Tuesday, 29 December 2015

To Our Mothers

In years to come, I will look back on 2015 as the year I lost my mother.  It is an experience most of us eventually share, an unwanted bonus of advancing age.  Yet we never quite know what to expect until it happens to us.

Theresa Sassoon died in 1947, aged 93, having lived through two world wars.  By the time of her death, she had lost one son, seen another become a literary figure of international importance, and her eldest son, Michael, was settled with a wife and children close to where she lived.  Her son Siegfried wrote that he could not face attending her funeral: "I just resolved not to indulge in feelings".  Although he was by now a father, his marriage to Hester Gatty was effectively over, but the dutiful Hester would have attended the funeral (despite past friction with her mother-in-law) had Siegfried not instructed her to stay away.

Georgiana Theresa Thornycroft was born in 1853, a member of a notably artistic family, and Siegfried's own drawings show that he had inherited a modicum of talent.  Theresa's mother and father were both sculptors, her father Thomas being best known for his statue of "Boadicea and her Daughters", which can still be seen on London's embankment, beside Westminster Bridge. Theresa's brother, Hamo Thornycroft, would become at least as well-known as his father, producing such notable works as the statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester city centre and that of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament.  Hamo had in fact obtained a commission from the wealthy Jewish Sassoon family early in his career, when he was chosen to sculpt Rachel, the older sister of Alfred - the young man who would become Theresa's husband.

Theresa was perhaps doomed by her gender not to equal her male relatives in renown, despite early success as a painter.  Had she not met and married Alfred Sassoon, eight years her junior, and had this not sparked a family split that resulted in Alfred being cut off financially from his rich relatives, her career might have been very different.  As it was, she gave birth to three sons within the space of four years.  Even with servants to deal with the humdrum domestic duties, the boys' upbringing made demands on her time.
Siegfried Sassoon’s feelings towards his mother seem to have been rather ambivalent.  He bitterly regretted the loss of his father, who left the family when Siegfried and his brothers were all under ten years old, and died when Siegfried was nine.  Effectively left without a male role model, he often turned for comfort not to his mother (who could hardly have been expected to preserve a “normal” family life while bringing up three boys without a husband) but to family friends and sometimes servants, such as Tom Richardson the groom, immortalised in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as “Dixon”.  Anyone who has read the passage where young Siegfried returns to the house in embarrassment, after his horse runs away, will have observed the annoyance with which he receives the clucking concerns of the maids about his welfare.  Only Dixon – by his very silence - recognises the importance of allowing the child to retain his dignity.

Incidents like these convey the apparent loneliness of Sassoon’s early life as well as explaining his attitude towards his mother.  Siegfried expresses no anger over Theresa's part in his parents’ marriage break-up - she was clearly the wronged party, if there was one - yet it does sometimes appear that he resents her in some small measure and partly blames her for his father’s desertion and death, and thus for his own loneliness.  This is reflected, perhaps subconsciously, in the way he turns her into a spinster aunt in MFHM. The loss of her youngest son, Hamo, at Gallipoli, caused her to flirt with spiritualism, resulting in the incident that Robert Graves recorded for posterity in Goodbye to All That.  Despite his own sorrow at Hamo's death, Siegfried found her conduct an embarrassment. 

Nevertheless, their relationship was a close one.  There were certainly moments of conflict over the years.  Theresa was conservative and did not like it when her son took a job with the Daily Herald; she liked it even less when he considered standing as a Labour MP. Although she initially took to Siegfried's lover Stephen Tennant, she came to disapprove of the relationship, just as she had disapproved of his first lover, Gabriel Atkin.  By the 1920s, she and Siegfried had become somewhat estranged; he had begun to feel that they belonged to different worlds.  

In 1928 Sassoon produced "To My Mother", a poem dedicated to Theresa and published in a limited edition, illustrated by Stephen Tennant.  In this he recognised the "selfless duty" with which she had brought him up and cared for him even in adulthood.  Perhaps it was the re-living of childhood for his fictionalised memoir published in the same year, that had caused him to appreciate her efforts more fully.  In conversation, Siegfried affectionately called her "Ash"; the origin of the nickname would appear to be a supposed resemblance to a cleaning lady called Mrs Ash, once employed by the family. 

Some of her letters to Siegfried are held by Cambridge University Library and images can be seen on-line: https://specialcollections.blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=5533 

After Theresa's death, her son was once more able to recognise her best qualities, commenting that "Somehow she seems nearer to me than before she died."  This strikes a chord with me in my present situation and others have made similar observations.  When someone close to us becomes ill and too old to enjoy life, their death can come as a relief and perhaps even free us from feelings of obligation, guilt and shame that may have been troubling us for years.  We gradually learn to remember them as they really were, and to view their imperfections, such as they were, in realistic proportion. 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Delicate and Sensitive Nature

