls playing tennis and romping among the “flowering grasses, and fields” with all the young men who will abruptly leave to stand in those long lines before the recruiting offices… Two different halves of the same story, both sad and beautiful, each beaten together from thousands of experiences (which, in June 1914, had nothing to do, naturally, with August 1914–let alone July 1916, March 1918, or November 1918) and then hammered into shape as they are formed into history and literature. Most of the rest of the summer will be similarly halcyon and shimmering, but outdoorsy, with natural light and long walks and much more talking (i.e. writing) about the hopes and plans of individuals than about dissipated banquets and empires a-totter.

Back, then to Sassoon’s rendering of the night at the ballet. He remembers it so well (or writes so well around and about and with that which he remembers) because it was his initiation into high culture. So it is one of only a score or so of specific events that stand out as he looks back upon his weeks in London, and he fashions it into a useful stopping place, an opportunity to observe and expand upon his young self: it becomes another verse in his long song of innocence (which is why it is, for Sassoon, too serious a matter to be given over to an obscure poke at Sitwell).

Thinking now of Papillons, the short ballet at the end of the program, he writes:

The excitement of the evening had evaporated, and speculation was dissolving into reverie. Only the memory of Papillons remained, haunting my head with gaiety and regretfulness… the essence of romantic lyrical feeling… On the final page of Papillons the clock struck six; and in the ballet the revellers were promenading home in couples, while Pierrot watched them, moon-struck and despondent in the summer morning light.

Remembering, too, that he has failed to write anything “in the grand style,” Sassoon has himself wondering if he should just give in, submit to his romantic foolishness and live a pretty and insignificant literary life, “an existence like the background of a Preraphaelite picture where it was forever afternoon, and time was standing still to the lulling rumble of a mill-wheel and the watery murmur of a weir.”[6]

See how friggin’ clever that is? By now we are accustomed to the frank self-obsession of the long-time memoirist, so let’s sit back and admire (perhaps we are somewhat overwhelmed) how everything–the ballet, the opera, Modernism, Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, even the weather–is neatly rolled into the theme of Siegfried’s innocence. From the night life and high culture back to the great outdoors, borrowing Schumann’s music for the “summer morning light,” one of his mother’s reproductions of Burne-Jones for the too-pretty pastoral background (surely that’s a cricket match beginning on the field just beyond the mill?), and putting them together for a synaesthetic collage of the two Siegfrieds, one in evening dress and soaking up art, the other adrift in London, unhorsed and missing the feel of a cricket bat in his hands.

Sassoon will rush back to the ballet over and over again for several weeks, almost–but not quite–able to put his finger on where and how its illusions will help him learn sophistication. But he’ll also set the nightlife in rounded perspective: “In the daytime people were going about as usual; the grass in the parks was being burnt brown,” there was the problem of Ireland, the Suffragettes–but European news is hardly noticeable, even in the morning paper. It was evening, and it was morning–and there are six weeks left.

