- Diaries: 1923-1925 by Siegfried Sassoon, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
Faber, 320 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 571 13322 3
Among the attractions of diaries are the glimpses they give of the minutiae of daily life which – as is particularly the case in the 20th century – all the time undergo changes that accumulate to set a marked distance between ourselves and our predecessors. Sixty years is long enough even for those who were alive at the time to look back with some astonishment on the ordinary arrangements of the day. Consider W.J. Turner – admittedly a new and uncertain driver – driving to Warminster in second gear and not unnaturally ‘arriving with the engine red-hot’, which did not prevent his loyal wife asserting that ‘Walter is a splendid driver already.’ Consider Sassoon himself, at the time only slightly instructed in the art of managing his new car, colliding with ‘a dog-cart going at full speed’ and immediately recording that ‘increasing confidence makes me genuinely enjoy the car’; and being equally unperturbed the following day when he ‘knocked a bicyclist on to the pavement in Maidenhead but didn’t damage him at all’. Even after some experience he ‘failed to slow down on a steep hill and ran into a flock of sheep, killing one and knocking the shepherd over. He was a lanky, red-haired barbarian with a weak face and watery blue eyes.’ The shepherd must have been weak, for he apparently accepted £2.10s. without further demur. Carefree days? Perhaps not, but days at any rate in which drivers’ relationships with the rest of the world and with their vehicles – not to say the vehicles themselves – were somewhat different. Unless one is knowledgeable about such technological history, one may be surprised, too, to find that Sassoon’s car did 50 miles to the gallon. Of somewhat wider historical interest is the fact – which everyone knows in general but which it is more difficult to imagine concretely – that one could then quite unremarkably drive from door to door in Central London and park one’s car outside one’s club.
This is the world in which Sassoon is moving around in the years recorded in this third volume of the diaries. Although at the beginning he is riding in the Cotswold Open Race in which, as he says with heavy irony, ‘posterity will be impatient to know how I “got on”,’ most of the volume deals with his life in and, so to speak, from London. It is not only the motor-cars which are different from those we know. The social world as a whole is one that has vanished. The older figures retain something of their pre-war Edwardian air. The former librarian of the House of Lords, Sir Edmund Gosse, an old acquaintance of Sassoon’s, still cuts a dignified figure; it was indeed only in 1925, as Rupert Hart-Davis tells us in one of his meticulous (and most helpful) footnotes, that this ‘critic, biographer and man of letters’, born in 1849, was knighted. Frank Schuster (1840-1928), ‘wealthy musiclover and giver of parties’, was still giving parties, and Sassoon spends a great deal of time in his radiance or under his shadow, making the most of the lavish facilities offered but carping to his diary. Butlers are still more than a stage property and there are young men ‘in white waistcoats smoothing their sleek hair and pulling on their white gloves’.
Not all is glamour and splendour. Among the more solid figures who appear on this stage from time to time are Thomas Hardy, visited more than once in Dorchester:
Tea at Max Gate. Lady Stacie there, a descendant of R.B. Sheridan – and a fashionable lady, formerly a great beauty. She gushed to T.H. about his novels at the tea-table. He shut her up by saying ‘I am not interested in my novels. I haven’t written one for more than thirty years.’
It is the living voice of that grumpy old man. H.G. Wells, whose ‘taste is not for delicate writing’, can occasionally irrupt with invincible common sense: ‘he puts Katherine Mansfield above Virginia Woolf, a “too well-educated woman writing her best” ’ – which at least provides food for thought; he thinks Galsworthy ‘a gentlemanly ass’; he asserts that copulation ‘has no connection with “passion” in the real sense of the word’. These touches of reality are not to be found everywhere in the diary nor in the diarist, who is hardly at ease with his own opinions or with himself. He is, as the unusually good blurb says, at this stage of his life ‘an unhappy and emotionally insecure celebrity ... mixing in literary circles, trying to find some firm base for his life and to acquire some lasting confidence in his own reputation and talent’.
