Houses at the end of their tether

C.H. Sisson

  • Caves of Ice by James Lees-Milne
    Chatto, 276 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2657 4

When one opens a diary there are two things one wants to know. The first is the date of the entries; the second is the age of the author. James Lees-Milne was 36, rising 37, when he started this record on 1 January 1946. He had, however, kept a diary before, during the years of the war, and abandoned it only three months earlier, so he starts here with a practised hand. The wartime diaries have already been published, as Ancestral Voices and Prophesying Peace, and time will show whether this is a conclusion or merely an episode in a continuing labour. Why people keep diaries is a mystery, or if not a mystery a matter of temperament and disposition, which comes to the same thing. A preliminary note in this volume directs the reader to 6 January – if readers ‘get so far’, the author says in what must be a sally of politeness, for it would be a faint-hearted reader who did not get to the second page. ‘An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end?’ He says there is ‘no explanation’: but the question itself tells us something. James Lees-Milne is no Pepys, writing secretly. He foresees a reader and, it is to be assumed, publication. ‘Being a bad Catholic,’ he says, ‘I used, when I went to confession, to skate lightly over sins I had a mind to while emphasising those I was less inclined to ... So too, being cowardly, I treated, and shall continue to treat, my diary like an intimate friend who mustn’t know everything.’ That is a kind of frankness, but an imperfect kind, with one eye on a public, like most of the ‘frankness’ of the 20th century.

‘No one asked me to a party last night,’ the diary begins, and for the newcomer the first page establishes the milieu. ‘Had tea with dear Lady Throckmorton whose nephew Nicholas Throckmorton, Robert’s heir, called.’ Midi Gascoigne and Timmie Buxton, her sister, get a mention, as do Emerald Cunard and Denis Rickett. Logan Pearsall Smith, aged 80, starts to tell a story of an American cousin of Henry James who ‘invited the novelist to sleep with him’ but he is overcome by a fit of coughing. By the end of the second page we have also met Kathleen Kennet, James Pope-Hennessy and Clarissa Churchill. And indeed we are little threatened by low company, as the diary proceeds. By page three we are well into those concerns which give the diary its public interest. For Lees-Milne was Adviser on Historic Buildings to the National Trust, and already he has spent a day at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire and engaged a ‘delightful couple’ as caretakers at £4 a week rising to £4 10s; the man ‘had been a gentleman’s servant and has good references’. The author has also been to a meeting of the Historic Buildings Committee which ‘turned down Hever Castle as a gross fake’. The bill of fare is by now roughly established, though it is varied and extended in a manner which makes the book – as A.L. Rowse said of Ancestral Voices – ‘a contribution to the social history of the age’.

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