Like everybody else, I had read a lot about Harold Nicolson and his amazing marriage, but paid little attention to him as the author of many books, including a biography of his father, Lord Carnock, a bestselling life of King George V, a life of Mrs Charles Lindbergh’s father, some novels and some historical studies. Of these works I had read only one, the pseudo-autobiographical Some People, first published in 1927 (according to the Author’s Note, ‘many of the following sketches are purely imaginary. Such truths as they may contain are only half-truths’). Sixty years on, I had forgotten everything about the book except its incidental allusions to Nicolson’s admired friend Lord Eustace Percy, a minor character, but of special interest to me because at the time he was my boss. I, too, admired this courteous scion of the great Northumberland dukedom, partly because of the divinatory powers that had enabled him to choose me, from a field of candidates all manifestly much better qualified than I, for a job at King’s College, Newcastle, part of the University of Durham, of which he was at that time the rector. He had been a Conservative MP and briefly a young cabinet minister; great things were expected of him, but for one reason or another they didn’t happen. The DNB’s explanation is he was not ‘a good House of Commons man’.
I remember in particular a moment in that bleak year, 1947. The refectory at the college was approached by two separate staircases, one for men and one for women. No ordinary person dared question the propriety of this arrangement. But one day, as we left after eating a horrible lunch together, Lord Eustace surveyed the staircases, saw that the male one was crowded, and said: ‘Let us use the zenana stairs.’ This struck me as at once brave and exotic, qualities no doubt to be expected of a man who had spent his youth in the Foreign Office, and had an easy acquaintance with the domestic arrangements of Tehran and points east.
Lord Eustace, as he appeared in Some People, was the cleverest of Harold Nicolson’s early friends. They shared the hard labour and discomfort of life in Paris under the discipline of Jeanne de Hénault, a famous Diplomatic and Foreign Service crammer, who gets a chapter to herself in Some People. She thought so well of Lord Eustace that she proposed him as a candidate for the vacant job of king of France. Nicolson acknowledged his own inferiority to Percy, though since Percy was so superior this did not make Nicolson very inferior; and in later years he sometimes fancied himself as a possible viceroy of India.
Some People, on a second reading, seemed less charming than it was in 1947. I had forgotten how affected it is. Much of it is in French, though perhaps nobody who cares to read it will mind that, and, after all, the young men were preparing to be diplomats in the days when diplomats had to talk French; but there is still an air of slightly uneasy ostentation, increased by various untranslated allusions to classical literature and the habit of rendering quite ordinary Greek words like hubris in Greek characters. All the same, this book showed that writing many lengthy and boring official reports and aides-mémoire had not cured Nicolson of wanting to be a writer, or destroyed his ability to amuse. Some of the persons he described have lingered on in the cultural memory: Ronald Firbank, who stood for a careless bohemian style of life that Nicolson, in a nervous kind of way, found attractive, appears under the name of Lambert Orme. Other personages, some grand in their time, may be remembered only by historians. The book was a success and even won the praise of Virginia Woolf, who normally did not allow her intimate connection with his family to sweeten her comments on his work. But some diplomatic superiors thought the book cheeky.
Of course Some People was published many years before Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage (1973), which, with all the attendant volumes of correspondence and diaries, made Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West more famous for their unusual private lives than for their works. A benefit offered by this new biography is that all that gossip has to take its place along with the non-marital rest of a life that was certainly full. Its subject was an ambitious diplomat and an ambitious writer and journalist, never entirely easy in any of these roles, and, although to the disenchanted eye a peculiar person, a man who was in many respects quite like the handful of others who guided our frequently disastrous political destinies through the first half of the 20th century. He was often said by excellent companions to have been an excellent companion, but was, without wishing it, a man many will find fairly hard to like.
A favourite word of Nicolson’s was ‘bedint’, which somehow derived from the German and signified a person of servile status. It may have originated in the Sackville family, which was so grand that even Nicolson, marrying into it, was conscious of his social inferiority and must have feared that he might be so labelled. In its usage, by a necessarily limited circle of friends, ‘bedint’ could be extended to mean any sort of person the speaker felt it right to despise or patronise or avoid, and might even be applied to a dull member of the royal family. The knighthood Nicolson reluctantly, faute de mieux, accepted late in life was described as a bedint knighthood. It was suggested that after accepting it he should resign from all his clubs.
The need to keep out the bedints meant keeping social fences in good order. Nicolson preferred not to talk to men who had not been at a good public school. He himself, after the usual dismal prep school, went to Wellington, a relatively bedint-free environment, notable for its fierce but unavailing opposition to homosexuality. He quite liked Wellington, and thought it of great importance to go from there to Balliol, the only college that seemed suited to his intellectual ambitions.
He had a good time at Oxford, but somehow didn’t quite fit in at Balliol, partly because of the unexpected presence in the college of ‘blacks and Rhodes scholars’ and, outside it, of impudent women students. As Norman Rose remarks, this 18-year-old already displayed a lifelong prejudice, a conviction that ‘mankind was divided into two categories: a racial, social and intellectual aristocracy, to which, naturally, he belonged; and the rest, philistines in taste, who, by definition, were excluded from his gilded circles’. It might be added that his dislikes were not secret: of blacks he used blatantly insulting expressions, and meeting a Jewish lord mayor of London made him say he felt some sympathy for Eichmann. Among other humans he could not bear were the Japanese, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Slavs and Catholics.
