Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Fixing the comet Owen

At last weekend's joint meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and Wilfred Owen Association, Azucena Keatley gave us some interesting insights into the psychology of both Owen and Sassoon, with particular reference to Owen's relationship with his parents. Sassoon, it seems, may well have been a rival to Tom Owen in terms of a father figure.
From Sassoon's point of view, the relationship was certainly of a paternal nature. He had no father of his own, nor did he foresee any likelihood of ever having a son - much as he longed for one. The First World War gave him the opportunity to offer comfort and guidance to younger, less experienced men who must greatly have appreciated his presence when they were in physical and emotional need. Siegfried seemed to know what was required, possibly because it was what had been lacking in his own early life.
So it is hardly surprising, as Dr Keatley pointed out, that the relationship between Sassoon and Owen, although coloured by what appear to be Owen's romantic attachment to his older friend (at least, as expressed in his letters to Sassoon), should have developed from one of mentor and pupil into one that more strongly resembled that of father and son. They were protective of one another, but in different ways. Owen was dismayed to hear of Sassoon's wound in 1918 because he feared the loss of someone he turned to for emotional support; Sassoon feared Owen's return to the Western Front because he could not bear the thought of Owen's creative promise being lost to posterity.
Was that all it was? It has not gone unnoticed, particularly by Owen aficionados, that Sassoon's attitude to Owen, like that of Robert Graves, was extremely condescending. Referring to him as "little Owen" and "my little friend" (as he later did with other friends, such as Edmund Blunden), he talks of him as a poet of some promise but by no means a genius. Yet Owen says that "you have fixed my life". By this, I believe, he means that Sassoon's guidance had given the "mad comet" a purpose and a goal that enabled him to orbit in a disciplined way. And when he says, "I shall swing out soon, a dark star", he is intimating that, though he may remain in Sassoon's shadow, he will make a mark as his own man, with his own poetic style. He needed only a little polishing. Having received it, he is content to go his own way, recognising that their intimacy, fostered by wartime experiences, would not last forever. In this, he was more perceptive than Sassoon.
Sam Gray, who also spoke at the meeting, gave a summary of the correspondence (as far as it is known) that passed between Owen and Sassoon after their departure from Craiglockhart in 1917, noting the paucity of letters from Sassoon in contrast to Owen's frequent missives. Time and again an eager Owen berates his friend for not replying, hoping that the letters have gone missing rather than not having been written in the first place. The reality seems to be that Sassoon had other things on his mind. There were so many others to be written to: Robbie Ross, Ottoline Morrell, Robert Graves and Robert Nichols, to name but a few.
Owen was one of Sassoon's most faithful correspondents, but there was no gratitude for this from the recipient. It was to Nichols that Siegfried wrote: "Write again, write again. I'm not dead yet. I've got weeks and weeks to live," and to Nichols that he sent the manuscript of "I Stood with the Dead". Nichols was already a well-known poet, perceived to have a bright future ahead of him; Owen was unknown and Sassoon would not have dreamed of asking his advice. He failed to foresee that Owen's work (thanks partly to his own efforts in getting the collected poems published in 1920) would go on to inspire generations, while Nichols's output would almost sink without trace.
At times, I have no doubt, it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind". Sassoon had other fish to fry, and other places to go. After recovering from the head wound that put him out of the war for good, he was lunching with Ross and Arnold Bennett at the Reform Club, having tea with Lady Ottoline and dinner with Edward Marsh, even exchanging views with Winston Churchill. In early November 1918, he was having that famous first encounter with T E Lawrence and going down to Max Gate to visit Thomas and Florence Hardy for the first time, not to mention congratulating himself on the third impression of his collection Counter-Attack.
Owen, of course, did not have a great deal of time for writing after he returned to France in August. The sad truth was that Sassoon did not miss his letters partly because he knew what the Western Front was like, but also because he valued them less than the letters from some of the people he had known longer. He admitted later that he was fearful, and did not want to hear the inevitable news of his young friend's death. Owen shared his last days of life through his correspondence with his mother, which survives. He did not have much time to regret the absence of his mentor and was never obliged to recognise that their relationship may have meant far less to Sassoon than it did to him.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Sassoon's Feminism

You may be thinking that this title is stretching it a bit - and you'd be right. I had originally thought of calling this post "Sassoon's Misogyny", but that didn't seem fair either. I don't want to fill this post with my personal opinions on equal opportunities (God knows I have enough to say on that subject to fill several volumes and you really would not want to hear it), but it is a hundred years since women in Britain were given the vote by a government that had misled them and delayed the process for as long as it could. So I will try and concentrate on Sassoon's own words and actions.
