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. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Lansdowne Letter

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, KG, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, was forty years older than Siegfried Sassoon and had very different antecedents. Despite this, in November 1917, the 72-year-old Lansdowne made a public gesture quite unexpected for one in his position. 

A former Liberal, Lansdowne had gone over to the Conservatives after a stint as Viceroy of India. He subsequently served as Secretary of State for War and later as Foreign Secretary, a role in which he was succeeded in 1905 by Sir Edward Grey, whose efforts to prevent war breaking out in 1914 had been in vain. Until 1916, Lansdowne led the Conservatives in the House of Lords, losing his position as Minister without Portfolio in the war cabinet with the arrival of Lloyd George. His departure from power was hastened by his outspoken opposition to the prolongation of the war.

Lansdowne's letter contained these words: "We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world."

If Neville Chamberlain was criticised in 1938 for "appeasement", he was not the first to be pilloried for trying to achieve peace when the rest of the country was baying for German blood. The widespread response to Lansdowne's public statement was unfavourable: he was irresponsible, said The Times, and the government disowned him. The Manchester Guardian, on the other hand, was encouraging.

Lansdowne himself claimed to have had a sackful of letters of support, from sources both humble and exalted. I do not suppose that any of them came from the lonely and disappointed solder who sat ostracised in a military hospital in Edinburgh, believing his own public gesture to have been futile and wondering how he was going to get back to his comrades on the Western Front. However, one of Lansdowne's tacit supporters was none other than former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who had taken Britain into the war. Asquith and his wife would later become close friends of Sassoon's.

One of Lansdowne's great-great-grandsons, Simon Kerry, has just written the Marquess's biography, under the title Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig.  It came out so recently that I haven't seen a copy yet, and I wonder what his verdict will be on the Lansdowne Letter. For me, it illustrates that Sassoon was far from the isolated rebel that some would have him appear. His views were shared by many who were more politically astute than he was himself. Ironically, a review of the book in The Times says of Lansdowne's protest: "Such an act of political courage would be all but unthinkable today."  Would it? I'm not so sure.

Many would argue that Lansdowne's feelings about the war were coloured by the death of his own son, Charles, in 1914. Charles, an equerry to George V, was forty years old and is buried in the town cemetery at Ypres. His wife, Violet, later married again, her second husband being none other than the American-born millionaire John Jacob Astor V (who had himself been wounded while serving at the Western Front in the same month that Charles was killed). 

Of course the observation is correct. Bereaved parents of First World War soldiers tended to go one of two ways: either they continued to support the war, believing that a failure to do so would make their sons' deaths meaningless, or they recognised the sufferings shared by other parents and began to hope that no more sons would need to die, regardless of whether the cause was just. Sadly, not only were Lansdowne's pleas ignored, but one of his grandsons, 27-year-old Charles, the 7th Marquess, was killed in 1944 during another unwelcome military conflict. What would his grandfather have thought if he could have foreseen that event?

Friday, 17 November 2017

Time for Living

I seldom take any notice of Remembrance Sunday events on television - or even in person. To me, remembrance is something we should do every day of the year, and the fact that it is the Sunday nearest 11 November is not particularly relevant. More to the point, like many of you, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
This year, however, I happened to turn on the television as approximately 9,000 men and women were marching past the Cenotaph, and found myself unable to look away from the spectacle. A range of emotions appeared to be passing across the faces of the marchers, not least of which was pride. I admit I felt a certain amount of pride myself while watching them, and this was accompanied by a deep uneasiness. What is the difference between this and the annual military parades in Moscow and Beijing? Is the ceremony really about remembrance or is it about celebrating our armed services?
I found it impossible to guess, just from their demeanour and facial expressions, which of those participating in the event were actually war veterans. I could be pretty sure that none of the Girl Guides or Boy Scouts were, but anyone above the age of about 18 might already have seen active service in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and might well have been on the receiving end of the kind of traumatic experiences that gave Siegfried Sassoon nightmares until the end of his life. One gentleman in his nineties, when asked how he felt about being in the parade, paused for a few moments before replying, in an emotional voice, "...COLD, very COLD!"
Discussing with my 92-year-old father his memories of the Second World War (his call-up was deferred because of his father's final illness and was eventually cancelled), gave me further insights into the matter. He reasoned that one of the causes of that war was that the Germans "didn't believe they had lost the First World War", because no invading army ever arrived in Berlin. I suppose the residents of Baghdad may have felt much the same in 1991, when allied troops did not push through to the Iraqi capital because it was possible to obtain a peaceful settlement without doing so. Perhaps the failure to do so was - unintentionally, of course - a factor that contributed to the Iraq War of 2003, when an army of "liberation" did arrive in, and take possession of, Baghdad. And look where that got us.
One of those marching in the procession was Flight Lieutenant (now retired Squadron Leader) John Peters, who for a brief period in 1990 was the focus of the nation's sympathy when he appeared on television as a prisoner of war, captured during Operation Desert Storm along with his navigator. Peters' physical and mental state was apparent from his on-screen appearance, which his captors may have thought would be a cause for shame in the UK; it had the opposite effect. It also sent a clear message to the public that Peters and his companion had been badly treated and that anything they might say on camera would be said under duress.
Peters was soon being hailed as a hero, and says now that he finds it difficult to live up to his popular image. For men and women who suffer in war are often far from being heroes. You only have to read Sassoon's poem "The Hero" to understand that. I feel sure that Johnson Beharry, Britain's most decorated living soldier, does not count himself a hero. Any individual who thinks of himself that way almost certainly doesn't deserve to. At any rate, Lance Sergeant Beharry seemed quite content to be out of the limelight as he pushed an elderly veteran in a wheelchair past the Cenotaph.
One of my colleagues in the field of history recently responded to an invitation to a Remembrance Day event with the words, "I am tired of the British obsession with war(s) so count me out." I can completely understand his point of view. Yet, if we decline to recognise the effects of war on society, what will be our incentive to seek peace, and how will we ever become truly civilised?
One of the favourite songs of my adolescence was by an American band called The Association. It was called "Time for Living". The message was that the singer had been so preoccupied with his everyday activities, such as work, that he had forgotten how to live life. Let us not fall into that trap by spending all our time dwelling in the past. The time to live is now. I think that may be the answer to a lot of 21st-century angst.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Little Owen