References and Footnotes

  1. See McLeod, The Last Summer, 53; for the accounts drawn on there and in the article on The Millions, see Sassoon, The Weald of Youth, 253-63, and Sitwell, Great Morning!, 267-75.
  2. Since Sassoon and Sitwell later became friends and allied soldier-poets--before breaking over, apparently, Sitwell's extreme modernism and brash publicity-courting (and Sassoon's increasing literary conservatism and withdrawal from society)--Sassoon was, at the time he wrote the memoir, an ex-friend of Sitwell who might look down indeed upon his penchant for pretentious social climbing and artistic judgment-rendering. Another possibility, of course, is that Sitwell read Sassoon’s memoir (The Weald of Youth was published in 1942, Great Morning! in 1948) and consciously or unconsciously brought the Veronese comment into his own account while uncharacteristically deciding to omit the interesting detail that a fellow poet and future friend and collaborator was at the same ballet that night… but this would be a baroque explanation for a series of more or less unremarkable coincidences… perhaps Bakst’s “daycore” was just inescapably Veronese-esque!
  3. Still, if one were trying to make a literary-scholarly reputation (in an obscure corner of literary history, it’s true, in which both Sitwell and Sassoon are forgotten wallflowers at the big Eliot-Woolf-Joyce social) one would love to leap to the conclusion that we have here a Lost Literary Feud, the cleverly concealed strafing of a former friend by an old trench-raider, now revealed for the first time… In fact, if Sassoon’s memoir had not been published first, that conclusion would be inescapable. But it was, and the secret snark will have to remain an interpretive long-shot: ten-to-one it’s coincidence, and a good thing I’m only in the literary-history slow-food business, content to collect coincidences and ramble on.
  4. There is another incident at around the same time in which he seeks out, but fails to meet, another poet--Ralph Hodgson--and the memoir breaks out of the frame of the past to note that they will one day be friends. So it makes sense to assume that Sassoon would have done the same if he remembered meeting Sitwell... or chosen deliberately not to, since the friendship was long over by the time of the memoir, and he probably considered Sitwell to be, indeed, a snarky and obnoxious aristocratic lightweight… eh, anything is possible.
  5. I should disclose that I really don’t know Sitwell’s writing very well, having just last month chased him down for the Great War parts and done a little desultory research for this occasion. But he scatters friendly references to Sassoon throughout the next volume of his memoirs, and would be happy to name-check him here, surely, if he remembered such a coincidence. Sassoon, for his part, doesn't go in for much criticizing or sniping (actually, grenade-throwing would be the clever double-entendre--he did do some of that, in the war, and I don't remember him ever being detailed as a sniper) and generally just leaves people out of the memoir if he doesn't like them or doesn't want to talk about them.
  6. The Weald of Youth, 261-3.

The Last Parade on Laffan’s Plain

June 22nd, 1914

On 22nd June 1914 the Aldershot command held a ceremonial parade in honour of the King’s birthday. Four brigades of infantry, a brigade of cavalry, three batteries of field artillery, a battery of horse artillery, two companies of engineers, and a company of Army Service Corps were out on Laffan’s Plain, perhaps 15,000 men, all in the panoply of the old army and none of them aware that such a spectacle would never again be seen. There were perhaps 2,000 horses on parade and not one motor-car, except in the spectators’ arena…

…The line regiments were in scarlet, the riflemen in green, the Eleventh Hussars in their cherry-coloured breeches, the horse-gunners in busbies and sling-jackets, the Highlanders in kilts and feathered bonnets. Each regiment marched with its band playing the quickstep…[1]

Seventeen-year-old Charles Carrington had been staying with his cousins in Fleet, Hampshire for some time. He was an English boy by birth, but he had moved with his parents to New Zealand years before, and come back to England for the sake of his schooling. He had “motored over from Fleet” with his uncle and his cousins to see the enormous parade (Aldershot, where Osbert Sitwell had recently been spending some very unhappy days, being probably the army’s most important garrison). It wasn’t all busbies and feathered bonnets, either–young Carrington was particularly excited to see twelve aeroplanes splutter by in formation, since he, like most of the spectators, had never before seen more than one in flight at the same time.

Also witnessing the fly-by was the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII (and even future-er Duke of Windsor) and a kind of inverse Forrest Gump to this project–he will pop up all over England, France, and Belgium for the next several years, striding regally and (briefly) through the foreground of memoir upon memoir. Edward was not attending in an official role (his father was at a similar, if smaller, parade in London) but rather as a corporal in the Magdalen College, Oxford, Officers’ Training Corps. As his spectacularly undistinguished career at Oxford was now drawing to a close, he would soon join the Grenadier Guards (at about the same time that Sitwell was briefly exiting that august regiment–but stay tuned) where he would spend the war in an awkward royal dance: never to close to the line to risk capture, yet not so totally and persistently safe as to risk harming the morale of a monarchy by appearing not to shoulder the riskier burdens of leadership. If, though, there were perhaps a few “Tommies” naive enough to expect a prince to lead a charge at this late date, there won’t be for long, so we will hear few complaints on this score.[2]

Edward’s course was plotted (at least until he ran off the rails in the 30s), but the big question before the Carrington family was whether Charles should spend another year in school or sit for the Oxford entrance examinations this summer. Charles and his uncle–in correspondence with his parents–had big decisions to make, and soon. In the meantime, his life seems to have been rather Brittain-ic, with studying punctuated by social events at the vicarage, long walks, and “tennis with the girls.”