Having said that, I was immediately reminded - unlikely as it may seem - of some lyrics from a song in the musical Mary Poppins. You may recall that Mrs Banks was a suffragette. The lines that struck me, even as a ten-year-old, as being particularly clever, go like this:
"Though we adore men individually,
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid."
(Just as a matter of interest, Robert B. Sherman, who co-wrote the song with his brother, was a veteran of the Second World War and was permanently disabled as a result of a wound received in 1945, when he was barely twenty.)
I suppose that there are a lot of men who feel the same about women, and I think Sassoon was one of these. To illustrate this, you need do no more than consider his friendships with women like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell and his admiration for the wives of some of his friends, notably Delphine Turner and Phyllis Loder. It seems obvious to me, reading his comments about the latter two, that he was envious of Walter Turner and Norman Loder for being married to such exemplary women, the kind he would have chosen for himself if he had ever intended to marry.
He did not have what people today would call a normal childhood. He grew up in a female-dominated household, and was then sent away to schools where all of his companions were boys, and Matron was an authority figure. Some of Wilfred Owen's comments on nurses suggest he felt a similar resentment towards them (I don't think this was brought about by the fact that it was a nurse who beat him into second place in an open competition run by the Poetry Review in 1918.) Thus, all their early experiences were designed to prejudice them against the female gender. Why should such women, who didn't even have the vote, be in a position to tell men what to do?
A review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Sassoon in the Daily Mail (I know, I know!) talks of his "rampant misogyny", which I think is taking it rather too far. On the other hand, an interesting article written in 1997 by James S. Campbell and published in the journal of Johns Hopkins University draws attention to the misogyny of both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but comments that both men "found themselves enmeshed in constructions of gender that eventually discredit femininity as a moral force". It was the perceived passivity of the female gender in times of war that they objected to. Sassoon sums this up in his 1917 poem "Glory of Women", rather shockingly suggesting a sexual motivation for women's behaviour:
"...You listen with delight
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled."
This is not so far-fetched either. Just as some men actually enjoy being dominated, women can get a sense of excitement from men's violence towards one another . I don't know why this is, but we should acknowledge that it is the case; we can only fight our more primitive feelings if we are aware of them.
Sassoon eventually married, and, by all accounts, he quickly fell out of love with his wife Hester. He had not, in any case, ever had a long-term relationship, unless one counts Stephen Tennant, who at times treated him more like a private nursemaid than a lover. What Sassoon wanted, more than anything, was a son, and, fortunately for Hester, he got one at the first attempt. Hester - like most women who have had a baby - wasn't in a hurry to have a second, and this was perhaps the main catalyst for their estrangement.
Why did Sassoon want a son so much? Without going into detail, I have noticed, in my discussions with workmates over gender issues, that men who have daughters - particularly if they have no sons - are generally more inclined to be receptive to the idea of equal opportunities than women who have sons and no daughters. Most of us still live our lives through our children, this being what our biological instinct tells us to do. All too often, we want our children to achieve the things we didn't do, rather than just wanting their happiness. Sassoon was, I feel sure, guilty of this. He expected his son to love the outdoor pursuits he himself loved, and probably would have liked George to combine this with an enthusiasm for academic study he never had. To a certain extent, this was achieved.
However, I doubt that he ever wished for George to grow up with the same sexual orientation as his, in view of the many difficulties it had placed in his path. He would have loved to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren carrying on his name and upholding his reputation as a poet. (He wouldn't have expected his Soldier's Declaration to be such a great inspiration to later generations.)
Wilfred Owen didn't live long enough for us to be sure what kind of relationships he might have formed in later life. The jury is still out on whether he ever had a gay sexual relationship, and we can never know for certain. Perhaps, like Sassoon, he would have overcome any such feelings enough to live a conventional life, even if it were a pretence. But did he hate women? I don't think anyone could read his letters to his mother and believe he did. He confided everything to her. He told her things about his experiences that I would never have dreamed of telling my mother, and this was because he felt that she would understand. He did not think of her as an inferior species. And I think he would have approved of her being given the vote.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Twin Talents

I had been struggling for something to write about when I happened upon a BBC programme, first shown some years ago, on iPlayer. For those of you who don't know, the list of programmes is not entirely restricted to what was shown in the last few weeks. There is a whole archive, where you can sometimes pick up little gems you missed first time around.
