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.   

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