And that’s about all I know of Carrington’s thoughts at the time–he will become a very good military writer, but never one for languorous introspection. As you can tell from the “Last Summer of the Old World, Military Edition” tone of the quotation, Carrington writes long afterward, looking back. It made for a nice picture, and slips in here under the wire as a simple sunny peaceful day in June. But soon the war will begin and I will want us to proceed day by day, without such obvious retrospection: the continuation of the quote would tell us the dates of the battles that will ravage all of those colorful soldiers this coming fall, killing thousands of them.

Not all of Carrington’s memoirs have this tone, and so we will return him in due course–he’s only seventeen, of course, and too young to see action soon. Or is he?

References and Footnotes

  1. Carrington, Soldiers from the Wars Returning, 45.
  2. I wrote this entry from my tattered old Carrington, then almost immediately picked up a slightly less tattered Imperial War Museum Book of 1914, one of Malcolm Brown's several useful compendia, for a first look--and found first the princely details, then the same damn quote from Carrington, pp 1-2. So today, it seems, has already been nominated as a popular day for sepia-toning the Edwardian Afternoon. But wait'll tomorrow.

A Blast in the Future

 June 20th, 1914


A blast from the future today, lit-erally: despite the publication date on the title page, this issue did not in fact come out until July 2nd. But two of our most important 1914 correspondents are slated for that day, and they would be a little shocked to be expected to consort with Wyndham Lewis’s Magenta monstrousity.

And Blast was self-consciously (figuratively) violent and futurist, or, at least, heavily influenced by the Italian futurists. Wyndham Lewis, the most-still-celebrated-as-an-English-modernist of those who really fought in the war, will come into our story, even as his big movement, Vorticism, will have relatively little impact on post-war literature and even less on the core group of (literarily conservative) war poets. Nevertheless, this too is a publication of the Last Summer–it’s what the sneering cool kids were up to in the comfy world Before the Storm, a world that some of them would fight for, some would die for, in a war that would drive some of them away from any belief in the saving graces of muscular modernity and confirm others in the belief that the only way forward was, well, forward. Among writers who we will be looking  at (although only very briefly, for the first two) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Hueffer (soon to be Ford) wrote for this first issue.[1].

Our heart is not really with the modernists. (Although, in addition to those mentioned above, T.E. Hulme and Herbert Read saw significant service in France and so will represent the sleeping giants [or objecting giants, or giants merely laying so very low] of modernism in our motley literary cavalcade [check that: it’s an infantry parade, the days of mounted literary celebrations drawing now short]). And our heart is not with the Vorticists at all, unless I decide to try to wrestle through Wyndham Lewis’s not-conspicuously-date-heavy memoir. So back, soon, to the budding poets and the handful of serving officers who will be our more constant companions come autumn.

Nevertheless, two quick observations. First, it seems to be mandatory, when citing the first issue of Blast, to quote from the amusingly wacky manifesto. Since there are more than enough wincing ironies and/or strange foreshadowings to make it worth our while, here we go:


1. Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves.
2. We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.
3. We discharge ourselves on both sides.
4. We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.
5. Mercenaries were always the best troops.
6. We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.
7. Our Cause is NO-MAN’S.
8. We set Humour at Humour’s throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.
9. We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.
10. We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.

It goes on like this for some time.

Second, it’s also worth mentioning that the influential surgeon and teacher of drawing at the Slade School of Fine Art Henry Tonks is, um, worth mentioning here, since he is the only figure to be both “blasted” and “blessed” in the Manifesto’s subsequent lists–and he is now appearing here for the third time, I believe, having taught Rosenberg as well as Lewis, and visiting Renishaw to paint Sir George Sitwell. Worth mentioning?

Anyway. Here’s the very first page of Vorticism. It takes either great courage in an unfree society or very slight courage and great, unexamined confidence in a more or less free society (very free, by historical standards, if not quite by ours) to write this kind of energetic silliness:














Well, destruction there would be. But this is an artifact of the Last Summer, not of the empty battlefield of literary high Modernism.