"A harmonious combination of two talents" was how one of the participants described the work done by Augustus John and James Dickson Innes, two Welsh painters who were the subject of a documentary called "The Mountain That Had To Be Painted". I knew a little about both of them, but I had no knowledge of Arenig Fawr, a mountain (actually a big hill) in Snowdonia where they settled for two years to take up a progressive style of landscape painting, under the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, led by European painters such as Henri Matisse.
As the programme progressed, I began to notice parallels with the friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. There was nothing similar about their lifestyles. John and Innes consorted with gypsies, drank heavily and shared (female) lovers. They were alleged to have stabbed themselves and mingled their blood in the back of a London cab. And yet...
Augustus John was eight years older than Siegfried Sassoon, and died six years before him. His mother, like Sassoon's, was an artist, but it was she, not his father, who died when Augustus was a small child. After hitting his head on a rock at the age of twenty, John embarked on an illustrious, often controversial career. He was 32 in 1910, when he began working with James Dickson Innes, whom he met through the "Camden Town Group" of progressive artists.
Innes was 23 in 1910, when he discovered the landscapes around Arenig Fawr. He felt it was ideal for his purposes as an artist, and was keen to take Augustus John there too. John, convinced of its suitability as a subject, joined Innes there to paint the mountain and surrounding countryside repeatedly over a two-year period. This makes me think of Innes as more of a Graves character than an Owen, someone who was ready to be a leader, rather than a follower, of his older acquaintance. He had the unconventionality of a Graves rather than the inhibitions of an Owen.
The two were later joined by a one-legged Australian artist, Derwent Lees, who married one of Augustus John's former models and was permanently committed to a mental institution by 1918. "He did paint rather well," said a patron, Lady Howard de Walden, "but was as mad as a hatter."
At the end of his torrid affair with Euphemia Lamb (whom Duncan Grant once called "the white haired whore"), James Dickson Innes is said to have buried her letters in a silver casket on the peak of the mountain. I cannot quite imagine Sassoon or Owen going to such lengths to memorialise a failed love affair; Robert Graves (who was daft enough to jump out of a window after Laura Riding), perhaps. Subsequent efforts to find the casket were abandoned after a Flying Fortress with an eight-man crew crashed on the summit in 1943; some of the wreckage is allegedly still there.
The story does not end there. Innes was consumptive. Advised by doctors to give up drinking, he took no notice. Just like a First World War junior officer, he knew the risks of his chosen path, and embraced them. Having made no attempt to clean up his lifestyle, he received one last visit from Euphemia and his friend Augustus John before dying in a nursing home in Kent in August 1914, just as his name was becoming known. He was 27 years old. Unlike Wilfred Owen, his reputation faded quickly after his death, though many of his landscapes can still be seen in major galleries such as the Tate and the National Museum in Cardiff.
Augustus John later became a war artist, producing, among other things, an unfinished mural called "The Canadians Opposite Lens", which was eventually put on display at Ottawa's Canadian War Museum in 2011..He continued to paint portraits, some of people Sassoon knew personally, such as Ronald Firbank, Madame Suggia and Lady Ottoline, not to mention poets like W H Davies and Dylan Thomas. He even took a few trips to Max Gate during the 1920s, to paint the elderly Thomas Hardy. He died in 1961, aged 83, a grumpy old man (according to his granddaughter) and a legend in his own lifetime.
The cottage the two artists rented near Arenig Fawr was demolished in the 1960s. In case you want to see what inspired them, the mountain is still there.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

What Makes a Great Writer?

The title of this post may sound as if I have gone off on some philosophical quest, the end goal of which is beyond the limits of my abilities to achieve, so I had better start by explaining what makes me ask the question. At our committee meeting last weekend, we had an interesting discussion about what it is we value about Siegfried Sassoon and what, as a society, we should be concentrating on. Some members want a more in-depth analysis of Sassoon's work. Others are interested in Sassoon the man, what he did with his life and how he was influenced by, and in turn influenced, others.
