Thursday, 25 June 2015

Siegfried among the Bohemians

Someone asked me recently what Siegfried Sassoon saw in Stephen Tennant.   The second episode of Victoria Coren's new TV series, "How to be Bohemian", focused briefly on Tennant and the "Bright Young Things".  This group, nominally - but not really - the subject of Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies, included others who were among Siegfried's close friends and associates: the Sitwells, Rex Whistler and Beverley Nichols, not to mention Waugh himself.

The TV series explores the phenomenon and its origins, but inevitably scratches the surface.  What does it actually mean to be "Bohemian"?  The concept, or at least its name, originates from an old term for the gipsies of eastern Europe, who lived the kind of free-and-easy lifestyle that was both despised and envied by more conventional society.  The idea of pursuing this alternative way of life out of choice, rather than necessity, seems to have started in the early nineteenth century in - where else? France.

Siegfried Sassoon, though undoubtedly eccentric in many ways, was not, I feel, Bohemian, either by nationality or by nature, but he did associate with people who led what has come to be known as a "bohemian" lifestyle.  The kind of people we associate with "bohemianism" tend to be artists of one kind or another - poets, painters, musicians (though I must say I have met some who live the dream but have absolutely no creative talent of any kind).  As a result of such associations, he flirted with the lifestyle.  In other ways, he could hardly have been more conventional or less bohemian.

Stephen Tennant's bohemianism was essentially a pose, possibly his means of rebelling against his respectable and generally un-bohemian family; his elder brother, Edward "Bim" Tennant, joined the Grenadier Guards (as did the Sitwell brothers, though Osbert at least proved very unsuited to a military career) and Stephen's stepfather, Sir Edward Grey, had been Britain's Foreign Secretary before and during the First World War (in which Bim was killed). That arch-bohemian, Oscar Wilde (to whom Sassoon was of course inextricably linked through his friendship with Robert Ross), put this idea into words thus: "The first duty in life is to assume a pose.  What the second is, no one has yet discovered."

I'm sceptical about the claims of any rich person to be truly bohemian.  As Coren pointed out, one of the essential features of the authentic bohemian life is a shortage of money, often leading to starvation, tuberculosis, hypothermia, and other experiences we associate with the dramatis personae of Puccini's La Bohème.  Stephen Tennant certainly never came close to starving - he had Sassoon washing peaches for him on their drive through Italy in 1928 - but Stephen did in fact suffer from TB, and I feel sure he was conscious of how much this unfortunate fact contributed to his image.  Tennant was also an artist, contributing illustrations to an edition of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry.

Siegfried, though nowhere near as rich as the Tennants, was never in serious financial difficulty. The only time he might have known hunger, albeit briefly, was while on active service at the Western Front.  Yet in the circles in which he moved, he could hardly help associating with those who led a bohemian lifestyle, either genuine or affected.  Lady Ottoline Morrell, one of his best friends and most loyal supporters, was surely bohemian in her ways.  Siegfried's description of her clothing at their first meeting suggests he was struck by her unconventionality; he was, at that time, not yet an accepted member of the literary fraternity, and his meetings with people like Rupert Brooke and W H Davies (a true bohemian who had lived as a tramp in the USA) only made him feel excluded.

The Morrells accepted and welcomed Sassoon into a community of writers and artists that included Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Gilbert Spencer and Aldous Huxley.  Members of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey, were often house guests at Garsington Manor; they certainly played at bohemianism.  Yet it was also at Garsington Siegfried was also introduced to people such as W B Yeats and Bertrand Russell, who seem to me not to fall into the bohemian category, despite Yeats' interest in spiritualism and Russell's belief in sexual freedom.

Another eccentric individual mentioned by Coren was Edward Carpenter, the writer who would nowadays probably be described as a "gay activist".  It was to Carpenter that Siegfried had written in 1911, seeking reassurance about the homosexual inclinations that so troubled him.  Carpenter was a vegetarian, an environmentalist, a socialist and many other things that made him stand out and would have marked him as "bohemian" whether he liked it or not.  Bohemian, also, was Siegfried's first lover, Gabriel (real name William) Atkin, an artist who came to rely on Siegfried for financial support.  Atkin subsequently married a writer, enjoyed various addictions, and was dead by 1937.

Some of these associations must have rubbed off on Siegfried Sassoon.  He appears to have been untroubled by Stephen Tennant's penchant for cross-dressing and to have participated in the parlour games and other activities promoted at Garsington.  From his own limited resources, he was glad enough to offer financial assistance to other poets, artists and musicians, some of whom depended on this to give them the opportunity to practice bohemianism.  In photographs taken by Lady Ottoline, however, Siegfried always looks uncomfortable and out of place, even allowing for the constraints of early 20th century photography and the affected poses his hostess required of her subjects.