What is he doing in London? Well, nothing, and the vacuity, together with the residues of that ‘very bad period ... immediately after the war’ when he was ‘unwell and nervy’, no doubt made things difficult for him. He was not the man to find assurance in his excellent war record, and the days at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where his doctor, W.H.R. Rivers, became, as the editor notes, ‘his chief father-figure’, are – one might guess, for they are never mentioned – never far below the surface. The troubles he encountered during and after the war must of course have had earlier origins, and Martin Seymour-Smith is probably right in his diagnosis: ‘Possibly his strange and neurotic personality and its written expressions were in part a reaction against his having been deprived of both paternal influence and the Jewishness he knew he had inherited.’ Whatever the reasons, Sassoon suffered all his life from an uncertainty of orientation which accounts for much that is unsatisfactory in his work as well as, probably, for the occasional explosiveness and the more frequent but still only occasional silliness of his behaviour. For a man of his years – he is 36 when this volume opens – he shows an extraordinary immaturity. He knows it, but somehow cannot profit by the knowledge. ‘I take things too literally,’ he says, ‘and overdo the effort to tidy everything up (including my friends).’ When he ‘exalts’ his own behaviour ‘in seeking anonymity and avoidance of publicity’, he understands that ‘at the back of all this’ are his ‘natural impulsiveness and love of success’. What he is doing in London, as much as anything, is consolidating the success he has had as a war poet – a dangerous kind of public achievement, inevitably interesting too many who care nothing for poetry but love talking about great issues.
Sassoon is for ever complaining about the well-to-do and his dislike of social pretension is no doubt partly genuine, but the key to his life in London during these years is that he has a private income. He records in April 1924 that he has just received ‘Heinemann’s account for last year’s royalties. Total royalties, £3 (England and America).’ The comment, ‘So I am almost down to zero, which gives me a queer sense of safety,’ does not refer to financial safety. The ‘literary life’ he claims to be leading is not the sordid business of earning his living through these activities. Basking in his reputation is part of it. ‘I am “someone” in the eyes of the cultivated classes,’ he says and the latter expression means to him, it is evident, something not so far removed from the ‘chic and sophisticated social atmosphere of Schusterism’ which he affects to despise. But of course writing itself is what, he would claim, determines and justifies the form of his existence. The ‘literary life’ debars him from competing in races. ‘I know well enough,’ he says after going to a point-to-point, ‘that horsemanship is less important than poetry, but my love of horses is deeply rooted, and I had an exiled feeling.’ One does not recall Sir Philip Sidney saying that horsemanship and poetry were alternatives, or the Earl of Dorset complaining that he could not write verses at sea. But Sassoon has the post-romantic disease: ‘How futile my existence sounds! It can only be judged by results (literary product).’ Not that the product in these years is particularly impressive. Although he knows that ‘poetry is composed unconsciously and only emerges after ... periods of incubation,’ most of the work he was producing was almost certainly of a different character. ‘Sat up till 4.30 a.m. last night trying to write a piece of verse about the Varsity match.’ One might indeed say that all but a very little of Sassoon’s verse is a sort of vers de société, even when he has a subject which might seem to put it out of that category. For a contemporary of Eliot, Pound and Ford he is really rather ingenuous about literature. We find him beginning Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple in French and not getting very far, then some months later polishing it off ‘at a sitting’ in an American translation; and this from a man who has been swanning round the Riviera with the Schusters – Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo and the rest. After his strenuous exercise with Flaubert he remarks: ‘After one perusal, one refers to such a work, for the rest of one’s life, as if one were as familiar with its subtleties as the man who wrote it.’ This is the literary life indeed!
There is of course something missing from Sassoon’s account of his activities during this period. Hart-Davis tells us that in 1931-2 the author ‘amused himself by making fair copies of what seemed to him the most interesting passages’ of the diaries from January 1923 to May 1924 and from May to November 1925, and ‘presumably destroyed’ the originals. ‘Most of the text of this volume’ is therefore, as he says, ‘taken from fair copies’, adding that ‘it seems clear’ that Sassoon ‘made few changes in the fair copies except for the omission of hurtful passages about his family and occasional improvements of grammar and syntax’. The exceptions are clearly important and, however laudable one judges Sassoon’s motives to have been, they greatly diminish the value of the diaries as a portrait of the author. Moreover, Sassoon removed all references to ‘affairs of the heart’, of which, admittedly, the writing of the 20th century is rather too full, and so we almost certainly lose some important clues to his movements. The general nature of his sentimental preoccupations is not in doubt. ‘During dinner at the Reform,’ he records in April 1925, ‘I was reading The Prisoners of War, a painful but interesting play. At page 15, I was joined by Jack Huntingdon. I showed him the book, explaining that the hero is a tormented homosexual officer, which led me to dilate rather rashly on the subject of dealing with that theme in literature. “Some day I shall write my autobiography,” I said, adding that I am accumulating material in my diaries.’ It is this sort of personal material which is largely missing from this volume. Among the surviving bits of the original for December 1925 are words about Glen Shaw, an actor twenty years junior to Sassoon. ‘No one has ever been sweeter to me than G.,’ he records, after other enthusiastic references.