The number of Sassoon scholars compared with, say, the number of Owen scholars, is not great, but from time to time we have had speakers who have gone to considerable trouble to analyse his work. For example, we had two very memorable talks at our annual conference at Radley in 2012, when we heard from Gladys Mary Coles and Michael Copp, who explored Sassoon's Modernist credentials and the influences on his poetry. We have also had interesting talks, over the years, about Sassoon's relationships with significant figures such as John Masefield, Glen Byam Shaw, David Thomas and Robert Graves, to name but a few.
This divergence of opinion makes me wonder how many writers have become revered for the way they dealt with the vicissitudes of life and/or what they achieved outside literature. How many people would be reading T E Lawrence's books now if it hadn't been for his role in the Arab rebellion? And yet I don't think that Agatha Christie's novels owe their popularity to the nervous breakdown she seems to have had in 1926, or even to the archaeological work in the Middle East that she undertook with her second husband. (But then, how many would say that Agatha Christie was a "great" writer?) There was, at one time, an Agatha Christie Society in the UK, but it no longer exists, though her family continue to manage her huge estate through a company called "Agatha Christie Ltd" and run an official website.
An obvious example of a writer whose talents have been "set off" by the rest of her life is Barbara Pym, about whose thriving literary society I have previously written. She could be considered a writer's favourite, since her misfortune was to be ignored by publishers for fifteen years following her initial success. This is something that has happened to countless authors over the centuries, notably another St Hilda's graduate, Val McDermid, who had early success with a play and then nothing until 1987, when the first of her crime novels was published. However, Pym's triumphant return to the public eye was highly publicised and has made her the shining example of a writer whose brilliance was eventually recognised - sadly, within two years of her untimely death.
Writers who died young have often been celebrated at the expense of those who had the good fortune - or misfortune - to live a long time. Wilfred Owen was unquestionably an outstanding poet, but his fame has certainly been enhanced by the manner and timing of his death. The same might be said of Rupert Brooke: "The Soldier" is quoted so frequently that few question Brooke's poetic genius, yet the name of Laurence Binyon is practically unknown to those who hear "For the Fallen" at every memorial service. Why is Brooke more famous? Could it not be that he died in 1915 while Binyon lived into his seventies?
Is it hardship itself, rather than the ability to survive hardship, that makes a truly great writer? John Keats' family were not paupers, but he was orphaned young and his health was always at risk. His associate Shelley, whose genius cannot be in any doubt, was viciously bullied at Eton, though it is hard to tell whether this caused or was a result of his increasingly undisciplined conduct while at school. His eventual elopement with Harriet Westbrook set him on a path of nonconformity that would indirectly lead to his death. I do not think that either of them owes their fame to having died in their twenties, but it must be recognised that their reputations have flourished in quite a different way from their near-contemporary William Wordsworth, many of whose poems have become the butt of unkind humour.
C S Lewis is a popular writer who lived to a reasonable age and whose diverse works are appreciated by academics, by children, and by those with a religious or philosophical bent. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think or talk about Lewis without wanting to know more about his personal life - not just the dramatic circumstances of his marriage to Joy Gresham but also the mystery of his earlier relationship with Jane Moore, the mother of a fellow First World War officer killed in 1918, whom Lewis had promised to "look after" for him.
As usual with my blog posts, I don't have any answers. I would, however, like to know what proportion of readers know or care about their favourite authors' personal lives and influences, and whether they think these are important enough to be the subject of lectures and conferences. Is it just prurient curiosity that makes us continue to ask questions about Stephen Tennant and Robert Ross, or is it an awareness that their friendships with Sassoon had a bearing on what he wrote? Or is it simply that we find other people's lives interesting, whether they are writers, artists, musicians, actors or the people next door? Whether or not you are a member of a literary society, do let me know what you think.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Withdrawal Symptoms

Are you starting to experience withdrawal symptoms as the number of First World War-related activities and events thins out with the centenary of the Armistice now in sight? Or are you suffering from overload and will you simply be glad to hear the last of it?
Not to worry, in either case. The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has the good fortune to be associated with a man who, despite his quip to the effect that "most people think I died in 1919", still had some of his greatest achievements ahead of him when the Great War ended. We will have centenaries to celebrate for many years to come, and, who knows, by the centenary of his death in 2067, his work may be attracting an even bigger audience than it already does, but for quite different reasons.
By the time the war ended in 1918, many of the great war poets had sung their song and passed away. Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and many lesser-known but equally talented poets had fallen in battle and would never write another poem. Wilfred Owen's work remained to be discovered by the global audience it now has, but that event was not too far away. Sassoon, meanwhile, was struggling for inspiration; he might well have thought that the most meaningful period of his life was over.