References and Footnotes

  1. There would be only one more, before the war effectively finished Vorticism--Pound was involved, but the other Big Canonical Modernists for the most part waited out the war, both artistically and militarily. For much more than I can even half-accurately summarize, see especially (from whence these page images) or

A Midsummer’s Night in Thuringia

June 19th,1914

Tonight, a century back, Charles Sorley attended an unusual production of a most thematically-appropriate Shakespearean play. With him were Professor and Mrs. Sorley, visiting their son during his German “gap” term. In a letter a few days later to A.E. Hutchinson (the same school friend of our first entry), he described the performance:

A parental visit has livened up last week-end considerably. We “did” western Thuringia, which I recommend for its peculiar strawberry wine, and saw Midsummer Night’s Dream in a wood, which has put me off theatres for the rest of my life. I laughed like a child and “me to live a hundred years, I should never be tired of praising it.” The Germans are so Elizabethan themselves that their productions of Shakespeare are almost perfect. And in this case, the absence of curtains and scenery, and the presence of trees and skies, added the touch of perfection. Shakespeare’s humour is primitive but, none the less, perfect.[1]

Sorley had loved Shakespeare since early childhood–his mother’s tutelage before he entered school included the memorization of Shakespeare and the other great English poets–and he had continued to build up his knowledge during his school days. (He was a young man prone both to fits of enthusiasm and to “completism,” or at least the serious pursuit of a real grounding in whatever subject he was excited about–he was, by nature, one who always did the reading.) At Marlborough, Sorley had been a leader of the “Shakespeare Society,” which met to read Shakespeare aloud in anticipation of a public performance, although Sorley remarked that “even if it leads to nothing public, it will at least mean a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare.”[2] This study he continued while in Germany (virtually all of his reading was self-selected rather than assigned–his official studies were in German, Philosophy, and Economics) and augmented by going to experimental or unusual productions of Shakespeare–we have already seen his sharp take on a Thuringian Merchant of Venice. In addition to Shakespeare he was also now under the influence now of Masefield (and he was reading the Georgians), of Goethe, and of Thomas Hardy, with each enthusiasm tending to peak and then taper off into a more guarded respect.

Amidst all that reading it is salutary to note that Sorley consistently values performance above literary study. These were plays, after all, and Sorley is quite right to note that Shakespeare, especially his comedies, are better seen staged than read, and that, unlike Goethe, he can be only understood with reference to the great contradictory pile of his plays, and not from any one masterwork. Sorley is an aspiring poet–what will he do with this critical insight that performance, especially a “natural” performance, is more true than any nifty scholarly work on the domesticated text?

In a jaunty July letter to his parents Sorley will remember the evening as the highlight of their visit: “The haphazard noticing of that advertisement in Eisenach is just one of these things that makes one believe in a special disposing Providence that sometimes takes the part of master of the revels. I only hope Bottom knows how nice he is.”[3]

Moved, perhaps, by the weather’s warm turn as well as by Shakespeare’s summery comedy, Sorley wrote that he now intended to take on the topic of summertime itself. He would begin with an essay by his favorite naturalist, and contemplate his last summer–before the German intermission was to conclude, in August, Oxford begin to loom on the autumn horizon…

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley, 195.
  2. Letters, 45.
  3. Letters, 196.

Waterloo Day in South Africa

18 June, 1914


Darling Mother,

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[1]


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.[2]

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.[3] 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).[4]

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,”[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]

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:[8] 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.

References and Footnotes

  1. See his Letters, some of which are available online.
  2. Nicholas Mosley, who knew more than a little about "difficult" parents, wrote Julian Grenfell: His life and the times of his [redacted], already fascinated with Ettie Desborough, and although he is careful to step back and note the outrageous behavior of Late Victorian/Edwardian high society, he writes as a bemused descendent of the people of this circle, and one still sharing many of their privileges and emoluments. It's an odd book, but better in its way than a careful and conventional biography of crazy, damaged people.
  3. I'm sure others were in the same league, but the only more spectacular bird-and-mammal-murderer I've come across recently is the Archduke himself.
  4. I am basically at a loss to figure out what was going on at these endless house parties and evening entertainments, not to mention afterwards. Is it just an extended flirtation, letters almost like an extended role-play, social flirtations hardly more naughty than Elizabeth Bennet allowing several arms around her waist at a ball? But it is more than that. It's a little like the chaste affairs of medieval chevaliers and their awkwardly married lady-loves (have we yet made sufficient reference to the popularity in Victorian times of a sanitized romantic Medievalism?) and a little like some cynical, wretched 70s-era debauch. Mosley asserts that in some subcultures of this general aristocratic scene everybody was in fact sleeping with somebody else--the butler would helpfully ring a gong before breakfast, so that all the adulterers could scurry back and re-emerge from the correct room, with appearances saved and everyone sated or seething--while in other milieus it was all just an extroverted and superficial flirtation game, a ritualized bridge between the days of men disdaining the company of women and the days in which they might be able to conduct actual friendships across gender lines and without the bizarre social corseting of formalized flirtation--something like the flirting/dating games of today's preadolescents... although I think the girls have a harder time getting the boys to play along. He suggests that in Ettie's case, a few of the relationships probably did become sexual, at least briefly. Who knows? Sounds about right.
  5. Yes--I am so uncomfortable with this situation that the inverted commas will remain.
  6. Mosley, 176.
  7. Mosley discovered the manuscript years later, and I am dependent on his descriptions of it--it's difficult to tell whether this is a precocious anticipation of some major themes of 20th century thought, as Mosley implies, or, rather, simply an impressively self-assured collection of essays by a 21-year-old, as seems more likely. The anti-Christian, individualist bent, the emphasis on evolution and the possibility of a man exerting his will to change himself and his environment in response to its reality, seems typical enough as an example of casual late 19thc. enthusiasm for science and skepticism--and one wonders, too, if there was any knowledge of Nietzsche here.
  8. Derived, of course, from his own letter describing it, quoted by Mosley, 210.