In the 20th century diaries are often written with a view to publication, and this properly renders them suspect. Even those who write with no such definite intention are likely to entertain a vague hope that their treasures may one day be made public, such is human vanity and the state of the book market. Sassoon’s motives could hardly have been other than mixed, so little at ease was he. ‘I am getting free of my former introspective scribblings,’ he says in December 1925, ‘and I find these diaries useful to refer to afterwards.’ Earlier, he makes a variety of comments on his proceedings. ‘Late at night in London a page of introspection or daylight description soaks on to the paper easily enough. But down here, in silver-green East Anglia, I am indolentminded, and the mapping out of my delicious colloquies with Edmund seems to be continually postponed.’ He seems to have been very sensitive to the atmosphere in which he wrote: whether this is a virtue in a diarist or a mark of insufficiency is a matter on which there might be two views, both perhaps partly right. ‘You observe that I am influenced by my environment,’ he says elsewhere; ‘it would be impossible for me to write in this style at Schuster’s.’ At times he is boringly critical of his own performance: ‘This entry in my diary is an example of inadequate and unskilful diarising. But, when all is said and done, leading a good life is more important than keeping a good diary, and in this case there were extenuating circumstances.’ He adds, more interestingly: ‘Also one must be alone to write a diary well – alone mentally, I mean.’ Such reflections are not those of a natural diarist, who, whether largely concerned with the outside world, like Pepys, or more introspective, like Kafka, will be less self-conscious. He will write down what the paper demands of him and leave it at that, certainly not bothering about the form of it any more than about possible readers. Much of Sassoon’s record is vitiated by his continually seeing himself as a diarist, as most of his verse is strictly unnecessary because he is seeing himself as a poet rather than merely writing a poem when he has one to write.
He has his moments, however. There are scattered in this volume some excellent sketches of his contemporaries. There is Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate, whose ‘father and mother went to Rome in their own carriage’ and whose son became Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Tennyson himself, Sassoon says, ‘never looked more bard-like than Bridges did when I arrived this evening and he stood in the sunlight, waving me into the shed where my little car is housed. Silver-grey, gaunt and genial, he towered over me with his wide-brimmed grey hat on the back of his head and his hair hanging over his forehead in Olympian locks.’ There are marvellous touches about the great man fussing over the proofs of his ‘introduction to some posthumous work by Henry Bradley’; Sassoon thought he had said he was reading Proust, not proofs. There is a charming story about how the Poet Laureate, then brand-new in that office, arrived at the Palace explaining that he would not tolerate being loaded with honours, and being assured by an official that His Majesty would not be troubling him; another about his delicate sense of smell. There are the Laureate’s critical opinions: ‘I can see no merit in Hardy’s poetry.’ E.M. Forster pops in and out of these pages, ‘wistful and attenuated, in a wide-brimmed black Italian hat’. There are a few good portraits of non-literary people, including Forster’s mother and the author’s own, and a vivid account of Nellie Burton, ‘proprietress’, the editor informs us, ‘of 40 Half Moon Street, where she let rooms to single gentlemen’. But on the whole we see little, through Sassoon’s eyes, of people who do not have the supreme merit of sophistication, or at least eligibility for the not altogether dazzling circles of the London Mercury. Of Phyllis Loder, up for the day from Cirencester, a ‘beautiful lady’ who asks him to lunch in Jermyn Street and to whom he has to break the news that he will not hunt the following winter, he says: ‘She left me with a strong sense of the futility of her existence. She might be such a brilliant creature if she mixed with intelligent people.’ This tells us much about the diarist’s illusions.