Yet it was only now, right at the end of the war, that he became personally acquainted with two figures who would be of major importance to him: Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. These meetings were perhaps a little overshadowed, in these immediate post-war years, by the loss of two men who might have given him some guidance for the future - Robert Ross, who died in October 1918, and William Rivers, who died in 1922. Both deaths were very sudden, and floored Sassoon, their emotional effect being as great as the wartime deaths of close friends like Owen and David Thomas. The new friends he made over the years never quite made up for the losses; how could they?
He did not know it, but this was to be the period when he discovered the depths of his literary talent and fulfilled the early promise of his war poetry. To Sassoon, writing a popular memoir cannot have seemed such a great achievement. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, though it won literary prizes and went so quickly onto school syllabuses that his own son found himself studying it for O-level, did not make its author particularly proud. Sassoon said that "my real biography is in my poetry", but this can only be true if one takes into account all the lesser-known poems from the post-war period as well as the classic war poems.
So we may not go on celebrating centenaries quite as busily as we have been doing these past few years (which will be something of a relief for anyone involved in organising commemorative events), but there will still be notable achievements for us to mark: the publication of Owen's Poems in 1920, edited by Sassoon with the indispensable assistance of Edith Sitwell; Sassoon's involvement with the South Wales miners' strike of 1921; and of course the publication of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man in 1928. Perhaps the latter centenary will be a good opportunity to get together with the Robert Graves Society, who will undoubtedly be recognising the centenary of the publication of Graves' war memoir, Good-Bye to All That (in which Sassoon so prominently features) in 2029. Thank you, Sig, for keeping us so busy.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Churchill on Screen and at Home

He's been splashed all over our TV and cinema screens for a few months now. I have yet to discover the reason for the current media interest in Winston Churchill. There is no obvious anniversary to be celebrated, and yet in the past two years we've had a BBC TV drama and two major films about the man voted "Greatest Briton". The jury is still out on Churchill, a personality who divided public opinion even while he was still alive. Complex, brilliant and yet foolish, dictatorial and yet humble, a man who suffered deep depression and never forgave himself for his many mistakes.
Churchill lived much of his life on screen. His appearances in the mass media were all that most people knew about his looks and character, as indeed is true of most politicians since 1900. I was born ten years after the war, and my first memory of him is his 90th birthday celebration, when the BBC televised an entertainment in his honour, featuring such greats as Arthur Askey and Margot Fonteyn, introduced to camera by Noel Coward, not someone normally thought of as a political animal, which doubtless made him all the more effective as a wartime spy. I recall Coward as being extremely respectful, which was good of him in view of the fact that Churchill had been instrumental in preventing him being awarded a knighthood in 1942 (he eventually got one in 1969). Apparently Churchill himself fell asleep during the show and missed most of the action.
The next thing I knew, Churchill was dead and the funeral had thoughtfully been arranged for a Saturday so that our parents could watch the spectacle on TV. Churchill had been inconsiderate enough to die in January when it was freezing cold. My sister and I were bored, and went for a walk, amusing ourselves by breaking the ice in the puddles on the pavement. We couldn't go to the shops, as they were all closed.
Many working-class people were admirers of Churchill, but many were not. Richard Burton, who had appeared as the great man in A Walk With Destiny, a dramatised version of the events of 1936-1940, made jointly by the BBC with the American station NBC in 1974, commented that "to play Churchill is to hate him". Burton apparently found some of Churchill's more virulent wartime rhetoric unpalatable, as I think we would find it today if the media didn't concentrate on the good bits about fighting on beaches and the end of the beginning. It was Churchill who called socialism "the gospel of envy", which was fine for someone who had been born in a house with 187 rooms.
Burton's outburst against the long-dead Churchill resulted in his being banned by the BBC. There were too many people around who idolised the wartime prime minister as the saviour of the nation. Churchill's widow, Clementine - who comes across in most screen portrayals as a major factor in his success - had written to Burton before the programme was released, to thank him for his performance. Burton responded in a letter that made it clear he considered her to have been the key to her husband's greatness.
It's almost as hard to name an actor who hasn't played Churchill on screen as it is to name one who has. The casting of handsome Simon Ward in Young Winston was looked on askance, but turned out to be inspired; he actually did look something like the young Churchill, and became believable as the film revealed Churchill's development from frustrated slow-to-learn schoolboy whose father was in the process of dying of syphilis (when Churchill wrote his father's biography, he glossed over the cause of death) to the cocky young adventurer who made his name by escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp during the Boer War.