Wilfred Owen doesn’t get a lot of space in this blog, but in view of this year’s successful series of events in Edinburgh, plus the fact that the 99th anniversary of his death recently occurred, I think it is probably time to give him some attention.

Owen’s life was a short one, and the first twenty-odd years of it were not particularly eventful, though he probably saw more of life in that time than Sassoon did in his first two decades. They did not move in the same circles or have a lot in common in terms of their family background and experiences. When they eventually met, in 1917, Owen was much quicker to recognise a kindred spirit than Sassoon was; this was partly due to surface snobbery in Sassoon’s case. He could appreciate the noble qualities of the working classes, both in his rural home and at the Western Front, but he found it hard, at first, to relate to a grammar school boy with no obvious poetic antecedents. He was more comfortable in the company of someone like Robert Graves, who had been to Oxford and whose family were academics.

To Sassoon’s credit, he swiftly realised that Owen was nurturing an enormous talent, one greater than his own, and set out to mentor him, accepting it as his due that “little Owen” would defer to him in the sphere of poetry. Owen’s devotion to Sassoon was, I believe, as much a personal one as it was a literary discipleship, for he knew Sassoon was coming to Craiglockhart and was watching him, waiting for his opportunity to make himself known, uncertain of what kind of reception he would get. He approached him as he would a superior, though they were of the same military rank. In his letters to his mother, he talks enthusiastically about Sassoon and his work but does not talk about the reasons the latter was at Craiglockhart. It is not immediately apparent whether he admired Sassoon for making a stand; perhaps this was too far from his own experience for him to feel qualified to express an opinion on the matter, or perhaps the emotionally fragile Sassoon discouraged any discussion of the topic.

I don’t have any original observations on Owen, but I often wonder whether his friendship with Sassoon would have survived peacetime. Sassoon was good at making friends, but not so good at keeping them. He fell out regularly with the Sitwells, permanently with Robert Graves, and even, occasionally, with T E Lawrence. This does not seem to have been unusual among the post-war poets, as Anthony Padgett has capably showed in his work on Humbert Wolfe. Owen appears to have been less prone to taking offence, possibly because of an ingrained inferiority complex, at least when dealing with those he regarded as his social superiors. How would he have changed, if he had lived? He would not have made a good fit with the circle of literary high-flyers that contained Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Nichols and others; yet class and social barriers were breaking down, and he would one day have got to know men like Thomas Hardy, successful writers with somewhat different antecedents.

There are various accounts of how Sassoon viewed his relationship with Owen after the latter's death. Writing of their first meeting, he admitted to having soon realised that his "little friend" was not merely the "promising minor poet" for which he had originally mistaken him. By 1952, he was complaining to a correspondent that "no one under forty writes to me except with inquiries concerning Owen". Allegedly, when Stephen Spender asked him about Owen, Sassoon responded that "he was embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent." The comment could have been made in annoyance or could equally well have been an attempt at humour.