But bohemian?  I think not.  Sassoon was too conventional, too well brought up to be a rover.  Hard as he may have tried to live the artist's life, he remained a fox-hunting man at heart.   

Monday, 15 June 2015

A Private Occasion of Family and Friends

In the run-up to the bicentenary of a certain great battle, I thought it would be appropriate to share this guest post from our old friend Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College, Dublin.  Although it has nothing directly to do with Siegfried Sassoon, it brings to mind earlier conflicts of which Siegfried must have been aware during June 1915, as he began his service as an officer with the RWF at the Western Front:

The 1st Duke of Wellington, appointed commander of the Anglo-Netherlands army on Napoleon's escape from Elba, left Vienna on 29 March 1815 accompanied by Lord William Pitt Lennox,  fourth son of Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, as one of his aides-de-camp  and arrived in Brussels on 4 April 1815 to prepare for what turned out to be the decisive battles with Napoleonic France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo on 16 and 18 June 1815. On 6 April he was at a dinner party with the Richmonds. On 22 May 1815 he was accompanied by Lady Georgiana Lennox (third daughter of Charles Lennox) in inspecting Hanoverian and Brunswick troops at Vilvorde.

The Duke of Richmond, a notable cricketer and founder-member of the MCC, was an old friend from Dublin as far back as the late 1780s, when he and Arthur Wesley (as Wellington then was) were aides-de-camp in Dublin Castle to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of  Buckingham (1787-1789). 

The Duke of Richmond was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1807-1813 when Wellington himself (1807-1809) and his elder brother, William Wellesley-Pole (1809-1812), were Chief Secretary. Richmond's eldest son, Charles, Earl of March (Westminster and TCD), was aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsular War in 1810-1814 and at the time of the ball aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange (who was wounded at Waterloo).

The Duchess herself, a formidable lady who produced seven sons and seven daughters for the Duke, was born Charlotte Gordon, eldest daughter of Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, who raised the 92nd (originally 100th) Regiment of Foot, the Gordon Highlanders. They distinguished themselves at the ball, as they were later to distinguish themselves in the battle, with a display of highland reel and sword dance in the presence of their Commanding Officer, John Cameron of Fassiefern (mortally wounded at Quatre Bras, dying in Waterloo village itself on the night of 16 June 1815).

As Wellington prepared himself and Europe in Brussels in April, May and June 1815  for the decisive battle, he would perforce have had to attend many balls. He himself, for example, hosted a concert, ball and supper for the King and Queen of the Netherlands and the young Prince of Orange on 28 April and on 27 May a Grand Ball in honour of Field Marshal Prince Blucher of Prussia. The trust engendered between these two men on such an occasion assured Europe of victory at the end of the day at Waterloo. More worthy of comment on that occasion, perhaps, was the fact that Wellington danced always with the young (born 23 May 1793) and no doubt adoring Lady Frances Caroline Webster-Wedderburn (nee Annesley, second daughter of the 1st Earl of Mountnorris). She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a son, Charles Byron, in Paris on 28 August 1815.

The Duchess of Richmond's ball of 15 June 1815, however, was a private not public event, organised and paid for by the Richmonds and held at their residence in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. It was the Duchess herself who controlled the invitations (some 230 in all), and the Lennox family turned out in force, although the Duchess was helped by Capt John Gurwood (10th Hussars) (wounded at Waterloo) in making the arrangements, since just over half of the guests were military officers.

Naturally many Irish men and women of note were present at the ball. Sir William Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork, was there (killed leading the famous cavalry charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo). So too Sir Denis Pack of Kilkenny.  So too was Henry, Earl Conyngham, his wife, Elizabeth, Countess Conyngham, and three of their children, including Viscount Mountcharles, a name still famous in Slane today. 

So too the lady who had attracted so much of Wellington's attentions on the dance floor. Lady Frances Webster-Wedderburn evidently inspired him by her presence and beauty as the fateful day approached. Thus he wrote to her on the morning of the battle, at.3.30 a.m. on 18 June 1815, to assure her of the 'desperate battle on Friday (16 June), in which I was successful'  and of the need to make preparations for a possible move from Bruxelles (sic) to Antwerp,  and again at 8.30 a.m. in the immediate aftermath of the battle to tell her that 'the finger of Providence was upon me', as it surely must have been.

But the price of victory was ' immense'. No wonder Wellington was overcome by the loss of his friends after the battle. 

The people of Ireland, and particularly of Summerhill and Trim, Co. Meath, may well be proud of such a man to this day. I have no doubt that the battle would have been lost without him. Blucher would have exposed his troops to the French guns at Waterloo as he did at Ligny.