In Churchill's Secret, Michael Gambon portrayed the ailing prime minister (the secret was the stroke he suffered in 1953, kept a secret from the public for political reasons) as an obstinate old goat, but the really interesting thing was the portrayal of his family. Doting wife, trying to keep everyone happy; quarrelling offspring, who feel they have missed out on real family life because of their father's insistence on obtaining and retaining political power. His son, the weak-minded Randolph, came across as worthy of being named after his grandfather (an enthusiastic member of the Bullingdon Club, who once tried to blackmail the future Queen Alexandra).
British actor Gary Oldman is now tipped for an Oscar for his role in Darkest Hour. The much-underrated Brian Cox (not the physicist) did not achieve the same glittering reviews for his performance in last summer's release, entitled simply Churchill, but the latter was based on an interesting idea - that Churchill, already losing his grasp on power, tried to prevent the D-Day landings in 1944 because of his memories of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Churchill's First World War, a 2013 BBC documentary which was recently repeated, gave additional insight into Churchill's later actions. It is by now well known that the 70-year-old prime minister wanted to accompany the forces to the Normandy landings and had to be dissuaded by King George VI. However, time and the overlaying of Simon Ward's dashing young man with the elder statesman of the 1940s has disguised the fact that Churchill, with some justification, still considered himself a soldier.
The First World War was not Churchill's finest hour. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he had planned the Gallipoli landings which resulted in so many pointless deaths, including that of Siegfried Sassoon's younger brother Hamo. The campaign's failure was blamed largely on Churchill's own arrogance, and led to his political humiliation and fall from grace. His response to the setback was to resume his military career, finding himself a place as a battalion commander on the Western Front.
Like Sassoon, Churchill made a habit of venturing into No Man's Land to raid enemy lines, and this highlights his probable state of mind at the time. His friend and rival David Lloyd George (who once commented that Winston would "make a drum out of the skin of his own mother to sound his own praises") replied to his letter asking for a return to government with these words: "the state of mind revealed in your letter is the reason why you do not win trust even where you command admiration", accusing him of putting his personal ambitions before the national interest. Nevertheless, Churchill was back in Lloyd George's cabinet in 1917.
Sassoon's indirect line to Churchill was through Edward Marsh, the poetic mentor who had first become Churchill's private secretary in 1905, when the latter was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. When Sassoon made his protest in the summer of 1917, the connection was of no use to him and was an embarrassment to Marsh. It was not until the following year, when all the furore was over, that Sassoon met Churchill in person, and this time it was at Churchill's own request. He claimed to be an admirer of Sassoon's poetry, and perhaps this was true.
They were introduced at the Metropole Hotel in London in the first week of October 1918. Sassoon's war was effectively over, and he was on the verge of being invalided out of the forces. It seems that Churchill had it in mind to offer him a job in the Ministry of Munitions. Sassoon took to Churchill, although it is clear that the politician liked the sound of his own voice and their views on the war continued to be at odds; naturally, he turned down the job offer.
He did not reflect for long upon the details of the meeting. A few days later, his great friend Robbie Ross died suddenly and Sassoon was as heartbroken as he had been over the deaths of any of his comrades in arms. He did, however, see Churchill again a month later, and noted in his diary: "One gets an inhuman impression from his talk - all words, like a leading article." So perhaps, Churchill had reverted to type.
Visit Chartwell in Kent, where he lived from 1922 onwards, and you get a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure. In the studio, which Winston used after taking up amateur painting in his forties, unfinished works lie around the place, along with the pots and brushes. I particularly like the quotation marked up on the wall: "When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject." He knew when he was beaten, but he wasn't going to admit it.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Sad Story of Auntie Rachel

Many Sassoon enthusiasts are troubled by the history of Siegfried's relationship with his aunt, Rachel Beer (1858-1927). The sister of his father Alfred, Rachel was in a comparable situation, in that she married outside the faith. In her case, it might be considered that the offence was less: she was female, the man she married was from a Jewish family who had converted to Christianity (mainly, it must be said, for business reasons), and moreover he was wealthy. Nevertheless, she was ostracised by rest of the Sassoon clan.