While leafing through Rupert Hart-Davis's edition of Siegfried Sassoon's letter for the years 1923-1925, I came across an entry that reproduces a letter Siegfried had received from Delphine Turner.  It concerns the conduct of her husband Walter.
Siegfried had been sharing a house with the Turners at Tufton Street in Westminster, but was not happy with the arrangement.  Although he had been very friendly with Walter Turner at one time, living in close proximity to the couple had proved difficult (as indeed often happens when friends try to share accommodation, however fond they may be of one another).  Siegfried had become particularly fond of Delphine, as is evident from the diary entry, where he mentions how much he appreciates her "direct and honest" approach.
Those of us who know a little about Siegfried himself may suspect that there was another side to him, a side that did not always want others to be honest and direct, because he was - as Delphine puts it in the letter - of a "delicate and sensitive nature".  Appealing to his kindness of heart (which she had cause to value, since without his assistance she and her husband might have been homeless), she suggests that Walter is going through a "period of apparent disintegration", and that she expects Siegfried to remember his friend's good side when he misbehaves, just as she is forced to do herself.  Delphine admits that she has considered leaving Turner, something that would have been very difficult for a woman of her time if she wished to continue to live in polite society, but stays because of an awareness of his finer qualities.
The blame for Siegfried's falling out with Walter Turner is put squarely on the shoulders of - who else? - Robert Graves, a mutual friend.  Siegfried had recognised, almost as soon as he met Graves during the war, that he was a difficult man who tended to make himself disliked.  Delphine suggests that Graves had deliberately tried to break up the friendship between Siegfried and the Turners by repeating, out of context, remarks made by her husband.  Among other things, Turner had accused Siegfried of meanness and said that he found his company annoying.
Siegfried received the letter on the day before his 39th birthday.  He was travelling in the West Country, and had just visited his great friends Thomas and Florence Hardy. The time spent in their welcoming company may have shown up, by contrast, his discomfort with the Turners.  Nevertheless, he wrote back to Delphine, promising to try to put his quarrel with Walter Turner behind him.
It was not to be.  On his return to London, Siegfried heard another third-hand account of unkind things Turner was supposed to have said about him, this time from Robert Ross's old landlady Nellie Burton.  Between them, Nellie and Ottoline Morrell (who was already upset by Turner's behaviour towards her personally) persuaded them to look at other accommodation.  Eventually he took rooms at 23 Campden Hill Square, a house once owned by Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her family, and often visited by J M Barrie.  Siegfried was embarking on a happier time of life, at the root of which was a fulfilling relationship with the young actor Glen Byam Shaw.  I believe his only regret, as he left Tufton Street, was having to say goodbye to his beloved Delphine.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

French Leave

The expression "to take French leave" is no longer widely used. It was first recorded in the 18th century and essentially refers to the habit of leaving without saying that one is going.  As a social behaviour, it might be regarded as rude (leaving a party without thanking the host) or alternatively as polite (leaving a party without disturbing the host).  It's clear, however, that the origin of the term is military, and therefore hardly surprising that the French use the equivalent term "filer a l'Anglaise", i.e. they take "English" leave.
I've been on leave from this blog, and I suppose it was French leave in a sense, as I didn't announce to the world that I was going anywhere - I try not to do that when I'm going on holiday, for obvious reasons.  I just annoy people with my holiday photos when I get home.  If you want to see those, they are viewable on Facebook if you are one of my "friends", as many of you are.  You might also notice that I've changed my profile picture and overlaid it with the French flag, as many of my friends have done. 
I don't know if Siegfried would have taken such an action.  I often wonder what he would have thought of Facebook and other social media (incidentally, a novelty publication entitled The History of the World through Twitter includes a section in which Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have a playful argument with Rupert Brooke - I didn't find it very funny but others might).  Owen was, to my mind, more the kind of person that might have done so, particularly in view of his pre-war residence at  Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre.  His knowledge of the French nation and its language must surely have been far superior to Siegfried's.

Siegfried Sassoon knew all about patriotism, and I'm sure could understand the feelings of French people on being invaded and defeated by the Germans, but he might not have had the same degree of empathy with them that Owen would have done.  Despite his anger at the death of David Thomas and his willingness to take part in wild raids on the German trenches, he seems in general to have felt almost as much sympathy for the enemy as he did for his own side.  Many have referred to him as "the quintessential English gentleman", but that might carry with it implications of blinkered obedience to popular national sentiment that would be quite unjustified.

To the best of my knowledge, Siegfried had never been to France before he arrived at Boulogne in November 1915; I do not think he had been outside Britain, and thus his awareness of the world beyond his native land was limited, certainly by comparison with men like Owen, Charles Sorley, and Richard Aldington, all of whom had lived abroad prior to their enlistment.  In that sense, and perhaps in many others, Sassoon was an innocent.

The same would have been true of most of his fellow soldiers, probably even including the junior officers.  Very few would have been outside the British Isles before.  Television was decades in the future and cinema images were still monochrome; even books rarely contained coloured photographs. I cannot help wondering what he made of it.  As the troop ship pulled into the quay, was his eye caught (like mine, the first time I ever went to France) by the tall, narrow houses, so different in style from what he had left behind in Britain?
Always a nature lover, Sassoon would quickly have fallen in love with the French countryside.  He had been all over England and seen various landscapes, and he would surely have appreciated northern France just as much.  The evidence that he felt this way is to be found in a little-known poem, "France", which would be published in his collection, The Old Huntsman, in 1917.  It is written in a traditional vein.  Though not without merit, it is not one of his best known, and for fairly obvious reasons, as it appears – up to a point – to glorify the soldier’s role.  Siegfried seems to be saying that the country, with its “radiant forests” and “gleaming landscapes”, is well worth fighting for.  At this moment, I am certain that many French people feel exactly the same.  Was France, for the poet, just a hook on which to hang a poem?  I’m not sure whether, in his mind, it represents a mother land, whose defence is a good reason for its people to be prepared to go to war, or just a place Siegfried felt was beautiful and deserved to be saved.

At the weekend I heard a lot about France at the Wilfred Owen Association's AGM.  As most of you reading this will be aware, there is a thriving French organisation, based in Ors where Owen is buried, dedicated to preserving his memory.  The Forester's House in Le Pommereuil, where he wrote his last letter to his mother, is a tourist attraction.  Both Owen and Sassoon seem to have felt that France was a land worth fighting to save, and I have no doubt that both would at this moment be experiencing a deep sadness about recent events in Paris.  Whether either of them would have believed that bombing Syria was an answer, I am less certain.