As for Owen, his response to Sassoon's personality began as hero-worship, but after they were separated he indicated in a letter that he did not intend to be Sassoon's "satellite" for much longer: "I shall swing out soon, a dark star..."  He has remained, for subsequent generations, a star - perhaps not dark, but certainly mysterious.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Guerrilla Treeplanter

An article in the latest edition of The Author caught my eye. Let’s face it, “Tree planting with Thomas Hardy” is an intriguing title by anyone’s standards. The content of the article did not disappoint, though it turned out to be something a little different from what I had initially expected.
Some followers of this blog may recall me writing, way back in 2014, about the "Hardy Tree" at St Pancras Old Churchyard in London, where Thomas Hardy, then a junior architect, was given the task of relocating a number of graves, and placed them in a circular pattern around an ash tree. What I had not realised was that several of Hardy's works contain what the author of the article calls handy tips on tree-planting.
Jonathan Tulloch is a novelist, journalist and musician who has an unusual hobby - planting trees. I say unusual because it is not part of his job. He is what he calls a "guerrilla treeplanter", going out at night to repopulate the British countryside by means of random acts of propagation. Rather like Admiral Collingwood, who used to go around with a pocketful of acorns and distribute them at the roadside in the hope of raising new oaks (presumably for shipbuilding purposes), Tulloch considers it his duty to take a role in raising a new generation of trees to replace the ones repeatedly being mown down by mechanical excavators.
This idea appealed to me somewhat, and also reminded me of the talk given by Anne Powell at our legendary Cardiff conference in 2013. Anne has taken an interest in the "gardens" created and tended by soldiers of the First World War. Apparently there are photographs of soldiers with watering cans, caring for plants at the Front, sometimes even in the trenches, where it seems that celery grew particularly well! I can only assume that this was during the summer in places where there was not much fighting going on; I can't imagine that anything pleasant could have been grown in the mud of the Somme and Passchendaele at the height of battle. The article in The Spectator from which I derived this interesting information also tells me that the Imperial War Museum holds among its collection a medal for prize-winning tomatoes submitted to the Le Havre horticultural show of 1918.
Philip Gosse (1879-1959), a family friend of Siegfried Sassoon, took after his grandfather and namesake, the great naturalist (and Darwin denier) whose biography was written by Ann Thwaite in 2002. Gosse junior - of course the son of Edmund - served with RAMC and spent his time on the Western Front collecting rare species for the Natural History Museum. His 1935 memoir, modestly titled Memoirs of a camp-follower, gives an entertaining account of his efforts to keep his specimens safe and find the required materials for taxidermy when appropriate.

Such were the lengths taken by First World War military personnel who loved the natural world and could not bear to see it laid waste by the activities of both armies. Sassoon, Blunden and Graves were among those who witnessed and commented on the work of nature at the Front. For those not brought up in the inner cities, there was little beauty to be seen in the trenches and they longed for the rural idylls that many of them had known as children.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

At Home in Cambridge

The fortunate few who were able to attend this year's AGM on 16th September at St Paul's Church Centre, Cambridge, had a very enjoyable time - and I apologise to those three people who went to a different church thanks to a postcode error made by me in the original announcement. Thankfully, they arrived in time for the two wonderful talks. Somehow, we always seem to find great speakers for the AGM and invariably we are given new or previously-overlooked information about Siegfried Sassoon, his work and his friends.
This year, by something of a fluke, our two speakers were both Cambridge residents. I mean to say that we chose the venue before we had finalised the speaker programme and we were lucky to get two local people who are experts in their particular fields as well as being members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
It was lovely to see Kayleigh Fitzgerald again. Those of you who have been members for more than five years will remember Kayleigh as a committee member, but recent years have seen her having to interrupt her academic studies, as well as her work on a biography of W H R Rivers, because of ill health. She is now studying theology at St John's College, Cambridge, and we were very happy to see her looking so well. Kayleigh and her boyfriend are both preparing to be ordained as Anglican priests and we wish them every success in their future careers.
Kayleigh's interest in William Halse Rivers Rivers [sic] goes back to her schooldays, and the opportunity to study at St John's, where Rivers was a Fellow and where he died suddenly in 1922 (Or was it? Apparently there are conflicting versions of the story), was one she couldn't resist. In her scholarly and comprehensive talk, she gave us a whistle-stop tour of his life and career which was much appreciated by the knowledgeable audience, concentrating particularly on his investigations into the repression of memory, a phenomenon to which he could strongly relate because of his own personal experience and which helped him treat patients like Siegfried Sassoon.
  Our second speaker, Anne Penton, is the great-niece of David Cuthbert Thomas, Siegfried's closest wartime friend. David was only 21 when he died, and might have done great things if he had not become a victim of the carnage of the Western Front. Anne has researched his life and family background in great detail, and has already written several fascinating articles on the subject for Siegfried's Journal. The audience was very excited when she produced several artefacts that had belonged either to David himself or to his family. These included his school rugby cap and his service book. Perhaps because of his youth, he had not written anything like the number of personal notes into the book as Sassoon did. Sassoon mentions in his diaries that he recalled David taking notes on his poetry while they talked, but no such notes have been found; they have probably gone the way of most students' lecture notes and it seems unlikely we will ever see them.
At the end of the afternoon, we were joined by Nick Jewers of BBC Wiltshire, who is in the process of preparing a radio programme about Sassoon and happened to be in Cambridge on that day. Nick interviewed the Chair and Vice Chair, and even followed us to the pub for additional informal conversation (some of which will, no doubt, need to be excised from his recording for reasons other than length!) We are looking forward to hearing more about his programme in the future.

