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’.

The particular interest which attaches to the years 1946-7 is in the picture of the landowning classes coping, on the whole with fortitude, with the disconcerting situation they found themselves in after the war. There are innumerable glimpses of country houses in disarray. The army, or a hospital, or a bank, or a school, has just left. Or ‘the hospital has gone, leaving a great mess, and the Art School has not arrived.’ Or ‘House quite hideous and large, now full of Barnardo children who swarmed like ants round my motor and wrote their names on the dust of the bonnet with their beastly little fingers.’ In one case a visitor reports nothing on the breakfast table but ‘a full, steaming jerry’. Such inelegance is unusual, but splendour is hardly to be found. Even at Knole ‘the condition of the furniture is deplorable, caused by utter neglect’ – though it is not James Lees-Milne who is tactless enough to shock Lord Sackville by saying so. An old lady looking ‘tired and streaky’ and wearing old overalls, or a young woman in ‘untidy overall-cum-maternity gown’ might be taken as typical personalia of the scene, if in fact there were not more variety than typicality. In these houses designed for considerable households, there are no servants, or none living-in, or not enough. Sometimes there is a sighting of a servant of the old school, content with his station in life as no one so situated was supposed to be, after the war. There are owners who have shut up the greater part of their houses; there is ‘a child-like, almost childish woman’ who says ‘you cannot shut up part for the moth and general corruption.’ She and her husband ‘live in Spartan fashion, and their food is not good.’ For a rich if unscientific example of conditions in these establishments, this diary could hardly be bettered.

The houses are at the end of their tether, the owners by no means always so. There is on the whole little complaint at the way the world is changing, though there is a modest anxiety. The mother of one owner, who is living abroad, asks whether her sister ‘would still be allowed to paint in the garden studio’, if the house were taken over. Even the Princess Royal, at Harewood House, picking her way through the state room, ‘opening shutters, removing dust-sheets and talking affably to the workmen’, asks ‘if she might have a small strip of the terrace to herself and dog on opening days’. A man re-laying boards ‘neither removed his hat nor his cigarette’. This is the epoch when the Earl Fitzwilliam went to Downing Street to ask the Prime Minister to spare the grounds of Wentworth from opencast mining: no one after that would have supposed the journey to Downing Street worthwhile in the circumstances, and perhaps no one would have thought it proper that a landowning earl should be admitted, even for a curt refusal. ‘Lady Fitzwilliam,’ Lees-Milne reports, ‘in a pair of slacks, rather dumpy and awkward, came downstairs for a word just before we left. I fancy she is not very sensitive to the tragedy of it all.’ There is the subdued tragedy of the Mount Edgecumbes – the ‘countess a little, gentle, sweet and pathetic old lady’ – packing up to leave Cotehele ‘which since the 13th century has been in their family’. There is ‘the Shuttleworth story: how the old Lord died during the war; his two sons were both killed in the 1914-18 war. The elder son’s two sons were killed in the last war. The present Lord’s younger half-brother ... also killed in the last war. The present Lord himself lost both his legs in battle.’ Not everyone needs more than a usual provision of stoicism. Lunching with Ann Rothermere ‘at Warwick House overlooking Green Park’ all is ‘very pre-war, butler and footmen, wines and desserts’. Even General Kincaid-Smith, ‘a bad 77’, manages to give ‘an old man’s luncheon, ending with plum cake and port wine’.

The diarist is better entitled than most to record – as he does – that a noble lord had said that ‘if England were combed no one could be found more suitable’ for the particular post he held. If such remarks are never quite true, certainly Lees-Milne’s qualifications were high. There were no doubt many people who, with similar opportunities, could have acquired his knowledge of houses and furniture, but his was certainly considerable. Moreover, he combined this mere knowledge with social qualifications of a high order. Harold Nicolson admires the way ‘he wheedles things out of old ladies.’ There is more to it than that. He has just the right tone when he makes sympathetic noises to those who deplore the moral decadence of the English people, and enough decadence of his own to sympathise with those who know more of the world. In the matter of class affinities, so important in some of the delicate arrangements he has to make, he cannot be faulted. After Eton and Magdalen he has been private secretary to the first Baron Lloyd; he has even spent a few months as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards, from which he was invalided out. He is a member of Brooks’s, and he is in and out of the Ritz in spite of the oppressions of the Attlee Government which he and his friends repeatedly deplore. He has an old car which looks expensive and – ‘when not beset by angst’ – he loves driving it up and down the country, temperamental though it is. This enables him to carry out a ceaseless round of visits without murmuring, so that no one, I suppose, can have spoken with as much knowledge as he about the current condition of the properties the Trust was interested in, or of that of their owners. From Adam ceilings to hip baths, he knows it all, and he knows about the nervous breakdowns brought about by the worry of keeping up houses without servants. ‘What these wretched landowners have to go through!’ He is sympathetic, and no doubt this smoothes the way in many difficulties. Yet when he confides to us – admittedly when he has ‘pains in the stomach and nausea’ – that he suffers also from ‘abandon to selfishness, and hardness of heart’ – as we all do more or less – we hardly feel disposed to say that we should never have suspected it. We may even wonder whether his colleagues might not agree that his ‘ill-humour is all-besetting’, though it is part of the reticence of the journal that we hear little of his displays of it. He is ‘a dissident’, he says, because he does not ‘love all humanity and care for it’ – which admittedly makes a change, in a world so full of dissidents who assure us of the width of their sympathies. He admires male beauty, and to judge by the photograph which is the frontispiece, had some himself. We learn that he met his ‘undoing’ when he was ‘no more than 15 – if that’.