Omens from Shemakha

June 15th, 1914

Osbert Sitwell, back in London, is making an expensive habit of going to see the Russian opera and ballet. Tonight–eight days before the monumentally coincidental premiere of La Legende de Josephe–so stay tuned–and only three days before he saw Stravinsky himself conduct Le Rossignol–he will attend the premier of Le Coq d’Or, a combined opera-ballet and accidentally ominous fable.[1] The music is Rimsky-Korsakov and the choreography is Fokine, all based on a satirical story by Pushkin (in turning drawing on Washington Irving, of all people), set in a pseudo-Central-Asian fairy-tale land.[2]

And what is the story? Why, an idiot king decides that the queen of a neighboring realm is plotting territorial aggrandizement at his expense, so he decides to mobilize for a preemptive strike. There are even idiot princes bumbling on the battlefield, and of course there is magic (perpetrated by the cockerel of the title) and love and disaster and everyone gets killed. In the epilogue, the astrologer character pops out in front of the curtain to let us know that this is just a fable–but that the moral is all too real. Timely indeed.

In a long, chatty stretch of his memoir Sitwell drifts between a name-dropping celebration of his status as an early adopter of Modernism and a heavily retrospective look at all of the decadent gorgeousness of the last summer before the war. It’s the artificial setting of his theatre-going that matters to us, then, rather than whatever value we might find in his remembered opinions of what he actually saw. Which wouldn’t be of great moment anyway: Sitwell was late to the party (he was a little too young and a little too English). Le Sacre de Printemps has debuted the year before, in Paris, and plenty of artists and cultural cognoscenti were onto the Russians. Still, the new music, the fabulousless of the costumes and the sets, and Diaghilev’s sexualized choreography were all well worth getting excited about.

But we’re here, now, in the fore-shadow of the war and not yet committed to the strict day-by-day-and-no-peeking-ahead approach, so let’s take a moment to admire Sitwell’s skill as a large-looming foreshadower. With natural panache, he emplots his personal history as a highly-contrived and most decadent tragedy. He can do it with flowers, as we have seen, and he can do it with night-life (both the art and the society), as we will see later this month. Tonight’s production has high society, art, and flowers:

The stage was set between two choirs of singers, dressed in petunia color, and ranged, tier above tier, to the summit almost of the proscenium: and the action part of each dancer was accompanied by an appropriate solo voice. Besides giving us some of the most dramatic and haunting music of the past century, Le Coq d’Or constituted a great satire. In its stilted, dreamlike rhythms, displayed against a background of huge flowers and brightly hued buildings, was to be felt a mockery of the great, a kind of joy in the doom of lordship. Fortunately for its success, the fashionable audience could revel in the beauty and strangeness of it, without concentrating too much on its meaning or implications. I mention it particularly and at length, because it was so laden with omen and portent for those who watched it…[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, these are Russian or Russian/German works, but what is more prewar than the 19th century habit of referring to all art as if it were French?
  2. The historical name Shemakha was borrowed for one of the imaginary kingdoms, but it is intended as a land of faerie or fable.
  3. Sitwell, Great Morning, 269.