Monday, 4 September 2017

A Rather English Abbey

It only struck me last weekend that there may be tourists these days who turn up at Downside Abbey believing it to be Downton Abbey. In fact, I will be surprised if this is not the case. Downton Abbey was, however, completely unheard-of last time I visited Downside, in 2007. So many things have changed, among them the conference facilities, which have moved from the St Bede Centre which we used for the SSF conference ten years ago to the Weld Cafe (both are equally difficult to find until you know your way around the multi-purpose complex of abbey and school).
The reason for visiting on this occasion was a symposium organised by Joseph Melling to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Dom Sebastian Moore, whom I had interviewed on camera in 2007. Sadly, my DVD of this meeting has deteriorated, and the Abbey seem to have lost the copies we gave them at the time. As a result I wasn't able to show the film as planned. Instead, I gave a talk to the small but knowledgeable audience about Siegfried Sassoon, his conversion to Catholicism and his relationship with Sebastian. For those who do not know, the two men met in 1957 - sixty years ago - when Sebastian was appointed to give Siegfried his instruction in the Catholic faith. Ten years later, Sassoon died at nearby Heytesbury House, but by this time Sebastian was working as a parish priest in Liverpool. He subsequently spent some years in the United States, as a college chaplain, first in Milwaukee and later in Boston.
Like Siegfried, Sebastian was a rebel, though mainly in theological terms. He had also suffered a mental breakdown, which he agreed might have led to him forming a closer bond with Siegfried than would otherwise have been possible. It is difficult, looking at Downside now, to imagine anyone either wanting to rebel or being unhappy there. The monastic community seem to be very laid-back about their duties. When I spotted an old acquaintance, Father Alexander, in the road outside the abbey, I thought for a moment he must have left the order, as he was wearing an old sweater and serviceable trousers, which he explained by saying that he had just been on a pleasant country walk.
Apart from having to get up early in the morning for Lauds, it was difficult to see any sign of hardship in the life of a 21st-century monk. One of my fellow guests did tell me that he had seen a bat in the monastery's sleeping quarters (the part that I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter), and of course they have to share a bathroom and are expected to eat their meals in silence. All seem like a small price to pay for having the beautiful Victorian Gothic buildings in golden Bath stone around one all the time, surrounded by well-tended gardens and the kind of rolling countryside so typical of south-west England. Father Dominic Mansi, who looked after us in the guest wing, seems a progressive thinker and even apologised for women not being allowed to roam freely!
The symposium was an international affair, with American, Irish and Portuguese academics among the speakers, not to mention Father Louis Roy, Master of Sacred Theology at the Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada. Those attending included former students of Downside School - now very much segregated from the Abbey even though the two institutions share the same site - and others who knew Sebastian, including theologian Peter Harvey, who told me that he had played cricket alongside Siegfried Sassoon. Peter kindly corrected me when I stated that the Ravens, Downside's cricket team, had been trained by the late Father Martin Salmon. "None of us were trained," said Peter. "Martin just happened to be the captain." I hope to persuade him to write up some of his memories for Siegfried's Journal at some future date.
Also present was our own Lindsey Spears, who taught at Downside School and knew Sebastian Moore well. At one time it had looked as if I would not be able to attend the symposium and Lindsey had agreed to fill in for me if necessary; in the end, the timings were changed and I was able to make my appearance after all. Even though I was unable to attend the afternoon session, I would have been very disappointed to miss it altogether. Luckily Joseph had distributed transcripts of all the talks to us, so we could read them at our leisure. However, I must say that some of them stray into arcane theological territory which left me feeling intellectually inadequate (and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it is for me to admit that).
I have one final tip on visiting Downside, which seems not to be generally known to local tourist agencies. The abbey's visitor centre, which is run by volunteers, contains not only a very nice bookshop and gift shop, but also some coffee and tea-making facilities. If you are lucky, you will also get a slice of cake, in return for a small donation. Cheaper than Starbucks and much, much more congenial.