What with the frequent anti-intellectual but non-bedint entertainment provided at Balliol by the profusely celebrated ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, and vacations spent in his father’s embassies in Madrid, St Petersburg and so on, Nicolson was reduced to a disappointing third in Greats. One can imagine what a blow that result would have been to a bedint who had somehow made his way to Oxford: probably a melancholy recourse to Gabbitas and Thring. For Nicolson, however, it was no more than a passing irritation. His family decided he must be a diplomat like his father. It was a good career choice, as he would meet few colleagues who were not the sons of peers or at least from very good families and very good schools.
The fact that salaries were so comically low that one needed a private income was something of a problem; the Nicolson family was not rich, though not what many would call poor either. Later there was Sackville money available. Nicolson complained throughout his life of tight finances, even when he had a handsome house, half a dozen servants, and sons at the correct educational establishments. Some people measure their financial status in terms of relative poverty rather than relative riches; if you keep raising your style of life to a level appropriate to the increasing grandeur of your social position you may well find you become, in a strictly relative way, poor. This perception might be reinforced by anxiety about the social proximity of people even grander than yourself; Nicolson even worried about his name, rather plebeian despite the elegantly absent ‘h’, and thought that if he achieved a peerage he would get rid of it by commandeering some vacant Sackville title.
Except for his presumably more democratic homosexual excursions, he stayed well within the fences he had built, and his failure as a politician was in part brought on by his loathing of the constituents he had to be nice to: ‘I fear the “People” means nothing to me except ugliness.’ Canvassing was as painful to the prospective MP as dealing with the ‘beastly niggers’ with whom, as a junior FO official, he had to trail around the sights of London.
Norman Rose, a Jew and inescapably a bedint, keeps calm, almost to the end, about this side of Nicolson, recording without comment Nicolson’s automatic insults (Proust, with whom he discussed ‘inversion’, was ‘very Hebrew’, the Hungarian foreign minister ‘a little oily Jew’; and so was Emil Ludwig). He is relaxed about Nicolson’s relations with Oswald Mosley and does justice to his professional performance as a diplomat. In that capacity Nicolson seems to have kept his prejudices under control – for instance, he supported the Balfour Declaration. The Versailles negotiations of 1919 provided what was probably his best moment. He studied the world’s leaders at close hand. He respected Lloyd George, a very smart bedint, but thought the rest of them ‘ignorant and irresponsible men cutting up the world as though it were a cake’. He supported the League of Nations, deplored reparations and other revanchist decisions, and formed a permanent dislike for what later came to be called ‘summit’ meetings. The politicians didn’t understand diplomacy; it was best left to professionals. The ‘spiritually arrogant’ Woodrow Wilson he particularly deplored, and the dogmatic Poincaré almost as much.
While observing these great, dangerous men, Nicolson was himself working hard at drawing new European boundaries and writing copious memoranda. An unrepentant imperialist, he nevertheless seems to have understood other points of view, and he had an admirable mastery of detail. To some friends, and some enemies, it must at this time have appeared that although he was sometimes on the wrong side of the question he had serious diplomatic prospects. And there was a burgeoning literary career as well, one to which he appeared well suited, though not, as he acknowledged, a very high flier.
He was a fast worker – 10,000 words a day, 40,000 in a week – even while holding his Foreign Office job and enjoying appropriately aristocratic sports, like shooting, and pursuing gazelles in motor cars. He rapidly wrote books on Verlaine, Swinburne, Byron and Tennyson, always justifiably anxious about their reception in the Bloomsbury circle (where his friendships were generally uneasy), and always keen that they should make money.
The moment came when he had to choose between two uncertain futures. Part of the argument for giving up diplomacy was his wife’s strong objection to the tedium of foreign embassies, even Tehran. But then a ‘haughty’ paper of his annoyed Austen Chamberlain, the foreign secretary – in Nicolson’s view, a bedint Birmingham ironmonger like his half-brother Neville – and this at a time when Some People, despite its success, was being called ‘a cad’s book’. He was useful; he knew Germany well, and was prescient about the rise of National Socialism, while continuing to deplore the ‘arrogance’ of the Jews who usurped the restaurant tables of the Wilhelmine elite. But he was allowed to go.
He was a little sorry, but did not lose his access to the great ones of his day. Rose’s book makes the most of Nicolson’s acquaintance with many great men between the wars: the feeble Neville Chamberlain; the hopeless Eden; the charming, charismatic Churchill. He was important enough to be on the Nazi blacklist, scheduled for early elimination following the occupation. He lingered on in the Commons, sometimes making fiery, ineffective speeches. Rose thinks the high point of his parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after Munich: ‘this terrible Munich retreat’, he said, was ‘one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occurred in our history’. He spoke as one who, at Versailles, had actually drawn the Sudetenland frontier, and who knew the Germans would soon move into Prague. Later he opposed Eden’s Suez adventure as ‘an act of insane recklessness’.
By that time Nicolson had long since made what Rose calls the move from diplomacy to Grub Street. His journalism was successful, though he hated himself for doing it. His parliamentary career was a failure; but he was established as what a perhaps too candid friend called ‘a national figure of the second degree’. He was faithful to the empire but voted Labour and applauded the Beveridge Report, constantly aware of a conflict within himself ‘between the patrician and the humanitarian. I hate uneducated people having power, but I like to think the poor will be rendered happy. This is a familiar conflict.’ His dislike of Jews did not prevent his advocacy of the state of Israel.
At Sissinghurst he helped to construct a beautiful image of aristocratic retirement, and he did it by working hard beside his partner in that famously odd, snobbish and happy marriage. Norman Rose is no great writer but he is well informed, judicious and charitable, and he leaves his subject more memorable, though possibly less likeable, than he found him.