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?