     Rachel's own isolation from her family made it only natural that she should become a friend of Theresa Sassoon and remain so even after Alfred abandoned Theresa and her sons. She had known the family even earlier, as Theresa's brother, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft, had been commissioned in 1882 to create a statue of her. There had been concerns that a romance might grow between them, but Hamo instead chose Agatha Cox, of whom I have written briefly in earlier posts.
      Rachel's husband, Frederick Beer, inherited his fortune and his publishing empire from his father, Julius. The couple were very much in love, and Frederick's regard for his wife was such that, as his health deteriorated, he entrusted her with many of his business affairs, including the editorship of The Observer and The Sunday Times. Sadly, Frederick's illness - probably tuberculosis, the same condition that had killed Siegfried's father Alfred - was to take him in his prime, and the couple never had children. This put Siegfried and his brothers in line for an inheritance they could not hope to receive from the Sassoon side of the family.
      First Lady of Fleet Street, a biography of Rachel Beer published in 2011, uses Siegfried Sassoon's diaries and memoirs as a source. Indeed, as far as the Beers' home life goes, it appears to be the authors' main source. It came as a surprise to me to learn how much of what Siegfried wrote about his aunt and uncle was expurgated from his published memoirs, for reasons that are not entirely clear but appear to relate to family sensibilities.
      The views he expresses help somewhat in understanding the boys' attitude to their aunt. In their early years, they appear to have been fond of their Aunt Rachel and Uncle Frederick, whilst at the same time being very much in awe of their surroundings when they visited the grand house in Chesterfield Gardens, and Rachel did not encourage close physical contact. Nevertheless, by the time they were in their teens, both Siegfried and his younger brother Hamo seem to have been speaking openly of their financial expectations, with Hamo complaining that his aunt had spent so much money on the cause of Alfred Dreyfus when it could have been put towards the boys' school fees.
     Children cannot be expected to have a full appreciation of what adults do for them, but as they grew older, Siegfried and his brothers still do not seem to have had much sympathy for Rachel, widowed in 1903. It has been suggested that Rachel's husband in fact died of syphilis and that her subsequent mental decline was due to her having contracted it from him, but the latest biography is firm in the statement that she was suffering from the same kind of deep depression that affected Queen Victoria after her bereavement. Young Hamo unkindly commented that "people with softening of the brain always go on forever", while Siegfried was reluctant to take up a real career while there was a possibility of his inheriting enough money to be able to devote himself to poetry.
     One would like to think that, following his own experiences of mental illness during the war, Siegfried would have developed a better understanding of his aunt's situation, but this does not seem to have been so. While writing The Weald of Youth, he recollected a visit his aunt - who by now had been certified a "lunatic" incapable of looking after herself - had made to Weirleigh to see his mother. At first, he wrote, her conduct was normal, or at least what he was used to; then she began to "rave wildly", asking him to take her to London immediately.
     In the 1920s, Rachel was still living in Tunbridge Wells and could be seen travelling around by car with her full-time carer at the wheel. Siegfried claimed to have seen her pass in the street, looking vacant and unrecognising. Was he trying to appease his conscience for not visiting her? The increasing occurrence and awareness of dementia in this day and age means that it is common to hear people talk about visiting family members and bemoaning the fact that "she doesn't recognise me", but was this really true of Rachel? 
    It is perhaps ironic that the psychiatric care from which Siegfried himself had benefited at Craiglockhart was not yet advanced enough either to help Rachel recover or to help her nephew appreciate the complexities of her condition. Yet his conduct towards her - his denial of her, if you care to look at it that way - is not much different from his attitude towards the other residents of "Dottyville" in 1917. It is as though he did not want to identify with anyone who was suffering from mental illness, preferring to believe that he was not himself afflicted with anything other than "normal" feelings and that his stay at Craiglockhart was simply a punishment for undisciplined conduct.
       Grateful as he no doubt was for the legacy he was about to receive, he did not even attend Rachel's funeral in 1927, blaming his absence on an indisposition. This initially sounds like guilt, although the same could be said if he had attended. It was Rachel's money that enabled him to buy Heytesbury House, the comfortable residence where he would spend the last thirty years of his life, but he does not appear to have spared her a thought.

         Tunbridge Wells Borough Council have recently put up a plaque on Chancellor House, the building that now stands on the site of Rachel's former home, thus finally affording her the recognition that her family failed to offer during her lifetime or in the nearly ninety intervening years.