Robert Blake

  • Harold Nicolson: A Biography: Vol. 1, 1886-1929 by James Lees-Milne
    Chatto, 429 pp, £15.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2520 9
  • Harold Nicolson Diaries 1930-1964 by Stanley Olson
    Collins, 436 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 00 216304 7

Harold Nicolson was a diarist of genius who would have loved to make a success of public life or literature. He was an able but not outstanding diplomat who retired at 43, a journalist and broadcaster of talent, an MP for ten years and a junior minister in 1940-41. His literary achievements were voluminous, but few of his forty-odd books have lasted, apart from his study of Curzon, his lives of King George V and of Tennyson, and his Byron, The Last Phase. A word, too, should be said for his life of his father, Lord Carnock, which he regarded as his best achievement. He wrote with care and in an elegant, limpid style: but there are times when one is reminded of Balfour’s remark about Asquith, whose clarity of speech, he observed, was a positive disadvantage when he had nothing to say. Nicolson’s diaries and letters make spendid reading, but he was neither a great littérateur nor a man of action. It was a tragi-comic delusion that, converted from National Labour to ‘real’ Labour, he supposed himself to be a possible Ambassador in Paris under Attlee’s government, and even at times dreamed of being Foreign Secretary.

There were good reasons for his lack of success. He was well-known for his numerous homosexual affairs: Mr Lees-Milne says that he ‘was not passionate but very lustful’. His tastes were a serious handicap when the act was criminal even between consenting adults. The extent of the veil drawn over such matters even in the supposedly uninhibited 1920s is shown by Harold Nicolson’s own first book, a study of Verlaine published in 1921. One would never guess from reading it what Verlaine’s relationship was with the farouche boy poet, Rimbaud, although few homosexual liaisons in history are more celebrated – as Edmund Wilson pointed out in a severely critical piece in the New Yorker in 1944. But, apart from the disadvantage of sexual deviation, Harold Nicolson lacked the decisiveness, the hardness and the ruthlessness of the successful public man. He had too many doubts, too much compunction. There was more justification in his other grievance against Attlee – that he was never made a peer. Harold Wilson conferred that honour on Driberg. Admittedly, by then the law had changed, and Attlee was more selective – indeed he could hardly have been less – than Wilson. Even so, Driberg was advised by friends that if he published his candid memoirs in his lifetime he could never appear in the House again. Notorious homosexuality is likely in the foreseeable future to be a serious hurdle for those who seek top positions.

Harold Nicolson’s ambitions as a public man were damaged by another aspect of his life – his marriage. Although both his son, who first exposed its extraordinary nature, and Mr James Lees-Milne, who has written the first volume of his biography, refer to it as a great success, it cannot be regarded as anything but a disaster in terms of Nicolson’s public career. Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of Lord Sackville. Had she been a boy, she would have inherited Knole, one of the most famous country houses in England, together with the estates entailed in the male line upon her cousin Eddy. She bitterly resented this deprivation, the more so since Eddy was bored stiff by Knole. She became a wayward eccentric rebel at an early age, and an active lesbian. She was a poet, though not a very good one, a writer on whose books different opinions are held: but they are read by few people today. Her escapades with other women before and after her marriage were widely known in society. In a strange way, she and Harold, if not exactly in love with each other, came to have a deep need for each other. It is extraordinary that his affair with Raymond Mortimer, to name only one of his many partners, or hers with Violet Trefusis, did not break up this odd marriage at an early stage. Not surprisingly, she would not play the orthodox part of a career diplomat’s wife. It is fairly clear that no great future lay ahead for Nicolson in the Foreign Office when he resigned in 1929.

The marriage, though regarded as a mésalliance by the Sackvilles, was, in fact, a marriage of social equals. Nicolson was the younger son of Sir Arthur, 11th Baronet, later created a peer for his services in the Foreign Office as Permanent Under-Secretary 1910-16. Harold’s Hamilton grandmother owned a stately home in Co. Dublin. His uncle by marriage was the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, Viceroy of India. The trouble was not birth but cash, of which the Nicolson family had very little. Money was to be a perpetual problem. Foreign Office pay was far from lavish and Harold had no sense of economy. In matters of wining and dining his practice echoed the dictum of a famous bon vivant Christ Church don: ‘the best is good enough for me.’ It is true that on their marriage in 1913 Vita was given £2500 a year – a generous figure for the time – by her eccentric mother, who had just inherited in shady circumstances, after furious litigation, a fortune from her friend Sir John Scott: but there was perpetual bickering and backbiting about the allowance. One of Harold’s reasons for seeking in 1929 the more lucrative path of journalism was to escape dependence upon his half-mad mother-in-law.

