Hello to All That

Martin Seymour-Smith

  • Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1926 by Richard Perceval Graves
    Weidenfeld, 387 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 297 78943 0

This is the first volume of a projected three-volume ‘definitive’ biography of Robert Graves by his nephew, Richard Perceval Graves. It takes over where the author’s father, Robert’s younger brother John Graves, left off. John, who died in 1980, had been described by Robert as a ‘typically good pupil of a typically good school’ (to which he returned as teacher); he had for long contemplated the composition of a book called My Brother Robert. The outstanding virtue of his son’s first volume – which almost exhausts the private information he holds, mainly derived from the diary of the poet’s father Alfred Perceval Graves – is that it is a worthy completion of the task John Graves set himself. He would not have gone beyond 1931 and the death of Alfred Perceval. As Richard Perceval Graves remarks, John was ‘a devout Christian, a loving father, and a most honourable, unselfish man’. The difficulties begin here. This author, who has written accounts of the lives of T.E. Lawrence, Housman and the Powys brothers, closely resembles his father. But Robert Graves did not at all closely resemble his ‘typically good’ brother; nor does he resemble his ‘typically good’ son – who, although he has ‘known’ and ‘loved’ his uncle ‘since childhood’, did not know him very well at all, and was never the recipient of his confidences. Nor, for that matter, was Robert capable of speaking in the moralistic terms employed by Richard Perceval. But his family for the most part (there are exceptions) was – and is. This gives The Assault Heroic an unexpected dimension.

The publication of this book puts me in a difficult position. As the author of the first biography of Robert Graves I am, naturally, proprietory. I should therefore not appear graceless when new biographies and critical studies appear. But what if I sincerely believe that they are awful and misleading? It is fortunate, then, that this book does have a genuine value.

Those who are interested in Robert Graves will thank me only if I am candid. The late John Graves, to the idea of whose book upon him Robert Graves responded with a certain sense of depression, was put out when he heard from me that I had been commissioned to write a biography of Robert. He struggled with his own understandable proprietory feelings. Eventually he was generous to me: he sent me many extracts from his father’s diary that he thought would be useful, gave me his opinions about the influence of Laura Riding on Robert, and talked to me at length and frankly on the telephone. He behaved as a conscientious man should behave. What I got from him was mostly confirmatory of what I had got from Robert Graves himself (at a time when neither of us contemplated my writing a book about him): but John was also very useful in confirming my view of the impression made by the Riding-Graves relationship on outsiders. I put it on record that Antigua, Penny, Puce is in part a satire on John. I should now add that it is good-natured satire: Robert sincerely hated his brother the journalist Charles because he saw in him a caricature of his own worst faults (‘Am I greedy like that?’ he would ask in horror): for John he had genuine affection.

Richard Perceval Graves has been as generous to me as his father was. People had often addressed to him such remarks as, ‘I suppose it is inevitable that some day you should write about your uncle Robert,’ and the appearance of my book temporarily ‘blunted’ his ‘determination’, as he puts it. Happily this discouragement persisted only until he had read ‘the first few chapters’. Now he has been able to concede that ‘a man is entitled to his opinions,’ and has ‘drawn up’ his ‘evidence in the decent obscurity of the reference notes’. I am grateful to him for his forbearance, and recognise his difficulties – my, so to say, getting in before him, and also in the matter of what his father so intelligently told me. I was scared that so loyal a chronicler would have found me out in many an inaccuracy – but relieved to discover that he had not. Going on what Graves himself had said, I had put him at Charterhouse for seven instead of five years. I also, as he did, got the date of his confirmation wrong. Apart from that, and from a few very trifling family matters such as why did Alfred Perceval sign the pledge upon his second marriage, the differences between this author and myself are confined to matters of opinion.

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