Lees-Milne is – or more properly was, for he fairly enough points out in his preliminary note that he does not necessarily endorse ‘every view and opinion’ he held in 1946 and 7, ‘especially the more foolish ones’ – a political Papist; it is perhaps part of his dissidence. He freely uses this now unfashionable term ‘Papist’ – which is the historically correct English expression for what it designates – and he is certainly not looking for compromise. He is both ‘an anarchist’ and ‘would like to be ruled by the Pope’. Talking of Christianity with ‘an enthusiastic supporter’, he says that his interlocutor shares with him ‘the recognition of a need to introduce Christian principles into British politics’. This means primarily countering ‘Communism and totalitarianism’. It goes with a hatred of ‘the diabolical venom’ of Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Dalton ‘is affable, bombastic and diabolically clever. I am sure he is also dishonest and evil.’ In the circles Lees-Milne moves in there is anxiety about a possible capital levy. There is a broadcast speech by Mr Attlee which is ‘received in grim silence’ in his hotel. ‘When it was over not a soul spoke or made a single comment. Instead, he or she went on with their reading, so typically English. A sign of native phlegm or stupid indifference, who can tell?’ Or just common sense? The diarist shows little sign of knowing or caring what is going on outside what he regards as the frontiers of his own class. At least he does not, like Harold Nicolson, toy with socialism while saying that ‘no one dislikes the lower orders more than he does.’ But he has to go to Sweden to admire ‘middle-class taste and existence. Complacency breeds content,’ he adds. He is himself not deficient in complacency, but with him it goes not so much with content as with obliviousness to all worlds but his own. One wonders whether the National Trust, for all its independent status, was really so innocent of all bureaucratic ethos as he represents it to be. Were they really all ‘a dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts, who ought not to be bossed about’? Sir George Mallaby, however thick the velvet of his gloves, was trained enough to want to keep things a bit tidy. Indeed Lees-Milne did feel that Mallaby was too ready to give way to government – ‘typical of the Civil Service mind, which is perfectionist’, as Lord Esher told the diarist. ‘He said the aristocratic mind was different. It was pragmatical. It made the best out of indifferent materials.’ Esher went on to tell a story about a parvenu millionaire’s ball where there were paper lilies among the natural flowers – an odd way of enforcing the point about the Civil Service, one would have thought. But as to ‘behaving like gents not bureaucrats’, as Lees-Milne says elsewhere, that is a perfectly real distinction, and no doubt much of the success of the Trust, in its relations with owners, was due to having chosen the better part.

It must nonetheless be said that the story of the diary is very much the story of transitional years. If the landowning classes as such had been signed off by 1914-18 it was the second war which closed down the houses in a wholesale manner and the Treasury and the National Trust which presided over the liquidation and mitigated its effects. What Lees-Milne records is a last frolic among the residual owners. In spite of the complaints about the Attlee Government, one can only admire the assurance with which it let events take their course. Though Lees-Milne declares that he is ‘far too right-wing’ to be a Tory, he is the perfect executioner, in the circumstances. It is surely he who deceives himself, with his pretensions to aristocratic taste and opposition to the government which is arranging the country for the post-war social democracy. He is the herald of the thousands of sight-seers who now troop through handsome and moribund properties, seeking culture or merely wishing to get out of the car for a bit. He flits from house to house with the eye of a prospector for the then unborn Department of the Environment, comforting himself with the thought that ‘the Ministry of Works lacks taste and sensitivity in spite of its academic superiority.’ He has taste, like an antique dealer. He collects all over the country bits of furniture to fill up Montacute. It is an errand of mercy of a kind, and one cannot begrudge him the fun he has in the course of it. The National Trust has succeeded in preserving a large number of precious possessions from the past, but these are now nobody’s possessions and their present public function already begins to have a residual look. The conception belongs to the epoch when the BBC thought it could be elevating. What role will the Trust – or the BBC – have in the future organisation of idleness?