Harold Nicolson was born in 1886 in Teheran, where his father was temporarily Chargé d’Affaires, but his childhood memories began with the Legation at Budapest, first of a series of diplomatic habitats. There was Constantinople, where he witnessed the ceremony of the Selamik performed by Abdul the Damned; Sofia, where he evaded his mother’s maid to run off and see the pickled fingers of the murdered prime minister Stephan Stambolov, put on show in her window by his widow as a sign of martyrdom; Tangier, where he remembered a smoking lamp in a courtyard barred from casual sight, looking just like those of Pompeii. Years later, as Mr Lees-Milne writes, he ‘realised that it was not the glamour of the East which that smoking lamp suggested to him. It was the life of Rome and even Athens which he as a boy had been privileged to experience.’

He was educated at Wellington, which he did not enjoy, and Balliol, which he did, though perhaps not so much at the time as in retrospect. Later he regarded the Honorary Fellowship to which he was elected in 1953 as the greatest honour of his life. Modern youth would be shocked at some of his comments (like those of Raymond Asquith who had gone down two years earlier): ‘Very few speak without accents and there are a great many blacks and Rhodes scholars etc, but the others [meaning his own set] are so nice that they make up for all the niggers and atheists in the world.’ He had no use for the Master, Caird, a highly distinguished philosopher. ‘He is like a Scotch Meenister & very dull and stupid.’ Harold, like Vita, was an open and unrepentant snob all his life. The wrong accent or manners jarred on him irrevocably. His affaires were conducted with ex-public-schoolboys or foreigners of the same class, not with pick-ups, sailors or even guardsmen. How unlike the home life of our own dear Driberg!

In 1909, despite a poor academic performance at Balliol, Harold Nicolson followed family tradition into the Foreign Office. He thus knew the world of the old pre-1914 diplomacy both personally and hereditarily. Whatever he has written about that is very well worth reading. Conventions of the day and a certain English upper-class modesty prevented him from saying much in his books abut his own part. In fact, it was important. His professional ability kept him out of the fighting in the 1914-18 war – something which he found acutely embarrassing, the more so as he had a soldier brother. The inhibitions, worries and intended – or unintended – slights experienced by the young men of that generation who did not ‘fight’ are now a vanished part of history. Let no one underestimate the traumas that they left.

Harold Nicolson’s heyday in the Foreign Office was his work during and after the Peace Conference of Paris. He was immensely hardworking and deeply concerned with the repercussions of the many wrong-headed decisions, as he saw them, which were made. His own role was a significant one. He was, both during and after the war, one of those essential junior civil servants whose capacity for lucid drafting and endless taking of pains was invaluable to their superiors. It is one of the many achievements of Mr Lees-Milne’s admirable book that he brings out an aspect of foreign affairs which is too often forgotten or glossed over: the sheer amount of time and labour involved in negotiations. His book is worth reading if only for the light it throws on the making of foreign policy from 1914 to 1925, when Harold Nicolson was for most of the time working in the Foreign Office itself. The book, however, is worth reading for more than that.

Mr Lees-Milne is a very good writer, with a most acute eye for the colour and nuances of the social scene in which the Nicolsons so prominently figured. He is old enough to remember the 1920s himself, or at any rate the closing years of that feverish decade, and no book that I have read in recent times gives a more vivid and convincing picture of the style of life enjoyed by the upper-class intellectual and literary world of those days. Anyone who wants to know what the 1920s were like – admittedly for a small and highly élite class of society – could not do better than read, preferably in a leisurely fashion, the first volume of this perceptive biography. He will certainly end by looking forward to the next, and, if he wonders at first whether two volumes on an interesting but hardly a major figure are really justified, he will find his doubts quickly resolved.

The publication of Mr Lees-Milne’s book coincides with that of a condensed version of Nicolson’s diaries 1939-64, skilfully edited by Stanley Olson. The original diary preserved in Balliol College runs to three million words. In 1966-68 Nigel Nicolson produced a three-volume edition based partly on the diaries and partly on his father’s correspondence. He used only a twentieth of the diary itself. The abridged version cuts out a good deal more but it also adds passages which for one reason or another Nigel Nicolson thought it was unwise to publish 12 years ago. Some of them are very entertaining. When he was writing his life of George V, the diarist met on Waterloo Station platform a French newspaper correspondent who asked him where he was going.

I said I was going down to Windsor to study the archives. He asked whether he might enquire what was the subject of my new book. ‘Une biographie,’ I answered, ‘de Georges V.’ He expressed surprise that there should be any documents at Windsor about any such person. Rather puzzled, I replied that there was a whole room full of papers. ‘Quelle étrange personne,’ he said, ‘avec cette passion presque nymphomane pour les hommes.’ I was much startled by this and then found he thought I had said George Sand.

Harold Nicolson’s diary is in the class of the great – Pepys, Creevey and Greville.